“This is the place,” the taxi driver said as he pulled up. “That’ll be fifteen exactly.”
Taking some notes from her pocket, Rose Booth handed them to the driver while keeping her eyes on the imposing tower-block. Light rain was falling on the taxi’s window and the sky was headache-gray, filling Rose with a sense of foreboding as the driver stuffed the money into his pocket.
“You getting out, then?” he asked after a moment. “If you’ve changed your mind, I’m heading back to Paddington so I can -”
“No,” she said, grabbing her backpack from the other seat before opening the door and climbing out. Slamming the door shut, she still couldn’t help but stare up at the vast sight of Marshall Heights.
“Watch yourself around here, love,” the driver continued, as he started the engine. “It’s not a good place for young women to wander around by themselves.”
“I’m just here to check on my sister,” she replied, turning to him. “I’m not exactly here for a holiday.”
“Your sister?” he said, squinting at her. “I dropped a woman off here about a week ago, she looked a bit like you.”
“Is this her?” Rose asked, hurriedly opening a pocket on the side of her backpack and taking out a photo of Megan.
“Yep,” the driver said. “Sure is.”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“Just that she was here to look for her aunt.”
“And you haven’t seen her since?”
“No, but I wouldn’t. I don’t come out this way very much.” He paused. “Something wrong?”
“No,” Rose replied. “I mean… Maybe. Can I get your number? Just in case I need to get in touch?”
Grabbing a business card, the driver scribbled his private number on the back and handed it to her.
“I meant what I said earlier,” he continued. “Watch yourself round here. There are stories about this place. You wanna be careful, especially if you’re out at night.”
“Thanks,” she replied, slipping the card into her pocket before turning and heading toward Marshall Heights. As she stepped into the shadow of the building, she looked back just in time to see the taxi heading away. She turned back and looked up, her eyes scanning the scores of anonymous little windows. A shiver passed through her body as she was filled with the belief that someone, in one of those windows, was watching her.
“Hello?” she called out, knocking cautiously on a half-open door before leaning into the room marked ‘Manager’s Office’. “Hey, is anyone home?”
She waited, but there seemed to be no-one about.
Stepping into the room, she made her way over to the desk at the far end, where piles of paperwork had been left in a seemingly random mess. There were pens, too, scattered about as if they’d been dropped from a height, while a half-full glass jar of coins had a handwritten label on the front that read: Self-Pity Jar.
“Huh,” Rose muttered, heading over to a noticeboard on the wall. Various posters had been pinned to the board, mostly giving information about communal activities, maintenance works and emergency contact numbers. Everything seemed so mundane and unassuming, which was a surprise since she’d expected Marshall Heights to be foreboding and doom-laden. A little further along, however, a framed degree certificate bore the name Michael Powers.
“Cambridge,” she muttered. “Fancy.”
She turned and looked back across the room, struck by a sense of quiet stillness, as if the place had been left undisturbed for quite some time. Over in the far corner, various paint tins and sheets had been lined up, as if a redecoration project was being planned, while a set of canisters had been arranged against the wall. For the most part, however, the office seemed totally abandoned.
“Hey!” she called out. “Seriously, is anyone here?”
Hitting the elevator’s Call button, she listened to the sound of a distinctly noisy mechanism starting up on the other side of the dented metal door.
Glancing over her shoulder, she looked across the hallway, still expecting to see some sign of life. After all, she figured there had to be more than a hundred flats in the building, yet the air itself felt thick and undisturbed, and when she looked at the floor she realized that a layer of dust seemed to cover the entire building, with just a few shoe-prints hinting at recent movement.
“Great,” she muttered. “A ghost town.”
The elevator door slid open.
“Hello?” she called out, wandering along the walkway.
Stopping at the door to flat 801, she found to her surprise that it had been left open. She leaned inside, and after a moment she heard a noise coming from the kitchen.
“Hello?” she called out. “Megan?”
A fraction of a second later, a startled-looking male face appeared at the far door.
“Who are you?” Rose asked.
“Who are you?” he replied, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth as he stepped out into the hallway.
