But when they arrived in the main lobby, their arms loaded up with the items they had brought in with them, there was no Evan in the little sitting area that would have been the logical place for him to wait. Hugh’s first impulse was to ask the security guards if they’d seen him; but the two security guards who had signed them in were nowhere to be found. Hopefully they haven’t been taken away by that other security guard, Hugh thought.
“Maybe out in the car,” Amanda offered.
“Maybe,” Hugh agreed—though Evan would have to be waiting outside the car, since the vehicle had been locked, and the key fob was now in Hugh’s pocket.
Evan wasn’t near the car, either. Hugh and Amanda loaded their equipment into the Camry. Then they tried to contact him on his cell phone, which went to voice mail.
Amanda shrugged. “That’s odd. I guess we’ll have to go back inside the building and hunt him down,” she said, obviously a bit annoyed at Evan. Hugh had the feeling that unless Evan was lying in a pool of his own blood somewhere, Amanda was going to give him a royal chewing out once they arrived back at the office.
As they walked back toward the main entrance, Hugh stared up at the nearest eponymous tower of Lakeview Towers. The windows reflected the mid-morning September sun, and lots of blue sky and cumulus clouds. This had to be a normal building, he told himself. No matter what you thought you saw.
Then he caught a glimpse of something that profoundly startled him. It appeared to be the silhouette of a giant winged creature, passing across two wide panes of windows around the fifth floor.
Hugh felt a fight-or-flight rush of adrenalin flood through his body, and for a brief moment, the familiar dread of chest pains. Then he told himself, You didn’t see that, Hugh. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest solution first. What you saw was the shadow of an unusually shaped cloud.
“You okay, Hugh?” Amanda asked.
“I’m fine. Let’s go track down Evan.”
But where to look for Evan? Given the size of Lakeview Towers, the metaphor of the needle in the haystack would not be entirely inaccurate. But they had to start somewhere, so they decided to start with the men’s room. If Evan were sick, he might be hunkered down in one of the toilet stalls.
Hugh stepped into the men’s room, leaving Amanda in the hallway. He could see immediately that the men’s room was empty. For form’s sake, he called out Evan’s name and checked each empty stall. Wherever his young coworker was, he wasn’t in here.
Hugh walked out of the men’s room, shaking his head. Amanda pursed her lips and shook her head in response. The case of Evan Daley, junior sales associate at Merlesoft Software Systems, was shaping up to be a genuine mystery.
Then they received their first break toward solving the mystery—or so they thought at the time. It was the sound of Evan’s voice—distant, but audible and unmistakable.
“It’s coming from down the hall,” Amanda said, “from behind that set of double doors.”
Amanda was right. Hugh noted that one of the double doors in question was partially ajar, revealing only darkness behind it.
There seemed to be no need for more deliberation. They were going through that door, obviously. Hugh led the way, out of a vague sense of chivalry that Amanda probably would have found annoying had he articulated it: He wanted to go through the unknown passage first, on the odd chance that something dangerous was waiting on the other side.
But there was nothing dangerous about the room on the opposite side of the door, at least nothing that was readily apparent. This was a generic corporate office complex storage room, the sort that existed in nearly every office building in the world. There was a room much like this at the Merlesoft building in Cincinnati, in fact. The only odd thing was the size of this storage room: It was much larger than most; but that would be fitting, given the unusual size of the Lakeview Towers complex.
Hugh scanned the endless rows of high shelving and the islands of pallets that sat in the semidarkness. He called out Evan’s name. Then he heard his own name called back to him, and he saw Evan near the opposite end of the room, along the far wall.
Evan was obscured in shadows, but a look of unreserved relief filled his face. “Hugh!” he shouted again. He began threading his way through the pallets and shelving that stood between them, making his way toward Hugh and Amanda. “Amanda!” he called out. “You’re here!”
If Evan was glad to see Amanda, Hugh thought, then something unusual had indeed taken place. Judging from his tone and unalloyed elation, you would have thought that he had just been rescued from the wreckage of a downed jetliner that had crashed in a remote part of the world.
“Yes, yes, we’re here,” Hugh said. “The question is, why are you here?”
Amanda stepped forward, her shoes clicking on the mostly unseen floor beneath them. “That’s right,” she said. “You’ve got some explaining to do. First you bolt out of a sales presentation. Then we can’t find you in the lobby, out in the parking lot, or even in the men’s room. And it turns out that you’re shooting the breeze in here, exploring by the look of it. What do you think this is, Evan, some sort of a game?”
