Eek! I forgot yesterday to tell you guys, you know, what the story is called. The title is KEEPING IT CLOSE.
Longer part today; I wanted to find a good place to stop without it being extra short.
She was just about to get into her car when she saw the man across the street. He wasn’t hard to see; it was still light out and he was standing on the porch watching her. Watching her like he knew something, like he had something to say.
Might as well talk to him. Neighbor interviews were usually part of the investigation anyway. She put her keys back into her pocket and crossed the street.
He straightened up as she approached. Yeah, ready to talk. He was about her age—so about Maria Randall’s age, then, maybe a year or so older than Chess—and attractive in a bland clean-cut way. Medium build, blue t-shirt and jeans, stupid-looking sandals on his feet like he was some sort of surfer dude or something instead of a bank clerk or customer service rep or whatever it was he probably did.
“You’re from the Church?” he said when she reached the bottom of the short flight of stairs leading to the porch. His house was bigger than the Randall home, and nicer. Fresh wood indicated recent repairs. “Looking into the Randalls and their supposed haunting?”
She nodded. Address “supposed” or not yet? Not yet. “You know them?”
“All my life. I grew up here.”
“So you know them pretty well.”
A dark flash across his even features, quickly controlled. Hmm. Anger, or sadness? Chess couldn’t tell. Maybe it was both. “Yeah. I know them pretty well. I did, anyway, until he kicked Maria out of the house.”
The Randalls hadn’t said Maria was kicked out. Not a surprise, though. Hell, it was possible Mrs. Randall didn’t even know. “So you and Maria were friends?”
“You could say that.” He sipped his beer; a time-waster. “She was my girlfriend. I still hear from her sometimes. She writes. I went up to visit her a few years ago but she has her own life up there. Job, boyfriends.” Another little face-twist. Looked like Mr. Neighbor was the jealous type.
She ignored that, too. For the moment. “And you still live here?”
“I’m here to see my parents. They told me about the Randalls claiming a haunting. The whole neighborhood knows.”
“That they’re claiming it, or that they’re faking it?”
He smiled an oozy kind of smile, while his gaze on her face evaluated its effect. Chess readjusted her earlier assumption about his work. He had salesman written all over him. “They’re faking it. Old man Randall there’s always got an angle, you know what I mean? He’s one of those guys. Claiming injuries to get paid time off work or free stuff from stores, that kind of thing. A scammer.”
Mr. Neighbor would probably know all about that kind of thing, too. The conversation felt manipulative; Chess had the sense that he was feeling her out, looking for a way to convince her of something. Kind of weird coming from somebody not actively involved in the case, but not unusual. Besides, she had no real idea how involved or not he was. He could be in on it. He could just hate Mr. Randall for taking away his special girlfriend toy.
Whatever his motive was, it definitely existed. Neighbors weren’t usually so eager to get involved, especially not in areas of town like this, but there were always people who wanted to feel important or like they knew the real secrets or whatever. He could be one of them. He looked like one of them; the kind of guy who’d started writing his autobiography when he was twelve and was still convinced that one day there would be public demand for it.
She pulled out her notebook. Most people clammed up when she started writing things down. It reminded them that she was there officially, that there was an investigation and a record. She had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldn’t. “What’s your name?”
“Pete. Pete Malina. M-A-L-I-N-A.” Oh, yeah, definitely somebody who wanted to insert himself into her case. “Mrs. Randall’s a nice lady, but she’s totally cowed by him. She does whatever he says. She’d go along with his plan, absolutely.”
“You seem awfully convinced this is a fake haunting,” she said.
He didn’t even blush. “Why wouldn’t it be? What about them would attract a ghost? Besides, I know him. I know what kind of man he is.”
“What kind is that?”
“The kind who only cares about himself. I bet Mrs. Randall believes it. He’d scare her just for fun.”
Chess squinted at him. Partly because the sun was bothering her and she didn’t want to go digging for her sunglasses with him watching, and partly because that statement didn’t exactly jibe with the impression she’d gotten. Mike Randall was kind of a dickhead, but he’d seemed to love his wife; he’d been dismissive of his daughter but not of her.
Something to think about. Maybe Dana would have more for her about their relationship, too. “Okay, thanks,” she said. “What about your parents? Have they seen anything? Can you think of any other neighbors who might know something?”
“Just about everybody on this street might. You could talk to my mom. She’s out shopping right now. You know, I come to visit, I give her some cash.” He smiled like this was supposed to be impressive. Like it was going to make Chess think he was some great guy or something. She could see a calculator clicking away in his head, looking for the right equation to charm her. He’d never find it. “She’ll be around tomorrow, probably.”
“Thanks,” Chess said again. Then, remembering, “Hey, do you have a number for Maria? Or any way to get in touch?”
