Past Lives: Cold Open

1945. New York. A not-so-great neighbourhood.

“You wanna what?”

She watches him levelly, and then says again in that genteel British voice of hers, “I’d like to rent the apartment. And the offices.” It’s the first accent he’s ever heard that has a toffee-nose. She crosses her legs, uncrosses them, crosses them again – but she’s wearing big Army boots under that trenchcoat, so he doesn’t get distracted by any of the right things.

Mort frowns. “Are you sure?”

With a bright little smile like she’s asking him about the weather, she says, “Certain.” Puts that strong chin up and looks all steady at him, like she’s readying herself up for a maybe-fight she doesn’t want.

He wants to put his palms up and tell her he’s surrendering, Jesus, put it down, but instead he just leans back in his chair and asks, “The offices as well?”

He should be jumping for joy. She looks like she’ll pay pretty much anything, sounds it too, and he gave her the full viewing and the spiel about how great the crumbling walls and the possible roaches were. He just… wasn’t expecting her to come back, that’s all. Maybe she really is nuts. He wondered it when he saw all the black stuff around her eyes, the… star – hell, he doesn’t know – under one eye that stretched to her cheek. Shame to see on such a pretty woman. Then again, it’s usually the pretty ones who aren’t quite right.

She nods, relaxing just a little, and he can’t help it: he says, “I’m pretty sure you told me, but… remind me what you want them for again?” He knows for a fact that she didn’t, but he’d rather not get her back up.

That bright, shame about the rain smile again. It should be casual, should make him relax, but he gets the feeling she’s going to say something… odd. She tells him, “I’m hoping to open a private investigative agency.”

He rubs his forehead, feeling a migraine coming on, and manages, “I… I see.”


 

And somewhere the credits are beginning, but we’ll get to that later.


 

So List said sure, I’ll do it, because Mort’s not as young as he used to be and he needs the help. And List’s seventeen and he may look like a beanpole but he can lift stuff, and he’s pretty good at shelves, just ask Mom. He’s said sure, I’ll do it a million times and he knows he should probably get paid more, but he can stretch to a million-and-one because it’s the right thing to do and it’s currently all the work he can get.

Besides, he’s a little curious. The offices too, Mort said. Who the hell would want those offices?

Then he sees the trenchcoat hanging on the door, and yeah, maybe he’s grinning, because he’d know a big, beige private-eye trenchcoat anywhere.  He’s expecting someone a little Dick Tracy, tall and with a chin you could bounce a bullet off and always with a pack of smokes in his pocket.

But he opens the door and he gets no-one. The place is empty. The door creaks and a tiny cloud of dust rises from the floorboards, dances round in the sunshine. He takes a step and the floor creaks, too. Another step. Another. He’s about to turn and go, maybe ask Mort if there’s been a mistake, when someone calls from behind the inner office door, “Come in.”

Huh. A Brit.

For some reason he feels like he should be creeping, like he should have his head down and be respectful while he greets Mr. Not-Dick-Tracy’s secretary or whoever, but he opens the door and –

Well, he does see a chin you wouldn’t want to screw around with, and she’s definitely tall, but she’s a she, and he doesn’t see cigarettes anywhere, and did he mention that she’s a woman? And she’s definitely not the secretary. Secretaries don’t lean on the desk like they already own it, and they don’t look at you like they’ve already figured out all your darkest secrets. Maybe what you’ve had for breakfast, while they’re at it. She’s wearing some of the weirdest makeup he’s ever seen but that doesn’t take away from those eyes, maybe the bluest he’s ever come across. He suddenly gets the accent because by God, they don’t make them like this at home.

“Uh…” He clears his throat. “Lease is in the name of Harrigan, I was told?”

She smiles at him. All of a sudden the severity drops away and leaves something softer, and boy, that’s scary in a whole different kinda way. “Melinda Harrigan.” She offers her hand.

After a second he realises he’s staring and rushes forward to shake it. “Alister Kord. Mort – Mister Ferguson sent me.”

She nods. “You’re here to help with the repairs?”

“I sure am.” He does his best to come up with a grin. Not much else he can do. “You’re the PI, then?”

Raising an eyebrow, she says, “He mentioned that?”

Now he’s genuinely laughing. “Actually it was the coat.”

“The – ?” She straightens up. It’s the first time he’s seen her unbalanced, and it surprises him. “Oh.” She smiles and says, “I suppose it wasn’t exactly subtle.”

“Not exactly,” he agrees. They share a smile as the dust motes keep dancing, and then he says, “You wanted some chairs moving in?”

Nodding, she replies, “I do. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

As he’s turning to leave, he swears he sees her run a hand along the desk, swears there’s a half-whisper of something and a lightening of the air like an alarm’s just been switched off. But he doesn’t know what’s given him that feeling, and he shakes it off, goes to get the chairs.


 

Cut to a diner. Snow is falling outside, fluffy and white like it’s in a movie. Some of it’s white on the ground too, but most of it’s grey from the fumes and the feet of New Yorkers. Mary watches it through the blinds, and she figures that if she were in a movie, too, she’d be framed in black and white, her hair falling slightly loose around her face because of a long shift, shadows cast on her face. She likes the thought.

Things have been quiet, so she’s leaning against the counter, absentmindedly reapplying her lipstick, wrinkling her nose at the smell of bacon grease. It’s not that she minds the smell per se, it’s just that it’ll be in her hair at the end of the day. Spend long enough around cooking and it gets like that. She’ll walk past people and all they’ll think is waitress and bacon. These days all she thinks is waitress too, bacon or not. This was just meant to be a stopgap, something to tide her over, but the thing about stopgaps is that they stop. She doesn’t want to go home with bacon-hair every night for the rest of her life.

There’s a version of Jingle Bells playing quietly on the radio. She thinks there’s saxophone in it, and that bugs her somehow. She can’t help but wonder why everything has to be modernised and changed and made sharper – what the hell is wrong with the classics? She likes jazz when it’s meant to be jazz. This stuff gives her hives.

The bell above the door rings, and she catches a couple of things: the rustle of a long coat, a bowed head, a fedora. The newest customer takes a corner seat, and Mary gets the feeling that it’s to keep an eye on the room. That’d make her say soldier, but the figure and the wavy hair she sees once the hat comes off tell her she’s looking at a woman. Strangely-dressed, but definitely a woman.

