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.

.

.

.





.
.

…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.
.

.

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.”

.

.

.





.
.

…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.

.
.

.

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.

.

.

.





.
.

…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.

.

.





…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.

.

.

“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.)

.





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.

.

.

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.

.





.
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.

.

.

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!





What Stace had to say on Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part II

Eek! I forgot yesterday to tell you guys, you know, what the story is called. The title is KEEPING IT CLOSE.

Part I is here.

Longer part today; I wanted to find a good place to stop without it being extra short.

.
She was just about to get into her car when she saw the man across the street. He wasn’t hard to see; it was still light out and he was standing on the porch watching her. Watching her like he knew something, like he had something to say.

Might as well talk to him. Neighbor interviews were usually part of the investigation anyway. She put her keys back into her pocket and crossed the street.

He straightened up as she approached. Yeah, ready to talk. He was about her age—so about Maria Randall’s age, then, maybe a year or so older than Chess—and attractive in a bland clean-cut way. Medium build, blue t-shirt and jeans, stupid-looking sandals on his feet like he was some sort of surfer dude or something instead of a bank clerk or customer service rep or whatever it was he probably did.

“You’re from the Church?” he said when she reached the bottom of the short flight of stairs leading to the porch. His house was bigger than the Randall home, and nicer. Fresh wood indicated recent repairs. “Looking into the Randalls and their supposed haunting?”

She nodded. Address “supposed” or not yet? Not yet. “You know them?”

“All my life. I grew up here.”

“So you know them pretty well.”

A dark flash across his even features, quickly controlled. Hmm. Anger, or sadness? Chess couldn’t tell. Maybe it was both. “Yeah. I know them pretty well. I did, anyway, until he kicked Maria out of the house.”

The Randalls hadn’t said Maria was kicked out. Not a surprise, though. Hell, it was possible Mrs. Randall didn’t even know. “So you and Maria were friends?”

“You could say that.” He sipped his beer; a time-waster. “She was my girlfriend. I still hear from her sometimes. She writes. I went up to visit her a few years ago but she has her own life up there. Job, boyfriends.” Another little face-twist. Looked like Mr. Neighbor was the jealous type.

She ignored that, too. For the moment. “And you still live here?”

“I’m here to see my parents. They told me about the Randalls claiming a haunting. The whole neighborhood knows.”

“That they’re claiming it, or that they’re faking it?”

He smiled an oozy kind of smile, while his gaze on her face evaluated its effect. Chess readjusted her earlier assumption about his work. He had salesman written all over him. “They’re faking it. Old man Randall there’s always got an angle, you know what I mean? He’s one of those guys. Claiming injuries to get paid time off work or free stuff from stores, that kind of thing. A scammer.”

Mr. Neighbor would probably know all about that kind of thing, too. The conversation felt manipulative; Chess had the sense that he was feeling her out, looking for a way to convince her of something. Kind of weird coming from somebody not actively involved in the case, but not unusual. Besides, she had no real idea how involved or not he was. He could be in on it. He could just hate Mr. Randall for taking away his special girlfriend toy.

Whatever his motive was, it definitely existed. Neighbors weren’t usually so eager to get involved, especially not in areas of town like this, but there were always people who wanted to feel important or like they knew the real secrets or whatever. He could be one of them. He looked like one of them; the kind of guy who’d started writing his autobiography when he was twelve and was still convinced that one day there would be public demand for it.

She pulled out her notebook. Most people clammed up when she started writing things down. It reminded them that she was there officially, that there was an investigation and a record. She had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldn’t. “What’s your name?”

“Pete. Pete Malina. M-A-L-I-N-A.” Oh, yeah, definitely somebody who wanted to insert himself into her case. “Mrs. Randall’s a nice lady, but she’s totally cowed by him. She does whatever he says. She’d go along with his plan, absolutely.”

“You seem awfully convinced this is a fake haunting,” she said.

He didn’t even blush. “Why wouldn’t it be? What about them would attract a ghost? Besides, I know him. I know what kind of man he is.”

“What kind is that?”

“The kind who only cares about himself. I bet Mrs. Randall believes it. He’d scare her just for fun.”

