Close to You: A Downside Ghosts Story
by Stacia Kane
THE HOLIDAYS ARE HELL
Churchwitch Chess Putnam has seen, and banished, her share of ghosts, but not of the Christmas Past variety--the holiday has been illegal since the Church of Real Truth defeated the undead and took control of the world in 1997. Yet when she and her boyfriend, Terrible, make a trip to an abandoned auto junkyard, they find more than the rusted auto parts and spare tires they'd bargained for. They also run across a creepy Miss Havisham-type hell-bent on reuniting with her long-dead husband just in time for Christmas--even if it means taking Chess and Terrible down with her into the City of Eternity…
If Chess and Terrible don't manage to keep these ghosts in the past, they won't have a future…
About the Author
Stacia Kane is the author of the gritty dystopian urban fantasy "Downside" series starring Chess Putnam and featuring ghosts, human sacrifice, drugs, witchcraft, punk rock, and a badass '69 Chevelle. She bleaches her hair and wears a lot of black.
Stacia Kane is the author of the gritty dystopian urban fantasy Downside series starring Chess Putnam and featuring ghosts, human sacrifice, drugs, witchcraft, punk rock, and a badass ’69 Chevelle. She bleaches her hair and wears a lot of black.
Read an Excerpt
Close to You
A Downside Ghosts Story
By Stacia Kane
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Stacia Kane
All rights reserved.
Chess had never seen an auto graveyard before. Human graveyards, sure, more than she wanted; her job required her to enter them on occasion — on bad occasions, since entering a graveyard meant she had a confirmed haunting in whatever house she was investigating as a Debunker, which meant no bonus for her — to collect dirt from the grave of whomever it was who'd returned as a ghost so she could banish it back to the City of Eternity under the earth.
The auto graveyard — junkyard, really — was very different. Aside from the obvious, there were no high stone walls and gates and locks, no signs warning people that, by the authority of the Church of Real Truth, unauthorized persons were not permitted to enter.
And she wasn't alone in there, either.
Rusted-out hulks of cars made treacherous walls. Razor-sharp edges could slice skin and clothing; odd shapes made holes and nooks where anyone could hide. Where he could be hiding. Chess quickened her pace almost to a run. Where was he? Listening for footsteps didn't help. He was too quiet, and it was too loud there, anyway. The cold wind whistled down the aisles and around the corners, whined through holes in the stacks of metal and made them creak and rattle.
Not to mention the music, the faint and very creepy tones of the Carpenters' "Close to You." Ugh. It was tinny-sounding, faraway and half-lost in the wind, like maybe it was some weird auditory hallucination. Like a memory of the song rather than the actual sound of its playing.
She was pretty sure it was playing, though, because why the hell would she think about that song? And why would her head play it start to finish, over and over?
It wouldn't. So no, she was definitely hearing the stupid song for real. It didn't help the butterflies in her stomach one bit. He was going to jump out at her, grab her. Anticipation made her palms sweat.
She looked behind her. Nothing. She turned a corner, peering down the alley of wreckage. Nothing. All she could see were dead cars and junk, the remains of a society that no longer existed. The ancient Greeks and Romans left statues and art. The world Before Truth had left garbage.
Not really fair, she knew, but she was too busy trying to find a place to hide to feel bad. He was close. She could feel it; she knew it. Her feet moved faster, almost as fast as her heart. If she could get to the car, if she could just make it to the car before he —
Too late. Hard arms wrapped around her waist, yanked her back against an equally hard body. Her feet left the ground. Her gasping shriek was lost in the wind even before it dissolved into giggles and Terrible's lips found her neck just above her scarf.
"You win," she said.
"Aye." He spun her around. His left hand slid into her hair while his right tugged her hip closer; he kissed her neck again, harder. "So what I'm getting? For a prize."
"Um ..." She shivered. "I'm not sure winning a game of Hide and Seek really qualifies for a prize."
"Aw, damn." The Chevelle stood only fifty feet or so away. He started walking toward it, using his body to push her along. His teeth nipped at her earlobe. "Causen I had me a real good idea."
"Oh?" She meant it to sound arch and disinterested, but she just couldn't seem to accomplish that. Especially not when his palm slid over her behind and came to rest on the back of her upper thigh. If he shifted it just an inch ...
