Mystery + Science Fiction
Date Published: June 15, 2019
In a future where everyone wears a masque, anyone could be a killer. But a masque can’t keep you safe. Nothing can. Now it’s up to Chief Inspector McNair and his team to find that killer. They’ll uncover the secrets and lies that dwell inside every beautiful masque and stop at nothing until they find the truth—no matter how ugly it turns out to be.
The later it got, the louder the squad room got. Well, it was a Saturday night. What else could you expect?
The officers on duty all wanted to be somewhere else. Many of them wanted to be someone else, at least for tonight. Someone who wouldn’t have to be working on a weekend night, someone who could wear any damn masque they wanted and not be limited to the meager selection that the agency afforded and that was mandatory, standard issue, part of the uniform.
McNair didn’t give a shit. The detective masque—he was wearing the No. 3 model today—fit him just fine, and he had no place else to be. Not tonight. Not any night. Not since his wife left him.
Good riddance. Off on her great life adventure with that damned legacy. Pretty stunning blow, that, but, yeah. Good fucking riddance. He had the whole apartment to himself now and more time to concentrate on his job, his one true passion.
She’d skewered that fact and driven the pike into his heart—and she’d been right.
Tonight he didn’t want to be in his office. The squad room was better. Not lonely. Alive. He liked it better out here anyway.
A group of officers were at the far corner of the room, having an arm-wrestling contest with all takers. The shouts and grunts and encouragements and disappointments and good-natured name calling filled the high-ceilinged chamber with their lusty sounds. Litz, McNair’s second-in-command—the man had biceps that could be mistaken for tree trunks—was probably winning every single round.
Behind the desk where McNair was sitting, Wieand, one of his most thorough officers, was asleep, snoring, his head on his desk, and his partner, Shey, had her feet up right beside his head and was reading off her scroll. She was the studious one of the pair.
McNair loved every single person in this room. More than he’d ever loved his ex-wife. She’d told him that once, maybe more than once, maybe more than that, and it was true.
So what? So what? He had loved her. It’s just that when you spent most of your waking hours with other people—people whose lives were at stake and who had to react to anything at any time and so did you and you all depended on one another—well, those were the people you loved. You couldn’t help yourself. You didn’t want to help yourself.
He hadn’t told her that. Why would he? He wouldn’t. But actually he hadn’t told her anything. He hadn’t had time to. Or the opportunity. Motive? Yes. More motive than necessary to order surveillance and some advanced close scrutiny, if it’d been a case. But means and opportunity? No. Not at all. Neither means nor opportunity. She’d left him a fucking note.
Good riddance. Good damn riddance. He was better off.
“Hey, Mac,” said Harata, shouting and waving to him from across the open squad room. McNair’s best friend, even before Harata had saved his life. Long before then. “Come have a go at it!”
McNair shook his head. He’d lose so fast he’d never live it down. Not a good idea for the chief inspector. Arm wrestling was hardly his forte, and Harata knew it, the bum. Litz, the sweat pouring from his forehead, was motioning to McNair to come over and take a beating. McNair laughed.
“What’s that?” said Shey.
McNair heard her voice through the cacophony of sounds in the room. He was attuned to the exact tone he was now hearing. He took his attention off the room, reached behind his left ear, and turned up the agency comm channel, listening in.
He felt the first pricks of tension at the base of his spine, where he felt everything. Where he still felt that note, which he’d pitched with the trash, yet he could see her handwriting in his mind as clearly as though he were still holding the note, as though it were being transmitted through a vid circ.
Shey had taken her feet off the desk and had her elbows on it now, leaning forward. Mac listened in. Wieand, Shey’s partner, who everyone in the squad room except Shey herself, the fool, knew was in love with her, was awake now. The man could sleep anywhere. McNair, who lately couldn’t sleep anywhere, envied him that.
“Sure,” Shey was saying. “Yes . . . They commed when . . . ? Oh, I see . . . Yes . . . How long ago? And . . . ? Yes . . . Okay . . . Yes. We’re on our way.”
She kicked Wieand, who stood up. “Ready, Chief,” he said, mocking her. The redheaded Shey was otherwise quite astute, but she never ever picked up on any of Wieand’s hints, many of them not very damned subtle. Anyone else would’ve either fallen in love or asked for a new partner by now. But not Shey.
“Homicide,” McNair said, standing up just as Wieand stood up.
Like all agency-issued masques, Shey’s had a forced neutral expression, but the waves emanating from her posture and attitude were tense, wary, and decidedly grim. McNair could read all his officers as though their masques were off, and he could recognize all of them from a distance without any help from an ID circ.
“Suspicious,” Shey said, being careful.
“I’m coming along.” McNair kicked closed the bottom drawer of his desk, where he’d been resting his feet. “Harata!”
Harata was already halfway across the room. When you work this closely with someone for this long, they don’t have to be told. They just know. You both just know. Harata had been listening in as well.
“Homicide,” Harata said. He lived on the extremes. Lived for them. But Mac thought it was homicide too.
“Suspicious,” Wieand said, siding with his partner. He’d been asleep and maybe hadn’t heard any of the conversation. He was looking at Shey with a gaze that said Come to me, my love but which she didn’t even notice.
“At the Nessard place,” Shey said, all business.
“That fabula producer?” Wieand said as he tore his gaze away from Shey, checked his sidearm, and buttoned the top button of his uniform shirt.
“Must be,” Shey said.
“I’m coming too,” said Litz, who’d given up arm wrestling, it seemed. He’d materialized at the desk where McNair had been camped out. Litz had probably heard everything. He had his hat on already.
“Sorry,” said McNair. “Something’s going on tonight. This might not be the only thing. You’ve gotta stay.” McNair would never issue an order exactly, but his word was law and no one questioned him. Litz was his second-in-command. He had to stay.
“Damn,” Litz said. He took off his hat and his curly hair sprang up comically. He rubbed at his left biceps, probably sore from all the arm wrestling. “Nessard’s,” Litz said. “Damn. I was looking forward to getting a decent snack out of this.”
“I’ll pack you a doggy bag,” Wieand said in his best deadpan as the foursome left the squad room and climbed the stairs to the rooftop landpad.
“Beautiful spring night,” Wieand said as he opened the door.
“For some,” Shey said.
About the Author
R. T. W. Lipkin lives in New York with her husband and three cats. Her genre-defying novels occur at the intersection of science fiction and fantasy, with mystery, romance, and adventure threaded throughout.