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Allison Texas and the Sanghelli Mask

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There’s a whiff of perfume, lingering in Tex’s apartment as she takes off her coat. Instinctually, her eyes flash around the corners of the room, half hoping that there will be someone hiding in the shadows. Someone with a cocky smile, wearing sunglasses even though she’s indoors. Someone whose perfume smells exotic and exciting, like all the places she’d promised Tex; far away, beautiful places that Tex has never been to.

But her apartment is empty. The smell is, as always, leftover. Lingering.

CT’s not here.

There shouldn’t be disappointment, not when she knew that would be the case. She hasn’t seen CT in months, and she’s probably too smart to just show up at Tex’s apartment, even if she did come back to Mars.

Even if Tex misses her.


Like a lot of events in Tex’s life, this case starts with a phone call from York.

She’s in her office, staring down at the pictures on her computer. Her screen shows a beautiful room in a luxurious mansion, and the centerpiece is a mask in a glass case. The mask is shaped like one of the ancient Martian races, the Sanghelli, with a trick jaw that opens and closes, with sharp, deadly teeth. It's trapped in a state-of-the-art security case, meant to protect and display in equal parts. Supposed to be unbeatable, according to Tex's sources in the Hyperion City Police Department. 

But apparently, that wasn’t the case. Someone opened had opened the case, shoved another person inside, and activated the trick jaw of the mask. Which, apparently, has enough force to take someone’s head off, when it snapped back shut.

Blood covers the priceless artifact in the pictures, enough to make Tex’s stomach churn, but that’s not what’s drawing Tex’s eye as she goes through the pictures.

No, what’s keeping her on the photos are the words, written in blood above the mask.

Her comm rings, and for a moment, Tex considers not answering it. It’s hard to imagine taking any case right now that isn’t this. 

"Miss Texas!” Donut is only in the next room. There’s no need for him to be yelling quite that loud. But it’s a character trait. No changing it.  “It’s a... Agent York calling from Earth!”

“Seriously?” York never calls during work hours in the middle of the week. He calls on birthdays, anniversaries, and non-denominational holidays. If he’s feeling nostalgic, sometimes he puts denominational ones on the calendar. Those ones are usually memorable. The time he’d called during the Fourth of July had nearly started a gang war.

“I didn’t know you knew people on Earth, Miss Texas!”

“Just the one. He’s... an old friend.”

She kicks the door connecting the front room to her office shut before she answers. It won’t stop Donut from listening in, but she likes to make the effort sometimes. It’s nice to pretend she’s got some privacy. “Hello?”

“Allison.” There’s a laugh in his voice. Like he knows how much hearing him call her that will annoy her, and he’s enjoying it.

“York.” She tilts her head back to examine the ceiling. The plaster is peeling in places, threatening to fall off in chunks. The landlord hasn’t been making repairs. But then again, for what Tex is paying for the dump she calls an office, she’s not really surprised. “How’s Dark Matter treating you?”

“Oh, well enough.” An irritating non-answer. York’s a terrible liar, but he’s gotten better with evasion since he left Hyperion City behind in a cloud of dust. And left Tex with it. “But I didn’t call to catch up, Tex. I came to talk about you.”

Tex frowns. That sort of conversation never goes well. People only ever want to talk about her when she’s in the hospital or when she owes someone money. “What’s this about?”

“You see, I’ve got a report here that says your name was plastered all over the walls of a local crime scene.” It’s unusually blunt for York; he likes to take these things sideways. He’s a talker; spinning a yarn out of the smallest of things, tangling Tex up in verbal knots until she threatens to punch the answers out of him. He must be really worried, telling it to her straight like that.

Tex leans back in her chair. If she listens closely, she can hear the sound of Donut listening to his soaps in the front office. “What can I say? You never know with fans.”

“It says “Allison Texas must die,” Tex.”

She knows. She’s been staring at the crime scene pictures all morning. The writing is red, and it looks like blood. If someone had been wanting her attention, they have it.

She just doesn’t know who killed someone to get it.

“Like I said.”

After things went bad when they were kids, Tex stopped hearing York’s laugh quite so much. She hears it now, a muffled snort that means she’s getting to him. Years later, the two of them can still get under each other’s skin. It’s almost comforting to know that’s remained consistent, even though everything else has changed.

“You know there’s supposed to be a curse on that mask, right?”

“I don’t believe in those sorts of things.”

“Of course not. Well, you know me and how I worry when you’re out of my sight.”

Tex has to swallow a thousand biting comments about how she’s only out of his sight because he left. She can’t exactly hold it against him. Hyperion City is a dump. A wretched hive of crime and villainy, isn’t that how the saying goes? It’s beautiful in certain lights, all grand skyscrapers and chrome and glass. The Martian desert is the ultimate view, particularly when the sun sets over it. Postcards from Hyperion City sell real well, even in places far away. She’s heard it called the most beautiful place in the system.

Tex lives here, so she knows it isn’t true.

She understands all too well why York ran and never looked back, even if she doesn’t have it in her to follow his lead. Some days she thinks it would be so easy if she would just take the easy way out and go out to the stars. But she knows better. She and Hyperion City are made for each other. They’re two of a kind. Even if she left, the city would find a way to drag her back in.

“I’m telling you York, you should worry about more breakable things.” Tex closes her eyes. “I’m always fine.”

“Well, then I guess you won’t mind if I send an agent to tag along, because we both know you won’t do the smart thing and let this drop.”

Tex bolts upright, her eyes snapping open. “What?”

“Agent Connecticut is our specialist on the occult and arcane,” York just keeps plowing along without concern for Tex’s thoughts on the matter. She really hates him sometimes. “She’s already on her way. She’ll help keep you safe.”

“York, don’t you dare—”

“Have fun with your ghost!”

He hangs up before Tex can tell him where exactly he can shove his specialist on the occult and arcane.

A fucking babysitter. What exactly was it she had done to piss York off?

Well, at least she’ll have a few minutes to figure out what she’s going to do before this “Agent Connecticut” arrives.

Just then, of course, she hears Donut shout out his usual greeting. “Welcome to Allison Texas Detective Agency, where you’ll always find the dick specialized just for you!”

Tex makes a mental note to try to get Donut to stop saying that, before she makes a beeline for the window. Like hell is she about to wait around and let one of York’s fucking idiot agents follow her around. She’ll just slow Tex down.

Tex has heard Donut’s welcome speech a thousand times over. It usually takes at least two minutes to get through the abbreviated version, and a single question or interruption can extend it for another five.

So when he suddenly goes quiet, Tex pauses, one leg already out the window.

There’s no way that York would have sent anyone who would hurt Donut, right?

“Why hello there.” There’s a figure in the doorway to Tex’s office, and she groans quietly to herself. She hadn’t been fast enough.

Agent Connecticut is short. She wears her skirt suit the way Tex wears her beaten old leather jacket; something that’s not only comfortable, but comforting. Her hair is asymmetrical, with the right side chin length and the left side shaved close, a kind of style that Tex doesn’t see a lot of around Hyperion. Her shoes are heels, but still sensible enough to run in, and she’s wearing large, circular sunglasses indoors. The entire ensemble practically screams secret agent. At least she’s not openly carrying a gun. Actually, as far as Tex can see, she’s not wearing one at all. There’s no sign of a holster anywhere, none of the usual bulges or flares where one would be hidden.

