Archive for 'downside stories'



What Stace had to say on Friday, November 14th, 2014
FIVE DOWN updates!

Okay, if you pre-ordered or have ordered since I posted Wednesday, you should have received either:

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A. The file in the format you requested; or

B. An email from me asking what format you need.

If you pre-ordered or paid and have NOT received the file, please email me and let me know right away! I am 99.9% certain that everyone is taken care of, but in a situation like this I don’t want to assume and have you end up not getting something you should have.

Please note that all emails and files were sent to the email address listed by Paypal! (Unless you specifically requested otherwise in the Notes or Instructions.) So if you use AwesomeReader@gmail as your primary account, but have your Paypal set up under your old AwesomeReader@hotmail account or something, any correspondence from me would have gone to the hotmail account.

Now. As for the PDFs: I am having an absolute bitchfuck of a time trying to get the Table of Contents to work. I’ve done all of the things I was supposed to do and fiddled with all of the things I was supposed to fiddle with and it is just not. fucking. happening. So, rather than make anyone wait any longer, I’ve sent out the ToC-less PDFs, so at least you have them. I think this weekend I’m going to try re-formatting the entire thing from scratch, and see if maybe that fixes it. In that case, I’m happy to send new files to you PDF folks.

Also! It is UP on Amazon! It’s right here, for your Amazon-purchasing pleasure. (Link will open in new window/tab.)

I’m still waiting on B&N, sigh.

But, for you Nook-ers (or anyone else who does not want to buy from Amazon/doesn’t have a Kindle/whatever) you can still buy it directly from me.

The price is $3.49 (US$). Paypal is apparently set to GBP, in which case it’s apparently £2.20 at today’s exchange rate. Please let me know in the Instructions or wherever what format you want: .mobi, .epub, or PDF. (If you forget, no big deal; I’ll just email you and ask which you need, which is not a problem.)





Whatever you decide to do, thank you! It’s really exciting to see how enthusiastic you all are, and the lovely comments you’ve made so far about the new story PLAYING WITH FIRE have really been awesome to see. I’m so, so glad you like it!

What Stace had to say on Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
FIVE DOWN is available!

If you pre-ordered back in July, you should have* woken up this morning (awakened this morning? I never know which is right) to find a shiny new copy of FIVE DOWN, the Downside anthology, in your email inbox!

fivedowncover23

Yes, it’s finally here! I know, it seems like it took forever, and believe me it feels that way to me, too. But I’m really, really happy with how it turned out, and I hope you will be, too.

As the title implies (and the cover outright says), it’s five stories. They are:

RICK THE BRAVE (from the HOME IMPROVEMENT: UNDEAD EDITION anthology)
HOME (a Heroes & Heartbreakers original)
CLOSE TO YOU (a Heroes & Heartbreakers original)
KEEPING IT CLOSE (web original)
…aaaaaand a brand new novella (33k words) called PLAYING WITH FIRE, which has spontaneous combustion and divided loyalties and a confrontation and big decisions and a character or two who I’m pretty sure will be back again in later books.

Which does NOT mean that you MUST purchase and read the anthology in order to not be lost in later books. Think of PLAYING WITH FIRE as sort of like FINDING MAGIC: nice background, but not absolutely necessary. I dislike the idea of forcing people to buy extra content/previously published content if they want to understand later events, so I haven’t done that here. But I do think PLAYING WITH FIRE is a nifty novella, and Chess actually gets to have a little fun with another Church employee, which was kind of cool to do. Plus, again, spontaneous combustion!

I added a little intro to each story, just a note on where the idea or characters came from, or what influenced it, or whatever. I didn’t do much of that with PLAYING WITH FIRE, though, to avoid being spoiler-y.

I have begun the process of getting the book uploaded to Amazon and B&N. iBooks/iTunes is going to be quite a bit trickier, I’m afraid, since I no longer have a Mac–I actually have not even installed iTunes on this computer–and that seems to be a necessary part of the process. So we’ll see how that goes (we had some difficulty getting WRONG WAYS DOWN onto iTunes as well; it took like an extra couple of weeks).

BUT!

This book is different, and the process is different, so here’s what I’m doing.

You may remember how we ran KEEPING IT CLOSE through Paypal, and then I sent out the completed story file to those who requested it? It worked pretty well, I think, so I’m going to do the same here. If you do not want to wait for the anthology to be loaded onto your ebookstore of choice (I may or may not do a print version, I haven’t decided, but I can’t get that going until I have a PDF, and PDFs are unfortunately not quite ready–see below * section, sigh), you can go ahead and use the Paypal button to, well, pay for the book, and I will send you your copy in your preferred format as close to Immediately as I possibly can. (With KEEPING IT CLOSE I managed to be pretty damn close with the majority of requests; I think a couple of people may have had to wait a couple of hours, and in rare cases it was overnight–time zones, you know–but overall turnaround was pretty fast.)

I realize this isn’t ideal, but it’s the only way I can think of to make sure everyone can get it in their desired format, right away. And you are welcome to wait, of course. (Again, if you want PDF please give me another day or two!)

The price for the anthology is $3.49 (that’s US dollars; Paypal is apparently set to GBP, in which case it’s about £2.20. So if it won’t let you submit a dollar amount, go for that).





*Or, well, if you pre-ordered AND included what format you prefer. A few of you did not specify, and I’m in the process of emailing you to ask which you’d like. Also, a couple of you asked for PDF, which is unfortunately taking me just a tad longer to put together. I’m so sorry about that!

Want another excerpt? Here you go!

Instead a new man—an Inquisitor Third, obviously the guy in charge since the others were uniforms—arrived, spoke to one of the initial responders, and then approached her with a hesitant smile on his pleasant face. “Chess? Do you remember me?”

The second he said it, she realized she did. Of course she did. It wasn’t easy to forget the brother of an Elder Chief Inquisitor, especially when that brother had been only a year ahead of her in Church training. “Well, hey, Will, how have you been?”

“Not bad, not bad. It’s good to see you.” He tipped his head toward Ella’s corpse, now being photographed by the Body Removal Squad. “You know, if you wanted to catch up, you could have just left me a note or something.”

She fought back her smile. Will always had been fun to talk to, though they’d probably only spoken a handful of times. “Nah, that’s boring.”

“A lot safer, though. What happened?”

She gave him a quick run-down, and agreed to hang on while he talked to the other witnesses. Which gave her time to think, too, about what the hell could have happened to that poor waitress. How had she burned up so fast? How had that fire started? It was so hard not to start talking to the witnesses herself, not to dig in and start investigating. No, it wasn’t a Debunking case, but it wasn’t like she’d been given a decent Debunking case in the last few months. And really, she’d done enough non-Debunking shit for Bump that it hardly seemed to matter anymore.

But she couldn’t. She especially didn’t think she could go shoving herself into a case being handled by someone whose family name carried serious weight in the Church, and who was himself probably on a fast-track to further glory. The fact that he couldn’t have been more than twenty-six and was already an Inquisitor Third told her that.

All of which meant she was going to have to sit this one out, and hope she got an update when it was all over.

She’d just come back in from having a cigarette when Will motioned for her to join him near the back of the room, by the soda machines and kitchen entrance. The smell of hot oil and bacon drifted through the gaps around the flimsy two-way door as she sat in one of the chairs that had been placed on the grimy floor. Hopefully somebody had turned the fryer back there off, because another fire was the last thing they all needed.

Will sat in the chair opposite and scanned the written statements in his hand. “So you didn’t see the fire start?”

