Time To Play
Just go in, I kept telling myself. Come on, Sadie. Just suck it up, knock on the door, and go inside. What’s the worst that could happen?
I looked back down at the card in my hand. Just my name, an address and a time, but I recognised the handwriting. It was a bit of an odd way to invite someone over, but then, he was a bit of an odd guy.
We studied together, first year medicine, helping each other along the way. It wasn’t quite flirting, but I could tell he was interested, and I wasn’t exactly fending them off with a stick. My sister took care of that for me. Thanks, Charlie.
I shook my head, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door, exactly one minute past the time written on the card. I bit my lip as I waited for a response.
Why did I think this was a good idea? Sure, he gives you a card, so you just show up at his house? Is this even his house? He didn’t even talk to you about it.
Maybe I should go, I began to think. This really wasn’t a good idea, and I had a lot of work to do. I should just go home and do homework. That would be a much more sensible thing to do.
Except, he still hadn’t answered the door, and that worried me. I was right on time. I knocked loudly, and there was no response. More than that, it just felt wrong to me, like something was up.
Against my better judgement, I tried turning the handle. Somehow I wasn’t surprised when it was unlocked. Might as well go in then, I said to myself, and without another moment’s hesitation, I opened the door.
I think Charlie is a bad influence on me.
My first impression was that whoever lived here wasn’t expecting company. The place was a mess; everywhere I looked, there were clothes and junk scattered around the floor.
The next thing I noticed was how big the apartment was. Most of it was hidden away around a corner, but I could tell already it was easily twice the size of the one I shared with my sister.
“Hello?” I tried calling out, but I already knew there wasn’t going to be a response. Out of courtesy I waited a few seconds, but the silence continued, and I took my first step into the apartment.
I shivered as I crossed the threshold, wishing I’d worn more than a tank top and jeans. Outside, it was as hot a day as Melbourne ever got. Inside, it felt close to freezing. Wrapping my arms around me, I ventured further in.
“Hello?” I called again as I stepped around the corner, looking for signs of life. Instead, I found a puddle of blood, and in the middle of it, a body. For the briefest moment, I was grateful it wasn’t my study partner, then the full realisation hit me. I’d walked into a murder scene.
Immediately, I started to panic. I should just leave, I told myself. Walk out the door and never look back.
No, that’s a stupid idea. I should call the police, and alert them to this dead body. That’s what a good citizen would do.
No, it isn’t. That’s what an idiot would do. I’ll be thrown in prison. I’m only nineteen, and I have a medical degree to finish.
Wait, I know what to do. Charlie would know what to do. She always did, especially with things like… whatever the fuck was happening here.
I pulled out my phone, hands shaking, dropped it, cursed, and picked it up again. Still trembling, I managed to dial Charlie. She answered on the first ring, as always.
“Ch-Charlie? I, um, I think I need your help,” I stammered, looking around nervously.
“Date not going well?”
“How did you- no, it’s not that,” I said. “Well, I guess things could be going better. There’s, um, there’s a…”
I couldn’t say it, not even to her. Something about saying it made it too real, and I didn’t want that.
“You didn’t kill someone, did you?”
And once again, she cut right through my attempt at denial. After hearing that, it didn’t sound so bad telling her what was going on. Did she do that on purpose?
“I didn’t!” I said, probably more loudly than I should have. “But, someone else might have.”
Charlie didn’t even miss a beat. It was almost like she expected me to say that, but she was like that with everything.
“Alright, Sadie? Don’t panic, and don’t touch anything. The place is already full of your DNA, from your hair and skin. Your fingerprints will only make things worse. I assume you’re alone, or you wouldn’t have called me. So, look at the corpse, and tell me something. Do you recognise them?”
Shit, of course my DNA was everywhere. No touching anything, that was a no-brainer, but then again, my brain wasn’t really working, so it was probably good advice just the same.
I approached the body slowly, carefully, keeping my feet well away from the puddle of blood. Even from up close, they didn’t look familiar to me. I had no idea who it was. Definitely not the person I thought I was meeting.
“Not even a little,” I told Charlie.
“Good,” she said. “Well, not good, really. In fact, you’re in rather a lot of trouble.” Her tone hadn’t changed through the whole conversation.
