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Excerpt: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

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The Spare Man by Mary Robinette KowalHugo, Locus, and Nebula-Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal blends her no-nonsense approach to life in space with her talent for creating glittering high-society in this stylish SF mystery, The Spare Man.

Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal, on sale 10/11/2022.


1

Kneeling on the floor of their suite, Tesla Crane could just feel the vibrations of the centrifugal ring as it rotated around the interplanetary cruise ship Lindgren. Or more likely it was the hum of the air conditioning. The Terran-level ring was big enough that even the Coriolis effect was really only noticeable when throwing things.

“Gimlet, fetch.” She threw a chew toy for her Westie, and the little dog charged in the direction the plush sloth had started to go.

It curved in the air, leaving the small white dog staring in baffled confusion for a moment before she found it and pounced with enormous ferocity.

Tesla used the reprieve to return to stretching. She put her hands on the floor, and her new wedding ring caught her eye with the gleam of platinum-iridium—just like the historic kilogram standard, because her spouse knew she was a nerd. Smiling, she lowered her back into the cow position, feeling for twinges as she raised her head.

The ceiling had a digital sky shading to an Earth sunset. The simulated clouds changed shape and position in subtle response to an artificial wind. Not bad for a honeymoon.

On the couch, her joyfrie—fianc—spouse watched her over the edge of his embroidery hoop. Shal was compact, with warm brown skin beneath distressingly glossy curls. “What are you smiling at?”

“You.” Tesla lowered her head, arching her back as far as she could into cat position. As soon as her head was in reach, she got a faceful of little white dog. Wiggling with delight, the Westie planted tiny dog kisses along Tesla’s cheek. Laughing, she tried to dodge. “Gimlet! Not helping.”

Gimlet disagreed and swiped her tongue across Tesla’s nose.

From the couch, Shal lowered the blackwork he was stitching into the sleeve of a T-shirt. He patted the cushion beside him. “Gimlet, c’mere.”

Her dog abandoned Tesla and took a running leap onto the couch. She flopped with her nose on Shal’s embroidery hoop and stared up at him with adoration.

“I’m going to need that hoop back, little girl.”

She sighed and pushed closer, stumpy tail wagging.

“What’s that?” He scratched her ears, grinning. “Yes, Gimlet, I completely agree. We should stay in tonight.”

“But karaoke is tonight.” Tesla returned to cow position, feeling for anything out of alignment.

Or, rather, feeling for anything unacceptably out of alignment. Her spine had its own set of rules about what “normal” looked like. She had her Deep Brain Pain Suppressor dialed all the way down because doing her exercises with the DBPS on was an invitation for more pain later.

“And last night was the Orbit Transfer Party.” Shal was trying to ease the embroidery hoop out from under Gimlet, but she seemed to generate her own tiny canine gravity field sometimes. She wouldn’t hurt the embroidery, but when she was off-duty she was still a Westie. As they’d said at the training center, “She’s a dog, not a robot.”

“Be fair, watching the Moon recede was not a bad view. Although the sparkling was questionable . . .”

“Questionable is being kind.” He lifted Gimlet’s paw only to have her roll over onto her back. “Hey. Kid. C’mon.”

“Gimlet, leave it.”

Presented with a formal command from Tesla, Gimlet reacted with her service-dog training and pushed back from the embroidery hoop, but she still stared at Shal as if he existed solely to pet her. Which, to be fair, she did with everyone she met and not only Tesla’s joyfrien—fianc—spouse. Five days into their honeymoon, and it still didn’t seem real.

“Thanks.” He picked up the embroidery hoop and ran a finger over it looking for damage. “I’m just . . . Never mind.”

“What?” She reversed course, slowly edging back into cat position, or as much of it as she could manage with the rods in her spine. “I know that form of ‘never mind.’”