It makes her even more nervous. Because what kind of secret agent goes about unarmed?

“You must be Detective Allison Texas.” There’s a serene tilt to her smile that Tex instinctually doesn’t like. It’s a smile that says that this is someone who’s used to knowing more than everyone else, and that she likes it that way. “It’s so good to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Tex is still halfway out the window, looking down at the street below her. She can see the dumpster in the alley; it’s only a few stories down. So close to freedom, to avoiding all the hassle that Dark Matter and secret agents provide.

She wonders what Agent Connecticut sees when she looks at Tex.  

“What did you do to Donut?”

“Your assistant? He’s just fine.” Connecticut moves closer, and Tex catches a whiff of her perfume. It’s almost intoxicating. It smells of far-off places, exotic and strange. It’s not a smell that Tex will forget in a hurry.

Miss Texas!” Donut sounds indignant. For a moment, Tex feels herself wanting to laugh, curious about what Connecticut could have possibly done to make Donut sound like that. Especially after such a noticeable period of silence.

But she’s got other things to do.

“I guess you’re not going to let me go to the Dakota Mansion on my own, are you?”

“Of course not!” Connecticut sits down on Tex’s desk, and she looks good there. She crosses her legs. The gesture is oddly demure, at odds with the angle of her head and the smirk she’s wearing. “I’m supposed to look after you, after all.”

“Right.”

Connecticut looks like Tex could snap her in half. Maybe she’s hiding muscle underneath that suit, but Tex can’t picture it, somehow. She’s a nerd. She probably has a wristwatch that can triangulate their position from the rocks beneath their feet and a pen that shoots a laser. Not much use in a fight.

Maybe useful against a ghost though.

Connecticut clears her throat and Tex realizes that she’s been staring.

“I... guess we should get going.”

“Through the window?” The smile is softer now. Teasing. Tex’s eyes linger just a moment too long on her lips. The pink lipstick hasn’t been applied recently and is faded. Connecticut must have come here in a hurry. She doesn’t strike Tex as a woman to let her makeup go unfixed for too long if she can help it.

For a moment, Tex considers saying yes. Pulling the secret agent out through the window, crashing into the dumpster, ruining her perfect makeup and hair and suit and smirk.

“Probably not. Car’s round front anyways.”

Connecticut’s glasses slip down, revealing dark brown eyes. The eye contact lasts only a second, but it’s enough. Tex looks away.

“Let’s go.”

Connecticut slips off the desk. “Lead the way, detective.”

The drive to the Dakota Mansion isn’t too bad. Connecticut must have been warned that Tex was likely to jump out of a moving car or something, because she sits very close.

Tex checks her blaster twice.

The last time she’d visited the Dakota Mansion, it hadn’t gone too well. And now, the invitation back has been painted in blood.

Tex needs to be careful that she’s not the one who ends up down a few body parts this time.

The Dakota Mansion is one of the largest in Hyperion City. That’s because the Dakota Family is one of the richest. Dakota Dakota was a man who built an empire from the ground up. They started small, with him pitching a reality show to a network, who gave him a shoestring budget and endless demands. By the end of the season, he had the biggest television hit in Martian history. By the end of the second season, he owned the entire network.

Now it’s an empire. His shows are everywhere, even on the handful of networks he doesn’t own. His children are stars in their own rights. His first husband had been a diva, a movie star, one that Dakota had carefully crafted, before he’d died mysteriously a few years back. The second husband is Aiden Price-Dakota, and he’s the slipperiest man that Tex has ever met. He’s a producer, but that’s all. The man prefers the life behind the scenes, which only makes Tex’s skin crawl more.

When they get to the right neighborhood, where the rich and powerful live, things slow down as they have to go through all the check-points. The Dakota family is paranoid about security. But then again, what crime family isn’t?

The Dakota Media Empire has its claws in everything. They own parts of almost every aspect of life on Mars. They could have been rich from the shows alone, but that’s never enough for people. Smuggling and drugs and protection rackets and money laundering… the Dakotas have been accused of them all. Nothing’s ever stuck though. It never seems to, with people like this.

 “Do you know the family, Allison?” Connecticut looks out the window at the elegant mansion.

Only two people call her Allison. She’s Tex, or Texas, or Detective Texas. Allison is the name she left behind in Old Town, left behind alongside a house of bad memories, a shitty mother, and an even worse step-father.

But Connecticut says it differently. Like she’s savoring every syllable, like it’s something sweet and precious, not the light taunt that it is when York or Church says it.  

“Sort of. Oh look, we’re here.”

Connecticut keeps pace surprisingly well for someone so short. She also does an excellent job at pretending to not notice that Tex is walking deliberately fast, hoping to leave her shadow behind.

The Dakota Mansion is just like the family; ostentatious and screaming that they have those rare things. Money, power, beauty... they have it all.

Tex hates it.

They get waved in through the front gate, which is gilded with gold. Because of course it is. Tex shoves her hands deeper into her pockets to hide that they’re clenched into fists. The entire building feels sick and twisted. Cameras glint from every corner, a stark reminder that they could at any point become stars in one of Dakota Dakota’s twisted reality shows.

Or... maybe not any more.

Because he’s dead.

One of the assistant producers escorts them to the scene of the crime, which she keeps calling the “set”.

The smell of blood is enough to make Tex gag. All her years on the force, and now all her years in the private sector, she still can’t stand this kind of gore. The blood is everywhere. It’s soaked through the carpets, it’s splattered on the walls.

Tex forces herself to keep breathing, because like hell is she going to let this fucking Dark Matter Agent see that she’s got a problem with blood.

“Allison Texas must die.” Connecticut’s hand has found its way to the crook of Tex’s arm. “Well. Clearly someone wanted your attention.”

“They’ve got it.” That’s real blood alright. Tex had thought it might be paint in the crime scene photos, but up close, it’s pretty hard to deny it.

The lights flicker, and a sudden cold blast of air. Connecticut gasps, and spins around. “Spectral activity!” All around them, the shadows flicker and move, spinning outwards from the mask.

Allison Texas.”

The voice reverberates through the room, loud enough that Tex can feel it in her chest.

It’s big, dramatic, and showy. And Tex isn’t falling for it for one moment.

“Quit it South.” Tex rolls her eyes and crouches to examine the lock on the glass case that the mask was in.  

There’s a loud sigh. “You couldn’t have given me this?”

Southandra Dakota is a tall, beautiful woman with a mean mouth and big dreams. She walks into the room like she owns it, and she kind of does. Her eyes sweep the room, too fast, too sharp. She’s looking for something, but what it is, Tex isn’t sure.

She’s noisy when she moves; she’s covered in enough metal that if someone held a magnet on one end of the room, she’d be there faster than you could blink. And then she’d punch whoever had thought it was funny to try it.

Tex would know. She’s done that trick three times and had been given a broken nose to prove it.