Chess squinted at him. Partly because the sun was bothering her and she didn’t want to go digging for her sunglasses with him watching, and partly because that statement didn’t exactly jibe with the impression she’d gotten. Mike Randall was kind of a dickhead, but he’d seemed to love his wife; he’d been dismissive of his daughter but not of her.

Something to think about. Maybe Dana would have more for her about their relationship, too. “Okay, thanks,” she said. “What about your parents? Have they seen anything? Can you think of any other neighbors who might know something?”

“Just about everybody on this street might. You could talk to my mom. She’s out shopping right now. You know, I come to visit, I give her some cash.” He smiled like this was supposed to be impressive. Like it was going to make Chess think he was some great guy or something. She could see a calculator clicking away in his head, looking for the right equation to charm her. He’d never find it. “She’ll be around tomorrow, probably.”

“Thanks,” Chess said again. Then, remembering, “Hey, do you have a number for Maria? Or any way to get in touch?”

“I do, yeah. She doesn’t really answer her phone but you could try leaving a message. Hang on.”

He disappeared into the house, leaving Chess to stand alone in the fierce sunset light. A glance around the neighborhood showed her a few other people loitering in their yards, pretending to pull weeds or enjoy the sunshine and conspicuously not-watching her. Shit, she’d really wanted to head home instead of interviewing more neighbors; there was a chance she could see Terrible before she headed to Dana’s place.

But they were all standing there waiting, and if she took off… It would look like the Church didn’t care, and that was not an impression she was ever supposed to give. Even if she wanted to, which she didn’t.

Pete came back and held out a scrap of notebook paper to her. He didn’t come down the stairs, so she had to climb up. Jerk.

He didn’t let go of the paper when she took it, holding it between his fingers and holding her eyes with his. “They don’t have a ghost,” he said. “Trust me.”

As if she would.

Chapter Two

She finally got back to Church a couple of hours later, just as rush hour was dying down and the horizon was pale with the setting sun. Too bad the arrival of evening didn’t come with an accompanying drop in temperature; by the time she’d walked across the grounds to get to Dana’s cottage in the employee complex she was sweating.

Dana answered the door with a bright smile on her face, and hauled Chess into the house on a tide of speech. “Gosh, it’s been so long since you’ve been here, hasn’t it? How long has it been? How did things go at the Randall place? Just sit down, do you want a drink? Dinner’s in the oven, it’ll be ready soon.”

With anyone else Chess might have thought nervousness lay behind the chatter, but Dana was a talker anyway. Although…she did seem a little nervous, didn’t she? Or at least jumpy, trying too hard. She couldn’t be that excited about Chess coming over—and she certainly couldn’t be so anxious that Chess was going to enjoy the visit or something, they were just going to talk about work—so what was going on?

“I hope you like fish,” Dana was saying, as she bustled around the kitchen. All of the single-employee Church cottages—as opposed to those for married employees or some of the higher-up Elders—followed one of two floorplans: living room on the left, kitchen on the right, bedroom in the back; or the mirror image of that. Dana’s was the mirror image, with the living room on the right. From Chess’s position on the ivory flowered couch she could see into the ivory-cranberry-and-pale-blue kitchen and the ivory-cranberry-and-navy-blue bedroom. It was all very tidy. Beneath the fragrances of dinner cooking were potpourri and air freshener, the scents of things to hide. “I thought, hey, you haven’t been over for dinner, so I’d do something nice.”

“You didn’t have to.” She wished Dana hadn’t, actually. The Nips she’d taken after leaving the Randalls’ neighborhood were kicking in, and the last thing she wanted was food. Especially not when that food would come with a large helping of I-made-this-special-for-you guilt. Dana probably wouldn’t say that, but that wouldn’t make Chess feel any less guilty if she refused to eat it. “I thought we were just going to have a snack or something.”

“I like to eat early.” Dana pulled a bottle of white wine out of the fridge and set it on the counter. Would it be rude to ask for beer instead? Probably. Damn. “You know, I’m usually in bed by ten, so if I eat too late I don’t sleep well, which makes it hard to get up at six for my workout, so…”

“Sure,” Chess said, like she totally had the same issues. Bed by ten? Up at six for a workout? It sounded horrible. And pointless. Who needed exercise when speed was available?

