Authors: Stacia Kane
Tags: #Witches, #Fantasy Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Drug addicts, #Fiction, #Occult fiction, #Supernatural, #Contemporary
Also by Stacia Kane
To Stephen, and to Caitlin
The penalty for summoning the dead back to earth is death; if the summoned spirit does not kill its summoner, be assured the Church will.
The Book of Truth
, Laws, Article 3
Ghosts were stronger underground; no witch willingly went below the surface of the earth, not without a Church edict or a death wish. Chess had both to varying degrees, but that didn’t make the doorway looming behind the skinny man holding the cup any more appealing. The doorway, and the stairs. Down into a basement, down into the ground.
Chess’s skin crawled from more than just the squat-faced, wizened appearance of the man, more than the bizarre energy in the dirty shack. Something told her this was not going to end well.
But then, things so rarely did.
She could have busted the bastards simply for having a basement. The Church decreed they were illegal, and the Church was not to be disobeyed. But she needed more than that—a month of investigation
a more satisfactory resolution than that—so instead she pasted what she hoped was a smile with the right touch of nervousness on her face and handed the skinny man the picture she’d brought, careful not to touch his grimy fingers.
The picture was of Gary Anderson, a fellow Debunker, but the skinny man didn’t know that. At least Chess hoped he didn’t.
“My brother,” she told him. It would have been better if she’d been able to squeeze out a tear, but the Cepts she’d taken didn’t allow it. It was hard enough to feel emotions when she was high, let alone emotions intense enough to make her weep. Hell, that was one reason why she kept taking the fucking things, wasn’t it?
The skinny man focused his rheumy eyes with effort on the photo, then nodded.
“Aye, seein a lookalike,” he mumbled, scratching his bony chest through a hole in his ragged green sweater. He shoved the cup forward, narrowly avoiding hitting her with it. “You drink, aye?”
“Nay, nay, lil miss. You drink, or you ain’t get down, aye? All must drink.” His chapped lips stretched and flaked in a gruesome semblance of a smile, like a fat worm crawling across his face, revealing broken, graying teeth. “All must drink, or the energy, she ain’t work.”
Shit. Who the fuck knew what was in that nasty cup? Even if the “tea” was harmless—which she doubted—the thing looked like it hadn’t been washed since before Haunted Week. She could practically see germs crawling along the rim.
The bonus on this job would be a couple of grand, she reminded herself, and snatched the cup from his dry, bony hand.
His gaze locked on hers. She held it while she tilted the cup and poured the contents down her throat.
For a second the room spun around her, whirling on its side like an amusement park ride. The concoction tasted of bitter herbs and glue, of seawater and sewage. It was the most revolting thing she’d ever put in her mouth, and that was saying a lot.
She held it down through sheer force of will, and was rewarded with another flaky smile. Something lurked behind that smile, but she didn’t have time to analyze it. His hand was on her sleeve, urging her into the dark mouth of the stairway, and her feet clumped on the wooden slats as she made her way into the damp cave below.
The others were already there, sitting in a circle beneath flaming torches, around a scarred wooden table. Across one end of it was draped a blue silk scarf, stained with blood or wine—or perhaps someone else’s stomach had lost its battle with the tea.
No time to think about it, even if she’d cared to. Instead she made her way to the table, to the straight-backed wooden chair someone had pushed out for her.
“Someone,” she saw, was a five-foot-tall human parody of indeterminate sex wearing a belted garbage bag and white face paint. Heavy black rims surrounded its beady, pupilless eyes, and its voice was barely more than a dry whisper, like a knife cutting through cardboard.
“Sit ye down, lil miss,” it rasped. “Sit ye down, and the Ladywitch, she’ll be out.”
“The Ladywitch” was Madame Lupita, formerly known as Irene Lowe, and as soon as Chess had the evidence she needed—in the form of her own eye witness testimony and whatever the minirecorder concealed in her bra picked up—Madame would have a date with a guillotine. The Church did not take a forgiving stance on illegal ghost-raising or seances, even fake ones such as Lupita was rumored to run.
Rumor, hell. What was about to happen here was obvious, was even more so when a black-painted door opened opposite Chess and an enormous woman thrust her bulk into the room.
