Past Lives: 1946: The Case Of Miss L. Barber

Finally complete! The longest entry for Past Lives yet, and the longest thing I’ve written in a while, full stop. There’s a fair bit of anachronistic dialogue here. Be assured, it is intentional. (In which we meet Steven.)

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 seventeen, still looks like a lanky 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.”

~

The smell of coffee fills the room; Melinda has led the limping Mr. Barber to her office, and their voices are muffled by her closed  door.

The candle stubs are dumped on the front desk; List’s suit jacket and tie are folded over the chair next to it, possibly beyond hope of ever being wearable again. Their owner is in the kitchen; he’s been trying for the last quarter of an hour to clean up his arms and face, bent over the sink with rolled-up sleeves, but now seems to be attending to his usual duties. He looks up as Mary enters the kitchen, brown hair in need of a cut falling into his eyes, and she joins him at the sink. He shrugs. “Sounds like a straightforward demon case to me – weird voices and all. Could be a possession.”

Mary raises her eyebrows. “Since when have ‘straightforward’ and ‘demon’ ever been in the same sentence?”

He lets out  a small laugh, holds out a hand – she passes him a mug – and replies, “Um, since I started making coffee for an exorcist?”

She smiles. God, it’s good having him around sometimes – he might be the sane one in their little organisation. All she can think of by way of reply is a quiet, “Yeah, maybe.”

They grab a mug each, carrying them to the office and, with a knock, List gingerly opens the door; two heads turn sharply to see what’s going on, before Melinda relaxes, gives them both a small, reassuring smile. “Coffee?” Mary asks.

Barber, hands still anxiously clutching his hat, shakes his head, but Melinda says, “Please.” As List hands her the mug, she leans down and whispers something in his ear; he nods, darts a look at Mary, then exits the room, a hand to Mary’s shoulder.

“She says Barber’s lying,” he says eventually, when they’re out of earshot, voice low. “Some of the details don’t match up, and look at how the guy’s acting…” He shakes his head. “Believe him as far as you can throw him.” He takes a sip of what would’ve been Barber’s coffee, eyes on the frosted glass of Melinda’s office door.

~

When Steven J. Barber, a man who has – perhaps foolishly – always considered himself as honourable, limps into the cold New York night, an evil wind ripping at his heels, he looks over his shoulder, grimacing, hands shaking. The woman detective is smiling, gesturing as she speaks with her employees, oblivious.

Oh, he’s going to hell for this one.

~

Melinda laughs, shaking her head, black curls falling onto her shoulders, and sits on the chair at the front desk. Mary and List, not understanding the sudden humour of the situation, watch her with slightly nervous smiles.

She glances at the door, the irregular footsteps of their client fading from the stairs, and the smile falls from her face as quickly as it was forced there. She picks up a scrap of paper, holding it between two graceful fingers, and regards them steadily, eyes hard. “I don’t appreciate being crossed, and I’m sure he won’t appreciate having been pickpocketed.” She unfolds the paper, and they see that an address is scribbled there in a spidery, barely-legible print, as well as…

List gently extracts the note from her fingers, frowning at it, ignoring the ominous stain. “Boss…” he says, painfully aware he’s remarking upon the obvious, “this is an address.”

“It could simply be his mother’s house,” Mary chips in hopefully. “Or somewhere he’s staying…”

Melinda nods, her hand drifting to her hip; at first it seems like she’s reaching for her revolver, but the movement is all wrong – more like she’s reaching for a handle than a gun belt. She seems to notice, and removes her hand sharply. “It could be. But I’d be interested to know why there’s a significant amount of blood on it.”

“Papercut?” Mary suggests eventually, after a long silence. Well, a girl can dream.

List taps Melinda’s shoulder, still reading the note. “Boss…” When Melinda turns, he looks to their colleague. “Mary… Look, this guy obviously never had the same kind of teachers as me, or he would never have come out of school with writing like this, but I can read it.” He frowns, tilting his head. “Kinda. And this isn’t an address, it’s the address. It’s the address he gave to us,” List remarks. “The place he said he was living. This isn’t just some random place. And if you’re living somewhere…”

Melinda nods. “You should remember it, rather than having to write it down. That makes little sense on its own, but compounded by the fact that there is a significant amount of blood on this…”

“He might have written it down so he wouldn’t get lost,” Mary tries again.