Dana smiled at her, like she honestly believed Chess did relate. Her co-workers did not know her at all, did they.

But then, she didn’t really want them to, so that worked out okay.

“How did things go at the Randalls? What did you think of them? Helen—my parents’ girl, you know—she says Sue Randall is terrified.” Crystal chimed as Dana pulled two wineglasses out of a cabinet and set them beside the bottle. Gold rims reflected the room in narrow miniature; that image moved when Dana moved, a visual distraction Chess didn’t need. “She’s known Sue for a long time. And she knows how hard we work. She definitely doesn’t think Sue would fake it, or is even capable of it.”

“What about Mike Randall?”

Dana bobbed her head back and forth, a maybe-maybe gesture. “I don’t think so, though, I mean, Helen doesn’t. He wouldn’t scare Sue like that. He’s kind of a mean bastard but he’s pretty devoted to her.”

Which was the impression Chess had gotten. It was also what most of the neighbors had said: Mike Randall was a prick who loved his wife. “But would he think it was worth scaring her if it meant she could have a retirement fund or a new house or something?”

Dana shrugged. “What did you think?”

Chess avoided that question. Not because she didn’t trust Dana—well, she trusted Dana when it came to work-related discussions—but because she didn’t feel ready to answer it. “What about their daughter? Did Helen say anything about her?”

“Maria? I know Helen remembers when she moved away, because Sue was really upset. And she’s seen a few of Maria’s letters and, you know, gotten updates on what she’s doing and stuff.” Dana shook her head, her eyes wide. “I don’t think she’d come back here, though. And I can’t see her faking up a haunting to get money for her parents. She hasn’t even mentioned Mike in any of her letters that Helen knows of.”

Her letters. Chess hadn’t asked for those, or for copies of them; unless it became relevant later, she preferred not to. And odds were high that they wouldn’t be relevant. “How does Helen know them?”

“They were kids together. They went to the same church. Before Haunted Week, I mean.” Dana’s voice took on a slightly nervous tinge. “Helen doesn’t believe anymore or anything. My parents wouldn’t have hired her if she did.”

“Of course.” Chess managed to keep the impatience off her face. Dana was always so eager—so desperate—to please, so worried people would take her the wrong way. Unlike Chess, who assumed right from the start that they would. She avoided a lot of pain that way.

She avoided more of it with her pills, and didn’t she wish she could take a couple more at that moment. Sitting in that cottage made her uncomfortable, the way all of the cottages did. It wasn’t the small size or the interior decoration that looked as if it’d been done by a woman thirty years older than Dana. It certainly wasn’t that they were on Church grounds.

It was the sameness of them all, the feeling that she wasn’t a person but was instead a doll, something off an assembly line sitting inside a plastic board-game house from a larger assembly line, set into a square of artificial turf made on a larger one again. No individuality, just a few superficial differences in hair or eye or skin color bestowed by the stroke of a mechanical paintbrush; wind up the tiny humans and watch them walk in mindless circles until they ran out of power. And there was no meaning in any of it, no purpose.

Thinking of it, feeling the ivory walls with their wallpaper borders closing in around her, made her itch. She wanted to take a couple of Cepts but there wasn’t much point when she was about to force some food down her throat. She wanted to go home. She liked Dana okay, she really did, but fuck, how she wanted to go home. She wanted Terrible, and their big gray bed, and to be where she belonged.

Dana carried the glasses and the wine bottle over to the cloth-covered round table by the window. “Of course, Helen says Sue is especially scared because a few years ago there was a haunting at her old job.”

The file hadn’t mentioned that. Had it? No, she was pretty sure it hadn’t. “What? Which old job?”

“Um… Helen didn’t say. I’m not sure she remembers. Sue quit when the haunting stuff started, I think. She wasn’t there long.”

Which might explain why nothing came up in Chess’s search, or why it wasn’t in the file. She pulled her notebook out of her bag and scribbled a reminder to ask Mrs. Randall about that, and to double-check her employment history against the place files. “Do you know how long ago it was?”

