Stephen, Thomas, Mandy and Caroline were gathered outside of a large building in the industrial section of town. Inside was an escape room.
The four friends called themselves the Escape Artists. Once a month, they’d get together to do an escape room in one of the many fine venues in their city and the surrounding area. Occasionally they’d even taken weekend trips away to try famous escape rooms in other states. They loved new challenges, but would also get together to break records on rooms they’d done before. The four friends loved the intrigue, the fiendish puzzles, the thrill of accomplishment and the stress of the time limit.
This month, they were trying out a room that had just opened up and was getting a lot of buzz on all the escape room chats and forums. It billed itself as a Mega Escape Room. Built in what had previously been a large abandoned warehouse, it was a single challenge encompassing many different rooms, and was said to be the most expansive of its kind. Due to its massive scope, there was no hard time limit.
“Ready for this?” Stephen asked the assembled group. “The time to beat is five hours. I think we can do it.”
“You bet,” said Thomas, adjusting his glasses. “I was up all night practising Mensa puzzles. And then I slept until noon to be fully rested.”
“I’m always ready,” said Mandy, cool and collected. “Never yet found a room I couldn’t beat.”
“I brought snacks!” said Caroline, grinning widely and brandishing a cooler bag. “If it takes us five hours, we’ll probably need them.”
“Good thinking, Caro,” said Thomas. “You’re the best.”
Mandy and Stephen exchanged glances. Thomas was much more into Caroline than he was into her, and his sweetness could sometimes be quite sickening. But so far he hadn’t made things awkward by declaring his love for her or anything, which was good, because both were integral parts of the team.
Thomas had a methodical approach and a wide knowledge of puzzles, and Caroline would always come up with solutions none of the others thought up. Stephen was a natural leader, able to prioritize tasks and delegate appropriately, and Mandy had a dogged persistence that would lead her to hammer against a puzzle long after the others had given up. They were a strong team, and had broken many records together.
The four Escape Artists headed for the entrance to the warehouse. Stephen produced the barcode he’d printed from their ticket and held it against the scanner next to the door. It beeped, flashed green, and clicked open.
The four stepped into the warehouse, finding themselves in a small room with four doors and a few lockers. An end table was set against one of the walls, on top of which was an ancient metal device with a speaker and some buttons.
“What’s that?” asked Mandy, who was the youngest of the group at twenty-three.
“Tape player,” said twenty-eight-year-old Stephen, walking over to the device and pushing down the play button. “I think my parents had one of these once.”
The speaker crackled. Soft, atmospheric music began to play. Over the top of the music came a man’s voice, speaking slowly. “Welcome. Please place phones and other electronic devices in the lockers. Your challenge has already begun. You will now be trialled separately. The challenges ahead will require everything you have.
“Each member of the team must choose a door and go through. Should you fail to follow this first instruction, the room will be rendered unsolvable. You will meet again for the final challenge.”
“Ah, so that’s why they specified a team of four,” said Stephen.
“It’s a bit strange that there’s no reception, or anyone to greet us,” said Caroline.
“That’s the brilliance of it!” countered Stephen. “Where other places would waste precious space on reception areas, this one is all escape room. That’s how they can fit this much in! And the atmosphere of it all, very immersive. It’s like we really have to escape from here.”
As Stephen said this, there was an audible click from the door behind them. “Ha! Brilliant! Alright team, you heard the tape, let’s go.” He was already opening a locker.
Suppressing their misgivings at being locked in, the other three dutifully placed their phones and other valuables into the lockers at one end of the room and set the combination locks for them. They all had a lot of experience with combination locks.
Now in challenge mode, the Escape Artists formed a line in front of their four doors, started the timers on their smartwatches, saluted each other, and descended into the bowels of the warehouse. Only Caroline displayed a moment’s hesitation as she opened her door, but Mandy gave her a reassuring look before they lost sight of one another.
The room Mandy now found herself in was done up like an old-fashioned study, with plush armchairs, an antique desk, bookshelves lining the walls, and even a crackling fireplace. There were a bunch of papers on the desk, most of them blank, but one had some gibberish written on it in large letters.
CORROGS Y HAXXUAMNY
The wall was hung with paintings and a clock on the wall was stuck at six.
Mandy knew a Caesar Cipher when she saw one. It was time to get to work. Feeling a bit hot, Mandy removed her cardigan and tied it by the arms around her waist. She then fished around in the cardigan pocket for her notebook and pen, and started shifting letters back by six, producing the following:
WILLIAM S BURROUGHS
Mandy scanned the titles on the bookshelf for one by the author, and soon found Naked Lunch. She reached out to take the book. As soon as she pulled it, the fireplace went out, and the whole bookcase shifted sideways, revealing a gap in the wall.