“Sorry, don’t have time for theatrics.”

“You’re about to be murdered by a ghost just like Daddy dearest.” South tilts her head to one side, finally seeming to notice Connecticut. “Now’s the perfect time for theatrics.” She takes a step forward. “Now, you’re far too pretty to be spending time with Texas here. Who are you, sugar?”

“Southandra, was it?” Connecticut holds out her hand. South kisses it instead of shaking, hovering over the hand instead of straightening up after, the purple streaks in her bleach-blonde hair blocking Tex’s view of her face. She’s always had a good eye for beautiful things. She’s an artist at heart. For all that she loves spectacle, even South Dakota can appreciate the classics, like a beautiful woman in a well-cut suit.  “I’m Agent Connecticut with Dark Matter.”

“Connecticut... that a first or a last name?”

Tex pauses in her inspection of the lock on the case. She’s wondered about this herself, she has to admit.

“Last. But my first name’s classified.” Connecticut winks, but she’s looking at Tex as she does it. Tex goes back to work, feeling her ears heat up that Connecticut had noticed her staring.

“You seem in an awfully good mood, considering your father’s been murdered.” Tex straightens up to look at South.

“Are you suspecting me, Texas?” There’s open, honest hurt on South’s face. “After all we’ve been through?”

As if fishing Tex out of the gutter after a rough night out means anything in situations like this. An heiress like South, there are thousand reasons for her to want her father dead. But the problem is, there’s also a thousand reasons for her to want him to live.

People are complicated. Motive don’t mean she did it. But history doesn’t mean she didn’t. Tex’s job is to try to make sure that it all falls into place.

“Just trying to get some answers.”

South crosses her arms. The piercings on the web between her forefinger and thumb clank as they come into contact with the studs in her biceps. Tex remembers South getting those. They’d been painful. But that’s the cost of having an image like South’s. To stay relevant on the music scene, she needs to push every boundary, break every rule... as long as it won’t jeopardize her standing in the family.

There are many tall buildings in Hyperion. None are as tall as the height from which stars like Southandra can fall, if her family rejects her. And it’s never pretty to see what it’s like at the bottom of falls like that.

Tex likes South’s music. She’d been a fan before she’d ever gone drinking with a famous musician, before they’d held each other’s hair and laughed while they took turns puking into public bathrooms. And after meeting, after enough time getting to know her, they’d almost been friends, even.

But then North had happened. Can’t really be friends with someone after that.

“Look I—I  know Dad and I haven’t always gotten along.” She worries the stud in her arm. It taps out a rhythm to one of her more popular songs.  “But I wouldn’t hurt him.” Her smile is sad as she stares at the floor. “I—you remember that old show idea I used to talk about?”

“What, the South Spectacular?”

South had loved to talk about that thing. She could go for hours and hours, talking about every last detail. She’s been planning this thing since she was seven. It isn’t a money maker, it isn’t the right kind of glamorous. Worse still, it’s off brand. It’s a pipe dream, and everyone who South has ever confided in knows it.

“He said I could do it.” It’s been a long time since Tex has seen anything this close to pure joy on South’s face. “There was room for one thing more in the budget. He had me and North write up our pitches. And he picked mine. It’s going to be wonderful, Tex. I—he’d finally given me everything I wanted.”

There’s a pause there, as Tex wonders how to handle that.

“He turned down North’s pitch too. And it was... it was good. Probably better than mine. Would have made money. But... he saw how important this was to me.” South’s eyes are bright. She blinks rapidly, covering it up.

“Would I be mistaken in assuming the mask itself is the murder weapon?” Tex doesn’t know if Connecticut is oblivious or just offering South a distraction. “Fascinating. I have never known artifacts to do such a thing in all my time at Dark Matter! Those ancient Martians had all sorts of tricks, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. Dad loves... loved. He loved those things. Bough up a whole bunch of dumb Martian junk. Said it made great props for his shows.”

“Not your style?” Connecticut lowers her glasses, taking in South’s... everything. Tex wonders what South looks like, to a secret agent from Earth.

“No. Modern Martian’s good enough for me. Don’t see why he and North are so into the ancient stuff.”

“What kind of lock was this case?” Connecticut taps the open glass case with one knuckle. “It looks biometric, but not like anything I’ve ever seen.”

“You wouldn't have. It’s latest tech. Blood lock.”

“Your father’s blood opens it? How novel!”

South’s laugh is bitter. “Oh no, that’s not paranoid enough for the old man. It needs to be his blood and North’s. Or mine.”

“So you’re saying you could open the case.”

“Tex, paranoid is a fucking terrible look on you.”

“I’m a Private Eye, it’s my only look.”

“Sorry to interrupt. But do you mind if I take a look at the mask? I have a few tests I would like to conduct.”

“Sure, whatever.” South isn’t even looking at Connecticut, her eyes aimed straight at Tex. She’s spoiling for a fight. And Tex is always good at providing one.

“What are you looking for? Just now, when you walked in. You keep looking at the floor. Drop something?”

“Shut up.”

“What’s the matter, Dakota? Leave something behind last night?”

“Why you—” South’s face darkens, and she takes a step forward.

“Come on, South, work with me. I just need to figure out who did it. If it’s not you, you don’t have anything to worry about. Where were you last night?”

“Out.”

“You’ve got to give me better than that. Did anyone see you?”

“It’s me.” South’s smile is like a piranha. And not the friendly kind that you find on Earth, the kind South’s father had bred for his shows. If Tex doesn’t step carefully, she’ll be eaten alive. “The camera saw me.”

The footage is good. South goes to bars, talks to people, sits in a limousine and makes calls on her comms. She eats, drinks, and is merry. The timestamp shows that didn’t doesn’t get home until after the murder happened. A picture-perfect alibi.  

“There. That wasn’t so bad. So where’s was North last night?”

“He’s grounded,” South says. “He keeps spending money on torture devices. Daddy has… had. Had, his Martian artifacts, North has Iron Maidens and Laser Stretchers. So Aiden grounded him until he can get his wallet under control.”

“I need to talk to him next.”

“He’s in his studio.” South waves a hand at the door. “Just keep walking in a straight line. You can’t miss it.”

“Right. Tell Aiden we’ll need to talk to him at some point, will you?”

“Carry your own fucking messages.” South leaves the room, her combat boots heavy against the carpet.

“Let’s go.” Tex reaches for the door.

“Allow me, detective.” Connecticut slides in front of her neatly, opening the door with a flourish. Tex narrows her eyes.

“And here I thought chivalry was dead.” There’s a strange, hollow feeling starting to sink into her stomach as the two of them set out to find North.

The hallway leading to North’s studio is long and twisting. It’s meant to look like something out of a set, because it is one. Every inch of the Dakota Manor is picture-perfect in every way, ready for a film crew to just roll up and start filming. Luckily the footage from security cameras are rarely high enough quality to be worth using, otherwise Tex would be pretty sure they were being filmed now.

“How do you know the Dakota Family?” It’s almost easy to forget Connecticut is there. She’s good at slipping into the shadows. “I was drinking buddies with South.”

“There’s... history there.”

“Yes. Why do you care?”

