What Stace had to say on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014
KEEPING IT CLOSE full file and other stuff

So…I wanted to have the full KEEPING IT CLOSE available here on the site for download, in a number of formats. That was my dream, and what a beautiful dream it was. Sigh.

Unfortunately, the road to achieving such a thing? Paved with awful. Well, no, paved with complications and then eventually just plain failure. Mostly. Here’s what happened:

Formatting isn’t my strong suit. I think I’ve mentioned here before that I’m basically illiterate when it comes to All Things Computer. I mean, I know some things; I’m slightly higher on the scale than someone who only knows how to turn it on and click stuff. Just not much higher. So reading stuff about how to format ebooks is like reading the flight manual for a 747; I am lost.

Luckily, my whiny tweets on this subject were seen by Cheryl Murphy from InkSlinger Editorial Services, who offered to help me (“help” in this case means, “Just give it to me and be quiet, idiot.” Although I must stress that Cheryl at no time actually called me an idiot. Even though she would have been justified in doing so.) So I sent Cheryl the files, and Cheryl turned them into ebooks. She even made a cool little cover, and she added nifty skulls and stuff to the inside. She did a light copyedit for me. And she did all of this fast, once I got my shit together.

So lookie, I had these awesome files!

However. In the midst of all this, I did something very clever. I set my Macbook precariously on the kitchen table. It fell. It stopped working. This led me on a whole ridiculous odyssey with Apple, which is a story I will tell soon, but the upshot–at this point in the story, at least, because this happened Feb 15–is I had no Mac, nothing to read/open ebook files. (I’m using my little netbook, which is a nifty little machine but doesn’t have a lot of memory etc., and no ebook program or app; those were on the Mac.)

(Oh, did I mention having dental work done during which the anesthesia failed? Painful dental work? And I couldn’t tell the oral surgeon because my mouth was propped open, and he responded to my wails with, “Stop yelling!” A true delight, that was.)

Okay, fine. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that my readers rock. I headed back to Twitter and within a few minutes had some volunteers to open the PDF, EPUB, and MOBI files to make sure they opened and looked okay. (This was recommended by Cheryl, btw, it wasn’t me being mistrustful or anything.) That all seemed to go fine, too. Yay!

Now all I had to do was load the files here on the site so that you guys could download them. Okay. Here I go. I did the PDF first, which went fine. Then I tried the .epub, and WordPress told me it won’t upload those files “for security reasons.” Same thing with the .mobi.

FFS. Some research showed me this is basically just the way it is. I spent several hours hunting for a place online to host the files, without much luck–or rather, I found quite a few places, just not many that required me to download nothing and looked ethical and nice.

Oh, and also, all the sudden I was getting just a blank white screen when I tried to post or edit posts or whatever else here in WordPress, which turned out to be the fact that I hadn’t upgraded whatever it is you’re supposed to upgrade. (Upgrades make me nervous. Not just because I am always half-convinced that upgrading is going to mess up a bunch of files and stuff, but because I am also half-convinced that the upgrade will just suck.) So, because I am fearful of upgrades and this site has all sorts of delicate custom things done by Frauke at CrocoDesigns, I emailed Frauke and asked her if she could please Fix It. Which she did.

Now I can do stuff and post and all here again, but still can’t upload epub or mobi files (I forgot to ask Frauke about it). Which leaves me, again, with these lovely epub and mobi files that I have no way to distribute. Gah!

Here’s the compromise. It’s not the greatest; in fact I pretty much hate it. But I don’t want to delay any more, either.

You can download the PDF very easily. Just click here: KEEPING IT CLOSE PDF (1213)

If you want mobi or epub…you’ll have to email me. I’m sorry. You can use the contact form here on the site or email DownsideArmy AT gmail.com. Just say which format you want and I’ll get it out to you right away. I’m going to keep looking into another, better way to do this, but I really don’t want to delay this any longer–I feel awful that it’s taken as long as it has.

And as before, if you want to pay something for the story, that’s awesome and I’m grateful. If you have already paid, thanks very much. If you don’t want to pay or can’t pay, that’s okay, too. (Paypal will show you a payment amount of 0; you have to enter a number, because there’s no minimum amount set or anything.)





AAAAAND… I meant to post this ages and ages ago, but I have a contest winner!

ISA VIDIGAL! And, because I had so many entries, I decided to pick another: NITA GILL!

Thanks, everybody!

What Stace had to say on Sunday, December 22nd, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE part XI–finale!

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.

Part 9 is here.

Part 10 is here.

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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—”

Maria appeared.

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.

THE END

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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.

What Stace had to say on Saturday, December 21st, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part X

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.

Part 9 is here.

* * *

“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.

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…more tomorrow!

What Stace had to say on Friday, December 20th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part IX

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.
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Chapter Five

She needed to call in the Squad. Technically this was a case for them, or at least, a big part of it was—if she was right, anyway. The only crime over which she had real authority was a faked haunting, technically known as Conspiracy to Commit Spectral Fraud, and whatever other crimes were committed during the commission of same: digging underground, destruction of property, that sort of thing.

And she should call in the Squad, anyway, because there was nothing for her in this case. No bonus, at least she seriously doubted there was one—it was possible that the Randalls were just a lot more sophisticated at faking, sure, and the rest of it had nothing to do with their haunting, but it wasn’t likely. And they hadn’t left that recorder. She was convinced of that.

Not that her convictions necessarily meant shit. But she had them anyway.

