Escape Room, a short story by John Miskelly

Illustration by Steve Thueson

Susie did a little shimmy to dodge a dog turd on the pavement.

“Whoops! They’re supposed to pick that up.”

“Sorry?” said Stewart.

“The dogs. They should pick up their mess. I mean the owners, the dogs couldn’t… opposable thumbs, et cetera. I guess maybe with their mouths? Ew. No.”

Sorry?” he repeated.

She flung a gesture back towards the dump.

“Ah,” he murmured, and raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement.

“It’s not a great part of town,” she said, slightly apologetically. “But it’s the only place where we could get a warehouse big enough.”

They both checked their soles for any shitty traces.

“You mentioned there’s a bus, though, yes?” said Stewart.

“There is. We’re actually in contact with the council about a possible express route from the train station to here.”

“The train station? So you’re expecting out of towners?”

“Well, if it takes off…” she crossed her fingers and made a show of putting on a hopeful face, like a child watching a penalty shootout. “We’re pretty sure no one else has had this idea in this county, maybe even the country.”

“Well,” he said, pushing his sunglasses up onto his gelled hair. “There might be a reason for that. But there are routes from the town centre, presumably. I mean, from your business plan, I imagine the market to be students, stag– and hen-dos, young people.”

“Yeah, there’s a couple of routes. One late night one.”

They walked on through the industrial estate in silence.

“They used to have illegal raves down here,” he said.

“You were a raver?” she asked, immediately regretting the undisguised surprise in her voice.

“It’s where I made my first few thousand,” he said. He took his sunglasses off his head and stuck them down the front of his pink shirt. “I wasn’t always a soulless city boy.”

She swallowed; “I never… I never would have—”

“Just joking,” he said, without any trace of humor.

“It’s this one,” she said.

The warehouse was nondescript, and no different in its apparent dilapidated shabbiness as any of the others on the estate.

Susie met Stewart’s eyes for the first time since she’d met him in the café a half hour before. “Just bear in mind it’s not totally finished. I mean hardly at all. There’ll be details.”

“I get it,” he said hurriedly.

She flung the door open and he stepped into a New York high rise open plan office.

“Fuck,” he said, and went to take off his sunglasses like people did in moments like that, then remembered he wasn’t wearing them. “It’s… it’s so real.”

“Well, almost,” she said. “We actually got the exact office plans of—I forget the exact floor, but the shape of the warehouse isn’t quite the same as the tower itself. It’s definitely a floor below the level of where the plane hit. Just to give the teams more of a chance I mean.”

He wandered over and looked out of the “window,” peering across the Manhattan skyline.

“So what’s the scenario then?” he said, regaining some of his dryness. “Other than the obvious I mean.”

“So, basically they need to get out—”

“‘Escape,’ one might say?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Obviously.” She took a breath and started again. “So there’s gonna be an actor playing a fire fighter. Henry actually reckons we can get a guy with a proper New York accent and everything. And he’ll be like a kind of guide. The phones are down, but there’ll be a mobile, an actual old Nokia from 2001, in one of the desk drawers.”

“Nice touch,” he said.

“There’ll be a message on there. Then we left a bag of bagels in the fridge with a key in it to the—” She threw up some air-quotation marks. “—‘back stairs.’ The main stairs are going to be blocked. Obviously, there’ll be other steps between. They’ll need to find the janitor’s jacket. Find a notebook with a computer password on it. It’s all in the file we sent.”

“Okay.”

“There’s also this,” she said, pulling out a remote control. Suddenly, the sounds of panic, alarms, flames, and destruction filled the room. He listened like an A&R man listening to some rough cuts.


“Very nice, proper surround sound,” he said. “What’s that one noise? It’s, like, quiet then loud, then quiet, like a passing motorbike or something?”

“That’s people. People falling,” she said.

“Jesus,” he said.

“Too much?”

“We’ll think about it,” he said.

“The next one’s through here,” she said.

She opened a door at the far end of “the office” and they walked into a prison cell.

“Welcome to H-Block.”

“Jesus!” he said again, as he put a hand up to his nose and retreated back into New York. He took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and put it across his face, then crossed the threshold back into Northern Ireland.

“It smells like fucking shit!” he exclaimed.

“That’s great!” she said.