“Trouble? Sh-should I leave? I don’t-”
“No,” Charlie said firmly. “It’s too late for that. Chances are, the police are already on their way.”
I didn’t even bother asking her how she knew that. She had a way of figuring things out with very little information. I just had to trust her.
Seconds later, there was a knock at the door. I froze, suddenly terrified, and didn’t say anything.
Two police officers stepped around the corner, a man and a women, looking at me severely. As soon as they saw the body, the man raised his gun, and the woman grabbed her radio, muttering something about a possible homicide.
“What happened here?” the man demanded, not taking his gun off me. I was almost too frightened to speak.
“I… uh… I just got here,” I said, knowing it sounded like a lie. “I found the place like this, and…”
“What was your business here?” the woman asked. “Are you a resident?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “I was invited, I think, and-”
“I got this card,” I told them, reaching into my pocket to pull it out. It wasn’t anything that looked like going for a gun, or so I hoped. There wasn’t anywhere to hide a gun on me anyway.
“Do you know the deceased?” the man asked, still not lowering his gun. I shook my head.
“It’s… it’s not who I was expecting,” I admitted. “I don’t even know whose apartment this is, to be honest.”
I wasn’t sure if I was digging myself deeper, or if they actually believed me. Their expressions hadn’t changed at all.
“Maybe you should tell us who you are,” the woman said, getting the man to lower his gun with a hand gesture. He nodded, and visibly relaxed a little.
“I’m-” I started, but I was interrupted.
“Not guilty,” Charlie said, appearing behind the two police officers. How had she gotten here so quickly? How did she even know where I was?
“Who-” the man asked, raising his gun again, but Charlie just kept walking, ignoring him.
“Obviously,” she finished. “Any detective would know that. But then, you’re not detectives. Which means this wasn’t called in as a murder. I’m thinking… domestic dispute?”
Their faces told me she was right on the money with that one. That just left me with more questions, though. Who called it in? And when? They were much too fast to have been called after I showed up…
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, as the police eyed her carefully.
“Same as you, I’d imagine,” she said, holding out a card almost identical to mine. “Though, I had the good sense not to go in. Expected something like this.”
I glared at her, standing there completely calm, as if she was oblivious to everything that was happening around her. She wasn’t, I knew that she wasn’t. It was still frustrating.
“You could have warned me!”
Charlie shrugged, her eyes flicking over to the dead body. The police officers moved to block the exit to the apartment, but said nothing.
“It’s better that someone went in,” Charlie said. “Otherwise, we might never have known.”
“Known what?” the male police officer asked, his voice full of suspicion. He’d kept his gun pointed at her, though she hardly seemed to notice.
“Who the killer is,” Charlie said simply.
“Do you know something about this?” the woman asked, equally suspicious.
“I know plenty about this,” Charlie answered, and I cringed. Not the right thing to say to two armed officers of the law. “Simple observation. Try it some time.”
“I think you’d better come with us,” the man said, lowering his gun and reaching for a pair of handcuffs. The woman did the same, approaching me carefully.
I didn’t resist. There wasn’t anything I could do anyway, and resisting arrest seemed like a great way to turn a misunderstanding into an actual charge.
Surprisingly, Charlie didn’t resist either. Perhaps she wasn’t going to be as infuriatingly stubborn as she normally was. Maybe the dead body had sobered her up a little.
“Waste of time,” she said, as she was being handcuffed. “Leaving here without all the information will only slow the investigation down.”
Or not. I groaned silently, looking apologetically at the officers.
“Yes,” Charlie said, sounding almost offended. “Police can’t be relied on, not for this. No offence, I’m sure you’re usually very competent, but this was deliberately targeted at me. I doubt you’ll be able to get far.”
What are you doing, Charlie? Are you trying to piss them off?
“Right, well now you’re definitely coming with us,” the male officer said. “And telling us everything you know about what happened here.”
“Everything I know would take too long,” Charlie said. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know, and I’ll tell you right now. A man was killed. Looking at the corpse, I can tell you it was over an hour ago, and both of us have alibis for that time. That’s not important. We were both sent to this location at a time coinciding with your arrival time, after a domestic dispute was called in. Somebody committed a murder, and wanted me involved. That immediately tells me you won’t be useful. If you were, the case would be too easy, and I’d be bored.”
