The next morning, he woke wondering why he felt so nervous.
Then he remembered. It was the first day in his new job.
As he showered, he went over the night before. Rashad had fallen asleep on his shoulder halfway through the movie, which was kind of sweet. When Tom woke him at the end of the film, he had been embarrassed, muttering sheepishly about pulling a seventy-hour week before that weekend. At the door they had hugged, exchanged a quick peck on the lips, and that was it.
Which was great. It seemed right. There was an ease between them, not a huge flaring of lust, and Tom could live with that. He had too much else to take in before engaging in a complicated relationship with a man who was way above his pay grade.
“Hell, I’m really growing up,” he said into the mirror as he fastened his black shirt. He chose the black skinny jeans to go with it.
At precisely 8:30, Sally knocked on his door. She smiled when he thanked her for the groceries. “It’s a pleasure, Tom. I hope you don’t mind Rashad visiting last night.”
“We had a great time. I don’t think I’ll ever stop appreciating everything you’ve done. This is all new for me. Do I look okay?”
Another reassuring smile. “You look fine. Once you’re in a lab coat, no one will see what you’re wearing. Let’s go.” She headed for the door and he followed her. “Remember your lanyard, Tom.”
“Yes!” He ran back and grabbed it. As they walked back out of the building, he put his apartment key on the strap as well and hung it round his neck.
He followed Sally to an unassuming building, mostly smothered in a thick coat of ivy. As they stood outside an old green door, the paint chipped and peeling, he took in the cobweb-covered windows on either side.
“Is this it?”
Sally laughed. “It’s cunningly hidden for a reason.” She pressed the card on her lanyard to a reader hidden in the ivy and the door clicked open. “Come on. Don’t be nervous.”
“Should I be?”
“Not at all, unless you’re up to no good.” She began to walk briskly down a long, dimly lit flight of stairs. It seemed to go on and on, deep into the bowels of the earth. Their footsteps echoed around the steep walls. When they reached the last stair, a brighter light flicked on, illuminating a long, bare corridor. They passed doors with signs on them: Operations Room 1, Radar Detection, and most worryingly, Nuclear Launch Room.
“All these are now empty and unused,” Sally said, as if reading his mind. “They’ve been empty a long time. See?” She held her security pass to a keypad and opened the door with the Nuclear Launch Room sign. It was a dark room, smelling old and stale, and full of ancient computers and monitors.
“Where are the offices and labs? Where’s Professor Lomax?”
“On U4. That’s where the real work is done.” She looked at his anxious face. “Tom, it’s fine. You’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, I know that. It’s just… weird.”
“It is, but you’ll get used to it. And don’t worry about the guards.
You get used to them as well. I was scared of the guns at first, but not anymore.”
They came to a lift flanked by two blank-faced guards carrying automatic rifles. They did not acknowledge Tom or Sally as she pressed the down button.
“Are these guys really needed?”
“Philip Worley is very serious about security. That’s what he’s paid for. And Professor Lomax is a natural target from animal rights activists because of the experiments he’s conducted in the past.”
Tom could not blame them. He hated the thought of animals being hurt in the name of science, but he knew better than to say so. Even so, he hadn’t signed up to see rabbits with wires attached to their brains.
“There are no animals here now,” Sally said, almost as if she could read his mind again. “We’re using human subjects to test out the latest MRSA vaccine. That’s all I’m allowed to tell you for now. One thing you need to know about the professor. He is extremely strict about cleanliness. He doesn’t shake hands with anyone, so don’t try.”
“Uh, thanks for the tip.”
The lift doors slid open to reveal a tall, slim man in a smart three-piece suit. His dark hair had not one strand out of place. Dark brown eyes appraised Tom from head to foot and back up again. A look of disdain passed over the man’s angular features.
“Who is this?”
“Tom Soames, your new lab porter,” Sally said.
Lomax did not look like Tom’s idea of a mad scientist. He reminded him more of his head teacher at secondary school, whom he’d had a serious crush on for over four years. He resisted the urge to put his hands behind his back.
“I’ll take him down. Thank you, Sally.”
“Yes, sir. Good luck, Tom.” She turned smartly away and was gone before Tom could thank her.
Tom stepped into the lift before the doors could shut again. His stomach lurched as the lift descended. There seemed to be a lot of floors. Professor Lomax had not said a word to him. His posture was very stiff, his back pressed against the side of the elevator as if he wanted as much distance as possible between them.
“Is your apartment to your liking?” Lomax barked, making Tom jump.
“It’s fantastic. I wasn’t expecting—”
The lift door slid open with a soft ping. Professor Lomax was through the door before it had fully opened, as if he could not wait to get away. Tom had to run to keep up with his long stride.
Lomax led him down another long corridor, only this one was covered in plush gray carpet, and windows into brightly lit laboratories on one side. People in white coats sat at counters, peering into microscopes or poring through heavy books. A meeting was going on in another, a cluster of white-clad, serious people. It felt alien and the whole place smelled like a hospital. On the other side were doors at regular intervals, each one with a name and number on a slot-in card.
As he glanced in one of the small windows, a face appeared, making him jump back in alarm. The man looked wild, his teeth bared.
“Help me,” he hissed. “Get me out of here! They’re killing me!”
“Professor Lomax!” Tom called to him.
The professor came back to look at the man, assessing the situation. He knocked on the window of the laboratory, causing the people within to look up. One came running over to the door.
“Number 17 is showing psychosis.”
“He’s been doing that for three hours. No sign of improvement.”
“Give him 10 mils of E1. Watch him closely for side effects. And send Nic and Troy to my office.”
The door closed. Professor Lomax continued down the corridor with Tom practically running behind him.
“Wait….” The sight had disturbed him. What the hell was this place?
Lomax guided him through the door, up a short flight of stairs into a large office, surrounded on two sides with glass. The laboratory they had just passed could be seen below. A further door led to another glass-panelled room, but all the blinds were drawn.
Sit down.” Lomax motioned towards a corner sofa. “Would you care for a cup of jasmine tea?”
“Um… sure.” Tom perched on the edge of the seat.
Lomax poured from a bone china teapot into two dainty cups with Japanese figures on them and handed one to Tom. The cup did not have a handle, and it looked too delicate to touch. The liquid inside was pale yellow and smelled of flowers. Out of politeness, Tom took a sip.
“Delicious,” he lied.
A knock announced the arrival of Troy and a small, plain woman wearing ugly black-rimmed spectacles.
“Tom, this is Dr. Nic Fassett and Dr. Troy Mjebe. I believe you’ve already made Troy’s acquaintance.”
“We sure have. Welcome, Tom.” Troy beamed and stuck out his hand. Tom shook it, feeling relieved at the sight of a friendly face.
“Thanks. Um… what was wrong with that man? Why is he here?”
Lomax set down his teacup. “We conduct clinical trials, Tom. At the moment, we are trialling a new drug which we hope will eradicate the withdrawal symptoms of heroin users. Human subjects are invaluable to our research. But you must understand, they are volunteers. They know the risks and are willing to take them.”
“You mean, they’re druggies, right? You pick them up off the street, promise them somewhere warm to sleep, and then do experiments on them?”
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to tell me anything?” Tom felt panic rising in his gut.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” Lomax’s voice was low and menacing. “The opportunity for you to make moral judgments on the work we do here has passed. Please feel free to leave if you have a problem with that.”
Tom knew he had no choice. If he walked out, he could kiss goodbye the fancy apartment and overinflated salary and say hello to a cardboard box in the underpass, if he was lucky.
Troy stepped in and put a gentle hand on Tom’s arm. “What Professor Lomax means is ‘Welcome to the Bunker.’”