On a foggy October evening in 1882, three twelve-year-old friends finished their homework and went out to play. After all that reading, solving sums, and essay writing, they were ready for some fun and maybe even an adventure. They got their wish in a most surprising way.
The kids met at their usual rendezvous spot, under a lamp post in front of Edgar’s Entertainment Emporium, a popular clockwork game arcade. As they discussed what to do, they heard a faint scraping sound, followed by a muffled thud, and then the scuffing of boots on pavement behind them. They turned to look in the direction of these sounds, and were startled to see a tall man in a long, dark coat looking back at them. Then he turned up his coat collar, tucked down his chin, and disappeared into the misty twilight.
“Where’d he come from?” said Wilhelmina. “There was no one around a minute ago.”
“That’s very strange,” puzzled Priscilla.
“I didn’t see anyone come out of Edgar’s, either,” Henry added. He’d been gazing longingly at the door. Henry loved spending his allowance at Edgar’s.
“Maybe he popped up from the sewers,” Priscilla giggled, pointing at a nearby sewer grate, ghostly steam drifting up out of it.
Henry scowled. “Maybe he’s a ghost?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, a ghost wouldn’t walk away. It might float through a wall or maybe come out of a sewer grate, but why would it want to do that? That would smell so bad down there, unless they can’t smell stuff. But everybody knows ghosts don’t exist, so who cares if they can smell stuff,” Wilhelmina babbled, while looking around nervously for more non-existent ghosts.
“Hah! You always babble when you’re scared. Hey look, Wilhy, I’m a ghost! Woo!” Priscilla taunted as she ran around on the sidewalk, looking ghostlike surrounded by the fog and evening shadows.
With a burst of light and noise, Edgar’s doors flew open, spilling a group of kids onto the sidewalk. Wilhelmina and Henry turned their attention to the laughing, chattering group, wondering if they knew any of them.
Unfortunately, so did Priscilla. Still running in circles, this momentary distraction caused her to trip on a crack in the sidewalk, which sent her hurtling towards Edgar’s brick wall. “Yipes!” she squealed as she threw her hands out to catch the impact. The heel of her right hand slapped against a shallow indentation in one of the dark red bricks.
And as the chattering crowd scattered, Priscilla vanished into the shadows. Just like a ghost.
“What just happened?” Priscilla muttered, standing up from her fall. She tried to look around, but wherever she had ended up, it was pitch dark. Gingerly, she inched forward until her boot stubbed against something. She reached out and found a stairway railing. With nowhere else to go, she descended the stairs in search of a way out.
“Well, they looked like they were having a lot of fun. Maybe we should play a few games tonight, right Wilhy?”
“Maybe, let’s see if Pris wants to do that.” Wilhelmina looked around, but couldn’t see her anywhere. “Pris! Stop teasing and come here!”
“Pris! Where’d you go?” Henry hollered, looking confused.
But Henry and Wilhelmina were all alone.
“She was right here a minute ago, teasing me! Where could she have gone? And why?” Wilhelmina tried to figure out what was going on. I’m good at puzzles, I just need to stay calm and concentrate. She straightened her shoulders and smoothed her skirts. “We can solve this puzzle.”
Henry sighed. It wasn’t like Priscilla to pull a vanishing act. “Hmm. First there was that stranger, and then Pris vanished, and both of them were in just about the same place, weren’t they?” He walked closer to the wall and stared at it, rubbing his chin.
“Be careful. If you vanish too, I’m all alone,” Wilhelmina cautioned.
Henry turned and stared at her. “Pris could be in a kidnapper’s gunny sack and you’re worried about being lonely?”
Wilhelmina cowered, her eyes large and pleading. “I’m sorry! I never thought about that. She could have been captured by pirates. Air pirates. But there’s no airships overhead. What other kinds of pirates are there in a city? Alley pirates? Sewer pirates? Ew.”
“Enough babbling!” Henry yelled in exasperation.
