Ten minutes later her phone rang, interrupting the Suicide Commandos’s “I Need A Torch.” Well, well, what a fucking surprise. Maria Randall’s number—the number Pete had given her—showed up on the screen. Uh-huh.
She snapped the music off, pulled over—luckily she hadn’t hit the highway yet, because she couldn’t drive and take notes at the same time and no way was she not documenting this particular conversation—and hit the button. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Cesaria Putnam? From the Church?” There was the trill. There was the faint distortion, too, a minor interference in the connection that made Maria’s voice—if it was Maria’s voice—sound distant and fuzzy. Not so much it wasn’t understandable, but enough so Chess had to strain a little to hear.
“Yes,” she said, instead of “You know damn well it is.”
“My name is Maria Randall. You called me?” A pause, and then an ingratiating, “Sorry I couldn’t call back earlier. I was at work, I just got your messages.”
“Where do you work?”
Another pause. “I work for J. Masters Personnel. We’re an employment agency.”
Masters. Not Mason or Martin, then, as Mike and Sue Randall had thought. She wrote it down. “You’re open late.”
“I was—my boyfriend owns the place, we were doing some paperwork and stuff.”
Sure they were. “Do you know why I’m calling?”
“I guess because my parents are faking a haunting? Pete told me about it. I’d rather not be involved, if that’s okay with you. I don’t associate with them, we don’t have much of a relationship. I don’t want to…I don’t want to get involved.”
Now it was Chess’s turn to pause. Not because she didn’t have anything to say, but because she was trying to decide which question to ask first. “Can I ask why? What happened with them?”
Maria sighed. “They didn’t like me dating Pete. They didn’t like me dating anyone. They didn’t like my grades or…honestly, they just didn’t seem to like me. My father kicked me out of the house when I was sixteen, you know. Did he tell you that?”
“They say you write.”
“I write to my mother,” Maria said. “I didn’t want her to think I was dead. But my father… You know he’s setting this whole thing up. He has to be. He’s been talking about it for years, how he’d do it. Really, you should just arrest him now and save yourself the trouble.”
Pete and Maria both seemed very invested in the idea that Mike Randall was some kind of criminal mastermind or something. Chess didn’t buy that. She knew a couple of those, and Mike Randall was nothing like Bump or Lex or even like Slobag had been. And he was really not anything like Terrible, who was one of the smartest man she knew, if not the smartest, despite his belief to the contrary.
Certainly he was the best man she knew.
And while she could certainly understand Pete and Maria’s desire to believe the Randall haunting was fake—she wanted to believe it more than anyone—it seemed as if they weren’t just convinced, but trying to convince her. Why would they do that?
Because they had some sort of vested interest in it being fake, that was why. Or at least in her believing it was fake…and ending her investigation. A suspicion slipped into her mind, an ugly one that nonetheless felt like Fact and Truth.
One she’d need to think about later. “And your mother? You think she’s part of the plot?”
“She’s totally under his thumb. He controls everything.”
Time to switch things up a little. “So you’re still close to Pete.”
“Of course.” Maria’s voice went all happy and soft again. Insta-trill. “He’s been there for me. Almost all my life. He’s a couple of years older, you know, he really… He always watched out for me. I guess he’s the best friend I ever had.”
Yeah, Chess would call just about anyone who gave her six hundred bucks a month a pretty good friend. She didn’t want to mention that, though; didn’t want to tip her hand. If her new suspicion was right—and ugh, she hoped it wasn’t—then playing dumb was the only way to go. “But your romantic relationship is over?”
A second of hesitation, and then, “I’m not sure what that has to do with my father faking a haunting.”
Damn. “Sorry, I just—you mentioned a boyfriend, was all. And…” Oh, yuck, yuck, yuck. “Pete seems like, um, like a pretty interesting guy. Smart, successful, takes care of his parents and everything. I just, I guess I just wondered, you know, he seems really fond of you and I thought, if you two still have a relationship…”
“Oh.” The smile in Maria’s voice turned her stomach. “Well, no, we’re not together anymore. We’re just friends. But he’s a great guy. Unlike my father. Always trying to come up with some scam, some get-rich-quick scheme. It was so embarrassing. And now this—like I said, I really don’t want to be part of this. My parents go their way and I go mine, you know?”
“Is that why you’ve never come back for a visit?”
“Why would I want to? So they can try to involve me in their schemes? I’m telling you, it’s all fake. I bet—I know where they hide things, okay? Like in my room, under my stuff. Under their dresser, they have a hidden drawer, I bet there’s something there. The cabinet in the kitchen, next to the fridge, that’s a false bottom. Look in those places. You’ll find the evidence. They’re lying.”
Yeah, Chess bet she would. And as long as she was gambling… “So, I guess I can’t send them up to stay with you, then?”
“What?” That wasn’t a trill, it was a shrill. “Why—why would they come stay with me?”
“Well, when their house is razed, you know. They might need somewhere to stay, and it would have to be with someone we know won’t lie to cover up for them, or—”
“Razed? Why would their house be razed?”
“Well, honestly, I think it’s inevitable in this case. I mean, if they’re lying, the Church will take the house, and we’d rather destroy it than try to sell it. And if they’re telling the truth, a haunting like the one they describe would really require the complete destruction of the property.”
It was almost fun to make up that much bullshit. It was even more fun to hear Maria’s silence.
More? Hell, yeah. “And, of course, if we arrest them for conspiracy to commit spectral fraud, we’d want to get a sample of your DNA to match. That way we can get you your check for the partial value of the house, since you’re not a part of their crime.”
She’d counted all the way to thirteen in her head before Maria spoke. “I don’t want any check.”
“But you should get one. You’re an innocent victim in this. And really, isn’t it the least they owe you? Especially your father, for how he treated you? This is your chance to finally get something back from him.”
“I don’t want any check,” Maria said. The fear in her voice came through the phone loud and clear, tingled up Chess’s spine. “I told you, I want nothing to do with them. Not ever. Give the money away or something.”
“I’m sorry, I have to go. Just—just please leave me out of this. I don’t want a check, I don’t want to see them or talk to them. Okay? Please leave me alone.”
“I’m so sorry,” Chess said, making an attempt to sound sincere and not as if she was grinning. “But I really will need to stay in touch with you, at least for the time being. As long as your parents are the owners of the property I have to keep investigating, and by law and Church policy a check will be issued to you if and when the house is destroyed. You can do whatever you like with the money, of course, you don’t have to keep it, and you don’t have to see or talk to your parents, but this is unavoidable.”
“I see.” Another sigh from Maria, but a forced-sounding one. “Well. I see, then. Thank you.”
Chess put the cap back on her pen. “Really, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days and let you know how things are progressing. You just put this out of your mind. I know you’re not involved or anything.”
Like hell she wasn’t.