Impressed at the production value but slightly disappointed at the simplicity of this first room, Mandy proceeded through the gap.
The next room had no furniture, save for a trampoline against the far wall that took up half the floor space. There was nothing on the floor or walls, save for a sign next to the trampoline, which said not to wear shoes when jumping.
Mandy removed her chunky black heels and stepped onto the rubber surface in stockings. She bobbed up and down tentatively a few times, slowly increasing the tempo, and then she was jumping, sailing up in the air, coming down again, hitting the trampoline, going higher every time, feeling the wind in her air.
From the summit of her jump, she saw that the wall to trampoline’s left did not come all the way to the ceiling. This had not been obvious from the floor, due to the room’s poor lighting. If she timed her jump correctly, she could sail over the low wall and into the next room, which appeared to contain a large pile of pillows.
Mandy bent her knees deep and sprung off the trampoline, sailing over the wall in a graceful arc and landing headfirst in a pile of pillows. It was more of an athletic challenge than she’d been expecting from an escape room, but it had proven easy enough. She rolled across the sea of pillows and onto the floor beyond, taking a moment to adjust her skirt as she stood up. It was just as well that they’d been separated for this part of the escape room, or the boys might have seen her panties.
This side of the wall had better lighting. Beyond the big pile of pillows, there was a wall that was sectioned into square blocks with different letters on them. There were twenty six in all, containing the whole alphabet in a random order. Pushing on a block caused it to recede into the wall. Pushing on a second block would reset the first.
Clearly some kind of password was needed. Mandy looked around for other clues that might help her figure out what it was. She hoped it wasn’t something from the previous room, as that inaccessible with no trampoline on this side. The feeling of smooth wooden flooring reminded her that she’d left her shoes there.
There was nothing in the room that could help her, not even under any of the pillows. She faced the wall again. Shrugging, she pressed down O-P-E-N. All four blocks remained depressed, but nothing else happened. So she was on the right track, but needed more.
On a hunch, she pressed down the S block. Immediately, the E block released, but the others stayed in position. Now she was sure of the answer. E-S-A-M-E. Open sesame.
And indeed, as she pressed down the E block for the last time, the room began to rumble, and the wall rose up before her eyes, coming to about waist height before stopping. This escape room’s theatrics were honestly wasted on such easy puzzles. She ducked under the raised wall and into the next room.
As with all of the previous rooms, this one appeared to only contain one thing. Mandy couldn’t quite decide if this was lavish or wasteful. This room was, at least, somewhat smaller than the others. One wall was dominated by a large plaid pattern which, on closer inspection, appeared to be made up of a number of cut up sheets of fabric. The plaid formed an unbroken mass, except for a rectangular hole in the middle. A message was written on the exposed section of wall, which read, “With what you have, complete the pattern.”
“With what I have…” Mandy said aloud. “What do I have? There’s nothing in here.”
A thorough search of the room revealed this to be almost true. There was the wall of plaid, and on the adjacent wall, there were three hooks, with a pair of scissors, a hammer and a bag of nails. In the remaining wall, there was a nondescript locked door.
The wall she had passed under was still raised, so she returned under it and took another look in the previous room. Nothing except pillows, and none of the pillows had the same pattern as the wall. But there was something terribly familiar about it.
Mandy looked down at her stocking’d feet and then it came to her. This plaid was the same pattern as her skirt! She rushed back through to the plaid room and held her skirt up to the wall. It was a definite match! What’s more, the hole was below her waist.
What a strange puzzle this was. Shrugging, she walked over to the hole and pressed her butt up against it, completing the pattern with her body. Above the exit door, a green light went on, and she heard the click of a lock disengaging. But as soon as she stepped away from the wall, the light went out the lock re-engaged.
“Huh,” said Mandy, scratching her head. She backed up to the wall again, and again the light went on the lock disengaged. Then she sprinted for the door.
Mandy slammed into unyielding wood. She rattled the door on its hinges, but it remained firmly locked.
If only the door were a little closer, she could probably reach it in time. But it was just slightly too far away. Mandy returned to the wall and watched the light turn on again. Then a strange thought came to her. She considered it for a moment, and then became very indignant.
“Ahem,” she said, enunciating for the microphones she assumed were in the ceiling. “I don’t know what you think this is, but I am not going to take my skirt off for an escape room puzzle!”
If anyone heard her, they didn’t respond.
“If this is your idea of a joke, it’s not funny!” she shouted. “I’m out, I quit. This isn’t a puzzle, it’s demeaning. Whoever designed this place is a sick pervert!”
Still there was silence. Mandy harrumphed and folded her arms across her chest. “A gross, disgusting, vile pervert!”
