Magic-wielding Churchwitch and secret addict Chess Putnam knows better than anyone just how high a price people are willing to pay for a chemical rush. But when someone with money to burn and a penchant for black magic starts tampering with Downside’s drug supply, Chess realizes that the unlucky customers are paying with their souls—and taking the innocent with them, as the magic-infused speed compels them to kill in the most gruesome ways possible.
As if the streets weren’t scary enough, the looming war between the two men in her life explodes, taking even more casualties and putting Chess squarely in the middle. Downside could become a literal ghost town if Chess doesn’t find a way to stop both the war and the dark wave of death-magic, and the only way to do that is to use both her addiction and her power to enter the spell and chase the magic all the way back to its malevolent source. Too bad that doing so will probably kill Chess—if the war doesn’t first destroy the man who’s become her reason for living.
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The pursuit of material goods must never eclipse the pursuit of Truth.
--The Book of Truth, Veraxis Article 1745
All of the documents were in place: the Affidavit of Spectral Fraud, the Statement of Truth, two Orders of Imprisonment and two Orders of Relinquishment, and, of course, the list of Church-approved attorneys. The Darnells would want that--well, they'd need it, because they were about to be arrested for faking a haunting.
At least, they would be when the Black Squad got there to back Chess up. She didn't always want the Squad to come along; police presence tipped people off, made things more difficult, and most people came pretty quietly once they realized they were busted, anyway. The Darnells didn't seem like the come-quietly type, though. Something told Chess they weren't going to take this well.
But she'd told them she'd be there at six, and it was five past already and their curtains kept twitching. They knew she was there.
Right. She'd taken a couple of Cepts before leaving her apartment in Downside, so they were starting to hit--smooth, thick narcotic warmth spreading from her stomach out through the rest of her body, a pleasant softness settling over her mind.
That was the best thing about the drugs, really; she could still think, still be coherent, still use her brain. She just didn't have to if she didn't want to, and it was so much easier to keep that brain from wandering into all those places she didn't want it to go.
And she had so fucking many of those places.
She grabbed the Darnell file from her bag, locked her car, and started walking along the cobblestoned path to the front door, weaving around the flowers and plants scattered like islands across the impossibly green sea of grass. Bees made their way from bloom to bloom, doing whatever the hell it was bees did. Sure, she knew it was something to do with pollen or whatever. She just didn't give a shit.
By the time she reached the porch sweat beaded along her forehead and her body felt damp. Summer sucked. Only the middle of June and already it was scorching.
Brandon Darnell opened the door before she'd finished raising her hand to knock. "Miss Putnam. You're late."
Asshole. She faked a smile. "Sorry. Traffic."
At least they had air-conditioning.
The entire Darnell family sat in the pretentious high-ceilinged living room, slouching on the ridiculously overpriced suede couch and chairs that were partly responsible for the enormous debt they were in. Debt they'd planned to clear by faking a haunting and getting a nice fat settlement from the Church of the Real Truth.
Too bad for them, the Church wasn't stupid--being in charge of everyone and everything on earth for twenty-four years proved that--and had contingency plans for such things. Chess was one of them.
Brandon Darnell indicated an empty chair along the back wall. "Have a seat."
Alarms started ringing in Chess's head. He seemed a little too calm, a little too . . . cheerful.
But all the other chairs were full, so she sat, shooting a glance out the window to see if the Squad had arrived yet. Nope. Damn it!
The Darnells sat there, unmoving. Watching her. Because that wasn't creepy at all.
Mrs. Darnell--frowsy, bad perm, blue eye shadow up to her brows--showed her perfect white teeth in what could pass for a smile. "Do you have any news for us? When will you Banish the ghost?"
Chess's phone beeped--a text. A text from the Black Squad, thank fuck, they were almost there. Good. She didn't have to sit around wasting time with these people.
"I do have news." She pulled the forms from the file. "This is my Statement of Truth, copies of which I've already filed with the Church. This one is for you to sign. It's the Affidavit of Spectral Fraud, which is basically your confession, and this one--"
"What the hell are you talking about? We haven't committed any fraud, there's no--"
"Mr. Darnell." Normally she'd stand up for this part, but what the hell. The chair was pretty comfortable. "I found, and photographed, the projectors set up in the attic. I won't bother to point out to you where the holes in the ceiling are, since you already know. The 'ectoplasm' on your walls has been analyzed--twice for confirmation--as a mixture of cornstarch, gelatin, iridescent paint, and water."
