Authors: Stacia Kane
Downside Ghosts - 0.5
When eighteen-year-old Chess Putnam is offered the chance to train with a special team of investigators known as the Black Squad, she feels torn. She’s never been a team player and hates how one male Inquisitor condescends to “the new kid.” But at her first bloody crime scene, she gets a taste for investigation—and is hooked on the high. Though the seasoned Inquisitors consider the series of ghost murders random events, Chess starts to detect a pattern. Is a psycho killer summoning ghosts from the City of Eternity and using them as murder weapons? As Chess gets closer to the dark truth, she puts herself in grave danger and risks losing everything she’s fought so hard for.
Includes a special preview of Stacia Kane’s upcoming urban fantasy thriller, Chasing Magic!
hess was sitting in the Church library, studying
Psychopomps: Their Uses and History
, when Elder Marks appeared on the other side of the table. As usual, his blue suit looked dusty and the cuffs were frayed; as usual, the black Church makeup ringing his eyes had smudged halfway down his cheeks, making him look less like a ghost and more like a drunken clown.
“Thou are wanted in Elder Griffin’s office, Miss Putnam,” he said, and left almost before he’d finished the sentence, like giving her the message had been only a stop before the many important errands he had to run.
Chess already knew that was bullshit. Three years of Church training had taught her a lot; a lifetime of shit had arguably taught her more, and she knew—along with everyone else, to be fair—that Elder Marks did little more than fill space at that point, that he was just waiting for the retirement shoe to drop.
Not that she blamed him. How could she? He’d been with the Church all his life, had started back when it was nothing more than an underground magical group, before the ghosts rose from their graves during Haunted Week in 1997 and changed the world forever. Before the Church sent those ghosts into the City of Eternity under the surface of the earth and took control of the world above it.
Elder Griffin … the name conjured up a flash of blond hair and a friendly smile, but not much else. She’d never really spoken to him before; hell, she didn’t think he even knew her name. And why would he? He wasn’t a teaching Elder. He oversaw the Department of Spectral Fraud: the Debunkers, the Church employees who investigated reports of hauntings to determine their truth.
Those reports were usually fake. Not hard to believe, considering how much money the Church paid as reparations if a house was really haunted. Not hard to believe, considering what greedy sacks of shit most people were.
She closed the book and stood up, brushing her hair off her shoulders. Just seeing the stupid dirty blondish color of it annoyed her. As soon as she graduated from training she was going to start dyeing it again. Maybe not dark blue like it had been when she’d arrived at Church to start classes there, but something.
The book went into the big army-green bag she’d found at a thrift store a few weeks before, along with her notebook and pen. Or … maybe she should keep those out? So she looked serious, so he could see she was prepared. After all, he
a teaching Elder. He was administrative, he reported directly to the Elder Triumvirate, to the Grand Elder himself.
So what did he want with her?
No way to ask Elder Marks; he’d already drifted out of the library. No time to think about it, either. The last thing she wanted to do was delay, make herself look irresponsible or like she didn’t care.
The Church headquarters were always busy, but especially on Thursdays, when the Liaisings took place. People crowded the low dark-wood bench against the wall opposite Elder Griffin’s office, waiting their turn to visit with the spirits of their dead family members. Above them a frieze of ghosts and magic symbols lined the wall near the ceiling. Still hard to believe she was a student here, that if she passed her training she would actually work here. She could live the rest of her life here, safe under the Church’s watchful eye. It could be her home … her real home.
Shit, she was lucky.
Elder Griffin’s door opened under her careful tap. He’d been waiting for her, she guessed, since he stood only a few feet back, smiling that smile she’d remembered. Friendly. Open. “Welcome, Miss Putnam. Are thee well?”
She dropped into her well-practiced curtsy, trying to smile while her insides froze. Elder Griffin wasn’t alone in his office. Elder Hancock and Elder Charles sat in rounded wooden chairs in front of a desk—Elder Griffin’s desk—and Goody Evers stood by the tall built-in bookcases near them. At her side were two people Chess couldn’t identify.
