The story pulls you in, keeps you trapped and on the edge of your seat (on in my case–in my bed, up all night). The setting is an elevator inside an empty luxury tower, the characters are investment bankers who are forced to solve clues and look into their pasts. What could go wrong?
Highly entertaining, well-written, and full of twists and turns and excellently-drawn characters.
Please enjoy an excerpt from THE ESCAPE ROOM BELOW. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for this excerpt.
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 and had to take night- shift work guarding a luxury office tower in the final stages of construction. He had a muscular physique, dark hair, and a cleft in his chin.
He was conducting a cursory inspection when a scream rang out. At first, he didn’t hear a thing. Hip- hop music blasted through the oversize headphones he wore as he swept his flashlight across the dark recesses of the lobby.
The beam flicked across the classical faces of reproduction Greek busts cast in metal and inset into niches in the walls. They evoked an eerie otherworldliness, which gave the place the aura of a mausoleum.
Miguel paused his music to search for a fresh play list of songs. It was then that he heard the tail end of a muffled scream.
The sound was so unexpected that he instinctively froze. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard strange noises at night, whether it was the screech of tomcats brawling or the whine of construction cranes buffeted by wind. Silence followed. Miguel chided himself for his childish reaction.
He pressed PLAY to listen to a new song and was immediately assaulted by the explosive beat of a tune doing the rounds at the dance clubs where he hung out with friends.
Still, something in the screech he’d heard a moment before rattled him enough for him to be extra diligent.
He bent down to check the lock of the revolving lobby door. It was bolted shut. He swept the flashlight across a pair of still escalators and then, above his head, across the glass- walled mezzanine floor that overlooked the lobby.
He checked behind the long reception desk of blond oak slats and noticed that a black chair was at an odd angle, as if someone had left in a hurry.
A stepladder was propped against a wall where the lobby café was being set up alongside a water fountain that was not yet functional. Plastic- wrapped café tables and chairs were piled up alongside it.
In the far corner, he shone his flashlight in the direction of an elaborate model of the building complex shown to prospective tenants by Realtors rushing to achieve occupancy targets in time for the building’s opening the following month.
The model detailed an ambitious master plan to turn an abandoned ware house district that had been a magnet for homeless people and addicts into a high- end financial and shopping precinct. The first tower was almost finished. A second was halfway through construction.
When Miguel turned around to face the elevator lobby, he was struck by something so incongruent that he pushed his headphones off his head and onto his shoulders.
The backlit green fluorescent light of an elevator switch flickered in the dark. It suggested that an elevator was in use. That was impossible, because he was the only person there.
In the sobriety of the silent echo that followed, he
convinced himself once again that his vague sense of unease was the
hallucination of a fatigued mind. There was nobody in the elevator for the
simple reason that the only people on- site on weekends were the security
guards. Two per shift. Except to night, Miguel was the only one on duty.
When Stu had been a no- show for his shift, Miguel figured he’d manage alone. The construction site was fenced off with towering barbed- wire fences and a heavy- duty electric gate. Nobody came in or out until the shift ended.
In the four months he’d worked there, the only intruders he’d encountered were feral cats and rats scampering across construction equipment in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened during the night shift.
That was what he liked about the job. He was able to study
and sleep and still get paid. Sometimes he’d sleep for a couple of hours on the
soft leather lobby sofa, which he found preferable to 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.
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. It was wrapped with scaffolding. Shipping containers storing building materials were arranged like colorful Lego blocks in a muddy field alongside idle bulldozers and a crane.
Miguel removed keys from his belt to open the side entrance to let himself out, when he heard a loud crack. It whipped through the lobby with an intensity that made his ears ring.
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 skepticism in the dispatcher’s cool voice that his call was being given priority right below the doughnut run.
His heart thumped like a drum as he waited for the cops to arrive. You chicken shit, 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 stand. 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 gray mustache.
“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? 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 unmistakable 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 the elevator lobby. A light above the elevator doors was flashing to indicate an elevator’s imminent arrival. “Someone’s here.”
“The building 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 at 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 too many shots to count. His ears rang so badly, it took him a moment to realize the police had stopped firing. They’d lowered their weapons and were shouting something. He didn’t know what. He couldn’t hear a thing over the ringing in his ears.
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 “nonresponsive” and needing “a bus,” which he assumed meant an ambulance. Miguel watched a trickle of blood run along the marble floor until it formed 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.
