“This was a bad idea,” Francis said quietly.
“Shh,” said Adelaide irritably, the third or fourth time this morning she’d had to tell him to shut up.
Lee, who was navigating, held the leaflet out in front of him. He sifted quickly through the minds of unwitting bystanders as they passed, searching for the street name written on the pamphlet. Finally finding a stressed businessman with just that objective in mind Lee signalled to the others and they broke off from the crowd and followed him.
“I’ve got to say,” Emma said to him as they walked up the street, “I had no idea mind-reading had so many applications. I kind of envy you.”
“Because setting yourself on fire isn’t awesome?” Lee rolled his eyes, “come on, you knock reading minds out of the park!”
“You’d be surprised,” Emma murmured, “how useless self combustion can be.”
“Yeah well quiet down,” Adelaide hissed, “we’re here.”
They’d entered the street, the businessman hurrying on to an unknown destination, and stopped just outside a large run-down looking building. It had clearly previously been some kind of travel agency, but the sign outside had been removed and the blinds pulled down over the windows. A cardboard sign had been pushed into the gap between the glass and the blinds. It read, in large capitals: HOUSE GUARDS, PROTECTION AND LIFE INSURANCE. SEE INSIDE FOR PRICE’S.
Francis winced at the apostrophe and turned to Adelaide.
“Now I’m really unsure about this,” he murmured.
“Not listening,” she replied and pushed open the door.
A young man in his twenties glanced up from behind a desk with some surprise as they filed in. The inside of the small entrance-room was bare but clean, and it was evident that someone had taken some care to at least remove any dirt from the walls.
“Oh…” said the man, and looked briefly down at something in front of him, concealed by the lip of the desk, “may I be of assistance?”
“Yes,” Adelaide nodded, “we’d like some house guards, protection. Whatever… Please.”
She tried her most convincing smile. The man behind the desk met her eyes and he quickly resettled his glasses on his nose.
“I’m sorry,” he said hurriedly, “but we’re not open to such… young persons as yourselves.”
“Listen mister,” Emma elbowed Adelaide out of the way and leaned against the front of the desk. She drummed her fingers against the desktop. They ignited with a hiss. “We don’t have time for this. Maybe you should go run off and tell someone higher up the chain of command that we’re here. Perhaps then we can get some proper service.”
The man eyed the flaming fingers nervously. He glanced behind Emma at the others. Lydia was smiling at him encouragingly. He shrank back.
“Very well,” he blustered, “I’ll go and tell Ju- the boss that you’re here. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to provide you with personal service.”
Turning, he headed to a door behind him in the wall and moved through it, leaving it hanging ajar behind him in his desperation to be away. The minute he had gone Adelaide turned to the others.
“Alright,” she said, “let’s follow him. Find out what’s really going on here.”
“What?” Francis eyebrows noticeably rose, “No way. You heard what he said, he’s getting his boss. We’re in enough trouble as it is.”
“Yeah, and what’s ‘the boss’ going to do about it?” Adelaide replied, “Dismiss us for what we are, meddling kids. Neat as Emma’s intimidation trick was it’s not going to work on someone with a gut made of sterner stuff. That was pretty cool by the way.”
“Pleasure,” Emma smirked, “I agree with you, actually.”
“Of course you do!” Francis threw his head back in exasperation.
Without waiting for him to continue Adelaide headed towards the door in the wall. The others followed her, with Francis trailing behind reluctantly. They moved along a corridor lit by the light of a single, shadeless bulb. The walls of this passage were in a much filthier state. Clearly the general public were not supposed to come here. At the end was a wooden door. Pressing her ear to it Adelaide listened for a few seconds. Then she nodded to the others and very carefully turned the handle. The door swung open soundlessly on surprisingly well oiled hinges. Lydia, Lee, Emma and even Francis jostled behind Adelaide to get a glimpse of the room beyond. When they finally saw it they each suppressed a gasp.
They were standing on a gantry above what appeared to be a huge warehouse room. The ceiling above them illuminated the space with a series of hanging industrial lights. Down below, the vast area seemed empty, except for the young man from earlier. He was turned towards them, but not looking at them, facing something underneath their own gantry that they could not see.
“They want protection sir,” he said, wringing his hands in front of him, “can we sell it to them? I mean they’re just kids…”
There was a long silence. The young man nodded up and down quickly, his glasses jiggling on his head.
“Yes sir,” he said, “sorry sir. I should have thought. I know your opinion on…”
He seemed to be trailing off a lot. Adelaide stepped lightly onto the gantry and leaned forward to get a better look. The others moved out of the corridor as quietly as they could. The young man below seemed entirely oblivious to them. Glancing across the gantry Adelaide saw the rungs of a metal ladder leaned against a wall, evidently their way down from here.
“Well look at it like this sir,” the young man suddenly said, “we’ve got a business here. We have to make some sort of profit otherwise ends definitely won’t meet. I know you prefer… your side of things, but let’s be honest with ourselves it doesn’t exactly rake in the cash.”
Again, a deafening quiet. Then suddenly something unfolded in Adelaide’s mind. It was as though the bud of a flower that had been sitting there unnoticed had suddenly bloomed, as though something that she’d only been vaguely aware of had come fully into focus. It was a voice where there had been none before, only echoing not in the air, but bouncing around inside her head. It was strange, smooth and sibilant at once, hissing like a guttering tap. She couldn’t help but gasp, and cries of surprise from the others indicated they’d heard it too.
“Still your tongue for a moment Peter,” said the voice, “it has become apparent to me that we have uninvited guests. Why don’t we give them a warm welcome. After all they’ve come all this way. Isn’t that right Adelaide?”