Mary makes her way over, and the woman looks up. Below coils of dark hair are bright blue eyes, and makeup Mary’s never seen before. The weight of the woman’s gaze almost makes Mary want to shrink, but she smiles and it fades a little. She orders black coffee in a neat British accent, and Mary spends the next half-hour pretending not to look at her and thinking, PI. British female PI?

She’ll admit it, she’s a little impressed. And she has the feeling they’ve got a new regular.


 

Melinda lays down the wards – the protections against intruders, the preservation spells – and then picks up her coat. She switches off the light and as she closes the door, she listens to the quiet hiss of magic fading.

Past Lives: 1946: Haemoptysis

noun: The act of coughing up blood.

Aw, shit.

Famous last words, and all. Funny, he always hoped his would be more dignified.

He guesses it’s better than, Hah, they’ll never see me from he – ! It’s from some old war story a kid told him the other day. He thinks. It’s all kind of fuzzy now, but then, everything’s kind of fuzzy now, so…

He’s talking crap again. Someone needs to have a word with him about that. Actually, wait, someone is talking to him.

“List! List, stay with me!”

“He’s coughing up blood. Internal bleeding.”

Weird, really. You’d think the blood’s meant to stay on the inside, but he knows what that means.

“Is there something we can do? Tell me there’s something.”

Everything’s kinda… hazy. It’s fun, in a halfway-underwater-and-gonna-be-sick way. So not really fun, then. He definitely caught the words internal bleeding, though, and he knows enough to know he’s screwed. Well, that’s not good. Mom’s gonna kill him if he dies.

List! C’mon, I don’t even want to have to explain this to Elizabeth.”

Huh. Sounds like Mary’s had the same thought. It makes sense, he guesses – his mother’s pretty damn hard to forget in a hurry.

There’s… stuff in his throat. He tastes copper and slime, nasty, crawling up and into his mouth before he can stop it. No, no, no… He doesn’t want to move – shit, he’s so tired – but he tries to cough, and someone is saying something along the lines of God, that’s a lot.

The thing is, blood doesn’t bother him so much when it’s on someone else, or even when he’s wearing it occasionally, but apparently it tastes like the ass-end of a goat, and see, that bothers him. Great, he’s gonna die thinking of a goat’s ass. Classy.

Alister. Don’t you dare.”

Crazy blue eyes and a no-bullshit glare. Hey, Melinda. She’s crouching next to him. He wants to raise his hand and wave, but everything’s slow, sluggish, like he can’t move properly and why can’t he feel…

why can’t he feel…

Strong hands on his shoulders, lower, on wet cloth. Shit, his suit’s never gonna be the same again. Shit, shit, shit.

“Alister.”

He manages to cough out something that sounds a little like, “List.” It’s croaky, like a frog and a dying man had a kid in his throat, and Jesus, the deader he gets the stupider he gets, too. He’s so glad the only things around are humans. He’d be ashamed if anyone could see inside his head right now.

He hears a “tch” and a sigh from Mary – he can hear her rolling her eyes, seriously – but Melinda’s… different. The glare drops a little. Her eyes go soft, and her voice does, too – it takes her a second to say, “List.”

No, no, no. You’d think that’d sound better, but that softness just sounds like she’s giving up, like he’s dead already. He knows she’s lost people – not how many, but definitely people – and he figures that she’s probably sick of watching people die. “Can’t – “He can’t breathe. He chokes; his voice doesn’t sound right.

“I know.” Not a platitude. He actually reckons she does. It’s in her eyes. She looks up, he’s guessing at Mary. “Get a doctor. The nearest one. Find a telephone.”

“Uh-huh,” Mary says, and List reckons she’s nodded. He hears the rapid clicks of heels on pavement.

Melinda’s head is turned like she’s watching Mary go – no, like she’s making sure she’s gone – then she sighs. Looks back to him. Frowns. Says quietly, “Forgive me.”

Later, he’ll say that that’s when he blacks out, God’s honest truth. Because it doesn’t make any sense, what happens next. For a minute, he swears he sees her reach into her boot, pull out a knife, cut into her arm until she draws blood. He swears he hears her mutter something under her breath, words in a language he’s never heard before, and then something glows…

But his head is swimming, nothing in the world makes sense, and when he’s sitting in the office later, bandaged up but miraculously without his guts spilling onto the floor, he’ll reckon it’s just his imagination. Makes no sense, after all. And in the post near-death haze, when he’s just glad to be alive and can barely focus easily, the memories’ll just… slip away, somehow. Easily as water.

Past Lives: 1945: Inflicted Insight

After your first time out with Melinda – after you see the demon, after you know how possessions happen – you suddenly… see. List’s sure there’s a better word for it, but he’s not sure what that word is. It’s just something that happens.

So you’ll hear about some girl gone missing, and the people talking on the L have decided it all already, judge, jury and executioner – y’see, she had a boyfriend who she’d broken up with and then he didn’t like her much, he’d been stalking her, so on – but you’ll be frowning and badly pretending to read the newspaper, listening in. It doesn’t add up, not at all – they’re just pushing the pieces together desperately like a three-year-old with a jigsaw, trying to make them fit when they just don’t. You’ll know you’re being paranoid, being stupid, but you’ll suddenly wonder if she got home after a rough day, and her ex had been calling and calling her, threatening her, and someone new was sitting in her best armchair. Maybe that someone offered her a way to get the guy off her back – all she had to do was make a deal…

And you’re standing, shaking your head and getting off a stop early. You can walk it. You know the way. Too many people, you think, and your shoulders are tense; there’s something buzzing in your blood tonight. It’s there, it’s there, all the time, underneath every innocent passerby and down every pleasant street. There’s a monster round every corner. Now you know, you’re not sure you can play dumb again.

Who the hell are you kidding? You are dumb. No need to play. Or at least, you were.

There are people, always people, milling around you, pressing in, crowds and faces and laughter somewhere. You want to scream at them, to grab them by the collar and give ’em a good yelling at. They all think they’re safe, the wayyou used to think you were safe, that it’d never happen to you, nothing ever happened to you. For God’s sake, man, you shout silently, wordlessly at a passing guy with a sharp suit and a hat you probably would’ve admired and cared about yesterday, bolt all your locks, even though locks don’t work against them, and grab your family and hold them tight. Maybe you say something through your eyes, because he swerves a little, moves so he won’t have to walk too close to you, staring at you wide-eyed. You probably look like a nut, or a drunk, even though you might just be the only sane one here.

