Shannon Noble just wanted to finish her pizza delivery shift and get home. Getting trapped in a spooky mansion with no exit was definitely not part of the plan…
Apart from a strong core of rational thinking and logical problem solving, Sanctuary is also a novel about secrets, LGBT characters, and graph theory. If you enjoyed other rational fiction, you’ll likely enjoy this!
7. Team Up
8. May I Have This Dance?
11. First One Down
13. The Magician
© 2018 by Nicky Fey
That’s when I realised that she’d devised a careful scheme. From the beginning, she’d made careful plans and lured me in.
Naomi, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
1. The House
A winter’s evening, and chill winds were blowing through the streets of Reading. The blue gradient of the evening sky hung behind the bright yellow windows of folk glad to be indoors in such uncivilised weather.
Whizzing through the terrace houses came a girl on a bicycle. She was wearing a jacket with high-vis panels that reflected the street lights as she passed, while curly brown hair bounced under her helmet and over her shoulders. Beneath the helmet’s rim, the dark eyes were intently focused. She was cycling at a steady pace, fast, not as hard as she possibly could, but at a speed she had determined to be optimal for the completion of a fifteen-minute delivery circuit. Her name was Shannon Noble, but to herself she was Pizzagirl.
Dusk was falling quickly now, and even with her extensive bicycle lighting rig, Pizzagirl was bothered. I’ve got to get my shift moved earlier now that Daylight Savings Time is over, she thought, wishing she could stop to write a note for her future self. Past experience had taught her that her future self was an endlessly helpful soul who nonetheless had a terrible memory for anything not written down. But it was dark and getting darker, and there was no time to waste – not until— ah, yes!
The top of the street sign almost disappeared into the rising gloom, but there she could just about make out the words she had been hoping to see: Laplace Ct. Pizzagirl slowed to make the bend, then returned almost immediately to optimum cruising speed. Now her head turned, looking this way and that. On the left she spotted a number 23 painted on a brick wall; then a 19 flashed by on a mailbox. Finally catching sight of an embossed silver 13 on a stone wall at the end of the cul-de-sac, she pulled on the brakes and brought the bicycle to a standstill. Her eyes widened and she swung her feet to the pavement as she realised what she was staring at.
In front of her, a grey stone wall swept away to the left and right. At its centre the curls of a wrought iron archway guarded the soaring, vine-choked façade of an enormous Gothic mansion. No light shone from the small, high windows except for the reflection of a crescent moon. Turrets and towers stuck out at insane angles in every direction. This was the place: 13 Laplace Court.
Pizzagirl uncertainly took off her helmet and unstrapped the insulated cubepack from her bicycle. Yes, she had a job to do – the whiff of melted cheese from the warm cubepack spoke for that – but on the other hand, she was pretty sure that this was a classic example of a haunted house.
You should probably turn around and go home, her Internal Safety Advisor piped up. Did you know that it’s already darker than it was when you entered the street?
Ignore that, snapped her Driving Force. You’re only thinking that because you’re afraid of the dark. If it were noon you’d have no compunctions about doing your job. Think of your career goals! And, you know, rich people who live in enormous mansions probably give decent tips.
And then a third voice spoke as well, far quieter than the other two: We’ve never gotten a pizza order from a mansion before. Isn’t this strange?
But Pizzagirl had to decide, decide quickly. She could either do her job well, or get home before dark – either avoid being fired, or stay safe –
— and then she realised how to solve the problem: she would do both.
Without further hesitation Pizzagirl grabbed her satchel from the bicycle, slung it over her shoulder and marched forward to the gate, cubepack in hand. She paused at the archway, expecting to find an intercom buzzer, but there was nothing – just a mailbox slot overflowing with soggy letters. Okay, no buzzer, just keep going, don’t waste time. Walk forward along the worn flagstones to the front door. Don’t slow down. Jeez, this grass has got to be a foot tall.
She came to a pair of intimidating double doors that rose up to a central point three metres high. Pizzagirl raised her hand to knock, only to freeze in surprise – the doors were several inches ajar. What? Are the locks bad? Wouldn’t surprise me on a house as old as this. Shaking her head, she gave the door a rap of the knuckles anyway and waited.
Ten seconds passed, then fifteen. There was no response but for an eerie whistling as the wind rose, and the doors creaked open a fraction more. Pizzagirl shivered, wishing her jacket was warmer. It wasn’t meant to happen like this, she was meant to get in, do her job and get out. Damn it!
She tried again, using the carved iron door knocker this time – bang bang bang! “Hello!” she yelled, voice far less confident than she would have liked. Fishing the order receipt from her satchel, she held it close to her face. “Mr… Peter Janssen? I’ve got your pizza order here! One Hawaiian, one Supreme and a garlic bread? Hello-o?”
