Okay, here we go!
I’d originally planned to post this a chapter at a time, but that makes for some awfully long blog posts. So I’m breaking it up a little bit more. I’m quite nervous about this, since I’ve never done anything like this before–a whole story on the blog, a “Pay what you want if you want” story, all of that–so I really hope you guys enjoy it!
Elder Griffin pulled a slim, pale blue folder from his drawer and set it on the edge of the desk. “This came in four days ago.”
Chess guessed that meant he was giving it to her. She reached for it carefully, waiting for him to stop her. She almost wished he would stop her. Wished he would say something, do something, so she could challenge him on it. If she could just make him talk to her…
What difference would it make? If she got him talking he’d just tell her things she didn’t want to hear, and there was no point in that. She knew what he’d say: That he was disappointed in her, that he no longer trusted her, that the only reason she still had a job was because to report what she’d done would be to implicate himself—and to sentence her to death in the bargain.
Every time he spoke she heard that, anyway. It was clear in the impersonal tone of his voice. It was obvious from the way he didn’t look her in the eyes and the falseness of the smiles he gave her only when other people were around.
And it hurt. Fuck, it hurt, just as much as it had the day three weeks before when she’d confessed everything and lost him forever.
She picked up the file and skimmed the first page, the form filled out by the homeowners themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Mike and Sue Randall, of Cross Town. No actual ghost seen yet, but they had—they said they had—several of the markers that indicated one was trying to materialize. Cold spots. Objects being moved. Sounds like chains being rattled or someone crying in another room. Smears of ectoplasm on the walls.
The Randalls reported a few other, more unusual things too, things that didn’t bode well. Scratch marks in paint, broken glass and mirrors, locked doors opened and left open. None of that encouraged, just like the admittedly unconfirmed idea that Elder Griffin had deliberately given her a shit case that wouldn’t earn her a bonus didn’t encourage.
But all of those things could be faked, too. Most of them were things the average person didn’t know about or think of, but that didn’t mean the Randalls weren’t just creative with their fake haunting. She’d find out, anyway.
She looked up at Elder Griffin, who had his attention turned to the silent TV mounted on the wall. It was just moving pictures, people mouthing words he couldn’t hear or understand, and he apparently thought it was still more worth paying attention to than she was. “Okay. I guess I’ll get started, then.”
A curt nod. Then, as she tucked the file into her bag and started to stand, he said, “Cesaria.”
“Yeah? I mean, yes, sir?”
Six months ago—one month ago—he would have smiled at that. Now his blue eyes remained impassive, his face blank. “How is Terrible?”
A split second where she thought he was talking to her, maybe starting to think of forgiving her, before she realized what he meant. He didn’t mean “How was Terrible” as in, “How’s that man of yours doing, why don’t we all get together?” or “Why don’t we start talking about things again?” He meant “Has Terrible been passing out in the presence of dark magic or possessed by any ghosts lately?” But of course, he couldn’t outright say that because of where they were, and he wasn’t about to seek her out elsewhere or call her to ask, so he had to be oblique.
“He’s fine,” she said. “Everything’s fine.”
That was Truth, when it came to Terrible. Everything was fine. Better than fine. Despite sitting in Elder Griffin’s office in the middle of one of the awkward, stilted, and cold discussions she hated getting used to having with him, thinking of Terrible made the weight in her chest lighten. Not as much as it would when she managed to get a couple of Cepts down her throat, but almost.
Elder Griffin’s fair hair caught the light as he dipped his head. Even then he wouldn’t give her his eyes for a second. “Good. Let us hope that continues to be the case.”
Well, that sounded optimistic. But she couldn’t exactly argue with it, could she? And she wasn’t about to call him on it. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t. He was, essentially, her boss. No, he couldn’t turn her in for her crime—the illegal sigil she’d carved on Terrible’s chest to save his life after he’d been shot, binding his soul to his body, making him more vulnerable to possession—because to do so would be to condemn himself as well. But he could get her fired, or demoted. He could assign her a bunch of shit cases like the one in her bag, and then report to the Elder Triumvirate and the Grand Elder that she was no longer effective in her job.
The thought made her sick. “Thanks,” she said, although she had no idea what she was saying it for, and stood up. “I’ll just, I guess I’ll get started.”
* * *
Filing cabinets stretched along the entire back wall of the library, filing cabinets full of history and horror and lies. Every address the Church of Real Truth had ever investigated had a file in there, and the Debunkers even remembered to update them most of the time. Well, over half the time.
The Randalls lived at 24751 Harrel Street, in Cross Town. The south end of Cross Town, not too far out of Downside. Not wealthy people, then. Money troubles were likely. If they were close to Downside it was possible they’d have some resentment against the Church, too, which meant this would probably not be a fun initial visit. Well, more not-fun than usual, because they weren’t exactly a laugh riot anyway.