“All right . . .” He took his time tying off a knot and snipped it with the pair of scissors she’d given him as a wedding present. The badgers worked into the handles seemed to chase each other as the light played across the hand-forged metal. He set them down and lowered the hoop. “I’m not complaining, mind you, it’s only that between the transfer to Low Lunar Orbit, and then to the ship, and then . . . Point is, I thought, maybe, being on a honeymoon, that maybe we could get some alone time in.”

Tesla wrestled with the five different responses she wanted to make. On the one hand, sexy fun times with her new spouse were always appealing. On the other, she so rarely got to escape celebrity and just be a person.

When Shal had suggested a cruise to Mars for their honeymoon, she had been, at best, dubious. His reasoning was that most passengers would access only the ship’s local onboard network, since comms back to terrestrial or Martian databases were hellishly expensive. That meant he could pay the cruise line to reroute ID requests to a fake identity. Her beloved had been right. No one had recognized her yet as the heir to the Crane fortune. So staying in had its appeal, but going out was a limited-time offer. When they got to Mars, these tricks wouldn’t work.

But this was also Shal asking. She bent back to cow position. “Sure. If you want to. We can stay in.”

He sighed, with an edge of tension. “It’s all right. We’ll go.”

Tesla stopped stretching and looked at him. “I just agreed to stay in.”

“Yes. And that was your ‘I’m humoring you to do a thing I don’t want to do’ voice.” He ruffled Gimlet’s fur, not looking at Tesla.

Tesla lifted her head. “First of all, I don’t mind staying in. Honest. It’s just the . . . the novelty of being able to go someplace without bodyguards and planning and . . . But it’s not like staying in with my shiny new spouse is a hardship.”

“Hardship? I should hope I’m a hardship.” He grinned and waggled his brows suggestively.

She snorted and went back to stretching. “Nerd.”

“Accurate.” He pulled a skein of embroidery floss out of his craft bag. “Also, when you put it like that, I can get behind the novelty of going on a date with my shiny new spouse without anyone hovering. So let’s go out on the town.”

“And then come back for sexy fun times.” She pushed back to her knees and grabbed the arm of a chair to brace with as she rose to her feet.

He got the goofy sideways grin that sometimes crossed his face and always made her immediately want to take his pants off. “Ready for karaoke, Gimlet?”

“Oh. I don’t want to take her.”

“Really?” Shal raised his eyebrows. “And I don’t ask just because we get better seats when she’s with us. Your assistant usually scouts new places for triggers . . .”

“It’s karaoke.” When she got Gimlet, her therapist told her that her independence would increase because the dog was a tool—medical equipment wrapped in an adorable fuzzy package. But how was Tesla supposed to know if she was getting better if she didn’t take a chance occasionally? She crossed the room to Shal and gently pushed the hoop out of the way. Putting one knee on the couch by his thigh, she carefully lowered herself to straddle him. The twinge along the right side of her spine was acceptable. She smiled and leaned down to kiss him. “No one’s recognized me yet.”

Shal’s lips were warm and soft as he answered her. One hand ran down her back, providing stability without being obvious about it. She traced the line of his collarbone, feeling his heartbeat through her palm. Shal’s voice had roughened. “Please tell me you picked a short song.”

“Mm . . .” She nibbled his earlobe to keep him from fretting about the potential for flashback triggers. It was karaoke. On an interplanetary cruise ship, for crying out loud. It wasn’t like they would have pyro there. Breathing into his ear, she said, “Maybe you want to do a duet . . . ?”

“A duet, you say—”

Gimlet suddenly burst into a rolling series of DELIVERY IS GOING TO KILL US ALL barks a moment before a knock on the door finished breaking the mood. Her trainer would not be happy that Gimlet barked like this, but Tesla very, very much appreciated the deterrent that a yappy little dog could be at the door. Better than any intruder alarm. Shal sighed and helped Tesla stand up.

He gave her one more lingering kiss before looking at the door, where the Westie was protecting them from Evil Incarnate. “I’ll get it.”

