The Way Inn by Will Wiles

As well as being a contributor to The Post and an architecture and design writer for Icon, Will Wiles has reinvented the horror story with his new novel, The Way Inn.

With Halloween approaching, we’re printing an exclusive excerpt, in which we meet the protagonist whose life as a professional conference-goer leads to the discovery of an appalling secret lurking behind the fake smiles and muzak of a budget hotel chain…

Myself, reflected to infinity, bending away into an unseeable grey nothing on a twisted horizon. The lift came to a smooth halt. My myriad reflections in its mirrored walls stopped looking at each other. The doors opened, revealing the bright lobby and a pot-bellied man with a moustache, who stared back at me as if astonished that I should be using his lift. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, a social reflex, and stepped out.

Music had been playing in the lift, softly, as if it was not meant to be heard. If it was not meant to be heard, why play it at all? To prevent silence, perhaps, to insulate the traveller from isolation and reflection, just as the opposing mirrors provided an unending army of companions that was best admired alone. But I had heard the music, and had been trying to identify it. The answer had come when the doors opened: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, instrumental, in a zero-cal easy-listening style.

Wet polymers hung in the air. The hotel was new, new, new, and the chemicals used to treat the upholstery and carpets perfumed the lobby. Box-fresh surfaces blazed under scores of LED bulbs. The lobby was a long, corridor-like space connecting the main entrance with one of the building’s courtyards. These courtyards were made up to look like Japanese Zen meditation gardens, a hollow square of benches enclosing an expanse of raked gravel, a dull little pond and a couple of artfully placed boulders, slate-slippery with rain. I have stayed in twenty or thirty Way Inn hotels and I have never seen anyone use those spaces to meditate. They use them to smoke. But that’s hotels, really – everything is designed for someone else. Meditation gardens you don’t meditate in, chairs you don’t sit in, drawers you don’t fill containing Bibles you don’t read. And I don’t know who’s using those shoe-cleaning machines.

Opposite the reception desk a line of trestle tables had been set up in the night, and were now staffed by public-relations blondes. Business-suited people and mild conversation filled the space between the PRs and the hotel staff, checking in, carrying bags in and out, picking up papers, shaking hands. Beyond a glazed wall, the restaurant was busy. A banner over the trestles read YOU CAN REGISTER HERE.

Very well then. I walked over; confident, unrecognised, at home. These moments, the first contact between myself and the target event, I treasure. They do not yet know who I am, what my role or meaning might be. But I know everything about them. A blonde woman smiled at me from the other side of the table, over a laptop computer and a spread of hundreds of identical folders. ‘Good morning,’ I said, holding out a business card. ‘Neil Double.’

She took the card, studied it momentarily, and tapped at the keyboard of the laptop. Although I couldn’t see her screen, I knew exactly what she was looking at – my photograph, the personal details that had been fed into the ‘*required’ boxes of an online form six months ago, little else. ‘Mr Double,’ she said, English tinged with a Spanish accent, her smile a few calories warmer than before. ‘Welcome to Meetex.’

A tongue of white card spooled out of the printer connected to the woman’s laptop. In a practised, brisk move, she tore it off, slipped it into a clear plastic holder attached to a lanyard and handed it to me. ‘You’ll need this to get in and out of the centre,’ she said. I nodded, trying to convey the sense that I had done this before, that I had done it dozens of times this year alone, without being rude. But she pressed on, perhaps unable to change course, conditioned by repetition into reciting the script set for her, as powerless as the neat little printer in front of her. ‘Sure, sure,’ I said. Panic flickered in her eyes. ‘Just hang it around your neck – if you want to give your details to an exhibitor, they can scan the code here.’ A blocky QR code was printed next to my name and that of my deliciously inscrutable employer: NEIL DOUBLE. CONVEX.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘You can just hang it around your neck,’ she repeated, indicating the lanyard as if I might have missed it. In fact it was hard to ignore: a repellent egg-yolk yellow ribbon with the name of the conference centre stitched into it over and over. METACENTRE METACENTRE METACENTRE. ‘Right,’ I said, stuffing the pass into my jacket pocket. ‘Buses leave every ten or fifteen minutes. They stop right outside. And here’s your welcome pack.’ She handed me one of the folders, smiling like an LED.

I smiled back. ‘Thanks so much,’ I said. And I was fairly sincere about it. It’s a good idea to stay friendly with the staff at these conferences; I doubted I would see her again, but it was better to be on the safe side. Generally it was a waste of time trying to sleep with them, though – they often couldn’t leave their post, and they were kept busy. She had already moved on from me, directing her smile over my shoulder to whoever stood behind me. I saw that she had access to scores of disgusting emergency-services-yellow tote bags from a box beside her, but she had not offered one to me. A shrewd move on her part; I was pleased by her reading of my level of MetaCentre-tote-desire, which was clearly broadcasting at just the right pitch.