“I do, yeah. She doesn’t really answer her phone but you could try leaving a message. Hang on.”
He disappeared into the house, leaving Chess to stand alone in the fierce sunset light. A glance around the neighborhood showed her a few other people loitering in their yards, pretending to pull weeds or enjoy the sunshine and conspicuously not-watching her. Shit, she’d really wanted to head home instead of interviewing more neighbors; there was a chance she could see Terrible before she headed to Dana’s place.
But they were all standing there waiting, and if she took off… It would look like the Church didn’t care, and that was not an impression she was ever supposed to give. Even if she wanted to, which she didn’t.
Pete came back and held out a scrap of notebook paper to her. He didn’t come down the stairs, so she had to climb up. Jerk.
He didn’t let go of the paper when she took it, holding it between his fingers and holding her eyes with his. “They don’t have a ghost,” he said. “Trust me.”
As if she would.
She finally got back to Church a couple of hours later, just as rush hour was dying down and the horizon was pale with the setting sun. Too bad the arrival of evening didn’t come with an accompanying drop in temperature; by the time she’d walked across the grounds to get to Dana’s cottage in the employee complex she was sweating.
Dana answered the door with a bright smile on her face, and hauled Chess into the house on a tide of speech. “Gosh, it’s been so long since you’ve been here, hasn’t it? How long has it been? How did things go at the Randall place? Just sit down, do you want a drink? Dinner’s in the oven, it’ll be ready soon.”
With anyone else Chess might have thought nervousness lay behind the chatter, but Dana was a talker anyway. Although…she did seem a little nervous, didn’t she? Or at least jumpy, trying too hard. She couldn’t be that excited about Chess coming over—and she certainly couldn’t be so anxious that Chess was going to enjoy the visit or something, they were just going to talk about work—so what was going on?
“I hope you like fish,” Dana was saying, as she bustled around the kitchen. All of the single-employee Church cottages—as opposed to those for married employees or some of the higher-up Elders—followed one of two floorplans: living room on the left, kitchen on the right, bedroom in the back; or the mirror image of that. Dana’s was the mirror image, with the living room on the right. From Chess’s position on the ivory flowered couch she could see into the ivory-cranberry-and-pale-blue kitchen and the ivory-cranberry-and-navy-blue bedroom. It was all very tidy. Beneath the fragrances of dinner cooking were potpourri and air freshener, the scents of things to hide. “I thought, hey, you haven’t been over for dinner, so I’d do something nice.”
“You didn’t have to.” She wished Dana hadn’t, actually. The Nips she’d taken after leaving the Randalls’ neighborhood were kicking in, and the last thing she wanted was food. Especially not when that food would come with a large helping of I-made-this-special-for-you guilt. Dana probably wouldn’t say that, but that wouldn’t make Chess feel any less guilty if she refused to eat it. “I thought we were just going to have a snack or something.”
“I like to eat early.” Dana pulled a bottle of white wine out of the fridge and set it on the counter. Would it be rude to ask for beer instead? Probably. Damn. “You know, I’m usually in bed by ten, so if I eat too late I don’t sleep well, which makes it hard to get up at six for my workout, so…”
“Sure,” Chess said, like she totally had the same issues. Bed by ten? Up at six for a workout? It sounded horrible. And pointless. Who needed exercise when speed was available?
Dana smiled at her, like she honestly believed Chess did relate. Her co-workers did not know her at all, did they.
But then, she didn’t really want them to, so that worked out okay.
“How did things go at the Randalls? What did you think of them? Helen—my parents’ girl, you know—she says Sue Randall is terrified.” Crystal chimed as Dana pulled two wineglasses out of a cabinet and set them beside the bottle. Gold rims reflected the room in narrow miniature; that image moved when Dana moved, a visual distraction Chess didn’t need. “She’s known Sue for a long time. And she knows how hard we work. She definitely doesn’t think Sue would fake it, or is even capable of it.”
“What about Mike Randall?”
Dana bobbed her head back and forth, a maybe-maybe gesture. “I don’t think so, though, I mean, Helen doesn’t. He wouldn’t scare Sue like that. He’s kind of a mean bastard but he’s pretty devoted to her.”
Which was the impression Chess had gotten. It was also what most of the neighbors had said: Mike Randall was a prick who loved his wife. “But would he think it was worth scaring her if it meant she could have a retirement fund or a new house or something?”
Dana shrugged. “What did you think?”
Chess avoided that question. Not because she didn’t trust Dana—well, she trusted Dana when it came to work-related discussions—but because she didn’t feel ready to answer it. “What about their daughter? Did Helen say anything about her?”
