Chess turned to the Randalls. She didn’t have a lot of time, but she could make enough for this, at least. She owed it to them. “I’m so sorry. I really am.”
Their horrified faces were going to stick with her for a while. There probably had been a better way to handle the whole telling-them thing, but she hadn’t been able to think of it; she couldn’t tell them before Pete got there because she seriously doubted they’d be able to hide their reactions, and she couldn’t tell them while questioning Pete because it would have lessened the impact on him—she’d been hoping he’d be shocked into actually answering her questions.
That didn’t make her feel better about it, though. Learning the daughter they’d been corresponding with for a decade was in fact some con artist being paid by a murderer? Yeah, that could have been broken to them a little more gently, and with a little less drama and Squad violence.
Drama and violence seemed to be the inevitable end of just about every situation in her life, though, didn’t it? Stupid to expect anything else.
Mrs. Randall opened her mouth to reply, but Chess needed to get moving. She hauled her salt-pouch from her bag, and grabbed a handful as she stood up. The power in the air was building, pressure rising, and soon it would burst. And then they’d really be in trouble.
Just as she’d agreed with them beforehand, Cohen and Lewis urged the Randalls to their feet and shifted them to an empty spot in the floor. Taking them outside would have been better if they knew Maria would materialize inside the house—they could solidify the walls on the astral plane, so she couldn’t get through them—but they didn’t know that, and they couldn’t risk putting the Randalls where they couldn’t be seen.
Salt poured from her hand in a nice solid line, circling the Randalls. She didn’t look at them, though. She looked at Pete Malina. “She’s coming, Pete. You know who she’ll go for first, right? The ghosts of murder victims always seek their murderers.”
Pete went even paler, which was kind of impressive. Chess hadn’t thought that was possible.
“She’ll be here any second,” she continued. “And look at all the weapons lying around here. You know, if you tell me where she is, I might be able to stop her. I’ll definitely be able to send her away faster.”
Neither of those things were entirely true, but hey. Fuck him.
“How did you do it? Where did you bury her? Why did you do it?”
Mike Randall lunged; it seemed he’d finally allowed himself to believe it, finally broke free of the horrified semi-catatonia in which both he and his wife had been standing. Cohen caught him. “Don’t step over the salt line, sir. It’s for your safety.”
Spots started popping before her eyes, bursts of power as the air rippled and gave. Oh, shit, she was about to face one extremely pissed-off ghost. “Where is she? Time’s running out. You’re not helping yourself, you know.”
Pete stared at her. He was about to give, she could feel it, see it in his eyes. Good, because she really wanted to get this done, and if he didn’t ‘fess up she’d have to stick around for hours while a crew of Inquisitors and Corpse Detectors and Retrieval Technicians hunted for the body—the bones, most likely.
Mike and Sue Randall were shouting, screaming at Pete. Both Cohen and Lewis struggled to hold them back.
“I could just tell them to let the Randalls go,” Chess said. “How long do you think you’ll last with them and a furious ghost after you? And then after they slaughter you, I send you straight to the spirit prisons. Sound good?”
A vase flew at Pete’s head. Damn, his reflexes were better than she’d thought they would be; he managed to duck away, and the vase smashed against the wall in a burst of greenish glass. The ripples in the air increased, the power increased, beating against her skin like dull hammers.
“She’s under the flowerbed,” Pete said. Fear and defeat changed his voice completely. “Under her bedroom window.”
Yes! Finally. She’d been right and she’d known it, but it was still a relief to have it confirmed. Plus a confession would allow her to hand the case over all wrapped up neatly—which looked good for her. No, this case wasn’t exactly a win as far as her Debunking record went. But it was a win as far as Catching Bad Guys, and especially with things the way they were, anything that made her seem like a good investigator was pretty helpful.
A knife whizzed past her arm. Any second Maria would materialize fully. Chess dug into her bag for her asafetida and graveyard dirt. She’d be able to freeze Maria in place the second she appeared.
But Pete didn’t need to know that, did he?
And he didn’t. She saw the plan form in his eyes and started to move a second after he vaulted from the couch and made a run for the window—right, he couldn’t open the door with his hands cuffed behind him. He was bigger and faster, but she was more agile; she caught him right before he tried to throw himself out the living-room window.
Unfortunately, “caught him” didn’t mean “stopped him.” Instead she went through the window right along with him, the sound of the breaking glass loud in her ears. Tiny shards hit her skin in sparks of sharp pain; worse pain jolted her entire body when she landed half on top of Pete on the damp earth outside.
If the Squad wasn’t there she’d have grabbed her knife and held it to his throat. Enough of this shit. Enough of this selfish bastard. He was going to fucking talk.
But the Squad was there, so she just met his teary eyes with her best fuck-you glare and said, “Why did you do it?”
