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       Unmasking, p.1

           Karen McCullough
 
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Unmasking


  by

   Karen McCullough

   

   

  Karen McCullough

   

  First publication date: 2000

  As: THE THIRTEENTH HOUR

   

  Copyright 2000 and 2013 by Karen McCullough

   

  Excerpt from A QUESTION OF FIRE copyright 2001 by Karen McCullough

   

  Electronic Edition License Notes

   

  This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

   

  No part of this work covered by the copyright herein may be reproduced, transmitted, stored, or used in any form or by any means graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including but not limited to photocopying, recording, scanning, digitizing, taping, Web distribution, information networks, or information storage and retrieval systems, except as permitted under Section 107 and 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of the author.

  All rights reserved.

   

  Author's Note: I try to produce as clean a work as possible. This story has been through several rounds of editing in an effort to eliminate errors of grammar, usage, and consistency. However I realize that even multiple editors will overlook some things, so I ask that if you find any errors in this book, you let me know. You can email me at [email protected]

  Unmasking

   

  "Darling, what a clever outfit."

  The speaker, who guarded the entrance to the party area, wore an expansive, red-velvet medieval gown. Her gigantic cone hat wobbled and threatened to topple over as she ran a dubious glance over Trace's costume, a hooded brown cloak with a mask that left nothing visible of her face but the eyes, outlined in glowing orange.

  The woman mustered a smile that probably wasn't any more forced than the several hundred others she'd already conjured that evening. She studied Trace's invitation with almost insulting care before she touched Trace's arm and invited her to join the festivities.

  "Do come in and enjoy yourself."

  Trace nodded, although enjoyment wasn't high on her agenda for the evening. She moved to the side of the room where she could scan the other guests. Her ghostly companion perched on a table beside her and crossed his legs.

  'Darling, what a clever outfit,' the ghost mimicked. "Clever? I'll bet she hasn't seen Star Wars even once. Wouldn't know a Jawa if it bit her on the leg."

  "I wonder what she made of him, then." Trace nodded toward a tall, well-built man in a Boba Fett suit and helmet. He was talking with an overweight Robin Hood.

  "The knight in rusty armor's got a funny nose?" the ghost suggested, while checking out the room himself. In a ballroom crowded with a couple of hundred people that took a while. "Oh, oh, look over there," the ghost said. "That Little Red Riding Hood will have every big bad wolf in the place running for cover. Whoa, and check it out: Mr. Mayor and wife as Dorothy and the Tin Man. Watch out for flying monkey business."

  "Enough," Trace said. The combined aromas of food, drinks and too many different, expensive fragrances rolled over her and made her dizzy. "Just point me toward this guy you want me to find and let's get this over with."

  "Give me a break," the ghost pleaded. "I haven't been out in company for a while.  Can't I enjoy myself a little?"

  "You can enjoy yourself all you want—after we've delivered your message. You were the one said we wouldn't have much time, that he'd leave before the midnight unmasking. It's after ten now. So point this guy, Jeff, out to me."

  "Can't do. And, hey, I'm not the one who made us late, the one that kept vacillating about coming."

  "What do you mean, 'can't do?' You said we'd come here and find him, deliver the message and leave. I thought I made it clear how I feel about affairs like this."

  "Something about shoveling out the barn with a tablespoon, as I recall," the ghost muttered. "Party pooper."

  "Only when I get blackmailed into attending. Why can't you find him?"

  The ghost slid out of the way of a woman preparing to set her drink down on the table. "A bit more observation, darling. Halloween party—costumes, masks..."

  "Oddly, I had noticed. I just thought you might recognize him, even in costume. So how do we find him?"

  "Start talking," the ghost suggested. "Half the people here would know him. And his voice is distinctive, even if his face is hidden."

  "What am I supposed to say? Hello, have you seen Jeff Stanton lately? You know, the guy they tried for murder last year? The one they didn't have enough evidence to convict? Oh, and, by the way, if you run into Jack the Ripper, I'd love to have a word with him, too."