Still there was no response, and Pizzagirl remembered the last time someone had not answered the door.
The recollection was clear as glass. It was a warm golden evening in summer, at least four hours before sunset, one of the best shifts if you could get it, and the man had not opened the door. She had called and waited and still there was no answer; only voices raised in argument – and then the sound of human pain. She had broken the screen door to enter and save the victim, and found him lying on his kitchen floor having a heart attack. He was alive today because Pizzagirl had called an ambulance.
Standing at the front of the mansion, Pizzagirl swayed toward, then away, then toward the gap in the doors. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the owner of a place like this had to be a five-thousand-year-old vampire who was probably lactose intolerant and not having a heart attack on their kitchen floor.
But then she heard voices coming from inside the house – raised voices. In that moment there was no longer any decision to make. Pizzagirl gulped a breath, seized the handles and, with an effort, pushed the doors fully open.
Stumbling forward with the cubepack, she found herself in a long room heavy with shadow. An involuntary shudder shook her, and her hand plunged automatically into her satchel for her torch. The only sources of illumination in the room were candles that stretched away in orderly rows, sitting on twelve-foot high bookshelves. High above, the ceiling was capped by an arching, domed skylight beyond which twinkled the first stars of the evening.
Pizzagirl’s fingers fumbled on the torch, then her thumb found the switch and the brilliant white beam exploded forth. Instinctively her grip tightened on the device. It was a high-end Tungst & Magneto with over 9,000 lumens at full power and a terrific battery life. An expensive model, for sure, but there were some things you just didn’t skimp on.
She turned it on the shelves, scanning the spines. Books, books, and more books, turning grey with accumulated dust. “Hello? Anyone there? Are you okay? I heard shouting…”
There was movement at the end of the room and she swung the white circle of the torch beam over. To her relief, the light fell on four human figures. They had the defined facial features of real people, clearly not the vague, shadowy figures that Pizzagirl sometimes saw in darkness. They seemed to be in conversation; none of them looked like five-thousand-year-old vampires, and none of them were lying on the floor having heart attacks.
Pizzagirl sighed in relief. She set the cubepack down on the floor and cupped a hand to her mouth to bridge the distance. “Hello! Hi, sorry, I guess it was just a party, huh? Anyway, I’ve got your pizza. And you might want to get your locks changed, I think they might’ve rusted—”
All at once they were running towards her.
“Hurry, grab it!”
“Stop it! Stop the door from closing!”
Pizzagirl stared at them in confusion. “What do you—?”
Suddenly there was an echoing SLAM as the doors swung shut behind her. The four people skidded to a stop before her, panting.
“Useless son of a turtle fart!” yelled one of the four, a tiny woman with long black hair. Pizzagirl flinched, thinking she was under fire, but the woman wasn’t yelling at her; her furious glare was directed at the front door behind her.
Another of them, a tall, chubby man, had thrown up his hands in frustration. “Ugh, another false start?” he muttered as he walked away. “I can’t deal with this right now.”
“What’s going on?” asked Pizzagirl, looking to the other man, a stocky figure close to her own size. The torch washed out most colour, but she could tell that his slicked-back hair would have been a deep burgundy red. “Are you Mr Janssen? Isn’t this 13 Laplace Court?”
But the man shook his head, one forearm bent to shield his eyes from the torch. “No. This is 13 Lidstone Court.”
“I’m so sorry,” said one of the others. Pizzagirl started slightly at the surprisingly low voice; from the long hair tied in a bun, she’d assumed the person was an unusually tall girl. “You’re trapped in here now.”
Pizzagirl gave a nervous laugh. The delivery was well and truly bungled, that was for sure. There went her five-star rating; Mr Peter Janssen was probably calling Luigi’s Pizza right now to complain. And it was definitely too dark to cycle anywhere at this point – but at least she could call a taxi to take her home. It would ruin her savings rate for the month, but— “No, no, you’re mistaken,” she said quickly, switching the torch off and replacing it in her satchel. “The front door’s right behind me, see? It’s not even locked!”
She turned around to grasp the twin handles of the double doors and flung them open to reveal—
“But it was just here,” Pizzagirl murmured, wandering forward in confusion. Even in candlelit darkness it was a splendid room, a round parlour decorated with plush couches and gold-leafed mirrors. “It was right here a moment ago. I must’ve walked through another room on the way in…”
The tall girl spoke, following Pizzagirl into the parlour. “When the doors close, the rooms behind them change and—”
“I-I must’ve gone into the wrong room!” Pizzagirl crossed the floor and opened another pair of doors. Finding only a dining hall, she backed out immediately. “Okay, no, not that one, but maybe—”
The man was watching with vague concern. “Should we stop her?”