“No.” It was unnerving to be the subject of official questioning, rather than the questioner. It had only happened to her a few times in her cases—she never closed a case without solid, inarguable evidence, and the Church almost always got a confession anyway—but even when it had, she’d been backed up by the Church, testifying on their behalf. This was not the same.

Nothing in Will’s demeanor indicated he thought of her as a suspect. Why would he? Everyone else had seen that fire start, too, and they knew she hadn’t been touching Ella or standing next to her or whatever. But she still had to fight the instinct to clam up, to tell half-truths or deny everything. Old habits died hard, she guessed, especially when there were other kinds of habits that had to be kept hidden.

“You just felt the heat and turned to see her on fire.”

Chess nodded. “I’d only just looked at her when the flames started to die, and then the other waitress threw water on her. That’s when she broke apart. The cook came out with the fire extinguisher but I managed to stop him from spraying everything.”

“Thanks.” Will had a nice smile; he was a decent-looking guy, actually, with short sandy hair and blue eyes. Way too preppie for her tastes even if she’d been remotely interested in any man but Terrible, which she wasn’t, but still not bad-looking. “Or, I guess Kevin should really be the one to thank you, since he’s the one who’d have to scoop up all that foam and go digging through it.”

“Kevin’s the fire investigator?”

“Yep.” Will hesitated. Like he was about to ask an uncomfortable question, or one more important than he wanted it to seem. Hmm. “Did you feel anything before the fire started, or notice anything strange?”

“She was really hot,” she said slowly. Why had he hesitated before that question? What was he looking for? “She came to drop off our drinks, a couple of minutes before it happened, and I noticed she looked really overheated. But she seemed fine, she was smiling and energetic.”

“Nothing else?”

“No” was just about to jump off the tip of her tongue, when she remembered it wasn’t entirely true. “There was, actually. When she gave us our drinks…”

Shit shit shit, this was so fucking embarrassing. “I felt sick when she got close. But it didn’t feel like how magic usually feels, and my friend and I—I just thought it was the heat outside catching up with me, or something.”

Amazing. Lex could fuck things up for her by just being mentioned in a conversation.

“Do you think maybe you were picking up something from her? Her energy, I mean. Maybe something was wrong with her?” Will was looking at her very oddly. Very closely. What the—shit. Fuck, he could ask her to take a blood test, couldn’t he? He could search her bag.

Okay, now she was being ridiculous. Calm down. Yes, he could, but he probably wouldn’t. Why would he? Unless she started acting like she was nervous and high, of course.

“I don’t know,” she said, knowing it sounded cagey but really not sure how to change that. “I don’t know what happened.”

What Stace had to say on Thursday, September 11th, 2014
A little bit, and more

Well, what a month it’s been. My oldest daughter had a birthday, I had a birthday. The children spent a week with their grandmother, and I–who was convinced this would be the greatest week I’d had in years–actually spent a large chunk of that time moping and wishing they were home. How pitiful is that? I was ashamed of myself. Almost as ashamed as I was when, the night Mr. Hubs delivered them to his mother, I actually was afraid to go to bed by myself, although in fairness I have to say that this is a big, old house, which makes lots of bizarre creaks and pings and noises in the night. Almost as ashamed as I was when I realized, at about nine o’clock that night, that with no husband or kids in the house I could watch whatever I wanted on TV and there I was watching Goodfellas on DVD for the millionth time. Not that there’s anything wrong with Goodfellas, of course–it’s one of my favorite movies, as evinced by my having seen it like a million times–but I can watch Goodfellas anytime I want when the kids are in bed or at school or whatever, whereas bad TV about plastic surgery disasters or documentaries about murders or whatever else only air at specific times and I usually never even find out they’re on.

Also, I was sick last weekend. Stomach bug or something, I don’t know, but it was awful.

What else? Hubs and I have been watching Twin Peaks and this Venezuelan soap opera called Eva Luna, which is dubbed in English. The dubbing is…interesting, I’ll just put it that way. But it’s fun. I wish my Spanish was better, because the telenovelas always look like the coolest things ever.

Anyway. Enough about dull things like me. I meant to post this last Friday (but again, sick, bleh) so here it is today: a little sneak peek from the newest short which will be part of the collection I’m hoping like hell to have out this month. (As usual, this isn’t copyedited so may change slightly when published.)

The Perfect Plate was a sort of overdressed greasy spoon, squeezed in between a dry cleaner and a dollar store in a bland-looking strip mall a few blocks away from Church headquarters. The food there pretty much sucked, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like Chess was going to eat anyway.

What mattered was that the place wasn’t in Downside, which made it a place she could meet Beulah for lunch without people noticing them together. Word that Bump’s Churchwitch was hanging out with the sister of his rival, Lex, would travel pretty fast; word that Terrible’s girlfriend was hanging out with Lex’s sister would travel even faster. Nobody would be happy about that.

It was a good thing she’d spent her entire life keeping secrets. Otherwise she might wonder if she was ever going to be able to just be honest with other people. Other people besides Terrible, at least.

Speaking of secrets…she dug her pillbox out of her bag, grabbed three Cepts from it, and choked them down dry before she got out of the car and made her way through the heavy, steamy heat toward the restaurant.

Ice-cold air blasted her the second she opened the door, instantly chilling the sweat on her skin. It took her eyes a second to adjust to the dim interior—well, dim compared to the sunlight outside, so bright it felt like an assault—to see Blue already there, lounging at one of the little tables in that elegantly lazy way she shared with Lex. Her white sleeveless top exposed bare golden-skinned shoulders; her hair was up in a perfect messy twist, and her black cigarette pants probably cost more than Chess’s base monthly salary.

She smiled when Chess sat down. “You’re late.”

“It’s only five past.”

“Five minutes late is still late.”

“Well, you’re still a bitch,” Chess said, “so I guess we’re even.”

“True.” Blue straightened in her chair and picked up the menu. “Are you eating? Am I actually going to see you consume food?”

Chess shook her head, just as the waitress arrived and they went through the whole dull just-a-Coke-no-really-just-a-Coke routine and Blue ordered one of those rich-girl salads that were mostly green Styrofoam and cost fifteen dollars.

“Busy at work?” Blue asked, when the waitress finally wandered off.

“No.” Damn, that came out kind of flat and cold, didn’t it? “It’s just, August is a really slow month. It’s been a really slow summer.”

Blue’s slightly raised eyebrows showed that she’d caught the lame repetitions of ‘really,’ and knew what they were hiding. “And I guess it doesn’t help that you’re not the most popular girl in the place these days.”

“I guess it doesn’t.” That was an understatement. Ever since Elder Griffin found out about the psychopomp hawk she’d killed and the illegal sigil she’d carved on Terrible’s chest to save his life, he’d been, well, less than enthusiastic about her.

To be fair, at least she was still alive. Both of those crimes were executable offenses, and if Elder Griffin had turned her in for them she wouldn’t have been sitting there whining to Blue. She wouldn’t even have been in the City of Eternity, the enormous cavern beneath the earth where the spirits of the dead wandered in endless silence. She’d be in the spirit prisons, her soul forced into solidity by electric current and tortured by fire and light and iron and whatever else the Church could think of to torture it with—and they were awfully inventive.

It was worth losing some income to stay alive and out of the City. It was worth losing every penny she had to keep Terrible alive; hell, if she had been busted and sent to spirit prison, that would have been worth it, too.

