Tasha gazed at the squarish, slightly run down apartment block before her, then glanced down at the address on her phone screen. Well, it was the right place alright. It always amazed her how completely unassuming places where bad things happened looked. She shrugged, squared her shoulders, and stepped inside.
Tasha glanced down to check the address on her phone screen. Well, it was certainly the right place. She looked around, casting her eyes once more over the richly decorated interior of the foyer. She, like most people, had built up a set of expectations in her life about what places where crimes happened were supposed to look like, sex crimes in particular. Whatever that expectation was for Tasha, this was not it. A rich, velveteen carpet covered the floors in a deep, nut brown, lined by walls of a gentle cream color. The whole place put Tasha more in mind of high-end business space or some fancy hotel than homes.
The foyer branched off into two corridors, the right one terminating in a staircase, the left continuing around to the presumable end of the building, before making a right turn, beyond which she couldn’t see.
‘Second floor, fourth window,’ she reminded herself with a shrug, making for the stairs, before something caught at the corner of her eye. She turned to glance back. It was a plaque on one of the doors that lined the halls, the lettering picked out in solid black against smooth, reflective bronze.
‘Junior classroom one.’
There were a few occasional snatches of sound from the other side of the door. Curious, Tasha pressed her ear against the surface.
“-kay, kids,” a woman’s voice spoke, loud and clear, even through the thick door frame. “So, if you find the area of a rectangle by multiplying the width and the length, then can anyone tell me how you find the area of a trian- hey, Drew, pay attention please. If you get last place in the test again and have to spend another week helping make the dinner, the other kids might die from how gross your food is.” There was a snatch of what sounded like children’s laughter, presumably at Drew’s expense.
Tasha pulled her ear away, frowning. Was this place some kind of school? She shook herself, and returned her attention to the stairway. She made her way over, grasped the old wooden bannister in her hand, and made her way up the stairs, attempting, for what it was worth, to distribute her weight somewhat to quiet her movements; an attempt that failed spectacularly with every creak of the old, semi rotted staircase.
The second floor was decorated much like the first, the hallways lined with doors and plaques. It was, however, far more densely populated than the one below. The room beyond the stairway opened out briefly into a fairly spacious communal room of sorts, littered with comfortable looking arm chairs and tables bearing vases of somewhat droopy looking flowers. Scattered throughout the room were around fifteen people. A few boys, perhaps a little older than Tasha, were playing a card game between themselves of a sort that she did not recognize. Tasha imagined by the look of frustration on the right hand boy’s face, that the one on the left was probably winning. A trio of twenty-somethings stood by a window, chatting amiably as they took turns puffing cigarette smoke out into the street. There were others, ranging from their early teens to what Tasha would have assumed to be their mid thirties. Stepping out of the landing that housed the stairs up to the third floor, Tasha noticed how the quiet conversation all around seemed to hush slightly. One or two sets of eyes turned towards her briefly, before returning to their prior activities.
Tasha pretended not to notice, held her head straight forwards, and took another step, continuing through into the hallway. She felt their eyes following her until the right turn mercifully removed her from their view.
Casper had said the sense was coming from the fourth window on the second floor. Tasha left the quiet inhabitants of the room behind and moved through the corridor, turning to the right and continuing to the door which, to her best estimate, corresponded with the window Casper had specified. She tried the door, and found it locked.
“Excuse me, miss,” said a soft, male voice from behind her. “You seem lost. Can I help you with something?” Had it been her first time investigating a place, it may have been enough to make her jump. As it was, however, she was more experienced than that, and so turned to face the speaker quite calmly. It was one of the twenty somethings that had been smoking by the window. He wore a polite smile, accentuated by a gentle looking face framed nicely by a shock of hazelnut brown hair. He was not alone. Behind him stood the rest of the people from the waiting room, each eyeing her coolly. In spite of herself, Tasha found it slightly unnerving. She hadn’t even heard them approach.
“Nah,” she answered with a shrug and a small smile. “Not lost, just new. I just moved in here last week, nice to meet you.” She held out a hand, which the young man shook.