List shakes his head. “Nuuuhhh. Even if it’s a new house, you don’t just forget where it is. Maybe you write directions to get to it, but he hasn’t.”

“This assumes some knowledge of the neighbourhood,” Melinda says. “You’d have to know where the street is.”

“See,” List finishes, “ this… this makes no sense. Least, not if we assume he’s being honest.

There is a silence as Mary seems to think this over. “It’s somewhere he hasn’t been before, or been to a lot, so he’s lying to us about it being his house. So it’s a setup?”

Melinda nods, pinching the bridge of her nose and looking at her shoes. “That seems most likely. Probably by the demon that has his sister.”

“So we’re not going, right?” List concludes.

Mary says quietly, “It sent him here. It knows where to find us, Melinda.”

Melinda looks up, giving List what could be best described as a glare; her silence and the look in her eyes are condemning without her needing to say a word, but she sighs. “Alister,” she says, ignoring his theatrical wince at the use of his given name, “we need to know why anyone would attempt to do something like this, and if it’s us in particular they’re looking for.” Another sigh, and she adds quietly, “Or me.”

~

“Steven…” The voice comes from Louisa’s bedroom, shaking and hopeful, and he increases his pace, cursing the limp that stops him from simply running to check on her condition.

She’s sitting in the corner of the room, her back to him, staring to the wall. “Steven, did you give them the address of the house?”

He sighs, raising two fingers to knead his aching forehead. “Yes, I did. And will you leave once…” His voice fails him, and he can’t help feeling a little sick at sending an innocent woman into the arms of… this.

It turns, regarding him with milk-white eyes, the irises having long disappeared. “Once we are there, and I have the witch? Yes.”

“I thought you said private investigator. And you didn’t tell me she was a woman.” (A handsome one too, some part of his mind registers.)

It grins with Louisa’s mouth, but the expression is all wrong on his sister’s face. He can’t imagine her ever giving someone a smile so shark-like. “Same thing. And she thinks she is a woman.” At his questioning frown, it adds, “I would say she hasn’t been for a long time.” Something seems to occur to it, the question snappy and anxious. “You told her it should be tonight?”

He nods, swallowing down the bile that seems to gather in his throat all of a sudden.

“Good. You keep your side of the bargain, and I’ll keep mine.” It turns back to the wall, brown curls that belong to someone else brushing its back.

“As – Az – “

It turns to aid him. “Azakel.”

All he can manage is, “Please.”

It nods, and he leaves the room with closed eyes, trembling legs and the sense that he is something less than human.

~

After darkness falls, Melinda leads the way, the scrap of paper still in her hand, List and Mary trailing behind her. The street is quiet, a couple of passers-by nodding to them. Melinda returns the greeting.

“I hope he’s all right,” Mary pipes up suddenly.

List looks at her in disbelief. “Why? I mean, this… this perp’s trying to get us killed.

“Co-conspirator, actually,” Melinda says from ahead of them, her tone absentminded. “I think.”

Mary’s brow creases as she looks up at the house, and she clasps her hands together, tensing them. She bites her lip, the scarlet shade she wears smudging onto her teeth. “He has a demon in his house – or this house, I don’t know… and he just seemed so afraid.

List gives an over-dramatic sigh, trailing a hand down his face in exasperation. “He can’t be a killer, because he gave you scared puppy eyes? Mary-Ann Coolidge, you’d make a great cop.” He tenses at hearing Melinda’s knock on the door of the house, any trace of sarcasm fleeing him.

“It just seems like something’s wrong,” Mary manages, the door opening as she ends the sentence.

Barber stares at them for a moment, his eyes weary and distracted, and then attempts to give them a smile. It trembles for a moment before disappearing altogether. “Come in, please.” He turns and makes his way through the hallway; the three of them follow him, slowing their pace to allow him to lead them. List can’t help but notice that the hall is bare of furniture – there isn’t even a hatstand – and is sure that Melinda does, too; the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and rise, and he exchanges a look with Mary. She seems as on edge as he is.

“I haven’t seen her for…”Barber begins, leading them past the stairs, but stops, cut off by a voice from ahead of them.