But it wasn’t the loss of income that depressed her. It was the loss of Elder Griffin himself. He’d been…he’d been her friend. More than her friend. He’d cared about her, helped her. Stood behind her. That had mattered more than she’d ever realized until the day it was gone, and it still made her chest feel hollow when she let herself think about it.

Which she didn’t want to do, any more than she wanted to talk about it for even one more second. “No big deal. How’s your thing, did you look at that place yesterday?”

A totally-not-fooled expression played over Blue’s face, but thankfully she let it drop before Chess could finish bracing herself. “I think it’s going to work, yeah. There’s enough space for all the girls to practice, and it’s not far from the school.” She hesitated. “The owner’s son asked me out.”

“Oh? What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m sure I’ll find out. Or, you know, Lex will, and he’ll tell me.”

The waitress arrived with their drinks. Good. Not only was Chess thirsty, but hearing Lex’s name, so casually, made her feel sick. It was as if a greenish lens of nausea had suddenly slid over everything. Not unusual, for thinking about him to make her feel…well, bad, but it was unusual for her to feel it so strongly.

The waitress—her name, according to the plastic tag on her white short-sleeved button-down, was Emma—didn’t look too hot, either. Or rather, she looked exactly too hot, as if she’d taken their orders and then zipped into a rubber suit and gone for a jog. Her dark hair was damp, her face flushed.

But she smiled to acknowledge their thanks, and seemed sprightly enough as she trotted off back toward the kitchen. Maybe she’d just been making out with the cook or something. Not Chess’s business, certainly, but at least it got her mind off Lex for a second and eased some of the queasy feeling. The Coke helped, too.

What really helped was the fact that her pills started to kick in, sending enough warm peace through her body that she didn’t blink when Blue asked, “Are you ever going to talk to him?”

Unfortunately, not blinking didn’t mean she didn’t still feel the hit, or that she had any idea what to say. “I don’t know.”

“It was just business. And he did warn you. He asked for your help and you said no, what was he supposed to do?”

Like what Lex had done to Terrible—trying to hire him, and then when Terrible refused, trying to have him killed—was the only reason she was pissed. It was the main reason, yes, but not the only reason at all. But then, Blue probably didn’t know about the rest of it, about Lex’s little “Too bad it ain’t in you to make that mean shit,” speech or how he’d almost destroyed everything for her just to prove he could. Somehow she doubted he’d told Blue about that, and she certainly wasn’t going to.

“Not what he did,” she said. “Kind of anything other than what he did, actually.”

Blue ignored that. “Look, I was pissed at him, too. I don’t blame you. But I know he feels bad about it.”

“I’m sure he spends hours crying from shame. Is this why you wanted to hang out today?”

“No. We just haven’t talked about it and I thought I’d—”

A blast of heat on Chess’s right side so hot it lifted her hair from her shoulder; screams erupted in the room, and Chess started moving. Fuck, what was that, had someone set off a bomb or—what the hell?

The waitress was on fire.

No, that wasn’t accurate. The waitress wasn’t on fire. The waitress was fire, a column of fire about a foot and a half in diameter that reached from the floor to the ceiling. Her unmoving black shape was barely visible through a wall of blue-orange, one arm extended like she’d been reaching for something.

It’ll be out as soon as I can get it out! It is coming along, so like I said I’m *very* hopeful for a release before the month ends. I’m hoping for the next Terrible novella to be out by the end of October, and a bunch of other stuff in the months to follow, too (including some all-new non-Downside stuff I’ve been working on), so I hope you’re as excited as I am.

What Stace had to say on Sunday, July 13th, 2014
Groan, sigh

(Yes, a Sunday post! I am ALL OVER this blog thing, baby! Well, sort of. This isn’t really a “fun” post. But I’ll do my best.)

So as I said last month, I’ve got a lot of projects on the go, several of them Downside-related, a couple of them brand-new. I’ve been very, very busy, especially because my goal was to get something out next month–it was going to be a surprise, basically, and then the next Terrible novella was to be out in September. That was my plan, and I was (essentially) on track for it. Including earmarking a particular royalty check for various production costs and such.

Except the check’s been lost. It’s not the publisher’s fault (we know this for a fact); it’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just happened. This is worrying, as you can imagine, and frustrating. Because while I can hunt down the number for this particular house’s payment office–which isn’t the main office and only accepts phone calls for like three hours when the moon is full or some weird draconian thing, at least that’s how I remember my attempts to call them several years ago when I changed my address–they may not be happy to stop payment on and reissue a check which may simply be delayed in the post and could turn up a month from now (which did happen to us once before–an envelope took seven weeks to arrive). Which is a valid point. And of course even if they do so now (as opposed to telling me to wait thirty days or whatever) that could take more weeks, and then it’ll be a couple of weeks to get to our forwarder, and then who knows when they’ll send it out. So we’re looking at another month or two at least, which misses the deadline I had in mind.

So this is basically my apology for that, and explanation. I’d really wanted this week to be able to give you an estimated release date–well, an estimated release week, anyway–but without knowing when the check will arrive I can’t say, because pre-production takes time, obviously.

I mentioned this to Mr. Husband–well, I whined and moped and bitched about this for the last two weeks, is more like it, really–and a friend of his suggested Kickstarter, but you all know that Kickstarter weirds me out. If nothing else, I really dislike some of their policies. And you know I hate, hate, HATE asking or expecting you guys to pay for things or donate to help me get work out there or anything of that nature. It makes me feel icky. Really, truly icky, not just sort of icky, but ICKY.

But I also truly hate the idea of making you wait even longer for more stories, and while the pay-as-we-go story we did here on the blog was fun (and you are all so generous, a few of you so much so that it brought me to tears), and I think true serial stories are tons of fun, I do also think that when it comes to a self-contained short or novella it kind of… You know the sense of excitement that you get (as in the universal YOU, not you specifically) when you actually get to buy a copy of a book you’ve been looking forward to, and open it up, and read it all right there? There’s something really awesome about that feeling–that you’re about to dive into another world for a few hours–and you just don’t get that when reading a story in 3000-word clips on a blog. And of course posting it on the blog means it needs to be read on the blog, as opposed to it being something you can read offline or whatever. And again, having read it all on the blog means it’s kind of an anticlimax when you actually get a copy of it–and it’s an anticlimax for me, too, really, and I think it leaves out a lot of readers who don’t regularly read the blog or whatever. So that’s not my ideal option and I don’t think it’s yours.

So, okay. I’m trying to think of a way for this to work. It occurs to me that I *am* comfortable with the idea of pre-orders, and I like the idea that if you pre-order now, you get a copy pre-release. So what do we all think of this: Donate something now, and in the Notes section on Paypal write in what ebook format you prefer, and then I will send you a copy of the collection of shorts (with a new short) and an additional short* (see below), in that format before the final release date.

IN ADDITION…some of you have asked me if I’m planning to do shorts for other characters, which is something I hadn’t really thought much about. But…let’s do something fun with this. If you donate, also put in the comments which character you’d like to see in his or her own own-POV story. And I will write the winner. (If you cannot/do not donate, you can of course still vote; just comment or email your choice to DownsideArmy AT gmail.





Let’s have some fun, huh?

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

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.

Part 9 is here.

Part 10 is here.

.

.

Chess turned to the Randalls. She didn’t have a lot of time, but she could make enough for this, at least. She owed it to them. “I’m so sorry. I really am.”