“You don’t live here,” he replied, that gentle smile still affixed to his face. “You sure you’re not lost?” When Tasha tried to withdraw her hand, he refused to let go, gripping perhaps twice as hard as he reasonably should have been. A threat? Tasha grinned. She liked it when people tried to threaten her.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” She replied, giving the man’s hand a firm squeeze. “Thanks, though.” He winced for a moment, letting in a sharp puff of breath, before once more shifting back to that strange serenity. Tasha cocked her head, confused, then began to gradually tighten her grip. The man ignored it.
“Too ugly to be one of ours,” said one of the boys who had been playing cards from behind the man. “Too old to be a new sist-” He was silenced by one of the others, a woman in her early twenties, placing a hand on his shoulder. Tasha might have been offended by the comment, but she had to admit, now that she had a chance to look, everyone around her was, indeed, quite startlingly attractive.
“One more time,” the kindly voiced man smiled, still utterly ignoring the no doubt excruciating pain emanating up from his hand. “What are you really doing here, because this definitely is not your home.”
Tasha had no response. These people unnerved her. She gripped the man’s hand tighter still, more just because it felt good to be doing something than because she thought it might achieve anything. There was a sharp snap as one of the bones in his palm gave out under the pressure, his hand contorting slightly under hers. Almost as one, the young man and his companions turned their eyes down towards his broken hand, then back towards her.
“I think you should go now, miss,” he said, no longer smiling. “You really shouldn’t be here.”
Tasha may have argued the point, secure in the knowledge that these people posed little real threat to her, but was stopped when one of the older men behind the group’s apparent speaker shifted his weight, and she caught a glimpse of the gun handle under his jacket.
“… Fine,” she muttered angrily, glaring at the group at large. “I’m gone. Later.” She released the man’s broken hand, turned back in the direction of the staircase, and began walking, the group parting around her as she went.
Tasha kept her head pointed straight ahead as she made her way back the way she came, letting herself glance back only once. They were all still watching her, standing as a group at the corner-point of the corridor. She waited until she hit the staircase and was out of their sight before she allowed herself to start running.
The group watched the strange girl take her leave, maintaining their facade by mutual agreement until she was well out of sight, before, as one, moving into a blur of action.
“Who the heck was that?” Asked Alistair, his young face twisting in confusion, still gazing after the departed intruder.
“No one good,” murmured Samson, reaching down to gently swat the boy’s face. “And what are the rules about speaking in front of intruders? You let the adults handle it, don’t you.”
Alistair shifted his gaze to the floor, his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I forgot.”
Samson opened his mouth to deliver a final reprimand, but Marcus beat him to it.
“It’s alright, Alistair,” he murmured, ruffling the youth’s hair affectionately with his undamaged left hand. “Just be thankful you had your big sister here to stop you saying anything stupid, okay?”
Alistair inclined his head towards Isabella and mumbled a few incomprehensible words of thanks before shuffling off in the direction of his room.
With the misbehavior suitably reprimanded, Marcus made his way back across the corridor, his brothers and sisters following close behind him, and rapped his undamaged hand a few times against the door that the stranger had attempted to open.
“Elise?” He called. “You catch any of that?”
There was a brief fumbling noise at the other side of the door, before it swung inwards to reveal Elise, her brow furrowed in concern, the skin pulling into wrinkles that cast unfortunate shadows on her otherwise pleasant, slightly browned skin.
“Yeah,” the girl muttered. “W-who was that? Why was she trying to get into my room?”
“I was kinda hoping you could tell us, sis,” Marcus murmured, attempting to make his voice as soothing as possible. “Have you run into anyone or said anything that might make people want to snoop around here? I promise I won’t be mad, kay?”
The adolescent shook her head shakily, her face still twisted in that unsightly worry.
“You’re sure?” He asked. “Never said something in front of your regulars, no one heard you talking to someone on the street, nothing?”
“I-I haven’t said anything to anyone about anything,” she mumbled. “P-promise.”
Marcus sighed. That was a shame. If it wasn’t anything to do with Elise, then that meant he didn’t have any leads to go on, but it couldn’t be helped, he knew his sister wouldn’t lie to him.
