ROOM 201 - NEIL ARMSTRONG
The dead stare of the security service agent was starting to bug Marcus Radcliff. He crawled slowly across the floor of the hut and closed the lids over the unseeing eyes. He kept a low profile below the window. He might be in the middle of a quarry at 4am, but he knew they were out there. The two corpses with him in the room were testament to that. He didn’t need to close the eyes of the second body; his killing shot had caved the agent’s face in.
He shuffled back across the floor and into the corner furthest from the door. He wondered how long the standoff would go on. Before they tried again. He checked the clip: only two rounds left. And to think that until yesterday he had barely fired a gun in his life.
Marcus heard a sound outside. A soft sort of ‘whump, whump, whump’, getting louder. The wind picking up maybe? But the wind shouldn’t be blowing in this sheltered corner of the quarry. A helicopter’s searchlight beam stabbed through the window. An instant later the door blew in, followed by a blinding flash. He tried to raise the gun, but the room was swaying and his head rang like a thousand bells. The last thing he saw was a gas-masked figure appear in front of his face. Then he felt a blow to the back of his head and he descended into darkness, wondering how life could have gone so wrong in a single day.
The 7.38am arrival at London Charing Cross spewed its cargo of bustling commuters onto platform 2. The old, the young, the keen and the world-weary all filtered through the barriers and joined the throng on the station concourse heading for another day’s work.
Marcus tried to focus on the task in hand. That last round of cocktails had seemed like such a good idea last night. He had been marking the conclusion of his first successful ad campaign: under budget and sales were rocketing. The client was over the moon and he was the toast of the agency. Only 3 months into his first job there and he was, literally, the blue-eyed boy (even if they were a little bloodshot today). But now he had a presentation to the board to knock on the head by lunchtime, when what he really wanted to do was crawl back into bed and die.
Once outside the station he paused, leant against a railing near the taxi rank and took deep breaths of the morning air, hoping it would revive him after the fug of the train carriage.
Then he saw the man. He had been smartly dressed - at some point last night probably - but now his shirt was half undone, his tie askew and one arm of his jacket was torn. He was brandishing an empty vodka bottle and trying to make his way into the station, struggling against the human flow like a salmon swimming upstream.
The man was slowly diverted towards Marcus and then stumbled and fell against the railing. Marcus dropped his eyes and turned away, but a flailing arm caught him and pulled him back. The reek of alcohol made Marcus’s stomach churn. He looked into the man’s desperate eyes.
‘Got a normal life have you, don’t be too sure. They’re all around. Just waiting. You’re never more than two steps from disaster.’ He hauled on Marcus’ arm and rasped into his ear, ‘I know too much. They set me free to hunt me down.’ His eyes rolled, then suddenly focused as his grip tightened. In the hoarsest of whispers he said ‘201, Belton Towers, the proof is there.’ Marcus felt something press into his hand.
Then the man jumped up, eyes widening in terror. ‘They’re here!’ He pirouetted across the pavement and into the road. He pointed at the sky and a long scream burst from his lungs.
The bus never had a chance to stop. There was a sickening thud and a series of bumps as the man was struck in the side and dragged under the wheels. Shouts and screams mingled with the screeching of brakes and the angry honking of horns.
Marcus rushed forward to help. But was brought up short by a dark blue transit van that shot out of a side road and slewed to a halt on the pavement in front of them. Two paramedics with a stretcher leaped out of the back door and headed for the casualty, while out of the van’s side a group of dark-suited men disembarked and fanned out, waving the crowd back.
‘Hey, what’s going on?’ two policemen had rushed up until they were level with Marcus. One of the suits approached and flashed an ID card. They exchanged a quick look and started forcing the onlookers back.
Marcus leant forward to look at the card. The man turned towards him and fixed him with a penetrating stare from unblinking grey eyes. Marcus had the unnerving impression that the man was trying to read his mind. When he broke his gaze, Marcus stumbled back with a renewed pounding in his head. He rested against a wall for support and heard a squeal of tyres as the van shot away.
The paramedics, the suits and the man’s body were all gone. He realised that he was clutching something tightly and, looking down, saw that it was a plastic keycard. He slipped it into his pocket and then picked his way through the crowd, catching snatches of their excited conversation.
‘Private ambulance do you think?’