“Maria? I know Helen remembers when she moved away, because Sue was really upset. And she’s seen a few of Maria’s letters and, you know, gotten updates on what she’s doing and stuff.” Dana shook her head, her eyes wide. “I don’t think she’d come back here, though. And I can’t see her faking up a haunting to get money for her parents. She hasn’t even mentioned Mike in any of her letters that Helen knows of.”
Her letters. Chess hadn’t asked for those, or for copies of them; unless it became relevant later, she preferred not to. And odds were high that they wouldn’t be relevant. “How does Helen know them?”
“They were kids together. They went to the same church. Before Haunted Week, I mean.” Dana’s voice took on a slightly nervous tinge. “Helen doesn’t believe anymore or anything. My parents wouldn’t have hired her if she did.”
“Of course.” Chess managed to keep the impatience off her face. Dana was always so eager—so desperate—to please, so worried people would take her the wrong way. Unlike Chess, who assumed right from the start that they would. She avoided a lot of pain that way.
She avoided more of it with her pills, and didn’t she wish she could take a couple more at that moment. Sitting in that cottage made her uncomfortable, the way all of the cottages did. It wasn’t the small size or the interior decoration that looked as if it’d been done by a woman thirty years older than Dana. It certainly wasn’t that they were on Church grounds.
It was the sameness of them all, the feeling that she wasn’t a person but was instead a doll, something off an assembly line sitting inside a plastic board-game house from a larger assembly line, set into a square of artificial turf made on a larger one again. No individuality, just a few superficial differences in hair or eye or skin color bestowed by the stroke of a mechanical paintbrush; wind up the tiny humans and watch them walk in mindless circles until they ran out of power. And there was no meaning in any of it, no purpose.
Thinking of it, feeling the ivory walls with their wallpaper borders closing in around her, made her itch. She wanted to take a couple of Cepts but there wasn’t much point when she was about to force some food down her throat. She wanted to go home. She liked Dana okay, she really did, but fuck, how she wanted to go home. She wanted Terrible, and their big gray bed, and to be where she belonged.
Dana carried the glasses and the wine bottle over to the cloth-covered round table by the window. “Of course, Helen says Sue is especially scared because a few years ago there was a haunting at her old job.”
The file hadn’t mentioned that. Had it? No, she was pretty sure it hadn’t. “What? Which old job?”
“Um… Helen didn’t say. I’m not sure she remembers. Sue quit when the haunting stuff started, I think. She wasn’t there long.”
Which might explain why nothing came up in Chess’s search, or why it wasn’t in the file. She pulled her notebook out of her bag and scribbled a reminder to ask Mrs. Randall about that, and to double-check her employment history against the place files. “Do you know how long ago it was?”
Dana pulled a ceramic dish out of the oven. Steam billowed from the open oven doorway and off of whatever it was bubbling in the dish, which actually smelled pretty good. “It has to have been at least ten years, because Helen said Maria encouraged Sue to leave that job when the haunting started, and Maria left about ten years ago.”
“Did Mr. Randall want her to quit?”
“He’s never liked her working.” Dana carried the food to the table, tipping her head to invite Chess to come sit down. “I guess he complains about it a lot. So he was happy for any reason for her to leave a job.”
Now that was more helpful. If faking a haunting—or, well, apparently the one at Sue Randall’s job hadn’t been faked, but there was no confirmation of that yet. If the threat of a haunting had been enough to get Sue to quit a job…what might Mr. Randall want her to do now, that he decided to pull out the big scary ghost-gun to convince her?
A couple of the neighbors had mentioned Mr. Randall seemed to want to move. One of them told her Sue seemed to love her latest job and to be pretty dedicated to it. Maybe that was Mr. Randall’s motive?
All things to consider. She was starting to feel a bit better about the case; it still didn’t seem like a winner or anything, but at least she had some leads, something to go on. And she owed that to Dana. Guilt over her earlier resentment made her shift in her seat. “Hey…thanks for this. The information, I mean. And the food. I really appreciate it.”
“Happy to help.” Dana sat down herself and poured them both wine, then started serving the food with a silver spatula. Something in the way she did it, in the pensive frown on her face, rang warning bells in Chess’s head. Dana looked as if she was trying to figure out how to say something, and as if it was something she didn’t think Chess was going to like hearing. “You know, Chessie, I’m always happy to help you. I mean, I want to. Because I care.”
Uh-oh. Chess grabbed her wineglass, which Dana had filled a ladylike third of the way, and poured that ladylike third down her throat. Ugh. She really was not a fan of wine.
But she was a fan of alcohol—among other things—and the wine was there, so she’d take it. “Thanks. This really is helpful. Hey, seen any good movies—”
“Which is why I hope you know that I’m just trying to help you when I say I’m worried about you. We’re all worried about you.”