Thirty-four Hours Earlier
Vincent was the last to arrive. His dark overcoat flared behind him as he strode through the lobby. The other three were standing in an informal huddle by a leather sofa. They didn’t notice Vincent come in. They were on their phones, with their backs to the entrance, preoccupied with emails and silent contemplation as to why they had been called to a last-minute meeting on a Friday night at an out-of-the-way office building in the South Bronx.
Vincent observed them from a distance as he walked across the lobby toward them. Over the years, the four of them had spent more time together than apart. Vincent knew them almost better than he knew himself. He knew their secrets, and their lies. There were times when he could honestly say that he’d never despised anyone more than these three people. He suspected they all shared the sentiment. Yet they needed one another. Their fates had been joined together long before.
Sylvie’s face bore its usual expression, a few degrees short of a resting-bitch face. With her cover-girl looks and dark blond hair pinned in a topknot that drew attention to her green eyes, Sylvie looked like the catwalk model that she’d been when she was a teenager. She was irritated by being called to an unscheduled meeting when she had to pack for Paris, but she didn’t let it show on her face. She studiously kept a faint upward tilt to her lips. It was a practice drummed into her over many years working in a male-dominated profession. Men could snarl or look angry with impunity; women had to smile serenely regardless of the provocation.
To her right stood Sam, wearing a charcoal suit with a white shirt and a black tie. His stubble matched the dark blond of his closely cropped hair. His jaw twitched from the knot of anxiety in his guts. He’d felt stabbing pains ever since his wife, Kim, telephoned during the drive over. She was furious that he wouldn’t make the flight to Antigua because he was attending an unscheduled meeting. She hated the fact that his work always took precedence over her and the girls.
Jules stood slightly away from the other two, sucking on a peppermint candy to disguise the alcohol on his breath. He wore a suave burgundy-and-navy silk tie that made his Gypsy eyes burn with intensity. His dark hair was brushed back in the style of a fifties movie star. He usually drank vodka because it was odorless and didn’t make his face flush, but now his cheeks were ruddy in a tell-tale sign he’d been drinking. The minibar in his chauffeured car was out of vodka, so he’d had to make do with whiskey on the ride over. The empty bottles were still rattling around in his briefcase.
As they waited for their meeting, they all had the same paranoid notion that they’d been brought to a satellite office to be retrenched. Their careers would be assassinated silently, away from the watercooler gossips at the head office.
It was how they would have done it if the positions were reversed. A Friday-evening meeting at an out-of-the-way office, concluding with a retrenchment package and a nondisclosure agreement signed and sealed.
The firm was considering unprecedented layoffs, and they were acutely aware they had red targets on their backs. They said none of this to one another. They kept their eyes downcast as they worked on their phones, unaware they were the only ones in the lobby. Just as they hadn’t paid much mind to the cranes and construction fencing on their way in.
Sam checked his bank account while he waited. The negative balance made him queasy. He’d wiped out all the cash in his account that morning paying Kim’s credit-card bill. If he lost his job, then the floodgates would open. He could survive two to three months without work; after that, he’d have to sell assets. That alone would destroy him financially. He was leveraged to the hilt. Some of his assets were worth less now than when he’d bought them.
The last time Sam had received a credit-card bill that huge, he’d immediately lowered Kim’s credit limit. Kim found out when her payment for an eleven-thousand-dollar Hermès handbag was rejected at the Madison Avenue store in front of her friends. She was mortified. They had a huge blowup that night, and he reluctantly restored her credit limit. Now he paid all her bills without a word of complaint. Even if it meant taking out bridging loans. Even if it meant constantly feeling on the verge of a heart attack.
Sam knew that Kim spent money as much for attention as out of boredom. She complained that Sam was never around to help with the twins. He’d had to point out that they’d hired a maid to give her all the help she needed. Three maids, to be truthful. Three within the space of two years. The third had walked out in tears a week ago due to Kim’s erratic temper.
Kim was never satisfied with anything. If Sam gave Kim a platinum necklace, she wanted it in gold. If he took her to London, she wanted Paris. If he bought her a BMW, she wanted a Porsche.
Satisfying her unceasing demands was doable when his job prospects were good, but the firm had lost a major account, and since Christmas word had spread of an impending restructure. Everyone knew that was a euphemism for layoffs.
Sam never doubted that Kim would leave him if he couldn’t support her lifestyle anymore. She’d demand full custody of the girls and she’d raise them to hate him. Kim forgave most of his transgressions, she could even live with his infidelities, but she never forgave failure.