‘How’d they get on the scene so quick?’
‘One of them goons stared me down and then flashed that piece in his jacket to get me moving.’
Marcus’ head was spinning – and not just from the hangover. He fired himself up with a double espresso and then breezed into work, trying to look as normal as possible. Fortunately, most of his colleagues seemed to be no better off, and he was left pretty much alone. He soon lost interest in the presentation and found himself checking out the Belton Towers. Not far away. Perhaps a brisk stroll in the open air would do him some good?
‘I’m scouting a few locations, might be gone a while.’ And with those parting words to Gerry on reception, he sauntered out of the office for the last time.
It might only have been a couple of miles distant, but the dingy façade of the Belton was worlds away from the sleek modernity of Marcus’ office. It stood in a long row of once fine houses for the Georgian middle classes, which had now become identikit hotels with their buzzing neon signs and grimy windows. He stepped around the remains of someone else’s good night out on the pavement and entered the hotel’s portico.
Where the doorbell had been there was only a trailing wire, like a strand of creeper. He frowned for a moment, then saw the card reader by the door lock. He swiped the keycard and the leaden clunk told him he could enter.
He shuffled nervously along the narrow hallway. A peeling sign on his left heralded a deserted dining room and the frosted glass window in front of the small reception booth on his right had a tattered hand written note saying ‘vacancies’ taped to it.
‘Not surprised.’ he muttered and smiled weakly at his own joke.
Marcus reached the stairs and began to climb. The thick carpet had seen better days, but at least it muffled his steps. He turned onto a gloomy landing and soon found his way to the door of 201. He inserted the keycard and turned the handle.
The door opened only a short way before hitting something. Marcus peered inside, but the room was in total darkness. He groped for a light switch, but all he could feel were flapping sheets of paper. He took out his mobile and used the feeble light to guide him as he entered the room.
A musty smell struck him and his cautious footsteps disturbed piles of rubbish on the floor. He edged forwards blindly, hoping to find the opposite wall. Then he tripped and stumbled, hands outstretched. He grabbed wildly and there was a rending sound as he fell, bringing the floor length curtains and their pole down on top of him. He flailed around to get free, losing his jacket in the process. The sunlight lancing in through the window dazzled him. He lay on his back, breathing hard. When the room finally swam into view, he felt that he was looking into the mind of a madman.
The walls and ceiling were covered in layers and layers of paper: maps, notes, photographs, newspaper cuttings and printed pages. The floor was strewn with more paper as well as a mass of cartons and cans.
When Marcus’ heart stopped pounding in his ears, he noticed the ticking. It seemed to be coming from the bed. Unlike the rest of the room, it was clear and clean, but lined up on either side were about a dozen wind-up alarm clocks.
‘What the….’ was all he could manage to say. He picked one up to examine it. A cartoon figure of a pig wobbled back and forth on the clock face. The alarm was set for 3am. He picked up another, a smiley face and another, a retro pin up. All set for 3am. As he scanned the bed, his eye was caught by something under the pillow – a memory stick. He pocketed it without a thought.
The world outside had been quiet, as if holding its breath while Marcus explored. Then it came crashing in. An engine roared and wheels skidded to a halt. Marcus peered out of the window and then threw himself back against the wall, fingers grasping at the layers of paper which came away under his panicked grip. The dark blue van was all too familiar and he guessed who the pounding footsteps outside belonged to. He leapt across to the window, threw it open and stepped out onto the narrow iron balcony.
A wave of relief struck him as he saw the fire escape. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, oblivious to his clanging footsteps that rang like an alarm bell. He hit the ground in front of the hotel, vaulted the wall and tore off up the road.
The grey-eyed man stood in the centre of room 201. He pulled the fallen curtains to one side and, stooping down, retrieved a jacket and mobile phone from the tangled material. He glanced up above his head, paused as if he was listening and nodded slowly. Taking his finds with him, he marched to the door and signalled for his two colleagues to leave. He paused in the doorway, sprayed lighter fluid at his feet, tossed in a match and then strode hurriedly away.
Marcus sat in darkness. Curtains closed, lights off. He toyed with the empty whisky tumbler in his hand as he stared at the laptop screen. It had taken half a pint before he had been able to control the shaking.