“Meep!” Wilhelmina squeaked.
Henry forced himself to calm down. “I’m sorry. I know you aren’t so good with scary stuff.”
“I’m sorry too. But maybe this will help us,” Wilhelmina sniffled a little and reached for something on her belt.
Henry watched as she unhooked a small battery-powered torch from the wide leather belt covered with pocket-pouches that she wore every day, no matter what. “I think you carry everything including the kitchen sink on that belt. Leave it to the one that’s the most afraid of the dark to be the best prepared for it. Thanks, Wil,” he said gently, holding out his hand.
She smiled timidly and handed over the torch, relieved that Henry wasn’t mad at her.
“So the last place we saw Pris was right here.” Henry planted his boots squarely on the spot he thought was correct and turned on the torch. “And I'm not falling down a trap door… yet,” he added nervously. He turned off the torch and stepped back, just in case.
“Trap door. Door. A hidden door?” Wilhelmina suddenly babbled. Her curiosity overcame her fear as she rushed towards the brick wall. She pulled a screwdriver out of her belt’s toolkit.
Henry rolled his eyes. “Are you going to unscrew the wall?”
Ignoring him, she began to drag the flat metal tip of the screwdriver over each line of mortar. She made long swoops across the horizontal lines, and short swipes down the sides of each brick. As she worked, she explained her theory. “I read a story about the discovery of the Peacock Club in the basement of the Turnkey Lock Factory. They found it during some building renovations. There was a door in the back alley made out of stone that fit into Turnkey’s stone wall so cleverly it was almost impossible to find, unless you knew exactly what you were looking for.”
Henry finally understood. “And you’re looking for that sort of door.”
“Yes, and you can help. Look for anything odd. It could be anything at all, ‘cause we don’t know what the trigger is. It’s probably somewhere between our waist and our shoulders, if Pris accidentally touched it… oh! I know how it works!” Wilhelmina whispered excitedly from the vicinity of Henry’s boots.
He stopped examining the wall and looked down in surprise. “I thought you were scraping mortar?”
Wilhelmina stood up, put away her screwdriver and brushed mortar dust off her hands. “I am—I was—well, I was thinking about how the door we’re looking for might be constructed. If it pushes inward, it would simply be a door, and you would be looking for some sort of doorknob or hinges. But if it was a pivot door, it would turn around on a center pivot point.”
Henry looked at Wilhelmina with surprise and admiration. “You really do read a lot, don't you?”
She smiled shyly, then knelt down to inspect the sidewalk, tracing her fingers over cracks and lines. “See, if it was a center pivot point door, most likely there’d be a round bit under your feet that turned with you, or else the door would be quite dangerous, shoving you around as it moved. We will probably find the turning piece hidden in the sidewalk stones.”
Together they searched, but only found ragged cracks and the usual sidewalk seams. “Guess it’s not that sort of door,” Wilhelmina sighed, straightening up.
A moment later, Henry abruptly announced, “Oh, I think it’s exactly that sort of door. We just weren’t looking at it the right way. Oh, this is brilliant. It’s hiding in plain sight.”
Wilhelmina rushed to Henry’s side. “Show me!”
“Nah, I bet you can find it yourself. Just try!”
Her eyes widened as she looked at the scene with fresh eyes, and then she saw it. “Well, aren’t you clever,” she said, marveling at the mechanics of the hidden door. “It’s in the edging. After all, a half circle is part of a circle, right? Henry, I apologize for thinking you were a bit dense. You’re a genius.”
“Aw, it was easy—hey wait, you thought I was dense?”
But Wilhelmina was no longer listening. She was enthralled with this new discovery. All along the base of the brick wall ran a concrete decorative edging made up of half circles. Some of the half circles held posts with signs, some held planters containing flowers and small decorative shrubbery. Others held utility pipes, and some were simply empty. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that one was not mortared to its adjoining half circles.