She waited for a response and didn't get one. Good. "I also have pictures of the portable air conditioner you set up beneath the house--that's another crime, by the way, putting anything underground, but I imagine you know that--to fake sudden changes in temperature. One of my hidden cameras caught you breaking the mirrors, and another one very clearly shows you and Mrs. Darnell discussing your crimes."
Mr. and Mrs. Darnell looked guilty. Their children--Cassie and Curtis, how cute--looked confused. Chess directed her next comments to them.
"I have two Orders of Relinquishment here. You two are going to be taken to the Church with your parents, but when they go to prison you'll be moving in with another family member or, failing that, a home will be found for you. You'll be safe there."
She could only hope that last line was true. It hadn't been for her. None of those "homes" she'd been sent to had been safe, or at least not more than a couple of them.
But that was a long time ago. That was before the Church was really settled. That was a mistake; she was an anomaly, or something, and it mattered only in her memories.
Because the Church had saved her. They'd taken her out of that life and given her a new one. The Church had found her and made her into something real.
The two children looked at each other, looked at Chess, looked at their parents. What was the expression on their faces? Shock, curiosity? Chess couldn't quite read it.
She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them again. Shit, she didn't usually have problems like this from her pills. And no way had she gotten a bad batch; Lex had given her those, and Lex might be in charge of the Downside gang in direct opposition to the one Chess's . . . Chess's everything worked for, but Lex wouldn't try to do her any harm. She knew that. Lex was her friend.
So what the fuck?
Her eyes itched, too; she raised her hand to rub at them. Struggled to raise it. In fact, she'd been sitting still for a few minutes, hadn't she? Without moving.
The room started to rock around her, as if she and the Darnells sat on the deck of a ship in stormy waters. Nausea slithered through her stomach, up her throat.
Her skin tingled. Not her skin, actually. Her tattoos--runes and sigils inscribed into her skin with magic-imbued ink by the Church--tingled. The way they always did in the presence of ghosts--or in the presence of magic.
It took forever to turn her head to the left, on a neck that felt like it was being squeezed by strong, hard hands she couldn't see. Who was . . . Fuck, someone was casting some kind of spell on her. Who was it, what was it?
She couldn't tell, couldn't see well enough to tell. Just a shape, a spot of darker shadow in the long hallway. But whatever it was--it felt like a man, she had enough presence of mind to know that--it was powerful, it was strong, and it was about to beat her.
Something inside her struggled. The noise of the Darnells' shouting faded, as if a stiff wind had come up and was blowing them all away. The adult Darnells yelling, cackling; the young Darnells panicked and confused.
And over it all words of power seeping into her consciousness, spoken in a deep smooth voice like smoked glass. Smoked glass with jagged edges; she would cut herself on them, they'd slice into her skin and her blood would spill out onto the floor, staining the carpet the Darnells couldn't pay for. Staining everything except her soul: That was filthy enough already, covered with grime and pain that would never go away, no matter how many pills she took or lines she snorted. She deserved to be punished for that. Deserved to die for it.
But she didn't want to. Not just because she was afraid of the City of Eternity, either. As her breath came shorter and shallower, as the black edge around her vision thickened until she could see only tiny spots of the room, all she could think about was Terrible. The only man in the world who made her feel . . . like she was okay, like she could be happy. The only one who understood her. The only one who loved her.
The only one, period.
She would not leave him. She refused to leave him.
His face grew in her mind: black hair pomaded into a rockabilly DA, thick heavy muttonchops, the face she'd once thought was ugly and now couldn't understand why or how she'd ever thought that. Because every scar showed how strong he was, those hard dark eyes thawed just for her, the heavy brow smoothed when he looked at her and it all added up to Terrible, and she was not going to let some shithead scam artists and their rent-a-witch steal her from him. He'd expect her to fight. He'd expect her to win, too.
Moving her lips hurt. She forced herself to do it anyway. "Arkrandia arkrandia, bellarum bellarum, dishager dishager, arkrandia arkrandia, bellarum bellarum . . ."