It was just past eight, which meant, if the file was correct—which of course it was—both Randalls would be home, and would have been home long enough for Pete Malina to have made the move she suspected he’d make. Might as well get confirmation of that before she went any further, and then she could get everything started.

Mike Randall answered the phone on the third ring. “Randall residence.”

“Hi, Mr. Randall. It’s Cesaria Putnam, from the Church. Remember me?”

“Yeah, I do. I was just gonna call you, too. You might as well take us off your list or close or file or whatever it is you do. We’ve sold the house.”

Fucking bingo. “Oh. Okay, I have to let you know that selling the property without disclosing its status as a potentially haunted site is—”

“It’s all disclosed.” His relief was clear even over the phone; he almost sounded like a different man. “It’s one of our neighbors buying the place. He’s in real estate and he knows all about it, says he’ll sign whatever papers you need him to sign. We just got off the phone with him not ten minutes ago.”

She paused to make it seem like she was surprised. “Well, that’s—you do know that whatever settlement money you’re entitled to would now go to him, as the owner of the property?”

“We’re not worried about that,” Mike Randall said. Yeah, she bet they weren’t. How much was Pete giving them? Twice what the Church would have paid? Three times? How much was his life worth to him?

“Okay, then. What will probably be best is if I come over there with all of the necessary documents—you’ll need to sign a release, of course, and there’ll be some papers for your buyer to sign, as well.” Like the one that ordered him to allow the investigation to continue—she’d somehow forgotten to mention that in her last conversation, hadn’t she? Oops—or rather, that would be a paper he’d need to sign if he wasn’t going to be signing a confession instead. “If you want to give me the name and phone number of your buyer, I’d be happy to call and explain it to him, too.”

“He’s just right across the street,” Mike said. “Pete Malina. It’s—well, I always thought he was a scumbag, but he’s really helping us out here. It’s real generous of him.”

“Yeah.” She managed to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “It sure is.”

* * *

It put a small dent in her misery shell when she saw the Chevelle in the private parking lot. Terrible was home. He was home, and she could spend a little time with him while she picked up the magic supplies she’d need for later. At least that was some good news.

It got even better when she opened the heavy steel front door of their apartment and found him in the middle of getting dressed, with his jeans on and his shirt off. Oh, damn, that was nice. The way his muscles shifted under his skin as he moved, the scars and tattoos…and that body was hers, she could touch it anytime she wanted, kiss it, press herself against it. All of it. The thought made a little more of the sick horror that had been dogging her for the last couple of hours, the sick horror not even four Cepts had managed to lift, fade; not a lot, but still a fade.

He smiled as she closed the door behind her. “Hey, Chessie. You right?”

She nodded and crossed the gray cement floor to wrap her arms around him, craving his warmth. “Do you have a few minutes, or do you have to leave?”

“Ain’t got many.” He kissed the top of her head. “Chloe needs pickin up, dig, heading us over she work.”

“Oh, right. Chloe.” Ugh. She’d forgotten about Chloe. And now Chloe was going to spend time with Terrible while Chess sat around for an hour and then went to finish off her case.

“Dame who ain’t you, aye?”

“I remember.”

“Hopin so,” he said, before his hands moved from her hips down to her bottom and gave it a light squeeze. “What’s troubling?”

“I just…I solved my case. I think I did, I’m pretty sure I did.”

He inspected her face, his own expression solemn. “Ain’t lookin like be good news, aye?”

“No. No bonus, for one thing.”

“Don’t know why you worryin on that. Ain’t needing to pay for shit here, dig, an I got—”

“I know.” Except she wasn’t about to ask him for money for her pills, for the pipes or packs of keshes all rolled up or little bags of crushed Nips. She never wanted to ask for money for those; her addiction was her problem—well, no, it was the solution to a lot of problems, but it came with its own complications. It was her responsibility, was what it was.

And not only did she not think he particularly wanted to pay for it, but…something inside her squirmed at the idea of giving him that much control over it, of feeling somehow like she needed his permission to buy more. Yeah, Lex gave her a lot for free, but not everything, and if she hadn’t seen him she’d just head for the Market and score there, no problem. She wasn’t dependent on Lex.

She couldn’t even ask for credit from Bump or any of his men now, because they all knew about her and Terrible, and there was no fucking way any of them would keep that information from him. They’d be on the phone with him before she even made it to the street.

He was still looking at her, waiting to see if she’d go on. So she did, resting her head against his chest. “It’s not—I appreciate it, really. I love you. I just, I’m not in a great mood, I guess. My case sucks, I had to call the Squad in and—”

“Aye?” His palm warmed her cheek. “Thought you say you ain’t getting a bonus, means the ghost real. Why them Churchcops?”

“Because,” she said, hating the way the words sounded, “the ghost is a murder victim, and the murderer will be there in the house.”

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…more tomorrow!

What Stace had to say on Thursday, December 19th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part VIII

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

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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.”

“But—”

“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.

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…more tomorrow!

What Stace had to say on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part VII

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

* * *

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?”

“Who?”

“Maria Randall?”

Pause. The phone went dead.

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…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!

What Stace had to say on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part VI

Ugh, I am so sorry for the lack of post yesterday! My day completely got away from me, and by the time I sat down to start formatting and all of that it was so late that I figured it was pointless to post it. It won’t happen again.

Aaanyway.

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

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“Oh. Oh, aye, just gimme a hold-on.”

