* * *
Voicemail again. “Hi, this is Maria, leave a message,” in the sort of tone Chess imagined would have once been described as “trilling.” It sounded so much like trilling, in fact, that it was almost a song itself; a jingle for hairspray or something, produced on one of those machines that automatically made everyone sound like they were in tune.
The message wasn’t really that sing-songy, Chess was just irritated. It was her third fucking call that day, and still no answer or callback, and in general, when the Church called people didn’t ignore it. At least not if they didn’t want a visit from the Black Squad.
Actually…that was an idea. Not having the Squad visit Maria, but asking if they might be able to confirm some information for her. Because she didn’t have a Church file on Maria Randall yet; she didn’t know if it was a system issue or there was just a delay, but no file had arrived, and without it she had nothing to go on. The mailing address Pete had given her for Maria turned out to be a UPS Store, and the records Chess could search—driver’s licenses, addresses, employment, basic stuff—only covered Triumph City and the surrounding areas. Yeah, Elders could access more, but…asking Elder Griffin didn’t really appeal.
But the Squad would have access to all of that, too, and they were in the right city. It made sense to call them, or at least no one would think it was particularly unusual; she’d done it once or twice before.
The Church mainframe listed contact information for all the departments, in all of the offices worldwide. Chess walked into the library, ignoring the glances she got—because of Randy Duncan, because of the Lamaru, because of Terrible, because they all knew she had no family and didn’t live on Church grounds, who the fuck knew why—and headed straight for the row of computers. It only took a minute to look up the main Squad office in New York and scribble the number in her notebook. She’d go outside in a few minutes to do that; nobody in the building needed to hear her call.
Especially since she wasn’t fully certain why she was making it. There was no reason to believe Maria Randall was involved in any way with her parents’ case—yes, one of the standard elements of any Debunking case was talking to relatives, but if the family had been estranged for ten years there was little reason to think Maria could add anything.
It was just…something bothered her about it. About Maria. Not the fact that the girl had taken off—or been kicked out—ten years before and hadn’t really spoken to her parents since; Chess had never been much for chatting on the phone herself. It wasn’t that she was apparently still in touch with Pete Malina, either, because why wouldn’t she be? Aside from how spending time with, or talking to, Pete Malina seemed to Chess like some sort of punishment, anyway. Maria obviously hadn’t felt the same. Maybe because she was a triller.
Speaking of Pete, his file had arrived. She flipped it open and grinned. Ha, he was a salesman. Apparently a good one, too; his bank accounts were pretty healthy. Not a surprise. She imagined that plastic charm of his worked on a lot of people, especially the sorts of people who bought parcels of land for development.
Interesting, though, that with all that money—and every page in his file showed her another bank account—and access to all sorts of real estate secrets or whatever, he hadn’t moved his parents to a better neighborhood. Yeah, there’d been evidence that improvements were being made to their house, but still.
It was possible they didn’t want to go, of course. Maybe something she should ask about. She looked up, considering how to phrase the question, and caught one of the fourth-year students staring at her. He quickly looked away.
It was a really fucking good thing that she didn’t depend on the Church for her social life, because it felt like almost every day something happened to alienate her further—no, not to alienate her further, to remind her of her alienation. To remind her that she wasn’t like them and they weren’t like her.
That wasn’t going to change either, so it wasn’t worth thinking about. She turned her attention back to the file. What else, what else…heh. Pete spent a decent amount at various strip clubs and pick-up bars. He had subscriptions to a couple of different nudie magazines, too. No girlfriend, then, she assumed. He certainly wasn’t married, and no one lived with him in what Chess had no doubt was his intensely musk-scented modern high-rise on the edge of Northside.
Oh. Huh. Pete Malina sent money to New York every month. The same amount every month, six hundred dollars taken directly from his account and sent to Maria Randall.
So he was giving her money? He hadn’t mentioned that, and it seemed—given his “I give my mom cash because look I’m awesome” act—like the sort of thing he would mention.
Plus, hadn’t he said he’d gone to visit her a few years ago but she had some new boyfriend, or something like that? He hadn’t seemed too thrilled about it, either, or the way she’d made herself a life there. He’d seemed decidedly un-thrilled, in fact. She remembered that flash of anger or pain she’d seen.