“Hell, no,” Evan shot back, his momentary truce with Amanda already over. “I’ve been trapped in here, I’ll have you know.”
“Evan,” Amanda said. “What are you talking about?”
“The door!” Evan protested, pointing in the general direction of the double doors. “I came in here because the security guard more or less made me. Only the security guard wasn’t exactly a security guard, but really some sort of a homicidal robot. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, Amanda, but just hear me out. Then I came in here, and when I tried to leave, the double doors that I’d gone through—” Evan paused as if trying to think of an obscure or technical word. “Well, the doors were just gone.”
“Gone?” Amanda shouted. “Hugh and I just walked through those doors. They weren’t locked, weren’t even latched, in fact, why—” Amanda turned in the direction of the doors, as if to emphasize the patent foolishness of what Evan was suggesting. Then her mouth dropped open. “No way,” she said. “No—that can’t be.”
Amanda walked away from the two men, toward the double doors. Or rather—the place where the double doors should have been.
Hugh followed her, his mouth agape. He had processed what Evan had said, and he was now combining that story with the irrefutable truth before them: Where the two metallic doors had been only minutes ago, there was now blank wall space.
The door had vanished, as impossible as that seemed. It had gone back into the wall, or the wall had swallowed it up. Whichever description one opted for, the result was the same.
“I don’t believe this,” Amanda said, running her hands along the smooth, painted cinderblock wall. “This can’t be.”
“Well, believe it,” Evan said, approaching her, “because it is what it is. The door disappears once you cross over to this side of the wall. I saw the open double doors, too—when I was out in the hallway. But when I entered this room they disappeared. And there’s a lot more to tell, too.” Evan glanced nervously overhead. “There’s something up in those pipes, or rather—some things.”
But Amanda was not interested in whatever Evan was alluding to overhead. She was determined to arrive at a logical answer regarding the door. “I didn’t know that this sort of technology even exists,” she said. “I mean, this must be some sort of a high-tech security system.”
There were the sounds of claws scraping against one of the pipes above them, then multiple footsteps—clawed feet, by the sounds of it. The chirring of more than one animal. What kind of an animal, though?
Hugh looked up at the ceiling, into one of the dim fluorescent bulbs. He saw something jump from one of the pipes to another. It was a creature with a long body and a long tail. Amanda, alerted by the noise, looked up and saw it, too.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Maybe part of that high-tech security system,” Evan suggested.
On the far end of the room—the end that was obscured in a pall of shadows, came the clamor of something crashing down from one of the top levels of the shelving and onto the floor.
Hugh and Evan exchanged glances. They both had the same idea: One of those things scurrying around in the overhead pipes was attempting to find a way down. Perhaps several of those things were attempting to find a way down.
“I suggest,” Hugh said, in a quiet and deliberate voice, “that we all exit from the doorway on the far side of the room. “Whatever happened, we can’t go back the way we came. And it’s also obvious that we’re not alone in here.”
“But there is no doorway on the other side of the room,” Evan protested. “I’ve looked all around in here, stumbling around in the dark.”
“Look over there,” Hugh said. “You can see a wedge of light. That would suggest an exit.”
Evan looked in the direction Hugh had indicated. There was indeed a thin wedge of light, though its source was hidden behind several rows of shelving.
“It wasn’t there before,” Evan said. “But over the past hour, I’ve been gradually losing my need for a rock-solid explanation about everything. Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.”
They walked toward the source of light. Meanwhile, there were more clawed footsteps overhead, and more sounds of items crashing down at the end of the room farthest from them. Yes, those things were coming down. No doubt about it.
“I suggest we hurry,” Hugh said.
They passed by two rows of shelving, moving through one of the wide central aisles that had been left clear for human traffic, and presumably forklifts as well. Sure enough, there was a door in one corner of the room—a single metal door with a window in its center. Leading the way, Hugh peered through the door: It seemed to be just another ordinary hallway. He grabbed the door’s handle and pulled: Thankfully, it wasn’t locked.
At the opposite end of the room, they all heard two large shapes fall to the floor. And these weren’t boxes. Then there were more clawed footsteps—but on the floor this time.
“Go!” Hugh said. He opened the door and practically shoved Evan and Amanda through the opening. Then he whirled around and slammed the door closed, and pushed the little knob at the base of the handle that would lock it. Whatever those things from the pipes were, they weren’t going to join them in the hallway.