Dammit, Charlie, just shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up, you’re just making it worse for us.
“The body’s still warm,” the female officer said, touching her hand to the corpse’s neck. “Your story doesn’t check out.”
“Blood test will confirm,” Charlie said, unfazed. “There’s a certain chemical that will keep the blood warm for several hours after death. Not very common, not a lot of reasons to keep bodies warm. Setting up something like this is one of them.”
The officers were starting to look uncomfortable. They exchanged a glance, and the woman glanced at her watch.
“The detective still isn’t here,” she commented.
“Keep talking to these two until they arrive,” the man said. “I’ll wait out in the hallway, try and contact them again.”
They both nodded, and he walked out, leaving the two of us alone with the other officer. She frowned at Charlie.
“Right. So, why do you think somebody would… look, I don’t really follow what you’re saying. Are you saying you were framed?”
“Framed?” Charlie seemed surprised. “No, that would be lazy, and too easy to disprove. You’ll find that out soon enough.”
“Then I definitely don’t follow,” the officer said. I felt the same.
“It’s a game,” Charlie said. “A test, maybe.”
The officer shook her head, looking confused and very frustrated. Try living with her, I thought bitterly.
“Why would anyone-”
“Maybe I should introduce myself, since you seem to have so readily allowed me to evade giving you my name,” Charlie said, catching her off guard.
“Charlotte Farrow. I’m a private detective, of sorts. Well, kind of.” Suddenly, she looked very serious. “And I’m very, very sorry.”
“Call your partner,” Charlie said.
The officer looked a little worried, more confused than before, and very nervous. Reluctantly, she picked up her radio.
“Uh… Hey, everything alright out there?”
It was obvious there was no response. I felt my stomach churn as I watched her face begin to fall. But… how did Charlie know? Then I looked at Charlie, and realised something. She’d told the officer her name, after deliberately trying to avoid that. Which meant…
“He’s dead,” Charlie said, without a trace of compassion. “And I’m sorry, but soon, you will be too.”
The officer gripped her gun more tightly, and once again I bemoaned my sister’s complete lack of social graces.
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, quite the opposite. But this is a game for me, and me alone. There’s no way you’d be allowed to live.”
“How do you-”
“The detectives should have been here by now,” Charlie said coldly. “Your partner should have just checked the hallway, made the call, and come back in. Didn’t you notice?”
For a second, the briefest second, I thought I saw sympathy on Charlie’s face. I can’t be sure, and even if I did, it was quickly replaced with pity.
“Don’t leave this room,” Charlie instructed. “They wouldn’t kill you in front of me. It would give me too much information. Just stay here, and you’ll be safe.”
Ignoring Charlie, the officer turned away, trying her radio again.
“I have an officer down, I repeat, officer down. I need-”
“Don’t bother,” Charlie told her. The woman just looked back at Charlie, a defeated expression on her face.
“There’s no response,” she said.
“The radio is being disrupted. Check your phone; it’s unlikely you’ll have any reception either. Not since the two of you entered, that’s when Sadie’s phone cut out.”
It did? I hadn’t even noticed…
“How can you possibly know all this?” the officer asked, distraught.
“Simple observation,” Charlie said. “Now, listen-”
“The radio’s down,” the officer repeated. “He could be okay, but… he should be back by now. I need to go find him. If he’s hurt, I need to administer first aid, then get to an area where the radio works and call for backup.”
“No!” Charlie exclaimed, raising her voice for the first time since her unexpected arrival. “Don’t leave the room.”
“I’m sorry,” the officer said, sounding genuine. “Look, you’ll just have to stay here until backup comes. I’m going to lock the door behind me. And if you try to run, I know who you are now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Charlie said. “If you walk out that door, you’re going to die.”
The officer didn’t say anything. She just left, and a second later, we heard the telltale click as she locked the door.
I looked at Charlie, already panicking. She looked completely relaxed, and for some reason that only made it worse.
“Shit,” I swore, looking back towards the door, not that I could even see it from where we were. “Now what are we gonna do?”
“I need to look around,” Charlie said. “Then we need to get out of here.”
