“Kiss Me Twice” excerpt

This is my first novella and is the cover story for the June 2011 issue of Asimov’s. To say that I’m delighted would be a missing the part where I danced around the apartment like a four year-old on too much sugar.  I adore the art by Jacques Barbey that goes with the story.

I should also point out that in addition to the stories on the cover, this issue also has a story by fellow Portland author, Nebula-nominated Felicity Shoulders, in it.

If that isn’t enough enticement, below, I have the first scene of my novella as a teaser.

Kiss Me Twice

by Mary Robinette Kowal

A group of trendy-somethings milled outside the police line, clearly torn between curiosity and the need for a caffeine fix at the coffee shop next door. Scott Huang glanced to the corner of his VR glasses where the police department AI hovered. “I guess murder trumps coffee, huh?”

Metta, currently wearing the face of Mae West, lowered her voice to the star’s husky range. “I take my coffee black, like my heart.”

“You don’t have a heart.”

“Then I take my coffee black, like my processor.”

“Nice.” Huang grinned at her. She customized her interface for all the officers on the force, but tended toward silver screen starlets with Huang. Her Diamond Lil was pretty special though; she’d even gone black and white for the occasion.

The officer on duty waved Huang past the police line and into the building. Its lobby had been restored to showcase the 1920s detailing and the tall ceilings. Potted boxwoods graced the corners with indoor topiary. “I don’t remember the Waterfront area being so swanky.”

Metta said, “This district of Portland had a decline in the mid-seventies and most of the businesses moved out. For the past two years, a revitalization effort has been underway. Neil Patterson, the deceased, was responsible for much of the revitalization although not without some questionable transactions. I have his stats when you want them.”

“Do any of the questionable transactions relate to a motive?”

“Nothing concrete as yet.”

Huang grunted in acknowledgment and reached for the elevator button.

In his VR glasses, Metta winked at him. “Sorry, Scott. The elevator is out. So why don’t you come up and see me sometime.”

“Actually, it’s ‘Why don’t you come up sometime and see me.’ Popular misquote.”

Her image cocked her head and shifted her eyes to the left, Metta’s sign that she was searching for something. “You’re right. . . . Which really bugs me. I should have checked the quote database against the script.”

A flush of unexpected pride went through Huang. She said he was right. “Yeah, well, I think the score’s human: 1, AI:549.” But she had still said he was right.

Metta dropped her lashes again and heaved West’s bosom. “The score never interested me, only the game.” She laughed. “Now climb the stairs.”

Worn linoleum resounded under his feet as he started up. Huang’s heart pounded in his chest noticeably after the third floor and he had to work hard not to pant. He gripped the banister, hauling himself up another flight, and subvocalized to Metta. “Remind me to start going to the gym again.”

“Can’t be responsible for you when you aren’t at work.”

“I know.” The door at the top of the stairs opened out on a hall, carpeted in generic beige. The walls surprised Huang. Paneling hugged their lower half with rich wood. Above the paneling, deep green wallpaper absorbed the light with velvety depth.

“Scott, would you mind waiting a minute? I have a memory-backup scheduled in thirty seconds and I’d rather have the actual crime scene all on one bank.”

“Sure.” He leaned against the wall. “You couldn’t have done it while we were on the stairs?”

“It’s not my schedule. Department regulations require a backup every six hours regardless of system type. I’ve tried pointing out to the chief that AIs are different, but . . .”

“I know . . . Banks didn’t get it.” Huang checked the eSpy camera he wore in place of his collar stud to make sure it was seated properly. To the casual observer it would look like a standard men’s stud, clear glass mounted in a silver setting, but the lens it housed linked directly to Metta. Though she could see through a lens in his VR glasses, on crime scenes she preferred the better resolution of the specialized camera in the eSpy.

Huang scuffed a shoe in the short pile of the rug and resisted the urge to run his hand along the top of the . . . “What’s this called?” He pointed the eSpy at the low wood paneling.

“Wainscoting. It was used to protect walls in the days of lathe and plaster construction.”

“Thanks. It reminds me of my cello.”

“You still playing that?”

“I haven’t practiced since I blew out my shoulder chasing that kid over the fence.”

“I told you there was a way around.”

He shrugged, even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “Adrenaline. What can I say?”

“Thanks. Backup’s done.” The hall ended at a plain wood door with a small brass plaque. “This way.” Metta magnified the image in Huang’s glasses briefly so he could read “Roof Access” etched on the plaque.

“Great. More stairs.”

“Scott, it’s time for the gloves.”