Dana pulled a ceramic dish out of the oven. Steam billowed from the open oven doorway and off of whatever it was bubbling in the dish, which actually smelled pretty good. “It has to have been at least ten years, because Helen said Maria encouraged Sue to leave that job when the haunting started, and Maria left about ten years ago.”

“Did Mr. Randall want her to quit?”

“He’s never liked her working.” Dana carried the food to the table, tipping her head to invite Chess to come sit down. “I guess he complains about it a lot. So he was happy for any reason for her to leave a job.”

Now that was more helpful. If faking a haunting—or, well, apparently the one at Sue Randall’s job hadn’t been faked, but there was no confirmation of that yet. If the threat of a haunting had been enough to get Sue to quit a job…what might Mr. Randall want her to do now, that he decided to pull out the big scary ghost-gun to convince her?

A couple of the neighbors had mentioned Mr. Randall seemed to want to move. One of them told her Sue seemed to love her latest job and to be pretty dedicated to it. Maybe that was Mr. Randall’s motive?
All things to consider. She was starting to feel a bit better about the case; it still didn’t seem like a winner or anything, but at least she had some leads, something to go on. And she owed that to Dana. Guilt over her earlier resentment made her shift in her seat. “Hey…thanks for this. The information, I mean. And the food. I really appreciate it.”

“Happy to help.” Dana sat down herself and poured them both wine, then started serving the food with a silver spatula. Something in the way she did it, in the pensive frown on her face, rang warning bells in Chess’s head. Dana looked as if she was trying to figure out how to say something, and as if it was something she didn’t think Chess was going to like hearing. “You know, Chessie, I’m always happy to help you. I mean, I want to. Because I care.”

Uh-oh. Chess grabbed her wineglass, which Dana had filled a ladylike third of the way, and poured that ladylike third down her throat. Ugh. She really was not a fan of wine.

But she was a fan of alcohol—among other things—and the wine was there, so she’d take it. “Thanks. This really is helpful. Hey, seen any good movies—”

“Which is why I hope you know that I’m just trying to help you when I say I’m worried about you. We’re all worried about you.”

…on to Part 3!





What Stace had to say on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
KEEPING IT CLOSE Part I

Okay, here we go!

I’d originally planned to post this a chapter at a time, but that makes for some awfully long blog posts. So I’m breaking it up a little bit more. I’m quite nervous about this, since I’ve never done anything like this before–a whole story on the blog, a “Pay what you want if you want” story, all of that–so I really hope you guys enjoy it!

Chapter One

Elder Griffin pulled a slim, pale blue folder from his drawer and set it on the edge of the desk. “This came in four days ago.”

Chess guessed that meant he was giving it to her. She reached for it carefully, waiting for him to stop her. She almost wished he would stop her. Wished he would say something, do something, so she could challenge him on it. If she could just make him talk to her…

What difference would it make? If she got him talking he’d just tell her things she didn’t want to hear, and there was no point in that. She knew what he’d say: That he was disappointed in her, that he no longer trusted her, that the only reason she still had a job was because to report what she’d done would be to implicate himself—and to sentence her to death in the bargain.

Every time he spoke she heard that, anyway. It was clear in the impersonal tone of his voice. It was obvious from the way he didn’t look her in the eyes and the falseness of the smiles he gave her only when other people were around.

And it hurt. Fuck, it hurt, just as much as it had the day three weeks before when she’d confessed everything and lost him forever.

She picked up the file and skimmed the first page, the form filled out by the homeowners themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Mike and Sue Randall, of Cross Town. No actual ghost seen yet, but they had—they said they had—several of the markers that indicated one was trying to materialize. Cold spots. Objects being moved. Sounds like chains being rattled or someone crying in another room. Smears of ectoplasm on the walls.

The Randalls reported a few other, more unusual things too, things that didn’t bode well. Scratch marks in paint, broken glass and mirrors, locked doors opened and left open. None of that encouraged, just like the admittedly unconfirmed idea that Elder Griffin had deliberately given her a shit case that wouldn’t earn her a bonus didn’t encourage.

But all of those things could be faked, too. Most of them were things the average person didn’t know about or think of, but that didn’t mean the Randalls weren’t just creative with their fake haunting. She’d find out, anyway.

