* * *
“So,” Chess said, sitting on the Randalls’ couch and taking out her files. “I just have some releases and stuff for you guys to sign. And your neighbor, the purchaser? I have some for him, too. I notice he’s not here yet.”
“He’ll be here any minute,” Mrs. Randall said. The happiness on her face was a knife in Chess’s gut. That happiness was about to be destroyed, crushed beneath the weight of the news Chess had to deliver. Funny how often that happened, that joy and Truth just couldn’t exist together.
She looked around the room, trying to ignore the tingling up her arms and across her chest as her tattoos reacted to the ghost energy in the air. Was that stronger than it had been? Probably. Not only did ghosts generally strengthen over time, but she was there in the house and the two Inquisitors who’d come along were standing in the back yard, waiting for Pete to come in so they could block the exits.
They’d wanted to come inside with her. She’d said no. No need to tip him off. His arrest was a matter for the Squad to handle, yes, but the Randall haunting was still her case.
“I see you’ve started packing,” she said, nodding toward the boxes in the corner.
“We can’t wait to get out of here,” Mr. Randall said. “Let this whole mess be his problem. Take my wife somewhere safe.”
Somewhere safe? Good luck finding that. “Before we start with all the paperwork, I just wanted to remind you that the sale of your house at this point forfeits your right to a settlement. The settlement amount in this case is forty thousand dollars.”
She watched them, her hand poised over the file; whatever they said next would determine which papers she pulled from it. If forty thousand was more than they’d make from Pete, they might change their minds, in which case she could skip all the transfer-of-ownership stuff. If they were making more from Pete…he damn well ought to authorize their withdrawal of those funds before he went to prison.
Mrs. Randall leaned forward. “Do you have to tell Pete that you told us that? Before the papers are signed.”
Chess smiled. Good. At least she could do one thing for these people. “No. I don’t. He’ll never know.”
“We still want to sell,” Mr. Randall said.
“Great.” Out came the transfer papers, and the ones forcing Pete to allow the investigation to continue. She shuffled the files around so that the Squad file was on top, ready for when she needed it.
“I still just can’t believe this is happening,” Mrs. Randall said. “The first thing I’m going to do is call Maria. Maybe we can go visit her. Maybe she’ll let us see her.”
Ouch. Chess was spared the necessity of a reply by the knock at the door. Pete Malina had arrived.
Mr. Randall let him in, to much hand-shaking and odious “I’m just happy to help you two,” bullshit from Pete. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he heard what she had to say, when he saw the contents of the file the Inquisitors had given her fifteen minutes before.
Speaking of them. They were ready, apparently; magic shivered up her spine as they set a circle around the house. That was the signal.
“Okay,” she said, after everyone was seated and Pete had accepted a drink and she had declined one. “Let’s get started. Mr. Malina, these are the first documents I need you to sign. They’re an acknowledgment that you’re aware of the potential haunting but still want to buy the property, and then that one releases the Randalls from any liability should you be injured because of the potential haunting.”
“Happy to,” Pete said. Like he was some kind of fucking beneficent hero or something.
She held out the next set while he was still signing the first. “These are the actual property transfer forms, including your authorization to pay.”
Just as she’d hoped, he grabbed them and started signing without paying attention. Without reading them, without any hesitation. “Then there’s confirmation that you’re aware of the active Church investigation currently underway and the rights of the Church in that regard, and then your statement of ownership.”
They all watched him scrawl his name across the forms, going so fast Chess was surprised his hand didn’t cramp. Well, he had reason to hurry, didn’t he? She imagined he felt like a drowning man who’d just grabbed a rope and was about to break the surface to safety.
Except she held the other end, and she was about to drop it. In spite of her anger, in spite of the unhappy knowledge that she was about to destroy the Randalls’ lives, she was very pleased to be doing that.
She held out the next sheaf of papers. “These are documents pertaining to the property’s history. Sign acknowledgment of receipt on the last page, please.”
He flipped the pages up. His face went white; she felt his sudden terror, his panic as he realized he was caught.
Their eyes met. She let every bit of knowledge shine in hers, let him see the Truth on her face as she spoke. “Mr. Malina, are you familiar with the woman pictured there?”
“No. I’m not.” She had to hand it to him. Not everyone could keep their voices that calm when they knew they were about to be busted.
But then, he was a sociopath, so why wouldn’t he be able to?
“Are you sure? Maybe this will help.” She handed over the copies of his bank records, with the money transfers highlighted. Next came the lease “Maria Randall” had signed on her apartment, and the arrest record from New York that listed that address as the place of arrest for a woman named Gabrielle Rose, whose image—an old mug shot—was currently staring up at Pete from the open file in front of him.
“That’s Gabrielle Rose,” she said. “But you already know that. I’m sure you also already know that Gabrielle is wanted on various charges—fraud, theft—here in Triumph City, and has been for about ten years.”
He didn’t reply.
“Is that why she went along with it?” Chess asked. “Is that why you asked her to do it? It must have seemed like a perfect solution, really. You got to cover up your crime, and she got to pick up a new identity and earn a nice little income just for listening to phone messages and writing a few letters?”
Chess could certainly see the appeal in that bargain. If she were Gabrielle, she might have taken it, too.
Except she’d learned that no matter what sort of new identity people tried to put on, it still wouldn’t remove the old one, wouldn’t wash away the past. The mirror reflected the same damn person, no matter what jobs they were lucky enough to get or what men they were lucky enough to be with. Gabrielle could call herself Maria all she wanted, use Maria’s ID to get bank accounts and jobs, present herself as someone with a different kind of life, a better kind, than she really had… But she was still Gabrielle, and everything she’d tried so hard to escape still clung to her, its bony fingers sticky with blood.
“What’s going on?” Mr. Randall’s nervousness transmitted itself in his voice, in the jangly energy of the room. Everyone in there—well, except her—was panicking or starting to, and it was going to get a hell of a lot worse in a second.
Which it did. Pete Malina threw himself off the couch, leaped for the door, and flung it open, only to be greeted by one of the Inquisitors—this one was J. COHEN according to his nameplate. Mrs. Randall screamed.
Pete made a break for the back door. Cohen chased him, but it didn’t matter much, because the second Inquisitor—B. LEWIS—waited for him there. Mike Randall attempted to get up; Chess stopped him with an outstretched hand, and they watched as Cohen and Lewis wrestled Pete to the scratched linoleum and Lewis cuffed him.
Tears ran down his red face. Yeah, Chess would probably be crying, too, if she was about to get sent to prison.
“What the hell is going on here?” Mr. Randall demanded, over Mrs. Randall’s horrified sobs. “What are you arresting him for?”
Chess watched, unmoving and unmoved, as Cohen and Lewis shoved Pete onto the couch. “Well, Mr. Malina?” she said. “Do you want to tell them why you’re being arrested? What you did?”
He didn’t reply.
“Will you tell us what you did with her? She’s somewhere near here, I assume. Under the house, maybe? Did you dig under there?”
Mrs. Randall looked at him, too. And at her husband, and at Chess. Knowledge dawned in her eyes, on her face. Chess’s grim pleasure at seeing Pete get busted evaporated.
“What are you talking about?” she asked Chess, but Chess could see she already knew. She could see both of them putting it together in their heads, ticking off boxes and connecting wires. “Who are you talking about? What did he do with who?”
And just like it was some kind of fucking cue, Chess’s tattoos caught fire. Maria Randall was about to make her presence known.