“You don’t have to remind me.” He unwillingly pulled on the purple department-issue rubber gloves.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you reaching for them.”

He snapped the gloves in place. “You didn’t give me time.”

Metta cleared her throat and continued. “Without the elevator, this is the only access to the roof, so our suspect most likely entered and exited the crime scene this way.” A single, short flight of steps led up to a small landing which served as a sort of vestibule for the elevator. To his right, a fire door opened to the roof.

The landing was so clean it sparkled. “Metta, does this look recently mopped?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never mopped.”

Years of footprints coated the stairs with black residue, but the cracked linoleum of the landing shone. Over everything floated a clean lemon scent. He snorted reflexively at the pungent odor.

Mae West hovered like a monochrome ghost in the edge of Huang’s vision. “Is there an aroma?”

“Yeah. It smells like Lemon Pledge.”

“Is that an analysis or a metaphor?”

Huang hesitated and sampled the air like a tea. “Not quite. It is a manufactured lemon scent, but I’m not sure how many cleaning products have the same smell profile.”

“CSI is downstairs and has promised me a spectrograph. Griggs says to thank you for noticing; she’s got a cold and would have missed the smell.” She frowned prettily. “Working from the size of the room I should be able to tell you when the mopping happened based on the dissipation of the odor.” She pretended to look around. “I’ll have her scan with the lumerol to check for blood. Go on out.”

The fire door opened onto the roof. Huang blinked at the rolling hills of grass that covered the top of the building. In the center of the grass, a small brick terrace had been set with a table and chairs.

Metta cleared her throat, the signal that she was about to relay a message from someone else in the department. “Griggs asks me to remind you not to touch anything.”

“For the love of—One time. I forgot one stinking time. . . .” Huang clenched his fists and stepped onto the terrace, hating the reminder that he was the junior detective on the homicide team. The only reason he’d gotten this case was that it was on a roof and Oakes was scared of heights. Otherwise, he got the easy ones, the ones that Metta had already solved and all she needed was a flesh and blood officer to do the legwork. Not that anyone ever said that, but it was pretty obvious.

He grimaced and focused on the scene. The victim sprawled on the south side of the roof, next to a low wall. A wheelchair lay on its side a short distance behind him.

“Scott, meet Neil Patterson.”

“Well, well . . . who brought you up here, Mr. Patterson?” Huang knelt by the wheelchair and squinted at the corpse. He was a white male who looked to be in his mid-forties, but his file said fifty-two. His sandy-red hair had been neatly trimmed in a corporate version of a crew-cut. He had a single gunshot wound in an otherwise well-developed upper torso. From the waist down he showed the atrophied signs of paralysis. Around him, the turf had divots dug out of it as though Patterson had not died instantly. The dirt and blood on his fingers seemed to confirm that.

In the center of the roof, the wireframe table was covered with a white linen tablecloth. It was set with two bone white teacups, so thin the morning sun turned them almost translucent. They sat on equally delicate saucers with a thin silver band around the edge of the saucer and the rim of the cups. The cup on the south side of the table had remnants of a liquid the color of straw. Huang leaned over to sniff and got hints of smoky earth and mown grass. Unfurled tea leaves rested on the bottom.

“Well?” Metta raised her eyebrows. “Are you going to show off?”

He smirked. Identifying beverages was the one thing he could do better than she could. Without a lab, that is. “I’m pretty sure it’s gunpowder tea.”

“Scott . . . there’s no tea service out here.”

He straightened and looked at the layout again. Cups, saucers, spoons, even linen napkins—scratch that. One of the napkins was missing. And there was no teapot, sugar, or creamer. “Anyone hear the gunshot?”

Metta shook her head and nodded toward the elevated highway. “It probably blended with traffic noise.”

“Who found the body?”

“It was an anonymous call at 8:13 a.m. The number belongs to the Daily Grind coffee shop downstairs.”

“Play the call for me?”

She nodded and then the sound in his ear changed. A background noise filled with chatter and the hiss of an espresso machine replaced the hum of traffic. A man with a slight accent answered the operator. “There is a man. On the roof. I think he is dying. You must come quickly.”

“Sir, where are you?”

“Everett and Water. I don’t know the address.”

And then the line went dead. Huang raised his eyebrows. “That’s it?”

“Yes. He did not remain after he hung up.”

“So . . . our guy here was dying, but not dead when the call came in. Nice to have a time of death.”

“If the coroner confirms it.”

“Right. Of course. I’ll check with the coffee shop’s staff when we finish here. See if they know the witness.” Huang bent to check the ground for any signs of footprints. Wheelchair tracks had pressed deep grooves into the turf roof. “Tell me more about Patterson?”

