Alicia Perez wasn’t at the desk when Iris walked into the New Winslow Public Library the next morning. With a silent sigh of relief, Iris ducked past the desk and went straight over to the local history alcove. She could see Ruby, the elderly volunteer, shelving books at the far end of the room. And then she stopped as Alicia stood up from one of the tables, holding an armload of books.
Alicia nodded at her, face expressionless. “Iris.”
Iris’s stomach flipped as Alicia gave her a once-over, expression still not changing. But it didn’t need to. The disdain that was vibrating off of her was obvious enough on its own. Iris winced and closed her eyes for a second.
“Alicia-” she started, opening her eyes.
Alicia held up a hand, cutting her off. “We’re not discussing it.”
The ice in her eyes made any protest freeze up and die before Iris could get it out. So instead, she stood there, feeling lost and powerless for a moment under Alicia’s gaze. Then, without a word, Alicia walked away.
It had been almost a year. Iris had made one stupid, selfish decision, and it had resulted in her completely burning bridges with people she’d had no intention of hurting. Hopefully Judith’s contacts had been able to restore the original Harbinger, but Iris hadn’t had the guts to ask about it. Or to offer to cover any costs involved.
Shit, she should really do that, shouldn’t she? But if she contacted Judith, Alicia would probably burn her house down. So instead, she had to live with the guilt.
Trying to put it aside for the moment, she walked into the small alcove and went straight for the computer. The town’s birth and death records were available on the local database, so hopefully it would be easier to find them there rather than leafing through the giant bound editions she’d have to ask Alicia for permission to access.
Once Iris had put in her library card information, the database opened immediately. Barlow, H, Iris typed into the records’ search bar. The screen froze for a long moment before spitting out a long list of names beginning with B. She scrolled down until, with a flash of relief, she saw Barlow, Harrison. She clicked on it and a small screen opened.
The information was sparse, just a birth and death date that lined up with Barlow being in his forties during the period of the Quabbin reservoir planning. This was promising, but ultimately not much. So Iris was about to close out and get out of the suffocating library when she noticed a button to expand the information card.
She clicked on it and again, the computer slowly processed her request. And after a moment where she thought the entire system might have frozen, the screen reloaded with a linked family of names. Barlow’s children.
None of the names particularly jumped out at her, but they were linked to the children’s birth records. So Iris clicked through the first one. Again, nothing familiar. She did this for Barlow’s two sons, clicking through to the grandchildren before realizing this was a pointless exercise.
She decided to do one last click through for the daughter. Mary Jean Barlow’s name wasn’t familiar, but something about her was drawing Iris’s attention. Like an itch somewhere in her mind that she had to scratch. She clicked on the name, which brought her to Mary Jean’s page. Again, it listed her birth and death dates, then her children’s names.
David, Sarah, and Charles Baxter.
Iris paused, hand still on the mouse. Baxter. The head of the town council and her least favorite high school teacher. Of course it came back to him. It always came back to him, didn’t it?
Images began crashing together in her head, blurring out the screen. Flames. They were in the distance, but the phantom smell was so clear that the library might as well be on fire. And a woman crying, distant and soft, yet the pain in her cries cut straight through Iris’s soul.
This was it. This explained so much. Why the council refused to acknowledge the curse. Why Baxter took her questions about it so personally. He was connected to all of this, whatever it was. Iris still had no idea how a persistent corporate asshole could be connected to a decades long (decades. It had to be connected to this, not two hundred years old like she’d originally thought) curse. But it was hard to think as the flames were getting closer and the smoke was getting stronger.
The hand on her shoulder wasn’t compassionate, but it wasn’t punishing either. Iris shook her head and the scent of smoke dissipated as the computer screen came back into view. She looked at the hand, with its perfect pink nail polish, then up at the owner.
Alicia was standing there. “Are you okay?” she asked, her expression still uncomfortably neutral.
Iris nodded rapidly. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Alicia walked away without another word as Iris turned back to the screen. Charles Baxter, grandson of Harrison Barlow. She’d have to tread carefully with this. Baxter already hated her and someone or something was surveilling her. She was suddenly grateful she hadn’t told Andrew about any of her research yet. He could be in danger and he couldn’t escape the town if things got bad with Baxter. So she’d have to keep this to herself and work carefully.
Iris closed out of the database, stood up, and hurried out of the library.
When Iris got home, the first thing she did was lock her physical doors. The second thing she did was check her existing wards. There weren’t enough. Sure, there were enough to keep Roland out of the shop and out of her home. But those specifically targeted him. She needed to do so much more.
After making sure the doors were securely locked and lodging a chair under the knob just in case, Iris hurried through a cleansing bath. She tried to relax in the clawfoot tub in her tiny bathroom, but she couldn’t help looking in every little corner of the room as though Charles Baxter was going to materialize from the shadows.
He was connected with the curse. Of course he was. It explained his desire to hide it, his hatred of her, the way he ignored Dr. Degas whenever she tried to bring up practical matters connected with it. But what the hell was she supposed to do with this information? She was a powerful psychic, sure. But that meant nothing when it came to real-life issues. He could ruin her if he wanted to. And it probably wouldn’t be that hard. Not when everyone already saw her as a harmless eccentric.
And sure, maybe being ruined in a single small town wouldn’t be the end of the world for most people, but Iris’s life was tied up in this town. The thirty-year mortgage she had on this building, the business she was trying to keep established. She’d be ruined, no question.
And if he decided he needed her permanently silenced? Could he do that? Iris wasn’t sure, but she didn’t want to assume otherwise. Years of helping spirits who had previously been living humans had shown her that people were capable of monstrous things when pushed.
At half an hour exactly, Iris submerged herself in the water one last time, then got up and immediately dried off. Still looking through the dark corners of her little wooden apartment, she wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to her bedroom to get dressed.
Was this the presence she was feeling? Could it have nothing to do with Roland and everything to do with Baxter? There were so many things going on that she was having trouble keeping them all in her head. But no matter what was happening, she needed to improve her physical and magical protection or she’d be in serious danger.
Iris toweled off her long, blonde hair, and got dressed. Then she went to her closet, looked over her equipment, and considered what she needed to do next.