Chloe’s gaze traveled up and down Chess’s body before transferring back to him. “Only a minute, really. We’ll be late. And I was really counting on you giving me some advice and stuff, you know, telling me what to do. I’ve never done this before, so…I need your help.”

So much for the relaxed, happy feeling engendered by drugs and orgasms and Terrible himself. Chloe was really irritating, wasn’t she? And there was nothing Chess could do about it, because it was work—they were setting up some new supplier or something—so she couldn’t go along and she couldn’t ask him not to go.

Chloe kept standing there. Apparently the notion of privacy wasn’t familiar to her. Or she just didn’t care. Or she was just really nosy. Whatever the reason was, Chess wished she would go away.

Whether Terrible felt the same way she didn’t know, but he took a half step away, letting his palm slide down to the back of her neck as he did. “What you doing now? Want me walking you to you car?”

She could stay at Trickster’s for a while, watch the show. She could go see if Edsel was still in the Market; he’d gotten out of the hospital the week before and was back to work, albeit working shorter hours until he fully recovered.

Or she could go home and read or something, look over her Randall notes and see if she’d missed something, or if there was anything she should be particularly mindful of when she went back. Which would probably be the most productive. And, again, the sooner she finished this case the sooner she could get a better one.

Or a worse one, but she didn’t really want to think about that. Either way, she wanted to get through the Randalls as soon as possible.

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “I think I’ll go home for a bit.”

Chloe finally stepped out of the way. Up close she wasn’t quite as pretty as Chess had originally thought, but skillful makeup and carefully styled hair more than made up for it. She was a little taller than Chess, a little heavier—not hard, really, since Chloe probably swallowed more food than pills, whereas Chess tended to do the opposite even with Terrible pushing her to eat more—and bustier, which was also not hard. Her eyes met Chess’s with the flatness that told Chess that Chloe was tougher than she looked, that behind that sweet face was a crafty mind that looked out for itself first and always.

In other words, looking into Chloe’s eyes was like looking into the eyes of pretty much everyone in Downside.

Whatever. Chloe could give her that dead calm look all she liked, and be as charming and please-help-me and eyelash-batt-y with Terrible as she liked. She wasn’t going to get anywhere. It would have been funny if it weren’t so…well, so irritating, and so much something Chess hadn’t dealt with before in any real way.

If she was even dealing with it. For all she knew Chloe was just trying to get a job done, and was being friendly to Terrible just because she wasn’t a total bitch, and maybe sensed Chess’s suspicion and so was hanging back. Maybe she was afraid of her; that whole witch thing again.

The garbage-and-smoke scented breeze ruffled her damp bangs when they got outside and started up the street to where she’d left her car. Crowds were forming outside as the first band started to play, people hanging around to hear the music for free, to meet up with friends, to score—she saw two of Bump’s street men doing brisk business—or just to have a place to be, something to do. Any gathering attracted people, like ants swarming to sweet poison. She wondered if any of them were going to be dead by the end of the night; fifty-fifty, probably.

She knew she shouldn’t, but once they got clear of the last stragglers she said, “So Chloe…you’ve been doing a lot of stuff with her?”

He shrugged.

“You said she knew some people, is that why she’s involved?”

“Got she a job with some people lookin to get business done, dig. Them knowing her, so she needing to be there.”

“Just you and her, huh?”

She felt his glance, but kept her own eyes turned resolutely ahead, glad the darkness hid the heat on her cheeks.

“Aye,” he said finally. “Cepting when Bump gets heself in, giving us he decisions an all.”

Chess raised her hand toward the right, letting him know they needed to turn up Fifty-sixth to get to her car, and wished to fuck she hadn’t mentioned Chloe.

Most of the time—well, okay, some of the time, maybe more than half of the time—her total lack of experience when it came to actual relationships wasn’t a big deal. She didn’t know much about them, no, but she knew Terrible, and she was getting pretty good at being with him. It was easy to be with him, anyway.

But other times… Other times it was like she kept blundering into cobwebs and getting trapped, with sticky embarrassment all over her face and body and no clear way out of the mess. He knew what she was asking him and why, and she knew he knew, and she felt like she’d just hung a big “I don’t trust you” sign over her head. And that wasn’t the case, at all.

But she couldn’t come out and say that, when she hadn’t come out and said anything else. And she knew he was waiting to see if she had a response before he spoke. So every second of silence went on forever, the air between them thick with unsaid words.

Damn, she hadn’t remembered her car being so far down the street. Had the street gotten longer while she was inside Trickster’s?

They passed a gang of kids sitting around on a broken porch, playing some sort of game that involved scraps of paper and a knife. It didn’t look like a very fun game, but who was she to judge? It was probably the best thing ever.

Certainly it was better than what she was doing, walking without a word being exchanged, feeling awkward and stupid.

Terrible waited until they were out of the kids’ hearing to speak. Casually, like it didn’t matter. Like it was okay. “Only gots me a problem, aye, workin with she.”

“Oh?” They’d reached her car, finally. She looked down at her keys, fiddling with them. If she got to the piperoom fast enough, she could spend maybe twenty minutes there and still be sobered up enough to investigate the Randall house later. It was only just past nine, she had like five hours to kill. And she needed something, anything, to wipe this whole humiliating conversation from her memory. She had enough shit in there already; it was like a fucking storage unit crammed full of garbage. Overflowing with it, until it spilled out onto everyone and everything close to her.

