“It’s not a choice.”
“Of course it’s a choice. I could go back into my flat and lock the door and never speak to any of you ever again, and quite possibly be all the better for it.”
“Ooh, he’s stroppy,” said Katherine in delight.
“Now, Kitty,” said Patrick, but he was grinning.
The Captain stared down at them all clustered on the stairs leading to his flat. They looked up expectantly at him.
“Hide-and-seek, though?” he pressed on. “Aren’t we a bit old?”
“Nope!” said Patrick cheerily. “Come on, it’s Kitty’s favourite.”
Katherine batted her eyelashes at him. He made a face at her.
“You’re just scared you’ll lose,” goaded Mary eagerly.
“I could thoroughly defeat you all in my sleep,” the Captain said dismissively.
“Sure, Bertha,” said Robin with a roll of his eyes. He’d resisted the whole ‘Captain’ thing and instead had taken to calling the Captain random names in varying degrees of outlandishness.
“Then prove it,” said Humphrey, twirling his moustache. The Captain grimaced; he’d thought he and Humphrey to be largely on the same side when it came to these things.
“Fine. I could trounce you all at hide-and-seek and then run a mile,” he said.
“It’s always running with you, innit?” said Patrick.
“Metaphor,” said Robin sagely.
“Anyway,” said the Captain. He drew breath; they all looked at him expectantly. “Not it!” He declared.
“Come on,” groaned Michael when he lost handily.
“All right, ground rules,” shouted Patrick over the general din. “First, only public areas within the house are allowed! The attic is also off-limits because, let’s face it, you could lose an elephant in that mess. No going into anyone’s flat, including your own; no leaving the house. That includes the roof, Humphrey.”
Humphrey gave a loud, false cough that sounded rather like ‘sore loser!’
“Michael will count to one hundred, at which point he will shout that he is coming. When he finds you, a visual confirmation is all that is needed. He does not have to physically touch you, and you are NOT allowed to physically touch him, particularly to blindfold him while you make an escape. We’ve had some issues in the past,” he added as an aside to Michael, Alison, and the Captain. “Everyone needs to have a form of timekeeping about their person, whether that be a wristwatch or a mobile phone. Once an hour has passed, the game is over and everyone who has not been found needs to emerge from their hiding places and assemble in the foyer. Yes, we’ve had issues in the past with that, too,” he said, sighing.
“What about changing hiding places mid-game?” the Captain asked.
Everyone looked around at each other.
“I don’t see why not,” said Patrick.
“Right,” said the Captain grimly. “Onward we go.”
“I think we’ve just got a glimpse of what you were like in the military,” said Humphrey wonderingly.
“Scares me off my tits,” said Robin.
“One! Two! Three!” began Michael loudly.
They all scampered.
By both habit and curiosity, the Captain had been scoping out the house since he first set foot in it. A suitable hiding place had to satisfy three criteria: one, it had to be non-obvious and totally invisible from every angle; two, it had to be easily vacated in the event of suspected discovery, preferably with multiple points of egress; and three, it had to be clever enough to brag loudly about at the game’s conclusion. He had six possible candidates in mind before Michael reached his stroppy “EIGHT!”
“Where are you hiding?” hissed Robin as they all clattered down the stairs.
“Not telling,” he hissed back, mentally removing options three and six. “It utterly defeats the purpose of the game.”
“Does it, though?” asked Patrick, his voice getting high-pitched in the way that it did when he was preparing to get a bit bolshy about something. But then he took an elbow in the solar plexus from Fanny and things got rather shambly for a few minutes.
People began to scatter in earnest when they reached the first floor. Katherine and Humphrey dove for one of the parlours; Fanny sniffed and disappeared into the library. Patrick muttered something about credenzas and raced down the stairs into the foyer.
The Captain got lost a few times on his way to his destination, but he found it eventually. The idea was to guess in advance the order in which Michael would search the rooms and find a hiding place that allowed him to begin in the last place to be searched and then slide into a place that had already been searched as Michael approached, effectively staying a step ahead of pursuit.
This objective was to be achieved via a dumbwaiter shaft, naturally.