“Someone here wants to kill you, Allison. It only makes sense to try to find a motive.”

There’s motive enough in this building, of that Tex is sure.

“We’ll figure it out.” She draws to a halt, and Connecticut stops too. “Do you hear that?”

The low grumbling seems to fill the hall.

“This isn’t funny, South.”

The noise just keeps getting louder and louder, deep and dangerous sounding.

The Dakotas keep all sorts of dangerous things in their basement; one of their most popular channels are nature documentaries. There’s a booming industry in prop animals of all sorts. Martian, Terran, made up... it would be all too easy for one of them to have been let loose, either by some evil specter, or just a malicious human.

Tex draws her plasma pistol, pushing Connecticut behind her.

“Detective!”

“Get ready to run.”

“Really Allison, I appreciate the gesture, but—” There’s a noise, a scuffling and a knocking as she begins to hit the walls, as if search for something. “I really think there’s a better way.”

“You’re not armed, I am, this is really pretty simple Connecticut!”

“Not quite as much as you might think.” Even as the noise of the approaching monster grows closer, there’s a squeak of hinges. Taking a risk, Tex turns her head. Connecticut is holding the door to some sort of hidden passage open.

“After you, detective.”

Tex doesn’t question, just barrels in. Connecticut slips in afterwards, and closes the door.

The room is small, and they’re pressed up against each other. In the darkness, everything seems heightened. Connecticut is shorter than her, and they’re both breathing heavily. It makes Tex aware of everything; of every shift of Connecticut’s body against hers, of the rustle of her clothes, the smell of her perfume.

“How did you know this was here?”

“A good Agent never goes into a situation unprepared.” Connecticut’s fingers are grasping at the zipper of Tex’s jacket. “When I heard about the Dakota’s reputation, I made sure to memorize the floor plans.”

“You don’t say?” Damn, that perfume was distracting. It was almost enough to make Tex forget the noises outside; whatever that thing was, it must have been just about on them before Connecticut found this.

“You can tell a lot about people from their homes. Or offices.”

“What’s my office say, then?” They’re standing so close, bodies pressed almost flush against each other. It makes Tex’s mouth go dry. Connecticut is intoxicating, and it would be so easy to just give in to that feeling, to chase it to the ends of the galaxy.

“Why detective. That would be telling.”

A roar sounded. It was just outside, whatever it was.

“What the hell are we going to do?” There’s nothing to break the spell like the threat of impending doom and death. Tex has seen the kind of creatures Dakota likes to breed in the basement once. North had been showing off. She’s had nightmares about those kind of teeth for ages.

“Absolutely nothing. If we leave, that thing kills us.” She’s found the zipper of Tex’s jacket and fiddles with it thoughtfully. “Much better to just sit tight. And hope it leaves some clues. Or better yet, ectoplasm.”

“... you really believe in ghosts, don’t you?”

“I believe in many things. And I like mysteries. What happened to the ancient Martians, what happens when we die, the origin of what draws too perfect strangers together, luring them into a closet...”

“I’m pretty sure the last one is a message written in blood.”

Connecticut laughs softly. It’s... a nice sound. “Perhaps you’re right.” She lets go of Tex’s zipper and runs her hands down Tex’s sleeve, as if trying to smooth out wrinkles. “You know, I’ve read your record, Allison.”

And just like that, Tex doesn’t want to be quite so close to Connecticut anymore. “Really?”

“It made me curious... why did you leave the HCPD, detective?”

“No.”

“No?”

“We haven’t heard anything from out there in a while. We need to get moving.”

“Detective, we really should be careful—and you’re gone.”

The hallway is empty of any sign of the loud, dangerous monster that they had been hearing. There’s no footprints either, or any sign of any of Connecticut’s precious ectoplasm.

“So much for careful.” Connecticut is sulking, but Tex has other things on her mind right now. She’s putting together the puzzles; there are mysteries within mysteries here, and she’s almost got all the clues, but—

Click.

She freezes.

Click.

“Connecticut.”

Click.

“Hmm?”

Click.

“I need you to do two things for me.” Her hand goes to her hip, where her pistol is.

Click.

“What is it, Allison?”

Click.

“I need you to look up. Slowly.”

Click.

Tex hears the intake of breath and closes her eyes for a moment, cursing. She’d hoped she was wrong. It’s nice to be wrong, sometimes. Pleasant surprises instead of dreadful inevitability would make a nice change of pace. “Is... is that a... child?”

Click.

“With a camera on his head?” Tex isn’t looking. She doesn’t know if she can make herself look. It’s been a long time.

Click.

“Yes.”

Click.

“Fuck.”

Click.

“... what was the second thing you need me to do?”

Click.

“Oh. Right.” Tex pulls out her pistol, aims it at the creature, and fires a shot straight in the center of the camera lens. It’s a good shot, but it won’t do her much good. Not against that thing. “Run!”

Connecticut can run really well in heels, it turns out. The two of them scramble down the corridor, while the creature lets out an inhuman scream and gives pursuit, scrambling after them on all fours.

“What the hell is that thing?”

“A cameraman! One of North’s projects. Genetically engineered. It can climb anything, get any footage. Highest quality camera money can buy too!”

“You’ve seen one of these before?”

“It never made noises like that! It must be upgraded!”

They reach the door at the end of the hall, and throw themselves into the room on the other side. Outside, they hear scratches and slamming, as the cameraman tries to get in.

The room is dark. Tex collapses in the nearest chair, breathing hard. She hates those things. She hates

“Detective—”

“What?”

“... there’s no need to be rude, Allison. I was just about to ask you about North’s taste in furniture.”

“Furniture?”

“Yes, it seems that the chairs we’re sitting on are rather... eclectic.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means—” Connecticut can’t finish her thought before the answer happens. Manacles slide out of the arms of the chair, locking Tex’s wrists in place. “Well. It means that.”

Shit.”

“People of Mars! Welcome to Death Trap! I’m your host, Northalia Dakota, and today, we’re here with some very special guests! My dear friend Detective Allison Texas, and her mysterious companion, Agent Connecticut! Do give them a round of applause, because they’re about to embark on their greatest adventure yet! The Throne of a Thousand Blades! Can they survive?”

Tex catches a glimpse of North, and something twists in her stomach at the sight of him. He’s dressed in bright, brilliant colors. He looks almost exactly like his sister, but there’s no metal on his body, and his left arm is a sleek, mechanical thing instead of flesh.

“Rosie!” He approaches her, having finished the monologue, and his smile is wide and manic and brilliant. He air kisses both of her cheeks. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here! I was starting to think you would never show.”

The cameraman from earlier appears, hovering at his side anxiously. He reaches down to pet it on the head. “I was worried Theta had lost you!” The doors they’d came in through swing open, and the little monster clambers through.

Tex looks at Theta, then at North. She wants to puke. She’d known that North had gone off the deep end after everything that had happened, but this? She says nothing, and looks away from the child cameraman.

“Now, I know you’ve got this wonderful butch look going.” North grabs her face with his robotic hand, tilting it this way and that. “But you know how the camera washes you out. I’ll just do some basics, make sure that you look as good as possible for your death!”