So why was he subsidizing that? And so generously: six hundred a month probably wouldn’t go very far in New York—it wouldn’t go far in Triumph City, really, especially not for those who had necessities like drugs to pay for—but it wasn’t an insignificant amount. She’d think he was trying to somehow buy Maria back to him, except nine years was an awfully long time and he didn’t seem like the type.
Which left two possibilities: either she gave amazing phone sex, or he felt guilty for something.
Chess really needed to talk to Maria Randall. And she’d like to be able to do it before she headed back to the Randall place that night to check her cameras; ordinarily she didn’t go back that soon, but after finding that damned recorder that looked like a plant she thought it would be a good idea.
Right. Time to contact the Squad. And time to leave the Church library; no one was looking at her at that moment but she still felt like they were, like she had some kind of giant blinking FUCK-UP arrow pointing right at her head. She wanted to take a few Cepts and make the call, in that order.
Which she did, as soon as she reached her car. Much better. Just knowing she’d swallowed them, just knowing that in a few minutes they would start to enter her bloodstream, made her feel calmer. More cheerful. Let them stare at her.
Too bad that feeling wouldn’t last. And it didn’t; the first thing the Inquisitor Fifth on the other end of the line said after Chess introduced herself was, “Wait. Chess Putnam, like Cesaria Putnam? Triumph City Cesaria Putnam?”
“Um, yes.” What the hell? Was it not bad enough that everyone in Triumph City knew who she was? Now other cities were joining in the uncomfortable nonfun. Just what she needed. “I’m hoping you guys can—”
“The one who worked with Cassie Benz.”
Oh. Shit. It hadn’t even occurred to her that—well, of course they would. They’d known Lauren Abrams. They’d worked with Lauren Abrams. Chess thought she had, too, but she hadn’t. The woman she’d worked with was a female Lamaru member named Cassie Benz, who’d been impersonating Lauren through the use of some serious dark magic.
Cassie was still alive in the prisons, too. Chess had not been to visit her there.
And she really didn’t want to discuss any of it with a stranger on the phone. “Yes,” she said cautiously. “That’s me. Look, I was hoping—”
“And then she impersonated you.”
Chess didn’t reply. Whatever this woman wanted to say or do, whatever jollies she wanted to get out of recounting a situation that Chess had in fact lived through and so remembered perfectly well, she might as well just say or do it.
“Lauren Abrams was one of my trainers,” the woman said. “When I think about that woman pretending to be her… How much time did you spend with her? I mean, was she really that good? Is it true there were a bunch of gang members in the City, and there was a big fight there?”
Like she was going to talk about that.
On the other hand, though, she was asking this woman for a favor. “I spent a couple of days with her. And, well, she fooled the Grand Elder, and he was Lauren’s father, so…she was pretty good, yeah. I don’t know anything about gang members or fighting in the City.”
The woman’s dissatisfaction with this answer came through the phone as a long sniffy silence.
Chess did not have time for other people’s drama voyeurism. She threw her voice into that silence, in a tone that hopefully indicated she was in a hurry. “Listen, I could use some help with a case I’m on. I’m trying to track down a girl who lives there, but the only address I have is a UPS Store. Can you look her up for me, get me a home address and a phone number? It would really help me out.” Maybe some obsequiousness, for good measure? “And, um, I’m sorry about Lauren. I wish I’d gotten to know her.”
Pause. “What’s the name and vitals?”
Excellent. Chess gave her Maria Randall’s birthdate and Citizen ID number, and waited while the woman clicked computer keys and her Cepts started to hit. So nice. Especially after having those particular memories stirred up with the Intrusive Stick.
What was even nicer was that three minutes later she was able to hang up the phone, with a different address and a different phone number written down in front of her. Finally, it seemed like she might get somewhere—she didn’t know where she expected to get, really, since she still suspected the whole Maria thing was a dead end, but hey, it was giving her something to do, at least. Finally she might have an answer to something.
Ha, as if she ever could have answers, to anything. That was confirmed when she dialed the number. It rang twice before a woman’s voice answered. “Hello?”
That was not the voice on the outgoing voicemail message. No trill at all. It was much…heavier, she guessed. Lower. A roommate, maybe? “Yes, hi, can I speak to Maria, please?”
Pause. The phone went dead.
…more tomorrow! We’re getting pretty close to done, guys; I’d originally wanted to finish on Friday but we’ll probably end up going through the weekend. I really hope you’re enjoying it so far!