- Published: 28 May 2018
- ISBN: 9780143785477
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The Escape Room
It was Miguel who called 911 at 4.07 a.m. on an icy Sunday morning. The young security guard spoke in an unsteady voice, fear disguised by cocky nonchalance.
Miguel had been an aspiring bodybuilder until he injured his back lifting boxes in a warehouse job. He still had a muscular build, with dark hair and a cleft in his chin. Miguel was a night guard at an office tower complex in the final stages of construction. He was half-way through his shift when it happened.
Angela heard the first scream. Miguel didn’t hear a thing. He was lying back on a leather couch in the lobby, getting a blowjob.
‘What the fuck,’ snapped Angela. Miguel opened his eyes to see her angrily pulling down her lycra top and straightening her skirt.
‘Angela. Baby,’ he called out, disoriented by the unexpected turn of events. ‘Don’t go. We ain’t done yet.’
‘Oh, we’re done alright. You said we’d be alone.’
Miguel looked around in confusion. The empty lobby was illuminated by the spotlights of a crane outside, which shone through the windows and glass ceiling. There was a long, unmanned reception desk of blond oak slats, inset with light green glass, and a series of gunmetal leather sofas arranged into sitting areas across the expansive space.
‘Don’t worry, baby. We’re alone,’ he said in a husky voice. ‘They’re still building this place. It only opens in a couple of months. There ain’t nobody here but us.’
‘Then why did I just hear someone scream?’ Angela slipped her stockinged feet into black stilettos and tidied her hair with fingernails painted a deep magenta.
Without the distraction of Angela’s warmth in his lap, Miguel heard the next scream. It bounced off the pale marble floor, creating a bloodcurdling reverberation.
‘Shit! What the fuck was that?’ He jumped up from the couch while zipping up his pants. He fastened his navy security-guard shirt so quickly he didn’t notice that he skipped two buttons, leaving it gaping open at the chest.
‘I dunno what’s going on,’ he said, his eyes darting around the empty lobby. ‘Maybe you should get outta here, Angela.’
‘Ya think?’ She picked up her purse and slung it over her shoulder.
‘Call you later,’ he promised.
‘Don’t count on me answering,’ Angela muttered as she turned to leave.
‘Wait, Ange.’ She turned towards him with her hand on her hip. ‘Do me a favour. Don’t tell anyone you were here. They’ll fire my ass for sure if they find out. I need this job.’
‘You deserve to be fired, Miguel. I don’t know what you’re playing at, bringing me here, but I ain’t buying your act. I should have known this was a set-up.’
‘I swear I didn’t know that anyone was here. I’m real sorry, ok?’
She could see genuine remorse in his heavy-lidded eyes. ‘I’ll see you when I see you, Miguel.’
Her stiletto heels clicked on the marble floor as she headed for the door. Miguel watched the sway of her pert backside as she walked towards her car, parked in the curving driveway outside.
There were no more screams. Miguel wondered whether he should search the building. The lobby was dead quiet. The sobriety of the silence settled things: there was no way anyone else could be in the building. The construction workers punched out by 5 p.m. every Friday and for insurance and safety reasons were all duly accounted for as they left the site. The sales staff, who used the lobby as a showroom to lease office space to prospective tenants, didn’t work weekends. Nobody was there on weekends except for the security guards. Two per shift. Except tonight, Miguel was the only one on duty.
When the other guard, Sanchez, had been a no-show, Miguel had sweet-talked Angela into keeping him company. Angela drove over after dancing with friends at Bonjo, which happened to be the club where she and Miguel had first met. She arrived at three in the morning, buzzing from vodka shots and hyped from hours of dancing to hip-hop and Latin music.
Angela had been on Miguel’s case for a while to show her the building where he worked. She was studying interior design and was a huge fan of the hotshot Danish architect who’d designed the complex, something of a boy wonder in the design world. It was a building of contrasts; futuristic yet warm, minimalist and luxurious at the same time.
Miguel wasn’t supposed to access the lobby unless there was an emergency. In reality, he was a frequent visitor. He much preferred sleeping on a soft leather lobby sofa than on the lumpy stretcher in the portable office where the guards took turns resting between patrols. The CCTV cameras hadn’t been hooked up yet so he could still get away with it.
The building site was surrounded by fences with barbed wire running across the top. From the main access road, the complex looked completed. It had a driveway entry lined with young maples in planter boxes. The lobby had been fitted out and furnished to impress prospective tenants who came to view office space.
The second tower, facing the East River, looked unmistakably like a construction site. There was scaffolding where the last sections of cladding were being attached. Blue plastic film was stuck to brand-new window panes. Shipping containers storing building materials were arranged like colourful Lego blocks in a muddy field alongside idle bulldozers and a crane.