He stopped walking and kissed her. Hard. Hard enough for her to forget the cold wind and the stupid song in the background. Hard enough for her to practically forget her own name. She wrapped her arms around his neck and strained on her tiptoes, afraid she'd fall over if he let go of her.
Except he wouldn't. He never would. That was Fact and Truth, and she believed it, trusted it, more than she'd ever trusted anything in her entire life.
"Oh, aye." He pulled back so his dark eyes met hers, so she could see that ... that something, that whatever it was, that was just for her and her alone. "Were thinkin I take you on home now, throw you around a little. How's that sounding?"
It was sounding pretty fucking good to her, was how it was sounding. Her entire body throbbed. And he knew it. She could see he knew it.
Then she felt he knew it, because he hoisted her thighs up to wrap around his waist and his hot hand snaked up under her coat, under her shirt, to stroke her bare back. This time she kissed him; this time she drove her fingers into his hair.
The Chevelle was closer than she'd thought, and still warm beneath her when Terrible set her on the hood and leaned her back so his hard body covered her and his erection pressed against her. Another deep, insides-melting kiss swallowed the tiny sound that she couldn't stop. His tongue played with hers, making all kinds of promises as his palm glided over her breast and his other hand squeezed her thigh.
Cold wind blew over them, but she barely noticed it. Or maybe she just didn't care, especially not when his lips left hers and his nimble fingers tugged her scarf open so he could nibble at her throat, so his mouth could travel further down into the vee of her shirt's neckline and send tingles dancing all over her skin.
She caressed his broad shoulders, his back solid and wide beneath his shirts, and tightened her legs around his waist to pull him closer.
"You taking me home or what?" she managed. Finding breath to talk was hard. Getting her tongue and lips to obey her demands instead of his was even harder.
"Aye." The words were half-mumbled into her throat. A final kiss, a final caress, before he straightened up. Pomaded strands of hair fell over his forehead. "Let's us get there fast."
She slid off the hood and watched him bend down to pick up the grimy engine parts he'd found — the grimy engine parts that were apparently the reason they were there, in the middle of the auto graveyard, in the middle of a cold, gray winter afternoon. "That's the flam you need for the ganorzle problem?"
His grin made her even more desperate to get out of there and get home immediately. Amazing how she still felt that way. Even more amazing was how he seemed to still feel that way, too. "Aye. Lessin you gots a better idea."
"Eh. I'll let you try it your way first. But if you get stuck, let me know."
He kissed her again before he popped the trunk and tossed the metal in. "You hearing that music?"
She nodded, even though he wasn't looking at her. "Where's it coming from?"
"Ain't knowing." He opened her door. "Nobody living out here, what I got."
The auto graveyard was on the very outskirts of Downside, so far south the bay's gray winter water lapped the shore to her right. So far south the territory war between Terrible's boss, Bump, and his rival, Lex, didn't matter, because nobody lived there to war over. "Somebody must be here, though."
"I hope you're gonna pay for that." A woman's voice, nasal and twangy. Not a Downside accent.
They both turned. Okay, that woman was ... what the fuck?
Despite the December cold, she wore a thin evening gown with no coat. No, not an evening gown. A wedding gown. Dingy and tattered, with a high lace collar, dirty pearls and sequins dotting the bodice, and a shredded tulle skirt that had probably once gotten its fullness from layers rather than wrinkles but didn't anymore. The long sleeves came to points over the backs of the woman's hands. That was a fucking wedding gown.
It was weird enough, even without the fact that the woman was clearly at least in her sixties — gray hair rose in a matted cloud from her creased, elaborately made-up face. Not that "elaborately" meant "skillfully." It didn't. She looked like a five-year-old had attacked her with markers: bright green shadow that extended well past the outer edges of her eyelids, bright red lipstick that bled into the papery skin around her mouth, bright pink spots on her cheeks. She'd even painted a beauty mark over her lip on the right side.
"You ain't thieves, are you? You don't look like thieves." The woman frowned at Terrible, taking in his enormous frame, the black hair still messy from Chess's hands, the thick mutton chops and hard dark eyes and scars. "Well, maybe he does."
Chess bit her lip to keep from laughing. Terrible was better at hiding that stuff than she was; when she looked at him, his expression hadn't changed. She could see it, though, the glint of amusement in his eyes.