Their horrified faces were going to stick with her for a while. There probably had been a better way to handle the whole telling-them thing, but she hadn’t been able to think of it; she couldn’t tell them before Pete got there because she seriously doubted they’d be able to hide their reactions, and she couldn’t tell them while questioning Pete because it would have lessened the impact on him—she’d been hoping he’d be shocked into actually answering her questions.

That didn’t make her feel better about it, though. Learning the daughter they’d been corresponding with for a decade was in fact some con artist being paid by a murderer? Yeah, that could have been broken to them a little more gently, and with a little less drama and Squad violence.

Drama and violence seemed to be the inevitable end of just about every situation in her life, though, didn’t it? Stupid to expect anything else.

Mrs. Randall opened her mouth to reply, but Chess needed to get moving. She hauled her salt-pouch from her bag, and grabbed a handful as she stood up. The power in the air was building, pressure rising, and soon it would burst. And then they’d really be in trouble.

Just as she’d agreed with them beforehand, Cohen and Lewis urged the Randalls to their feet and shifted them to an empty spot in the floor. Taking them outside would have been better if they knew Maria would materialize inside the house—they could solidify the walls on the astral plane, so she couldn’t get through them—but they didn’t know that, and they couldn’t risk putting the Randalls where they couldn’t be seen.

Salt poured from her hand in a nice solid line, circling the Randalls. She didn’t look at them, though. She looked at Pete Malina. “She’s coming, Pete. You know who she’ll go for first, right? The ghosts of murder victims always seek their murderers.”

Pete went even paler, which was kind of impressive. Chess hadn’t thought that was possible.

“She’ll be here any second,” she continued. “And look at all the weapons lying around here. You know, if you tell me where she is, I might be able to stop her. I’ll definitely be able to send her away faster.”

Neither of those things were entirely true, but hey. Fuck him.

“How did you do it? Where did you bury her? Why did you do it?”

Mike Randall lunged; it seemed he’d finally allowed himself to believe it, finally broke free of the horrified semi-catatonia in which both he and his wife had been standing. Cohen caught him. “Don’t step over the salt line, sir. It’s for your safety.”

Spots started popping before her eyes, bursts of power as the air rippled and gave. Oh, shit, she was about to face one extremely pissed-off ghost. “Where is she? Time’s running out. You’re not helping yourself, you know.”

Pete stared at her. He was about to give, she could feel it, see it in his eyes. Good, because she really wanted to get this done, and if he didn’t ‘fess up she’d have to stick around for hours while a crew of Inquisitors and Corpse Detectors and Retrieval Technicians hunted for the body—the bones, most likely.

Mike and Sue Randall were shouting, screaming at Pete. Both Cohen and Lewis struggled to hold them back.

“I could just tell them to let the Randalls go,” Chess said. “How long do you think you’ll last with them and a furious ghost after you? And then after they slaughter you, I send you straight to the spirit prisons. Sound good?”

A vase flew at Pete’s head. Damn, his reflexes were better than she’d thought they would be; he managed to duck away, and the vase smashed against the wall in a burst of greenish glass. The ripples in the air increased, the power increased, beating against her skin like dull hammers.

“She’s under the flowerbed,” Pete said. Fear and defeat changed his voice completely. “Under her bedroom window.”

Yes! Finally. She’d been right and she’d known it, but it was still a relief to have it confirmed. Plus a confession would allow her to hand the case over all wrapped up neatly—which looked good for her. No, this case wasn’t exactly a win as far as her Debunking record went. But it was a win as far as Catching Bad Guys, and especially with things the way they were, anything that made her seem like a good investigator was pretty helpful.

A knife whizzed past her arm. Any second Maria would materialize fully. Chess dug into her bag for her asafetida and graveyard dirt. She’d be able to freeze Maria in place the second she appeared.

But Pete didn’t need to know that, did he?

And he didn’t. She saw the plan form in his eyes and started to move a second after he vaulted from the couch and made a run for the window—right, he couldn’t open the door with his hands cuffed behind him. He was bigger and faster, but she was more agile; she caught him right before he tried to throw himself out the living-room window.

Unfortunately, “caught him” didn’t mean “stopped him.” Instead she went through the window right along with him, the sound of the breaking glass loud in her ears. Tiny shards hit her skin in sparks of sharp pain; worse pain jolted her entire body when she landed half on top of Pete on the damp earth outside.

If the Squad wasn’t there she’d have grabbed her knife and held it to his throat. Enough of this shit. Enough of this selfish bastard. He was going to fucking talk.

But the Squad was there, so she just met his teary eyes with her best fuck-you glare and said, “Why did you do it?”

“She was going to leave me.” For a second—just a second, but she saw it clearly—his fear disappeared, replaced by fury. Then it came back. “She was going to New York, she didn’t want me to go with her. She knew some guy up there—she was going to be with him.”

He started crying. “I didn’t mean to do it, I was only twenty. I just, I pushed her, that was all. It was an accident. It was—”

Maria appeared.

Pete’s words turned into a howl. He struggled to get away but Chess dug her knuckles into the base of his throat—a trick Terrible had taught her—until he went still.

Sue Randall screamed, and kept screaming, heartbreaking shrieks that made Chess’s eyes sting. She couldn’t imagine what that woman was going through; finding out her daughter was murdered and then seeing her ghost immediately after…awful.

Especially since Maria’s rage transmitted itself so clearly, like electricity in the air, that Chess bet Sue could feel it—she bet everyone could feel it. Maria wasn’t just a ghost. That would be bad enough, since ghosts were like sharks without the whole swimming-and-making-baby-sharks thing: perfect machines. All ghosts did was kill. It was all they wanted to do.

No, Maria was the ghost of a murder victim. So that violence and rage, that instinct to murder every living thing they saw, was amplified by a hundred.

She moved with a speed Chess hadn’t expected, that obviously the Inquisitors hadn’t expected, either. One second Maria was there in the kitchen, her features twisted with rage as she selected a knife from the block on the counter. The next she was a luminescent streak across the room, and the next her fist, solidified around the knife, collided with Chess’s cheek and knocked her off of Pete. Fuck, that hurt.

Pete tried to crawl. He managed a sort of pitiful scoot, pushing with his legs. Maria followed him, slowly now, obviously savoring his fear. His hoarse sobs and pleas scraped the air.

Shit. The herbs and dirt had flown from Chess’s hand when she went after Pete, and her bag was inside. No way could she get it and be back before Maria killed Pete—or, even if Maria kept drawing the whole thing out like a kid sucking a hard candy instead of biting it, it wouldn’t be too long before Pete broke the circle around the house. Which would allow Maria to go anywhere. And Inquisitors didn’t carry graveyard dirt and asafetida as a matter of course, at least Cohen and Lewis apparently didn’t.

Shit, shit, shit. She couldn’t let Maria kill Pete, as much as she’d like to. Not only were the Inquisitors there, and not only was she trying to wrap this case up as impressively as possible, but she sure as fuck didn’t feel like dealing with two ghosts instead of one. No other choice, then; she’d have to climb into the living room, find her bag, and—

Maria’s window wasn’t far from where she sat. Maria’s window, with her grave the dirt beneath it. No, Chess didn’t have time to dig two feet down—the best depth from which to gather graveyard dirt—but all that dirt would still be graveyard dirt, and it would be Maria’s.

Maria’s pale form, almost iridescent in the darkness, stood over Pete. The breeze that ruffled Chess’s hair didn’t touch hers, didn’t ripple the fabric of the sundress she wore.