I rattled my handcuffs behind my back, reminding her we were still handcuffed. She didn’t seem to be paying attention to me.
“How are you going to…” as I watched, she brought her hands back around in front of her, no longer cuffed. I just stared for a second. “How did you do that?”
“It’s easy enough when you know how,” she said simply. “Well, easy for me. Now turn around.”
It took her only a couple of seconds to get my handcuffs off, and to this day I have no idea how she did it.
“You really are scary sometimes, you know that?”
“So what do we do now?” I asked, rubbing my wrists.
“We look around,” Charlie said. “I need to know what the point of this is.”
She wandered off, heading into the closest bedroom. I followed her, feeling like a lost puppy.
“I thought you said it was a test?”
“It is,” she said. “I need more than that. Whoever did this expects something of me. I need to find out what that is, before…”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she started rummaging through what was on top of the bedside table. I just shook my head, and scanned the room, looking for some sort of clue, even though I had no idea what I was looking for.
“Huh,” she said.
“He went to the same school as us,” she said. “A little before us, judging by his age. He’s got a school pin on his bedside table.”
I frowned, staring at the little metal pin in her hand. That was definitely our school emblem, but I wasn’t really sure why she was showing it to me.
“Does it matter?”
“Probably. He graduated from the same university you’re attending, too,” she pointed out, gesturing to a framed diploma on the wall. That was pretty common, though. Lots of our school’s graduates went on to the same university.
“He used to live on the same street as us,” she continued, taking me by surprise. If that was true, it was almost too much of a coincidence, but nothing in the room told me where he used to live.
“How do you even know that?”
“Family photo,” Charlie said, pointing to one hanging on the wall.
“That shows the inside of the house,” I pointed out. Even if she recognised every house on our street from the inside, there was no way of knowing that was one of them. “You can’t possibly-”
“Window,” she said, cutting me off. “You can see the house across the street. Don’t you recognise it?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “But I trust that you do. What I don’t get is why. Is he supposed to be significant?”
“No,” she said bluntly. “Not him, what he represents.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It doesn’t matter who he is,” Charlie explained. “The killer is telling us, telling me, that they know who I am. They know where I grew up, where I went to school, where my sister attends university. They’re showing me they can take this information, they can find someone like this, and kill them, just to tell me…”
“Tell you what?”
She opened the closet, rummaging about. She emerged with an expensive-looking winter jacket, grey and quite slim. I was about to ask her what the significance of it was when she put it on, and the look her face told me not to say anything.
It suited her, too, dammit. How did she look so good in a men’s jacket?
“This is all very deliberate,” she said, leading me back out into main room, towards the body. “But why?”
“Maybe somebody wants to scare you?” I offered, trying not to look at the body any more than I had to.
“Then they’re not doing a very good job,” she said.
“You’re not scared?”
“Should I be?” she asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Huh,” she said, brushing it off. “Keep looking. See if you can find anything about the body.”
She wanted me to look at the body? My stomach churned. I didn’t get into medicine because I wanted to look at dead bodies. In fact, it almost put me off the whole field entirely.
“I’m only a first year student,” I protested. “I don’t really-”
“Towards the end of your first year, you’ve achieved nothing but high distinctions. You find the work easy, so you push yourself, teaching yourself things you won’t need to know for another year, two years, even three.”
“I’m not the only genius in the family,” she said without a trace of modesty, as usual. “Now look at the body, and tell me what you know.”
I looked back down at the body. To really get anything useful, I was going to have to get down there, and start moving it around. I looked back at Charlie.
“Our DNA is already scattered throughout the apartment,” she pointed out. “But if it’ll make you feel better, here.”
She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and threw a small, clear wad at me. I unfolded it, revealing a pair of plastic gloves.
“You just keep these on you?”
“Never know when you might need them.”
Again, dead serious. Did she actually just carry them around, just in case? I shook my head.
I pulled the gloves on, and went over to the body. The pool of blood was pretty wide, but if I crouched in the right spot I could get a decent look without stepping in it.
Actually, there was something wrong with the blood. With the amount of time it’d had been sitting there, it should have congealed. I pressed the back of my hand to their cheek, and found that it was still warm. The police officer was right, it did seem like he’d only just died.