Inside the lobby, the long reception desk was illuminated by internal lights that made it glow in the dark. Plastic-wrapped café tables and chairs were piled up in the corner where the lobby café would be located, alongside a waterfall feature that was not yet functional.
The complex was the first of what was planned to become a riverfront financial district of office buildings, apartments and restaurants. All upscale. Part of a plan to rejuvenate a rundown warehouse district.
Angela was impressed by the lobby’s space-age glass atrium and raw stone walls, which Miguel proudly showed off. They lay together on a leather lobby sofa looking into the night sky through the glass, languidly making out.
Then it all went to hell, Angela scared off just as things were getting interesting. Miguel feared she would never speak to him again.
He convinced himself that they’d mistaken the whine of a crane in a gusty night breeze for screams. Since Angela stormed out everything had been silent, confirming his theory. He decided he’d simply lock the door they’d let themselves in through and forget about the whole disastrous evening.
Miguel was smoothing out the leather of the sofa where they’d lain when he heard a loud crack. It whipped through the building with an intensity that made his ears ring. It was followed by a silence that hung in the air long enough for him to decide that the noise was a hallucination of his fatigued mind.
Two more cracks followed. They were unmistakably the sound of gunshots. He hit the ground and called 911. He was terrified the shooter was making his way to the lobby but cocky enough to cover his fear with bravado when he spoke.
‘Something bad’s going down here.’ He gave the 911 dispatcher the address. ‘You should get cops over here.’
Miguel figured from the scepticism in the dispatcher’s cool voice that his call was given priority right below the donut run.
His heart thumped like a drum as he waited for the cops to arrive. ‘You chickenshit,’ he berated himself as he took cover behind a sofa. He exhaled into his shirt to muffle the sound of his rapid breathing. He was afraid he would give away his position to the shooter.
A wave of relief washed over him when the lobby finally lit up with a hazy blue strobe as a police car pulled in at the taxi rank.
Miguel went outside to meet the cops.
‘What’s going on?’ An older cop with a thick gut hanging over his belted pants emerged from the front passenger seat.
‘Beats me,’ said Miguel. ‘I heard a scream. Inside the building. Then I heard what I’m pretty sure were gunshots.’
‘How many shots?’ A younger cop came around the car to meet him, snapping a wad of gum in his mouth.
‘Two, maybe three shots. Then nothing.’
‘Is anyone else around?’ The older cop’s expression was hidden under a thick grey moustache.
‘They clear out the site on Friday night. No construction workers. No nobody. Except me. I’m the night guard.’
‘Then what makes you think there’s a shooter?’
‘I heard a loud crack. Sure sounded like a gunshot. Then two more. Came from somewhere up in the tower.’
‘Maybe construction equipment fell up there?’ The younger cop inclined his head towards the office tower. ‘That possible?’
A faint thread of red suffused Miguel’s face as he contemplated the possibility that he’d panicked over nothing. They moved into the lobby to check things out, but he was feeling less confident than when he’d called 911. ‘I’m pretty sure they —’ He stopped speaking as they all heard the unmistakeable sound of a descending elevator.
‘I thought you said there was nobody here,’ said the older cop.
‘Could have fooled me,’ said the second cop. They moved through to an elevator lobby, where a green light was flashing to indicate an elevator’s imminent arrival. ‘Someone’s here.’
‘The building only opens for business in a few weeks,’ said Miguel. ‘Nobody’s supposed to be here.’
The cops drew their guns from their holsters and stood in front of the elevator doors in a shooting stance. Slightly crouched. Legs apart. One of the cops gestured furiously for Miguel to move out of the way.
Miguel stepped back. He hovered near an abstract metal sculpture set into the wall at the dead end of the elevator lobby.
A bell chimed. The elevator heaved as it arrived.
The doors parted with a slow hiss. Miguel swallowed hard as the gap widened. He strained to see what was going on. The cops were blocking his line of sight and he was on too sharp an angle to see much.
‘Police,’ shouted both cops in unison. ‘Put your weapon down.’
Miguel instinctively pressed himself against the wall. He flinched as the first round of bullets was fired. There were multiple shots. Too many to count. His ears rang so badly it took him a moment to realise the police had stopped firing. They’d lowered their weapons and were shouting something, but he couldn’t hear a thing.
Miguel saw the younger cop talk into his radio. The cop’s mouth opened and closed. Miguel couldn’t make out the words. Gradually his hearing returned and he heard the tail end of a stream of NYPD jargon.
He couldn’t understand most of what was said. Something about ‘non-responsive’ and needing a bus, which he assumed meant an ambulance. Miguel saw a trickle of blood run along the marble floor until it began forming a puddle. He edged closer. He glimpsed blood splatter on the wall of the elevator. He took one more step. Finally, he could see inside the elevator. He immediately regretted it. He’d never seen so much blood in all his life.