Archive for 'downside stuff for you'



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 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!





What Stace had to say on Monday, December 2nd, 2013
Goodness!

Oh, do I feel guilty. I cannot believe I’ve been away for so long. I’m so sorry, guys!

I’m fine. I’ve been fine (I had a cold recently, but aside from that). I’ve just been tremendously busy: new Downside stuff, three new other projects, some non-work things…a whole bunch of stuff. Plus a couple of Internet Vacations, and more than a couple of research holes I fell down.

A few snapshot moments from my Lost Weekend:

Lou Reed died. I remember buying my first Velvet Underground album when I was seventeen (a compilation album, to be honest). Actually it was a cassette tape, which I played until it broke. Then I spliced it with Scotch tape and played it some more. It was a pretty miserable period in my life, for a number of reasons, and that album–I branched out at some point and picked up the individual albums–did a lot for me. I’m not really a huge fan of Reed’s solo work (with a few exceptions), but for twenty+ years now VU has been on my homemade mix tapes (remember those?) and then my iPod. I was actually surprised by how intense my reaction to this news was. It’s hard to express what that music meant to me and still does mean to me, and I frankly sound like a pretentious dork when I try to explain or quantify it. Suffice it to say I was pretty upset.

The other day we showed the girls JAWS for the first time. I so, so wish we’d had our phones out to video their response at the Big Jumpscare; you know the one I mean, when Hooper is underwater looking at the remains of Ben Gardner’s boat. They practically leapt out of their skins. Stephen and I, like all good parents, laughed very hard, which prompted an outraged “Why are you laughing at us?” from Princess. (Answer: because it’s HILARIOUS.)

We’ve been watching Justified, which is awesome. We’ve been watching The Sopranos, which is also awesome and I’m kind of ashamed to say I didn’t watch when it came out–not out of lack of interest, just lack of time. We’ve been watching A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is very awesome, and I highly recommend it. We’ve been watching The Blacklist, which IMO is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. And of course we’ve been watching Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which would be a lot better without isn’t-she-great-look-how-adorable-she-is-don’t-you-love-her-no-seriously-you-must-love-her-it’s-clear-we-expect-you-to-love-her-damnit Skye.

Also saw the new Thor movie, which we enjoyed quite a bit.

I’ve perfected my bread recipe.

My Faerie’s school choir, of which she is a member, participated in a performance of Noye’s Fludde at Exeter Cathedral in October. I’ve never been a fan of the Noah’s Ark story; I get that the whole animals-two-by-two thing is supposed to be charming (or something) and little kids like that and there are lots of kiddie toys featuring the ark and the animals, but I always found it pretty disturbing, to be frank. But of course, this particular show, while still having the creep factor, also had the world’s most adorable duck marching onto the ark in her pink jammies, which made a huge difference in my enjoyment levels.

I’ve been forced to “upgrade” my iPhone’s OS to that new one that sucks. My favorite part of it, aside from it being ugly, and the YouTube app which is practically unusable, and the loss of Google Maps, is the fact that my audiobooks no longer have chapter listings. That makes it lots of fun to try to hunt for a particular scene or bit of information, especially when driving or cooking with stuff all over my hands. Why just hit a chapter number and go right to it when I can attempt to scroll around a five-hour block to find it? It’s like an adventure, right there on my phone. Whee!

So you can see it’s been pretty busy here, aside from the new projects and general other life things happening.

Even then, though… I had something planned, which I didn’t finish in time. So I’ve come up with a compromise, sort of, which I hope you guys will like.

See, it’s been my plan for a while to compile the two existing previously published Downside shorts (HOME, available from Heroes & Heartbreakers, and RICK THE BRAVE from the HOME IMPROVEMENT: UNDEAD EDITION anthology) which I now have the right to re-release on my own, add a new previously unreleased short, and release the three stories as an ebook for the holidays–actually, I’d hoped for a November release. I have the new short, but I totally didn’t get it done soon enough to do all the formatting and cover-art-commissioning and all of that stuff.

This makes me feel Bad.

I think I’ve come up with a solution. A hopefully-fun solution, which will also be a bit of an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes.

Here’s my plan (I am open to and interested in feedback; contact me privately if you wish, using the Contact form here on the site):

I’m going to post this story here, on the blog, starting later this week. And I’m going to set up a Paypal button where, if you feel the story is worth paying for, you can pay whatever you wish to pay for it. But the story is here anyway; I’ll be honest and say I hope you will, but there’s no obligation. And then, after the new year (probably) I’ll get it all formatted and everything, with a cover and all that fancy stuff (I’m hoping pay-what-you-want will at least cover some of the costs there, but if not oh well), and offer it for download here on the site (in all the regular ebook formats).

Then, since I have another short, I’ll package it, plus HOME and RICK THE BRAVE, plus the new unpublished short, all together, and that one will go up on the retail outlets and such and all for a low price (or, if pay-what-you-want is a success, maybe I’ll do that the same way. We’ll see).

I’m also hoping/planning to have the second Terrible POV novella up by late spring. Sales of WRONG WAYS DOWN surpassed my expectations, which was/is pretty awesome, and thank you all so much for that! So since you all seem to enjoy reading from his POV, and since you all seem to want to read his side of the story of UNHOLY MAGIC and CITY OF GHOSTS, that will be the next Terrible story. (Also, I do have the winner[s] in the WRONG WAYS DOWN contest, and will be announcing them next week when the short story wraps up. I honestly thought I had posted those.)

Speaking of retail outlets, btw, Amazon has pulled DEMON’S TRIAD, the X-rated novel I co-wrote with Anna J. Evans for Ellora’s Cave back in 2009, because of the extreme content. They offered us the chance to edit out that content, and we have refused–to do so would have required some story changes we feel would hurt the book, frankly, in a number of ways. So if you’re looking for DEMON’S TRIAD, try EC’s site or whatever other retailers you buy your books from.