“Thanks North. Appreciate it.”

“Anything for you, Rosie!”

“Rosie?” Connecticut looks perfectly calm, even in a death trap. But her eyes are focused on the thousands of blades surrounding them.

Yellow rose of Texas clad in black, Lonely star tattooed upon her back.” North’s singing voice is decent, but Tex flinches as she hears it, leaning away. “I’m so glad you came by, it’s been far too long, Tex!” North finishes the work he was doing on her face and leans back. “There! Radiant as ever! Theta, do a camera test would you?”

Tex has seen some strange things in her time. Plenty of horrifying things too. But there’s something about the cameraman child; almost perfectly indistinguishable from a human one, if it weren’t for the way that there was a camera attached to the torso where a neck should begin. It makes Tex sick to her stomach.

All around them are other cameramen; these all look older, more adult. Some are even animals; usually apes, but there are a few large cats. No dogs though. They all linger back, watching silently, while the one that looks like a child hangs near North, as if wanting attention.

“Gorgeous! Now you, Madame Agent.”

Connecticut puts up a bit of a struggle, but it’s pretty hard to stop a madman from putting makeup on you when you’re chained to the chair. The manacles binding their hands to the arms of the chairs are adjusted so they’re behind their backs by a pair of bulky cameramen. Whistling as he moves, North moves their chairs so they’re back to back, draping more chains around their chests to complete the image.

“There! You two make such a good duo; ratings gold for our pilot! Now, don’t forget to smile! I’d hate to do a second take.”

“Please tell me you’re willing to do a second take in case one of us gets hurt during the first one.” Connecticut looks like she already knows the answer.

“Of course not!” North’s laugh didn’t used to be this high or last this long, but things are different now. He lost more than just his arm in that case, when everything went wrong. “I’m filming it live in case you don’t!”

He moves backwards, towards a raised podium, with cameramen facing it. He checks his own makeup, and then grabs a microphone prop and beams widely. “And, we’re rolling!”

“Goddamnit.” One of the strangest parts of being a private detective is the eventual, yet inevitable capture and being tied up. For some reason, bad guys are really into bondage, but they’re not so great at respecting a safeword. As such, Tex is always sure to be prepared. Tex tugs on the sleeve of her jacket, releasing the box cutter that she has tied in there. It’s crude, but effective. These chains are showy more than they are effective. Even with her hands tied behind her back, she should be able to saw through them easily enough. “I hate his opening monologues.”  

“It’s time for our contestants to learn the rules of Death Trap! As you can see, the Throne of Spinning Blades is designed to slowly move the blades in closer and closer to the victims as the clock runs out! We’re giving them a whole ten minutes to work it out, isn’t that grand, folks?”

Canned applause sounds, almost real enough that Tex would think there was a real audience, if she hadn’t heard that exact cheer every time she’d turned on her TV. North needs to mix a new one; but no one besides Tex complains.

“And, to make it more complicated, we’ve added a twist!”

“Shit.”

“Oh c’mon Allison, be a good sport. I want to hear what it is!”

“Their chains are rigged to a pulley system! If they move too much, the clock speeds up!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Tex sees a countdown. There’s less time on it than she would like.

She really hates reality television.

“And, let’s get started! Can our contestants escape... The Throne of Spinning Blades?”

Tex activates the grips the box cutter and tries to set to work.

“We need to get out of this. Dark Matter won’t like me having my face broadcasted.”

“Try being a private eye who everyone recognizes!” Tex tries to shift her face away from the cameramen, but there’s no use. They’re all over the place, capturing every possible angle. North’s editing must take forever, he’s accumulating so much footage. But at least there’s one bright side. “All the data is in his arm. We bust that, we’ll be fine.”

“Good to know. Now the question becomes, how do we get out of here?”

“I’m on it.”

“Let’s introduce our guests! On the right, we have Allison Texas, Private Eye! She’s had a rough life, you know; marked with tragedy for years, including the death of her darling younger sister when she was just a little girl!”

Connecticut inhales sharply.

“Can she carry on?” Oh, there’s cruelty in North’s voice now. A bitter edge. “Or will this thirty-some year tragedy end tonight? Failure, after failure, isn’t that right Texas? And you really have a terrible track record when it comes to kids.”

Tex feels like she’s been punched in the gut. She can’t help it. Her eyes go right back to Theta the cameraman. And the worst part is, North knows she’s looking. She thinks she sees a smile on his face before he moves on.

“And next to her is Agent Connecticut. She’s a secret agent with Dark Matter, and that’s all we know about her! Isn’t she mysterious, friends?” The pretend audience makes hushed whispering sounds, and Tex can’t help but be right there with them.

“Impressive.”

“Dark Matter wipes your record for you, Allison—ow!”

The problem with hands tied behind her back is that it’s hard to see what she’s doing. And Connecticut’s hands are bound right next to hers, making the slip of the box cutter all the more dangerous, especially since Connecticut had no idea what Tex was doing. Connecticut jerks her hands away, tugging on the chain. They lose thirty seconds for that move, and worse, Tex loses her grip on the box cutter. It clatters to the floor.

Fuck.”

“My pockets, quick. I can’t reach them, but you can.”

“Careful now!” North looks engrossed by the show, leaning forward on his elbows as Tex explores Connecticut’s pockets with her fingers. He probably can’t tell what she’s doing, because he doesn’t seem at all worried. “If you move too much, it’s spinning death!”

Tex grits her teeth and keeps sifting through. Connecticut is some sort of hoarder. Scraps of paper, a long, thin knife, a souvenir keychain, old fashioned dog tags, small glass syringes, and then finally... the plasma bolt cutters.

“Connecticut, I could kiss you.” The bolt cutter cuts through the chains like a hot knife through butter, and they fall to the ground with a clatter as she leaps to her feet.

“Maybe later.” Connecticut laughs as her own chains fall to the side and she stands up. “If you’re good.”

“What! No! That’s not fair! Cameramen!”

“How good are you with a knife?”

There’s a flash of silver as Connecticut pulls the knife out of her pocket and spins it casually between her fingers. “Very.” She lunges for the closest cameraman, which falls to the ground quickly. There’s a lot of blood. That distracts the others. Cameramen love violence; they’re programmed so that they can’t resist a good show.

It gives Tex the opening she needs to get near North. He’s trying to run away, but Theta is slowing him down, getting underfoot as it tries to follow him but also turn to look at the irresistible gore. If North was willing to leave the little mutation behind, he might have gotten away.

But he’s always been stupid and sentimental like that.

Tex leaps for him. There’s a kind of rage buzzing in her head, the one that she usually gets when someone tries to kill her. But it’s worse than usual, so Tex figures that North really has it coming for bringing up family.

His face makes a satisfying noise as her fist connects with his nose.

Ow!”

“Goddamn it North.” Tex yanks him up by the lapels of his jacket. “Why’d you do it North? Why’d you kill Dakota?”

North stares at her in a kind of blank horror. “What?”

“Your father is dead, Northalia.” Connecticut can move silently when she wants to. Tex nearly jumps right out of her skin, but she keeps her grip on North.