All those people. Six of them. Her breath froze in her chest. They were kicking her out. Oh shit, they were going to kick her out, she knew it, she’d been waiting for it … she’d known it was too good to be true.
“Miss Putnam? Are thee well?” Elder Griffin took a step toward her, his gentle brow furrowed beneath his wide-brimmed hat.
Right. They were watching her, they could see her. If they wanted to kick her out, fine. They could kick her out. She couldn’t do anything about that. But she sure as hell could do something about her reaction to it. She could make sure they didn’t know they’d hurt her.
She was good at that.
Her bright smile hurt. Too bad. “I’m fine, sir, very well, thank you. And you?”
“I am well indeed. Come in, please. Here, we’ve saved you a chair.…”
They’d saved her a chair. Because they knew she’d need to sit down after what they had to say. Her legs were numb.
She made it to the chair—thankfully—and sank into it, hearing the leather hiss beneath her. Hearing her breath rasp in her lungs, hearing her muscles move. Like it was all happening to someone else, like she was watching a slow-moving close-up in a movie while her brain jammed at triple speed. They were going to kick her out. She’d fucked up somewhere. They’d figured out she didn’t belong there, that she wasn’t good enough, smart enough, that she didn’t deserve it.
Where would she go? Where the hell was she going to go?
Elder Charles cleared his throat. “Thou are probably curious about why thy presence was requested.”
In his lap sat a pale blue file: her school records. He opened it, his face tilted down to look at the pages. “Your results from the latest aptitude test round have come in.”
She’d flunked. She’d flunked, and that was it. She just—How was that possible when she’d studied so hard, practiced those spells into the wee hours, long after lights-out in the dorm?
They were all looking at her like they expected some response, but she couldn’t bring herself to make one. Her throat was too tight, so tight it hurt. The best she could muster was to raise her eyebrows a bit, tip her head in what she hoped looked like a curious nod toward the paper he held.
“Very impressive,” he said finally. “We were especially interested in your counterhex results, and the number of spells you improvised from the ingredients you were given.”
Elder Hancock smiled. “The power-raising sigil was an especially nice touch.”
They weren’t kicking her out. They were—they were saying nice things to her, they were smiling, they thought she’d done well. Relief flooded her system, so strong her vision wavered; for a second she was afraid she was going to pass out. “Thank you, sir.”
He nodded. “As you know, students in their last year of classes are given the opportunity to work with employees in various positions around the Church, to help them choose their future career. You have not yet made a decision?”
He turned from her then, gesturing at the two people standing behind him. “This is Special Inquisitor Scott Freemont and Inquisitor Second Jillian Morrow. We’d like you to work with Jillian for the next week.”
Whoa. Okay, that was not something she’d ever considered doing. “The … the Black Squad? I’m not—”
“We think your talents may be a fit,” Elder Charles interrupted. “We’d like you to work with Jillian for a week.”
She wanted to work for the Black Squad about as much as she wanted to cut off her toes and eat them for dinner. No, she hadn’t put down a preference yet, but that was because … well, because she didn’t want them pigeonholing her. She didn’t want them thinking they knew her.
Besides, rumor had it that the Church viewed actually listing a preference as a sign of stubbornness and pride, and would go out of their way to disregard those preferences.
She was lucky to be there at all, she reminded herself, and forced another smile. Her lips were starting to hurt. “Sure, I mean, of course, sir. If you think that’s the best thing for me to do.”
Elder Charles looked pleased; well, they all looked pleased. “Excellent. Jillian, will you take Miss Putnam with you now to get her things, and you can head out.”
Wait, what? Right that minute? She didn’t want to seem difficult, but … “Um, sir? Elder Charles? I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have a sigil analysis test in the morning, and I don’t want to—”
He chuckled. “Do not worry thyself. You are of course excused from classwork for the next week; thou can make up the test on your return.” He leaned forward with the smirking sort of air of someone pretending to care about breaking confidences or embarrassing people. The air of someone who honestly thought he did care, to be fair, but didn’t really, not deep down. “Don’t worry. It won’t affect your scholarship.”
