As a Debunker, Chess Putnam is used to investigating reports of suspected hauntings and sending ghosts back to the City of Eternity beneath the surface of the earth. What she isn't used to is having suburban housewives refusing to acknowledge the presence of ghosts in their homes. There are lots of reasons why someone might harbor a spirit, and none of them are good.
At least Chess has Terrible on her side. But things are never as black and white as they seem, especially not when love is involved, and Chess finds herself making a decision she never thought she'd make.
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
April 09, 2012
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Excerpt from Home (Downside Ghosts) by Stacia Kane
Most--no, all--of her cases started the same way: A homeowner or building resident called the Church to report a haunting. The Church assigned a Debunker to the case to investigate the haunting and hopefully disprove it, to make sure the person in question wasn't just faking in order to get a nice fat settlement in exchange for the Church's failure to protect them from the dead.
After all, just because the population was smaller thanks to Haunted Week twenty-four years before, when the ghosts had risen and killed every living person they could, and just because the Church of Real Truth was in charge now, didn't mean people didn't still need money. They did. Just like Chess. She needed money for food, for rent, for the electric bill and the cell phone bill and all of those other things. And of course for drugs: the things that made her life worthwhile.
So Chess worked, and she worked hard, and she'd handled a lot of cases and gotten a lot of bonuses for disproving a lot of hauntings. But she'd never had a case before where a neighbor called the Church to report the ghost and the homeowners insisted there wasn't one.
She'd rather not have the case. It was probably a huge waste of time; time she could be spending with Terrible, in his big gray bed. Just thinking about him made her smile, sent a cheerful little shiver up her spine. Love was terrifying, and weird, and sometimes uncomfortable. But it was so fucking sweet.
It was also going to fuck up her concentration if she didn't stop thinking about it. With effort she tamped down the heat rising in her chest, reached into her pillbox and popped a couple of Cepts to help chase the feeling away.
The street looked like any other in Cross Town. Like any other street in any of the suburbs of Triumph City, really, or any in the District. Houses with smooth blank faces, all of them alike, watching each other across a wide expanse of concrete, two shiny cars in each driveway like weapons laid out on a table before them. So living-the-good-life. So upwardly mobile.
So rotten. The people living inside those assembly-line buildings were people who gave a shit what others thought of them, and that made them dangerous. That made them people who'd sell out their mothers if it meant getting into the right person's address book.
Chess knocked on the pale blue front door of number 422, a bland two-story with peaked windows and a tiny afterthought of a front porch. The woman the door revealed when it opened looked like every self-satisfied suburban real-estate agent Chess had ever seen. The scent of smug drifted from her in waves.
"I'm Chess Putnam, from the Church. You made a complaint about a haunting--"
"Yes, yes, get inside. Hurry, please." Mrs. Brent's clawlike fingers wrapped around Chess's upper arm and pulled, exhibiting the sort of wiry strength Chess usually associated with desperate speed-pumpers on a long run. Chess almost stumbled over the threshold; Mrs. Brent slammed the door behind her.
The second she flipped the lock, Mrs. Brent's entire manner changed. Her face didn't move--Chess didn't think it was capable of that, not with all the surgeries and injections the woman had obviously had--but her shoulders relaxed, her back straightened.
"There. May I offer you a drink, Miss...Parkman, did you say? Are you related to Judge Parkman, by any chance?"
"It's Putnam, actually. No, thank you, I don't need a drink. Why don't you just tell me about the ghost? What made you call the Church?"
Mrs. Brent motioned Chess into the wide living room to the left, so full of beige it was almost invisible: the interior design equivalent of a bowl of porridge. The couch was comfortable enough, though, especially when sweet opiate peace started drifting through Chess's bloodstream from the Cepts she'd taken outside.
"I've been watching them." Mrs. Brent sat too close, leaning in. Like she and Chess were pals or something. "I've seen the ghost. In their kitchen one night. In the living room another. All hours of the night it's wandering around in there, glowing just like it has a right to be there. Just like it isn't disgusting to--"
"How did you see this?" The last thing Chess needed was for Mrs. Brent to go off on an indignant little tangent. The sun had just started to set and the Runners were playing at Chuck's later, and she was going to meet Terrible there and needed to get ready first. The sooner she left Mrs. Brent's self-righteous pseudo-mansion the better.
The woman colored slightly beneath her stiff, ultra-frosted blonde hair and matching stiff, ultra-frosted makeup. "My kitchen windows face their house. I've been working on tracing some more ancestors lately--we go back over two hundred and fifty years, isn't that wonderful?--so I've been in there working, making tea and such, you know. And from my desk there I can clearly see that ghost running around their house. It's terrifying."
Finally. "Can I see the kitchen?"
Chess followed her down a hallway lined with posed family photos: Mrs. Brent, a balding man running to floridity and fat, two kids with toothy grins. Typical family. Typical house. So average they could move out and another family could move in and no one would even notice. Just being there made Chess itch.