No file on the Randall house. Okay. That was good news, because places where a haunting had been previously confirmed were more vulnerable in future. While she was there she went ahead and checked the other addresses on the street. All clean.
The computer didn’t give her much that wasn’t already in the file Elder Griffin had given her. Mr. Randall was a short-order cook at a Pancake Hut. Mrs. Randall had a spotty employment history but had been a secretary at a printing company for the last five months. Not a lot of financial security in that household, then, which meant they had reason to fake a haunting. The smallest settlement Chess had ever heard of for a confirmed haunting was thirty-five thousand dollars, and thirty-five k could go a long way.
At least, it could go a long way for people who didn’t spend big chunks of their income on drugs. People not her, in other words.
“Chessie! There you are.” Dana Wright—one of the other Debunkers—was heading for her at a purposeful clip, an eager grin on her face. Speaking of people who didn’t spend big chunks of their income on drugs. Dana’s jewelry caught the overhead lights as she walked; her clothes were so obviously expensive that even Chess could see it, and her freshly colored and styled hair made Chess think of the fact that her own black-dyed hair had reddish-blond roots showing and her Bettie Page bangs needed a trim.
“Elder Griffin said you might be here,” Dana continued once she’d arrived at the table. “I was wondering what you’re doing tonight?”
Chess cast about for something to say. Anything at all. Unfortunately, she had nothing. Terrible was working on something with Bump that had kept him out every evening that week, which meant he had a lot to catch up on that night so probably wouldn’t be home until late. Which meant she’d either be home by herself, or— “I have a new case, so…”
“The Randalls, right? In Cross Town? Elder Griffin said he gave it to you.”
Chess focused on making her smile and nod look natural, on not showing how much the question stabbed. Elder Griffin was telling Dana about her case? He’d barely tolerated Dana before; well, “barely tolerated” was a little harsh, maybe, but she hadn’t been his favorite Debunker or anything.
That had been Chess. Not anymore.
“My parents’ maid knows the Randalls,” Dana said. “So I might have some information that could help you. I thought, maybe you can come over, and we’ll have something to eat and I can tell you about it. Say, seven o’clock?”
Well, that made her feel a little better. It explained why Dana knew about the case, at least, and since it was way, way against policy to assign Debunkers cases where they knew any of the people involved, it explained why neither Dana or Doyle had been given it. Since Doyle and Dana were—much to Chess’s surprise—still together.
She thought for a second. Depending on how her initial visit went, she might be heading for the Randall house to do some middle-of-the-night investigating while they were asleep, but she wouldn’t be doing it at seven. She’d been kind of looking forward to having the apartment to herself for a few hours, but that wasn’t that important. And how long could Dana keep her?
Besides, the more information she got, the faster she could get the case finished and move on to a better one. So she nodded again and forced a smile. “Sure. That sounds great, thanks.”
* * *
Mrs. Randall started crying the second Chess arrived, and ten minutes later she was still sniffling and sobbing. All that misery, on top of the meeting with Elder Griffin and the evening she was going to have to spend with Dana and the sinking, stronger-by-the-second certainty that she was not going to be getting a bonus on this case and, of course, all the other shit that lived in her head… Thank fuck she’d downed a couple of pills right after she left the Church, because if she hadn’t had a few Cepts in her system she would have been clawing the walls to get out of there.
Not that she blamed Mrs. Randall. She didn’t, at all. Everyone joked about how they wished they could have a ghost in their house so they could get a settlement, but nobody actually wanted it to happen, for real. An entity that could walk through walls and wield weapons, whose only desire was to kill as many living things as it could, and which was uninjurable, unkillable, and didn’t feel pain? Not the best houseguest, even if millions of them hadn’t risen from the grave and slaughtered most of the world’s population twenty-three years—almost twenty-four, now—before. Most people were terrified at the idea that a ghost could be trying to set up camp in their homes.
So no, she didn’t blame Mrs. Randall. She just didn’t feel up to dealing with tears, and luckily she had the slow peaceful slide of narcotics in her bloodstream so she didn’t have to. She could close herself off to the misery emanating from Mrs. Randall, and focus on work.
She pulled her Church-issued Spectrometer from her bag and switched it on. It came to life with a shrill beep, which didn’t bode well for her bank account; she ignored the sound. Best to pretend that was totally normal. No matter how sinking that feeling in her gut was, this could still be a scam, and her job was still to prove that it was. “Maybe you could show me the rest of the house now?”
Mr. and Mrs. Randall nodded and stood up. They moved like people thirty years older than they actually were, like their fear and unhappiness had settled into their joints and created a constant ache there.
They headed for the kitchen first, a narrow galley-style space with fading olive-green paint, white cabinets, and a dingy linoleum floor. A dingy, scratched-up floor. “Do you have a dog?”