He had run from the Belton until his lungs burned and he collapsed vomiting into an alleyway. Shaking and dirty he had stumbled back to the station and onto the first train he could find home, thankful for the empty calm of an early afternoon carriage.
Back at home he had stood under a steaming hot shower as if trying to cleanse himself of what he had just seen and done. He had emerged, skin glowing, in a more rational mood.
The dead man must have been some sort of criminal or a terrorist maybe. He had blundered into the middle of some covert operation. He would ditch the memory stick and lie low. There was nothing to connect him with any of this surely? He had planned to text the office to say he was unwell. Then it had hit him. No phone, no jacket. He remembered freeing himself from the curtains. His stomach had crash-dived as he realised that a neat electronic summary of his existence was now in someone else’s hands.
He had packed a bag, grabbing an emergency bundle of cash from the wall-safe and taken a long cab ride to a quiet hotel he knew near Kings Cross. His rollercoaster day had taken another twist when he turned on the news and saw the headline, ‘Inferno at West London hotel’, the aerial tracking shot clearly showing the blackened remains of the Belton Towers. He had yanked the plug from the wall and ordered the bottle of single malt when the reporter announced that the police wanted to interview a man seen running from the scene.
Marcus looked back at the laptop screen again. He checked his work account, fired in an excuse that would keep them from bugging him for a few days and turned his attention to the memory stick.
The contents reminded him of room 201: hundreds of documents that appeared to be stuck all over the place at random. But after a while, he picked out some patterns. Political analysis: think tanks, lobbying groups and policy changes. Medical reports and diagnoses: sleep disorders, hallucinations and mental illness. And then what Marcus bracketed as the ‘crazy conspiracy stuff’: UFOs, cover ups, ancient aliens and body snatchers.
One document was entitled ‘bio’ and put a name to the desperate face he had stared into during its last moments on earth: Turner Rowley, lawyer turned investigative journalist.
After another few minutes he found what he needed: a reference to an online drop box that appeared several times in other documents. He found the website, took an educated guess on ‘RowleyT’ for the user name and was surprised when the account fired into life without a password. But the stick had been unencrypted and the name of the drop box would have fallen into the lap of anyone who spent a bit of time on this. This was a fairly obvious breadcrumb trail. Then it dawned on Marcus and he drew a shuddering breath. Turner Rowley knew that someone else might need to piece this together: because he would be dead.
He downloaded the document in the drop box. It was called ‘Putting it all together’. It began with a short statement:
‘I, Turner Rowley am of sound mind and body. There are those who say I am suffering from a mental illness. But I know that is not true. If you are reading this, then I am asking you to carry on the work I have started. This document does not deal in persuasion, evidence or argument. It contains the simple explanation.
I became ill three months ago, which led to me suffering from chronic insomnia. My body entered a cycle that left me with only 3 hours sleep per night. I began to see these.’
Marcus dropped his eyes to the illustration below. Was he serious? He read on:
Why doesn’t everybody see one? Well if you have a bad night and see something hover in front of your eyes, you’ll probably dismiss it and look away. But when you have a bad night every night, you start to wonder. And then I had a plan. Exactly 3 hours sleep per night and I was seeing them regular as you like.
Marcus thought of the clocks in Room 201. But he was interrupted by the urgent knock at the door.
‘What is it?’
Marcus strode towards the door, hit the light switch and reached for the handle. Then something made him stop. He’d had the whisky delivered already. He flung himself to one side as the door crashed open, almost crushing him against the wall. He pushed back against the door with all his weight. There was a cry as the intruder was sandwiched in the doorway, his arm sticking into the room. The outstretched hand held a gun.
Marcus wrenched the gun away and then fell back to the floor as the dark-suited man forced his way in. The man paused, removed his sunglasses and surveyed Marcus with his cold grey eyes. Then he looked up to the ceiling as if his attention had suddenly been caught by something. A few seconds later his head snapped down and he advanced.
Marcus held the gun out in front of him, turned his head away and squeezed the trigger. One, two, three times. The man staggered back as the bullets slammed into his chest. He stood there for a few moments, wobbling like a toddler’s brick tower, and then crumpled to the floor.
Marcus sat up, a whiff of gun smoke in his nostrils and his ears ringing. He got unsteadily to his feet and stumbled around the room as if in a dream. He grabbed his holdall and dropped in his laptop, cash, whisky bottle and the gun and then headed for the lift lobby.