The tall girl shook her head. “Just let her get it out of her system.”
“How about this one? Um, I guess not, but then it’s gotta be this one – ahh, no? All right, aha! Uff— Over here! This is the right door, I’m sure of it!”
The tiny woman elbowed the man. “Look, she jumped over sofa.”
He watched sympathetically. “I was at least that bad.”
“Oh, yes. I remember you cried.”
The man looked affronted. “I-I did not!”
“Don’t worry, Shaun,” said the tall girl, holstering her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. “It’s okay to cry.”
“But I didn’t!”
“Hey!” yelled Pizzagirl, spinning to face the three of them. Her voice was hoarse. “Can you please focus for five seconds and help me?”
“I’m sorry,” said the girl in the hoodie again. “As I said, the rooms behind the doors change. So when the front door closed behind you—”
“You also tried to open doors,” said the black-haired woman to the man. “Still not work. Front door still gone, pung!” She made an exploding gesture with her hands.
“No, no, no!” shouted Pizzagirl. She turned her back on the strangers and sprinted for another door. “It can’t just disappear! It has to be here somewhere!”
But as she tried door after door after door, none of them opened to the outside world. Puffing with exertion, she finally came to a standstill in the middle of the parlour. “Oh my god,” she breathed, dropping heavily into a settee. “It’s true. It’s really true.”
“You see,” said the tall girl, “you really are trapped in here.”
Gradually the whining of her pulse in her ears and the thumping of her heart faded. The first thought she had as soon as rational capacity returned to her was: Holy heck it’s dark. If I’m going to be stuck in here for a while, then for goodness’ sake I’ve got to cure this stupid darkness phobia.
On autopilot she mentally ran through her inventory. She had the cubepack full of food; she had her satchel; crucially, she had her torch – but the rest of her lighting gear was attached to her bicycle, which had been parked outside.
“At least it was a pretty big order,” she said aloud. “Two large pizzas and a garlic bread. If we ration that, I guess it could last a few days.”
“You don’t need to worry about food,” said the girl sitting on the settee next to her. “The kitchen never runs out.”
“Changing doors, ever-replenishing food? Are you saying this is a magic house?”
“But how is this even possible?” asked Pizzagirl, turning to face the other girl fully. “What kind of aspect could even make a house like this? An architecture aspect? A navigation aspect?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl. She hadn’t reacted in any way to Pizzagirl’s agitation.
“But don’t you own this place?”
“No. We were all trapped in here like you.”
“And you haven’t managed to get out,” muttered Pizzagirl, rising from the settee and glancing fearfully upwards. Shadows slithered around the edges of the coffered ceiling, and her fingers itched for her torch. “Oh, hell. I really, really can’t stay.”
“Please,” said the girl gently, reaching out for her. “It’s getting dark. If you try to wander around here at night, you’ll just get lost. Why not take a moment to rest? You can have a bite of your pizza and relax.”
Pizzagirl squinted at her interlocutor. Her instinct was to decline food offered in a creepy mansion from a stranger she’d met only minutes ago (Poison! warned her Internal Safety Advisor), until she realised it was just her own food she was being offered and that the rest of the proposition was entirely sensible. And now that she thought about it, the girl sitting next to her was wearing a perfectly ordinary hoodie and jeans with trainers, exactly like a random person you might see in a grocery shop, and not at all like a five-thousand-year-old vampire trying to lure her into their lair. In fact (Pizzagirl felt a little embarrassed to admit) it was quite plausible that the girl was telling the truth, had in fact been trapped in here, and was now trying to help her out of simple kindness.
She laughed weakly, settling back into the settee. “I can’t say I’m hungry.”
“If you don’t feel like eating your food right now, we can put it in the ice chest.”
It took Pizzagirl a moment to catch up. “Yeah, okay, thanks.” Ice chest? Don’t they have a fridge?
“Here, I’ll take it t’ the kitchen,” said the stocky man, coming forward to pick up the cubepack from where it sat on a coffee table. “I was going there t’ have dinner anyway. Micio, are y’ coming?” He had an accent that Pizzagirl didn’t recognise; definitely not English, but not quite foreign either.
“At least we aren’t going to starve to death,” said Pizzagirl. Slightly dazed, she watched the man leave through one of the pairs of doors. The tiny dark-haired woman followed closely behind.
Next to her on the settee, the girl nodded reassuringly. “Yes, you aren’t in any danger. We have food. Plumbing. Beds. No electricity or electrical outlets, but—”
Pizzagirl shot her a look of alarm. “No electricity?”
“No Wi-Fi?” cried Pizzagirl in abject horror.
“No Wi-Fi,” confirmed the girl.