The Banishing words started to come faster, stronger. Not much, and her vision still hadn't cleared, but she could feel it. Something was building inside her--power was building inside her--and it was chasing away the choking fog of the dark spell.
She kept chanting, her voice creaky and rough, scraping against her throat, while she made her stiff fingers move. She needed to get into her bag; she had goat's blood in there, cobwebs and chunks of snake. If she could find a piece of iron to grab, it would help.
The witch loomed over her, his large body giving off the faint smell of sweat and cheap aftershave.
Were her feet on the floor? She thought they were, was pretty sure they were, and she guessed it didn't matter if they weren't, because she had to try anyway. She started to stand, her legs shaking and hurting beneath her.
The witch hit her, knocked her back. Fucker. That wasn't even a good punch; it was a wimpy little bitch slap. Now she was getting pissed. Who the hell did he think he was, this soft bag of shit in a shiny-cheap black tent and a pair of dorky-looking loafers? He thought he could come in to one of her cases, attack her?
Bullshit he could.
More anger, to make her even stronger. She was finding it now, that pit of rage deep inside her, the hatred for everyone, for everything they'd done to her. The hatred for herself that never seemed to end, would never end, would never lessen. It was there, and she needed it, and she took it and used it to clench her right hand into a fist, a good strong one. She'd never been too bad at fighting--not with her upbringing--but Terrible had shown her some new stuff, taught her how to do it, where to hit.
So she wasn't worried at all when she pushed herself up and punched him with all her might. And she had something nobody else had--or at least nobody who wasn't a trained witch who'd put some real thought into physical self-defense, which her opponent obviously hadn't.
She pushed her power into that fist, all of her energy, the anger and pain and everything else, and felt it reverberate when it hit him. Good. That gave her more strength, more will to fight.
Unfortunately, seeing her bounce back seemed to give the Darnells the will to fight, too. As she drew her fist to have another go, her energy returning in a rush as the spell was interrupted, an arm wrapped itself around her neck, yanked her against a well-padded chest.
Where the fuck was the fucking Squad? Yes, the whole thing had probably taken much less time than it felt like it had, but they should be there--
The witch dropped his shoulder, ready to hit her again. To hit her properly this time, while Mr. Darnell held her defenseless. Nice.
And, nope, she wasn't going to let them do that.
The witch checked his swing when she leaned forward as much as she could, trying to bend over completely so Mr. Darnell would rise from the floor. He pulled back harder, his arm tightening around her throat. She kept leaning. Lights started sparking behind her eyes, red and green fireworks of imminent death bright against the figure of the witch, the tackily tasteful living room.
Just when she thought she couldn't bear it one more second, she stood up straight. Fast. So fast Mr. Darnell didn't have time to react; he kept pulling her, and they both tumbled to the floor, the witch's fist barely missing her.
With Mr. Darnell beneath her and the witch leaning over, she kicked out with her right leg, managed to catch the witch in his rather ample stomach, and sent him stumbling a few steps away. Her elbow dug into the soft space below Mr. Darnell's rib cage. His arm around her loosened--not a lot, but enough for her to sit up and start to roll off him.
Roll right into the barrel of the gun.
"Stand up." Mrs. Darnell's voice didn't shake. Her eyes didn't leave Chess's face. "Come on, get up."
Great. This was just great. How many people had she busted in her four-year career? Almost exactly four years, in fact. Dozens. Dozens of people. None of them had ever tried this shit with her.
That could have been because if she had any suspicions they might, she asked the Squad for backup, of course. Where the hell were they?
Her legs still felt weird from the spell. That energy hadn't faded completely. She risked a glance at the witch, saw him standing with his fists clenched, whispering something. Another spell. Wonderful.
"Mrs. Darnell, I don't think you want to do this."
"I think you're wrong." Mrs. Darnell's narrowed eyes shot beams of cold hatred at Chess. "I think you're really, really wrong."
"Killing a Church employee is automatic grounds for execution. Not to mention we get a special dispensation so we can haunt you until that execution happens. I really--"
"You idiot. How the hell did you manage to catch us, being that stupid? I don't want to kill you, no. But I will, unless you sign those forms and give us our money."