Altrega Beach was, as all people knew, the Slum of Slums. There might have been slums in other parts of the Web that had more poverty and worse conditions, but being that Altrega Beach was located in Albrook, the largest city in the Web, it naturally got a promotion over others. The refugee crisis was an ongoing issue, and in the years since the Leviathan War, the tent city had evolved into a dense conglomeration of prefabs built on top of prefabs and cheaply constructed multi-story buildings. Utility services were of varying quality, where they were available at all, and of course, there was the rampant crime. This had led to common protection rackets throughout the town. Ostensibly, the Garlandini Family were the only ones who should have been doing it, but it wasn’t unheard of that other outfits might try it out.
The block had a number of high-rise apartment buildings. Despite the somewhat superior construction of the structures, they were still plagued with drafts, leaking ceilings, and brownouts. Sewage would periodically overflow due to shoddy plumbing. Many flats were infested with either insects, rodents, or other small vermin. The walls were thin enough that tenants could hear almost everything that went on in their neighbors’ flats. Theft was common and widespread, so nothing valuable was left in the open or in easily found hiding places.
One of the buildings had the rather misleading name of the Bridgeview. (There was no bridge and there was no view.) The Bridgeview had seen a lot of changes in its tenants over the years since the refugee crisis had started. Alia Caldwell had managed to get a flat for herself and her daughter only six months before, and she’d seen many of her neighbors come and go. Some of them had moved out for understandable reasons, such as the general squalor. Others had simply… gone missing, and after a couple of weeks’ absence, someone else would move in and replace them. Had there been any better alternatives, Alia would have taken them in an instant. But, well, Alia was in a tricky situation.
The issue facing Alia today were the pair of tattooed brutes looming in the hallway outside her door. They had been pounding on the door with enough force to shake the doorframe, so she’d finally opened it, but kept the chain latched so she could address them. Now she was wishing she could have just left the door shut and pretended no one was home. Alas, the noise had woken Elly, who was still wailing in her arms.
“I don’t know what you want, please go away,” she repeated herself for what seemed like the hundredth time. Unfortunately, the two men weren’t budging. The smaller of the two (who was still much larger than her) was the one doing most of the talking to her, while the larger was more talking at her in angry Scandish.
“Very dangerous people in Altrega,” the smaller repeated himself again. “You have children, da? Could be people try to take them away from you. Steal from you.” He smiled, or at least showed his teeth. “Good to have protection. Toly and I, our friends too, we keep you safe.”
Alia had been warned about this sort of thing by her neighbor when she’d moved into the Bridgeview. There were all kinds of bad people who lived in the Bridgeview, and sooner or later, someone would offer to “protect” her from them. The best thing to do, she’d been told, was let the landlord deal with them. Alas for Alia, she’d never actually met the landlord, she’d sublet from a drunk slob who had moved out two weeks later. She’d tried to call him when the next month’s rent had been due, but the number he’d given her had been disconnected. She hadn’t dared try to ask about what she should do about the rent, lest the landlord throw her out.
All of which didn’t really help her here and now, with the two thugs on her doorstep. She tried to repeat herself once more, but the larger one, Toly, shouted even louder in Scandish. The smaller brother, who’d only called himself Taly, turned and barked something at him in the same language, then turned back to Alia. The non-smile had vanished. “You are not safe,” he said, all false friendliness gone from his words. “You pay us, or…” He shrugged, giving a click of his tongue. “…example, da?” And he showed his teeth again, and the look in his eyes was one that conjured up all kinds of bad memories in Alia’s mind. She was trembling as she tried to muster up a response.
Then a different voice cut in from the hall. It sounded tired, as if the person speaking had just woken up. “What inna name of every god is all the goddamn racket for? Cryin’ out loud, it’s flippin’ noisy out here.” The two brothers glanced away from Alia, before Taly twitched a shoulder, and Toly lumbered off, growling at the interloper in his native tongue. “Eh?” came the new voice again. “What’s that? I dun speak goddamn Scandish, you wanna mumble threats, try doin’ it in Common, it’s basic flippin’ decency.”