Pizzagirl stared for a moment, then slapped a palm to her forehead. “Oh my god, I’m an idiot! I’ve got my phone!”
“I don’t think that will—”
“Of course it’ll work!” said Pizzagirl, fishing her phone out of her satchel and swiping the lock screen. “I’ll call for help, they’ll open the front door from the outside, and then we can all get out of here! Easy!”
She tapped in the unlock code, only to see an error message pop up: No networks found. “No networks? But we’re in the middle of Reading! What am I even paying thirty pounds a month for?!” Desperately she opened the Wi-Fi control panel, but there were no signals in range. “This is bizarre,” she muttered. “There isn’t even that promotional signal the telephone network sprays everywhere…”
As she glanced at it, the phone’s clock ticked over to 19:00. A moment later the sound of a grandfather clock striking seven from the parlour’s round wall began to echo through the house.
Pizzagirl jumped to her feet as though electrified, the phone in her hand streaking blue photon trails against the dim embers of the candles. She held the device aloft like a shield against the darkness. “Alright, that’s it, I’m going to find a vantage point. Must be a dead spot in here.”
“That is a really, really bad idea,” said the other girl evenly, rising to follow. “You could get lost for hours.”
Pizzagirl ignored this and strode over to open a pair of doors, expecting to see the massive dining hall she’d walked into earlier. But instead the door opened to an unfamiliar room, a musty, close cell lined with crimson velvet and glass liquor cabinets. Yet more candles illuminated the stifling space.
Frustrated, she tried the other door of the parlour. But rather than the chintzy loungeroom she’d seen minutes ago, the door revealed a dimly-lit billiards room. Some subtle shift in air pressure told Pizzagirl that she was standing at least ten metres higher from the ground than she had a few seconds ago.
“But wasn’t this a loungeroom before? It isn’t possible,” she murmured, then shook her head and inspected the phone screen. “No, obviously it’s possible. But I still can’t get a signal…”
“Why not sleep on it and try again tomorrow?” suggested the girl in the hoodie, padding into the room. “It’ll be much easier in daylight. In the meantime, we can find a bedroom for you to pass the night. Unless you want to sleep on a couch.”
“Sleeping in the creepiest house I’ve ever seen,” muttered Pizzagirl. “This is definitely how I wanted my evening to go.”
But given the lack of alternatives, the proposal was entirely sensible, and she couldn’t deny it any longer. With a huff of frustration she dropped the mobile phone back into her satchel. Then she reconsidered. This quiet girl had treated her, a total stranger, with nothing but inexplicably calm politeness. She had been taken in as a friend and offered comforting guidance without the slightest expectation of anything in return. There and then she decided to nickname the girl Calmfriend.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not usually such a jerk, I’m just… kind of distracted right now. What’s your name?”
“My name is Juliet Hollender,” said the girl. Ah, thought Pizzagirl, so she is a girl after all, even with that voice, and those shoulders, and— She cut the thought off, thinking that it wasn’t exactly charitable.
“I’m—” (I’m Pizzagirl) “I’m Shannon. Shannon Noble. Nice to meet you.” She considered offering a hand to shake, but for some reason she had the feeling she oughtn’t. “So there are beds?”
“Yes. Most of us go to bed pretty early because of the lighting issue. Except for Zander. I guess it’s not an issue for him.”
Bummer, Pizzagirl mused, I usually try to get my prep study done at this time. Maybe I can find something to do that doesn’t need lighting. “So where do we sleep?” she asked.
“Pick a bedroom, any bedroom,” said the girl without the slightest trace of humour. “I’ll show you.”
She turned, and Pizzagirl followed her a pair of doors. They passed through a dining room, an L-shaped hallway and a drawing room before finally coming to a spacious bedroom.
“You can sleep here,” said the girl now nicknamed Calmfriend. On one side of the room was a sumptuous king-sized poster bed, hung with a thick canopy of curtains and ornamented with a full spread of cushions. The left endtable held a single lit candle in a stone dish, while the right one displayed a Bible and a vase of fresh flowers. At the other side of the room, a small stone fireplace held a selection of neat wooden logs. Not an article was out of place; the entire scene was as perfect as a hotel brochure.
“Tha-anks,” said Pizzagirl uneasily, fighting the urge to yank out her torch and bathe everything in the cleansing glow. The single candle did little to alleviate the gloom around the bed, and the skylights high on the ceiling would be useless until dawn came. “So… where do you sleep?”
“Over here…” Again Calmfriend led her through an arcane sequence of rooms. After a minute Pizzagirl had to admit defeat as far as memorising the floorplan went; she couldn’t even remember what direction the front door had faced originally.
Finally they arrived at a bedroom that was identical to the one Pizzagirl had just seen, except that there was a backpack slung over the bed and the bible had been stowed away in a drawer.