She looked up at Elder Griffin, who had his attention turned to the silent TV mounted on the wall. It was just moving pictures, people mouthing words he couldn’t hear or understand, and he apparently thought it was still more worth paying attention to than she was. “Okay. I guess I’ll get started, then.”

A curt nod. Then, as she tucked the file into her bag and started to stand, he said, “Cesaria.”

“Yeah? I mean, yes, sir?”

Six months ago—one month ago—he would have smiled at that. Now his blue eyes remained impassive, his face blank. “How is Terrible?”

A split second where she thought he was talking to her, maybe starting to think of forgiving her, before she realized what he meant. He didn’t mean “How was Terrible” as in, “How’s that man of yours doing, why don’t we all get together?” or “Why don’t we start talking about things again?” He meant “Has Terrible been passing out in the presence of dark magic or possessed by any ghosts lately?” But of course, he couldn’t outright say that because of where they were, and he wasn’t about to seek her out elsewhere or call her to ask, so he had to be oblique.

“He’s fine,” she said. “Everything’s fine.”

That was Truth, when it came to Terrible. Everything was fine. Better than fine. Despite sitting in Elder Griffin’s office in the middle of one of the awkward, stilted, and cold discussions she hated getting used to having with him, thinking of Terrible made the weight in her chest lighten. Not as much as it would when she managed to get a couple of Cepts down her throat, but almost.

Elder Griffin’s fair hair caught the light as he dipped his head. Even then he wouldn’t give her his eyes for a second. “Good. Let us hope that continues to be the case.”

Well, that sounded optimistic. But she couldn’t exactly argue with it, could she? And she wasn’t about to call him on it. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t. He was, essentially, her boss. No, he couldn’t turn her in for her crime—the illegal sigil she’d carved on Terrible’s chest to save his life after he’d been shot, binding his soul to his body, making him more vulnerable to possession—because to do so would be to condemn himself as well. But he could get her fired, or demoted. He could assign her a bunch of shit cases like the one in her bag, and then report to the Elder Triumvirate and the Grand Elder that she was no longer effective in her job.

The thought made her sick. “Thanks,” she said, although she had no idea what she was saying it for, and stood up. “I’ll just, I guess I’ll get started.”

* * *

Filing cabinets stretched along the entire back wall of the library, filing cabinets full of history and horror and lies. Every address the Church of Real Truth had ever investigated had a file in there, and the Debunkers even remembered to update them most of the time. Well, over half the time.

The Randalls lived at 24751 Harrel Street, in Cross Town. The south end of Cross Town, not too far out of Downside. Not wealthy people, then. Money troubles were likely. If they were close to Downside it was possible they’d have some resentment against the Church, too, which meant this would probably not be a fun initial visit. Well, more not-fun than usual, because they weren’t exactly a laugh riot anyway.

No file on the Randall house. Okay. That was good news, because places where a haunting had been previously confirmed were more vulnerable in future. While she was there she went ahead and checked the other addresses on the street. All clean.

The computer didn’t give her much that wasn’t already in the file Elder Griffin had given her. Mr. Randall was a short-order cook at a Pancake Hut. Mrs. Randall had a spotty employment history but had been a secretary at a printing company for the last five months. Not a lot of financial security in that household, then, which meant they had reason to fake a haunting. The smallest settlement Chess had ever heard of for a confirmed haunting was thirty-five thousand dollars, and thirty-five k could go a long way.

At least, it could go a long way for people who didn’t spend big chunks of their income on drugs. People not her, in other words.

“Chessie! There you are.” Dana Wright—one of the other Debunkers—was heading for her at a purposeful clip, an eager grin on her face. Speaking of people who didn’t spend big chunks of their income on drugs. Dana’s jewelry caught the overhead lights as she walked; her clothes were so obviously expensive that even Chess could see it, and her freshly colored and styled hair made Chess think of the fact that her own black-dyed hair had reddish-blond roots showing and her Bettie Page bangs needed a trim.

“Elder Griffin said you might be here,” Dana continued once she’d arrived at the table. “I was wondering what you’re doing tonight?”