The shaft was located behind the washing machine and dryer on the ground floor, in an area of general mess that in the bygone days of the landed gentry used to be the domain of the Help. The washing machine and dryer were themselves set back in a deep recess in the wall and guarded by Venetian doors. The Captain waded through the mess of household and garden bric-a-brac and hoisted himself up on top of the dryer. It quivered alarmingly; he wasn’t as light as he used to be, but the dryer was a front-loader and would handle his weight if it knew what was good for it. With one last look out, he closed the doors behind him.
He slid open the door of the dumbwaiter shaft and looked up into the darkness above.
As had been the case the last time he’d done laundry, the dumbwaiter itself had been removed and the rope long since rotted away. He’d tried to puzzle out where the shaft led to without success—Fanny had asked him why on earth he was wandering around with a laundry basket and accidentally scattering socks all over the house—but unless it was a portal to hell he reckoned he’d be all right. And even then, he could probably manage.
It was dark and dusty; he felt the walls, looking for hand- and footholds. Not much to go on, but enough to be workable. Provided he was still flexible enough, that was.
There were muffled scrapes and shouts from above and then a clatter of feet down the stairs. He faintly heard Michael’s “Seventy-EIGHT,” and then Julian streaked into the room. The Captain peered through the door slats and rolled his eyes in exasperation at the thought of having to share, but mercifully Julian kept going.
“One hundred!” shouted Michael triumphantly. “All right you pricks, here I come!”
From there, it was a matter of staying quiet and still and keeping an ear cocked. He was good at all these things, though sitting on the dryer did make his hamstrings ache a bit. The sun shifted in the sky and sudden strips of light flooded through the Venetian doors, washing over the Captain in streaks. He looked at his watch—twenty minutes elapsed. There was a Thomas-sounding shriek and a thud from overhead, and then ten more minutes of silence.
They’d just entered the thirty-sixth minute when the Captain heard the telltale thump of Michael’s trainers down the hall. (The general babble of those who’d obviously been found already was another good clue). The footsteps drew closer; the floor squealed threateningly.
“Anybody in here?” Michael asked softly, looking around as half-afraid a ghost would jump out at him. “Anybody at all?”
The Captain smiled to himself.
“All right, then,” said Michael crossly. “Be like that.”
The Captain, sensing that there was no time like the present, hoisted himself off the dryer and into the dumbwaiter shaft, curled up, and closed the door behind him, quieting his breathing.
He heard the Venetian doors squeal open.
“Aha!” Michael shouted triumphantly. “Oh, fuck,” he said in a smaller voice, presumably upon seeing the empty cupboard.
The Captain got his feet under him, braced himself against the wall, and began to inch upwards, ever so slowly. Having never played games with Michael before, he was unsure if the man was the type to leave no stone unturned and decided he’d rather not chance it. It was horrifically dusty in the shaft; he hoped fervently that it was just garden-variety old-house mustiness and not actual asbestos.
“There’s no way, but I suspect you’re a crafty bastard,” said Michael speculatively. The Captain got a wiggle on, pulling himself further up the shaft doubletime. The dryer wailed in protest as Michael tried to hoist himself up on it, beached-whale style. The Captain, groping blindly in the dark, seized the door at the point of egress, wherever it was, and slid it open. Down below, he heard Michael clang the lower door open; with an almighty last shove, the Captain hauled himself through the opening. He heard a distinct “Fuck!” from down below as he did.
“Oh!” said Fanny, sticking her head out from behind the drapes as he tumbled out of the dumbwaiter shaft onto the library rug, coughing. “Heavens!”
“Good lord,” he said, rolling over onto his back and staring at the ceiling. “I’m too old for this shite.” And then he heaved himself to his feet. “Michael knows I came up that shaft. We’ve got to get a move on. With me, Fanny!”
He had to cede the design of their route to Fanny’s superior knowledge of the house. She led him out of the library and down a small flight of stairs into one of the myriad of disused bedrooms. The top of the four-poster bed was half caved in, the faded pink drapes piled at odd angles over the bed.
“He’s already looked in here,” whispered the Captain, gesturing at the pattern of disturbed dust. He climbed into the odd four-poster tent and helped Fanny in after him.
“He got Thomas. Who else has been found?” he whispered once they were secreted away.