Wilhelmina prodded it with the toe of her boot. “This has to be it,” she announced firmly. “It's the perfect hiding place for a pivot point. Let’s look at the wall above it.”
Both children stepped into the center of the half circle and began inspecting the brick wall in earnest. “Wil, look how this one brick curves in a bit, that’s sort of odd, don’t you think?”
Wilhelmina looked nervously at Henry. “Be careful! Don’t push on…”
But it was too late. Henry had already pressed the brick. The half circle shuddered, then moved, and in the blink of an eye, two more children had vanished.
After being plunged into pitch darkness, Wilhelmina lost her bearings and flailed about in a most unladylike manner. Her hand slapped painfully against a wall. “Oww, I hate this. I hate this.”
“Calm down, okay?” Henry muttered as he struggled to stand up from where he had been flung. “You helped find the door, and now we can rescue Pris together. Then we can go home, all right?”
The frightened girl sucked in a deep breath, then coughed, as the air was stale and musty. “Okay, but maybe next time can we have a little less misadventure in our adventure?”
“Sure thing,” he replied, although he was kind of enjoying himself. Henry realized he was still holding Wilhelmina’s torch and turned it on. “Now, let’s see where we are.” Wilhelmina clung to his side, scared of what they might see. The torch cast a soft, comforting pool of light. Straight ahead they saw a rickety-looking staircase leading down into darkness.
Wilhelmina whimpered. “Of course, the only way to go would be down, probably into a horrid basement.” She leaned towards the wall, squinting in concentration. “And I think I hear noises inside this wall. If it’s mice, I can be brave. But if it’s pirates…”
“I promise you it’s not pirates. Wilhy, stay perfectly quiet for a minute. Let me listen.” He pressed his ear to the wall. Now the noise was louder. Whirr, flttt. Whirr, flttt. Whirr, flttt. It sounded familiar—and then he remember what building they were in. “Ah! I think we are standing directly behind Aether Realm’s Winged Warriors! I recognize the sound of the flywheel, it’s my favorite game. And I know it’s against the side wall of the arcade.”
Wilhelmina relaxed a little. “You and those games. I’m not surprised you would recognize the purr of your favorite pet,” she teased. “So, we know we’re right next to the Emporium. That means that this other wall has to be the Steeping Beauty Tea Shop.”
“Which means we’re in a hidden space between the two shops,” Henry said excitedly as he brushed loose dust out of his hair. “There’s no reason I can think of for Edgar to wall off an old stairway. And since there’s a hidden door right outside, this was probably closed off a long time ago. I bet there’s something important down those stairs.”
“The only thing I want to find down there is Pris,” Wilhelmina said mournfully. “And I see footprints in the dust on these stairs. There’s too many to be just the stranger we saw, so some of those probably belong to Pris.”
Gingerly, the two friends crept down the creaky old stairway, wincing at the groans of the aging wood beneath their feet. Finally, they reached the hard floor of the basement, shivering in the cold dank air, which carried the smell of dust, mildew, and sulfur.
“Pris?” Henry’s voice echoed off the bare walls around them, followed by silence.
“Pris, where are you?” Wilhelmina joined in, desperate to hear her friend’s voice in the darkness.
“Pris!” Henry called out again, even louder now.
“Henry, what if she can’t answer us? Maybe pirates already got her!” Wilhelmina’s voice trembled.
Before Henry could reply, they heard stifled laughter from behind what looked like an old bar. As they started to step closer, Priscilla popped up into view and yelled, “Boo!”
Wilhelmina shrieked in surprise, while Henry jumped back in shock.
“Gotcha!” Priscilla said, laughing.
Wilhelmina stomped her foot and yelled out a word she’d heard her father say after hitting his thumb with a hammer. Both Henry and Priscilla stared at her, shocked. “You scared the living daylights out of me you idiot! We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Henry regained his composure and asked, “What are you doing back there Pris? Are you okay?”