Calmfriend turned to her. “Are you going to be alright finding your way back to your room?”
Pizzagirl bit her lip. Come on, suck it up and just go— Oh, who am I kidding, everyone knows you don’t split up in a haunted house at night.
“Can I stay here with you?” she blurted. “I— I really don’t want to be alone right now.”
The girl’s expression didn’t change. “Okay.”
“R-really? You mean it?”
“Wow, yeah, okay! Great!” Spying a large square basket of linen in the corner of the room, Pizzagirl began to pull out blankets and dump them onto the carpet.
Calmfriend watched, head tilted to one side. “What are you doing?”
Pizzagirl paused, pillow in hand. “Making a bed on the floor?”
“You can sleep on the bed if you want,” said Calmfriend. “I don’t mind. I can sleep on the floor.”
“Nope it’s okay I’m good thanks!” said Pizzagirl, blushing and returning to her task.
“Okay,” said the taller girl, getting into bed and hoisting the covers over herself. “Good night.”
Pizzagirl made one last adjustment, making sure there would be an extra pillow at the right position to support her spine, before flopping into the nest of blankets. “Good night!”
There was silence. Pizzagirl shifted, trying to get comfortable and not quite succeeding. If only she had her nightlight. In the shadowy corners of the room the shifting creatures lurked as they always did, crawling over the skirting-boards, for tonight there was nothing to banish them—
—no, that wasn’t quite true. Calmfriend was here, and Calmfriend certainly wasn’t worried. Pizzagirl relaxed; the creatures had vanished and the skirting-boards were bare once more.
She turned over to face the girl lying on the bed above her. “Hey— um—”
“Yeah. Is it okay if I nickname you ‘Calmfriend’?”
The girl’s voice remained as quiet as ever, but something in her tone softened. “Being your friend would be very okay,” she said.
2. Ground Rules
Disorientation. A hard wooden floor buffered only by blankets, not a comfortable memory-foam mattress. The weak grey light of the early morning, not the red glow of her nightlight. The sight of a handsome wooden bedstead at her side, not the LED numerals of her alarm clock.
Pizzagirl awoke all at once, sitting up in the blankets. The previous night came back to her: the mistaken address, the bungled delivery, the missing front door. On autopilot, she checked her phone; the lock screen read 5:42am, which explained why it was still dark. She tested the network connection again without success, then absently swiped around the apps until she remembered what Calmfriend had said the previous night. With no electrical outlets, there was no way to charge the phone’s battery. Best not to waste a non-renewable resource like that, she figured, and put the phone away.
With nothing to distract her attention, Pizzagirl became fully aware that the grey dawn slanting in through the skylight was barely bright enough to see by. She shivered a little, wrapping her arms around herself. The only thing stopping her from pulling out her torch was the knowledge that the bright beam would undoubtedly wake Calmfriend.
You said you wanted to get over your stupid darkness phobia, her Driving Force reminded her. So get over it already.
Swallowing hard and steeling herself to stare into one of the dark corners of the room, she could see them: an indistinct line of black ants running along a curved path on the wall. Of course they were ants; insects were typical.
I know you’re not real, she thought in frustration as she squinted at the ugly line of shifting black dots. So why won’t you go away?
As she watched, the ants bulged impossibly and morphed into swollen black spiders. It was too much. With a choked sound, Pizzagirl wrenched her gaze away and dived back under her nest of blankets, her eyes squeezed shut.
Seriously? said her Driving Force incredulously. Are you really that weak, that you can’t stare at a dark corner for ten seconds? This is going to make you a better, stronger person!
I’ve just never had to before, she thought, disappointed in herself. I’ve always had my nightlight. I don’t think I’ve seen them this badly since I was a kid. Damn it… I’ve got to get out of here as soon as I can, or all these shadows are going to drive me actually, literally, hooked-on-Xanax-and-Valium crazy.
She curled up a little smaller under the blankets. Or… maybe someone’s out there looking for me. I mean, I didn’t see any messages on my phone… but I wouldn’t, would I? They wouldn’t come through until I get a signal. So that’s got to be priority number one. But then again, would anyone outside even realise I’m stuck in here?
Pizzagirl mused on that one for a while. It’s not like my mum would notice right away, she figured. Sometimes we don’t call each other for weeks. Even then she might just assume I’m too wrapped up in a project to answer the phone.
Someone from work, then?… Nah. Who would even care? It’s not like I have an actual boss. I just take the gigs when I can get them.
How about my study mates – Lyn and Jeff. Well, maybe, but we weren’t that close. They’ll probably just think I’m brushing them off to deliver pizzas. They’re already annoyed with me for turning down any invites to study parties that run past five o’clock.