Taly was still glowering at Alia. “Pay,” he growled at her. “Or, example, yes?” His eyes flicked from her face to the squalling Elly meaningfully. Alia paled and tried to slam the door shut, but he’d thrust his steel-toed boot into the door jamb to prevent this. He showed his teeth again, but there was no amusement this time, just a threat. There was a pair of thumps from the hallway, the latter much heavier, and the floor shuddered briefly. Taly smirked briefly. “Maybe I give you day to reconsider,” he chuckled. “Toly and I, we use neighbor as example, da?”
Then it was his turn to go pale as a hand grabbed a pistol from Taly’s waistband and put it to his temple. “Or maybe I give you day to reconsider,” came the voice from down the hall, mocking his accent. “Maybe I let you pick your brother up,” the voice had dropped the Scandish accent now, “and you fff–” Alia caught a glimpse of a face peek around Taly’s head and see her, and Elly, and the voice corrected, “–find your way out of here. That’d be a good goddamn idea right now, right?” She glanced past both Taly and the newcomer and saw Toly groaning on his back on the hallway floor.
Taly grunted in agreement. The man behind him stepped out of Alia’s view down the hall again. The Scandian started to turn, but the interloper cocked the gun and shook his head. “Uh-uh. Don’t turn around. Take two steps this way… thaaat’s it. Pick your brother up and get out of here.” Grunting, Taly heaved his brother to his feet, an arm over his shoulder, and the two staggered off to the stairwell.
Once they were gone, she saw the interloper come into view. He was much younger than she thought, average size but well-built. Underneath his faded gray ball cap, His head was shaved to stubble, matching his five-o-clock shadow. He wore a U of A Screaming Eagles t-shirt and gray track pants with dirty trainers. He finally looked at her, pulling his cap up, revealing eyes a dark green shade. He nodded to her, then glanced at the gun still in his hand. He made a show of ejecting the magazine and emptying the chamber, pocketing them and then offering out the now-empty gun to her. “You all right there, miss?” he asked, a vague Viperese accent now more evident as Alia could listen more carefully.
She nodded, shushing Elly, who was still all sniffles and blotchy faced. Alia looked back up at the man. “Thank you,” she said, “but they’ll just come back again.” She looked away, back into her flat, which still had what few boxes of things she’d managed to take with her when she’d come here. “I… I’ll have to find somewhere else to live–”
“Nuts to that.” Her neighbor shook his head. Realizing she wasn’t going to take the gun, he stuck it in his waistband. “They bother you again, you call for me, yeah?” He raised his hands, then gave a brief smile. “I’m Baz. I live down the hall, in 623.”
“Alia,” she said. “Really, I appreciate your help, but you’re not going to be there all the time, and they’ll come back and they’ll be in a worse mood for your trouble.” She eyed him a bit. “You must be stronger than you look. Toly must’ve been twice your size, but you laid him out.”
Baz grimaced slightly and flexed the fingers of his left hand. “Ah, I’m gonna have to get my hand looked at later. But it’s just a matter of knowing where to hit a guy.” He mimed swinging a left hook. “Hit 'em in the right spot, and pow, nighty-night.”
She regarded him a bit. “Were you in the army?” His build did suggest some kind of background like that, though he looked too young for that to be the case.
He scoffed a bit. “What, me? No, ma’am. Military life’s not for me.” He read her look and said, “I just hit the gym now and then.” He flexed slightly and then shrugged. “Plus, I’m from North Viper. You don’t learn how to fight down there in Silk Street, you don’t live to majority.”
They spoke for a few more minutes, during which Alia never took the chain off the door. Baz admitted that the Bridgeview wasn’t the place he would have liked to live, but given the options, it was not horrible. They eventually bid goodbye, with Alia promising Baz a hot meal out of gratitude for his aid.