“Aye.” He touched her cheek. “She ain’t you, be the problem. Dig?”

Warmth flooded her face again, but a different kind of warmth. One that made her happy and uncomfortable at the same time, and both for the same reason: because he knew her so well. “Oh,” she said again.

“Love you, Chessie.” He kissed her long enough for her to feel the words, to feel what they meant, then stepped back so she could unlock her car and get in. “Text me, aye? When you get done. Or iffen you don’t go.”

She nodded. “I love you.”

One last kiss and she drove away, wishing he could go with her—or that she could stay with him—but feeling better just the same. Not because of what he’d said about Chloe; that was nice, but it wasn’t the thing that really helped. What really helped was that he’d known to say it, that he hadn’t judged her or gotten angry. What really helped was that he’d said it in a way that made it seem like it was his idea, just making conversation, and not a response to her unasked question. Even though they both knew damn well it was.

But he’d pretended anyway. Because he loved her, and he was hers.

Now if only her case could be solved as easily.

Chapter Four

What was that she’d been thinking about solving her case easily, again?

She knelt on the floor in Maria Randall’s abandoned bedroom and contemplated the object exposed by her flashlight’s beam. A recorder.

Not just any recorder, either. An expensive one, a high-end one, sleek and shiny silver and totally out of place in the tangle of dusty stuffed animals and ribbons and general teenage detritus on the floor against the wall.

Had she missed that earlier? How could she have missed it, though—she’d looked there, and hadn’t noticed anything even remotely modern, much less modern and worth about what she’d be spending on drugs in a week if she didn’t get some of hers free from Lex. That was a considerable amount.

But she had to have missed it, because why in the fuck would the Randalls have planted it after she left? Yeah, the way Debunking investigations proceeded wasn’t really common knowledge, but only a couple of real idiots would move incriminating evidence from a decent hiding spot to one that didn’t even qualify as a hiding spot after the Church got involved. The Randalls didn’t seem like geniuses, but she didn’t think they hit that level of dumbass, either. That was professional-level dumbassery, like picking-a-fight-with-Terrible dumbassery: too stupid to live.

She reached out and touched the Play button. Static crackled into the room, followed by a few muffled rattling sounds and some metallic clanks. Hmm. According to her notes the Randalls had reported sounds like that, but not, apparently, in this room.

Okay. White spots erupted in front of her eyes when she took pictures with the flash; she blinked them away with difficulty and picked up the recorder in her latex-gloved hand. Its smooth surface revealed not a single smudge or fingerprint, nothing that might tell her who put it there. Of course there were other ways to tell, spells she could do, but spells like that were tricky and time-consuming, and required supplies she didn’t have with her. Usually she didn’t need to do them; usually it was obvious who’d set up the various recorders or projectors or whatever else.

And usually she was able to capture them on recordings of her own, too. In her bag were six or seven little Church-made cameras, motion-sensitive ones designed to be easily hidden. Plenty of hiding places in the Randall house, too, which was good. No need to sneak any of the Randalls’ belongings out of the house and ask the Church to make replicas with cameras inside, or make new cameras to fit into those belongings.

Several shelves were mounted on the wall above the dresser. Chess fixed one of the cameras under the top one, next to the bracket where it couldn’t easily be seen. Another went above the door. She’d already set up two in the living room, two in the kitchen, and drilled a hole in the shower curtain rod to place one there, facing the sink and mirror.

She hadn’t found any recorders or anything else in those rooms, though. So why was one in here?

She guessed she’d find out.

Nothing hid in the seams of the unattractive clothing in Maria’s time capsule of a closet; nothing but the limp sadness of fabric that hadn’t been washed or worn in years, anyway. Nothing on the floor but shoes with cracking leather. The top shelf held a few yearbooks, a shoebox with pictures in it, a couple of stuffed animals. Chess gave those a squeeze to see if they concealed cameras or speakers or anything else, but they didn’t.

Cool air hit the back of her neck. She froze. The Randalls couldn’t have woken up, because the candle in the palm of her Hand of Glory still burned. That meant her spell was still active.

She might have thought it was a ghost—the ghost—but her tattoos weren’t itching or burning or any of the other things they did in the presence of ghosts, so no, it wasn’t that, either. And it wasn’t the air conditioning switching on, because it had been on already.

So where…the window. It came from the window, open the tiniest crack thanks to a faulty latch—not really a latch, just a brass hook which fitted into a metal cup or eye or whatever it was called mounted to the inside wall.

Or was that latch faulty?

It took her a second or two to figure out how the windows worked. They were actually several panels of glass on either side of a fixed pane, so only the side panels opened. On the indoor side of those panels a set of screens slid in a track. Okay. The trick was to push the screen aside, open the window—they opened outward—and set the metal bar-thing to hold the window open the correct amount. Then the screen was slid back over the space. To close the window the process was basically the same: slide screen, close and latch window, slide screen again.

But this window hadn’t been hooked shut. The screen was closed, and the panel had been pushed back into place, but the hook hadn’t been placed into the eye. It definitely hadn’t, because when she gave the panel a light push it swung free.

How long had it been like that? She ran her gloved fingertips over the hook; dust rolled off. Unlike the windowsill, which was spotless. That was weird, wasn’t it? The dust-free sill indicated it was cleaned regularly—had been cleaned recently—but wouldn’t the person doing the cleaning notice the hook dangling free?