“Neil Patterson has his finger in property throughout the city. His name came up in a real estate scandal about a year ago, but nothing stuck.”

“Was that the thing where he was flipping properties, but the renovations were all sub-code?”

“Correct. He blamed his foreman, who was subsequently fired, but it seems pretty clear Patterson both knew and approved of the shortcuts. There are items in evidence that were not admitted into court.”

“Like what?”

“They’re sealed files now.” She grimaced. “Sorry, I can’t share that with you.”

Huang nodded as he stood and walked along the edge of the building. “It’s okay. I remember this now. Fitzgerald was working on it and was furious.” If Metta couldn’t tell him, then he could always ask Fitzgerald directly.

Behind him, the door to the roof opened and Ursula Griggs from CSI stepped out with a team from the coroner’s office.

She spoke from where she was and Metta amplified it for Huang. “There was blood on the stairs and landing. Found a sample. Metta’ll let you know the DNA results.” CSI’s eSpies were equipped with a different visual range than the standard issue. Between Griggs and Metta, they’d be able to get a good scan of the area.

“Thanks. We’ve got a gunshot. Want to help look for the shell casing?”

“No problem. Metta already asked me to.”

“Ah.” Huang turned slowly, so Metta could see the area. Across the street hulked a stuccoed building with shields carved in the stone on each buttress. Construction scaffolding masked the lower half of the building, evidently part of an attempt to spruce it up. Behind the building, I-5 nearly touched its upper edge. Oblivious to the presence of a dead man, cars whizzed past a block away from Huang.

How had a man in a wheelchair gotten to the rooftop without a working elevator? And why tea for two? He turned away from the corpse and paced along the edge of the building.

The north and east sides of the building were on a corner facing the street. The west side of the building had a narrow alley separating it from the next. It had the usual dumpsters, boxes, and abandoned plywood, but nothing looked immediately interesting.

Huang continued his slow circuit of the roof. Behind him Griggs filmed and photographed Patterson’s body. When she was finished, the coroner transferred the corpse to a body bag and placed it on the gurney to take back to the morgue.

With the natural turf roof, Huang had been hoping to find footprints or something useful, but Patterson’s struggle had obscured any obvious signs. Between Patterson’s wheelchair and the door to the elevator, he found a single screw in a patch of grass stained a deep red. “Hello. Can we get prints and contact DNA from this?”

“We’ll know in a moment.”

Huang heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Griggs approaching with her crime scene kit in tow. Her deep chestnut hair was tucked under her cap, except for a wisp hanging next to her cheek. “Thanks for spotting this.”

“Sure. Let me know when you’re done so I can roll the wheelchair over.”

She pulled out her high resolution camera and tripod and began documenting the screw, then bagged it and turned to the wheelchair, uploading images to Metta as she went. With a steady image, the AI would be able to run it through a series of filters to pull prints. Griggs said, “It’ll be awhile. I’ll need to document the rest of the scene before anyone contaminates it.”

Huang stepped back, trying not to telegraph his impatience while she did her job.

“Metta?” he subvocalized, “How long has the elevator been down?”

“I’ve been trying to check on that since we got here, but can’t reach the building manager.” Her image suddenly froze. “Shots fired at HQ.” Metta stiffened, seeming to look through him. “Officer down. Units 235 and 347 establish perimeter.”

Huang held his breath, listening for gunfire as if HQ were close enough that he could hear it. Beyond his glasses, Griggs reacted to Metta’s cry.

“Three armed subjects in chassis room. The assailants are armed, I repeat—Amado! Two officers down.”

How the hell had they gotten into Metta’s chassis room? It was in the basement of headquarters with cameras monitoring it at all times. Huang turned on his heels and sprinted back across the roof. “Metta, can you give a visual?”

He ran for the door, aware of the other officers springing into action behind him. “Metta, answer me. Who’s there? Can you give a visual?”

Car doors slammed on the street below.

An image flashed onto his glasses. A man. No. Three men, in masks. One of the men reached for a cable attached to a filing cabinet—not a filing cabinet. Metta’s chassis.

Metta screamed. She froze.

A static image of Mae West hung in Huang’s peripheral vision, with her mouth open wide. Then the image winked out.

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4 Responses

  1. Julia

    Oh, sod. Come on, tax return! I need you to come in so I can freely buy this issue without mental gymnastics!!!!

    I love this story so much.

  2. Akheloios

    Loved it to bits, especially the reveal.

    I get Asimov’s on my mobile, so thanks very much for a link to the artwork.

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