By Chris Hewitt
Susan blew a lock of gray hair from her face and scribbled her signature on the dotted line.
“Great,” said Colonel Bob Bradley, taking the reem of forms and tucking them into a folder under his arm. “Good to have you on board. If you’ll follow me.”
Colonel Bradley grinned. “No time like the present, Ms. Milton.”
He escorted her from the small meeting room along a labyrinth of tunnels. An army of lab-coated personnel wandered the halls, more scientists busied themselves in the many labs she glimpsed. Green Berets, polished firearms at the ready guarded every room and as they descended through the complex, Susan realized she’d made a mistake. She was out of her depth. The case had piqued her professional interest, the scant detail arousing her curiosity. She couldn’t resist a mystery, and these halls were full of them. From the outside, Porton Down looked like any other commercial park dotting the Wiltshire countryside, but under the drab offices, a rabbit warren of tunnels hid countless secrets from prying eyes.
“So, my client…” said Susan, struggling to keep up.
“Ah, yes. Anita.”
Susan retrieved her notepad from her pocket. “Anita… who?”
“Just Anita. She’s six years old, give or take.”
“Give or take?”
“Well, let’s just say her background is… classified.”
The Colonel halted, and she ran into the back of him.
“Is that relevant?” he asked, staring at Susan down his long nose.
She stared back at him, dumbfounded. “You called me, remember?”
“Yes, yes, I suppose the loss of a parent might impact one’s psychology. Maybe the General was right to pull you in.”
The Colonel looked confused.
“Oh, no. None we’re aware of,” he said, striding off down the hallway. Susan wasn’t sure what to make of that. Everyone had parents, didn’t they? Reaching a room flanked by two imposing guards, the Colonel exchanged salutes with the beret-wearing soldiers.
“Ms. Milton, I’ll remind you of the full gravity of the official secrets act you signed today and urge you to keep to the brief.”
The Colonel nodded to a guard who tapped away on a keypad before opening the heavy steel door.
The brief! What brief? All they said is they wanted a subject evaluated.
“Oh, and best you leave your pen with me,” he said, holding out his hand.
Flustered, Susan handed over the biro before stepping through the doorway.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the bright lights of the large sterile cell. A metal table occupied the center of the room, a box of crayons and paper sat upon it. The heavy door closed behind her, not with a clang, but with a gentle hiss, like an airlock sealing.
Susan found the walls decorated with colorful drawings. All except for the shiny black wall opposite the cell door. As her eyes adjusted, she could see that far from being a wall, it was a full-height, full-length tinted window. In the gloom beyond, she saw two dozen people buzzing around various workstations. She watched as the Colonel walked up to a group of white-coated staff and after a moment’s consultation, turned and nodded towards the end of the cell.
Susan followed his gaze to a bunk recessed into the wall. A stern looking girl sat cross-legged, unmoving, staring back at her. Anita had long blonde hair tied in pigtails and wore a poorly fitting green surgical gown. Susan smiled. Anita did not, her piercing blue eyes, unfathomable and unblinking.
With no reaction from her client, Susan examined the drawings pinned to the walls, searching for somewhere to start, some common ground. “These are fantastic. Are they yours?”
Anita remained mute, watching Susan’s movements like a hawk. She couldn’t blame the poor girl for being standoffish, she must have felt like a lab rat and judging by the number of drawings, she’d been here a while. The girl was a talented artist. But there was little insight into her mental state amongst the colourful rainbows, unicorns, and flowers. In the cell’s corner, Susan found the break she was looking for, a stack of board games. “Do you like games, Anita? I love them.”
Susan smiled across at Anita and picked up a game. “Oh, I loved playing this when I was your age.”