“She was going to leave me.” For a second—just a second, but she saw it clearly—his fear disappeared, replaced by fury. Then it came back. “She was going to New York, she didn’t want me to go with her. She knew some guy up there—she was going to be with him.”
He started crying. “I didn’t mean to do it, I was only twenty. I just, I pushed her, that was all. It was an accident. It was—”
Pete’s words turned into a howl. He struggled to get away but Chess dug her knuckles into the base of his throat—a trick Terrible had taught her—until he went still.
Sue Randall screamed, and kept screaming, heartbreaking shrieks that made Chess’s eyes sting. She couldn’t imagine what that woman was going through; finding out her daughter was murdered and then seeing her ghost immediately after…awful.
Especially since Maria’s rage transmitted itself so clearly, like electricity in the air, that Chess bet Sue could feel it—she bet everyone could feel it. Maria wasn’t just a ghost. That would be bad enough, since ghosts were like sharks without the whole swimming-and-making-baby-sharks thing: perfect machines. All ghosts did was kill. It was all they wanted to do.
No, Maria was the ghost of a murder victim. So that violence and rage, that instinct to murder every living thing they saw, was amplified by a hundred.
She moved with a speed Chess hadn’t expected, that obviously the Inquisitors hadn’t expected, either. One second Maria was there in the kitchen, her features twisted with rage as she selected a knife from the block on the counter. The next she was a luminescent streak across the room, and the next her fist, solidified around the knife, collided with Chess’s cheek and knocked her off of Pete. Fuck, that hurt.
Pete tried to crawl. He managed a sort of pitiful scoot, pushing with his legs. Maria followed him, slowly now, obviously savoring his fear. His hoarse sobs and pleas scraped the air.
Shit. The herbs and dirt had flown from Chess’s hand when she went after Pete, and her bag was inside. No way could she get it and be back before Maria killed Pete—or, even if Maria kept drawing the whole thing out like a kid sucking a hard candy instead of biting it, it wouldn’t be too long before Pete broke the circle around the house. Which would allow Maria to go anywhere. And Inquisitors didn’t carry graveyard dirt and asafetida as a matter of course, at least Cohen and Lewis apparently didn’t.
Shit, shit, shit. She couldn’t let Maria kill Pete, as much as she’d like to. Not only were the Inquisitors there, and not only was she trying to wrap this case up as impressively as possible, but she sure as fuck didn’t feel like dealing with two ghosts instead of one. No other choice, then; she’d have to climb into the living room, find her bag, and—
Maria’s window wasn’t far from where she sat. Maria’s window, with her grave the dirt beneath it. No, Chess didn’t have time to dig two feet down—the best depth from which to gather graveyard dirt—but all that dirt would still be graveyard dirt, and it would be Maria’s.
Maria’s pale form, almost iridescent in the darkness, stood over Pete. The breeze that ruffled Chess’s hair didn’t touch hers, didn’t ripple the fabric of the sundress she wore.
Chess scrambled toward the bedroom window. Her cheek still throbbed in pain—well, almost all of her did, she’d gone through a fucking window—and all of the terror and misery in the air made her want to scream herself, but she dug her fingers into the dirt, picked up a fistful, and flung it at Maria, throwing as much power as she could along with it.
It hit. It worked. Thank fuck, it worked, and Maria froze in place, crouched over Pete’s supine body, the point of her knife only inches from his throat.
* * *
Four Cepts sat in the palm of her hand as she trudged up the steps to home, four—or was it five? Oh, who the fuck cared—hours later. After Banishing Maria and sitting in while the Inquisitors interrogated Pete, filling out all the paperwork, and going over everything with the Randalls, all she wanted to do was get high and get some rest. The Randalls’ horror and misery, Pete’s wailing apologies and self-justifications, refused to stop echoing in her head, and she didn’t want to hear them anymore. She had enough of her own shit in there already—some old, some new. The new was worse, at least at that moment.
Terrible sat on the couch, reading a Cornell Woolrich novel while Bo Diddley played on the jukebox in the far corner. His smile eased some of her unhappiness, but didn’t chase away Pete’s voice.
“I didn’t think you’d be home so early,” she said after he’d greeted her. The pills hit the back of her tongue; she washed them down with water, and crossed the floor to sit next to him.
“Aye,” he said. Concern darkened his eyes; his fingers traced the tiny glass-cuts on her face, the bruise forming on her cheek. “What’s all this?”
“Oh.” She’d almost managed to forget that. “I went through a window, and then a ghost—the girl’s ghost, the murdered girl—punched me. It’s no big deal, though, really.”
She’d think it was good that at least the people she worked with would know it happened on a case, but really, what difference did it make? They’d think whatever the fuck they wanted to think, regardless of what she said.
