Past Lives: 1947: Miss L. Barber

1 of 3.

The pages of the magazine crackle in the silence as Mary turns them, running a pale finger over the text, blonde hair falling into her face. She brushes it impatiently away for what must be the hundredth time, jumping as there is a knock at the door. A strong, formal rat-a-tat, she notices. A man, she’d assume, though Melinda’s knock is very similar.

She breathes out, back in secretary mode, and pastes a smile onto her face. “Coming!” she trills, rushing to answer it, heels clicking across the wooden floor.

A man, as she thought. A reasonably young man (he can only be in his twenties, maybe early thirties), eyes earnest and frightened, limps through the door. “Is your boss here?” he asks, seemingly out of breath, eyes on the sign on the door.

M.R. Harrigan. Investigative Agency.

Mary just lets out a very small – almost unnoticeable, in fact – laugh, gesturing to the nearest chair.

Oh, this should be fun.

Melinda and List burst through the door a few minutes later, panting; blood flecks Melinda’s face – whether hers or someone else’s, Mary doesn’t know – and List’s hands. He’s carrying the stumps of half-burned candles, and gasps as he sees her, by way of explanation, “Sorry. Exorcism.”

Seeing their newest client, Melinda lays a hand upon his shoulder, halting him, and, as he spots the very surprised man sitting in the chair before them, List shoves the candles behind his back with a sheepish grin.

Mary waits for Mr. Barber to run past them through the door, try and call the police, panic.

Instead, to her surprise, he stands – the action is slow, seemingly painful, and Mary sees Melinda take this in, blue eyes calculating – before making his way to the two of them. The limp is slighter now, and Mary knows he’s trying to restrain it – first impressions and all that. He holds out a hand to List. “I didn’t expect someone so – ” He looks him up and down, raising an eyebrow at the blood and the tattered suit, the tie far askew on the stained once-white shirt. After a long pause, he eventually settles for, ” – Young.” Well, List is only nineteen, still looks like a lank youth with slightly too-long hair. “Mr. Harrigan?”

An embarrassed List winces, opens his mouth to explain, but Melinda clears her throat quietly next to him, smiling tightly and proffering her own hand. “Melinda Harrigan, at your service.”

The man’s face is something to see. Mary wonders whether his astonishment is more at the Britishness or the… femaleness. He recovers quickly, however, and shakes her hand. “Barber. Steven Barber.”

Melinda looks at their hands, raising an eyebrow, obviously noticing his self-consciously light grip, and Mary wonders if he’s yet worked out women aren’t quick to break.

After the awkward moment, Melinda gestures to List. “Alister Kord, my professional partner.” She nods in acknowledgement at his small, grateful smile; it’s the first time she’s referred to him as such. “He may seem young, but he’s efficient, and he’s able.”

She forgot to add, and an excellent coffee-maker. Mary’s mouth twitches, but she guesses it’d be unprofessional to smile in the middle of securing a case.

“Good teaching,” List compliments Melinda out of the side of his mouth, still smiling.

“Is there something you need help with, Mr. Barber?” she asks, steadily meeting her prospective client’s eye.

The man leans his weight heavily on his good leg, sighing, and Melinda’s eyes fall to it once again. “Veteran?” she enquires.

He nods, eyes momentarily distant, before saying, “My sister… Louisa. She went missing a couple nights ago.”

Melinda frowns. “Why not take this to the relevant authorities? The police deal with this sort of thing often, yet you venture here to hire a private investigator. Expensive and unnecessary.”

He struggles to speak, eyes on the floorboards, eventually raising his head. “Because… I sound crazy.” He runs a hand through his hair, brow wrinkling in frustration. “I heard… laughing, in her room, several nights on end before she went missing. It didn’t sound human. And I think… I think it was her.

Melinda doesn’t scoff, or accuse him of insanity. Instead she lets out a long, slow breath, removes her bloodstained fedora from her head, rolling the brim between her fingers, and sighs, voice resigned, “Ah. In that case, Mr. Barber, I think our services may be useful to you.” She looks at him. “For I’m sure that laugh wasn’t human.”

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