It was Sam who first heard the footsteps sounding through the vast lobby. The long, hurried strides of a man running late to a meeting. Sam swung around as their boss arrived. Vincent’s square jaw was tight and his broad shoulders were tense as he joined them without saying a word.
“You almost didn’t make it,” observed Sylvie.
“The traffic was terrible.” Vincent ran his hand over his overcoat pocket in the habit of a man who had recently stopped smoking. Instead of cigarettes, he took out a pair of glasses, which he put on to examine the message on his phone. “Are you all aware of the purpose of this meeting?”
“The email invite from HR wasn’t exactly brimming with information,” said Sam. “You said in your text message it was compulsory for us to attend. That it took precedence over everything else. Well, we’re all here. So maybe now you can enlighten us, Vincent. What’s so important that I had to delay my trip to Antigua?”
“Who here has done an escape-room challenge before?” Vincent asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Sam said. “I abandoned my wife on her dream vacation to participate in a team-building activity! This is bullshit, Vincent. It’s goddamn bullshit and you know it.”
“It will take an hour,” said Vincent calmly. “Next Friday is bonus day. I’m sure that we all agree that it’s smart to be on our best behavior before bonus day, especially in the current climate.”
“Let’s do it,” said Sylvie, sighing. Her flight to Paris was at midnight. She still had plenty of time to get home and pack. Vincent led them to a brightly lit elevator with its doors wide open. Inside were mirrored walls and an alabaster marble floor.
They stepped inside. The steel doors shut behind them before they could turn around.
It’s remarkable what a Windsor knot divulges about a man. Richie’s Italian silk tie was a brash shade of red, with thin gold stripes running on a diagonal. It was the tie of a man whose arrogance was dwarfed only by his ego.
In truth, I didn’t need to look at his tie to know that Richie was a douche. The dead giveaway was that when I entered the interview room, a nervous smile on my pink matte painted lips, he didn’t bother to greet me. Or even to stand up from the leather chair where he sat and surveyed me as I entered the room.
While I categorized Richie as a first-class creep the moment I set eyes on him, I was acutely aware that I needed to impress him if I was to have any chance of getting the job. I introduced myself and reached out confidently to shake his hand. He shook my hand with a grip that was tighter than necessary—a reminder, perhaps, that he could crush my career aspirations as easily as he could break the bones in my delicate hand.
He introduced himself as Richard Worthington. The third, if you don’t mind. He had a two-hundred-dollar haircut, a custom shave, and hands that were softer than butter. He was in his late twenties, around five years older than I was.
When we were done shaking hands, Richie leaned back in his chair and surveyed me with a touch of amusement as I settled into my seat across the table.
“You can take off your jacket and relax,” he said. “We try to keep interviews informal here.”
I took off my jacket and left it folded over the back of the chair next to me as I wondered what he saw when he looked at me. Did he see a struggling business-school graduate with a newly minted MBA that didn’t appear to be worth the paper it was written on? Or was he perceptive enough to see an intelligent, accomplished young woman? Glossy brown hair cut to a professional shoulder length, serious gray eyes, wearing a brand-new designer suit she couldn’t afford and borrowed Louboutin shoes that were a half size too small and pinched her toes.
I took a deep breath and tried to project the poise and confidence necessary to show him that I was the best candidate. Finally I had a chance at getting my dream job on Wall Street. I would do everything that I could humanly do not to screw it up.
Richie wore a dark gray suit with a fitted white shirt. His cuff links were Hermès, arranged so that the H insignia was clearly visible. On his wrist was an Audemars Piguet watch, a thirty-grand piece that told everyone who cared that he was the very model of a Wall Street player.
Richie left me on the edge of my seat, waiting awkwardly, as he read over my résumé. Paper rustled as he scanned the neatly formatted sheets that summed up my life in two pages. I had the impression that he was looking at it for the first time. When he was done, he examined me over the top of the pages with the lascivious expression of a john sizing up girls at a Nevada whorehouse.
All the lights in the elevator turned off at once. It happened the moment the doors shut. One moment they were in a brightly lit elevator; the next they were in pitch- darkness. They were as good as blind, save for the weak fluorescent glow from a small display above the steel doors showing the floor number.
Jules stumbled toward the elevator control panel. He pressed the button to open the doors. The darkness was suffocating him. He had to get out. The elevator shot up before anything happened. The jolt was unexpected. Jules lost his footing and fell against the wall with a thud.
