Excerpt from Chapter two (This one's got Terrible in it!)
Red assaulted her eyes when she stepped into the building, like walking into a bordello in hell—if hell existed, which it didn’t. Or rather, no one else thought it did. For them the City of Eternity, where everyone’s souls lived on after death, was a peaceful loving place, a quiet rest several hundred feet below the surface of the earth. Only Chess thought of it as hell, as punishment, cold and unrelenting and miserable. Life sucked, yes, but the City was worse.
Then again, sometimes life could be okay. Terrible stood in his usual spot against the back wall, talking to a couple of guys whose names she could never really remember. They all looked the same to her, to be honest, or maybe it was simply that she never really bothered to look at them. Their faces didn’t interest her. Nothing they said interested her, not when she could be talking to Terrible instead.
Seeing him was like being hit in the chest. Like something exploded inside her, a quick ravenous fire that made her shiver. So bright and so hot it still amazed her that no one else seemed to notice it, that every eye in the place didn’t turn to her while she went incandescent.
But they didn’t—which was a good thing, since spontaneous human combustion would probably raise an eyebrow even there. No one seemed to notice at all. They were all too busy drinking dollar beers, listening to X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” and talking or arguing or trying to pick each other up. Spiky heads, heads bald or slick with pomade, like bizarre flowers strewn in a humid half-dead meadow, swaying in a stale-beer breeze. None of them turned to her.
Excellent. She didn’t want to be noticed. She never did, but especially not just then.
She shoved a couple of bucks at the bartender for her own beer and a tip and pushed her way through the field of oblivion-hunters until she reached him, stopping about a foot away, careful to not quite meet his eyes.
He did the same. “Hey, Chess. You right?”
She shrugged. Sipped her beer. “Right up. What time do they go on?”
“Ain’t for certain. Ten minutes maybe, fifteen? Thought you was coming earlier.”
She gave him a quick rundown of her night, her mind only half on her words. The rest was examining him, his black hair slicked back with pomade, the width of his shoulders, his height. His face, the face she’d once thought was ugly with its crooked, repeatedly broken nose, its scars, its heavy brow and thick muttonchop sideburns. The kind of face people ran away from, because the only place it looked like it belonged was behind a loaded weapon. Hell, it made his body look like a loaded weapon. Which it was. And that’s all people saw.
People were shitbags, with their easy smiles and their cold eyes and brutal hearts. She knew that better than anyone. Knew too that the face she looked at wasn’t ugly, that it was strong and it was Terrible’s. That meant it was hers to look at as much as she wanted, and that made something she thought might be real happiness ride higher in her chest.
“Telling on getting shit done this night,” he said, “Bump got an ask for you. Whyn’t you come on out back, lemme give you the knowledge.”
She shifted on her feet, glanced at the other guys still standing there, waiting to be included in the conversation. “Can’t it wait?”
“Could, aye, but might as well give it you now.”
The song ended; in the second or two of silence before the next one started she nodded. “Yeah, okay then. But let’s make it fast. I don’t want to miss the band.”
He shrugged. “Neither me. Longer you stand here, longer us take gettin back in, aye?”
She cocked an eyebrow at him, still careful not to look him in the eye, and headed down the hall that led to the bathrooms and the back door. Technically it wasn’t a back door. Technically it was an emergency exit. But the alarm wires had been ripped from the wall years before, and even if they hadn’t been it wouldn’t have mattered. Fire trucks didn’t respond to calls from Downside in general; one too many false alarms that ended in muggings and murders had stopped that particular service, and there was little worth saving there anyway.
Terrible pushed it open for her. She ducked under his arm and stepped into the alley, the soft squelch of still-wet dead leaves and garbage under her shoes reminding her for one unpleasant second of the earlier fun in the construction swamp. She couldn’t decide which one smelled better, either, but neither were pleasant.
But where the building had been full of people and ghosts, the alley was empty. Not even any light from the tenement windows behind occupied the space; only the dull glow of the gibbous moon overhead showed her that no living beings—no human ones, at least—waited there.