Tesla had let him cross the room to the door before remembering that, with Shal’s bots, she could have answered it and not had to worry about paparazzi. The deep plum wig and eyebrow reshaping she sported were enough to throw the human eye off.

“Gimlet, come!” Tesla headed into the bedroom to distract the little dog.

Gimlet scurried into the room after her, still huffing with indignation that someone had knocked on the door. In the other room, Shal’s voice rose and fell in an indistinct conversation with whoever the villain was. Tesla smiled at her dog. “Door knockers. How dare.”

The Westie snorted in agreement.

“You showed them. We are so safe now.” Tesla sent Shal a ping to his Heads-Up Display. ::Who is it?::

A moment later her own HUD flashed a message in her lower-left field of vision. ::Room-service drone. Wrong room.::

Tesla rummaged through the jewelry she’d dropped on the bedroom vanity and picked out a diamond anklet. It was rather old-fashioned and not worth much, but she liked the way it sparkled.

Sitting on the bed, she tried to cross her leg over her knee so she could reach her ankle. Even pulling on her foot, she couldn’t quite get the heel to make contact. A band at the top of her pelvis tightened as she tried.

“I couldn’t get it to leave without accepting the delivery or trashing the order.” Shal walked into the room carrying a tray covered with a silver dome. “I didn’t want it to go to waste. Steak à la Lune.”

“Aha! I see your facade of virtue is beginning to crumble.” She wrinkled her nose, trying to get the anklet in place.

“First of all, lunar steaks are arguably vegetarian, since they’re entirely vat-grown. Second, Gimlet likes steak.”

Her dog sat under the tray, looking at it as if she had met her truest love. Tesla laughed. “Gimlet doesn’t get people food.”

“Fair. But my third point . . .” He whipped the lid off with a flourish. “It comes with frites à la truffe.”

The scent of fried starch and salt and the earthy joy of truffles wafted from a mound of fries.

“Compelling argument.”

Grinning, he set the tray on the side table and grabbed a fry. Slowly, he placed the fry in his mouth, closing his full lips around the crisp brown morsel. He winked, and his gaze traveled down the length of her leg to the anklet. He did not offer to help, and she loved him all over again for letting her fight her own battles. “So, what song did you pick out?”

“Don’t you want to be surprised?” She winked at him. “Or use your superior detecting skills to guess?”

“Retired.” He waved a fry at her. “But given what you sing in the shower, I’m betting it’ll be either a Mad Guinevere or something by HLX-1.”

“Mm . . .” Neither were bad guesses. She grimaced trying to catch hold of the bottom of the anklet and finally gave up. She could use the DBPS or she could accept help from her helpmate. Sighing, she held out the anklet. “Would you mind?”

“It would be my pleasure.” Shal knelt on one knee and patted the other.

Tesla rested her foot on his knee as he took the anklet from her. It took him seconds to fasten the gold-and-diamond band. Still kneeling, he ran his hands up her calf, making a circle at the back of her knee. Wetting his lips, Shal looked up at her. “I’m going to make one more pitch for taking Gimlet and then I’ll drop it.”

“I know what you’re going to say.” She rested her hands on the bed and pressed down. “Okay, yes, you’re right. There’s a risk that there will be pyro or some other trigger and I might have a flashback. But if we take Gimlet, people are going to watch us. I . . . I just want one evening where no one stares at me.”

Shal smiled at her and bent forward to kiss her knee. “All right then.”

“That’s it? No fight?” Tesla pouted at him. “And here I was looking forward to makeup sex.”

He laughed and beat his chest. “Spouse! You must do as I say, for now we are married and you have no independent mind of your own! Grr!”

Gimlet barked at him.

Laughing, Tesla lowered her foot and leaned forward to kiss Shal on the forehead. “See? We can’t take her. She’d eat you alive.”

There was something magical about being anonymous. Listening to enthusiastic karaoke, Tesla sat nestled in a booth at the back of the R-Bar and scanned for their server. Spotting the distinctive long blue locs, Tesla raised her hand in the universal “I’m ready to order” signal and watched their server continue walking past without looking at her. Again. Anonymity would be marvelous, aside from the fact that she wanted a drink.