You want a drink, actually.

You want to find some friends. You want to find a bar and lie about how old you are. You want to get in a fight – even though you never pick fights, you’re not a dunce – and you want blood and booze behind your teeth and you really, really need to forget everything right now. It’s forget or truly, honestly go nuts. Yeah, great options there.

You want to be that kind of man, do those kinds of things, but you’re not. You know you’re not. Even if you were, you’ve got nearly-empty pockets weighing you down and not a goddamn bit of luck.

Going home doesn’t feel right. You need to get out, get free, keep walking. It’s itching under your skin; everything’s itching under your skin.

You walk, and you walk. You listen while you do it, making sure that on this quiet street, the only footsteps are yours. They’ve always liked the chase. You find yourself grasping a door handle, and you look up and read the words on the frosted glass: M. R. Harrigan. You smile, even though it’s bitter. You remember that door; you remember being just the kid tinkering around and fixing the shelves, thinking you knew everything. Jesus, you were stupid.

You want to find “M. R. Harrigan.” You want to scream at her and ask her why the hell she’s done this to you, what the hell you’ve done to deserve this. Maybe you could do that if you’d actually gone and got drunk – or if you pretended to be.

But that’d be disrespectful, dishonest, so instead you walk quietly through the main office. You look at the desk, at the empty chair; there’s no point having them there, but you like to sit and drink your coffee there in the mornings. Listen to the radio. Maybe sing along a little, if it’s something you know and if it’s good. Melinda says she’s on the lookout for a secretary. Yeah, right. Like any secretary could handle this shit.

You walk through to the second door, frosted glass again, and you knock. Then you wait. Mom raised you well, not in a barn.

It takes a second, but you hear soft footsteps – she’ll be wearing practical shoes: quiet, good leather and good grips – and then the door opens. “List?” she asks, eyes widening. You want to laugh a little; it isn’t often that someone manages to surprise her. Her hand was at her hip, close to her gun, but she takes it away to sweep back her hair instead. You know this is weird; it’s way after working hours. She sent you home after yesterday to have some leave, take some time. You wonder if she expected you to ever come back.

“I don’t…” Your voice is rough, sounds rusty and old and barely-used. “How the hell do you stay calm?” you manage after a second or two. It comes out angrier than you thought it would. “How the hell don’t you tell them, or warn them, or something – ?”

The slick’s been pretty much sweated out of your hair, falling haphazard into your face, and you’re gonna start looking like a crazy soon. You must be wild-eyed, and maybe she recognises something in your face. Maybe she looked like this back when she started, whenever the hell that was. She gets it. You know from the look on her face. “You’re thinking of them as cases, aren’t you? Youcan’t, Alister.”

“Huh?”

“You think there are demons lurking under every bed, don’t you? And you’re taking one look at them and trying to exorcise them already.”

That takes the wind out of you. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. You shrug.

“Do you know how common demon attacks are?” she asks.

That gets your goat, actually – feels a little patronising. “Pretty damn common,” you snap. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be needed, would we?”

“Yes,” she says, and now she doesn’t take that gentle, come-down-here-kitty-it’s-safe-I-promise tone you’ve heard teachers and your mom use. She’s straight, matter-of-fact. “But not as common as you’d think.” She sighs. “The vast majority of the people you see every day will never meet a demon. It is very likely more dangerous to cross a street.”

You stand there a moment, considering. Wondering if she’s lying, trying to make you feel better. But you know Melinda; she doesn’t do that. “Promise?” you ask, and you hate how young you sound.

“I promise,” she says. Silence falls on the office, then she adds, “It will fade, Alister. When you wake up tomorrow, you’ll have rationalised it and reassured yourself.”

You’re not sure you believe her, but you breathe out, pull yourself together. You have to believe her, or there’s nothing to cling onto. You take her words as a life raft, because you sure as hell need one. “How can you rationalise something like this?” you ask her, more than a little desperate – needing someone to say that you can, that it’ll all make sense in the morning.

She stands there, hesitant, like she’s not sure whether she ought to say the next thing. Then she tells you, “You can’t. But if you were to truly understand it all – well, I certainly don’t. I’ve a feeling I’d go quite mad.” She puts a hand on your shoulder. “Don’t worry.” It’s firm and it’s an order. She’s your boss, you suddenly remember. “Worrying solves nothing and saves no-one. Fear – realfear, when you’re at gunpoint or a demon has decided to ask you for your name – well, that may save your life. Worry will just make you tired, and it’s self-indulgence.”

You nod numbly, believing her now. You already feel tired. Maybe the walk here was longer than you thought. It’s not really that late, but it’s late enough, and now the panic’s worn off, you’re nearly swaying on your feet. You need to go home. You need to see Mom, and hug her, and thank her for being… well, her. “G’night.”

“Good night. Can you be in tomorrow?”

“Sure.” You stifle a yawn. “Yeah, sure. See ya.”

You turn and head back blearily through the office. The streets are dark, and you hear no demons lurking. Your shoulders are maybe, slightly, a little lighter than they were.

Yay! Pretentious second person vaguely stream-of-consciousness stuff! Very probably a one-off, don’t worry. Inspired vaguely by Nathan Asher & The Infantry’s “Turn Up the Faders,” which is very likely about middle-class youth ennui, but instead made me think of… demon-hunting? Oh dear. Pretty sure that’s not normal.


Light strikes the suburbs in the summer,
Water trickles and runs down the features of children,
Laughter echoes rising
As they slip between the sprinklers.
Faces eager for no reason,
Is it the season, is that it?
This used to be enough for me, now it isn’t,
I need some different entertainment.

So we take the A-Train into the city,
Sticky seats shake at the station,
Women’s footsteps drag them,
From the cave of the tunnel dragon,
Into the open high-rises, buildings,
Street urchins come to siege us,
Corner preachers carry Jesus,
Like he carried the cross, toss leaflets.
All this misdirected lust,
All these, all these, all these people,
As dusk turns into evening,
We just get funneled to the clubs.