Except it wasn't all funny. It was suspicious, too. Hadn't he just said nobody lived there? Who the hell was that woman?
"Ain't been here afore," he murmured, then, to the woman in a louder voice, "Aye, then. How much you wanting?"
The woman stared him up and down again, then turned to Chess. Chess couldn't tell if the woman approved or not, but something in her face changed. She turned her back, raising one clawlike hand in an impatient "come on" gesture, and started walking away. The tulle skirts, yellow-gray with age and grime, billowed and shifted in the wind.
"Maybe we should just leave," Chess said, but Terrible shook his head. Which she'd expected him to do.
"She's needing to eat, too, dig. Iffen she owns the place, guessing I oughta pay her."
"She's creepy." Damn it. Her body still hummed and throbbed; she wanted to go home. She wanted to dive into the big gray bed with him and stay there until the sun set behind the crumbling buildings across the street.
"Aye." He dipped his head at the Chevelle. "Can wait in the car, if you're wanting. Ain't guessing this'll take long."
"And send you off alone with Miss Havisham? I don't think so." More like, "No fucking way." Even knowing he could handle just about anything that might happen — people weren't terrified of him for no reason — she wouldn't do that. Not only because he was everything to her, not only because she was mildly curious, and not only because the whole reason she was there with him to begin with was she'd just finished a Debunking case and so they hadn't gotten to spend much time together in the last few weeks.
It was because warning bells were going off in her head. Something didn't feel right about this, and the auto graveyard was just the kind of place where witches who liked to play on magic's bad side would hang out to do that playing, and the woman sure as fuck looked to her like she could be one of those witches. Or like she could be someone who knew those kinds of witches, or even like someone who'd be victimized by those kinds of witches. Terrible could handle any kind of physical attack; Chess didn't doubt that for a second. But a magical one? That she wasn't so sure about.
He smiled, getting the reference like she'd known he would; he hadn't read the book, but she'd told him the story once. "Thinkin she attack me iffen she gets me inside on my alones?"
"Hey, I owe you a prize, is all. I don't want you to forget."
He kissed the side of her head, took her hand to start following the woman's waving skirts back through the aisles of junk. "Ain't forgetting that one. True thing, Chessiebomb."
It wasn't easy keeping up her cheerful mood on the journey. Stacks of dusty metal loomed over them. Cracked windows shifted slightly in the wind and caught the weak sunlight like mosaics of a single color; thick elderly cobwebs waved and shook. It was like being in a horror novel illustrated by Dr. Seuss. And with every step the sound of that dreary song grew louder, boring into her head like a drill-wielding ghost, and Chess felt more and more like something was wrong — not wrong in the someone-else-could-be-in-trouble way, but wrong in the she-could-be-in-trouble way.
She held Terrible's hand tighter. He squeezed back, absently, without looking at her; he was too busy looking around, with his chin up in that way he had that made him look like the predator he was, like he was hunting.
They reached the end of the makeshift hallway and followed the woman around a curve Chess hadn't noticed before. A stretch of weed- choked gravel extended a few feet beyond the last pitiful dead car, a walkway bordered by a torn and rusted chain link fence. It used to be a fence, at least. All that remained were a few posts and patches, torn steel doilies fighting the breeze.
Down the walkway to the right, in a clearing, sat the house. It was a much bigger house than Chess would have expected, a long ramshackle structure with a sagging roof and a termite-fodder porch hanging off the front. Silence fell the second she saw it; the song had ended, but before Chess had time to be glad, the opening notes played again. A disc on repeat, or a record player starting over and over. The thought of finding that record player and smashing it to pieces grew more tempting by the minute.
But as soon as they stepped onto the patchy dead lawn in front of the house — littered with rusted metal and bald tires and sun-faded chunks of plastic — she forgot about the music. That was magic she felt, crawling up her legs from her feet, wrapping around her in the air. Not strong, no, but magic just the same. Unpleasant magic, too, from the way it itched. Shit. She glanced at Terrible. "You okay?"
"Aye." He did seem okay, too, which was a relief. Why she expected him to not be — worried that he wouldn't be — didn't make sense, considering that the sigil Elder Griffin had helped her design for him had been working just fine, but still. She couldn't help it. Especially since it was her fault he was so vulnerable to dark magic, her fault because of the sigil she'd carved into him to save his life the night he'd been shot. That the problem seemed to have been solved didn't make it right.