“Kitty, Humphrey, and Julian, that I know of. Kitty was found right away behind a coatrack; she’s so dreadful at this game I haven’t the faintest why she loves it so. Julian was under the sofa in the library and I believe Humphrey tried to roll himself up in a rug. But there could be others. Robin is on top of the wardrobe in the next bedroom over, I know that.”
“Crafty,” said the Captain appreciatively. “If uncomfortable and with few points of egress.”
There was a shout from directly below them. “Aaarghh! We’ve got to go over everything again,” Michael wailed.
“Right.” He looked around. “We’ve got to get out of here; it’s a dead end.” He struggled out of the bed.
Onto the landing, silently. He heard the herd of searchers thumping around on the floor below, shrieking and laughing. What was so blasted amusing, he wondered. This was meant to be serious business.
“Split up!” he whispered to Fanny. “Which way has more potential hiding places?” She pointed left, through the door that led to yet another ballroom and beyond that, the television room. “Go!” he said, gently pushing her towards it. “I’ll take the other passage.”
He slipped down the opposite corridor, peeled flowery wallpaper flapping in his wake. He could have sworn there were more empty bedrooms down here, connected by pocket doors that might be persuaded to slide open. Plus bathroom cabinetry, which could do in a pinch…
“Gotcha!” Michael shouted from down the hall.
“Ah, bollocks,” said Robin. “Help me down? I kicked the chair away once I got up here.” There was a series of crashes. “Never mind.” The herd approached again, now with Robin’s booted footsteps added to the thunder.
“Captain, Fanny, Alison!” trilled Katherine. “We’re coming for you!”
Only the three left. He could do this. Although Alison was far more suited to fitting into narrow spaces…
He flung himself around a corner, nearly clocked his face on a portrait frame, and skidded into a bathroom filled with bolts of cloth and some truly creepy dolls. Seriously, the sheer amount of random shite in this house… He slid behind the open door and held his breath.
“Hello? Anybody home?” said Thomas, poking his head through the door. “Eurgh, dolls.” He crept over to the bolts of cloth and gave them a perfunctory kick, then retreated.
The Captain breathed again. It came out ragged. He looked at his watch. Fifty minutes had elapsed. He supposed that if there were still multiple people successfully hidden at the hour mark, the victory was shared…
He listened intently. Thomas’ footsteps faded away. They could have left a guard, of course, if they knew he was likely to be on the run. They certainly had the numbers for it.
“You’ll never find him,” said Fanny smugly from across the landing, sounding far too superior for someone who had just been flushed out. “He’s a true professional.” God bless Fanny, the crotchety stalwart.
It was just the Captain and Alison now, fighting against the clock. She had a distinct size advantage, but he had a distinct training advantage.
He peered around the doorframe. No sentinel that he could see. He decamped hastily before conditions changed. Another tapestry-hung corridor, a short flight of stairs, and then a yawning ballroom to cross. Out in the open, with no cover from enemy fire. He ducked behind a spindly Georgian sofa and waited for a few moments. No sound came, so he changed position to between a large pouf and a massive item that was somehow both lamp and taxidermy. If he could only get round to the dustcover-shrouded piano, he might be able to…
A figure appeared in the doorway as the Captain was mid-scramble. Michael, scanning the room.
The Captain froze, knowing he was as well as caught. Blast. He used to be good at this, dammit.
“Nah, he’s not in here,” said Michael to Robin, looking straight through the Captain. The two of them sauntered through the doorway and stood surveying the room. “Shit, where is he? I thought we’d searched everywhere.”
The Captain looked down at himself, then up at Michael. “I’m right here,” he said. “Right in front of you.”
“Let’s try the fireplaces again,” said Robin.
This must be some sort of prank, a way to get back at him for the dumbwaiter incident.
“Very amusing,” the Captain said irritably. “But I’ll have you know that it’s far from the spirit of fair play to—”
“Yeah, good idea,” said Michael. They turned around and began to mope back across the room.
“Wait!” shouted the Captain, but they didn’t so much as twitch.
He followed Michael and Robin at a near-run. Their route hopscotched across the first floor like a very historical game of Snakes and Ladders.