On her heads-up display, a message from her spouse pinged for attention: ::You’re going to laugh, but I forgot that your hair was purple.::

She subvocalized a reply to send via the HUD. ::Did you lose our booth?::

Shal had given up on the server before she had and taken another approach. ::Absolutely not. I’m at the bar—where apparently we are already considered regulars::

::And it’s just day two of the cruise.:: She almost opened the calendar in her HUD, but she was on vacation. The urge to check in with the office still itched under her skin, so she pulled Shal’s embroidery hoop over and consulted the pattern in her HUD. ::Well done, us.::

::The bartender sends her compliments on your hair::

::Which you had forgotten::

::And I want you to appreciate the deep and endearing vulnerability that I’m displaying by admitting my shocking mental lapse.::

Sitting alone in her booth, Tesla laughed, ignored by those around her. Out of habit, she’d picked a table in one of the round booths at the rear of the lounge as a way to have her back to a wall and a buffer between her and the world. She kept looking for Gimlet under the table, skin tightening for a moment every time the little dog wasn’t there, before she remembered that she’d done this on purpose. Thanks to Shal’s bots, she didn’t need to hide behind sunglasses or a courtesy mask; she would have been able to sit anywhere here. All of the cameras and attention were turned to the stage, where a crooner was belting out their karaoke selection with more enthusiasm than talent.

There was still an infectious joy in watching the curvy older passenger, with chartreuse pants around generous hips in the style from their teens, sing a song Tesla had never heard before. Everyone watched the stage. No one was taking a surreptitious snap of her laughter to sell to a gossip column.

Shal sent, ::I heard that::

::I’m across the bar!::

::There is never a day when I won’t recognize the sound of your voice in a crowd. Although . . . I AM used to trying to spot you behind a cluster of admirers—Oh. Got the drinks. En route to you.::

She slid to the edge of the booth to get a better view of the stage. No one “randomly” dropped by the booth wanting her to invest in their start-up or talk about one of her robot designs or magnify her tiny flaws. She was free to try karaoke and have no one care if she failed.

And then her internal radar lit up, needing no online tracker to orient to Shalmaneser Steward.

Or to use his pseudonym for this trip, Mishal Husband. By any name, her spouse.

Tesla crossed her legs, and the diamond anklet she wore glittered in the light as it emerged from the booth.

That sparkle caught Shal’s attention as he walked back to their table with a pair of cocktails. His eyes dropped to her ankle, and then traveled appreciatively up the length of her legs, warming her through the core as his gaze continued up and met hers.

His sharp features softened as he slid into the booth next to her. “We could go back to our cabin . . .”

Tesla leaned over, ignoring the twinge in her lower back, and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t be silly. My turn is nearly here, and we’ve waited this long.”

“I could’ve talked to the karaoke DJ.” Shal held out her Manhattan, with a real cherry mind you, and winked at her. She nearly changed her mind about waiting for the karaoke.

“I believe you mean ‘bribed.’ ” She lifted the Manhattan out of his hand. Detectives. They never really broke their habits. “What are you drinking?”

“A bribe is a conversation.” Shal glanced past her and waved away the close-up magician who had been following them around the ship after Tesla had overtipped him. “Martini. Stirred. New Prussian gin. Dolin Blanc for the vermouth. Two olives.”

Tesla rested her hand on his thigh, grateful beyond words for the bubble of safety he enforced around them. “Two olives? I like that you’re developing expensive tastes.”

“To go with my expensive spouse?” Shal laughed and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Oh! I’ve just realized that we could shorten ‘Mishal’ to ‘Mi’ instead of ‘Shal’ on the cruise.”

“I thought the point of a pseudonym that could shorten to Shal was to make it less likely for me to slip on the name?” That was why they’d settled on “Mishal Husband” as his name for the cruise.