“What?” North’s nose is bloody. “No, that’s not—Aiden would have mentioned that!”

“I guess not.”

That’s all it takes to make a grown man cry, apparently, because North starts bawling. His makeup smears, and Theta starts quietly clicking away, preserving every moment of it.

“What? No, it—it can’t be! What happened? Was it his heart? Did he forget to take his medicine?”

“Don’t lie! You were the only one here last night, you’re the only one who could have opened the case!”

“What case?” North stares up at her. His mascara has almost reached his chin.

“Northalia.” Connecticut is kneeling close by, almost angelic in appearance, if it weren’t for the bloody knife in her hand. “Why did you think we were here, if not about your father?”  

North’s eyes well up with tears again. “I thought Rosie’d finally agreed to be on my show!” He bursts into another round of sobs.

“You expect me to believe that? Last time I was on one of your shows, you lost...” Tex swallows hard, something painful in her throat as Theta keeps taking pictures of all of this. The creature keeps trying to get close to North, in some mockery of affection. “Your arm.”

“But it was ratings gold!” North has a weird earnestness about him, always has. Everything that happened only made him worse. “And it was my fault anyways! I set that whole stunt up, and if I’d just thought to set my trackers, you’d never have been able to sneak up on me in the first place! If it weren’t for that pesky clause in your contract that stopped us from using your face or your name, you would have been a star! Oh, you won’t believe how often people ask us about you; it would have been marvelous!”

“So when Aiden told you we were coming...”

“I thought you’d changed your mind!” North nods earnestly.

“That doesn’t change the fact that you were the only one home last night.”

North frowns. “I wasn’t! I was in Hyperion all night!”

“Don't lie, you’re grounded. South was the one on the town, not you.”

Suddenly, North starts laughing. “You did? Oh goodness, I knew I was good, but to fool Allison Texas?”

“Fool?”

“That wasn’t South, that was me!”

“What.”

“We are twins, you know. Sure, the arm, the height, and the piercings make it tricky, but we’ve figured it out over the years. Here, let’s look at the footage! I always record the transformation process!”

Goddamn it.

“So South—”

“Quiet, Connecticut.”

“Right. Hold his arm out, will you?” The knife twirls between her fingers, and Tex catches on. She pins down North’s fake arm, and the knife slams down, right into the data core.

“Hey! Do you know how much that costs?”

“Just the datacore, North. You’re lucky we didn’t get hurt, otherwise I might have let her do more damage.”

“Let’s go.” Tex feels so, so tired. “Connecticut why don’t you—you watch him. I need to find my blaster. I think one of the cameramen grabbed it.”

Once she’s out of North and Connecticut’s sight, she calls Donut quickly. By the time she’s found her blaster, and wrestled it back from a half-lion, half gorilla cameraman, he calls her back with confirmation.

Tex hates being right, sometimes.

“Let’s go. We need to talk to South.”

“Should we call the HCPD to take care of him?”

“No point. Built in liability wavers when we stepped through the door.”

“You’ll visit soon, won’t you Rosie? Me and Theta miss you.” North is cradling his arm, even though it’s not damaged. Theta makes a soft noise that’s more of a croon than a roar. It makes Tex sick to her stomach.

“No.”

Rosie!”

Tex doesn’t listen to the rest of what he has to say. She just turns her back and keeps walking. Only when Connecticut catches up does she slow her steps.

“I’m... I’m sorry about your sister.”

“Don’t. Just... don’t.”

“Alright.”

In the hallway, they turn to look at each other.

“So Southandra killed her father?”

“Must have. She lied about where she was last night, tried to frame North. Probably thought he’d kill us and then people would take it as a confession.”  

“But the question remains... why?”

“I don’t know. We just need a little more time—”

A gunshot rings through the air, and Tex and Connecticut leap into action.

Tex really should have known better than to tempt fate like that. Nothing speeds the countdown up more than asking for more time. The universe hates her that way.

They stumble back into the mask room. South has a pistol out, trained on Aiden Price-Dakota. “Where is it?”

“Southandra, do calm down.” Price has a polished, smooth way of talking that’s oddly hypnotic. Usually, Tex would believe he could calm anyone down.

But South’s never been prone to listening.

She fires another shot at the wall. “Next one goes through your head! Where is it?”

“South!”

“Tex? Fuck, you’re alive?”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Tex takes a step back, raising her hands slightly as she finds herself staring down the barrel of the gun. “Easy there, South.”

“You! Secret Agent Whatever. Go search my step-father there. And his bag! I know he has it.”

“Has what, South?” Tex tilts her head to one side.

“It’s a piece of paper. It should have my father’s signature on it!” The hand holding the gun is steady.

“What’s happening, South?”

South’s makeup is smeared with sweat, her hair matted to her forehead. “Shut up, okay! Just shut up!”

“Miss Southandra... I’m afraid your step-father doesn’t have any piece of paper on him.”

“What?” The gun jumps to Connecticut. “It can’t be!”

“What’s so important about that piece of paper?” Tex needs that gun off Connecticut; needs it for reasons she’s not sure she entirely understands. “It’s what you were looking for earlier, isn’t it? You dropped it here last night.”

The gun moves back to her. “You better not be implying what I think you’re implying. Cuz if you are, there’s no reason for me not to shoot you.”

“No you won’t. You’re not a killer.”

South blinks, looking surprised. “Yeah? You sure about that?”

“What’s that paper, South?”

“It’s proof. Proof he lied to me, always lied to me. He fucking said he’d let me—”

“Your show?” And just like that, it all slots into place. “He said he’d let you have your show. And then he changed his mind.”

Yes.” There are tears in her eyes now. “He cheated me. He signed the piece of paper, saying I could do it, but when the schedule came out, it had North’s show on the docket instead of mine! So I waited until all the cameras were gone and I went to confront him, but he didn’t even listen to me. He just kept going on about his fucking broken display case. He kept asking me about how I’d bypassed the lock, wouldn’t even listen!”

Tex’s breath hitches for a moment, but she refuses to let it show. Instead, she locks eyes with Connecticut for a moment, and nods.

“So I—I pushed him.” She looks away. “I didn’t—I didn’t know the Mask would—I don’t know! But I didn’t—at least I think I didn’t—the warning wasn’t me, Tex. I didn’t put it there!”

“It was a mistake. You didn’t know.” The blood stains on the carpet seem brighter now, somehow.

Price tuts, because apparently he wants to die. “Southandra, we’ve talked about your temper—”

Fury crosses South’s face, and she spins to face her stepfather. “Don’t you judge me, don’t you dare—” Her finger hovers over the trigger.

“Connecticut, now!”

Connecticut lunges, and the knife goes right through South’s palm. She lets out a blood curdling scream, and the gun falls to the floor, harmless. Tex lunges forward, tackling South to the ground, pinning her there.

“Fuck you!” South is writhing beneath her, trying to get free. “Fuck you, Texas!”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“That would be a wrap.” Tex’s head whips up as Price says that, just in time to see security guards and a camera crew all walk in. Her stomach drops.

Price always has his games.