As the elevator accelerated upward, they assumed the lights would be restored at any moment. In every other respect, the elevator was working fine. It was ascending smoothly. The green display above the door was showing the changing floor numbers. There was no reason why it should be dark.
Without realizing it, they shifted toward one another, drawn
together by a primordial fear of the dark and the unknown dangers that lurked
within it. Jules fumbled for his phone and turned on the flashlight setting so
that he could see what he was doing. He frantically pressed the buttons for
upcoming floors. They didn’t appear to respond to the insistent pressure of his
“It’s probably an express,” explained Sylvie. “I saw a sign in the lobby that said something about the elevator running express until the seventieth floor.”
Jules pressed the button for the seventieth floor. And the
seventy-first. And, for good measure, the seventy- second, as well. The buttons
immediately lit up one after the other, each button backlit in green. Jules
silently counted the remaining floors. All he could think about
was getting out.
He loosened his tie to alleviate the tightness in his chest. He’d never considered himself claustrophobic, but he’d had an issue with confined spaces ever since he was a child. He once left summer camp early, in hysterics after being accidentally locked in a toilet stall for a few minutes. His mother told the camp leader that his overreaction was due to a childhood trauma that left him somewhat claustrophobic and nervous in the dark.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ll be taking the stairs on the way down,” Sam joked with fake nonchalance. “I’m not getting back into this hunk of junk again.”
“Maybe the firm is locking us up in here until we resign voluntarily,” Jules said drily. “It’ll save Stanhope a shitload of money.” He swallowed hard. The elevator was approaching the fortieth floor. They were halfway there. He had to hold it together for another thirty floors.
“It would be a mistake if the firm retrenched any of us,”
said Vincent. “I told the executive team as much when we met earlier this
week.” What Vincent didn’t mention was that several of the
leadership team had avoided looking at him during that meeting. That was when he knew the writing was on the wall.
“Why get rid of us? We’ve always made the firm plenty of money,” Sylvie said.
“Until lately,” Vincent said pointedly.
They’d failed to secure two major deals in a row. Those
deals had both gone to a key competitor, who had inexplicably undercut them
each time. It made them wonder whether their competitor had inside knowledge of
their bids. The team’s revenue was lower than it had
been in years. For the first time ever, their jobs were vulnerable.
“Are we getting fired, Vincent?” Jules asked as the elevator continued rising. “Is that why we were summoned here? They must have told you something.”
“I got the same generic meeting invite that you all received,” Vincent responded. “It was only as I arrived that I received a text with instructions to bring you all up to the eightieth floor for an escape room challenge. The results of which, it said, would be used for ‘internal consultations about future staff planning.’ Make of that what you will.”
“Sounds like they want to see how we perform tonight before deciding what to do with us,” said Sylvie. “I’ve never done an escape room. What exactly are we supposed to do?”
“It’s straightforward,” said Sam. “You’re locked in a room and have to solve a series of clues to get out.”
“And on that basis they’re going to decide which of us to fire?” Jules asked Vincent in the dark.
“I doubt it,” Vincent said. “The firm doesn’t work that way.”
“Vincent’s right,” said Jules cynically. “Let’s take a more optimistic tack. Maybe they’re using our escape room performance to determine who to promote to Eric Miles’s job.” Eric had resigned before Christmas under something of a cloud. They’d heard rumors the firm was going to promote someone to the job internally. Such promotions were highly sought after. At a time when their jobs were in jeopardy, it offered one of them a potential career lifeline.
The green display above the door flashed the number 67. They had three more floors to go until the elevator finished the express part of the ride. The elevator slowed down and came to a stop on the seventieth floor. Jules exhaled in relief. He stepped forward in anticipation of the doors opening. They remained shut.
He pressed the open button on the control panel. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, holding it down for several seconds. The doors still didn’t budge. He pressed the button three times in quick succession. Nothing. Finally, in desperation, he pressed the red emergency button. There was no response.
“It’s not working,” he said.
They looked up at the panel above the door that displayed the floor numbers. It had an E on its screen. Error.
A small television monitor above the control panel turned on. At first, they didn’t think much of it. They expected to see cable news or a stock market update, the type of thing usually broadcast on elevator monitors.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the brightness of the white television screen. After another moment, a message appeared in large black letters.
TO THE ESCAPE
ROOM. YOUR GOAL IS SIMPLE.
GET OUT ALIVE.
From The Escape Room. Copyright © 2019 by Megan Goldin and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.