“Sure.” He grinned at her. “But this way you can introduce me to people as ‘Mi Husband.’”

“My Husband? Really?” She laughed. “You are such an archaic ner—”

“Not what we agreed!” From the booth next to them, a sharp voice cut through a gap in the song.

A balding white passenger with a gamer’s belly rounding out a sequined pullover and matching capelet stood facing the close-up magician at the end of the booth’s table.

Shal cocked his head to the side, watching. Whenever he concentrated, he got sleuthing face, which had this bright intensity to it, as if he were wringing meaning out of the air.

Tesla slid her hand up his thigh. ::Are you eavesdropping?::

The corner of his mouth twisted in a smile. ::Absolutely.::

The magician shrugged. His reply vanished into the music so that only the rhythms of speech said he was annoyed. The bald passenger jabbed a finger at the magician, who took a step back, arms going wide. A moment later, he plucked a card from the air and showed it to the passenger.

Something about it made the passenger’s face burn beet red.

::What do you think they’re arguing about?::

::Dunno, but none of them know each other well enough to move the conversation to pings.:: Shal set his hand on top of hers and ran a finger across the new wedding band.

::None?:: Tesla could only see two people from where she sat. ::Who else—::

“Both of you.” A third voice, in the husky alto range, interjected from deep in the booth. “We’ve all—”

Applause buried whatever they had all done as the crooner took a deep bow. A moment later, the karaoke host bounded onstage, all grins. “Let’s give a big round of applause again to Annie Smith and that fascinating rendition of ‘Who’s Laughing Now.’ Next up, Artesia Zuraw!”

Shal nudged her and slid to the end of the booth. “That’s you.”

“Oh! Right.” She had not recognized her own pseudonym. Tesla slipped out, twisting to stand, and her back spasmed. Her deep brain pain suppressor compensated automatically, slamming into its built-in safeties so the red cords of pain were present but muted.

She steadied herself on the edge of the table and used the motion to look into the booth next to theirs. At the back of the booth, an elegant passenger with bleach-blond hair and a soft, curving jawline watched the other two with obvious distaste.

“Artesia Zuraw? Are you here?”

Tesla raised her hand. “Coming!”

She reached for Gimlet’s leash—but she hadn’t brought her dog. This was fine. She could do this. Tesla hurried up to the stage, regretting the decision to leave her cane behind as her back tightened with each step. Dammit. She knew better than to twist when she was standing. She had to clutch the rail to manage the stairs.

The KJ met her with a blinding smile and a microphone. “Hello, my happy one! We are so delighted to have you on our stage! And what are you singing for us, Mx. Zuraw?”

She took the offered microphone, nerves overriding any pain. “Tess. Call me Tess, she/her . . .” She wasn’t used to feeling nervous. “I’m singing ‘Somewhere to Love’ by the Isolationists.”

“All right, everybody! Give it up for her and make her feel the love in this room!” The KJ bounced offstage as the first syncopated beats of the jaunty swingpunk tune started.

Tesla watched the lyrics pop up on her HUD as the glowing ball slid closer to the first line. Everyone was watching her and cheering with the same enthusiasm they’d shown her predecessor on the stage.

“Ooh-ooh, ooh-woh

I know this place around here—”

A tray of glasses shattered at the back of the room. At the booth next to theirs, the blond who’d been sitting in its depths was on their feet. Shal stood by them, with a hand out as if to prevent a fall. A swath of red stained their white dinner jacket.

For a moment, Tesla thought that they’d been stabbed, but their gaze was fixed on the server with long blue locs. Shattered glassware covered the floor around the pair. The stain was just red wine or an aperitif. As she watched, the garment self-cleaned, shedding the red liquid so the fabric bleached back to brilliant white. Tugging the jacket into place, the blonde stalked out of the R-Bar.

Everyone watched them go. Which was good, because Tesla had totally lost her place in the song. Being anonymous was very, very nice.

Copyright © 2022 from Mary Robinette Kowal

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