"See? Right here. This is my desk."
Not so much a desk as a section of granite countertop without a cabinet below, really, and two small drawers. Neat stacks of paper sat next to a closed laptop computer. The Brents were online, then. Good. Chess made a quick note in her pad: Check internet records re Brents. It wasn't unheard of for people to conspire together, after all.
"When I sit here I see right through their windows, see?"
Right through was a bit of an exaggeration. Mrs. Brent wasn't that much taller than Chess's own five-foot-six, and Chess had to hold herself in a hunched sort of squat over the chair as if it were a public toilet in order to see the Solomon house. So Mrs. Brent was nosy. Not a surprise.
"I saw it more than once." From her stack of papers Mrs. Brent produced what appeared to be a list, all typed out on plain white paper, printed in a "cheerful" font in bright green ink. "I've noted all the dates and times here, as you can see."
Chess scanned it, pretended she cared. "Can I take this?"
"Of course, sure. That's going to help you, right? I can testify. I'm ready to testify anytime. Those Solomons, her with her jingly jewelry and her tacky long skirts, and him, he's some sort of...some sort of hippie, or something, he owns some organic store or something. Just look at their cars."
Chess couldn't. The house blocked them. Nor could she see in any other windows of the Solomon home, which belied Mrs. Brent's statement, but whatever. Busybodies liked to exaggerate. It made them feel important. "Are there any other windows that face their house?"
"Just the landing."
"Can you show me?"
Mrs. Brent kept up her stream of brittle chatter as she led Chess back down the hall and up the stairs--not about the Solomons anymore, but about the country club and some ball being held there, and her children's school, and whatever other shit Chess didn't give a fuck about. But from the landing Chess could indeed see into the Solomons' living room, which Mrs. Brent termed "ghastly," presumably because the Solomons had used colors that didn't match their skin tone.
A little blue sportscar sat out front. That must have been the vehicle that annoyed Mrs. Brent, although Chess couldn't figure out why. She supposed it looked like some sort of superfast threat, but only to someone who didn't know anything about real cars. What it actually looked like was a midlife crisis. Terrible's Chevelle would leave that thing in the dust.
"When they had their parties, people parked all over the lawn. Our lawn, too. Sometimes they'd leave tire marks. And--"
"Parties? They do that a lot?"
"Almost every weekend until a month or so ago, I think. Sometimes they have their parties in the dark, too. If you know what I mean." Mrs. Brent's mouth twisted in disapproval.
"They were having...adult parties?"
"I suppose you can call them that. All sorts of people, about a dozen, and they'd play music for an hour and then the lights would go off, and all we could see was maybe a little bit of light. And then everyone would leave a few hours later. I'm not complaining, but you tell me what normal kind of party only lasts until ten or eleven at night."
How the fuck would Chess know? She'd never been invited to a party in her life, at least not as a guest. As a child--before the Church found her and made her a witch, made her one of them, gave her a real life--she'd been the entertainment at a few, sure, but she'd stopped looking at the clock early on, when she realized the hands only moved slower when she paid attention to them. And in Downside, where she lived, eleven at night was practically dawn. Things were just getting started.
"Is there anything else you can tell me, Mrs. Brent? Have you noticed any strange sounds coming from the house? Have you experienced anything--chills, things moving without you having moved them, feelings of being watched, that sort of thing?"
Mrs. Brent shook her head. "How can I keep that from happening? I have two children, Miss Pitman. I don't want them in danger just because the Solomons live like hedonists."
"Putnam. And I'm afraid there really isn't, no. They don't tend to drift much, though, not when they're on their own. If there's a ghost--"
"If? I've seen it. I know it's there."
"If there's a ghost, it's probably there for a reason. Some sort of connection to that house or that piece of land. That's what we usually find, anyway. So chances are it won't drift over here."
Mrs. Brent followed Chess back down the stairs. "So when will you get rid of it? How long will that take?"
"I have to prove its existence first."
"But I know it's there. I saw it. You know, my husband went to school with Javier Ramos, the Elder, and I'm sure when he tells Javier about your refusal to--"
That was it. Chess stopped short on the stairs and fixed the woman's plastic face with a dead-eye glare. "Mrs. Brent. I am following Church procedure, and Church procedure in these situations is very clear. Elder Ramos will tell you that himself. I assure you I'm going to do everything I can to keep you and your family--and the Solomons, and everyone else--safe. But it can't be done in a day. Okay?"
Mrs. Brent sniffed. "Well, that's fine, but I hope you have a resolution to this soon. I have a very important dinner party the week after next and I can't risk something happening that night."
Right. Never mind the possible deaths or anything. Never mind that ghosts were basically just killing machines and if the Solomons had one it was only a matter of time before the thing built up the strength to attack them, Mrs. Brent's social standing was on the line. Another typical thing about this typical woman, and Chess was starting to choke on the thick fog of snobbish conformity polluting the air.
"I'll keep that in mind."