Maybe. Maybe not. It was possible for people to miss all kinds of things. They saw what they wanted to see, heard what they wanted to hear; they didn’t pay attention to shit and then wondered why everything fell apart or disappeared. Unlike her. She didn’t wonder why. She knew.

Not the time to think about it. She pushed that thought, and the ones that followed it, aside, and focused on her case. That window wasn’t up high. Just about anyone could climb through it.

Not just about anyone would know how the windows opened, though. Or about the hook, and that it was the only lock.

Maria would know. Looked like Chess should go ahead and give her a call, see what she had to say. See if she’d popped back into Triumph City for an unannounced visit, or if the Randalls were lying about their lack of communication. Maybe Maria had spoken to old Pete Holding-A-Torch across the street there, and he’d told her about the haunting, and she’d come to snoop around herself. Or to plant a recorder that might make her parents look guilty.

That last was probably pretty unlikely, but she wasn’t going to discount it, either. It never paid to underestimate how low people would go.

Lucky for her, she never did.

…more tomorrow! (I promise.)

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What Stace had to say on Sunday, December 15th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part V

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

(Putting this one under a cut, guys.)
Read the rest of this entry »

What Stace had to say on Friday, December 13th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part IV

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

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Chapter Three

The four Cepts she’d taken as soon as she got off the Church grounds were starting to cool her still-boiling blood when she walked into Trickster’s bar—surprisingly crowded given that it was only past eight—twenty minutes or so later. Funny. The Church wasn’t the only place where her relationship with Terrible was now public information; everyone in Downside knew now, too.

So the people she worked with had started worrying and avoiding her and thinking something was wrong with her, and the people in Downside…well, they avoided her, but they’d always done that to some extent. People were scared of witches; they tended to think she had a lot more power than she actually did. She didn’t exactly go out of her way to correct them, either.

The difference, as she made her way through the tight-packed crowd of people waiting for a beer at the bar or making out or getting ready to do either of those things, was that it wasn’t just fear in their eyes anymore, or even the bland acceptance she got from people who’d seen her around enough to get over being afraid. What she got now was deference, even more than when it was just common knowledge that Downside’s Churchwitch worked for Bump. People got out of her way with cast-down eyes; when she passed she felt those same eyes follow her. Vendors in the Market tried to offer her discounts or free stuff in respectful, hopeful voices. Restaurants served her better food.

They’d been afraid of her before because of her abilities, but they were more afraid of Terrible. Way, way more afraid. With good reason, too; he took his job as Bump’s chief enforcer very seriously, and he was very good at it.

That probably shouldn’t have made her as proud as it did, but whatever. Maybe she was a “bad guy,” too. She certainly couldn’t argue if somebody wanted to call her that, no matter how much she would have liked to. She had too many crimes under her belt at that point, too much damage done.

The red-gelled blacklights that always made the interior of Trickster’s look like some sort of hazardous materials alarm had just gone off inside also made it harder to see at first. Her eyes had finally adjusted by the time she got past the bar, and she started hunting for him. He’d probably be against the back wall, where he usually was, keeping an eye on things. Giving Trickster’s what their protection money paid for, at least in part. Being visible.

White-hot joy burst in her chest when she saw him over the heads of the crowd. It felt like days since she’d seen him, like weeks, instead of just that morning. Yeah, he’d been asleep when she left, but still. She had seen him for an hour or so the day before, and the day before that.

It wasn’t actual time making her feel like it had been years since she’d gotten to talk to him; it was the sense that when he wasn’t around the minutes crawled. She’d always thought that was sappy bullshit, lies made up by bad songwriters to make normal people feel both inferior and desperate, but it wasn’t.

A cloud of kesh smoke wafted through the stale-beer-and-sweat scented air; almost unconsciously she sucked it in as she passed through it. He hadn’t seen her yet. He was looking down at someone or something she couldn’t see.

Someone. A girl. Probably a little younger than Chess, and a hell of a lot more scantily clad, with light brown hair curling over her blue halter top and almost to her bare waist. She was smiling up at him, and as she talked with bright animation her hand snaked out to touch his arm. What the fuck? Who the hell did she think she was? She ought to watch herself, with that flirty look and—Chess caught herself. What the fuck, indeed. So some girl was trying to flirt with Terrible. So what? As if he’d even care, or respond.

But that…that jealousy, that sudden red-hot explosion of Back Off He’s Mine in her head, shocked her. That had never happened to her before; well, she’d never had anyone for it to happen to her for. Not like that. Why would she be jealous because some guy she didn’t want to see again hooked up with someone else the next night?

She wasn’t. She never had been. So her response to seeing that girl was…interesting. Not good, but interesting.

The girl drifted away, dropping one last smile like a lacy handkerchief. Terrible looked up; his eyes found Chess’s. Those glowing red lights washed over his face, mellowing the few bruises and scratches still fading from his skin. Just looking at him made her rage disappear, melted it in a sweet sticky flood. When they’d first met—when they’d first met, and for a couple of years afterward—she’d thought he was ugly, with his nose crooked from multiple breaks, his heavy brow and jaw, his scars and hard deep-set eyes, predator’s eyes old before their time. His massive frame, the threat implied in his every movement…there was a reason nobody had ever called him anything but Terrible, and she’d thought that was exactly what he was.

She’d been insane and stupid. Every scar and crag told a story, and all those stories added up to the most amazing person she’d ever met, the one she was so fucking lucky to be with.

“Hey, Chess,” he said—the way he always did—when she got close enough to hear. “You right?”