“Rose Booth,” she replied. “I’m Patricia Booth’s niece. And Megan Booth’s sister.”
“Oh.” He stared at her for a moment, as if her sudden arrival had not only unsettled him, but was causing him considerable consternation. “Well,” he added finally, stepping toward her and holding out a hand as a faint smile crossed his lips, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone today. My name is Michael, I’m the building manager here.”
“Huh,” she replied, shaking his hand. “What are you doing in my aunt’s flat?”
“Taps and gas.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“The plumbing is out of action again,” he continued, gesturing for her to follow him into the kitchen. “Look at this.” Turning the top of one of the two dials, he waited for a moment, until finally a trickle of dark brown water began to run from the tap. “Water shouldn’t look like that,” he said finally, turning to her. “I think something might be in the tank on the roof. Also, I thought I’d change the gas canister while I’m here. Just routine maintenance, you know?”
“I’m looking for -”
“Your aunt,” he replied, “yes, I know. I understand that she’s missing.”
“I’m looking for my sister too,” Rose continued. “Her name’s Megan, she came here a week ago to find out what had happened to my aunt but…” She paused. “Well, now Megan’s gone quiet and it’s been five days since I heard from her, so I figured I should come and check. I tried to call your office yesterday, but you never picked up.”
“Your sister?” Michael paused. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve seen her around.”
“You spoke to her,” Rose replied, interrupting him. “She told me about you, she said you were helpful. She mentioned you by name?”
“She did?” He paused, his face blank for a moment before suddenly he managed to find a smile from somewhere. “Of course! Sorry, my memory’s not always so good these days. I remember your sister, she was here for a few hours last week. She wanted to check in on your aunt, so I showed her the flat and helped her a little, but there wasn’t really much I could do.”
“A few hours?”
“I thought she stayed at least one night?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“She told me she did,” Rose continued, already feeling the hairs on the back of her neck starting to stand up. “She said you let her stay in the flat.”
“Oh,” he replied, “well, yeah, actually…” He paused. “You know what, I just didn’t want to admit that because I could get into a lot of trouble. I mean, I basically opened the place up and let a total stranger stay here, I could lose my job if someone found out about that.” Another pause, as if he was nervously waiting for her to say something. “Although the truth is,” he continued, “I am allowed to let certain family members stay, purely at my own discretion.”
“You are?” she asked, surprised by his rapid turnaround. In the space of just a few sentences, he’d gone from fearing for his job to saying that it wouldn’t be a problem, and she was already starting to feel more than a little suspicious.
“Maybe we’ve got off on the wrong foot,” he continued. “Like I said, I let your sister stay here for one night… Two, actually, I think. And then she left.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“Well… No, I don’t think so.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, maybe, she might have mentioned something, but I don’t recall…”
“And that would have been… Wednesday? When she left, I mean.”
“And now it’s Monday.”
“And I haven’t heard from her since last Tuesday.”
“You haven’t?” He paused again. “Well, that’s a shock. I hope she’s okay. I’m sure she is.”
Rose stared at him for a moment. Something felt distinctly wrong with the situation. She’d always prided herself as the kind of person who could detect lies from ten paces, and this Michael guy was giving out vague, sometimes conflicting stories that were setting off all sorts of alarms.
“This is her,” she said finally, fishing out the same photo she’d shown the taxi driver earlier. Holding it up, she watched his face for any kind of reaction, but all she saw was a very faint twitch. “So you definitely saw her last week?”
“Absolutely,” he replied, forcing a smile. “That’s her.”
“And she left on Wednesday?”
“Did she leave early on Wednesday? Or late?”
“Around midday, I think.”
“Did she get a taxi?”
“Did you call it for her?”
“Me? Um, no…”
“So you don’t know the name of the company?”
She stared at him for a moment.
“What did she say to you when she was leaving?” she asked finally.