It was a set up from the start. Gaslighting South into thinking her father had betrayed her, because he’d approved South’s show, which would burn money, instead of North’s, which would have made it.

South was going to be sent to prison; almost definitely one of the ones where the Dakotas owned the footage. They could probably get at least a TV special out of South’s trial and incarceration, if not a full miniseries. North would keep on playing with his toys.

And Price now has full control of everything; Dakota Media Empire, and both of his step-kids. All because Tex hadn’t been able to stay away from a goddamn death threat. He’d played her like a fiddle, and she had fallen for it.

Connecticut knows it, too. She can see it in her eyes. She’s put the pieces together, just like Tex has.

They take South away, and Tex doesn’t say or do anything to stop it. She’s helpless, and she knows it. And worse, Price knows it.  

“I really should punch you.” Tex looks at Price, half wondering if she could possibly get away with it. She knows the answer, but it’s a nice thought.

He smiles at her. “I wouldn't recommend it.”

“I know. But you won’t keep getting away with this.”

“If you know what’s best for you, Detective... you won’t be the one to pursue it.” God, how can he make a death threat sound banal? “The Dakotas don’t take kindly to those who hurt their own.”

“Then you better watch your back too. C’mon Connecticut. We’re taking the Mask to the PI Registry. If there’s anything that leads back to you.”

“There won’t be. Goodnight, Detective Texas. Agent Connecticut.”

God, Tex hates that family.

The Private Eye Registry is closed for the night, because apparently one in the morning is an unreasonable hour for people who haven’t spent the afternoon and evening trying to navigate the bizarre world of Dakota TV. Which is a pain, because Tex needs to turn in this stupid mask. It feels dangerous in her hands. A murder weapon, and one that she can’t possibly begin to understand.

Tex is perfectly willing to either try to break in or to just wait until morning, if it weren’t for Connecticut.

“It’s cold, Allison.” In the street lights, she’s framed perfectly. Her hair falls into her eyes, which are exposed by the way that her dark glasses have moved down her nose, until they’re almost falling off her face entirely. Her breath hangs in the air in soft clouds.

“Oh. Right.” Earth is warmer than Mars, isn’t it? She takes off her leather jacket and offers it to Connecticut. “Sorry.”

Connecticut’s smile is radiant as she drapes it over her shoulders, failing to put it on properly. It’s a... good look. Tex is taller than Connecticut, and the jacket seems to dwarf her, making her seem smaller than she is. “Why thank you. But won’t you get cold? Maybe we should go... somewhere warmer?”

“Everything’s closed at this time of night.” The wind off the dessert bites, and Tex sticks her hands in her pockets. It’s been a long, long day. She can feel every bruise she’s picked up, and all she wants to do is get a drink and have a nice, long sleep. Her own breath steams out, mixing with Connecticut’s as they stand outside the PI Registry, under the streetlamp.  

“I wasn’t talking about a restaurant.” Connecticut’s grin is soft, and she takes a single step towards Tex. The proximity is enough to make Tex’s mouth go dry.  

“... oh.”

Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea. “Let’s... let’s go to my place then.”

On the way back it hits her again. South is going to prison, Price is going to have the biggest media empire in the galaxy, and North is going to keep playing whatever twisted games he wants, as long as his precious step-father says it’s okay.

And it’s all because of Tex.

She’s in a quiet mood when they get back to her place. Tex puts the mask in her safe and then makes a beeline for the cupboard where she keeps her alcohol. She’s in a sharing mood, so she pours two glasses, and gives one to Connecticut.

Connecticut is still wearing her jacket, draped over her shoulders like a battered leather cape. She’s curled up on Tex’s sofa like she belongs there. Like she feels at home there, which is saying something, because even Tex doesn’t feel at home on that couch. Her shoes are discarded by the end, and she’s tucked her feet up under her, smiling as she reaches forward to take the drink. Her makeup is faded after the day’s adventures, but as she takes off her dark glasses, Tex can see the wings of her eyeliner, still sharp and intact.

“All’s well that ends well, I suppose.” Connecticut raises her glass. Her smile is soft, so different from the one she’d been wearing when they’d first met. “... for a certain definition of well, I guess.”

Tex turns away, her throat tight. She drowns her drink in one gulp and then pours herself another. Liquid courage or liquid amnesia, she’s not sure which one she’s hoping for tonight, but already the warmth courses through her, driving away the vestiges of the Martian night.

“Don’t tell me you’re playing the quiet game, Allison,” Connecticut leans against the sofa, as if reaching out to Tex. “I know your overbearing misanthropy is part of the charm, but I was hoping for a smile or two.”

“Not really in the mood, Connecticut.” Her hands shake as they put the top back on the bottle. She needs to calm down. She needs to breathe.  

“This wasn’t your fault, Allison,” Connecticut gets to her feet. Out of the corner of her eye, Tex sees her jacket fall off her shoulders, onto the sofa. “She did kill her father.” She reaches Tex’s side, and wraps her fingers around the crook of Tex’s elbow. The gesture is painfully intimate in a way that Tex doesn’t really know to explain.

“I guess.”

“It’s over,” Connecticut’s breath is no longer visible, but Tex can feel it against her skin as Connecticut leans closer. She’d put on her heels at some point, allowing her to be taller. An advantage, or something. “We all survived.”

“... yeah.” She turns to face Connecticut at last. Connecticut’s hand on her elbow is their only point of touch. The rest of their bodies are separated only by a few centimeters, but Tex feels so far away right now that it might as well be miles.

Connecticut smiles at her, taking a sip from her drink. She takes a step back, leaning against the table as she watches Tex with heavily lidded eyes.

“You know, I was wondering.”

“Hmm?”

“You mentioned two things were bothering you in Dakota’s office, Detective. But you only explained one. What was the other?”

Tex finishes her second drink and makes a grab for the bottle. “Refill?”

Connecticut laughs. Tex could listen to that sound all day. It’s like something from a fairy tale; Tex half expects to see a unicorn appear, it’s so different from anything else that Tex has ever heard. It’s beautiful and soft and clear, and it’s not too long and not too short, just present long enough to make an impression, not enough to annoy. No one has a laugh like that.

“Is that how it’s going to be?” There’s a challenge there. Tex isn’t sure if she’s going to answer that challenge or not.

“What does that mean?” Tex sets down her glass a little harder than she should. The cupboard trembles slightly.

“Moral outrage.” Connecticut looks almost awestruck as she stares at Tex, discarding her own drink. “You really want to change these things, don’t you? Save the world, one little mystery at a time.”

“You have a problem with that?”

“I think it’s incredibly admirable. Perhaps hopeless, but admirable.”

Something bitter builds in Tex’s chest. Or maybe it’s been building all day, but is only just bubbling up now, like a volcano ready to erupt. It comes out as a laugh, but she’s not sure that’s the right choice. “Nothing about me is admirable.”

“Hmm. I’ll disagree with you there.” She takes a step closer to Tex. “I must admit though, it does sound... lonely.”

Her hand ghosts up Tex’s arm, just enough to raise bumps on her skin.