My landlady? No, she’s not going to check in for months. Argh! Why’d I have to pay my rent so far in advance? At least if I was late on a payment she’d try to contact me!
Pizzagirl groaned internally. Trying to be organised, independent and well-prepared was not something she had ever considered might so spectacularly backfire on her. It’s going to take a least a fortnight before anyone notices I’m gone, and that’s an optimistic estimate. Even if there was someone trying to figure out where I went, it’s not like I left a trail of signs to follow.
The pile of blankets rose and fell with a sigh. …If I’m getting out of here, I’m going to have to do it alone.
The same way you do everything else in your life, whispered a nasty, unwelcome voice in her head. Pizzagirl pointedly ignored this: the Negative Self-Talk Loop had long ago been voted out of her mental committee.
After an interval when she tried to doze off, she dared to look up again. The grey sunlight had turned a cloudy white, and the shadow monsters had faded to a blur. Relaxing fractionally, Pizzagirl glanced at her companion on the poster bed. In daylight she could see that the lush fall of hair spilling over the girl’s pillow, which had appeared pale in candlelight, was actually a dark yellow colour. Her face was long and angular, and an unlined forehead suggested she was no older than twenty. The light pink hoodie she wore was emblazoned with the emblem of a heart.
The girl stirred. Her eyes fluttered open, then focused on Pizzagirl. “Oh, you’re still here,” she said, sitting up.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” replied Pizzagirl, immediately grabbing her torch and shining it on the spiders. The corner was empty, of course. Sheepishly, she packed the Tungst & Magneto away in her satchel.
Fortunately, Calmfriend hadn’t noticed; she was tying her hair into a loose bun. Finishing with a stretch, she stood and seemed to think for a moment.
“Did you have any luck getting a phone signal?” she finally asked.
“Nope,” replied Pizzagirl, “but I’ll bet you anything it’s because of the stone walls outside. If I could get somewhere high up, I’d have a better shot at the network. You’ve been here a while – do you think you could give me a tour? Can we get into those high towers I saw from the street?”
Calmfriend nodded. “It could take an hour or more – we can’t control where we end up – but sure. And I think you’ll be more comfortable here, too, once you get used to moving around.”
“With a bit of luck, I won’t be staying long enough to get comfortable.” Slinging her satchel over her shoulder, Pizzagirl followed the other girl through the bedroom door. Again she was struck by Calmfriend’s completely ordinary attire of a hoodie and jeans, quite out of place in the antique grandeur of the decrepit and creaking manor. “So how did you get stuck in here, anyway?” she asked.
The girl took a moment to brush a strand of yellow hair back from her face, apparently composing her response as they walked through a hallway. “I was passing by and saw the mailbox. Overflowing with letters. Didn’t make sense. It’s a beautiful mansion but it’s falling apart. Most buildings like this are heritage-listed, meticulously maintained. This was suspicious. I looked closer and noticed the door was open. Went inside and was trapped. Dining room,” she added, as they entered an enormous dining hall with a high, vaulted ceiling.
“That was five days ago,” continued Calmfriend. “Now, here I am.”
“Only five days ago?” Pizzagirl was surprised. Her companion’s relaxed, unruffled attitude had led her to assume that the other girl was a veteran of the house. She dug into her satchel for her notebook and pen, while Calmfriend indicated a kitchen followed by a bathroom. “How about the others I met last night? That tiny woman, and the two white guys?”
Calmfriend glanced briefly at the notebook in Pizzagirl’s hands, but otherwise made no comment on it. “Shaun and Zander have been here for about two weeks. Micio, more like two months.”
“Hmm,” said Pizzagirl, making a note. That was important. If someone had been here for two months and hadn’t managed to get out yet, they were either (a) not really trying, or (b) finding it genuinely difficult.
They walked into a octagonal rosewood-panelled study hung with red trimmings. Pizzagirl immediately found her eye drawn to a large portrait hung high on the opposite wall, framed with richly embellished curls in a gilded floral pattern. It was a family portrait of a young couple, both decked out in finery and wearing serious expressions of stiff formality. The gentleman was dressed in a white shirt with a ruffled collar under a black waistcoat, with wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. As for the lady, she wore a pleated dress and held a cloth-swaddled baby in her arms.
Who are they? Or… who were they? “Has anyone been here longer than two months?” she asked Calmfriend.
The girl nodded.
Pizzagirl jumped at the unfamiliar voice. She looked across to see an old man sitting at a desk below the massive portrait, fixing her with a stern gaze over his spectacles.
“Who are you,” he said, pronouncing every syllable as crisply as though he were speaking for radio, “and what are you doing in my house?”