Chess scrambled toward the bedroom window. Her cheek still throbbed in pain—well, almost all of her did, she’d gone through a fucking window—and all of the terror and misery in the air made her want to scream herself, but she dug her fingers into the dirt, picked up a fistful, and flung it at Maria, throwing as much power as she could along with it.

It hit. It worked. Thank fuck, it worked, and Maria froze in place, crouched over Pete’s supine body, the point of her knife only inches from his throat.

* * *

Four Cepts sat in the palm of her hand as she trudged up the steps to home, four—or was it five? Oh, who the fuck cared—hours later. After Banishing Maria and sitting in while the Inquisitors interrogated Pete, filling out all the paperwork, and going over everything with the Randalls, all she wanted to do was get high and get some rest. The Randalls’ horror and misery, Pete’s wailing apologies and self-justifications, refused to stop echoing in her head, and she didn’t want to hear them anymore. She had enough of her own shit in there already—some old, some new. The new was worse, at least at that moment.

Terrible sat on the couch, reading a Cornell Woolrich novel while Bo Diddley played on the jukebox in the far corner. His smile eased some of her unhappiness, but didn’t chase away Pete’s voice.

“I didn’t think you’d be home so early,” she said after he’d greeted her. The pills hit the back of her tongue; she washed them down with water, and crossed the floor to sit next to him.

“Aye,” he said. Concern darkened his eyes; his fingers traced the tiny glass-cuts on her face, the bruise forming on her cheek. “What’s all this?”

“Oh.” She’d almost managed to forget that. “I went through a window, and then a ghost—the girl’s ghost, the murdered girl—punched me. It’s no big deal, though, really.”

She’d think it was good that at least the people she worked with would know it happened on a case, but really, what difference did it make? They’d think whatever the fuck they wanted to think, regardless of what she said.

“Ain’t look like no big deal,” he said, but he dropped his hand to rest on her thigh. “You get him? The killer, meaning. You get all the knowledge an all?”

“Yeah.” She bit her lip. He was going to ask, so she might as well tell him. “He buried her in her yard. Under the window he used to sneak in at night. But she was leaving, running away to New York. Alone. To see some other guy, she said he was just a friend but Pete didn’t believe her. So he killed her. Because he was jealous.”

Terrible lit a couple of cigarettes and handed her one without speaking. Letting her go on, letting her get it out.

So she did. “He tried to say it was an accident, you know, but it was a lie. I could see it in his eyes. He liked that he’d done it, because she couldn’t get away from him. He even admitted it later, sort of, because we asked why he buried her there, right at her house, and he said he wanted to keep her close to him. Where she always had been, where she should be.”

His eyebrows rose, just a quick twitch, but he still didn’t speak.

“And then a year or so after that he met Gabrielle—that was the name of the woman he hired, Gabrielle—when he’d just started working at a real-estate office. She was doing some kind of scam, and he figured it out, and he stole a bunch of money to send her to New York and gave her all of Maria’s ID and everything. He still had all that stuff. He’d kept it all.”

“Damn,” Terrible said. His hand moved farther up her thigh; not hitting on her, but reassuring her. “Guessing iffen she ghost ain’t showed up, he ain’t woulda got caught for it, aye?”

“Right. Her parents were totally fooled by the letters and everything. But then when the haunting started, he knew what it probably was. So first he tried to convince me it was fake—well, you remember, I told you earlier—and then he tried to buy the house, thinking he could stop the investigation.”

She shook her head. When the hell would her damn pills hit? “But that wasn’t the only reason. He didn’t want anyone to dig up her body, because then it wouldn’t be there anymore, close to him. He didn’t want anyone to take her away. He wanted the house so he could keep her there forever.”

“Pretty fucked up, aye.” He didn’t sound surprised, but really, why would he? She wasn’t surprised, either. It wasn’t surprise making her feel so awkward.

It was wondering just how close she was, how close any of them were, to doing what Pete Malina had done. Wondering how far jealousy might drive a person; when love turned into anger.

She was pretty sure that no matter how jealous she might get, she wouldn’t kill Terrible. She certainly didn’t think he would kill her, and he’d had a lot more cause to be jealous than she ever had. Looking into Pete’s eyes hadn’t stirred some sort of primal recognition or anything.

But still…she’d seen Chloe with Terrible and her immediate thought had been how much she’d like to punch Chloe in her pert little face, just for daring to stand next to him and smile at him. And maybe that wasn’t a big deal—it probably wasn’t.

But Terrible was supposed to be dead. Right then, as he sat next to her, he should be dead. She’d broken the law, she’d broken her oaths to the Church, she’d broken a sacred trust in order to save him, and she’d done it because she couldn’t stand not having him with her.

What was the difference? Was there a difference, really? Yes, she’d saved a life and Pete had taken one, but it could definitely be argued that being in the City was a good thing. Most people wanted to go there, felt comforted knowing they would.

“It just kind of weirds me out,” she said finally, because she felt like he was waiting for her to speak. “He was so able to justify what he’d done. He’d broken the law but he could justify it because it kept her close to him, because he didn’t want to lose her. Or whatever.”

Pause. She almost felt the wheels click in his head, things snapping into place. “Aye. Only I’m thinking it ain’t what he done that’s mattering. Be what she wanted matters, aye? She wanted leaving, an he ain’t let her. Iffen she wanted staying, dig, be different.”

She smiled at him, a real smile. Her pills were hitting, that delicious slide from her stomach to her head and everywhere else. What a fucking relief that was.

But it wasn’t the whole reason for the smile, or for the relief. It definitely wasn’t the reason why she felt like the absolute luckiest person on the planet. “That’s kind of a labored analogy there, you know.”

He dipped his head. “Ain’t like words what I’m best at. Thinkin you getting my meaning, though.”

“Yeah. I get it.” And she did. She took his face in her hands and kissed him, a long solid kiss. More relief, more happiness clearing away the filth. His pulse throbbed against her fingertips when she pulled away to look at him. “So…what are you best at, anyway?”

He took her hand and stood up. “C’mon with me, aye? I show you.”

She followed him to the big gray bed, and let him do exactly that.

THE END

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Aaaaaand that’ it, guys! I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’m going to get to work on downloadable copies of the whole manuscript, and hope to have at least one up this evening/tonight.

Thank you so much to those who support me, and who supported this; I’m immensely flattered and grateful.

I’ll be back to post downloads etc., but if you don’t come back to check…I hope you all have a wonderful holiday (or have already had one) and an even better new year.

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

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.

Part 9 is here.

* * *

“So,” Chess said, sitting on the Randalls’ couch and taking out her files. “I just have some releases and stuff for you guys to sign. And your neighbor, the purchaser? I have some for him, too. I notice he’s not here yet.”

“He’ll be here any minute,” Mrs. Randall said. The happiness on her face was a knife in Chess’s gut. That happiness was about to be destroyed, crushed beneath the weight of the news Chess had to deliver. Funny how often that happened, that joy and Truth just couldn’t exist together.

She looked around the room, trying to ignore the tingling up her arms and across her chest as her tattoos reacted to the ghost energy in the air. Was that stronger than it had been? Probably. Not only did ghosts generally strengthen over time, but she was there in the house and the two Inquisitors who’d come along were standing in the back yard, waiting for Pete to come in so they could block the exits.

They’d wanted to come inside with her. She’d said no. No need to tip him off. His arrest was a matter for the Squad to handle, yes, but the Randall haunting was still her case.

“I see you’ve started packing,” she said, nodding toward the boxes in the corner.