Tex takes another step forward. “You don’t have to go.” Tex tries to pack everything she can’t say into those words. Some sort of silent plea, that she prayshopes, wishes, that Connecticut will understand.

She laughs again. “There you go again.”  

“You don’t have to do this. Any of this.”

“Of course I do.” Connie’s fingers are warm against Tex’s face as she reaches up to caress her cheek. “The galaxy is so much bigger than the two of us, Allison. There are so many worlds, so many mysteries to solve, far away from this city. I belong out there. I have to leave. That’s how it works.” She smiles, and it’s radiant, making Tex’s heart do something it absolutely shouldn’t. “But life can wait one night, Allison.” She curls her fingers around Tex’s neck and guides her down for a kiss.

Kissing Connecticut is amazing, just like Tex had thought it would be. Tex lets herself be swept away in it for a moment; the feeling of her soft hair beneath her hands, the press of her body against hers, the way that Connecticut’s perfume envelopes her, the soft gasp she makes when Tex bites softly on her bottom lip.

It’s a perfect, beautiful moment that Tex savors, crystallizing it in her mind to keep close.

But it ends. Tex would say too soon, but...

“Connecticut.” She hates how she sounds, all soft and vulnerable. She’s Allison Texas, Private Eye. She doesn’t do either of those things.

“Allison.” Tex tries to find comfort in how Connecticut sounds the same way, but she can’t. The use of her first name stings, somehow. It makes this harder.

“Has anyone ever told you—” She takes a single, deep breath, to help center her, to try to ignore the way her lips are tingling. “—that you’re under arrest?”

Connecticut’s eyes go comically wide as the handcuffs are fastened around her wrists. “You know, usually I ask people to wait until the second date.” There’s a playful pout on her lips but her eyes are wary. She understands, no matter what game she’s still trying to play.

“I mean it, Connecticut or—or whatever your real name is.”

“I told you. It’s classified.”

“Sure.”

The pout deepens. “You know, you’re supposed to read me the charges.”

“Let’s start with trying to steal the Sanghelli Mask.”

“Honestly Allison—”

“And for stealing the keys to my safe while kissing me.” She reaches forward and pulls them out of Connecticut’s pocket.

Connecticut doesn’t even have the decency to look abashed.

“You know what the second thing bothering me was?” Tex forces herself to step away from Connecticut. “The case was already open. And you had the way to open them in your pocket.” She holds up the syringes, the ones she had taken from Connecticut’s pocket when they’d been tied to the Throne of Spinning Blades.

Connecticut’s shoulders slump. “I really hoped you hadn’t noticed those.”

“I saw you take it from the door. You just put it right in your pocket. So I had Donut run it. Just small enough to leave a prick and take blood, but not enough to be noticed. That’s how you opened the lock. And then South said that the case was already open when she got there, and I knew for sure. But you hadn’t taken the mask. You were interrupted. And you caused a murder mystery.”

She sighs. “It was so irritating. It took so long to scout a place like that. So many cameras. I had to get out quickly, once I was interrupted.”

“Who are you?”

She laughs again, and this time it’s different. Genuine. It’s her real laugh, not that beautiful canned laugh she uses while in character. Any doubt that Tex had been harboring evaporates in a puff of smoke. All that’s left is the hollow feeling of betrayal. “Do you really think it would be that easy, detective? It would take someone very special to get my name out of me.”

“Did York know?” She needs to know. How deep does this betrayal run? How personal is this—did York send her exactly the right kind of person to get under her skin, to pull her into this web?

“Him? No. As far as he knows, I’m exactly who my file said.” Her smile is full of teeth, self-satisfied and smug. “I’m very good at what I do.”

“Clearly.”

“A compliment! You do make a lady blush.” She tilts her head to one side. She sighs and moves back to the couch, crossing her legs as she sits. “Can we skip this, Allison? There’s so much more to this conversation.”

“And what would that be? Talk quick, the police will be here soon.”

“Called them already? I’m hurt. We were having such a nice chat, too.”

“Are you going to talk, or are you just going to flirt with me?”

“You’re in danger.” The smile is soft again. “The Dakotas aren’t just going to let you walk away, and you know it.”

“I’ll manage.”

“You could disappear,” the words hang heavy in the air, taking Tex by surprise and making it hard to breathe. “I’m an expert at vanishing into the shadows, Allison. We could disappear together. It could be so simple.”

How stupid does she think Tex is? To fall for the same pretty face, pretty voice, twice in one night?

“You leave Hyperion City. We sell the mask, we live a life of thrills and adventure across the galaxy. Always running, always moving, never looking back. Easy money, and more adventures than you could ever imagine. We could have something, Allison. Who knows what kind of trouble we could cause?”

And the worst part is, Tex can picture it. It would be so easy, just handing over the keys to the cuffs and the safe, following... whatever her name is off world. There’s more to that promise. A life together, possibly even happiness.

She turns her back and walks away.

For a moment, she thinks she sees something on her face before she opens the doors.

“Hey Tex.”

“Hey Grif. Simmons.” She steps aside to let them in. “Be careful with her okay, she’s slippery.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”

Tex closes her eyes and tries to breathe as they pull her away.

It could be quite the adventure.”

“I’m sure it will be.” Tex waits until she’s gone to say the next part. “I wish I could come along.”

There’s something damp on her cheeks, and Tex swipes at them, grateful that she’s alone in her apartment. Alone with the smell of her perfume. It clings to Tex’s clothes, making it impossible for her to take her mind off what she’s just done.

Tex goes to grab her jacket; she should head to the station, be there when they’re booking her.

When she picks it up, a piece of paper falls out, fluttering to the ground.

She must have written it behind her back.

Allison,

If you want to see me again, watch the public access feed for route 742. Somewhere around Valhalla Drive, I suspect. But no further than Chorus Way. Take a good look, detective. It may be your last. I do hope it isn’t though. I meant every word I said, Allison. It will be quite an adventure. I’ll be waiting for you to join me.

Signed,

Your better half,

C.T.

It feels like there should be something beneath that; a lipstick print or something. But that’s fanciful thinking.

She calls Donut, tells him to contact York. Even if York didn’t know, she’s still going to rip him a new one for this.

That’s when she finds the dogtags, tucked between the seat cushions.

They’re old fashioned earth military things, hanging from a chain. Tex had noticed them while going through Connecticut’s pockets, but hadn’t thought anything of them at the time.

Now, she sees.

There’s a name there, one that has initials to match the signature.

Tex stares at them for a long time.

She wants to vomit.

She turns on the public access feed.

Grif and Simmons are on the side of the road, bound hand and foot and dumped on the sidewalk. C.T. is nowhere in sight.

Her comm beeps, letting her know that York is on the line.

Tex puts the dogtags on around her neck and answers, gritting her teeth as York’s voice, addled with sleep and confused, comes through her comm.

The keys from her safe are gone from her pocket, and she knows that the mask will be too.

She’s been swindled, seduced, robbed, and made a fool of.

The smell of perfume lingers even as she storms out of her apartment, already cursing York out for getting her into this.

She ignores the heaviness in her heart.

Who’s got time for that in Hyperion City?

C.T. is gone.

That’s the end of things.