“I see,” he said quietly, crouching slightly and pulling the girl into a brief hug. “It’s gonna be perfectly fine, Elise. She probably just chose your room at random cuz she needed to pretend she had a reason to be here.” The girl nodded, but did not seem overly reassured. Marcus sighed. “Isabella, can you stay with Elise for a bit? I think she could use some company right now.” His sister nodded once, before stepping forwards, taking the girl gently by the shoulder, and guiding her back inside her room.
“Right, you lot,” Samson rumbled, his voice still drawing his younger siblings’ attention despite his age. “You guys go back to doing your own thing. Remember, just because we had an intruder doesn’t mean you might not still have customers to take. I need to patch up Marcus’ hand before the pain comes back.”
The others gave their assent, nodding and murmuring amongst themselves about the strangeness that had just occurred as they made their way back to the showroom, leaving Marcus and Samson alone in the empty corridor. The two were still for a moment, before the older man grasped Marcus by the shoulders, and began steering him gently but firmly towards the infirmary.
They were about halfway along the corridor, before Samson broke the uncomfortable silence.
“You really shouldn’t have used the painkiller, you know.” The older man commented, his voice low in case someone else should hear. “You’re supposed to use it for emergencies only, not to intimidate teenagers. It draws attention.”
“I know,” Marcus grumbled. “I messed up, okay? She was crushing my hand and it hurt and I was trying really hard to keep my cool. I did it without thinking. Sorry.”
“It happens,” Samson murmured, not unkindly, giving his young leader a small nod in acknowledgement of his contrition. “But you’re the leader now. You need to learn to think a little more before you use Father’s gifts, okay?”
“Yeah, I know.”
The pair were silent once more until they reached the infirmary. Samson sat Marcus down on the thin medical bed, and set about resetting the split bone before the pain had a chance to kick back in. Marcus was becoming slowly aware of the dull ache building gradually in his hand. He sighed. This was going to hurt a lot.
“You were too gentle with Alistair,” Samson muttered as he set about bandaging the wounded extremity. “If you don’t hammer the point home, he’ll never learn not to make such simple mistakes.”
Marcus groaned, resisting the urge to roll his eyes until Samson looked away.
“I’m not you, okay?” He replied, forcing his voice to sound even. “I know that you liked to reinforce every lesson you taught, but you’re not the leader any more, Samson, I am, and I don’t want to lead that way.”
The older man grunted, eyes still focused on his task.
“You sure that’s all it is?” He asked. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a little soft on our little brother. I know you prefer them young and pretty, and I know how often you’ve been sharing his bed lately. You sure you’re not getting a little too involved?” Underneath the usual gruffness, Marcus could have sworn he heard a note of hurt in the older man’s voice.
“Now now,” he replied, working to keep the note of amusement out of his tone. “Don’t be jealous, Samson, it’s not like that. You know as well as I do that Alistair still finds his male customers a little… painful. He asked me to help him work on that, okay? I promise, I haven’t forgotten you, oh glorious leader.” He allowed a touch of humor into the last few words to soften his teasing.
“Little brat,” Samson grumbled, a mild blush coloring his cheeks. “That’s not what this is about and you know it.”
“You sure?” Marcus grinned, raising his uninjured arm and grasping one of his companion’s hands. “We can always ask one of the girls to help you out. I could probably even manage a little quickie right now if you’re feeling neglected, oh mighty Samson.” He lowered his face, resting his forehead lightly against the other man’s stomach.
“No thanks,” Samson murmured, pushing him gently upright. “I don’t want your teeth anywhere near me when that painkiller wears off.”
Marcus grimaced. The ache in his hand was indeed getting worse and worse by the second.
“How bad’s it gonna get?”
“You’ve never broken anything before, have you?” Samson asked, giving him a contemplative look. Marcus shook his head, and the older man sighed. “It’s going to be pretty bad. Want me to stay with you, little brother?”
Marcus was about to shake his head, when the first wave of genuine pain hit him. He grit his teeth against it, letting out a little groan as his hand began to pulse with what felt like fire. Wordlessly, Samson sat down beside him on the bed, one large hand moving to stroke the younger man’s back.
“D-don’t call me little brother,” he managed weakly. “I’m the leader now, okay? Don’t you forget it.”