“We can’t wait to get out of here,” Mr. Randall said. “Let this whole mess be his problem. Take my wife somewhere safe.”

Somewhere safe? Good luck finding that. “Before we start with all the paperwork, I just wanted to remind you that the sale of your house at this point forfeits your right to a settlement. The settlement amount in this case is forty thousand dollars.”

She watched them, her hand poised over the file; whatever they said next would determine which papers she pulled from it. If forty thousand was more than they’d make from Pete, they might change their minds, in which case she could skip all the transfer-of-ownership stuff. If they were making more from Pete…he damn well ought to authorize their withdrawal of those funds before he went to prison.

Mrs. Randall leaned forward. “Do you have to tell Pete that you told us that? Before the papers are signed.”

Chess smiled. Good. At least she could do one thing for these people. “No. I don’t. He’ll never know.”

“We still want to sell,” Mr. Randall said.

“Great.” Out came the transfer papers, and the ones forcing Pete to allow the investigation to continue. She shuffled the files around so that the Squad file was on top, ready for when she needed it.

“I still just can’t believe this is happening,” Mrs. Randall said. “The first thing I’m going to do is call Maria. Maybe we can go visit her. Maybe she’ll let us see her.”

Ouch. Chess was spared the necessity of a reply by the knock at the door. Pete Malina had arrived.

Mr. Randall let him in, to much hand-shaking and odious “I’m just happy to help you two,” bullshit from Pete. She couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he heard what she had to say, when he saw the contents of the file the Inquisitors had given her fifteen minutes before.

Speaking of them. They were ready, apparently; magic shivered up her spine as they set a circle around the house. That was the signal.

“Okay,” she said, after everyone was seated and Pete had accepted a drink and she had declined one. “Let’s get started. Mr. Malina, these are the first documents I need you to sign. They’re an acknowledgment that you’re aware of the potential haunting but still want to buy the property, and then that one releases the Randalls from any liability should you be injured because of the potential haunting.”

“Happy to,” Pete said. Like he was some kind of fucking beneficent hero or something.

She held out the next set while he was still signing the first. “These are the actual property transfer forms, including your authorization to pay.”

Just as she’d hoped, he grabbed them and started signing without paying attention. Without reading them, without any hesitation. “Then there’s confirmation that you’re aware of the active Church investigation currently underway and the rights of the Church in that regard, and then your statement of ownership.”

They all watched him scrawl his name across the forms, going so fast Chess was surprised his hand didn’t cramp. Well, he had reason to hurry, didn’t he? She imagined he felt like a drowning man who’d just grabbed a rope and was about to break the surface to safety.

Except she held the other end, and she was about to drop it. In spite of her anger, in spite of the unhappy knowledge that she was about to destroy the Randalls’ lives, she was very pleased to be doing that.

She held out the next sheaf of papers. “These are documents pertaining to the property’s history. Sign acknowledgment of receipt on the last page, please.”

He flipped the pages up. His face went white; she felt his sudden terror, his panic as he realized he was caught.

Their eyes met. She let every bit of knowledge shine in hers, let him see the Truth on her face as she spoke. “Mr. Malina, are you familiar with the woman pictured there?”

“No. I’m not.” She had to hand it to him. Not everyone could keep their voices that calm when they knew they were about to be busted.

But then, he was a sociopath, so why wouldn’t he be able to?

“Are you sure? Maybe this will help.” She handed over the copies of his bank records, with the money transfers highlighted. Next came the lease “Maria Randall” had signed on her apartment, and the arrest record from New York that listed that address as the place of arrest for a woman named Gabrielle Rose, whose image—an old mug shot—was currently staring up at Pete from the open file in front of him.

“That’s Gabrielle Rose,” she said. “But you already know that. I’m sure you also already know that Gabrielle is wanted on various charges—fraud, theft—here in Triumph City, and has been for about ten years.”

He didn’t reply.

“Is that why she went along with it?” Chess asked. “Is that why you asked her to do it? It must have seemed like a perfect solution, really. You got to cover up your crime, and she got to pick up a new identity and earn a nice little income just for listening to phone messages and writing a few letters?”

Chess could certainly see the appeal in that bargain. If she were Gabrielle, she might have taken it, too.

Except she’d learned that no matter what sort of new identity people tried to put on, it still wouldn’t remove the old one, wouldn’t wash away the past. The mirror reflected the same damn person, no matter what jobs they were lucky enough to get or what men they were lucky enough to be with. Gabrielle could call herself Maria all she wanted, use Maria’s ID to get bank accounts and jobs, present herself as someone with a different kind of life, a better kind, than she really had… But she was still Gabrielle, and everything she’d tried so hard to escape still clung to her, its bony fingers sticky with blood.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Randall’s nervousness transmitted itself in his voice, in the jangly energy of the room. Everyone in there—well, except her—was panicking or starting to, and it was going to get a hell of a lot worse in a second.

Which it did. Pete Malina threw himself off the couch, leaped for the door, and flung it open, only to be greeted by one of the Inquisitors—this one was J. COHEN according to his nameplate. Mrs. Randall screamed.

Pete made a break for the back door. Cohen chased him, but it didn’t matter much, because the second Inquisitor—B. LEWIS—waited for him there. Mike Randall attempted to get up; Chess stopped him with an outstretched hand, and they watched as Cohen and Lewis wrestled Pete to the scratched linoleum and Lewis cuffed him.

Tears ran down his red face. Yeah, Chess would probably be crying, too, if she was about to get sent to prison.

“What the hell is going on here?” Mr. Randall demanded, over Mrs. Randall’s horrified sobs. “What are you arresting him for?”

Chess watched, unmoving and unmoved, as Cohen and Lewis shoved Pete onto the couch. “Well, Mr. Malina?” she said. “Do you want to tell them why you’re being arrested? What you did?”

He didn’t reply.

“Will you tell us what you did with her? She’s somewhere near here, I assume. Under the house, maybe? Did you dig under there?”

Mrs. Randall looked at him, too. And at her husband, and at Chess. Knowledge dawned in her eyes, on her face. Chess’s grim pleasure at seeing Pete get busted evaporated.

“What are you talking about?” she asked Chess, but Chess could see she already knew. She could see both of them putting it together in their heads, ticking off boxes and connecting wires. “Who are you talking about? What did he do with who?”

And just like it was some kind of fucking cue, Chess’s tattoos caught fire. Maria Randall was about to make her presence known.

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…more tomorrow!

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

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

Part 8 is here.
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Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dame who ain’t you, aye?”

“I remember.”

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

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

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

“No. No bonus, for one thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…more tomorrow!

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

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

Part 7 is here.

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Ten minutes later her phone rang, interrupting the Suicide Commandos’s “I Need A Torch.” Well, well, what a fucking surprise. Maria Randall’s number—the number Pete had given her—showed up on the screen. Uh-huh.

She snapped the music off, pulled over—luckily she hadn’t hit the highway yet, because she couldn’t drive and take notes at the same time and no way was she not documenting this particular conversation—and hit the button. “Hello?”

“Hi, is this Cesaria Putnam? From the Church?” There was the trill. There was the faint distortion, too, a minor interference in the connection that made Maria’s voice—if it was Maria’s voice—sound distant and fuzzy. Not so much it wasn’t understandable, but enough so Chess had to strain a little to hear.

“Yes,” she said, instead of “You know damn well it is.”

“My name is Maria Randall. You called me?” A pause, and then an ingratiating, “Sorry I couldn’t call back earlier. I was at work, I just got your messages.”

“Where do you work?”