He couldn’t quite believe what he had done. He felt dizzy and short of breath and leant against the wall, assailed by the thoughts pumping into his head.
If he had been standing on the precipice when he fled the Belton, he was now hurtling down in free-fall. Fleeing the scene of an arson attack was one thing, but he had just killed someone. ‘Wanted for murder’, he imagined rolling news headlines under some wild-eyed photo of him and living room judges condemning him. How could his life have come crashing down around him so fast? From high flyer to wanted man. But he had little time for ‘if only’ thoughts. He heard running footsteps coming his way.
He sprinted down the corridor, past his room and through the door to the rear stairs. Five minutes later he burst out of the emergency exit into a narrow alleyway. The door alarm brayed into life. He looked left, towards the main road, and saw a familiar blue van. Engines sounded and two more vans pulled up. He turned right and sprinted off and away down the alley and onto a deserted back street.
Dusk was settling now and after cutting and jinking his way through road after road he reached a small park. He soon left the path and picked his way through the bushes and trees until he was well out of sight. He sat with his back against a tree and took a swig of whisky. He fired up his laptop again, eager to read more of Rowley’s document. But he switched off the Wi-Fi first. He felt sure that was how they had traced him.
He carried on reading,
I don’t know what they are. But I know what they’re doing. They’re taking over. I’ve seen them attached to people in positions of power and influence: politicians, chief executives, media types as well as police officers and the army. And I thought it was just this country: until I saw that White House press conference.
Marcus looked back at the picture that Rowley had sketched. It showed a roughly drawn man and above him was this sort of cloud of interlocking circles about twice the size of the man’s head. There were notes around the diagram that said ‘multi-coloured’ and ‘pulsing’. What interested Marcus most however was the thin line between the cloud and the man which was labelled ‘nerve tether’. There was another drawing showing someone’s shoulders and back of the neck and the tether apparently entering the spinal cord. Marcus shivered and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he imagined something alien boring into it.
They are reliant on the host body. Kill that and they disappear back up into the sky: dead or returning somewhere, who knows? They are also weaker indoors. Their control of the host seems slow, perhaps walls and ceilings interfere with some source of power…………
The laptop beeped twice and then the screen slowly faded. Marcus swore under his breath. The battery was dead. No phone. No computer. But perhaps that was for the best. He removed the memory stick and tossed the laptop to one side.
A gentle breeze danced across the park and through the tree branches. Marcus felt himself relaxing in this temporary refuge. If he could get some sleep now he might be able to come up with a plan in the morning. He looked at his watch as it ticked onto 10pm and then closed his eyes.
The wailing siren cut through the night air and Marcus shot upright. He had a momentary sense of confusion from waking suddenly in an unfamiliar place, and then heard the police car or whatever it had been roaring into the distance. He knew he had to move on. It was just after 1am. He vaulted the wrought iron railings of the park and set out along the road.
After a few minutes, he saw a small beacon of yellow light on the corner of a dark street. A cab office. He shrunk into the shadows as a taxi pulled up. The driver got out, leaving his door open and engine running, leant in through the office door and started a furious shouted conversation with the controller inside.
Marcus seized his chance. He sprinted from the shadows, climbed into the car and disappeared in a squeal of tyres, the driver and controller staring disbelievingly after him down the street.
North, head north was all he could think. He didn’t know why, but that was his best plan. More space to aim for, more space to hide in than the cluttered capital.
He risked the motorway, at least for now. It would get him away quickest he thought. But it would have to be smaller roads during the day. He streaked away from London, weaving his way like a mouse between the feet of giants around the lorries that ruled the night time roads.
Marcus saw the orange flashing lights ahead and the bunching of the traffic. Accident maybe? He was sandwiched between two lorries that restricted his view. He saw lights and the road being narrowed by rows of cones. Rolling roadworks. Still moving though, if only slowly. Then it all came to a halt. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. He thumped the wheel. Who knew what would be coming after him?
The sat nav showed he was not far from a junction. He was studying this potential escape route so intently that the sharp tap on the window made him jump in his seat. He looked out and his jaw dropped as the uniformed figure signalled for him to open the window. He lowered it a couple of inches, his heart in his mouth.