“Sure, I’m okay, but now I’m an old ghost bartender,” she replied in a spooky tone. She struck a match and lit a kerosene lamp on the bar next to her. As the wick flared to life, they could see the big mirror on the wall behind her, festooned with cobwebs.
“So, what can I getcha? Whiskey, rum, bonbon, fancy champagne?”
Henry couldn’t help laughing. “Bonbon? I think you mean bourbon. Now come out here and apologize to Wilhy. She’s been through a lot and was really worried about you.”
Priscilla picked up her lamp and came around to the front of the bar. “I’m sorry, Wilhy. It’s just all so fun and mysterious and exotic. Look around! This place used to be a secret nightclub. See over there? That’s a stage, and the floor is all scuffed up. I bet that’s from lots of dancing.”
“How did you see all that before we got here? I just now saw you light that lamp,” Henry pointed out.
The girl shrugged. “Oh, I bumped around until I found a box of matches, then just kept striking them so I could explore. I found this old lamp just as I heard you two crashing around upstairs.” She looked pleased with herself, even with strands of cobwebs decorating her hair. “I also learned that a wooden matchstick burns for twenty-two seconds before it scorches your finger.”
Wilhelmina only half-listened to Priscilla’s chatter. She very much wanted to find an exit so they could all get out of this dark, dirty place and go home. “Did you find a way out of here while you were exploring, Pris?”
“No, I was having too much fun exploring the club,” she replied sheepishly.
“Well, we could try following directions,” Henry said smugly. He was leaning against the wall and pointing up at an old yellow wall sign.
Wilhelmina clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Exit!” as she read the sign.
“And it’s just that easy,” Priscilla said with a big smile.
“Way too easy,” Henry muttered. “Guess there’s no need to hide the exit. Anyone looking for it already knows the secret of the nightclub. So all we need to do is…” Henry stopped in mid-turn, struggling with the doorknob.
“It’s locked!” Priscilla yelped.
Wilhelmina, catching the smirk on Henry’s face, smacked his arm and scolded him. “Stop teasing. You’re as bad as Pris.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” Henry replied as he turned the doorknob and pushed open the creaky old door. He stepped through and held the door open for his friends.
Wilhelmina practically jumped through the door, exclaiming, “Finally!”
Priscilla looked back wistfully at her new playground and sighed, “Too soon.”
As Henry pushed the door closed behind them, he was surprised to see how well it blended into the outer wall. If someone didn’t know it was there, they’d have a hard time finding it. And as with the other door, there was no obvious way to open it, either. Another puzzle for Wilhelmina to solve someday.
“There’s a breeze coming from this direction,” Henry said as he turned to the left, holding the torch out in front of him. “Looks like we’re in a tunnel.”
Priscilla turned up the wick on her kerosene lamp, and the two lights joined forces. “Definitely a tunnel. Hope there’s no rats.”
Wilhelmina, nerves frazzled, glared at her friend, hoping that she was just teasing.
Their walk through the tunnel seemed to last forever, though in truth it was only about five minutes. To everyone’s surprise, there was no door at the end of the tunnel, just a gentle slope upwards leading to a parking lot behind the Consolidated City Delivery warehouse.
Looking back at the darkened ramp, Wilhelmina snapped her fingers and exclaimed, “It’s a delivery tunnel! Since it runs right under the street, they can make deliveries to all the places that have basements. Somebody got clever a long time ago and made a hidden door for that nightclub. People who knew where they were going could just walk down there and knock on the door.”
“This was the most fun thing I got to do all week!” blurted Priscilla.
“This wasn’t the adventure I would have chosen,” Wilhelmina sighed. “But was an interesting puzzle. Just don’t tell anyone I said that word. Ever.”
Henry grinned. “Pris, did you hear Wilhy say anything wrong?”
“Of course not. Wilhy is a proper lady. How silly to think she would ever say such a thing.”
And so, none of them ever gave away the secrets they learned that night, or how Wilhelmina had cussed like a pirate.