On a quiet street in a sketchy part of the city, a young woman leaned against a streetlight and straightened her stockings. She wasn't dressed quite right for the chilly night -- her little black dress and beaded shawl were too thin -- but she wouldn't get many customers all bundled up. They needed a good look at the merchandise before making up their minds, usually.
Jazz filtered through the door of the dive bar behind her. Normally, she'd hang out inside, score a couple of free drinks while working the room, but she thought she saw a cop earlier and didn't want to risk it. Better to take her chances out here.
It was too empty out here, though, and she was considering going back inside and warming up a little, but then she saw someone coming up the street. She thought it was an old man at first, what with him limping and his stuffy-looking suit, but when he stopped under another streetlight to check his pocketwatch, she could see he was young, probably not much older than her.
He looked out of place, and she was leery of his handicap, but it didn't pay to discriminate in her line of work. Picky girls didn't get to eat. She ran a hand through her long brown hair and strolled over. "Hey," she smiled. "You look way too nice to be on this side of town. You lost?"
The blond man looked up, startled, then smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "No, I'm... here on business." He sounded out of breath just standing there. He looked over his shoulder anxiously, then checked his watch again. No, he wasn't there looking for a good time. But he didn't walk away, either.
"Yeah, me too," she grinned. He looked up again, really looking at her this time, and seemed almost... sad? Not pitying, though, and she was glad for that. She could stand a lot of looks -- lust, disgust, contempt -- but there wasn't enough money in the world for her to be willingly pitied. "So, uh, what kind of business?"
"Psychiatry," he answered, keeping an eye on his watch. He politely didn't ask hers. She smiled and stepped a little closer. He really wasn't half-bad looking, kinda cute actually, aside from the scar on his eye. And oh, now he was blushing a little. "You're a shrink?" she asked. "Going to psychoanalyze someone in the middle of the night?"
"Something like that," he replied with a faint smirk. He offered his hand, then, "Dr. Daniel Schreber, at... your service."
She grinned and shook his hand. Intelligence and manners. He was definitely in the wrong place. "Mary. Nice to meet you, Doctor."
Something that she said made him wince a little, and he glanced back down at his watch. "Likewise," he murmured, almost as an afterthought. The hands on his watch reached midnight. The jazz music stopped, and in the distance, so did the traffic.
He looked up, and Mary was still standing, looking at him curiously.
"Something supposed to happen at midnight?" she asked, gesturing at the watch. He simply stared at her, eyes widening in panic. The fear in his expression was so palpable that she felt a little frightened herself. She'd never seen anyone look so scared. "Hey... are you okay?" She gently nudged his shoulder.
This seemed to snap him out of his frozen terror. "You... you're not..." he shook his head, then took her arm, firmly. "We can't stay here," he said quietly, urgently, looking over his shoulder again.
"I... there's my apartment..." she gestured down the street. Dr. Schreber nodded, so she took him there. Even up two flights of stairs, he kept up despite his limp. Something -- someone -- had him spooked. Maybe someone was looking for him. She unlocked her door and let him into her studio. Small and cramped, and probably a health hazard, but it was better than the streets. She led him to her bed, the only comfortable place to sit. "Do you want some coffee or something?" She sat down next to him. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Ha, no... not quite." He fidgeted with the handle of his medical bag and twitched a little. A little calmer, he looked at her, as if trying to read her mind. "No coffee, thank... you. Not good for my heart. Are you... feeling tired at all?"
She couldn't help but laugh at the weirdness of the question. "No, I'm quite awake. What's wrong with your heart?" She put her hand on his chest, curious. She could feel his heart pounding like a scared rabbit's, but it was all wrong, not strong and steady at all. He flinched a little at her touch and she leaned into him, comfortingly. It's what she did best, after all. "Is someone after you?"
He nodded a little, his blush returning, and almost said something, but couldn't seem to get the words out. She felt an uncharacteristic pang of empathy -- she didn't like getting close to customers, but this seemed different. This poor young man with a broken heart and scars and a limp. Whoever was after him, they'd probably already let him have it a few times. "Are they going to kill you?" she whispered.
He shook his head and laughed a little, bitter and empty. "No, that... wouldn't be in their best... interest." His expression softened and he kept his gaze down, looking guilty. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't... have let you take me here."
She shook her head a little and touched his chin so that he'd look into her eyes. Aside from the scar, he really had nice eyes. "Don't apologize. It'll be all right." She smiled and for just a moment, it looked like he might smile back.
"Doctor. This was not the designated meeting point." The voice came from her door. Mary turned to look. There were two men and a little child, all bald and pale as snow, dressed in strange leather clothes. She felt Schreber stiffen next to her.
A tight, icy fear gripped her throat, but she managed to say, "Hey, you can't just come in here and--"
The tallest one crossed the room in three easy strides and touched her head. "Sleep," he said, dismissively, and she did, slumping against Schreber. "Doctor," he said again, a faint disappointment laced in his words, "this one should have been asleep."
"I--I know," Schreber stuttered helplessly, "She didn't... fall asleep, so I took her back here. I thought I could--"
"You should have left her to us," the other tall Stranger remarked, still by the door. "You took her away from us."
"I--I--" the Doctor looked down, defeated. Still, he put an arm around Mary, holding her protectively. "I'm sorry."
The littlest Stranger held up a knife and looked at the other two questioningly, but the one closest to him shook his head. "No, Mr. Sleep. We have other plans for her." He looked down at Schreber. "Mr. Wall and I will start our work. Take care of this one, then the others in the building. We will deal with your disobedience later."
The Doctor nodded and tried not to shiver. Gently, he laid Mary on her bed and retrieved a syringe from his bag. He took a moment to brush the young woman's hair from her forehead before positioning the needle. "I'm sorry," he whispered, but it wasn't to the Strangers.
The brunette yawned and stretched, wearing an elegant silk dress. She hadn't meant to take a nap. A quick glance at the clock -- oh dear, she was running late. She was supposed to meet her husband downstairs five minutes ago. She quickly fixed her hair, then wrapped a mink stole around her shoulders. She hummed softly to herself, taking a quick look around. She'd have to talk to --
There was a name on the tip of her tongue, but it wasn't her husband's. Gerald. Yes. Why did she think it was something else? She'd have to talk to Gerald about purchasing another couch. The living room was far too big for just one.
Taking one last look in the mirror, Esther Rhodes smiled at her reflection before heading out the door.