‘Evening sir,’ said the police officer, ‘got a lorry blown a tyre up ahead. Blocking the only open lane. Might take a few more minutes to get it moved. We’re just letting people know.’
‘Ok. Thanks.’ Marcus hoped he had disguised the tremor in his voice. He looked back. The policeman had walked on a few steps towards the van behind. He would have to wait until he was fully out of sight.
Then he saw it.
The policeman’s back was to him. He had stopped and was looking up. Marcus rubbed his eyes. But the glistening silver thread was still there snaking up into the air from the policeman’s neck into the throbbing, dancing jumble of spheres that drifted like some hideous balloon just above his head. He felt sick.
He threw the car into first and revved the engine. In his panic he stalled. In the mirror he saw the officer turn. He didn’t need to look to know that a pair of piercing grey eyes was now focused on him.
After a third frantic key turn the engine roared back into life. He heaved the wheel left and shot into the hard shoulder with a tearing of metal as he left half of his front wing in the rear bumper of the nearest lorry.
Once off the motorway he roared down the darkened roads. There was no one behind him, but he had no idea where he was going. A van flew by in the opposite direction. Marcus flicked his eyes to the mirror and saw the tail lights disappearing. Then brighter red lights as the van braked and did a u-turn. He floored the pedal and the natural curve of the road took him out of his pursuer’s line of sight. He looked desperately for any turning.
Almost immediately, he saw the sign for the quarry. He swung the wheel hard right, crashed through an entry barrier and careered onto the gravel track of the access road. He forced himself to slow down and edged the car forward, past the quiet bulk of the dormant machinery. He parked up near a hut and killed the lights. It seemed as good a place as any to hole up.
No sooner had he forced the hut door than he saw the play of a set of headlights. His heart started pounding. They must have seen the broken barrier. He crouched just inside the door of the hut and watched as two men got out of the van and walked towards his hiding place. They had left the van lights on. Was there another one in there? Or were they just lighting their way? If he was lucky he could get the jump on them. They might not know he was armed. He might still get clean away.
But then his hope faded. He heard the sound of crunching gravel and two more vans appeared. They parked up next to the others. No-one else got out. But his escape route was blocked. He felt calmer. The only option was to take as many of them with him as he could. As soon as they opened the door he was going to fire.
‘This is Dagger 6. We have apprehended the target. ETA at Sword base, 15 minutes.’
‘Roger, Dagger 6. The holding team is standing by.’
A gloomy corridor.
Then a conversation happening over him.
‘Led us a merry dance this one.’
‘Did you get the stick?’
‘Found it in his pocket. All of Rowley’s work.’
‘Good. That should be the end of that particular trail.’
‘Why don’t we put a bullet in his brain now?’
‘Tut, tut. You know that our masters who are still bodiless enjoy a hunt now and again. Rowley chose a rather untidy death. But this one, who knows? He might make a good host.’
Irma Cooke struggled out of the station dragging the large case behind her. She had stepped to one side until the surging tide of commuters had cleared. She saw the taxi rank and made her way slowly over to it. She leant her case against the railing and breathed a sigh of relief. She hated coming into the city at this time, but once she was in the taxi it would be fine.
The black cab rolled up and she started manhandling her case awkwardly to the door. She heard running footsteps, and as she turned, a man slid to a halt in front of her. He was wide-eyed and his shirt was blood-stained. She tried to jump back, but he grabbed her by both hands, looked pleadingly at her and hissed in an urgent whisper.
‘They’re here. They’ve found me. Help me.’ Then her hands were released and Marcus Radcliff slumped to the ground, still holding her gaze.
Irma was a little shaken, but, as she told her sister later, the poor man was obviously deranged and that private ambulance had arrived very quickly to take him away.
It was only later on that something started to nag her. And when she woke in the small hours and remembered, it sent a shiver down her spine. When the man had first grabbed her she had noticed his stunning blue eyes. But when he slid slowly to the floor they had faded to a pale grey.
Neil Armstrong spent more than 20 years gathering half-baked ideas for short stories. He took up creative writing as a proper hobby after completing a course with the Writing Forge and his stories have appeared previously in Horror Zine, Bewildering Stories and Dark Fire Fiction. He lives in Kent, England with his wife, two children and a disinterested cat.