Steven…” it calls, and it sounds wrong, somehow, crawling up their spines and settling on their shoulders like a midwinter’s chill. List can’t restrain a shudder, and notices that Barber does the same.

“It seems you haven’t been entirely honest with us, Mr. Barber,” Melinda says icily, and List can hear her resisting the urge to grit her teeth.

“I… I’m sorry,” he says, stopping and leaning back against the banister. “Run, please…”

“Steven!the voice calls again, harsher this time.

“Just run,” he tells her desperately. “Run, you mad woman!”

Melinda ignores him, striding towards the voice. He lunges desperately, grabs her by the shoulder. She turns her head, the movement slow and deliberate, to look at him. Then she throws his hand off her, her grip tight and her lip curled. She walks on, not looking back.

Barber stays frozen where he is, and as Mary passes him, his eyes meet hers – his are wide and frightened. She frowns, debating with herself before deciding. “Take these,” she tells List, shoving the candles into his hands. He frowns at her but follows Melinda.

She steps up to Barber – he looks up from his shoes in surprise – and lays a hand on his arm. “Why did you lead us here?” she asks, her tone gentle. Perhaps a soft touch will work where brute force has failed.

He swallows. “It promised me…” he answers, then seems to bite off the sentence before it can reach its end. “It promised,” he finishes eventually, looking at her as if he expects her to understand.

~

Witch,” the voice says as Melinda enters the room. The woman it is inhabiting is slumped against the wall, watching them with fast, flickering eyes, ready to strike.

“Azakel,” she answers flatly. “I thought I’d killed you.” Yeah, List had thought so too.

Not… quite,” it answers, standing; the movement is slow, unnatural.

“New body?” Melinda asks, and List catches something like… hope in her tone, if he didn’t know any better.

It nods, looking unnervingly like a puppet on a string. “Not very new, no.” A smile creeps across its face. “Good to see you again. What are you calling yourself now? Aerith sounds a little… old-fashioned, in my opinion.”

“Me – “ List begins, his question written on his face, but she holds out a hand to halt him, never taking her eyes off the possessed woman. Names are power; she taught him that, and he should have remembered it. “Boss,” he hastily corrects himself, and at her nod, asks, “’To see you again’?

“It’s a very long story,” she tells him, before turning back to Azakel. “How long have you been here?”

A few months,” it says, and, at List’s look of surprise, adds, “How long did he say she’d been gone? I’ve been with him for months, looking for you. It’s been nearly a year since I came to him in this body. Sifted through her memories and found a good choice of tool.” Melinda looks disgusted, and its smile grows wider. “Are you going to say something grand and wrathful now, hedge-witch? When you do the same?” It looks at List. “Are you useful to her, little boy?”

He steps forwards, face twisting in anger. “I’m not – “ He looks at Melinda, and something in his eyes changes; suddenly he looks very young, and very frightened. “I’m not – “ he tries again, but his voice fails him.

Melinda places a hand on his arm. “Don’t touch it. It’s trying to bait you.”

Will she ever truly see you?” it asks, and List swallows. “See you the way you’d like to be seen?”

“Stop,” Melinda tells it, and it faces her, still smiling that odd grin that looks as if someone has put strings in its mouth and pulled. “He’s still young. He has nothing you want.”

“Have you ever wondered what he looks like?” it asks List. “The father that left you?

He steps forwards again, nearly within arm’s reach of it… “I…”

Melinda pulls him back, stepping in front of him; she searches in his pocket, pulls out a bottle of the blessed water they take to exorcisms and pours it over her hand, before lunging forwards and pressing two fingers to the clammy skin of Louisa Barber’s forehead. She spits in the body’s ear, “End.

The body fits, seizing and jumping desperately, and she has to fight to hold it down. She wishes she had List for this, but when she dares to look over her shoulder, he’s slumped against a wall with his head in his hands, breathing heavily.

She has become too used to having others by her side, too lonely. A frightened old woman clutching at youth. Her hands tremble on the woman’s shoulders, and she presses down harder to compensate, teeth gritted.