She hoped Anita loved it as much as she had. If the girl was excited at the prospect of playing, she hid it well. Unperturbed Susan pulled out a chair and sat at the table, unboxing the game. It had been a long time since she’d played ‘Guess Who?’. She’d played it with her grandfather and he’d always let her win. Her prize, a Werther’s original mint. She licked her lips at the memory, wishing she could taste sweet victory now, but any hope that Anita might engage in play faded under the girl’s wilting stare. Over the years, she’d seen trauma hidden behind almost every emotion, fear, anger and dozens of dissociative guises. This was something else. The girl’s complete lack of body language spoke of something more complex. Susan looked to the Colonel and gave a slight shake of her head; the poor girl needed more than a psychologist. She couldn’t help her if she wouldn’t open up.
“I love games. This one’s my favorite.”
Susan’s head snapped back to Anita, sitting in the chair opposite, beaming up at her as she removed the other play board from the box. Heart racing, Susan stared back at the Colonel as excited doctors and scientists buzzed around. The Colonel gave her a reassuring thumbs-up, and Susan relaxed, regaining her composure. “Hi Anita, my name is…”
“Susan,” said Anita, flipping the characters on her board upright with a click and clack. “Susan Milton.”
“That’s… that’s right, Anita. So, they told you I was coming? Good.”
Anita smiled as she continued setting up her board.
Susan glanced across to the control room to see the Colonel. Why had they told the girl her name and more importantly, when had they told her? It’d taken minutes to walk to the cell. Something didn’t add up. She was being toyed with.
“Oh,” said Susan, realizing she’d not set up her board. “Just a minute. It’s been a while since I played.”
She stood each of her twenty-four character cards upright until three rows of eight cards stared back at her. The last card, the one Anita would need to guess, was an unhappy character named Robert. She slotted the card into the empty frame and noted Anita had already picked hers. “I think youngest goes first.”
Anita nodded. “That’s right. So, go on, you start.”
Susan didn’t want to confront the girl, not after she’d only just opened up, so she humored her. “Okay, then. Does your character have black hair?”
Anita tried to stifle a giggle. “No.”
“Oh, that’s not a good start,” joked Susan, flipping down all her character tiles with black hair. It was reassuring to hear the girl laugh. “Your turn.”
“Does your character have a hat?”
“Oh, I’m sorry it doesn’t,” said Susan, feigning disappointment. Anita wiggled in her seat, giggling as she flipped over five cards with a click and clack. Susan heard a muffled metallic thud from beyond the cell door and shot a glance at the red-faced Colonel. He seemed agitated, barking orders to someone she couldn’t see in the gloom.
Susan’s attention snapped back to the girl, and she smiled. “Oh sorry, there was a… it doesn’t matter. Let me see. Does your character have a mustache?” she said, placing a wiggling finger under her nose.
“No,” squealed Anita in delight. “My turn. My turn.”
Susan flipped over her mustachioed cards. “Oh, you’re too good at this.”
“I know. I know. Are you ready?”
“Does your character have brown hair?”
Susan laughed. The girl was on a roll. “Yes. Well done, two for two.”
Anita’s fingers scrabbled across her board, flipping a dozen cards down, click-clack, click-clack. She’d scored big with that guess.
Susan shook her head and turned to grin at the Colonel, but he wasn’t there. She searched the darkness, the busy control room seemingly empty now. Almost. She spotted two scientists, and the Colonel huddled around a screen, their worried faces illuminated in its green glow. She wanted him to look up, to make eye contact, but whatever was on the screen held his attention. A scientist with a mustache pointed from the screen to the girl, arguing with the Colonel, while an older scientist stroked his long white beard, lost in thought. Susan felt a stabbing icy cold brush her wrist and snatched her hand back from the girl’s prompting touch.
“It’s your turn.”
“Oh, oh of course, err,” said Susan, stalling whilst she got her bearings. “Err, does your character have… err… glasses? Yes, glasses.”
The smile on Anita’s face dropped like a fallen mask to reveal something else, something cold, calculating and cruel. A heartbeat later, the child’s joyful face returned, and Anita smirked. “Wrong again.”
Susan’s mind reeled. Had she imagined the child’s reaction? She must have. Anita had played a joke on her, and she’d fallen for it. “Very good. I… I thought I had you there.” Her voice sounded strained, weak.
“Are you okay?”
Anita scrutinized Susan, cocking her head from side to side like a cat watching a mouse.