 

Time lapse – a life in six moments: List

1

Denny closes the door behind him, thanking God the baby didn’t cry. Probably still asleep, he reckons. If the kid had woken up and made a scene happen, well… Denny might have stayed. Denny’s not a smart man – hell, he doesn’t know shit compared to some people in this world – but he knows this for sure: he can’t stay. Deadbeats like him often get deadbeat sons if they stick around; maybe without him, the boy’s got half a chance.

And Lizzie? She’ll find someone better – she deserves better.

He heads down the street without looking back. Upstairs, in the crib, Alister’s eyes don’t even open.

+

 2

List gets asked a lot about his dad. Some of the kids at school didn’t even see theirs; those men died in the war before their children were even born, or when they were too young to remember. Those kids, when he says he doesn’t have a father, ask him if that’s why. He just shrugs, says the guy wasn’t around and changes the subject. It’s easier than admitting he didn’t want me. (He’s not stupid. He’s heard the stuff Mom’s friends whisper in the next room. What kind of man walks out on his family? Who could do that to Elizabeth? If a man like that – weak, made of “the wrong stuff” – is his father, what does that make List?)

So if they push it, he threatens to sock them on the jaw – the way he saw on the reels once, when Mom saved up and they went together. (He’s not even sure he could throw a punch; he’s only ever done it in dumb playground games, never for real.)

Sometimes he wishes his dad had died in the war. Sure, it’d be sad, but it’d be easier to explain.

+

3

“List?” someone repeats – like it’s stupid, like he’s stupid.

He shrugs, hopes it says enough. Why the hell should he have to explain it? Couldn’t pronounce his own name, back when he was only knee-high, and it stuck. That’s it. Alister is the boy trying to impress Mom and pretend everything’s alright, that there’s enough money around the house; Alister is the kid the teachers have no time for. List is what he calls himself, and List is Alister but also someone else altogether.

He looks at the someone: the new kid, the one who doesn’t know what to call him yet. He says, “List, yeah. Or ‘hey you’ is fine. Either way.” He’s twelve; he’s been List for nearly nine of those years. He’s stopped expecting people to ask him about it, so it’s weird when they do.

She’s ginger, short and eleven. Maisie, he thinks she said? Or Daisy, maybe; he’s not sure. She smiles, nods. “Sure. List.”

+

4

They never actually sock them in the movies. They pull the punches. List doesn’t so that – doesn’t fight for show. Doesn’t fight, period; he’s only ever been threatened with fights most of the time, only actually gotten into two. The last was because some guys were hassling a girl, three of them to one of her, and he couldn’t let it stand. It’s not even like he’s good in a fight – does enough to distract them, even if it gets the shit kicked out of him, and then makes them chase him. He’s not the type to start fights, but now and then he might just finish them.

List’s fifteen.

Jimmy from down the road is stuffing some money into trouser pockets that are already bulging a little, quick, hasty, like he doesn’t want anyone seeing. He’s standing on the doorstep because he called for List, and List turns round and heads away for two minutes to get his jacket and there Jimmy is, shoving money into his pockets with that scared little twist to his mouth like someone’s gonna hurt him.

List? Well, List is standing there in his one good going-out jacket, staring like an idiot, thinking What the hell – ? He knows, though, somehow. He knows that while he was upstairs, grinning like a sucker and trying to get his hair into some kinda shape the girls’d want, Jimmy Farley was heading to the table by the door. He knows that Jimmy Farley from down the road was digging into the soil of the flowerpot on that table, and taking the twenty bucks Mom keeps for rainy days. He knows that Jimmy Farley with the buck teeth, the guy List’s known since he was ten, is standing, stuffing at least a good amount of those twenty bucks into his pockets. Another couple minutes and List would never have known. He’d probably have headed out trying to chase the dames, hanging round bars and fairs but never buying anything so he could save up, with Jimmy’s nervous smile and Mom’s money burning a hole in Jimmy’s pockets.

Jimmy looks up and sees him in the hallway. List knows the guy’s gonna run, it’s in his eyes, but List’s always been fast, and so he’s grabbed Jimmy by the collar almost before either of them can blink.

See, he knows Jimmy’s desperate, but so’s he. It’s what comes of being dirt-poor in a shitty neighbourhood. But Jimmy at least has a father who works in the factory, and a mom who’s a nurse. Jimmy used to have a job in a store, too, but rumour is he’s lost it. List only has himself and Mom.

List’s always been good at keeping a cool head, but he’s seeing red, swinging a fist before he even knows what he’s doing. It catches Jimmy in the mouth. “You don’t take from people with nothing!” He knows he’s not meant to admit it, that he should at least try and pretend they’re getting by, but they can’t afford to lose that money. They really can’t.  So when Jimmy slumps against the wall, List keeps hold of him and yells into his face, “You put. That. Back!

Jimmy’s staring at List; he knows he must look like a man possessed, but he doesn’t damn well care. The worst thing is that Mom probably would’ve given a little to Jimmy, if he’d only asked. Most round here are too proud to accept charity, but then the good folks round here are also too proud to steal, so that’s no excuse.

“Put it back!” he snarls.

Jimmy’s hands are shaking, but the kid reaches into his pockets anyhow, keeps pulling out dollars. List waits, not letting go of his collar, then grabs what’s there. He needs both hands, so he lets go of Jimmy, but he keeps an eye on him. “Stay here,” he orders. Jimmy turns to run, but List grabs him. “You stay here, d’you hear?”

Jimmy nods. His lip’s split, and it’s bleeding.

List starts counting the cash. Yep, twenty. He sighs, knowing he’s got three form the jobs Mort gave him last week, and peels three of the wad. He’ll replace it with his own cash, and hopefully Mom’ll never know. He presses the bills into Jimmy’s hand. “That enough?”

Jimmy nods, fingers curling round the money.

“You need help, you ask.”

Another nod from Jimmy – what, he can’t speak now he’s a thief? – and then List pointedly moves to close the door. Jimmy, probably knowing what’s good for him, moves and starts to walk home. List’s glad to see the back of him.

List sighs, shuts the door and reaches into his pocket. He takes his three bucks, putting them with the twenty and then burying it all in the flowerpot. Mom’ll never know. He heads into the kitchen, taking a seat and the tiny table and opening the paper to job listings, but he ends up with his head in his hands, staring at nothing.

Mom comes home half an hour later. He gives her a smile – perfect, practised – and wishes his pockets were a little heavier.