You will pay for this,” Azakel hisses. “Eventually. Die, witch, and quickly. When I find you…” The threat is vague, useless, and ultimately unfinished; the body spasms with a gasp, the last breath harsh and dragged forcefully out of its lungs, and is still. There is no trace of Azakel. The woman’s pupils have returned, but her eyes are glassy and lifeless. Melinda sighs; she knew the moment she found out how long Azakel had had the body, but somehow, somewhere inside her, she’d hoped… She reaches out, gently closes the woman’s eyes, and then turns to List.

He’s still leaning, his back to the wall, his eyes covered by his hands; his head is bowed, his knuckles white and his hands shaking. Her footsteps are slow, careful as she approaches him, the tread of someone afraid to frighten an animal – or a child. She places her hands on his, gently bringing them away from his face.

His eyes are wide, misted over with memories from another place, another time that she will never see and isn’t sure she wants to. His breaths are shaky; his eyes flicker to her, but they’re still unfocused. “I saw him. I saw my dad, in my head… it was in my head…

Melinda doesn’t let go of him, instead moving her hands to his forearms; her grip is gentle but firm, hopefully an anchor in the fog clouding his head. “Alister…”

“God, Mom was such a mess…” He looks at his feet. “It was in my head…

“List.” His head snaps up, and he finally seems to hear her, but his eyes are still not quite here, his mind still half-drifting elsewhere. “We’ve talked about this. They try to use your memories… that wasn’t your father, that was your idea of what he looks like. It doesn’t know. It doesn’t have that. It will never have that.”

She’d known it would have to happen sometime, that one of the demons would manage to get just a little too close, but he looks so young and so frightened in that moment that she regrets, truthfully and utterly, ever bringing him into all this. Seventeen isn’t so old, in the grand scheme of things: she has brought a child onto a battlefield, and she feels like a monster.

“I…” he begins, then gulps for air, his eyes focusing, finally seeming to come back to himself. He sees past her, sees the vacant body. “Aw, shit, shit, I’m sorry, I should’ve been there, i should’ve helped out – “

Melinda tightens her grip slightly, enough to bring his anxious babbling to an end but not to hurt, and says gently, “List.”He looks back to her. “It’s all right. Honestly, it’s all all right. You’ve been excellent, all things considered.”

He opens his mouth once more as if to argue, then exhales heavily, straightening his back and nodding. “Thanks. Really… thanks.” Then he’s suddenly pulling her into a bone-crushing hug – honestly, the boy doesn’t know his own strength these days. Anyone else would have been shot for this, but she manages to get past her surprise, patting him awkwardly on the back; she’s never been the most tactile of people, and it shows. Why isn’t Mary here to do this?

She disentangles herself and turns at the sound of a gasp from behind her; Barber is standing in the doorway next to Mary looking at the body in horror. “What did you…? She’s dead!

“Mr. Barber…” Melinda begins, but he’s hobbling to the body before she can finish. He manages to kneel, his grunt of pain and the way his hand shakes on the walking-stick showing what it costs him, and drops the stick, raising his hands to rest them on the woman’s cold cheeks.

“No.” He’s murmuring nonsense, and Melinda only catches a few sentences. “No, wake up, I was only gone a minute, maybe two, maybe three, I don’t know… Lou, wake up…

Mary moves to stand next to Melinda, and tells her quietly, “They were close. She practically raised him.”

“Ah,” Melinda says softly, surprised to feel sympathetic for the man that sent them into a trap. She looks at List; he’s frowning, his mouth a little open, as if trying to comprehend the scene before him.

Barber stands, slowly and with much pained effort, and looks at them, his eyes narrow and glistening with unshed tears.  “It promised me…” He forces in a breath. “It promised it would give her back, if I just…” He seems to lose his voice.

“Gave it us,” List finishes for him, and he nods.

“Why is she – ?” he asks, looking once more at his sister, uncomprehending.

“The demon lied,” Melinda says quietly. “Her mind was never its to give. It had had her for too long. When it was making its promises, your sister had already been dead for several months. I’m sorry.”

At that Barber rests his head in his hand, his face hidden, and there is a moment’s delay before his shoulder lifts with the heave of a silent sob. They hear a small, desperate gasp from the man, quickly muffled, and then there is the clicking of heels as Mary runs across the room, placing gentle hands on his shoulders, murmuring gentle, inane words. “It’s all right, Steven, it’s all right, you can lay her to rest now…”

Melinda and List watch the scene in confusion, wondering what on earth has possessed their colleague, until Barber looks up, swiping his hand roughly across his face and managing a shuddering exhale. “I’m sorry… She was very dear to me.” He manages to regain much of his composure, giving her something that approximates a smile. “Thank you, Miss Coolidge. You’ve been more than helpful.”