Another pause. “I work for J. Masters Personnel. We’re an employment agency.”

Masters. Not Mason or Martin, then, as Mike and Sue Randall had thought. She wrote it down. “You’re open late.”

“I was—my boyfriend owns the place, we were doing some paperwork and stuff.”

Sure they were. “Do you know why I’m calling?”

“I guess because my parents are faking a haunting? Pete told me about it. I’d rather not be involved, if that’s okay with you. I don’t associate with them, we don’t have much of a relationship. I don’t want to…I don’t want to get involved.”

Now it was Chess’s turn to pause. Not because she didn’t have anything to say, but because she was trying to decide which question to ask first. “Can I ask why? What happened with them?”

Maria sighed. “They didn’t like me dating Pete. They didn’t like me dating anyone. They didn’t like my grades or…honestly, they just didn’t seem to like me. My father kicked me out of the house when I was sixteen, you know. Did he tell you that?”

“They say you write.”

“I write to my mother,” Maria said. “I didn’t want her to think I was dead. But my father… You know he’s setting this whole thing up. He has to be. He’s been talking about it for years, how he’d do it. Really, you should just arrest him now and save yourself the trouble.”

Pete and Maria both seemed very invested in the idea that Mike Randall was some kind of criminal mastermind or something. Chess didn’t buy that. She knew a couple of those, and Mike Randall was nothing like Bump or Lex or even like Slobag had been. And he was really not anything like Terrible, who was one of the smartest man she knew, if not the smartest, despite his belief to the contrary.

Certainly he was the best man she knew.

And while she could certainly understand Pete and Maria’s desire to believe the Randall haunting was fake—she wanted to believe it more than anyone—it seemed as if they weren’t just convinced, but trying to convince her. Why would they do that?

Because they had some sort of vested interest in it being fake, that was why. Or at least in her believing it was fake…and ending her investigation. A suspicion slipped into her mind, an ugly one that nonetheless felt like Fact and Truth.

One she’d need to think about later. “And your mother? You think she’s part of the plot?”

“She’s totally under his thumb. He controls everything.”

Time to switch things up a little. “So you’re still close to Pete.”

“Of course.” Maria’s voice went all happy and soft again. Insta-trill. “He’s been there for me. Almost all my life. He’s a couple of years older, you know, he really… He always watched out for me. I guess he’s the best friend I ever had.”

Yeah, Chess would call just about anyone who gave her six hundred bucks a month a pretty good friend. She didn’t want to mention that, though; didn’t want to tip her hand. If her new suspicion was right—and ugh, she hoped it wasn’t—then playing dumb was the only way to go. “But your romantic relationship is over?”

A second of hesitation, and then, “I’m not sure what that has to do with my father faking a haunting.”

Damn. “Sorry, I just—you mentioned a boyfriend, was all. And…” Oh, yuck, yuck, yuck. “Pete seems like, um, like a pretty interesting guy. Smart, successful, takes care of his parents and everything. I just, I guess I just wondered, you know, he seems really fond of you and I thought, if you two still have a relationship…”

“Oh.” The smile in Maria’s voice turned her stomach. “Well, no, we’re not together anymore. We’re just friends. But he’s a great guy. Unlike my father. Always trying to come up with some scam, some get-rich-quick scheme. It was so embarrassing. And now this—like I said, I really don’t want to be part of this. My parents go their way and I go mine, you know?”

“Is that why you’ve never come back for a visit?”

“Why would I want to? So they can try to involve me in their schemes? I’m telling you, it’s all fake. I bet—I know where they hide things, okay? Like in my room, under my stuff. Under their dresser, they have a hidden drawer, I bet there’s something there. The cabinet in the kitchen, next to the fridge, that’s a false bottom. Look in those places. You’ll find the evidence. They’re lying.”

Yeah, Chess bet she would. And as long as she was gambling… “So, I guess I can’t send them up to stay with you, then?”

“What?” That wasn’t a trill, it was a shrill. “Why—why would they come stay with me?”

“Well, when their house is razed, you know. They might need somewhere to stay, and it would have to be with someone we know won’t lie to cover up for them, or—”

“Razed? Why would their house be razed?”

“Well, honestly, I think it’s inevitable in this case. I mean, if they’re lying, the Church will take the house, and we’d rather destroy it than try to sell it. And if they’re telling the truth, a haunting like the one they describe would really require the complete destruction of the property.”

It was almost fun to make up that much bullshit. It was even more fun to hear Maria’s silence.

More? Hell, yeah. “And, of course, if we arrest them for conspiracy to commit spectral fraud, we’d want to get a sample of your DNA to match. That way we can get you your check for the partial value of the house, since you’re not a part of their crime.”

She’d counted all the way to thirteen in her head before Maria spoke. “I don’t want any check.”

“But you should get one. You’re an innocent victim in this. And really, isn’t it the least they owe you? Especially your father, for how he treated you? This is your chance to finally get something back from him.”

“I don’t want any check,” Maria said. The fear in her voice came through the phone loud and clear, tingled up Chess’s spine. “I told you, I want nothing to do with them. Not ever. Give the money away or something.”

“But—”

“I’m sorry, I have to go. Just—just please leave me out of this. I don’t want a check, I don’t want to see them or talk to them. Okay? Please leave me alone.”

“I’m so sorry,” Chess said, making an attempt to sound sincere and not as if she was grinning. “But I really will need to stay in touch with you, at least for the time being. As long as your parents are the owners of the property I have to keep investigating, and by law and Church policy a check will be issued to you if and when the house is destroyed. You can do whatever you like with the money, of course, you don’t have to keep it, and you don’t have to see or talk to your parents, but this is unavoidable.”

“I see.” Another sigh from Maria, but a forced-sounding one. “Well. I see, then. Thank you.”

Chess put the cap back on her pen. “Really, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days and let you know how things are progressing. You just put this out of your mind. I know you’re not involved or anything.”

Like hell she wasn’t.

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…more tomorrow!

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

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

Part 6 is here.

* * *

Voicemail again. “Hi, this is Maria, leave a message,” in the sort of tone Chess imagined would have once been described as “trilling.” It sounded so much like trilling, in fact, that it was almost a song itself; a jingle for hairspray or something, produced on one of those machines that automatically made everyone sound like they were in tune.

The message wasn’t really that sing-songy, Chess was just irritated. It was her third fucking call that day, and still no answer or callback, and in general, when the Church called people didn’t ignore it. At least not if they didn’t want a visit from the Black Squad.

Actually…that was an idea. Not having the Squad visit Maria, but asking if they might be able to confirm some information for her. Because she didn’t have a Church file on Maria Randall yet; she didn’t know if it was a system issue or there was just a delay, but no file had arrived, and without it she had nothing to go on. The mailing address Pete had given her for Maria turned out to be a UPS Store, and the records Chess could search—driver’s licenses, addresses, employment, basic stuff—only covered Triumph City and the surrounding areas. Yeah, Elders could access more, but…asking Elder Griffin didn’t really appeal.

But the Squad would have access to all of that, too, and they were in the right city. It made sense to call them, or at least no one would think it was particularly unusual; she’d done it once or twice before.

The Church mainframe listed contact information for all the departments, in all of the offices worldwide. Chess walked into the library, ignoring the glances she got—because of Randy Duncan, because of the Lamaru, because of Terrible, because they all knew she had no family and didn’t live on Church grounds, who the fuck knew why—and headed straight for the row of computers. It only took a minute to look up the main Squad office in New York and scribble the number in her notebook. She’d go outside in a few minutes to do that; nobody in the building needed to hear her call.