+

5

When Melinda, Mary and Mort have gone and the cake’s all cleaned up – List’s done the dishes, even if it is his birthday – Mom sits next to him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “So,” she starts.

He watches her, waiting. “Yeah?”

“Eighteen. I remember when I could tuck you under my arm.” She smiles at him; he just wishes her eyes wouldn’t look so sad. Maybe someone else would ruffle his hair or start crying, but this is Mom. She’s sweet, but she’s got a steel spine. Sometimes List wishes he was half the man she is. “How’s the job?” she asks, worryingly cheery all of a sudden. Cheery and curious. He wonders what she’s heard from Melinda.

He winders what to tell her. The whole “demon-hunting” thing is a little hard to explain. “It’s good,” he says after a minute. “Yeah, I’m staying.”

He’d considered leaving the agency. He knew he looked like an idiot – who’d throw away a good, paying job in a district like this? – but he’d taken a while to think about it. He didn’t want things crawling round in his head, which to him seemed pretty reasonable, but he can’t exactly say that. He’s only made the decision tonight.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Mom says. “At least, I think I am. She hasn’t got you killed yet, anyway.” She’s joking – by this point, she seems to think it’s cheating spouses, the occasional missing persons case and a shitton of paperwork. He’s glad to keep it that way.

List grins. “She’s giving me a raise.”

“Really?” Mom laughs. “Wonderful. Maybe  you’ll finally be able to get a good suit.”

He glares at her. “Hey. I’ve got a good suit. I’m wearing it.”

“Sure.” Her smile says she’s mocking him. She looks at the clock. “I think I’m going to bed.”

“Night, Mom,” he says as she stands up, but then she comes to stand next to him. Movement and a breath in his hair; she’s kissed the top of his head. For a moment, right then, he’s six again. He looks up at her with eyes that are younger than they’ve been in a long time.

“I’m proud of you.” Maybe that should be a tear-soaked whisper, shaking and small; instead it’s a blunt, certain statement. Like no-one’s ever gonna change that. “I love you, kid. Don’t forget, okay?”

“Okay.” He says it like Mom does, like it’s a sure fact no-one’ll ever chip away at. “Love you, Mom.”

She heads to her room, leaving him in the kitchen. He sees something on the counter when she walks past it, but she’s gone before he can ask what it is. He approaches the counter, frowning, and his eyes widen when he recognises the bottle.

Scotch. The good shit that Melinda keeps in her office, the stuff he’s never allowed near. (Despite his frequent efforts to get to it and his straight-up begging.) She has to have left it on purpose. He pauses, looks round the kitchen – old habits die hard, he guesses – and then opens a cupboard, gets a glass. They don’t have proper whiskey glasses, but he pours an inch, just to try, and pretends.

It burns when it goes down – he coughs and splutters embarrassingly – but he swallows a mouthful. He’s seen Melinda toss this stuff down like it’s nothing, and he wonders how the hell she manages it. He takes it slow, managing to choke it down somehow, and stays up late into the night with his first legal glass of whiskey. He thinks about his future, mostly.

+

6

He always figured Alister was an old man’s name – something for a distinguished gent, a guy who’d had a big, important life. Too big and too stately for him to ever grow into. He hasn’t been List for a few years, though; he wonders what that says about him. After all, there’s grey creeping into his hair these days. He’s still trying to decide whether to dye it or go the salt-and-pepper route.

Way back, when Mom had pretty much just stopped tucking him under her arm, she’d tell him stories. Not fairy tales; Westerns, stories about PIs heading down dark alleys. (He almost wants to laugh at that; maybe she’s responsible for his current line of work. Except in her stories, the hero always got the girl, people would die clean when they were shot, and no innocent people got killed. There weren’t any demons, either. The reality of tagging along with Melinda was a little different.) He used to say she should write Dick Tracy. She said she didn’t think women were allowed to, and he said that was just plain stupid. He still thinks the same. He wonders if things have gotten any better with the whole Women’s Lib thing. Probably not, actually.

Anyway, so Mom used to tell him stories. Double-edged stories: there was always a happy ending, but the monsters were always people. Maybe that’s strange, but he prefers it that way, tells the same kind of stories himself.

Lyn’s a girl and she’s only seven, but she wants to be Batman and star in Bonanza all at once. He doesn’t want that taken away just yet. For now, she thinks the worst things hiding in the dark are muggers. As long as she’s safe, he wants to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Her eyes are fluttering shut; she’s acting like her eyelids are lead weights, bravely keeping them open to hear the ending. She’s got his eyes; they were Mom’s too. Big, dark, with lashes like pipe cleaners. It’s weird seeing them in such a tiny face. Kind of sweet, though.

“You look tired,” he tells her. “I’ll finish it tomorrow, if you want.”

She shakes her head. “No, Dad. I want the ending.” (She says she’s too grown up for “Daddy”. At seven. It’s either hilarious or the saddest thing he’s ever heard.)

The cowboy shoots the bandits and gets made sheriff. The rough people in the saloon say he’s not bad, for a newcomer. Happy now?

She’s asleep, thank God. Finally. She snores – loudly. The first time he heard it, he nearly tripped over himself laughing. Not dainty, snuffly things like kids do in books; proper where the hell did that tractor in the next room come from? snores. Jesus.  He stifles a laugh now. Little kid, big snores.

He kisses the top of her head. Dark, slightly wavy hair – that’s his side of the family, too. Carol’s a blonde, so it’s not from her.

Lyn doesn’t know who she’s half-named after, and she’s never seen a world war. He hopes with all his heart she’ll never have to.

When he sneaks out of her room and into his own, he finds Carol still awake, as she often is. She’s watching him from her side of the bed. She’s sleepy – it’s been a long day for both of them – but her eyes are sharp. “Heading out?”

“Yeah.” He grabs the briefcase, checks through it – yes, bell, book and candle are all there – and puts a couple of holy water vials in his belt. Straps on a bulletproof vest, just in case, though it’s usually your mind and soul they go for, not your chest.  Three guns, check.

Carol knows about his, uh, “extracurricular activities”. She even helped out for a couple years, but the stress of it got to her. “Careful,” she says.

He smiles at her. “I’m always careful.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure you are. Is Lyn asleep?”

“She is. Snoring loud enough to wake the dead, and all.”