She smiles, soft and reassuring, and corrects him, “Mary.” He steps away from her with a nod and another smile, and makes his way over to Melinda and List. “I’m sorry,” he tells them. “I… I honestly can’t apologise enough, and I…” He looks down, bringing out a wallet and holding an elbow to the stick to keep it upright as he begins to count through dollar bills.

“Stop,” Melinda tells him quietly. “This has been a difficult night for us all.” She thinks of List, distressed and barely able to stand upright, and then forces the thought to the back of her mind. “You aren’t the first, and you certainly won’t be the last.” Barber looks up, and she finishes, “There’s no need.”

“I… I see,” is all he can reply, putting away the wallet with trembling hands.

Melinda turns, is about to start walking away, when she hears List say behind her, “Hey.” There is a pause, and then he says, “You look like a man that needs a drink. Come with us.” He’s talking to Barber, she realises belatedly.

“I shouldn’t…” Barber begins, but Mary interrupts him with, “It’s all right, Mr. Barber. You’ve just lost your sister.”

“Alright,” Barber says, the word mostly a sigh. There’s a silence, and then he says softly, “Steven. My name is Steven.”

~

In the kitchen space behind Mary’s office, Melinda sighs, pouring three servings of scotch and finishing off a cup of coffee. She hears footsteps and a rustle of clothing behind her, and then List is beside her, looking at the drinks on the counter. “Mine, right?” he asks, pointing at the coffee, but the question is hopeful and his eyes are on the scotch.

Yours,” Melinda says firmly; he may not be seventeen anymore, but he’s nowhere near twenty-one.

He sighs and takes it. There’s an inhale, followed by a splutter, and he asks, “Shit, did you make this?”

Melinda glares at him. “Yes.

“Knew it,” he says, raising a finger to illustrate his point, and takes another tentative sip, grimacing.

“I thought you deserved it,” Melinda says in the silence, her voice soft, looking up at the cupboards.

“Geez, what have I done wrong?” he asks in faux-outrage, and her glare this time is enough to melt metal. He just grins right back.

She breathes out heavily, relenting, and asks him, “Are you sure you want to continue?”

The air changes, the mood vastly different. His eyes widen, and he lowers the cup. “What, with” – he gestures around the room – “this?

“Yes. After today, I thought perhaps…”

He places the cup back on the counter, crossing his arms with a vigorous shake of his head. “Oh no, we are not doing this. The pity thing. I’ve had this conversation before – with my mom.” He grimaces again at the thought. “You knew my dad left. You knew that years ago, and I knew what those bastards did. Sifting through your head, all that stuff.”

She considers what he’s said, and then nods. “And you’re sure?”

“Sure as I can be,” he says airily, his smile returning, “and that’s enough, right?”

She smiles. “I hope so.” She passes him a glass of scotch, taking the other two herself, and they make their way into the other room and to Mary’s desk, where four chairs have been drawn up. She can’t help but notice that he leaves the coffee in the kitchen.

Barber is sitting at the desk, shoulders slumped and eyes burning holes through the table, but looks up at her arrival, giving her a tentative smile as he accepts the glass of scotch. “Thank you.”

She nods, letting herself relax into a chair and raising her own glass to her lips. She watches List discuss something with Mary, the two of them animated in discussion; their eyes are alight, List’s hands gesturing wildly as he tries to explain something. Mary’s eyes briefly catch Barber’s, and she gives him a small smile. He returns it, then hastily looks back to his glass, the smile fading.

“It gets better,” Melinda tells him gently. “It always does.”

He raises his head to meet her eye. “Does it?” His tone is disbelieving, and she can’t blame him.

She nods. “Always. In time.”

He nods, seeming to mull it over, and takes another gulp of his drink. He looks back to Mary and List, a tentative light growing in his eyes as he listens to them.

There is still an empty house to go back to and a body to explain, but tonight, with whisky glasses on scattered papers and the easy smiles of her colleagues – her friends – the morning seems far away.

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