Her face was white, her eyes black-ringed, a garish parody of Church Elder makeup. Any resemblance stopped there. Madame Lupita wore a shiny silver caftan, on which were painted various runes and magical symbols. Small pieces of iron hung from it, too small to offer any real protection. Chess supposed they were there for effect, as was the heavy iron-and-amber necklace around the woman’s short, fat throat or the matching silver turban covering her head.
Whatever they were for, Lupita’s appearance was obviously what the other people around the table expected. Chess felt rather than heard their sigh of satisfaction, their belief that they’d done the right thing in coming here. For those who couldn’t afford to pay a Church Liaiser to contact the spirits of their dead loved ones, amateur seances like these seemed the answer to the prayers they were prohibited from uttering.
Too bad they were illegal, which was why Chess was there to begin with. Helping the Black Squad make a case against Lupita meant some extra cash for her.
And too bad it was all fake. If Lupita and her ilk were truly powerful enough to raise ghosts, the Church would have found them through the tests every child in the world underwent at the age of fourteen, would have trained them and hired them. Many of them had a glimmer of power, enough to send a shiver through the air and fool their clients, most of whom had no idea what real power, real magic, felt like.
Chess did. Knew the feeling—loved the feeling—almost as much as the cool, smooth peace of her pills, or the foggy bliss of Dream smoke, or the sparkly, fizzing sensation created by the occasional line of speed. She knew them all, loved them all, because anything that distanced her from reality was a blessing in a world where blessing was against the law.
Of course, her drugs were illegal, too. But that hadn’t stopped her from doing them, hadn’t stopped her dealer, Bump—or her whatever-he-was, Lex—from selling them. It just meant they all had to be a lot more careful.
Speaking of careful … Madame Lupita settled herself at the table, clapped her hands. Something clinked behind Chess. She didn’t turn around, but she heard it, soft wings beating the air. A psychopomp. Madame Lupita knew how to put on a show.
“All hold hands,” she commanded, in a deep, liquid voice. “No messin, aye … hold hands, or they don’t come.”
To Chess’s left sat a rake-thin young man. His fingers were sweaty, his face wet with tears as he stared at the picture on the table before him. Chess couldn’t make out the image.
To her right was the female half of a middle-aged couple, clad in a cheap fake silk dress. Her hand shook against Chess’s palm.
Lupita reached across the table and grabbed the picture in front of the woman. “What be this girl’s name?”
“A-Annabeth. Annabeth Whitman.”
Lupita bowed her head. The others did the same, including Chess, who used the opportunity to look around the room from under her lashes.
The psychopomp settled on a perch behind Lupita’s left shoulder. A crow, its black feathers gleaming in the firelight. To Chess’s right, against the wall, row upon row of skulls grinned blankly at her. Most were small animals, cats and rats and the occasional dog. To her left a wall mural; spirits straining for the sky, their long arms and spidery fingers gruesome and sad.
Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down the side of her face. Had it been that hot in there a few minutes before? No one else seemed to be sweating, why was she?
Of course, no one else was wearing a high-necked, long-sleeved sweater, either, despite the cold outside. Chess had no choice; every inch of her arms and chest was decorated with the tattoos marking her as a Church employee, magical symbols that focused her power, warned her, protected her. They tingled now, but whether it was from the heat or her nerves or the tremors in the atmosphere, Chess didn’t know. It was nothing serious. She’d been right. Lupita didn’t have anywhere near the kind of power required to raise a ghost.
Good thing, too, as she hadn’t even bothered to mark her “guests” with basic protective sigils or circle the floor with salt or anything else Church employees learned in their first year of training.
Chess wondered what they might see. Holograms, probably; their technology had advanced to the point where it was difficult or impossible to tell the difference between a real ghost and a fake one—at least if you didn’t have any natural abilities in that direction—and if Lupita brought in this kind of money on a regular basis, she could probably afford the top of the line.
Or it could be some of the old-fashioned tricks, the kind used by charlatans long before Haunted Week. Dim lighting, the bizarre and disgusting tea that was probably mildly hallucinogenic, the power of suggestion. Mirrors and shimmery fabric and the customer’s own desperate need to believe would take care of the rest.