Especially since she wasn’t fully certain why she was making it. There was no reason to believe Maria Randall was involved in any way with her parents’ case—yes, one of the standard elements of any Debunking case was talking to relatives, but if the family had been estranged for ten years there was little reason to think Maria could add anything.

It was just…something bothered her about it. About Maria. Not the fact that the girl had taken off—or been kicked out—ten years before and hadn’t really spoken to her parents since; Chess had never been much for chatting on the phone herself. It wasn’t that she was apparently still in touch with Pete Malina, either, because why wouldn’t she be? Aside from how spending time with, or talking to, Pete Malina seemed to Chess like some sort of punishment, anyway. Maria obviously hadn’t felt the same. Maybe because she was a triller.

Speaking of Pete, his file had arrived. She flipped it open and grinned. Ha, he was a salesman. Apparently a good one, too; his bank accounts were pretty healthy. Not a surprise. She imagined that plastic charm of his worked on a lot of people, especially the sorts of people who bought parcels of land for development.

Interesting, though, that with all that money—and every page in his file showed her another bank account—and access to all sorts of real estate secrets or whatever, he hadn’t moved his parents to a better neighborhood. Yeah, there’d been evidence that improvements were being made to their house, but still.

It was possible they didn’t want to go, of course. Maybe something she should ask about. She looked up, considering how to phrase the question, and caught one of the fourth-year students staring at her. He quickly looked away.

It was a really fucking good thing that she didn’t depend on the Church for her social life, because it felt like almost every day something happened to alienate her further—no, not to alienate her further, to remind her of her alienation. To remind her that she wasn’t like them and they weren’t like her.

That wasn’t going to change either, so it wasn’t worth thinking about. She turned her attention back to the file. What else, what else…heh. Pete spent a decent amount at various strip clubs and pick-up bars. He had subscriptions to a couple of different nudie magazines, too. No girlfriend, then, she assumed. He certainly wasn’t married, and no one lived with him in what Chess had no doubt was his intensely musk-scented modern high-rise on the edge of Northside.

Oh. Huh. Pete Malina sent money to New York every month. The same amount every month, six hundred dollars taken directly from his account and sent to Maria Randall.

So he was giving her money? He hadn’t mentioned that, and it seemed—given his “I give my mom cash because look I’m awesome” act—like the sort of thing he would mention.

Plus, hadn’t he said he’d gone to visit her a few years ago but she had some new boyfriend, or something like that? He hadn’t seemed too thrilled about it, either, or the way she’d made herself a life there. He’d seemed decidedly un-thrilled, in fact. She remembered that flash of anger or pain she’d seen.

So why was he subsidizing that? And so generously: six hundred a month probably wouldn’t go very far in New York—it wouldn’t go far in Triumph City, really, especially not for those who had necessities like drugs to pay for—but it wasn’t an insignificant amount. She’d think he was trying to somehow buy Maria back to him, except nine years was an awfully long time and he didn’t seem like the type.

Which left two possibilities: either she gave amazing phone sex, or he felt guilty for something.

Chess really needed to talk to Maria Randall. And she’d like to be able to do it before she headed back to the Randall place that night to check her cameras; ordinarily she didn’t go back that soon, but after finding that damned recorder that looked like a plant she thought it would be a good idea.

Right. Time to contact the Squad. And time to leave the Church library; no one was looking at her at that moment but she still felt like they were, like she had some kind of giant blinking FUCK-UP arrow pointing right at her head. She wanted to take a few Cepts and make the call, in that order.

Which she did, as soon as she reached her car. Much better. Just knowing she’d swallowed them, just knowing that in a few minutes they would start to enter her bloodstream, made her feel calmer. More cheerful. Let them stare at her.

Too bad that feeling wouldn’t last. And it didn’t; the first thing the Inquisitor Fifth on the other end of the line said after Chess introduced herself was, “Wait. Chess Putnam, like Cesaria Putnam? Triumph City Cesaria Putnam?”

“Um, yes.” What the hell? Was it not bad enough that everyone in Triumph City knew who she was? Now other cities were joining in the uncomfortable nonfun. Just what she needed. “I’m hoping you guys can—”

“The one who worked with Cassie Benz.”

Oh. Shit. It hadn’t even occurred to her that—well, of course they would. They’d known Lauren Abrams. They’d worked with Lauren Abrams. Chess thought she had, too, but she hadn’t. The woman she’d worked with was a female Lamaru member named Cassie Benz, who’d been impersonating Lauren through the use of some serious dark magic.

Cassie was still alive in the prisons, too. Chess had not been to visit her there.

And she really didn’t want to discuss any of it with a stranger on the phone. “Yes,” she said cautiously. “That’s me. Look, I was hoping—”

“And then she impersonated you.”

Chess didn’t reply. Whatever this woman wanted to say or do, whatever jollies she wanted to get out of recounting a situation that Chess had in fact lived through and so remembered perfectly well, she might as well just say or do it.

“Lauren Abrams was one of my trainers,” the woman said. “When I think about that woman pretending to be her… How much time did you spend with her? I mean, was she really that good? Is it true there were a bunch of gang members in the City, and there was a big fight there?”

Like she was going to talk about that.

On the other hand, though, she was asking this woman for a favor. “I spent a couple of days with her. And, well, she fooled the Grand Elder, and he was Lauren’s father, so…she was pretty good, yeah. I don’t know anything about gang members or fighting in the City.”

The woman’s dissatisfaction with this answer came through the phone as a long sniffy silence.

Chess did not have time for other people’s drama voyeurism. She threw her voice into that silence, in a tone that hopefully indicated she was in a hurry. “Listen, I could use some help with a case I’m on. I’m trying to track down a girl who lives there, but the only address I have is a UPS Store. Can you look her up for me, get me a home address and a phone number? It would really help me out.” Maybe some obsequiousness, for good measure? “And, um, I’m sorry about Lauren. I wish I’d gotten to know her.”

Pause. “What’s the name and vitals?”

Excellent. Chess gave her Maria Randall’s birthdate and Citizen ID number, and waited while the woman clicked computer keys and her Cepts started to hit. So nice. Especially after having those particular memories stirred up with the Intrusive Stick.

What was even nicer was that three minutes later she was able to hang up the phone, with a different address and a different phone number written down in front of her. Finally, it seemed like she might get somewhere—she didn’t know where she expected to get, really, since she still suspected the whole Maria thing was a dead end, but hey, it was giving her something to do, at least. Finally she might have an answer to something.

Ha, as if she ever could have answers, to anything. That was confirmed when she dialed the number. It rang twice before a woman’s voice answered. “Hello?”

That was not the voice on the outgoing voicemail message. No trill at all. It was much…heavier, she guessed. Lower. A roommate, maybe? “Yes, hi, can I speak to Maria, please?”

“Who?”

“Maria Randall?”

Pause. The phone went dead.

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…more tomorrow! We’re getting pretty close to done, guys; I’d originally wanted to finish on Friday but we’ll probably end up going through the weekend. I really hope you’re enjoying it so far!

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

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

Aaanyway.

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.

Part 5 is here.

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“Oh. Oh, aye, just gimme a hold-on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged.

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

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

“Just you and her, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “I love you.”

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

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

Now if only her case could be solved as easily.

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She guessed she’d find out.

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

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

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

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

Or was that latch faulty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky for her, she never did.

…more tomorrow! (I promise.)

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