“Yeah, right up. You?” It was so hard to get close to him and not grab him, slide her hands all over his chest and press her head against it. But she didn’t. Yes, public knowledge, blah blah blah, but that didn’t mean they had to put on some kind of free show—and the news was still fresh enough that people were watching.

He did kiss her, though, a brief kiss that nonetheless managed to make her entire body vibrate. He probably didn’t have much time—she knew he didn’t, he’d said in his text that he didn’t—but maybe he had enough to run home for a few minutes? She just wanted to be alone with him, to be close to him, to let him chase away all the shit she’d picked up at Dana’s and the depression over her lousy new case.

His hand came to rest on the back of her neck, sliding under her hair to touch her bare skin. Another little vibration, a shiver that her insides all participated in. “Aye,” he said. “Busy, though.”

“Who was that?” She tipped her head in the direction the girl had gone, irritated with herself for asking but unable to not ask.

“Chloe. Been helping, dig, knows she some people. Got a brother works the corner, too.” His thumb rubbed the sensitive spot where her head met the side of her neck, slow little circles. “What you been doing?”

Finding out my co-workers think you beat me up, she thought, but she didn’t say it. “New case.”

He looked at her more closely, those dark eyes—black in the red light—searching hers. Looking through hers. Nothing could hide from those eyes. “Ain’t a good one?”

“I doubt it.”

The question passed across his face, but he didn’t ask it. She was glad, too. She didn’t want to talk about Elder Griffin. She didn’t want to talk about anything, actually, especially not because his thumb kept moving and it was like he’d found a nerve that ran straight down through her stomach to all points below. “Better though, aye? Be a challenge or whatany. So you ain’t all bored up by easy shit.”

The first real smile she’d managed all day felt good. Almost as good as his leg against hers when she shifted closer to him. Definitely not as good as his warm skin, though, when she slipped her left hand around to his back, and up under the t-shirt he wore beneath a black bowling shirt. “Yeah. Why have things been so dull around here lately? It’s been like three weeks since the last time we almost died. You really need to get something moving.”

His head dipped forward in acknowledgment. “Be this dame I’m living with, guessing. Keepin me busy.”

“Oh?” She hooked two of her fingers just inside the waist of his jeans, slid them back and forth. His body didn’t move, but even in the fluorescent red glow of the room she saw his eyes change, saw sparks go off deep inside them. “She sounds lame.”

“Naw,” he said. “Only she ain’t should keep doin that with she fingers, lessin she got plans for more.”

Oh, she had plans. She’d had plans ever since she walked in—hell, she’d had plans since she’d left that morning.

Months before, she’d learned the not-as-disturbing-as-it-should-have-been Truth that when faced with an essentially unlimited supply of drugs, she didn’t stockpile or regulate very well. She just took more. Living with him was pretty much the same thing. He was always there, in his bed—their bed—right next to her, a big strong sexy temptation, and she couldn’t seem to set him aside for later. She just wanted.

Like she did at that moment. And if he was going to make threats like that… She ran her hand around to his front and stopped just before the thin line of hair on his stomach started, very close to where she knew he wanted her to go. So close, in fact, that she could tell just how much he did. “Looks like I’m not the only one with plans for more.”

“Ain’t know what you talkin on.” But his grip on her neck tightened and shifted, tilting her chin up as he leaned toward her, and his other hand squeezed her hip to pull her closer.

Discordant guitar notes jangled loud over the speakers, startling her; the first band was starting to set up. She hadn’t even noticed them moving around, or the way the crowd had shifted to the side to let them pass. Actually, she’d pretty much forgotten that anyone else was around at all, much less a room packed full of Downsiders on their way to whatever kind of stupor they liked best.

Shit. That meant it was getting closer to nine, and he’d have to get to work soon. Her heart sank. Not all the way—not only was she feeling more cheerful than she had all day thanks to him, but her Cepts had really hit so she didn’t think her heart could sink all the way if it tried, and fuck wasn’t that nice—but a sink just the same. Getting to see him and touch him and feel whatever googly lovesick warmth was all well and good, but if googly lovesick warmth was all she wanted she’d get a fucking puppy.

Apparently she wasn’t the only one who felt that way. If time was running short, Terrible seemed determined to make the most of it; he finished the movement he’d started before the noise distracted them, and his mouth met hers hard enough to let her know he wasn’t about to let her just leave.

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Now. Normally I would say “more tomorrow!” but…unfortunately, I won’t be able to post the next section tomorrow. I’ll be away most of the day (and tonight), and by the time I’m able to get to it, honestly, it might as well wait until Sunday. So Sunday it is, and I’ll post an extra-long section then to make up for the delay. I’m sorry, guys; I hadn’t planned for there to be a break at all, but life has intervened.

So I really hope that’s okay, and I hope you’ll all be here Sunday–or Monday, of course, because I’m sure you guys have busy weekends ahead, too–for more.

What Stace had to say on Thursday, December 12th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part III

In which the plot thickens…

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

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Chess clenched her fist under the table to keep from reacting. Fuck. Holy fuck, how had—she’d been so careful. She’d never even taken fucking cold medicine or aspirin in front of anyone at Church, never let them see her pillbox, hardly even drank. How could they know about her addiction, how had they figured it out?

With an effort she hoped wasn’t visible, she furrowed her brow and shoved as much genuine confusion as she could into her eyes. “Worried? Why?”