At least it was safe. A real ghost—a real ghost was something to inspire nightmares. A real ghost, outside of Church control, wasn’t going to have a nice little chat with its mommy or beloved friend. A real ghost was going to have one thing on what remained of its mind, and one thing only: to kill. To steal the energy of everyone it came near, to use its life-force to make itself stronger, a parasite that would grow fat on the blood of its victims.
Not one of the people in that room had any fucking idea what it meant to face a real ghost. Lucky for them, they weren’t going to find out, either. As soon as Lupita got her little show on the road they could shut her down, and the closest they’d get to a ghost was that hideous mural.
Orange light flashed off silver. Chess looked up along with everyone else, and her already nervous heartbeat kicked into high gear. Madame Lupita held a knife, high over her own exposed forearm. Blood magic. Oh, that was not good. Blood magic, with no circle, no words of protection. Lupita might be powerless, but this was—
The knife descended. Lupita’s blood spilled out over her tattoos—so like Chess’s, but illegal, another crime to add to the growing list, as if Lupita needed anything more to damn her—onto the silk tablecloth.
, Annabeth Whitman,” intoned Madame Lupita. “
A drop of sweat landed on the table in front of Chess. Her breath rasped in her throat. Shit, she really felt sick. Weak. Exposed, like all her psychic shielding was failing and her power fought to escape.
Escape … as Lupita pushed with her own weak power, as she leeched from all of them, Chess felt it, like she was a battery being drained, and in that second, just as the temperature in the room dropped about twenty degrees, she knew something was very, very wrong.
No, Lupita didn’t have the power to raise a ghost. But Chess did, and Lupita was pulling it from her. Somehow the woman was reaching into her,
her, sucking Chess’s strength and focusing it—focusing it on her spell, fuck—
Chess fought, threw as much energy as she could to her shields, but she felt like a child struggling to play tug-of-war against a giant. She couldn’t think, her energy was draining away and she couldn’t … couldn’t hold on to it … her stomach roiled, her eyelids fluttered.
The crow flapped its wings, danced on the perch for a minute, then took flight. It circled the room, faster and faster. Chess’s skin crawled and stung, her tattoos screaming the warning her mouth couldn’t seem to form….
Lupita’s deep chant turned into a screech. Through a bleary haze Chess saw the woman heave herself from her chair, her black-ringed eyes widening in terror. Staring … staring at the pale haze taking shape in the corner.
The haze of Annabeth Whitman.
Chess gritted her teeth so hard she thought they might crack and yanked her hand away from Annabeth’s mother’s. The microrecorder had an emergency button, in case her fellow Church employees weren’t already on the way. She had to get out of there, had to have help. Whatever was wrong with her was too much, too bad, for her to hope to defeat the ghost, and if someone didn’t do it soon, Annabeth would kill every person in the room.
She found the button, pressed it. And kept pressing it as the pale column grew, as a head appeared. Long tendrils of white formed arms; the shape solidified, growing more detailed with every beat of Chess’s panic-stricken heart. She’d lost count of the number of ghosts she’d seen, but the fear never left, never lessened. A ghost—one like this, free of its underground prison, free from Church safeguards and protocols—was a loaded gun, a sword in the hand of a lunatic.
And Chess and everyone else in this flaming pit of hell were the first who’d feel the weapon’s rage.
The others didn’t seem to understand that something was wrong. Mrs. Whitman was standing, holding her hands out in supplication. “Annabeth … my baby … we miss you, we wanted to—”
Annabeth’s features had formed now, translucent but perfect. She’d been a beautiful girl. Long pale hair hung down over her shoulders; the vague outline of her body beneath her gown was petite and sweetly curved.
Her eyes widened. Chess held her breath for one heart-stopping, hopeful moment. They weren’t always vicious, not always. Only ninety-nine percent of the time … There was a chance Annabeth would—
No chance. Those innocent eyes narrowed, the perfect lips pulled back in a snarl. Chess barely had time to open her mouth before Annabeth dove for the bloody knife on the table.
In her bag Chess had graveyard dirt and herbs. She couldn’t do a full ritual, didn’t think she’d have the power to do one even if she had the equipment, but she could freeze Annabeth, stop her from harming anyone.