“This is it.” The proclamation was enough to pull the Doctor out of her own mind for at least a moment. She looked up.
“You’re sure?” As much as she tried, she couldn’t hide the doubt in her voice. The idea that her only hope for getting off this rock again – especially with her ship and fellow travellers intact – was here of all places was even less encouraging than she had thought it would be.
“Certain.” Clearly proud of herself, the woman on the sidewalk made a gesture for her to follow. “I’ll show you the way. She can take it from there, I reckon.”
The building was difficult to navigate even here, in its presumably best time – it must have already been in ruins by the decades in the future that the Doctor had been aiming for when they’d arrived here – and infused with cigarette smoke, the stairs creaking under every step. She allowed herself a fleeting moment of wonder at the fact that she had ended up here at all.
Her companion – the older, now seemingly slightly anxious woman who had shown her the way – was the main reason, of course. She had seen the Doctor wandering aimlessly around Central Park in search of her suddenly misplaced TARDIS and had stuck up a conversation. Your ship went missing and it wasn’t stolen? Oh, dear, I lost my son in these parts of the city. Heaven knows how it happens – I didn’t understand it and neither did he – but I can take you to the woman who brought him back.
She didn’t have anything to lose, really. She had already tried everything with her limited resources – namely, a screwdriver – and nothing had worked. She hadn’t been alone at the time, either, and the thought of everyone else inside the TARDIS potentially in danger was making her just a tad desperate. She hadn’t taught any of them a single thing about the way they were supposed to proceed in the rather likely event that she disappeared for no discernible reason one day and while she definitely regretted it now, there wasn’t much to be done about it before they were reunited. They could handle themselves, especially if they stuck together and if her guide’s son had left whatever pocket dimension he’d been sent to unscathed, then it only made sense to believe that they would, too. They, at least, were no ordinary uninformed humans, even if they were just humans all the same. Small, breakable humans – the ones she’d given a word to protect, at that.
So she had agreed. She’d let the woman – Daisy – drag her through the muddy, foggy streets of New York and to a building so unassuming that it had to be deliberate; she’d let her lead her inside until she had idly started to entertain the idea that she was being drawn into a trap. It couldn’t be that, though; the woman’s enthusiasm was too sincere for anything of the sort.
“—and she has a good heart, too, I think, not that you would know it. Found my boy sooner than you’d believe and we’d agreed on a fee, but she wouldn’t take a cent. ‘It’s your son’, she said, ‘you shouldn’t have to fight just to keep him’ and that was that. And people told me that I’d have to bargain with her, she’s really expensive, you see— Oh, we’re here.” Daisy patted her shoulder and made a move back towards the staircase. “Good luck with your ship, Ma’am.”
“Thanks.” The Doctor hadn’t been particularly talkative on their way to her potential saviour, but was now intensely curious. A woman who found inexplicably vanishing things was exactly what she needed – too close to what she needed for comfort, in fact – but it was a small universe and an even smaller Earth. There weren’t many people who fit that description and would be willing to help her.
Still, it was worth a try. The Doctor stepped closer, raising a hand to knock on the door right when she heard the conversation floating through the cheap wood.
“—but you can thank me for that later.” The voice sounded distantly familiar, half-disguised by the honeyed layer of someone selling something. “Let me know how well it works first.”
“Will do.” The response sounded like a tongue being dragged through gravel and the Doctor plastered herself against the wall just as the door opened, revealing the speaker – a tall, blueish man with grey spikes littered all over his face. They flickered in and out of view and the Doctor had to look away, startled by the strength of the perception filter placed on him. A human from this time period wouldn’t stand a chance against it. “I owe you one.”
“You owe me more than that,” the first person – presumably the detective – quipped. A quick glimpse into the room revealed a dimly-lit, cramped space with an impossibly overcrowded desk as the centrepiece. The woman sitting behind it was only a silhouette, the back of her hat illuminated by the limited light coming from outside. “I’ll see you next week, Achriht.”
The man slinked out and the Doctor took his place in the shadows of the half-opened door, briefly glancing at the small plaque placed on it. Angel Detective Agency. Very promising. She was already thinking of giving the room a subtle once-over with the sonic when said room’s only inhabitant called out to seemingly no one in particular.
“You know, I think it’s about time to start charging by the minute for contemplative staring at the door until hell freezes over.” The Doctor, who was rather short on finances as it were, stepped through the threshold without a second thought. “Now we’re talking.” The woman leant forward in her chair. It didn’t change much – the stark contrast between the small lamp on the desk and the overcast day outside left the majority of her in shadows. “Or we’ll start to soon, I hope. Why don’t you take a seat, dear?”
The tone was gentle if slightly condescending and the Doctor winced as she followed the invitation, trying to school her expression into something not quite as apprehensive and restless as it must have been. This up close, she could see that the lamp’s placement had been entirely deliberate. Not the kind of detective who involved their identity in their cases, then, or at least not often. She could work with that.
“It’s about my ship,” the Doctor started. She felt almost silly, asking help from the species she’d spent so many lifetimes saving, but she wasn’t exactly drowning in options. “It just vanished into thin air. And it is the kind of ship that can do that, but not— like this.”
“Mmm.” The detective’s dark red nails were tapping an impatient rhythm against the surface of the desk. Meeting someone this unflappable by even the most outlandish things was always a rarity and usually a delight, but it was difficult to cherish the moment when her interlocutor had remained huddled in her coat as if it were a physical shield between them. “Did it disappear from the harbour?”
“Near the harbour.”
“During your voyage, then? How did you survive?”
“It was out of the water already.” Perhaps this had been a mistake. A human who dabbled in the occult and had actually stumbled into a way to bring people from the occasional crack in time wasn’t enough to find a TARDIS. She had hoped for some kind of advanced technology, perhaps, but, “I would have handled it on my own, but I’m short on time. My— crew was on board when it disappeared, you see.”
“Your crew?” The Doctor narrowed her eyes. There was something in the pitch of her voice, something excited that hadn’t been there before and oh, this had definitely been a mistake, a big, big mistake. An irresistible one, too. She should have known. Who else would it be? “So you’re a captain?”
“You could say that.” The sneaking suspicion and distant resemblance were all pushed together now, forming a disastrous kind of giddiness; the kind that had only ever brought her trouble before. It was too late to do anything about it now; might as well get it over with, she thought, although her mind had already wandered to the idea of anything but that. “I was told that you could help me, Miss—”
“Malone.” Excellent as always at sensing when she could take advantage of the situation, her detective pushed the desk lamp up by a fraction; just enough to illuminate her brilliant smile and sharp features. There was no hint of recognition in her eyes and it was far more unsettling than it had any right to be after all this time. “Melody Malone. Whoever sent you here was right, by the way, it is my kind of case. Now,” River leant forward until the space between them had melted to almost nothing, “tell me more about this ship of yours.”