For a moment Pizzagirl was so shocked she could hardly breathe. Then she shoved her notebook in her satchel and sprinted forward to the desk.
“Your house? You mean you own this place?”
Pizzagirl lunged forward to seize the man by the lapels of his black waistcoat. “Then it’s your bloody house what ate us! How the hell do we get out?”
Calmfriend, standing beside her, tensed up. “Shannon—”
“Ack! You can’t get out!” The old man scrabbled ineffectually at her fists. “Release me this instant!”
“That’s the wrong answer,” she growled, gripping tighter.
“It’s the truth!” said the man, flustered. “There’s no way to leave!”
“Shannon, don’t hurt him,” Calmfriend interjected, her volume marginally louder than normal.
Pizzagirl let go, but watched the man warily. “Why not? Did you trap us in here?”
“Certainly not,” he said, dusting himself off and resetting his spectacles on his nose. “I would never invite such ill-mannered and uncivilised guests such as yourself into my home.”
Pizzagirl gritted her teeth. Don’t rise to the bait, don’t rise to the bait… “Fine. Then why can’t we escape?”
He suddenly became fascinated with a mote of dust on his desk. “I…”
“Don’t you care about escaping?”
He looked up, a mixture of surprise and other emotions she couldn’t identify flashing across his face. His mouth opened but he seemed incapable of forming words.
Pizzagirl sighed and put her hands up. “Okay, so you don’t want to talk about it. Whatever. Just tell me this: do you know why we’re trapped in here or not?”
He took a breath, then firmly said “No.” She watched his face carefully, hoping for a twitch, a flicker, anything that might give away a lie; but the moment passed and she still wasn’t sure.
“Fine,” she said suspiciously. “Then where do I need to go to get mobile reception?”
“Excuse me?” said the old man, seeming not to have heard her properly.
“Mobile. Phone. Reception,” spelled out Pizzagirl, pulling her phone out of her jacket pocket and waving it at him. “You know, you use it to call people?”
Far from clearing up the confusion, this only seemed to annoy the old man further. “Quit this nonsense at once,” he snarled, his long, owlish eyebrows pressing together angrily. “Speak the Queen’s English or leave my company.”
It took a moment for Pizzagirl to interpret what this meant, and when she did, her fists immediately balled up at her sides. She hadn’t heard this kind of garbage since primary school. “I am speaking English!” she said, half furious, half unable to believe he’d actually said what he’d said. “I’m an English citizen. I was born here, I went to school here, I’ve lived here all my life! Just because my dad was from Ghana doesn’t mean I’m not English! So,” she continued, trying to stay civil as she held the mobile up again, “I’d really appreciate it if you could tell me where I have to go for a network connection!”
“Complete gammon,” muttered the old man to himself, flicking his hand derisively. “What a folderol.”
At his words, the phone suddenly slipped from Pizzagirl’s palm and dropped sharply to the polished floorboards. She knelt to pick it up, embarrassed at her butterfingers. Calmfriend hesitated at the sight, hovering awkwardly as though she wasn’t sure how to help.
The master of the house took the opportunity to sit back down at his winged throne. “Now cease pestering me and leave me to my studies,” he said, returning his attention to his documents, “or I shall evict you forcibly.”
“But you’re trapped in here,” persisted Pizzagirl, returning the phone to the safety of her pocket. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
The old man made no reply but for the scratching of a pen on paper.
“Look, okay, this isn’t just about me. It’s about you too. If you want to get out of here, you need my help. You’ve got the domain expertise, I’ve got the problem-solving skills…”
He didn’t look up.
“Hey!” shouted Pizzagirl, thumping a fist on his desk. “This is important! I’m your best shot at escaping!”
Still he didn’t react, and her patience reached the limit. “Unbelievable!” she muttered as she turned around and marched off.
Calmfriend’s head tilted, watching her storm over to one of the pairs of double doors. “Shannon?”
“It’s like he doesn’t even care that he’s trapped!” There was a heavy slam as the doors shut behind her.
“And who might you be? I glimpsed you wandering these halls some days ago, and I never forget a face.”
Juliet turned towards the old man. He had put his pen aside and was gazing at her over his spectacles.
“My name is Juliet Hollender,” she said. She jammed her fists into the pockets of her hoodie, hoping he wouldn’t offer to shake hands.
At once the man’s serious expression fell away and his eyebrows rose with benign curiosity. “Juliet? Like the Juliet?” He sat back. “What a lovely name.”
For a moment Juliet thought he was being facetious, making fun of her for not looking or sounding like a “Juliet”. That at least would be nothing new. She was all too familiar with the stares, the double-takes, the spluttered I-I’m sorry?, the oblivious Nice to meet you, Julius, and once even the smirking I meant your real name.