“Wonder if he was a Royal Marine,” said Michael, craning his neck to look up a chimney in yet another sitting room, this one filled with disused 19th-century household appliances.
“Could be,” said Robin, grabbing a poker and giving it an experimental shove upwards.
“Couldn’t be, thank you very much,” said the Captain grimly. It wasn’t as if they could hear him, anyway. He looked down at his watch. Fifty-four minutes had passed…
“Well, he’s got to come out soon,” said Robin, as if the Captain had acquired the power of suggestion in addition to the vexing invisibility.
“We’re not going to flush him out in the next six minutes,” Michael sighed. “Might as well head back down.”
“One more pass through the music room?” asked Robin. “Give the armoires a good thumping?”
“Sure, why not?” shrugged Michael. They decamped.
The Captain didn’t bother following them this time around. He, after several wrong turnings, found the main staircase and, in a fit of inspiration and insolence, slid down the banister.
It looked dashing, for the record.
The rest of the players were sitting around on the bottom stairs, recapping the game’s highs and lows in an excited babble. The Captain stood in front of them as if addressing a crowd, looking them over.
“Did you see Thomas run across the library? It was like he was on skis!” gushed Katherine.
“It’s a miracle you weren’t caught earlier, Fanny, the drapes are really an amateur mistake,” said Humphrey. “I don’t know why the Captain helped you; the man’s a bloody mystery wrapped in an enigma.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk, Mister ‘I’ll roll myself into a rug, what could go wrong?’” retorted Fanny.
“They got me out eventually! And I had to leave my head sticking out to breathe!”
“You don’t know where Alison’s gone, do you?” asked Thomas.
“Behind the boiler,” said Alison, emerging from god-knew-where covered in dust. “Wouldn’t recommend it.” She coughed and looked at her watch. “Hour’s nearly up. Where’s the Captain?”
“Can’t find him anywhere,” said Michael, thumping down the stairs with Robin in tow.
“Maybe he scarpered.”
“The man loves rules too much. He won’t have scarpered,” put in Humphrey.
“I hope he’s all right,” Katherine fretted.
“Of course I’m all right!” the Captain barked. His watch, which he’d been eyeing, turned neatly over onto the hour. “And you should all love rules as well. They keep us safe.”
“Where the fuck did you come from?” shouted Robin, leaping into Michael’s arms. Everyone sitting on the steps recoiled visibly and shrieked; there were a few inventive swears that the Captain must remember to add to his personal arsenal.
“You saw me,” said the Captain heatedly, pointing at Michael. He realised he must look rather demented, gesturing and shouting while covered in dumbwaiter dust and whatever other house patina he’d picked up along the way. “In that parlour with the awful taxidermy lamp. You looked right at me while you were putty-foosing around—PUSSY! Pussy-footing around.”
Julian made no effort to hide his delighted smirk.
“No,” said Michael. “Can’t be.” But he looked unsure.
“You said, ‘shit, where is he?’ And then, for lack of a better idea given that I was suddenly invisible, apparently, I followed you and Robin around in the hopes that I’d re-emerge onto the mortal plane. It’s very dangerous to be sticking pokers up chimneys where people might be hiding, Robin. And I was not a Royal Marine, by-the-by.”
“Do you really mean to tell me you saw nothing at all?” he asked helplessly into the silence.
“I supposed, now that you mentioned…I did feel like things shifted,” said Michael slowly. “Just a little bit. Sort of half a shimmer at the edges of my vision. I thought it was nothing, and I was so hyped up by the game, but…”
“It’s never done that before,” said Robin. “Not that I know of, and I’ve been here forever.”
“So what was different this time, then?” asked Thomas, and they all turned to look at the Captain.
“Me?” he spluttered indignantly. “I’m not the only one who’s only been here a short while. Look at Michael and Alison, or Julian!”
“Yeah, but they didn’t vanish before my very eyes,” grumped Michael.
“Eh, it’s probably nothing,” said Humphrey breezily. “The Captain wins!” He seized the Captain’s hand and held it aloft as if he were a referee and the Captain a victorious boxer.
“Now run that mile,” said Patrick.
He did it, too. They even stood on the lawn and cheered for him when he came back.