“Please! Please?” whimpered Michael, opening his eyes as wide as possible and sticking his bottom lip out, in a way that fooled every adult but not his siblings.
“Michael, we would love to play hide and seek with you but,” Kate started but was interrupted by Edward who was hiding a snigger behind his hand. Kate glared at him clearly irritated then continued “But, we won’t fit anywhere. We’re too big.”
The little boy was not fooled by that.
“You fit in the dens. We had a meeting there. You still fit in the cupboards. You still fit…”
Laura stopped him:
“Fine. We’ll play a few rounds then you’ll have to play our game.”
His older siblings restrained a sigh but dared not break the treaty which had brought such peace.
“Michael is. It was his idea of the game,” declared Kate ignoring Michael’s pleading face.
“Let’s go. Count to 100.”
The four children raced around the estate trying to seek the best hiding place.
“Edward! That is my hiding place! Find somewhere else.” hissed Kate as her brother crouched down next to her behind the cupboard.
“Please. Otherwise it’ll be boring. Michael takes ages. He’ll come past us ten times before realising we’re here,” he whispered back.
Kate saw for the first time the affection in his gaze. He was not here to annoy her but to actually spend some time with her.
“Ok,” she answered, seriously, but not without dancing eyes, “But let’s find a better place that will hide two. This is too small.”
Edward grinned at his sister and stepped out of the cupboard, Kate following closely behind .
The pair rushed through the corridor trying their hardest to be as silent as possible, seeking a place big enough to fit them both seeing how much they’d grown. Edward urged his sister on reminding her that Michael would have finished counting by now and would soon be coming. The loose floorboards squeaked indignantly under their feet.
The stair balustrade was carved with careful drawings of vines and roses creating a wonderful illusion. The paintings of old ancestors that hung from the wall all looked so ancient and brittle that they all seemed to be on the brink of falling off and shattering into millions of tiny pieces. When Kate and Edward stepped onto the second floor and creeped into the corridor, they heard an urgent, panicked whisper coming from their Aunt’s room. Edward motioned for Kate to follow him silently. He pressed his ear against the door, the side of his face flat against it.
“What are they saying and who’s in there?” breathed Kate before clapping a hand over her mouth. Edward put a finger to his lips and pressed his face further into the door. He had an air of utmost concentration which was rarely seen on him: his eyes narrowed, a wrinkle at the top of his nose and his jaw set in determination.
Really, thought Kate, this trip has changed us all.
Suddenly, the volume of one of the voices escalated as though the people inside were moving closer to the door. Edward jumped backwards in alarm and pulled his sister into an empty side room with him.
The door to their Aunt’s room opened to reveal Uncle John still facing inside.
“Brunhilde, this is serious,” exclaimed Uncle John, obviously not for the first time, “We must call the police. People don’t send death threats for no reason.”
Their aunt lay very white on her bed. Her eyes wandered aimlessly around the room as if she was looking for something but wasn't sure what. From her pale, trembling lips came some words:
“It could be a hoax. Please, don’t get the police involved. Not now.”
“Please.” Her voice quivered as if with her last remaining energy.
“Fine. But if it gets more serious than it already is we’ll call the police,” conceded Uncle John reluctantly, “Now rest and we’ll talk about it later.”
“But whatever you do, don’t tell my brother or his wife; they may leave.”
“Brunhilde! This is not the problem…”
“It is yet another one,” she murmured, barely distinct or audible. She tried to lift her head up to look at him but her strength gave way and she dropped it back down into her pillows.
“Rest. We’ll see later,” Uncle John reassured her although his voice wobbled. (Was it anger or sadness? The pair could not tell.) He stepped out of the room and turned around. Through the crack in the door which they had left a fraction open, they could see their Uncle, his face purple with rage and contorted into a grimace. Kate stifled a gasp.
Uncle John slammed the door with such force that it immediately bounced open. Without paying attention to it, he raced down the corridor still fuming, his voice choked with anger.
“Nobody here will ever get away with blackmailing my wife!”
Slowly, Kate turned her head to face Edward and realised he was already staring, his mouth open.
“She told him. And it proves what you thought the whole time! Aunt Brunhilde is being blackmailed!” whispered Edward urgently.
Kate nodded, her face tense, and motioned for him to be quiet. Their Aunt was still in the room next door.
“We need to tell the others!” continued Edward, indifferent to his sister’s gesture.
“Edward. Silence!” she ordered before advancing towards the door and inching out of the room, “Let’s investigate further.”
“I’m not sure, Kate. Someone just threatened our aunt with her life. It isn’t safe,” Edward said, burying his face in his hands.