But there was no mockery in his voice, and the warmth seemed genuine. The lack of reaction to the female name was so unusual that she instantly wanted to continue speaking with him.
“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. “Have you lived here for a long time?”
He regarded her seriously. “As long as I can remember. Yes.”
“What has it been like for you?”
Now he seemed to be studying her, looking for something in her expression. After a moment he plucked a small cloth from the pocket of his waistcoat, removed his spectacles and began to polish them.
“You will meet me here at precisely eight o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said, not looking at her. “You will have exactly one hour of my time. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Juliet.
“Very well,” said the man, tucking the cloth into his pocket and replacing his spectacles on his face. Abruptly he stood and made a casual sweep of his arm. Juliet blinked in surprise: with a violent flurry of movement, all of the papers and stationery flew across the desk and dived into the drawers, leaving the polished surface immaculately tidy. A second later came the deep chimes of the grandfather clock announcing the time.
Like a clockwork figure, the old man turned on his heel and strode leftwards to a pair of doors that opened at his approach. There was a solid thud as they shut behind him, the final chime from the clock, then silence.
Juliet watched him go, fascinated. He’s a kinetic aspect, she thought in awe, remembering the figures: one percent of all Britons, and only a tenth of a percent could lift anything more than a feather. And then: Oh, Shannon.
Pizzagirl hopped through the doors, then turned quickly to see them shut behind her. Slam! She pushed them open again, ran through, and once again they closed themselves in her wake: slam! The anger of a minute ago was already forgotten. She was too excited about her new discovery: All of the doors shut themselves automatically as soon as you were out of arm’s reach.
“Well, that explains why the front doors shut themselves behind me,” she murmured. “But how? I don’t see a spring mechanism…” Looking around and finding herself in a chintzy loungeroom, she selected a book from a shelf and stuck it in the gap between the doors before stepping away. The wooden slabs swung closed just the same, knocking the book out of their path.
It’s got to be something more substantial, she thought. Her eyes fell on a chair that looked suitable, a wooden seat with a red horsehair-stuffed cushion. Tossing the cushion aside, she wedged the chair between the doors and moved back. No such luck; when the doors closed, the chair somehow popped out and clattered to the floor at Pizzagirl’s feet. If a chair wasn’t enough to keep the doors from closing, then what?
At last she went for a heavy six-foot buffet, grabbed it by the edge of the glass surface and pulled as hard as she could; but all she achieved was a muscular strain in her arms. It was clearly too heavy to move. She gave up on it, sweating, but not defeated – never defeated.
Even if I can’t get a signal anywhere, this place has rules, she realised, a spark of hope kindling within. And if it has rules, then I can figure out how to use those rules to get out of here.
“…and the kitchen resets itself when no one’s there. Look!” Pizzagirl waved Calmfriend over and slid open the rolling door of the pantry. She chose a chunk of Brie from its siblings on a cheese platter, then ran over to the doors, holding them open for Calmfriend to go first. Once the other girl had passed, she followed her through into a corridor, and the door shut itself behind them.
“Now watch,” she said breathlessly. There was an endtable under a mirror opposite the door they had just come from, and it was here that Pizzagirl set down the cheese. She turned back to the doors and grabbed the handles to reveal the room behind them, but it wasn’t the kitchen any more; it was a bedroom. Undeterred, Pizzagirl closed and reopened the doors repeatedly. Various furnishings flashed by. A lounge room— a smoking room— a billiards room—
“Oh,” said Calmfriend. “That’s clever. I never would have figured that out.” She paused. “Wait, how did you—”
“Here!” exclaimed Pizzagirl. The kitchen was back. She bounded over to the pantry and reopened it to reveal the exact same wedge of Brie in the exact same position, as though it had never been moved.
“You see?” she said triumphantly. “It resets itself whenever you’re not there! And so does any food you take from the kitchen, wherever you put it! Watch this, watch this!” Spinning back to the doors, she opened and closed them until they revealed the corridor with the endtable under the mirror. Conspicuously, the endtable was bare; the cheese she had just placed there was gone.
Pizzagirl faced her companion, flushed with excitement. “It’s not much,” she admitted. “But I think— I think we could set up experiments, and use rules like this to get out of here.”
Calmfriend listened carefully, then said, “Thank you. I was beginning to think—” For the first time, a note of strain crept into her voice. “I was beginning to think I’d be here until I died.”
“Well, don’t worry,” said Pizzagirl cheerily. “I’ll get us all out – with the power of the experimental method!”
She was interrupted by a gurgling sound from her abdomen. “The power of a Hawaiian, a Supreme and a garlic bread wouldn’t hurt either,” she added after a moment’s thought.
“It wouldn’t,” agreed Calmfriend. “You’ll find them in the kitchen icebox.”