“I’m not sure I remember,” he told her. “Just some things about your aunt, and about how she was disappointed not to have found her. I felt bad for not being able to help, but…” He paused yet again, as if he was constantly having to take care with his choice of words. “Your sister seemed nice. We didn’t talk too much, but she seemed very genuine and very concerned about your aunt. I hope she’s okay. Well, I hope they’re both okay.”
“Me too,” Rose replied, glancing past him for a moment and looking toward the front room. She knew something was deeply, desperately wrong, and that she should turn and run; at the same time, she was determined to find out what was happening, and she felt confident she could handle herself in a tough situation. “So can I crash here?”
“In the flat?”
“I don’t have money for a hotel,” she continued. “I barely had enough to get a train ticket, so it’d be a huge help if I could crash here for a night or two while I look for Megan.”
“Right.” He paused. “I really shouldn’t just let this place get turned into a doss house for anyone who happens to show up.”
“But I’m Patricia’s niece.”
“So it seems.”
“And I’m Megan’s sister. And anyway, we’ve already established that nieces are allowed to stay, right?”
“You said your name was Rose, didn’t you?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re one of the emergency contact names your aunt gave me, so it’s fine.”
“I thought she only let one name,” Rose replied. “That’s what Megan told me.”
“No, she left a few.”
“What other ones?”
“I don’t remember.”
“But you remember mine?”
“Since you’re standing right in front of me, I do.” He glanced back at the taps for a moment, and then turned to her again, as if he was torn.
“Please,” she continued, laying it on thick, “I can’t afford a hotel. I barely even have enough money to eat, I spent all my money on getting here. Until next payday, I’m officially broke.”
“You know what?” he replied finally, “there’s no point letting a perfectly good space go empty, is there? I think I’m done up here for now. If you need water tonight, just come down and use the sink next to my office. It’s totally clean and it isn’t connected to the main tank, so there shouldn’t be a problem. The gas is all connected, though.” Heading out into the hallway, he stopped by the door. “If I can be any help at all,” he added, looking back at her, “just let me know. I’d really hate to think that anything might have happened to your sister.”
“Sure,” Rose replied with a cautious smile.
“Do you sleep well?” he asked.
He stared at her for a moment. “No reason. I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”
“I guess you will.”
“You might hear stories about this place,” he continued. “People love to talk, and the truth is, Marshall Heights can feel like a little bubble sometimes, as if we’re somehow separate from the rest of the world. Everyone keeps to themselves, there’s very little sense of community. I hate to say this, but most people who live here have basically been put out of the way so they can be forgotten.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but the words seemed to stick.
“Sorry,” she continued, “but no-one gets forgotten. That’s just rubbish.”
“I think you’d be surprised.”
“Well my sister isn’t going to be forgotten,” Rose said firmly, “and neither is my aunt. There are people who love them, including me, so whatever happened to them, I’m going to find out.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“No doubt,” she continued, hauling her backpack off her shoulders and setting it on a chair. “Marshall Heights might be in its own little world, but it’s not going to swallow up two members of my family.” She paused, watching the uncomfortable look in his eyes. “I’ll let you know if I need your help,” she said finally. “I guess me turning up like this is something of a surprise, huh?”
“It is,” he replied. “It certainly is.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but at the last moment he seemed to hold back. “See you around, then,” he added finally. “I’ve got some painting to plan. No rest for the wicked, huh?”
She forced a smile.
As soon as Michael was gone, Rose headed to the front door and swung it shut, and then she grabbed her backpack and carried it into the main room. After dropping the backpack onto the table, she unzipped the main section and pulled out a bundle of clothes, from the middle of which she removed a seven-inch knife, which she carefully laid nearby. Next, she removed a handful of microphones and other pieces of recording equipment, along with several bundles of cash. Rooting deeper in the bag, she finally slipped out a small laptop. Setting it down, she opened the lid and hit the power button. While she waited for the home-screen to load, she headed over to the window and looked out at the rainy scene, just as a train passed on the tracks next to the building. After a moment, she took her phone from her pocket, brought up a number, and waited for an answer.
“It’s me,” she said finally. “I’m here, and I was right about the building manager, he’s shady as hell. So what do I do next?”
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