“Ain’t look like no big deal,” he said, but he dropped his hand to rest on her thigh. “You get him? The killer, meaning. You get all the knowledge an all?”
“Yeah.” She bit her lip. He was going to ask, so she might as well tell him. “He buried her in her yard. Under the window he used to sneak in at night. But she was leaving, running away to New York. Alone. To see some other guy, she said he was just a friend but Pete didn’t believe her. So he killed her. Because he was jealous.”
Terrible lit a couple of cigarettes and handed her one without speaking. Letting her go on, letting her get it out.
So she did. “He tried to say it was an accident, you know, but it was a lie. I could see it in his eyes. He liked that he’d done it, because she couldn’t get away from him. He even admitted it later, sort of, because we asked why he buried her there, right at her house, and he said he wanted to keep her close to him. Where she always had been, where she should be.”
His eyebrows rose, just a quick twitch, but he still didn’t speak.
“And then a year or so after that he met Gabrielle—that was the name of the woman he hired, Gabrielle—when he’d just started working at a real-estate office. She was doing some kind of scam, and he figured it out, and he stole a bunch of money to send her to New York and gave her all of Maria’s ID and everything. He still had all that stuff. He’d kept it all.”
“Damn,” Terrible said. His hand moved farther up her thigh; not hitting on her, but reassuring her. “Guessing iffen she ghost ain’t showed up, he ain’t woulda got caught for it, aye?”
“Right. Her parents were totally fooled by the letters and everything. But then when the haunting started, he knew what it probably was. So first he tried to convince me it was fake—well, you remember, I told you earlier—and then he tried to buy the house, thinking he could stop the investigation.”
She shook her head. When the hell would her damn pills hit? “But that wasn’t the only reason. He didn’t want anyone to dig up her body, because then it wouldn’t be there anymore, close to him. He didn’t want anyone to take her away. He wanted the house so he could keep her there forever.”
“Pretty fucked up, aye.” He didn’t sound surprised, but really, why would he? She wasn’t surprised, either. It wasn’t surprise making her feel so awkward.
It was wondering just how close she was, how close any of them were, to doing what Pete Malina had done. Wondering how far jealousy might drive a person; when love turned into anger.
She was pretty sure that no matter how jealous she might get, she wouldn’t kill Terrible. She certainly didn’t think he would kill her, and he’d had a lot more cause to be jealous than she ever had. Looking into Pete’s eyes hadn’t stirred some sort of primal recognition or anything.
But still…she’d seen Chloe with Terrible and her immediate thought had been how much she’d like to punch Chloe in her pert little face, just for daring to stand next to him and smile at him. And maybe that wasn’t a big deal—it probably wasn’t.
But Terrible was supposed to be dead. Right then, as he sat next to her, he should be dead. She’d broken the law, she’d broken her oaths to the Church, she’d broken a sacred trust in order to save him, and she’d done it because she couldn’t stand not having him with her.
What was the difference? Was there a difference, really? Yes, she’d saved a life and Pete had taken one, but it could definitely be argued that being in the City was a good thing. Most people wanted to go there, felt comforted knowing they would.
“It just kind of weirds me out,” she said finally, because she felt like he was waiting for her to speak. “He was so able to justify what he’d done. He’d broken the law but he could justify it because it kept her close to him, because he didn’t want to lose her. Or whatever.”
Pause. She almost felt the wheels click in his head, things snapping into place. “Aye. Only I’m thinking it ain’t what he done that’s mattering. Be what she wanted matters, aye? She wanted leaving, an he ain’t let her. Iffen she wanted staying, dig, be different.”
She smiled at him, a real smile. Her pills were hitting, that delicious slide from her stomach to her head and everywhere else. What a fucking relief that was.
But it wasn’t the whole reason for the smile, or for the relief. It definitely wasn’t the reason why she felt like the absolute luckiest person on the planet. “That’s kind of a labored analogy there, you know.”
He dipped his head. “Ain’t like words what I’m best at. Thinkin you getting my meaning, though.”
“Yeah. I get it.” And she did. She took his face in her hands and kissed him, a long solid kiss. More relief, more happiness clearing away the filth. His pulse throbbed against her fingertips when she pulled away to look at him. “So…what are you best at, anyway?”
He took her hand and stood up. “C’mon with me, aye? I show you.”
She followed him to the big gray bed, and let him do exactly that.
Aaaaaand that’ it, guys! I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’m going to get to work on downloadable copies of the whole manuscript, and hope to have at least one up this evening/tonight.
Thank you so much to those who support me, and who supported this; I’m immensely flattered and grateful.
I’ll be back to post downloads etc., but if you don’t come back to check…I hope you all have a wonderful holiday (or have already had one) and an even better new year.