“Yes, yes, of course. Come on now, it’s your turn.”
There was a dull thud, and another, and she turned to see the Colonel beating on the glass, shaking his head. The inches of glass might have muted his voice, but his words were clear. Stop! No!
“Does your character have a mustache?” Anita asked, mimicking Susan’s top lip wiggling finger gesture.
Susan laughed. Three in a row; the girl was lucky for sure. She turned to the Colonel and shrugged. “Yes, well done.”
When next time she looked across to the Colonel, his eyes were wide, fear plain to see as he turned to the two scientists.
“I love this game,” said Anita. Click-clack. “It’s so much fun.”
Susan gasped as the scientists vanished before her eyes, their white jackets falling to the floor in crumpled heaps. She leaped from the chair to press herself against the glass, shielding her eyes to peer into the empty room. Only the Colonel remained slumped in a chair, head in hands as all around him, white lab coats littered the room. Susan clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.
“It’s your turn, Susan.”
The girl’s words were distant as Susan stared into the Colonel’s haunted eyes. His lower lip trembled as he looked up and mouthed one word. Sorry.
She tried to comprehend what she’d seen. It must be a prank or maybe a test. Yes, that was it, some kind of military psi-ops, psychological mind fuckery. They’d drugged her, probably LSD, just like the psychedelic drugs they tested on troops back in the sixties. A hundred explanations raced through Susan’s mind, as she rationalized the horror that even now demanded her attention.
Bellowed a voice, that was not a child’s, let alone, human. Susan spun around to find Anita smiling at her, a picture of innocence as she gestured to the chair. She complied, slipping back into the seat, unsure and unwilling to test the girl’s patience.
“Go on, your turn,” Anita prompted.
Tears rolled down Susan’s cheeks. “D… does…”
“Your character have,” Anita prompted.
“A b… beard?”
The girl shook her head. “No, Susan, they don’t. You’re not very good at guessing who I am, are you?” goaded the thing masquerading as a child.
Susan sobbed, glancing across to the Colonel, his face a portrait of despair.
The words sent a shiver down Susan’s spine, and she closed her eyes, fearing the worst.
“Is your character, Robert?”
Susan looked down at the unhappy Robert character card and across to Colonel Bob Bradley, the similarity now all too apparent as a tear rolled down the terrified soldier’s red cheeks, past his long proud nose.
“Well?” demanded Anita.
She nodded, knowing that the demon child already knew the answer.
“Yes,” cried Anita, dancing in her chair.
The child’s glee was a sickening mockery of the nightmare that sat before her, the thing that tortured her as it reached out a single finger to flick over the last card. Click.
She couldn’t watch, instead she sat for a long moment, the creature opposite watching her, savoring her pain. When she plucked up the courage to look, all that remained of the Colonel was his green uniform draped over the chair. Susan whimpered as Anita jumped to her feet to dance around the cell, flinging herself about like a thing possessed, all the while cackling. “I win.”
Susan could take no more and made to flee, but the girl danced back to the table, blocking her escape. “Do you want to know what I had?”
Susan didn’t know what to say. It didn’t matter, Anita didn’t hesitate, snatching up the hidden card and with a perfectly executed pirouette standing beside Susan, gesturing for her to hold out her hand.
She complied, and the child pressed the card into her trembling palm; a caricature of her own features, her name written in bold underneath.
“That’s right, Susan. I had you.”
Something in Susan’s mind snapped, and she laughed at the horror and absurdity of it all. It was madness. Where did this game start and reality end? She was more than a cartoon, more than a name on a card. She was not a plaything for this demon that even now grinned at her. Staring down at the board, a handful of character cards remained upright and with trembling fingers she reached out and took a familiar-looking card. Anita stared back at her from the cardboard, her unmistakable blonde pigtails, and piercing blue eyes the final mockery.
The girl pressed her lips close to Susan’s ear and whispered. “Guess who?”
Susan’s fractured mind offered one word. “Anita.”
“Wrong again!” boomed the demon’s voice, the lights flickering before plunging the cell into total darkness.