“That…” Dana took a deep breath. Oh, shit. “That guy you brought to Elder Griffin’s wedding. Your boyfriend. Doyle says he’s met him before, that he’s violent and a bully and not very smart. That he’s a bad guy. He looks like a bad guy. It worries us.”

Her first response was relief. It wasn’t about her pills; she wasn’t about to get shopped to the Elders and kicked out of the Church and into some rehab hell. She was safe.

But right on the heels of that relief—so close it happened at pretty much the same time—was anger. Doyle was running around calling Terrible a violent bully? Doyle had some fucking nerve saying that shit. Him of all people. And—hold on. “Us?”

“Me, Atticus, Nancy… We thought maybe we should talk to Elder Griffin, but we decided to talk to you first. And let you know we care. We’re here for you. You don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship—”

“Okay.” More fist-clenching; if her fingernails were longer she’d have sliced all the way through her palms at that point. Getting pissed—no, showing how pissed she was—would only be seen as an admission of guilt, as panic or trying to hide something. So she focused on the sharp pain in her hands and used it to keep her voice calm. “I appreciate that you guys care, really.” Lie. “But I am not in an abusive relationship. Absolutely not.”

“You have bruises,” Dana said quietly. “On your wrists. It’s not the first time, either. We’ve all noticed them, for the last few months, on your arms or your wrists or your shoulders or neck. You didn’t give those to yourself somehow. And you weren’t on a case, so you didn’t get them that way.”

Shit, could she leave now? When could she leave? Dana’s cottage had become a trap; not just a plastic toy house, but a roach motel. The floors covered with sticky, oppressive care and concern would grab her feet and hold her there until she starved to death, until she cut off her own legs to escape.

Which she was almost tempted to do, if it meant she could avoid that conversation. Avoid trying to come up with a way to explain those bruises on her wrists—they were hardly even bruises, really, Dana was being awfully fucking dramatic—that didn’t reveal things that were nobody’s business but hers and Terrible’s. Yeah, he’d given her those little marks, those faint smudgy shadows under her skin, but he sure as fuck hadn’t been hurting her at the time. And she didn’t mind one bit, either.

When she didn’t reply, Dana continued. “What about a few weeks ago, after Elder Griffin’s wedding? You looked like somebody had beaten you up.”

Fuck. It had never occurred to her that people would see the bruises she got the night the Agneta Katina exploded, and think Terrible had given them to her. And she didn’t have any way to explain that set of injuries, either, because what was she supposed to say? “Oh, those. Yeah, I was just doing a little illegal magic and blowing up some private property. You know, because somebody was bespelling my dealer’s drug supply. And a bunch of people died, but I never reported any of it?” Sure. That was a great idea.

How fucking ironic. People had been ignoring the abuse written all over her body, the signs of what had happened to her at the hands of this or that piece of shit who was supposed to be taking care of her, for her entire life. Now she was happier than she’d ever been and actually with someone who made her feel safe, someone who would die before he’d let her get hurt, and suddenly everyone had fucking eagle eyes and were so worried about What Horrible Things Were Happening To Chess.

“I was in a car accident,” she said. It wasn’t a great excuse, but she had to give one, didn’t she? Damn it, she never should have agreed to this stupid visit, no matter how useful Dana’s information was. “It was only minor so it didn’t get reported. I am not being abused. By anyone.”

Pause. Dana wasn’t looking at her, so Chess couldn’t tell if she believed her. Did it matter? Probably not.

Almost definitely not. “Even if that’s true, you have to know that people are talking about you. We’re concerned. You could do so much better. You’re smart, and you’re pretty, and you can be really funny. You have a lot to offer, and you should be with someone who has a lot in return. Who is just as smart, and can talk properly, and has a real job.”

Dana reached out to stroke her arm, a brief touch that Chess ignored. She ignored Dana’s attempt to catch her gaze, too. “Why do you want to waste your time with someone like that, when there are so many better men out there? Men who can give you a real life, who can be good husbands and fathers one day?”

The smell of the food had changed from appealing to nauseating; Chess’s throat burned from it and the rage churning in her gut. Good thing she hadn’t been hungry before, because she couldn’t imagine forcing that meal down even at gunpoint. She hunted with her eyes for the clock on the wall, found it above the fridge covered with sappy greeting cards and magnets with kittens on them and a few pictures of Dana and Doyle in his Look-at-Manly-Me leather-filled living room, and stood up. “Oh, hey, I didn’t realize it was so late. I’ve got to go, Dana, sorry. I’ve got—one of the Randalls’ neighbors asked me to come back around nine, so I really need to get moving.”

Dana didn’t look fooled. Chess didn’t give a shit. If she didn’t get out of that place immediately she was going to scream. And then she was going to smack Dana across the face, and that was really not a good idea. That was the kind of thing that would bring a whole load of disciplinary actions and problems down on her head, and she did not need that. What she did need was fresh air, and a smoke, and fuck how she needed her pills.

“Just think about it, Chessie, okay? I know a couple of really nice guys who’d be happy to go out with you. Doyle and I were thinking of having a party in a couple of weeks, you could come and meet them—”

“No, thanks.” Chess was already grabbing her bag. The door only a few steps away beckoned her like a pipe full of Dream. All she had to do was grab it, open it, and she’d be free. She’d be done with this bullshit conversation, and she’d be forewarned if any of them ever tried it again.