There was a lump above his chest, and as I pulled back his jacket to get to it, it moved away. Inside pocket, then. Didn’t take a genius to guess what it was.
I pulled the smartphone out, running my hand across the screen. It was a new model, fancier than I could afford. It wasn’t really what Charlie had asked me to do, but I figured there might be something useful on it, so I tried to unlock it.
Of course, there was a passcode. I tried a few numbers, but nothing worked. Irritated, I put it back where I found it, and went back to investigating the body.
I kept looking, lifting up the head, the arms, patting down the body. There was no source of trauma anywhere, not that I could find. There were several cuts, the source of the blood, but none of them deep enough to cause any real damage, and no major arteries had been severed. The amount of blood on the floor wasn’t enough for them to have bled out, anyway.
“Well?” Charlie asked, looking at me impatiently.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing is something,” Charlie said, as if that meant anything. “Tell me more.”
“No trauma, no fatal blood loss, no apparent injuries of any kind. Also, none of the usual signs of poison, though I’d have to run a blood test to be sure.”
She grinned. She literally just stood there, and grinned. For a second, I was worried she was going to actually ask me to run a blood test, which I couldn’t do. Instead, she just looked back at the body.
“Is it?” I asked, a little worried.
“We’re dealing with someone very, very clever,” she said gleefully. “Maybe even as clever as I am.”
“Modesty doesn’t mean much to you, does it?”
“I found this,” she said, completely ignoring me. Well, that wasn’t particularly unusual for her.
She was holding up a small rectangle of card, her fingers covering up the text on it. It wasn’t hard to guess what it was.
“A business card?”
“My business card. He was a prospective client, apparently. Never got the chance to call. Now he’s dead.”
“It gets better,” she said, excited.
“I think you mean worse,” I corrected.
“There’s a note written on the back,” she continued, still ignoring me. Sometimes I just felt like she needed someone to talk at.
She handed me the card. I turned it over, almost frightened of what I’d see. Just five words, and they didn’t really mean anything to me.
“Tick, tock, goes the clock,” I read aloud.
Wait… why did that seem familiar? A nursery rhyme as a child, maybe. Surely it was more than just a simple rhyme.
“A challenge,” Charlie said, cutting it down to the only part that mattered to her. I’d had enough.
“We need to get out of here,” I insisted.
“Not yet. I know what I need to do now, I just don’t know how.”
I groaned, pressing my hands into my face. All I wanted to do was go home, and forget that any of this ever happened. Was that even possible?
“You’re insane,” I said.
“Did you find his phone?” she asked suddenly.
“I-I think it’s in his pocket,” I mumbled. “Why?”
“There might be a message.”
“It’s locked,” I told her. “I already tried.” She raised an eyebrow at me, and suddenly I felt self-conscious. “I thought it might have clues!”
She smiled at me, then gently reached into the pocket and pulled out the phone, turning it over a few times in her hand.
“There might be hope for you yet,” she said. Seconds later, she’d punched in the right code, and unlocked the phone.
“How did you do that?”
“Easy,” she said. “Most people use the same general passcodes. He used his birthday. Amateur.”
“And you know his birthday because…?”
“I saw his license,” she said. “And there’s one new message. Let’s listen.” Before I had a chance to respond, she’d started the message.
After a brief silence, a voice began to play, sounding especially eerie coming through the phone’s weak speaker.
“H-hello, Charlie,” the message began, and my shoulders tensed as the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. It was a male voice, but timid, frightened, even close to tears. Not the voice of a criminal mastermind. “I see you’ve found my… my corpse.” What? No, they couldn’t… “I… I’m supposed to congratulate you. Um, I have a… reward, for you. I-I hope you’ve got what you need, because it won’t be around for much longer. B-better hurry, Charlie.” He sounded so scared, more scared than I’d ever been. Whoever did this…
Charlie’s face was blank, as if she hadn’t even heard the message. I didn’t know what to say.
“Wait,” I said. “This person, whoever they are… I was invited here by someone. A friend, I thought. Instead, I get this. Do you think…?”
Surely my friend, my study partner, that slightly odd guy that made studying that little bit more bearable, hadn’t done this.
“Unrelated,” Charlie said. “That note didn’t come from your friend. Your friend doesn’t even know about this.”