Carol smiles, small and fond, then her eyes are back on him. It’s second nature by now, an easy ritual they’ve never officially discussed. Both of them know what it means.

“Love you,” he says. He has to say it first, or she glares at him; it’s important that he remembers.

“Love you, idiot,” she replies. She walks over to give him a toothpaste-flavoured kiss. It’s slow and careful, lingers a little.

It might be his last chance to say it, that’s the thing. They never bring it up, but both of them get it. If he doesn’t come back… well, it happens.  God knows he’d rather come back alive. He’s got so much to come back for. He’s not his father – the only way he’ll ever leave his family is if he’s in a box.

“Is that the ‘peppermint fresh’ stuff?” he asks. “I know it smelled good, but it tastes awful secondhand – ”

“Go,” she orders him, grinning. It’s fragile; they’re on a knife-edge, between laughter and tears.

“Sure, sure.” He starts to, but pauses in the doorway. “Goodnight, Carol.”

“‘Night, Alister.”

He left his badge on the bedside table. He’s been on the force for years, and he’s damn proud of it, but these aren’t cases the NYPD can solve. He puts on a coat, shoves a hat onto his head and steps out into the night.

He catches his reflection in a shop window, and he’s surprised. He actually looks well turned out: well-cut suit, good waistcoat, a tie that won’t blind his coworkers… Shit. He actually found himself a good suit. He smiles even though the street’s abandoned and no-one can see it, almost wanting to call Mom and tell her.

He walks on. Demons to hunt, no time to think about being fancy. Still, he thinks List would be proud.

Historical notes:

  • $20 in 1943 would be worth about $275 in today’s money. List gave Jimmy the equivalent of about$40 – probably his week’s earnings. Not a small investment.
  • This has come up before, but drinking age in NY was 18 at that time; it only got raised in the 1980s.
  • I unironically loved Bonanza as a kid. Blame my dad. Unlike Lyn, I was born way after it originally aired.

Past Lives: 1946: Sans Peur et Sans Reproche

So, apparently it’s List’s Character Development Week? Set after The Case of Miss L. Barber. Or: part of how he gets to the mindset he’s in during Eighteen.

“When you head out on a call,” List asks Melinda one day, “d’you know if you’re coming back?” He’s sitting in her office, his feet on her desk. He’s still waiting for her to make him take them off, but she hasn’t yet. Miracles do happen.

She shakes her head, but she does it with a smile.

“Then why go?” He’ll never get it, that casual attitude about death. It scares him.

“The cause,” she answers, without hesitation.

“Cause?”

“This began as…” She exhales. “It began as revenge. They took someone from me, and I – well. It became… more.” She rests her hands on the desk, looking at them as if she’s afraid to meet his eye. It’s weird, that – she likes facing people down, does Melinda, probably more than she realises. Seeing her back away and get quiet scares him a little. “No-one deserves the demons. They chose innocents. And I decided – I decided, not. One. More.”

He always thought “piercing” blue eyes were a shitty romance novel cliche, but when she finally looks at him, he feels it down his spine. “One more what?” he manages, his throat a little dry.

“One more innocent killed, one more family broken… I don’t know when. Perhaps right from the beginning. But at some point, it became about more than you or me.” She gestures  to the office around them. “It isn’t about this agency, either. It became purer  than that.” She seems to lose her thread, or her will to continue, right about then.

List touches his fingers to his mouth, thinking. She’s a damn riddle: it takes the right words and a certain kind of mindset to figure her out. “It was the more than, not the you and me?”

Melinda nods. Phew; she’s back.  “Rather.”

The question still nags at him – it makes his ears and his tongue itch, so eventually he coughs, swallows it down. Another day, maybe, when it’s not like getting blood out of a poised English stone.

~

“It was in my head!” he shouts, and – oh shit. Shit. No, no, no…

Melinda’s calmly standing in front of him, placid like a lake; like he didn’t just break every rule and practically yell into her face. He’s never done it before. Never will again, either – especially if she fires him. His mother would never take this shit. Mom would yell back louder, because a sweet little New Yorker can fill the whole damn room if she raised you and knows exactly what buttons to press.

No, List isn’t doing this; it’s just a bad dream. No. He’s not going to be fired, and Mom’s not going to know he’s a slacker just like Dad was, and Melinda… No, Melinda’s not going to hate his guts because he’s a coward, a goddamn coward, and there are people to save but no, he can’t. No, no, no, no…

“List.” A hand on his face, a woman’s, and what the hell, why’s his butt against the floor, he was standing just a minute ago and oh, it’s Mary. “List,” she repeats more firmly. He looks up and focuses – damn, her eyes are brown, like mud-puddle brown but better; uh, chestnut. Yeah. Chestnut-y. Why’s he on the floor again? “No,” she says.

He snorts. Took the words right out of his.. head.  Yeah. He wasn’t saying them, was he?

“Why ‘no’? What don’t you want?”

He stares at her. Oh God, he was saying them, wasn’t he?

“You kept saying ‘no’. What’re you afraid of?”

He’ll be fired. He’ll be fired – he’ll have no gear fi the demons find him, and he doesn’t know enough o fight them off on his own. They’ll just slither in like it’s easy, simple, nothing…

“I don’t want this to…” He swallows. He has to force out the words somehow. “I don’t want them back in my head. I don’t want to go back out there. I’ve done it once, because you asked me to, but I don’t think I can – Jesus.”

“Are you finished with us?” Melinda asks. She’s moved to crouch beside Mary. When he stares at her, uncomprehending, she clarifies that with, “Are you tendering your resignation?”

“Are you forcing me to?” is his reply. He’s surprised at how pissed-off he sounds. Even if she wasn’t going to before, she’s definitely going to now. He’s stepped so far over the line he can’t even see the line anymore.

She seems surprised more than angry. “No. Of course not.”

He stares at her. “No?”

“No. I always expected you to falter.” Gee, thanks, Melinda. When he frowns at her, she shakes her head. “No, I meant that it’s normal for you to be afraid. We all have been, and we all are.”

“Yeah, well.” He laughs a little too bitterly. “Except you.”

She frowns at him, blinks a few times like he’s gotten it hopelessly wrong. She’s almost dazed; it reminds him of this time he ended up in a fight, and after he threw a punch – well, the guy looked just like this. The jerk  was hassling a girl probably younger than List, and he just… saw red. Couldn’t help it.