He shot her an indignant look.

“It’s human shit,” she continued, “I mean, not actual human shit, but we got a chemistry student from the university to mix some stuff with some brown paint. Took ages to get the consistency right. We had a nice team bonding session smearing it on with our own hands. He said you can actually eat it if you want.”

“I’ll pass.”

One wall of the cell was covered almost completely in brown smears. He peered into it for a moment, deciphering some lettering. “’Bobby Sands forever’” he read out loud, “Teeac… tiacho… tiacfadee…?”

“Tiocfaidh ár lá,” she said, “It means, ‘Our day will come’ in Irish. I can’t say I haven’t learned a lot putting all this together.”

“Fuck. And they actually did this?”

“Yeah. Dirty protests. It evolved—if that’s the right word—from the blanket protest. In fact, what we’d really like to do is get customers to sign off on actually stripping off and just wearing blankets.”

“Will there be an actor in this one?”

“A sympathetic prison guard from East Belfast, but with a Catholic aunt in Kerry. Or something—he has a backstory to explain his motives. This one will be more interactive; they’ll have to persuade him to help. The actor we’ve got has a couple of arguments that when he hears, he’ll give them clues to finding items hidden in the cell. Eventually they’ll get hold of a set of car keys.” She grinned. “Hey, have a closer look at the shitty wall, under the ‘A’ in IRA.”

He advanced forward tentatively, keeping the handkerchief clasped against his face.


“It’s definitely not real shit?”

“No. I absolutely promise it’s not real shit.”

He squinted, reached out, and began to pick at a particularly thick globular of dissident, Fenian “faeces.” With a tinkling sound something dropped onto the stone floor. He bent down and picked up a key.

“It’s the key to this cell,” she said.

He didn’t exactly smile, but something in his eyes changed. “That’s actually almost brilliant,” he said, flatly.

She took the key from him and turned away to hide her own satisfied smile. She opened the cell and let him leave first. “End of the corridor on the right,” she said.

***

“Christ, it’s boiling in here,” he said.

“What do you expect,” she said. “It’s Cuba.”

“Don’t tell me—Guantanamo Bay.”

“Yeah.”

The space was long and thin. The floor was covered in sandy, rocky grit and chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire covered each wall. Two huge lights at either end lit the room in a dazzling glare. There was a crude metal contraption in one corner, something between a wheelbarrow and a gurney. On it was a hooded body in an orange jumpsuit.

“This mannequin looks a bit unrealis—”

Suddenly the mannequin sat bolt upright, and Stewart stumbled backwards in fright, his sunglasses flying from his head and landing with the faintest crunch on the bone-dry gravel floor.

“Fuck’s sake!” he said, trying to disguise fear with righteous annoyance.

The jumpsuited figure pulled off his hood to reveal a grinning fair-haired young man with a beard and electric blue eyes.

“Sorry about that, mate! I was honestly just taking a nap.”

“This is Henry,” she said. “He’s supposed to be at a meeting with the town council.”

“I just hung around to put up the last of the wire; must’ve dozed off.” Henry hopped off the metal stretcher thing and enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hands. “You must be the London investor. Whatdaya think so far?”

“It’s very…”

“Sorry!” Henry raised both hands in apology. “Sorry—shouldn’t put you on the spot like that. But just bear in mind that there are some minor details to iron out.”

“No, no it’s all very… convincing,” Stewart said.


Henry didn’t appear to have heard. “This one for instance, we’re still not sure about whether we should have it in one of the actual cells or this kind of outdoor prison yard thing we’ve got going on now. I mean, it’s fucking hard to convince people we’re outside when we’re actually totally obvs inside a bloody great warehouse. You know what I mean, dude? Suspension of disbelief, et cetera. Cynical adults and whatnot.”

“It’s not open for kids then?” said Stewart, dryly.

Henry looked baffled for a moment, then burst into a bellowing laugh.

“Good one! Could you imagine? But seriously—prison yard or prison cell?” He scratched his head and gave Stewart an inquiring look, as if hanging on Stewart’s opinion and his opinion only.

“Well,” said Stewart. “I mean, a cell could work.”

“But we’ve already got the H-Block cell.”

“Right.” Stewart felt on his head for his sunglasses again.