They were all talking about her? Nosy motherfuckers. She’d known when she brought Terrible to Elder Griffin’s wedding that there would be some gossip, that everyone would have some sort of opinion. It was easy for busybodies to have opinions, after all. Especially when it came to subjects they knew absolutely fucking nothing about.

But she had not imagined them all getting together and dissecting her life and personality, assuming she was with Terrible because she didn’t think she could do better or that he actually abused her and she needed their help. She hadn’t pictured them setting up some kind of intervention to free her from Terrible’s fell clutches. Fuck them all. All of their best qualities piled together wouldn’t make half the person he was.

“I really didn’t mean to upset you,” Dana said. “I’m trying to help. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

The furious words Chess had been about to fling in Dana’s direction died before they left her mouth. The fury itself didn’t, not really, but Dana wasn’t lying—at least she didn’t seem to be, and Chess didn’t think she was. She was honestly worried, and while it was at least partly her fault that she was shallow and unimaginative and that she couldn’t see what a scumbag Doyle was, her heart was in the right place. Or close to the right place. The point was, if Chess actually was being abused and needed help, she’d be grabbing a lifeline offered by Dana at that moment, and that mattered.

But the rest of it? Fuck letting that go. “I know, Dana. I appreciate it, really. But you have no idea what you’re talking about. And neither does Doyle.”

She turned the doorknob and opened it, pausing for a second before she crossed the threshold into sweet, sweet freedom. “But tell Doyle for me that I’m really grateful for how he’s being such a good friend, too. Tell him I’d hate to ever have to tell you if some guy actually had hit me, because I know you’d be really upset to hear the whole story. Could you just say that to him? I don’t want him to think I don’t care about his concern.”

Doyle wasn’t stupid. He’d get the message. It would only hurt Dana to tell her how she’d slept with Doyle—once—and how he’d acted like an entitled little whinybaby when she made it clear it wouldn’t be happening again. Dana didn’t deserve that, so Chess wouldn’t do it. Unless she had to, like if Doyle opened his fucking mouth about Terrible again.

Of course, she guessed it could be argued that she had a responsibility to tell Dana how that situation ended with Doyle punching her in the eye, and how he had a problem with Terrible because Terrible beat the shit out of him for it. But she doubted Dana would believe her. Doyle certainly wouldn’t admit to it. She didn’t have any proof. And honestly, she didn’t think it was something he’d do again, to anyone else.

But…she would tell, if he didn’t shut the fuck up.

She almost hoped he wouldn’t, as she strode across the grounds and climbed into her car. Too bad that would mean a whole different kind of shitstorm, and would open an even bigger window into her life for her fellow employees to shove their interfering heads through. And if they did that, who knew what they would see?

Anything was too much. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? When had she ever asked any of them for help, even in training? She hadn’t. Shouldn’t that have given them the message that she didn’t need anything from them?

As if people ever got that particular message. Or as if it ever stopped them from telling other people what to do.

She stabbed the gas pedal and steered her car toward the street, satisfied by the feeling of escaping and the knowledge that she’d soon be back in Downside. Satisfied by the act of driving, and the fact that it, at least, was something nobody else tried to “help” her do—although, hell, somebody out there probably would try to snatch the wheel from her if they could, even if it killed them. Which led her right back to Doyle, and how she was going to tell Terrible about the discussion with—oh, shit.

No. She couldn’t tell Terrible about it. This was what he’d predicted, wasn’t it? What he’d worried about, one of the reasons—if not the reason—why he hadn’t wanted to go to the wedding with her. He’d told her they would judge her, that seeing her with him might make them look at her differently, that they’d think something was wrong. He’d told her it could cause trouble for her and she ought to be concerned about it.

The discussion with Dana couldn’t exactly be called “trouble.” Neither could the still-infuriating mental picture of everyone she worked with having some sort of roundtable “Poor Chess” conversation over popcorn and beers—or fish and wine, or whatever the fuck. It was irritating, it was annoying, it made her want to drop “Mind your own damned business” notes into all of their mailboxes, but it didn’t count as trouble.

Trouble would be if she’d just had that conversation with one of the Elders. The fact that her fellow Debunkers thought Terrible didn’t look like a nice guy—what the hell did a “bad guy” look like, anyway? Because she’d known a lot of cold vicious shitbags who looked as kind and gentle as Nursery Goodys—meant nothing when it came to her work. She didn’t give a damn what the other employees thought of her.

And despite her paranoia earlier, she knew that as it stood her Debunking record was good enough to grant her a lot of leeway in behavior. Not good enough to save her ass if they found out about her drugs, and definitely not good enough to save her life if they found out about the sigil on Terrible’s chest, but good enough that they wouldn’t care about who she dated. If they’d even cared to begin with, which she doubted.

So this really didn’t matter. And if it did? Well, that was a bridge she’d cross when she had to. If she had to, which she hoped she didn’t, because if she had to make a choice between Terrible and the Church, the Church would lose. No question in her mind about that one. She could handle not working for the Church. It would suck, but she could do it.

But losing Terrible? Nope. Somewhere in the back of her mind, somewhere deep down in her soul, deeper even than all the filth and sludge, the guilt and rage and memories she buried every day under the weight of her pills and powders and thick sweet Dream smoke, way down at the bottom… Down there was the terror like a constantly churning engine at the idea of losing him. If that ever happened she didn’t know how she’d be able to handle it, how she would go on with her life. So if anyone at the Church thought they were going to take him away from her?

She’d like to see them fucking try.

…on to Part 4!