The woman had already ascended to the wide, unscreened porch, and was standing with the door half-open, looking back at them. "Well, hurry up. We don't have all day."
Actually they pretty much did, but whatever. Chess didn't want to spend it there, and she knew Terrible didn't either. So she hurried up, and in a few seconds they were climbing the creaking, splintery stairs to the porch.
This got more fucked-up with every step. Paint flaked in huge chunks off the house's exterior walls, paint the color of rotten egg whites. Dead plants — that might have been just because of the cold, true, but Chess didn't think so — lined those flaking walls, bare brown sticks below a faded wooden sign that read, "The Hudsons." The screen on the door was torn.
And beyond it ... beyond it was some sort of ode to violated health codes disguised as a kitchen. Water stains and shreds of wallpaper. Filthy hardwood floors sagging with age, the boards so covered in muck that squelching sounds filled the air as they walked. Dirty silver cardboard stars hung from the ceiling — what was that about? — and red ribbons dangled from the cabinets. A stove covered in layers of baked-on food; a sink piled with dishes.
And the smell. Mold and dust that made her sneeze, unwashed bodies, rotting food, and the cloying, nauseating fugue of cheap rose perfume. It made her want to gag almost as much as the thought of the germs and bacteria tap dancing on her skin did. She shuddered.
"Vincent will be back tonight," the woman — Mrs. Hudson? — informed them, turning right into a hall that stretched, it seemed, the entire length of the house. "It's our anniversary. Fifty years we've been married. I can't wait to see him again."
Chess hoped Vincent didn't have very high hygienic standards. But then, if he was married to this stranger-by-the-second woman, he must already know what sort of state that house was in. Chess had been inside some shitty buildings in her life, but this place went beyond even some of the "homes" she'd lived in as a child.
Mrs. Hudson gestured toward the kitchen table piled with papers and plastic containers and dirty clothes. "You can sit there, if you want."
Yeah ... that wasn't going to happen. Chess didn't much feel like sticking to a chair, and she definitely didn't feel like inviting diseases to set up camp on her clothes. She took a few steps after the woman instead. The magic she felt increased. Still not strong, but still there, and still worrying. Had Mrs. Hudson been doing magic, or did she just have some magical objects — spellbags or whatever — buried in the mountains of junk?
It wouldn't be unusual if she'd been doing magic; lots of people did, trying or buying little spells or glamours, and the Church encouraged it. Every time some citizen used a spell that worked, it proved the Church's Truth that magic was real. But most spells done by ordinary people didn't feel as ... complete as whatever it was Chess was feeling. Magic done by non-witches tended to have an unformed sort of feel to it. It was weak.
The magic Chess felt may not have been strong, but it also wasn't unformed. She didn't know for sure what kind of magic it was — except that it wasn't sex magic, which tended to be the amateur magic she encountered most, since any idiot could get turned on — but it wasn't good, and it wasn't unformed. It was like a spell waiting to be finished, like a trap ready to snap shut over a fragile bone. Waiting. Ominous.
Of course, Mrs. Hudson seemed so out of it that it was entirely possible that gangs of random witches were holding full-blown rituals in the yard every weekend, and Chess was just feeling the residue of that.
Excerpted from Close to You by Stacia Kane. Copyright © 2013 Stacia Kane. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nice teaser as I anxiously await more from this author.
Christmas is not something that exist anymore. It was gotten rid of years ago by the Church of Real Truth and declared illegal. Chess and Terrible find someone who still celebrates it despite it being illegal. Going into a junk yard one night they stumble across a woman who love the holiday and how much it meant to her and her deceased husband. She misses her husband and doesn't care how many laws she breaks she will get him back. Chess and Terrible find themselves in bad place with a crazy lady intent on using them for her own gain. I have not read any of this series but I did like this short story. It made me want to read the whole series and find out more about Chess and Terrible. The crazy lady's house they find there selves in sounds like something straight out of a horror story. It looks awful everywhere but the Christmas stuff. There is magic in this book along with how far a person will go to be with their love. Chess and Terrible do what they have to do to save there selves. I am sure fans of the series will be delighted with sort story as it just wet my appetite to read this series. I need to know more about these characters now.
Wish she would write more