“They’re on the floor, mate,” said Henry, and bent down and picked up the sunglasses. He dusted them off and handed them to Stewart. “But anyway,” he continued. “I’d best be off. Should probably change first!” he said, looking down at his jumpsuit and giving a belly laugh. “And—I mean, I don’t want to, you know—but I personally reckon all this is a massive goer. It’ll twist the assholes of some people, but there’s always a market for something a bit edgier. I’ve worked in a couple of the normal places and they’re fucking boring, ’scuse my fucking French. We just need a bit more money.”

Henry and Stewart stared at each other for a second. “But anyway, yeah. Good to meet you,” said Henry, then gave Stewart a firm pat on his shoulder, leaving a dusty stain on his pink shirt. He strode out of the prison yard through a door Stewart hadn’t noticed.

“He’s a bit full on sometimes,” said Susie. “So anyway, in this one, all the clients will be in orange jumpsuits. We might keep the bags over some of their heads just to give some members a disadvantage—”

“The details are all on the file you sent me, right?” said Stewart.

“Yes. Yeah. It’s all there,” said Susie, taken aback by Stewart’s brusqueness.

“And what other ideas do you have?”

“Ideas?”

“Yeah. I mean you’ll need to rotate, right, once they’ve been solved, word gets around, I imagine.”

“Ah, yeah, of course. Well, we’ve got a whole file of them, actually. There’s Chernobyl. Vietnam. Maybe something with a claustrophobic element, like those tunnels they dug. A whole load of natural disasters, although they might be harder to pull off. The Holocaust—”

“Jesus jumping fuck,” whispered Stewart, kneading his forehead.

“Yeah, that one we’ve for sure ruled out. We’ve also considered a kind of historical fiction type thing: a soviet nuclear strike on Manchester or something. Like, did you ever see that movie Threads? Man, that really got to me. But yeah, we’ve got loads. They’re in the file, too, I think.”

Stewart sat down on the metal gurney. “Do you really need the full fifty thousand?”

Susie sighed. “Would you like a beer?” she offered.

***

Stewart spun the bottle in his hands, took a swig, and felt a bit of life and confidence returning to him. He observed the space around him. “This place is actually really nice,” he said.

“We’ve got a deal with a local microbrewery. And we want to have a kitchen, maybe even a pizza oven, so people can wind down and chat about their experiences. There’s a cloakroom, too. And toilets. I mean, obviously there’s toilets.”

“I was—”

“We’re thinking about merch, too!” She blurted out.

He fiddled with a beer mat advertising an artisan beer from Barcelona.

“I mean, we’ve made investments in things like this before. Serial killer tours of London. We’ve got a bunch of shares in a marijuana retailer in Vancouver. Loads of dirty board games.”

“This is a little like a board game,” said Susie. “I mean, if you really think about it.”

Stewart didn’t reply.

“We know it’s a little on the nose,” she continued.

“Just a little,” said Stewart with a smirk.

“But we’re not arms dealers. We’re not Saudi Arabia.”

“To be honest, public outrage doesn’t really work like that,” said Stewart, “Otherwise we’d be lynching global food market speculators from every lamppost.”

They both drank.

“Could you tone down the shit stink in the IRA one?” he said, finally.

“H-Block. Yeah we could do that.”

“Maybe the jumpers in 9/11?”

“Well… I suppose we could at least put it lower in the mix.”

“I mean, it’s fucking sick. It’s fucking deranged! I mean Guantanamo—those guys are still in there, right? I mean wasn’t Obama going to… What else is on the list? Fucking Princess Diana or some shit?”

Susie looked pensive for a second. “I’m not sure how we’d do that one.”

Stewart laughed despite himself. “And like I said, students and stag dos and young people—there’s a definite market. There’s money here, for sure.”

They sat in silence and finished their beers. “I need to catch my train back to London.”

“Of course, I’ll walk you back to the station,” said Susie.

“It’s fine. I remember the way.”

They emerged back into the English summer sunshine. Stewart put his sunglasses on and took a deep breath. “We’ll get back to you,” he said simply. Then he shook Susie’s hand and strode off.

Susie turned to re-enter the warehouse, then hesitated. “Look out for the dog mess!” she shouted after him.

///

John Miskelly is thirty-three and lives in Asturias, Spain.