Chess cast about for something to say. Anything at all. Unfortunately, she had nothing. Terrible was working on something with Bump that had kept him out every evening that week, which meant he had a lot to catch up on that night so probably wouldn’t be home until late. Which meant she’d either be home by herself, or— “I have a new case, so…”

“The Randalls, right? In Cross Town? Elder Griffin said he gave it to you.”

Chess focused on making her smile and nod look natural, on not showing how much the question stabbed. Elder Griffin was telling Dana about her case? He’d barely tolerated Dana before; well, “barely tolerated” was a little harsh, maybe, but she hadn’t been his favorite Debunker or anything.

That had been Chess. Not anymore.

“My parents’ maid knows the Randalls,” Dana said. “So I might have some information that could help you. I thought, maybe you can come over, and we’ll have something to eat and I can tell you about it. Say, seven o’clock?”

Well, that made her feel a little better. It explained why Dana knew about the case, at least, and since it was way, way against policy to assign Debunkers cases where they knew any of the people involved, it explained why neither Dana or Doyle had been given it. Since Doyle and Dana were—much to Chess’s surprise—still together.

She thought for a second. Depending on how her initial visit went, she might be heading for the Randall house to do some middle-of-the-night investigating while they were asleep, but she wouldn’t be doing it at seven. She’d been kind of looking forward to having the apartment to herself for a few hours, but that wasn’t that important. And how long could Dana keep her?

Besides, the more information she got, the faster she could get the case finished and move on to a better one. So she nodded again and forced a smile. “Sure. That sounds great, thanks.”

* * *

Mrs. Randall started crying the second Chess arrived, and ten minutes later she was still sniffling and sobbing. All that misery, on top of the meeting with Elder Griffin and the evening she was going to have to spend with Dana and the sinking, stronger-by-the-second certainty that she was not going to be getting a bonus on this case and, of course, all the other shit that lived in her head… Thank fuck she’d downed a couple of pills right after she left the Church, because if she hadn’t had a few Cepts in her system she would have been clawing the walls to get out of there.

Not that she blamed Mrs. Randall. She didn’t, at all. Everyone joked about how they wished they could have a ghost in their house so they could get a settlement, but nobody actually wanted it to happen, for real. An entity that could walk through walls and wield weapons, whose only desire was to kill as many living things as it could, and which was uninjurable, unkillable, and didn’t feel pain? Not the best houseguest, even if millions of them hadn’t risen from the grave and slaughtered most of the world’s population twenty-three years—almost twenty-four, now—before. Most people were terrified at the idea that a ghost could be trying to set up camp in their homes.

So no, she didn’t blame Mrs. Randall. She just didn’t feel up to dealing with tears, and luckily she had the slow peaceful slide of narcotics in her bloodstream so she didn’t have to. She could close herself off to the misery emanating from Mrs. Randall, and focus on work.

She pulled her Church-issued Spectrometer from her bag and switched it on. It came to life with a shrill beep, which didn’t bode well for her bank account; she ignored the sound. Best to pretend that was totally normal. No matter how sinking that feeling in her gut was, this could still be a scam, and her job was still to prove that it was. “Maybe you could show me the rest of the house now?”

Mr. and Mrs. Randall nodded and stood up. They moved like people thirty years older than they actually were, like their fear and unhappiness had settled into their joints and created a constant ache there.

They headed for the kitchen first, a narrow galley-style space with fading olive-green paint, white cabinets, and a dingy linoleum floor. A dingy, scratched-up floor. “Do you have a dog?”

Mr. Randall shook his head. “We used to. A long time ago. Maria took him with her when she left.” His tone changed when he said “Maria,” bitterness and anger creeping in. Hmm.

“Maria is your daughter?” She knew the answer already, of course, but it was always better to pretend she didn’t have much information, that she didn’t know anything of importance. Easier to catch people in lies that way; easier to get them to talk if they thought she was just sort of an empty-headed rube.

“She moved to New York ten years ago.” The words came out clipped, pushed through gritted teeth. Clearly this wasn’t a subject Mr. Randall wanted to discuss.

Which meant she should push it a little. “When was the last time she came for a visit?”

“She hasn’t been back to visit. She’s not welcome here.”

