Secrets can be funny old things.
Wriggling. Squirming. Desperate to be free. Most secrets are fragile; always on the brink of shattering. A single misplaced word, even a too-long pause, causes spiderweb splinters across their surface, like heavy boots upon a frozen lake. Some secrets lay tucked away in tight-lipped corpses, taken to the grave, buried and forgotten. But the rarest kind of secrets - a curious few - are too strange to even exist.
Powerful authorities ensure they are removed from the world we know. Our everyday life cannot handle something so inexplicable. So horrific. So bizarre. For our safety and sanity, these particular secrets are scurried out of sight, thrown into a pit, and locked away.
Floor Fifty-Four is one such pit. If you were to step foot inside its sprawling halls, you would be forgiven for getting lost. It is a maze of twisting corridors, scientific laboratories and glass-fronted prison cells. Here, those curious secrets are put on full display. Observed. Studied. Restrained. Here, they are known as ‘Items of Interest’. Eyeless horrors that seem to watch anyone walking past their cells. Here, there are hundreds of them. If you were of a curious mind, you could spend days exploring a single wing. Careless minds might never return.
Most cells are the same. Cold, silent rooms containing a single object within. Harsh artificial light illuminates it. Surveillance cameras watch it. Guards patrol outside. If left alone, these items might stay as ordinary as they appear.
But there is danger here. The most deadly items usually have unique rooms. They require a specific containment procedure. No expense spared, because the alternative is too terrible to consider. A small poison ivy plant, surrounded by walls and flooring made of terracotta pottery, napalm poised to flood the chamber at a moment’s notice. A house cat made of black and white static, with everything he needs to make him stay. And then there is The Narrator.
His cell was never cold, for a start. A roaring fireplace sat at its centre, flames flickering to life whenever the temperature dropped too low. Gilded artwork adorned the walls; printed copies of famous masterpieces that can be changed upon request. A wall clock, pendulum swinging, faintly ticking as it counted the passing time. Embossed black wallpaper, hanging gas lamps and an intricately-patterned Persian rug. Most noticeably of all, unlike all the others, his cell had a distinct absence of reinforced glass. A heavy, black door was the only way in or out. No, this room was not like the others in the slightest.
Painted on the oak floor boards, a thick red line ran in a tight perimeter around the remaining contents of the room. A book shelf, a red leather armchair, and a man who was not a man at all.
Wrapped in a checkered three-piece suit, his clothes very much looked a part of him. As did the chair. As did the books. He adjusted his half moon glasses before pulling himself away from the page he was reading.
“Ahh,” he smiled, snapping the book shut. “You’re here at last.”
From the black door drifted a soft beeping melody, and with a sharp hiss the door began to swing inward on its hinges. Sterile light flooded into the room, and the opening door revealed several figures lingering in a particularly-cold-looking concrete corridor. The first cautiously made her way inside. She was draped in a long, white overcoat and clutched a metal tray in her quivering hands. Atop the tray was a china cup, filled with tea, and a matching china plate with three biscuits sliding across its smooth surface. She crept forwards, eyes wide. Behind her, equally as watchful, were two burly guards, clad in rippling black armour and clutching pronged weapons which sparked and sizzled the air around them.
The strange man smiled warmly, and removed his glasses. “Not them. Though their appearance is a timely one. Thank you, dear.”
The tray was offered to the strange man with outstretched hands, shaking so violently that the plate and cup rattled against the metal, threatening to spill the tea entirely. As slow as a snake, the man reached out and took the tray, snapping the rattle to a sudden halt. The woman flinched, emitting a small squeak as her legs took an involuntary, instinctual step backwards.
“It’s a good job she didn’t overfill the cup,” said the man, his smile nowhere to be seen. “My tea would have slopped over the sides.”
Hands raised defensively, her entire body still trembling, the woman fled the room, darting between her two guards with rabbit-quick footsteps. They too left the room, not turning their backs, stepping together. Another melodic beep, another hiss, and the black door swivelled shut, hiding the three figures and the cold corridor once more.
The strange man set down the tray on the oak table beside him. His smile returned, warm as fresh apple crumble, and he stared intently at the air before him.
“No, I wasn’t talking to them. I was talking to you.”
His smile deepened, head tilting ever so slightly.
“That's right. You. Reading this book.”
His attention turned to the metal tray, and he snatched up the china cup by the handle. His fingers danced in the air, hovering above the biscuits, deciding which to grasp.
“It feels like I’ve been waiting forever,” he announced, selecting the middle biscuit; a chocolate digestive. “But you know what they say about good things and waiting...”
Blowing hot steam away from his cup of tea, he took a delicate first sip. If it was scalding hot, he showed no signs. Instead, he set the cup back down and took a first bite of his biscuit, before returning that to its plate too. Small tastes were enough for this man, it seemed.
His eyes drifted to the bookcase, and he stretched in his chair to reach. His fingers tapped the spine of each book in turn. “But where to start…? Hmm…” Leaning completely over the armrest, he never left his seat, his fingers stalking the shelves. After a moment, he settled on the furthest book, snatching it up. “Aah. Yes. At the beginning.”