Anyway, she looks a bit like that: stunned, kinda turned around. “We all are, including me,” she says firmly.

Now it’s his turn to look like a dunce. “Huh?”

“I’m always afraid,” she says, like it’s no big deal. “I never assume I’ll return from a case.” He remembers that conversation what must be months ago in her office – the smell of dusty books, and the cause. “Fear is perfectly normal, and it’s certainly not cowardice. Letting it win is.” 

He sits there, stewing in his own misery, and decides he’s never been a white-feather kinda guy. “Okay,” he says, after a while that’s far too long. “Okay.” He breathes out slowly; he tries to think, to shut the noise up in his head. “Help me up?”

She holds out a hand and he takes it, heaves himself up to stand. He’s careful not to bump into Mary, who backs away a little.

“Sorry,” he says.

Melinda shakes her head. “There’s no need.”

He sighs. “It was… Is there anything I can do? To keep ’em out, I mean.”

“There are countermeasures,” Melinda says after a second, “but they’re near-impossible, and I doubted you’d stay long enough for us to begin practising them.” She sighs. “Essentially, no.”

“Right.” He thinks about that, thinks about leaving and never coming back. God knows it’d be easier. But what the hell would people do, just keep letting the demons take and take? Nah, that’s not how he works. Someone’s got to stand in the way and say, Hey, stop. Someone’s got to get everybody out alive – someone who stands half a chance of making it out themselves, who knows how to fight the demons the way it looks like no-one else can.

Why the hell shouldn’t that someone else be him?

He’s been taught to be brave, to try and help. Mom hammered that into him young enough, and then Mort and Melinda did the rest.

Fear is not cowardice. Letting it win is.

“OK,” he says, and if it comes out a little shaky no-one seems to hear it. He tries to smile. “Back to work, huh?”

It’s his birthday in a couple of months. He hopes he makes it to eighteen.

Past Lives: 1946: Eighteen

Some coming of age this is.

It’s List’s eighteenth birthday, and he’s seriously beginning to regret this whole detecting-stroke-demon-hunting thing. Three pairs of eyes, none of them human, and he takes a cautious step. A floorboard creaks, the noise too damn loud in this kind of silence. He’s dead meat.

Eighteen’s apparently old enough to maybe become a partner in the firm, and to go on a solo demon hunt. Yeah, you read right. Melinda’s gone on about how she and Mary’ll “only be a step behind,” but he’s been on enough hunts like these to know that a step behind isn’t close enough. A second too late and he’s dead. He pretends not to know, though – he doesn’t have to make this harder than it already is.

He wants to freeze up, panic and pretend this isn’t happening. Instead, he thinks of what ‘s waiting for him: Mom told him to be back for dinner, and she’s gonna murder him if he misses it. No – actually, she’s probably gonna give him that soft look of disappointment and be all, “I thought better of you” and “Well, it’s your birthday, not mine, but…” That’s about worse.

“I want…” he begins. He licks his lips nervously. “I’m guessing you’re the people to ask?”

Three of them. Not one – three. One of them – looking like a sweet-faced blonde with rouged cheeks and immaculately applied red lipstick, the kind of girl next door you’d take home to your mother – smiles. “I take it you’ve heard of us?” she says.

Yeah. Girl found glassy-eyed in an empty house, all the furniture taken. She was breathing but there was no spark, like she’d been hollowed out from the inside. Demon probably took her and fed on her; left her behind when it was done. She was dying, but her mind was already gone. (He’s never known what he thinks of the whole “eternal soul” thing. Maybe it’s all bullshit. If it isn’t, though – well, her soul must have been gone. She wasn’t her anymore.) The sight made him so angry he felt sick. So angry that he’s almost… almost looking forward to this. Yeah, that thought isn’t exactly reassuring – in fact, it brings a whole new wave of nausea in its wake.

Anyway, the case led them here, in the end. The descriptions matched this house, these demons.  He got sent here, and now he’s standing, smiling at the sweet little blonde who’s killed six women in three months. “Sure,” he says. “Though, uh, most of your clients weren’t in much of a position to recommend you.”

She laughs. “Oh, I do like the ones with a sense of humour.” Her face straightens out, losing the smile. “They fought us. This is a fair deal. Capisce?”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Uh, capisce.” He nervously widens his smile. “So what, do we shake on it?”

She pauses, considers it. “Why not? Yes, let’s do that.”

“Right. I want… I want Mom to be happy. She should, uh, get a big house, and, well, have someone. Can I have that?” Shit, he can hear Mom scolding him for how he’s asking. “Please,” he adds hastily, cringing.

“He’s sweet,” the blonde says to the one next to her – a tall, sallow-faced man in a perfectly pressed grey suit. It’s the kind of thing List would wear if he, y’know, actually had money. “Sure you can,” she tells List, sugary-sweet, her voice high and her smile all molasses.

He turns away from her, swipes a hand through his hair in nervousness he doesn’t need to fake. He draws the small flask out of his pocket, his back still to her; he prays he isn’t too obvious.  (That’d be just his luck, wouldn’t it, getting killed on his first time out. It’s only half a joke. Please, God, Christ, don’t make Mom have to see him in a coffin. Outliving your kids – well, it’s awful, and it’s not like it’d be expected; he’s never been sickly, never gotten himself in trouble with the wrong people. He’s careful like that.) He faces her, giving her a nervy smile. “Sorry,” he says. “Just drinking for luck.”

Dutch courage is a pretty good excuse, now he thinks about it. He takes a swig – Jesus, that’s foul; how long was this stuff at the altar before they picked it up? – and pretends the holy water is Melinda’s best scotch. (Not that he’s swiped any. None that she knows about, anyway.) He fakes screwing the cap back on – only a little twist, that’s it, barely a turn at all – and approaches the thing posing as a woman. He holds out a hand.

“Don’t close the deal,” he remembers Melinda saying. “Whatever else you do, don’t close the deal.”

“Or you’re a little screwed,” Mary had added helpfully. Gee, thanks.