“She writes sometimes,” Mrs. Randall said, glancing from her husband to Chess and back again. “She lets us know where she is. She sent money once or twice.”

“Which I sent back,” Mr. Randall said. “Dirty money.”

“Mike,” Mrs. Randall said, in her tear-choked voice, “that’s not true.”

Mr. Randall glared at his wife. “You know what she’s doing up there.”

“She’s an administrative assistant.”

“For a pimp,” Mr. Randall said.

“For her boyfriend.” Mrs. Randall turned teary eyes to Chess. “He’s a businessman.”

Mr. Randall made a dismissive noise. Chess ignored it. A boyfriend would be another name to check out, and she could verify which of the Randalls were right that way. Mrs. Randall wouldn’t be the first woman to believe her child’s lies, but Mr. Randall wouldn’t be the first man to think the worst of a child, either. “What’s his name? The boyfriend.”

“Jeff. Jeff Martin.”

“Mason,” Mr. Randall said. “Jeff Mason.”

“No, I know she said Martin—”

Best to nip the bickering in the bud. The house, with its air of loneliness and suspended time, the anger sparking off Mr. Randall and the hopelessness of his wife, had already started to oppress her, and she hadn’t even seen the rest of it yet. She scrawled down both Martin and Mason, and said, “We should probably get to the rest of the house, okay? Especially where any particular incidents took place.”

The Spectrometer beeped steadily throughout the house: a short hallway, a bathroom with cracked dusty-pink tiles, a non-bedroom dominated by a sewing machine and piles of fabric, and the pale green master bedroom with heavy Art Deco furniture. All normal. She saw the paint scratches and empty frame from the broken mirror, and got more beeps, but that wasn’t such a huge deal. The Spectro picked up on ghost energy, yeah, but high emotions or magic or, hell, microwaves or old wiring could set it off, too. It was just a tool.

Her skin, though… That was not just a tool. That was closer to a guarantee, and the tingling of her tattoos, the way they itched as the magic-infused ink and the power of the symbols reacted to the energy in the air, was the sort of guarantee she didn’t want when she was on a case. That itching and tingling said ghost. Or at least ghost magic, black magic, and she really didn’t want to get involved in that. Not again. Not when she was still recovering from the last mess, the ghost-infused speed that had turned half of Downside into magic-controlled zombies.

They entered the last bedroom—Maria’s room, it had to be, from the outdated movie posters and pictures torn from magazines, the general air of neglect and disuse. The Spectro went crazy, erratic beeps echoing in the air, like the sound her burning, itching skin would make if it could scream aloud. Fuck.

But it was still too early, and too little evidence, for her to just give up. The Randalls seemed like an average couple, unhappy but not thieves or cheats. Lots of scumbags did. Nobody was innocent, really; Chess had learned that lesson many times. And everywhere she looked in that house and everything they said provided more reasons why they might fake a haunting. They were poor. They were estranged from their daughter and seemed unhappy—or too happy, in his case—about that. They lived about six blocks from the outer edge of Downside, and that distance was growing shorter every year.

And really, they were people, and most people didn’t need a reason or an excuse to lie or cheat or steal or fuck over other people. They did it because they were selfish and self-important, because they wanted things and didn’t want to wait for them. Humanity was a seething pit of snakes and snake-charmers, waiting to bite or order others to bite.

Not that she was any better. She definitely wasn’t.

Which was why she wasn’t counting this case as a loss yet. Everything could be faked, and her job was to prove that, and she was good at that job. Very good at it. Even with the number of weird-ass cases she’d had and her little ghost-threesome-soft-spot a little while before, she was one of the best—if not the best—Debunkers in Triumph City.

So she wandered around Maria Randall’s sad teenage bedroom, scanning the books and stuffed animals and make-up but really looking for wires and plugs, projector lenses and speakers and, especially, spellbags or gris-gris or totems, anything magical that could set off her tattoos and make the Spectrometer react.

Nothing jumped out at her—literally or figuratively—but she saw a few things she’d look at more closely later, when she broke in with her Hand of Glory and really searched the place.

“Okay,” she said, turning to the Randalls. They both stood in the doorway, close together but not touching. “I think I have everything I need for now. I’ll be in touch again soon.”

…on to Part 2!