“At this…” he paused, gesturing to the room around himself, “wonderful place. Floor Fifty-Four.”
“As long as there have been people, there have been stories. Myths. Legends. Tales to tell around campfires, after darkness digs its claws into the world. Stories that have spread from generation to generation, to you. Some small part of you, deep down in your bones must have wondered. Could they all... just be stories? Fantasy? Fiction? Some, of course, are entirely conjured from wild imaginations. But all of them? Every story? Ever?”
The man who was not a man chuckled to himself. A quiet, rasping sound.
“Magic. Monsters. Gods. They were all real. For a time. Before your ancestors turned the tables. Before those secrets were locked away, the keys swallowed. But, just as a dirty little secret eventually wriggles and squirms its way free, so too, do remnants of the old world ripple in the shadows of the new. There’s a reason you fear the dark. A reason all people have shared fears, seared into the very edges of their minds.”
His smile widened. And widened. And widened. Alone in his cell, the strange man stared intently at nothing in particular, his eyes sliding in and out of focus. He continued to stretch his smile, until it became too wide for his face. Until his lips sounded like tightening leather straps.
“This place,” he said, smile vanishing as he gestured to the room around him, “is where such things get locked away. The Ministry of Secrets. Fifty-four floors of horrors and lies. And this… this is the bottom rung of the ladder. Floor Fifty-Four.”
“I suppose you could see for yourself. I mean, it’s right outside. If I simply nudge your perspective a little, just beyond these walls, you could roam freely. You’d have to put up with their chattering though. Dull questions, with dull answers. Go ahead, I’ll wait.”
He made a dismissive shooing gesture whilst opening the hardcover of the book in his hands, before licking his finger and turning the page.
In the corridors of Floor Fifty-Four, Dr Suzie Milton walked unsteadily on black kitten heels. It wasn’t the shoes that were making her legs wobble, though. She had been warned that Item 001 could be unnerving. She had been told it might talk to her, and that under no circumstances was she to cross the red line. But seeing ‘The Narrator’ in the flesh was still making her fingers tremble, and she hadn’t yet been able to shake loose an unsettling feeling that had nestled between the bones of her spine.
“...every day?” she asked the two guards walking alongside her. “Someone brings that... thing... a cup of tea every day?”
“And biscuits,” Bryce added in a smug growl. “Trust me, you don’t want to forget the biscuits.”
He was enjoying this. Bryce always seemed to enjoy himself when Suzie was afraid. He liked to drag it out, to bathe in it, like a water buffalo. Maybe seeing others scared made him feel less afraid himself. Or maybe he was just an arse.
They walked past row after row of glass-fronted cells. Each cell had nothing inside except one item. Some were strange. Some were mundane. But Suzie knew by now that if she didn’t immediately recognise an item, it was best to ignore it entirely. At least she knew what most of them did now. Most of the ones on display, at least. As they reached the angel statue - it wasn’t crying today - Suzie turned away from the guards and started to make her excuses.
“I’d better go and speak to Dr Auburn. There was nothing in the report about it speaking like that.”
“Aah, it talks all the time,” said Bryce, waving his hand. “Loves to talk, that one.”
“It’s shutting him up that’s the problem,” said Phil, and when Bryce wasn’t looking, he subtly nodded his head towards the other guard. Apparently he wasn’t just talking about Item 001. Suzie shared a small smile with the old man, but work was still at the forefront of her mind.
“It talks to people who enter, yes,” Suzie agreed. “Tries to lure them into conversation, but… didn’t you feel as though it wasn’t talking to us?”
“I just ignore it, to be honest,” said Bryce, casually tapping his armoured plating with his baton.
“‘Not them’,” Suzie muttered, mulling it over and over. “That was the first thing it said. Almost as if it were already mid-conversation...”
Bryce shook his head and turned to the other guard. “I hate it when they do this,” he announced, as if Suzie wasn’t standing directly behind him. “You can see the wheels turning and you just know we’re gonna end up pulling double shifts.”
“I think Dr Milton’s right,” admitted Phil, “Normally it says my name, asks me how many days ‘til retirement. I never know, but it does. Tells me exactly how many days, then it laughs. Barely noticed us today. Seemed almost bored by us.”
Bryce’s expression soured a little, but only for a moment. As he whirled around to face Suzie, his eyes glittered with amusement. “Always forget you’re a doctor,” he said with a smirk. His gaze swept her up and down, lingering on all the places she wished he wouldn’t. “Doctor’s are usually… bigger.”
Suzie felt her face glow ember-hot. She wanted to storm off, or better yet - say something! - to show Bryce that his actions were hurtful and intolerable, but her mouth wouldn’t make any noise, and her feet… her feet were far too polite. Far too timid. The most confrontation she could muster was looking at the floor. Even that felt rude.
“Well, you heard Dr Milton, she’s got places to be,” Phil said after a moment, and he turned away.