She brings her hand up to meet his, and he…

He soaks her with the holy water. The cap flies off to somewhere he’ll probably never find it; she screams; he, on reflex, yells too. Well, it’s more of a shriek: a damn little-girly shriek.  It’s not pretty and it’s not subtle, but he just wants to make it hurt. (Six women in three months, and that’s just the ones they know about. Christ.) It’s just a distraction – the demon’s been in her too long for them to get it out. The next step is… is…

He grabs the revolver at his hip, aims, and – Safety. He’s left the damn safety on, how could he forget? He thumbs the catch, backing away from her as she claws at her face and screeches, the other two moving fast, too fast for him to keep track of. He aims, lines it all up and prays…

Six women she’s killed; it only takes three bullets to end it. Once, twice, again,  and then she crumples. He’s always surprised by how loud guns are – things go sorta fuzzy, his ears ringing and sound slipping away from him.

“List!” he hears a voice call. Mary. Thank God. He spins to face her, and she frowns, suddenly at his side. “Give me that.” He shrugs and does, glancing around him for the other demons, because they’re gone, where are they – He feels someone, something, grab his elbow. “Run!” Mary orders, so he wrenches himself away and hoofs it a few steps.

He can’t just leave her.

Blam. Blam.

He looks over his shoulder at the sound. In front of Mary, the guy in the sharp suit – the one who must’ve grabbed List – falls, a bullet in his chest and a hole in his forehead; there are bloodstains on his tie. List stares.

“You should’ve shot her in the head,” Mary tells him. “Would’ve been faster.”

He nods more than a little numbly; what the hell else can he do? He keeps staring at her. To be honest, he’s grateful he managed to hit anything at all, and that’s mostly down to her. (Apparently an ex-Army dad and a rough neighbourhood make you pretty good with a gun. Who knew?) His hands are shaking, he realises a couple minutes later. He swallows, heading over to the corpse – the blonde girl. The thing that looked like a blonde girl. He stares at her – it, he reminds himself, it – and the shaking increases as he looks into those blank eyes. Jesus, he killed…

“List.” Someone nudges him. Right, Mary. “You did what you had to,” she tells him.

He nods, still hollow. “Sure.” It comes out more sarcastic than he intended.

“You did,” she says, more firmly.

Thunk. Clang!

Their heads snap round to follow the noise. What the hell – ? Oh. The third one.

They run to the door at the same time. In the hallway, Melinda has been shoved against the wall by the third demon, its hand round her throat. She gasps for breath, her eyes wide, and it grins. List is halfway there when Melinda knees it in the crotch, sending it reeling, and it takes an elbow to the face before it can even recover. Now it’s Melinda who’s got it by the throat, putting her whole weight behind the move, and it claws at her as it’s shoved against the wall…

Blam. A bullet to the head and it’s falling to the floor. Melinda holsters the gun, exhaling. List didn’t even see her draw; damn, she’s fast. She shuts her eyes a moment, sighs, and then turns to smile at them. “Are we finished here.”

Sure, List is about to say, but then he freezes. “Mom.”

“Damn,” Melinda says, wide-eyed. “Come on.”

As they’re walking to the door, Melinda clasps him by the shoulder. “Well done.” Wow. Her smile grows a little. “You’ll be a fine hunter indeed.”

“Thanks,” he says, not quite sure how to reply to that. They head away from the scene maybe a little faster than usual. He will not be late.

~

“Alister!” Mom says, like this is a surprise, smiling at him as she opens the door.

“Hey, Mom.” He changed and hastily shoved the bloody clothes into the wash at his place; he’s still a little rumpled, his top button undone, but it’s good enough. He steps into her arms and hugs her tight, glad to have some little slice of ordinary in his life. “Sorry. Got held up at the office.”

“There were some problems with the filing system,” Melinda lies smoothly. She doesn’t even blink; how does she do that?

Mary follows them in, all perfume and politeness, talking about how it’s lovely to see you, Miss Kord, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? She kisses Mom on the cheek, and they make their way through to the kitchen. Mom’s made a cake. He winces; he doesn’t even want to think about how much the ingredients must’ve cost. He knows if he says anything she’ll tell him in nicer words to piss off, it was her choice and it’s made now anyway, so he shuts himself up. Besides, it’s a good night: he led his first case and got out in one piece, and he’s a man. Kind of.

Mort is leaning against the counter, glowering at them. A slight eye-twitch indicates he might be happy, or he might just have dust up his nose, List isn’t sure. The landlord sighs, stands and walks up to List. “Hey, kid.”

“Still?” List asks.

Mort nods. “You’re gonna be ‘kid’ ’til I’m in my grave.”

Fair enough. “I can live with that.”

“Miss Schwartz needs dome shelves put up. Or are you too busy with this lot these days?”

List looks over to where Melinda and Mary are talking to Mom. They seem to be getting on OK – at least, no-one’s gotten killed yet. They’ll probably be fine without him unless something really major comes up. “I’ll be there Monday?”

Mort nods, content. “She’s in 205.”

“I remember.”  He used to help Mrs. Schwartz with her shopping pretty regularly; she’s getting on for eighty, needs someone around sometimes. She always seemed to like him, but it’s been a while.

“Good,” Mort says with another nod. His eyes are on Melinda. “She pays you better than I do, I bet.”

“A little,” List lies. (A lot.)

“Well, you had to get off your ass sometime.” Mort – maybe five foot four, definitely over fifty, mostly bald and a little soft around the edges – meets List’s eye, and for a second he’s a different man. List heard he was in the army, not so long ago – it’s in the spine, in the way he moves. For a second there, Mort is awful intimidating, and List wonders if he knows what’s really going on: if he knows they aren’t just chasing crooks and cheating husbands. “Just… look after yourself. For your mama, if nothing else.”

List nods. Mort claps him on the back turning unusually, scarily cheerful. List figures it’s his mom – she has that kind of effect on people. She makes you want to be better, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try to resist, you’re a sucker for it. “Elizabeth, you fed this kid? He’s skinny as a rail.”

“I’m working on it,” Mom replies.

They all end up sitting at the table and starting on the cake.

“Your Victoria sponge is delightful,” Melinda tells Mom, and it’s so weird to see them in the same room. Melinda is the office and scotch and demons. Mom is home and coffee and safety. The two probably shouldn’t meet, he reckons. Mom seems to like her, now that a few months have gone by and he hasn’t got killed  or shortchanged for wages yet, but they don’t exactly make the effort to talk.

List grins at Mom awkwardly and nods, his mouth too full to say much. They sit, they eat, and List prays no-one notices the blood on his socks.

Eighteen. Huh.