Mr. Randall shook his head. “We used to. A long time ago. Maria took him with her when she left.” His tone changed when he said “Maria,” bitterness and anger creeping in. Hmm.
“Maria is your daughter?” She knew the answer already, of course, but it was always better to pretend she didn’t have much information, that she didn’t know anything of importance. Easier to catch people in lies that way; easier to get them to talk if they thought she was just sort of an empty-headed rube.
“She moved to New York ten years ago.” The words came out clipped, pushed through gritted teeth. Clearly this wasn’t a subject Mr. Randall wanted to discuss.
Which meant she should push it a little. “When was the last time she came for a visit?”
“She hasn’t been back to visit. She’s not welcome here.”
“She writes sometimes,” Mrs. Randall said, glancing from her husband to Chess and back again. “She lets us know where she is. She sent money once or twice.”
“Which I sent back,” Mr. Randall said. “Dirty money.”
“Mike,” Mrs. Randall said, in her tear-choked voice, “that’s not true.”
Mr. Randall glared at his wife. “You know what she’s doing up there.”
“She’s an administrative assistant.”
“For a pimp,” Mr. Randall said.
“For her boyfriend.” Mrs. Randall turned teary eyes to Chess. “He’s a businessman.”
Mr. Randall made a dismissive noise. Chess ignored it. A boyfriend would be another name to check out, and she could verify which of the Randalls were right that way. Mrs. Randall wouldn’t be the first woman to believe her child’s lies, but Mr. Randall wouldn’t be the first man to think the worst of a child, either. “What’s his name? The boyfriend.”
“Jeff. Jeff Martin.”
“Mason,” Mr. Randall said. “Jeff Mason.”
“No, I know she said Martin—”
Best to nip the bickering in the bud. The house, with its air of loneliness and suspended time, the anger sparking off Mr. Randall and the hopelessness of his wife, had already started to oppress her, and she hadn’t even seen the rest of it yet. She scrawled down both Martin and Mason, and said, “We should probably get to the rest of the house, okay? Especially where any particular incidents took place.”
The Spectrometer beeped steadily throughout the house: a short hallway, a bathroom with cracked dusty-pink tiles, a non-bedroom dominated by a sewing machine and piles of fabric, and the pale green master bedroom with heavy Art Deco furniture. All normal. She saw the paint scratches and empty frame from the broken mirror, and got more beeps, but that wasn’t such a huge deal. The Spectro picked up on ghost energy, yeah, but high emotions or magic or, hell, microwaves or old wiring could set it off, too. It was just a tool.
Her skin, though… That was not just a tool. That was closer to a guarantee, and the tingling of her tattoos, the way they itched as the magic-infused ink and the power of the symbols reacted to the energy in the air, was the sort of guarantee she didn’t want when she was on a case. That itching and tingling said ghost. Or at least ghost magic, black magic, and she really didn’t want to get involved in that. Not again. Not when she was still recovering from the last mess, the ghost-infused speed that had turned half of Downside into magic-controlled zombies.
They entered the last bedroom—Maria’s room, it had to be, from the outdated movie posters and pictures torn from magazines, the general air of neglect and disuse. The Spectro went crazy, erratic beeps echoing in the air, like the sound her burning, itching skin would make if it could scream aloud. Fuck.
But it was still too early, and too little evidence, for her to just give up. The Randalls seemed like an average couple, unhappy but not thieves or cheats. Lots of scumbags did. Nobody was innocent, really; Chess had learned that lesson many times. And everywhere she looked in that house and everything they said provided more reasons why they might fake a haunting. They were poor. They were estranged from their daughter and seemed unhappy—or too happy, in his case—about that. They lived about six blocks from the outer edge of Downside, and that distance was growing shorter every year.
And really, they were people, and most people didn’t need a reason or an excuse to lie or cheat or steal or fuck over other people. They did it because they were selfish and self-important, because they wanted things and didn’t want to wait for them. Humanity was a seething pit of snakes and snake-charmers, waiting to bite or order others to bite.
Not that she was any better. She definitely wasn’t.
Which was why she wasn’t counting this case as a loss yet. Everything could be faked, and her job was to prove that, and she was good at that job. Very good at it. Even with the number of weird-ass cases she’d had and her little ghost-threesome-soft-spot a little while before, she was one of the best—if not the best—Debunkers in Triumph City.
So she wandered around Maria Randall’s sad teenage bedroom, scanning the books and stuffed animals and make-up but really looking for wires and plugs, projector lenses and speakers and, especially, spellbags or gris-gris or totems, anything magical that could set off her tattoos and make the Spectrometer react.
Nothing jumped out at her—literally or figuratively—but she saw a few things she’d look at more closely later, when she broke in with her Hand of Glory and really searched the place.
“Okay,” she said, turning to the Randalls. They both stood in the doorway, close together but not touching. “I think I have everything I need for now. I’ll be in touch again soon.”