Mandy stood and waited for five minutes. Then ten. Then she lowered herself onto the floor and sat for another fifteen minutes. Nothing happened.
This escape room didn’t have a time limit, she recalled. It was an ultra mega deluxe room. No time limit, no hints. Only for the hardest of hardcore escape room aficionados, like herself. If she didn’t solve it, there was no telling how long they’d let her sit here. And the rest of her team probably wasn’t sitting around wasting time like she was. At this rate, they’d never beat the record, and it would be all her fault.
“Please, Mr Gross Pervert, please tell me there’s another way!” she cried. “I’ll solve a harder puzzle, give me anything, anything but this!”
Again, there was no response. The silence taunted her.
“Fine!” she said. She would play it their way, if she had to. “But when I get out of here, you’re going to hear from my lawyer! Emotional distress, sexual harassment, the works!”
Mandy’s hands shook as pulled down her skirt. Her cardigan was still tied around her waist, so it could act as a sort of makeshift skirt, but it didn’t cover her all that well, especially not from the front. But her button-up blouse was fairly long and kept her panties hidden, just about. She was definitely glad the boys couldn’t see her doing this.
This was the first time an escape room had compelled her to take off clothing. Come to think of it, she was still walking around in her stockings, having left her shoes in front of the trampoline.
Mandy held her skirt over the gap in the plaid wall and heard the click of a lock disengaging. But she knew it would disengage as soon as she stepped away. She would need to hold it in place, using the hammer and nails provided. It wasn’t be enough just to hold her skirt up to the wall. She would need to make it part of the wall. And leave it there.
Grumbling loudly, Mandy picked up a handful of nails and the hammer. One by one, she nailed the corners of her skirt into the wall. When she was done, she released the skirt from her hand. There was no second click. The door was unlocked, and Mandy was free to proceed, minus one skirt.
Mandy pushed through into the next room. The door instantly locked behind her. This place was definitely designed by a pervert. But she was an escape room veteran. Many are the times when she’d found clever alternative solutions to the puzzles presented to her. Though she may have been outwitted so far, there was still much to come. She resolved to beat the next puzzle that required her to remove some item of clothing with her own solution. If she could finish this escape room with only her shoes and skirt missing, that would be a win. Never mind that she usually finished escape rooms with all her clothes still on…
The puzzles in the next room followed a more conventional escape room format. There was book cipher and a puzzle involving the directions on a compass, along with some boxes with combination locks which opened to reveal keys to boxes which opened to reveal combinations. Mandy worked through these diligently, though it took her longer than it would have had she been working with the other Escape Artists. It made her feel kind of lonely.
Eventually, she found the final key and unlocked the next door. This appeared to be a kind of break room, with a small table in the middle that was flanked by water coolers on each side. The table was set with a white tablecloth and plates piled up with pretzels, peanuts and similar snacks. Feeling a bit peckish, Mandy helped herself to a few handfuls.
All the snacks were quite salty, so Mandy soon found herself turning to one of the water coolers for refreshment. She had a cup under the spigot and was just about to press the spout when she noticed something odd about the water.
It looked… dirty. The water in the coolers was more brown than clear, and it had weeds and other detritus floating in it. Mandy wrinkled her nose at the thought of drinking it. But she was still thirsty.
She looked down at her feet and remembered something she’d once read in a magazine article. Among many other strange and wonderful things, pantyhose could be used to filter water. So much for not removing any more clothes.
“Even the break room? Really?” Mandy yelled at the ceiling. “What is wrong with you?!”
But the room’s mysterious creator, if they were even listening, remained silent, while Mandy remained thirsty. Cursing, she wriggled her pantyhose down her legs and pulled it up. After wiping it off against her blouse, she stretched it over her cup and hit the water button.
Gross brown water flowed from the water cooler’s spigot and through Mandy’s pantyhose into her cup. Once the cup was full, she pulled the pantyhose away and was delighted to see clean, clear water.
Her thirst was well slaked, but her pantyhose were soaked and muddy. She didn’t really want to put them back on, or carry them around. And it was only a matter of time before they got totally destroyed with her walking around in them sans shoes.
It’s not as if they were covering anything vital anyway. And maybe they could still serve another useful purpose. Mandy gathered up the soaked pantyhose and walked towards the next door. She pushed it open and stepped through, but before she released the door, she balled up the dripping pantyhose and shoved it in the lock.
As the door shut softly behind her, she realized she was now missing almost half of her clothing. She had her underwear, her blouse and the cardigan tied around her waist. From the thighs down, she was bare. The escape room had triumphed again. But no more! She vowed not to lose any more clothing, and she was serious this time.
To be continued…