“You’re not scared are you?” mocked his older sister coming back in.
He looked at her so seriously that she faltered and was about to leave her plan behind when she remembered something.
“But Aunt Brunhilde won’t call the police! This is dangerous like you said. We have to investigate.”
“Life always gives you another option,“ said Edward dully, “We don’t have to.”
“No it doesn’t. Life gives you many choices but one path. Come on, nobody else will do it,” responded Kate.
Edward, surprised at the trust that his sister put in him, gave in and summoning his courage to say:
“Let’s do it.”
Beaming down at her younger brother, Kate slid out of the room holding the door for Edward to follow and willing for the door not to creak. She peeked into her aunt’s room and immediately saw her lying on her bed. Her hair, usually pulled back in a tight bun, was spread out on her pillow. She was asleep, surrounded by white blankets and her cloud of soft copper hair.
“Quietly,” murmured Kate as Edward penetrated into the room. He closed the door, grimacing as it squeaked.
“Let’s search for the picture and maybe the knife is still here,” she suggested. Her brother nodded once, looking ill. The memory of the sharp blade covered in either blood or rust was still too fresh in their minds. They spent the next few minutes going through the room, struggling to keep it as spotless as it had been before they had come.
“They’re aren’t here,” grumbled Edward angrily.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the shrill ringing sound of a telephone. The two children looked at each other in panic. Without a word they both sprang up and rushed into the bathroom which - thankfully - was not locked.
Like they had predicted, their aunt woke up with a start, groaning, and hit the speaker button, unwilling to use more strength than needed.
“Should we listen in? It could be important,” questioned Edward, under his breath.
Kate shrugged then nodded reluctantly, convinced by his debate.
The voice that came out of the phone was unidentifiable and bizarrely crooked. Through the wooden door, they could hear the witchy voice saying:
“Good morning Ma'am. This is a very confidential and important call. Listen carefully. Thank you.”
“We shouldn’t be listening to this,” declared Kate as fiercely as a whisper could go.
Even Edward now looked uncertain but the strange voice continued without giving them time to reflect, this time seeming more threatening:
“Ma’am, please listen. I have to be accorded that pay rise or I shall remind the police that you bribed them, without letting your brother know about it, into forgiving your father and you pointed them into not shutting your father into a jail cell where he deserved to be!” the voice spat into the telephone, dripping with obvious hate.
Kate thrust her fist into her mouth and bit down on it to stop herself from gasping. Edward too was in a wild state of shock. What had their beloved grandfather done that meant him nearly being sent to prison? In her bed, their aunt was trying to untangle her bedsheets to reach for her phone and stop the call.
The voice carried on, unaware:
“Raise the pay for everyone and you shall be spared. For now … !” The call ended with an evil cackle that sent shivers down the children's spines. They stared at each other not daring to move. What had they just witnessed? What had their grandfather done? From the other side of the door came a whimper then silence. Their aunt must have fainted.
As they climbed out of the bathroom, muffled thumps came up the stairs.
“Listen! Someone’s coming!” Kate exclaimed, grabbing his arm, silencing him with her urgent tone.
They looked at each, the same thought appearing in their minds. Who could be coming here apart from Uncle John? And where was the only place where their uncle was likely to go? Swiftly, Kate pulled her brother out of the room, bounced back into the small room across from the bedroom they had hid in previously, still holding her brother firmly by the arm and shutting the door most of the way just in time to see Uncle John rounding the corner and disappearing into Aunt Brunhilde’s room. He seemed to be muttering:
“Where are my keys? Now I’ve lost my keys. What next?”
“Come now,” whispered the eighteen year old to her brother’s ear, “We can’t risk being caught. It‘s our chance to leave but we need to be quick.”
Before leaving, Edward cast one more glance around the room in hope of finding something that would help them. Spotting a discarded and dusty pinboard lying under a pile of paperwork on the floor, he grabbed it and followed his sister outside again
The two Llandy children tip-toed out, regaining the safety of outside. Whilst they were debating whether or not to tell the others, Michael sprang out of a bush, his enthusiastic and exultant voice ringing out:
“I’ve found you! I’ve found everyone!”
Edward turned to nod at his sister. The nod signified this: I give in. Tell the others.
Kate kneeled down in front of Michael, something he liked her to do as it made it seem as though he was taller than her, and told him softly but gravely to gather the others for another meeting. Michael immediately detected her urgency and sprinted off to find everyone but not after flashing a quick glance at the board Edward was carrying under his arm.
“We have proof. Now they’ll believe us,” reasoned Kate in search of at least one positive thing.