  The ghost shook his head. "Small talk, love. Surely you've heard of it?"

  "Heard of. Have no talent for."

  He sighed. "Start with 'Hi, how are you?'"

  "Got that part. It's the next line, after he says, 'fine,' and we both agree that the weather's great but the lawn needs rain, that I have trouble with."

  "Look." The ghost pointed to a man standing near the bar. "Right there. Someone you can tackle. He's looking for company. Get over there and work him."

  The ghost gave her a gentle push toward the slightly overweight Robin Hood, now standing by himself. Trace wondered what that move looked like to anyone else watching. Then her mind shut down, as it always did when confronted with the need to make conversation with a stranger.

  "Er... Hello," she ventured.

  The man, early middle-aged but still attractive, turned a charming grin on her. "Hello, yourself. How are you this evening?"

  "Er... fine. And you?"

  "Great. Enjoying the party. Are you?"

  "I guess," Trace said. "Are you here by yourself?"

  The man looked momentarily nonplused, then shrugged and admitted, "No. My wife's around here somewhere. Maid Marian, of course."

  "Oh. Well, I'm not either. But I'm looking for someone. Jeff Stanton. You know him?"

  The man looked even more surprised. "Certainly. Doesn't everyone? After that unfortunate incident last year?" His eyes narrowed. "You're not a reporter, are you?"

  Trace flinched. "Good heavens, no."

  "Good. The media made such a circus of the trial. And the papers had him convicted before they'd even seated the jury."

  "You think he's guilty?"

  The man shrugged. "Self-defense. The way I figure it, Bellwood—the partner—was conning him, so he tried to confront him, threatened to expose the con. Bellwood tried to stop him. Stanton shot him in self-defense. It's the kind of thing Bellwood would have done. Always out to make a fast buck." He nodded several times to affirm his theory. "Papers got hold of it, though, and twisted it all around." He looked up suddenly. "Oh, there's my wife. Better go. Good luck finding Stanton."

  "Thanks."

  Trace turned and realized the ghost was right behind her.

  "That... We'll see who's conning who," the ghost muttered.

  "He wasn't much help locating the guy," Trace said.

  "You weren't exactly smooth in your approach there either, sweetie," the ghost answered. "'Are you here by yourself?'" He rolled his eyes. "Ever heard of subtlety?"

  "Same answer as small talk. Heard of, can't do."

  "Practice, practice," the ghost suggested.

  "Just makes me tired."

  "All right, we'll go for a female this time. There's your next target." He pointed to a weedy-looking, gray-haired matron in an elaborate floor-length dress that could have qualified her as any number of fantasy characters.

  Trace drew a deep breath as she walked over. The woman struggled to balance an hors d'oeurves-laden plate on top o
f a glass, presumably so she could wipe off a spot of food on her chin.

  "Can I help you with that?" Trace was already reaching for the plate before the woman nodded assent.

  "Thank you so much."

  Trace held her plate and took the glass as well, leaving the woman free to mop up.

  "Always so awkward juggling these things. I'm Arlene Mayfair, by the way."

  Trace introduced herself, then discovered that she needn't worry about making conversation. Arlene handled the job, asking about Trace's family, friends, job, home, hobbies and history in rapid-fire order. Almost twenty minutes of conversation passed before Trace was able to steer it in the direction she wanted to go. "I'm looking for a friend of a friend here tonight," she said. "I have a message for him. Do you know Jeff Stanton? Have you seen him?"

  Arlene Mayfair's face steeled. "Know him? Of course, I do. Poor boy. After that unfortunate affair last year, I suppose everyone in town knows him. They railroaded him, you know. Personally I think the police were so eager to get the crime solved they planted all the evidence on the most convenient suspect, just so they could say they'd solved it."

  "You think so? Have you seen him tonight?"

  "I talked to him just half an hour ago. Such a strange costume he— Thomas!"

  An older man joined them. From the tone of the greetings, Trace could tell they
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