“It’s a trap, Sadie,” Charlie said patiently. “Whoever did this, we already know they’re intimately familiar with our lives. They sent you a note you wouldn’t question, copied the handwriting, brought you here at just the right time. Don’t worry, your friend isn’t involved in this.”
“How do you know?”
After a few brief seconds of silence, Charlie tossed me the phone. I grabbed it out of the air without thinking, still stunned.
“Grab his wallet and his laptop,” Charlie said. “We need to go.”
“What? Why did you-”
“O-okay,” I stammered. She never used that tone of voice, not with me. I had to admit, it scared me. I ran off, grabbing the first laptop I saw, and his wallet from the stand near the door.
Charlie was crouched by the front door, a metal rod jammed into the key hole. I’d seen her do this before; there weren’t many locks she couldn’t pick.
I wondered, briefly, how we were even locked in. That didn’t seem right; how do you lock an apartment so somebody can’t get out?
Then I realised; someone had reversed the lock. It hadn’t even occurred to the police officers when they locked it, apparently, but it didn’t even surprise me at this point. This whole apartment was one big trap.
“I got everything,” I said meekly. “Can we-”
“Go.” Charlie said, as the lock clicked and the door swung open. She practically shoved me down the door, then slammed it behind us. A moment later, she grabbed my hand, and we were running, though I didn’t know why.
Then I heard the loudest, most horrifying noise I think I’ve ever head in my life. The shockwave knocked us off our feet, throwing us forward, and it felt like my back was being singed as the heat washed over us.
We hit the ground hard, and it knocked the wind out of me. I felt dizzy, disoriented, aching all over, but I knew I couldn’t just stop. Groaning, I tried to pull myself to my feet, but froze when I saw the wall in front of us.
Scrawled across the wall in what was obviously blood were two words, mocking and cruel.
Shaken, I tried to stand, suddenly even more unsteady than I was before. I reached out to grab Charlie, but she wasn’t there. Fumbling, I looked around, but there was too much dust and smoke.
A dark shape moved just out of sight, and I called out, unable to make any sort of coherent sound. My ears were ringing, and I felt half deaf. She might not have even heard me.
Suddenly the dark shape was right in front of me, and I realised it wasn’t Charlie. I stared into the reflective eyes of a black gas mask as my body spasmed heart slammed against my ribs. Then I blacked out.
* * *
I’m not sure how long I was out for. When I came to, my whole body ached, and my head felt like it had been split open. I felt drowsy, but my heart was racing.
My head was swimming as I pulled myself up, struggling to even stay seated. It was too dark to see much, but I could tell when I put out a hand to steady myself that the walls were stone, cold and damp.
“Have a nice nap?” a voice crooned from the darkness. I was too groggy to jump, but it definitely startled me.
“Where am I?” I demanded, trying not to slur my words.
“Why on earth would I tell you a thing like that?” the voice responded.
“Who are you?” I asked, shaking.
“A friend,” the voice said. “Of your sister.”
“My sister doesn’t have friends,” I said.
“True,” they said, far too sweetly. “And if she doesn’t hurry, up, she isn’t going to have a sister, either.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” they purred. “I haven’t made it too hard. After all, the game has only just begun.”
* * *
Charlie stood alone, seemingly oblivious to the thick smoke surrounding her, only just starting to settle. Out on the street, the distant sound of sirens could be heard; it didn’t matter to her. She’d be long gone before they arrived.
Her eyes scanned the corridor, desperately searching for any sign of Sadie. Her sister had been taken, of that she was certain. That didn’t mean she was lost, and if anyone could find her, it was Charlie.
A brief glint on the floor grabbed her attention, and she reached down, picking up a small metal watch. Immediately, she recognised it as Sadie’s. A watch is not likely to accidentally fall off, she thought.
She turned the watch over in her hands, taking in every detail, but only one matters to her. Rather than the time, the screen was filled with a blinking countdown, which Charlie coldly observed. Twenty-three hours, fifty-six minutes. More than enough time.
“How disappointing,” she said, speaking to no-one in particular. “I would have played your game. You might have even challenged me. Now…” she hesitated, holding the watch tighter than she needed to. “I’m coming, Sadie.”