Once again, years of experience in keeping her face calm, in pretending she didn’t feel it, didn’t hear it, held her in good stead. Her lips curved into what she knew was a natural-looking smile. No one seeing that smile would know that she wanted to spit at the Elder and run, that she wanted to cry. Like she hadn’t heard enough over the years about her going to classes on “charity,” like she hadn’t dealt with enough of her fellow students looking at her, whispering about her, knowing she was nobody and had no ancestry, that even her last name had come from the Church and not from a family. “Thank you, sir. I was concerned.”
Elder Griffin cleared his throat behind her; she turned around to see his expression clear, like he’d been making a face. He smiled at her. He was smiling, she was smiling, the others were smiling … they looked like they’d all been dosed with some sort of hallucinogen. “I’m sure Miss Putnam is simply surprised. Perhaps we can give her ten minutes or so to get her things together and drop off her books.”
Chess looked at him, unable for a second to hide her surprise. Was he …? He was—he was giving her a few minutes to adjust. A few minutes alone. And he was doing it on purpose, because when he glanced down at her—just a glance—their eyes met and she saw in his that he knew exactly what he was doing.
So what did he want from her?
Maybe greeting his kindness with suspicion was wrong; he was Church, after all, and she’d been trying to accept that some people—most people, it seemed—in the Church weren’t playing some kind of angle; hell, most of them weren’t even aware of her. But someone overtly helpful to her like that … what did he want? What was he going to want her to do, to repay it?
She’d worry about that later. For the moment she focused on Jillian Morrow’s ready smile as the Inquisitor looked down at Chess and said, “Sure. I’ll meet you out front in fifteen, okay?”
Chess was ready in ten.
She’d run to the student dorms, tucked behind the main Church building, back past the building housing the elevator to the spirit prisons, behind and to the left of the Church employee cottages. Maybe someday she’d have one of those, although she had to admit the thought didn’t appeal as much as it should have. Life in the dorms made her itch, all those people on top of her; life in the cottages would be just as bad, she imagined.
But some employees lived off-grounds. Some of them got permission. Maybe one day … maybe one day she could, too. If she worked hard enough, was smart enough. Which she would be. The others didn’t know how lucky they were to be there; the others had families to fall back on. All Chess had to fall back on was the knowledge that she could turn tricks for food money if she had to, and she refused to allow that to happen. Not now. Not when she’d almost had something different.
The early afternoon sun blazed right into her eyes, like a finger pointing straight at her, as she crossed the square of bare earth where the Reckonings were held every Holy Day morning. That day, Monday, the stocks stood empty, the dirt around them freshly combed after the mess Saturdays always brought, the piles of rotten vegetables and tears that always ended up there after sinners gained their redemption, after crowds got off on giving it to them.
She crossed the space and waited right outside the enormous double doors of the main entrance until a dull black sedan pulled up to the curb fifteen feet or so away and Jillian Morrow beckoned her through the open window. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Chess forced her reluctant feet to move. She didn’t want to do this. Didn’t want to work for the Squad. Working for the Squad meant having a partner, someone to cozy up with and have over for dinner or whatever else, and she did not want that.
But she didn’t have a choice, at least not at the moment. So she popped the door handle of the sedan and sank into the pine- and Armor All–scented interior, clutching her bag on her lap and fastening her seat belt with the feeling that she was on a roller-coaster ride she didn’t want to be on.
“Guess you didn’t think you’d end up working with the Squad,” Jillian said, pulling carefully away from the curb. “Don’t worry. Nothing big on the schedule for today, just going for a drive.”
“Great,” Chess said, because it seemed like an answer was required.
“Mostly we just—”
Static on her radio broke into her sentence, made her brows draw together in annoyance at first, before anger and a little fear replaced them. “Damn it.”
Chess didn’t reply. She was too busy listening to the radio, the announcer’s voice saying something about bodies found and an address.
Jillian glanced at her as the announcer—not an announcer, Chess realized, a dispatcher—went quiet. “Well,” she said, lunging the car into traffic and speeding down the road, cutting off another car behind them, “looks like you’re going to get a taste of real Squad work after all.”