Terrible obviously noticed that too. The sound of the exit door slamming back into its frame hit her ears at the same time his body hit hers, slamming her against the back wall, further into the shadows where no one could see him kiss her long and hard.
Had she thought seeing him made her insides explode? She’d been wrong. This was an explosion. This was better than anything else; sometimes she thought it was even better than her pills. At his touch something inside her, something that had been tense and twisted and black, finally relaxed. At his touch something inside her that was constantly terrified found a little security.
Security Chess hoped and hoped would last, despite the nagging voice in the back of her mind that insisted it couldn’t, it wouldn’t; she didn’t deserve it, and she should just give up on the very idea.
Fuck that stupid voice. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pushed her hands down the collar of his shirt to feel the bare skin of his back warm beneath her palms. He was always warm. His own hands left shivering trails of heat from her face to her throat, blazed up her thighs and ribcage, over her breasts.
Finally he pulled away enough to meet her eyes. That jolt of electricity, the one she’d been so careful not to feel inside the bar, hit her. Her cheeks tightened. Her mouth curved into a grin she couldn’t stop. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it at all.”
“Aye, me too. Glad you did. Feelin like I ain’t seen you in weeks.”
“It’s been three days.”
“Aye, but…feels longer. We all clear now?”
She nodded. The past week had been the first time in her life she wished she wasn’t what she was, wasn’t a witch, didn’t have extra power in her blood that meant anyone coming in contact with it might be affected by it; wished such an effect wasn’t part of the marriage ceremony, and meant a commitment she didn’t think either of them was ready to make.
If she wasn’t a witch it wouldn’t matter. Marriages were bound by blood and magic combined, not one or the other, so required the Church’s assistance. But magic was in her blood, and that meant spending six days burning with frustration.
His eyebrows rose; his hands wandered with more purpose. “You ain’t really wanna stay for the band, aye? Whyn’t we head on out now instead?”
“I thought you wanted to see the band,” she teased.
“Changed my thought. Let’s us go. Back my place, aye?” He was smiling, that smile she’d always loved, while his hands distracted her and his body warmed her through her clothes. Summer drew closer every day, and the temperatures reflected that, but it seemed like she was always cold when he wasn’t around. “C’mon.”
“My place is closer.”
“Aye.” He leaned in to bite her neck; she shivered. “But mine’s got thicker walls, dig, an I plan on makin you scream a few times afore we get to sleeping.”
I took her a minute to draw enough breath to speak, through a throat suddenly too tight for anything but a gasp. “I thought we decided we wanted to actually get out tonight, though.”
“And done it. Now us can go back in.”
“I don’t know,” she managed to say. It was becoming more difficult to talk, especially since he’d started sucking gently on her neck, making her dizzy. Without her consciously ordering it to do so her right hand slid down below his belt, finding him hard beneath his jeans and pressing against him. “I really thought you wanted to see the band. You have me for the whole night, you know.”
“Aw, c’mon, Chessiebomb. Car’s right nearby. Whyn’t you come into the car with me. That’s still out, aye? And say our proper hellos.”
“I guess we—”
The sound of his phone ringing, a loud jangly sort of ring, cut her off.
“Ignore it,” she suggested, but she knew he couldn’t. They both knew he couldn’t. Midnight was practically the start of a normal day in Downside, yes, but she doubted anyone who’d be calling him at that hour would have good news.
She was right. Within seconds of answering the phone his face darkened; darkened and took on that look she’d only seen a few times before, that lowered-brow-narrowed-eyes look of absolute rage. The kind of look that would be the last thing the person who caused it would ever see. His fingers tightened on her waist.
“Aye,” he said. “Get em—aye. On my way.”
Her heart sank. Looked like they weren’t going back to anybody’s place, to anybody’s bed. At least not for a long time.
His phone snapped shut. “Pipe room’s burnin.”
He was already walking up the alley, back toward the street, holding her hand in an almost painful grip. “Fuckin Slobag, ’swhat. Pipe room up Sixtieth, green one. On fire.”