So…to sum up:

I’ve been busy but that’s no excuse, and I’m sorry for my absence;

There’ll be a new Downside short here this week & next week that I hope you’ll enjoy and think is worth something;

I have missed you all;

I’ve got a lot of new stuff coming out in the next few months.

What Stace had to say on Thursday, July 7th, 2011
L.A. BANKS AUCTION OPEN!

And you can bid to win a custom T-shirt from the Downside Market and a Downside playlist (your choice).

What is the custom t-shirt? Well. It can be whatever you’d like it to be. Have a favorite quote from the books you want on a shirt? Let me know, and I’ll get it on there. Want your name on the back? I can do that. Want it to say “Terrible loves only me?” I can do that, too. Want to do your own design and have it added to the Market itself? Let’s talk! I will contact the winning bidder after the auction closes to discuss ideas or thoughts; of course, if you just want to pick an already-existing design you’re welcome to do that, too.

L.A. Banks needs our help. And since everyone knows my readers are the best readers in all of readerdom, I really hope to see you all bidding! Not just on my items (although of course I’d love to see them do well so I don’t feel like a huge loser), but on all of the other amazing stuff that’s listed. Look at this auction, it’s huge!

Yesterday we sent out the new Downside Army email, with an excerpt from my story in the upcoming HOME IMPROVEMENT: UNDEAD EDITION anthology. If you didn’t get your email and you have signed up here on the site, let me know. (Also, please double-check the email address you sign up with!) I mentioned in the email that this is the first new Downside material to be released since CITY OF GHOSTS’s release date almost a year ago (in fact, today is the one-year anniversary of UNHOLY MAGIC’s release, now that I think of it). Which, technically, it is. THE BRAVE TALE OF MADDIE CARVER isn’t really a Downside story; although Elder Griffin is in it briefly, since it’s actually a story about the beginning of Haunted Week there was no Downside at that time. (There’s a bit of the history of the place and how it became what it is in SACRIFICIAL MAGIC, actually.)

So technically MADDIE CARVER isn’t a Downside story. And of course the story doesn’t have Chess or Terrible or Lex or anyone in it, since they were babies or toddlers at the time (aaw). RICK THE BRAVE (the antho story), on the other hand, does.

So that’s it for today. Please go bid on items to help L.A. Banks, and if you’re a DA member but didn’t get your email, let me know.

What Stace had to say on Monday, September 27th, 2010
The Downside Market is OPEN!

For pre-orders, which I will explain in a minute.

First, now that I have your attention, have you all heard of A Glimpse of Darkness? It’s the multi-author story I’m participating in on Random House’s Suvudu blog, and it’s enormously fun; it’s a choose-your-own-adventure! Well, not choose your OWN, but the readers vote on what happens next, and we poor writers get less than a week to then write what happens next. I know!! It’s me, Lara Adrian, Kelly Meding, Harry Connolly, and Lucy A. Snyder, and we have a great story, and I’m so excited to get to participate. So please, come on over and get involved! Vote! Read! Make fun of me! Whatever you want.

Chapter One, written by Lara Adrian, is here.

Harry Connolly’s Chapter Two will be up today.

I hope to see you all over there, commenting and playing along!

Now…*drumroll*…

We have a web store! The Downside Market is open for pre-orders!

And, as a special pre-order, opening special thank-you giftie you guys rock blahblahblah, we’re offering 10% off ALL orders between now and October 8 (when the pre-order period ends).

Simply enter the coupon code PREORD10 at checkout.

Now, why pre-orders? Well. Because I want to be able to keep prices lower for you guys, and that’s the way the company I’m working with works. (Southern Promo, to remind you all.) Because I want to keep those prices reasonable while at the same time offering really high-quality items–name brands–which the pre-order period will enable us to do.

But mostly, it’s so we can see what you guys want and what you don’t, and so we can change and update things to respond to that. Remember, this isn’t some big automated company where machines pick your generic item from a pile of other generic items. This is a small company run by actual people, who will be working to make sure everything is the best it can be, and helping out if by some small chance people aren’t satisfied. To me that’s worth a lot; certainly it’s the kind of experience I think you deserve.

Right now we don’t have as many items for each individual design; again, that’s so we can adjust to what you guys want. So please, if there’s something you’d rather see in a different style shirt or something, use the contact form here (the one there isn’t up yet) and let us know! If there’s something you don’t see at all, let us know! Comments? Complaints? Compliments? Please, do say something. This is all new to me–and frankly rather scary, as I’m convinced that we’ve done all this work and we’ll end up selling four shirts and that’s all–so I really want to hear opinions!

I think we have a pretty good selection up, though, Lots of colors and sizes; I made sure of the sizes, especially. And again, high quality is very important to me, and being able to offer good, affordable prices is even more so. Of course there are a few tote bags and other swag items, too, as well as a selection for the gentlemen (although that selection is admittedly smaller, since several of the designs are, well, for girls. You’ll see what I mean).

Something else is important to me, too. I think all of you are aware of my feelings about urban fantasy as a genre, how much I love it and love writing it. To that end, we designed several urban fantasy t-shirts; shirts not specific to my world or books, but which celebrate the genre itself. Because you know what? It should be celebrated! So please, check those out. And tell all your UF-fan friends! I’m planning/hoping to add more of those as well if they prove popular, and I really hope they will be. I’d love to see us all being proud, and saying it loud (ha, see what I did there)!

We’ll be adding new designs and items periodically, as well, and of course each time I’ll mention it here.

So…that’s it! What do you think!?