Bryce didn’t follow. Instead he leaned forwards and lowered his voice to a growl. “Well I’d hardly be a gentleman if I let the lady walk alone…”
With that, he started walking, and Suzie’s too-polite feet followed. Eager to talk about something - anything - instead of letting Bryce grapple his arms around the conversation, Suzie returned to Item 001.
“In the report, it says sometimes the cell is empty. Sometimes Item 001 just… leaves?”
Bryce made a show of rolling his eyes. “Call it ‘The Narrator’, will ya? We don’t all speak numbers.”
“Well, it’s just that nicknames create attachments and a false sense of…” Suzie glanced at Bryce’s grim face and sighed. “Fine… ‘The Narrator’... sometimes leaves its cell. Isn’t that a little concerning?”
Bryce shrugged. “He always comes back.”
“But that’s not the point,” said Suzie in an exasperated voice, “how does he escape? Where does he go? And if he can leave whenever he wants, why does he come back?”
They walked between glass fronted cells, ignoring the items within. In fact, they were so engaged in their conversation, they didn’t even seem to notice the man sat in a red leather armchair, just a few paces ahead. He didn’t pay them any attention either, nose buried in his book, legs lazily sprawled out into the corridor. Though each step brought them closer to colliding, neither party seemed aware of the other.
As Dr Milton and Bryce walked close enough to touch, the man tucked in his legs at the last possible moment. Both the burly guard and the diminutive scientist carried on down the corridor, completely oblivious to their close encounter.
The Narrator looked up from his book, holding his place with a finger. Once more he looked into empty space and spoke, arching a wry eyebrow as he did so.
“I did warn you. So terribly dull. Dreary questions from dreary people. Not that they don’t each have their moments, mind you…” his eyes drifted away, wandering towards his vast shelf of books. He seemed to catch himself, and smiled. “Another time, perhaps.”
In the distance, the two figures turned a corner and disappeared. The Narrator didn’t spare them a glance, but he flashed a wicked grin. “You’re wondering why they couldn’t see me.”
Resuming his place amongst the pages, the man stroked gently down the page. “I’ve often found that words possess a certain magic. Place them in a specific order and they can become something else entirely. A portal to another world. Another time. Another place. Why, the right words in the right sequence could make someone fall in love with you, or try to kill you. And if a mere sentence can hold magic, imagine the power of an entire book. Skip ahead, and you could read the future. Flick back a few pages and...”
As he spoke, he did so, leafing through the book in his hands. Dr Milton and Bryce were once more in the corridor, approaching him and unaware. Mid-conversation, they spoke the same words they had just moments before. This time, however, The Narrator left a single leg stretched out from his chair. As Bryce walked past, his boot clipped the barest slither of trouser, and he stumbled.
Muttering a curse, Bryce turned around to face The Narrator, but saw nothing except an empty corridor. Muttering about the uneven floor, Bryce resumed his conversation and walked away.
“Forwards, backwards. It’s as simple as turning a page.” The Narrator pursed his lips and traced the words in the page with a finger. He lingered on this very sentence, a sentence that described him in the corridor. The words changed. And he wasn’t in the corridor any more. Sat on his red leather chair, he wiped dust from the glass of the cell he had placed himself inside. Outside, just beyond the glass, Dr Milton and Bryce walked past, repeating their conversation once more.
“Change a few words,” said The Narrator, “and I can be here, instead of there. And if the story gets tiresome…”
He turned his head to his vast bookcase, which had followed him inside the cell. Still at the same angle. Still the same distance away. As his eyes drifted among the spines, their colours shifted, their titles flickered. Book swelled and shrank as pages came and went. The Narrator smiled. “There are always more.”
He snapped his book shut, and was back in his room once more. The flames in his hearth roared at his appearance, and he took a sip of tea. Thirst apparently quenched, he set it down and turned back to address the air.
“So yes, in a manner of speaking, I can go to any place, visit any time. I can watch from the shadows, or if I truly want to... I can make myself known. But doing that too much that would change the story. Ruin it.”
The Narrator straightened his back and adjusted himself, settling into his chair. “And you didn’t come here for bad stories now, did you?”
He shook the book in his hands. “This. This is what you came for. An introduction. A curious toe, dangled into unknown waters, so to speak.”
Without looking, he collected his cup of tea and clutched it close to him.
“So. Let’s get the taste on your tongue. There are hundreds of items just outside these very walls. Now they are simply prisoners, half understood and locked tightly away from prying eyes, but once there was a time where they roamed free. Before they found themselves in this… zoo. This museum. This prison for the strange. Someone had to find them, after all. Some poor, unassuming soul whose thread became entangled and, so often, cut short.”
The Narrator reached to his shelf, and scooped up a blackened book. Smoke drifted from within, and the Narrator seemed to ignore the still-glowing embers around its scorched edges.
“Which does make me think of a story…”
This was a preview chapter for 'Tales from Floor Fifty-Four', which is available now on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.
Amazon.com - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09H...
Amazon UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09H...