Hey there, Insiders!
In January, we release the first book in a spanking new U.K. series called, wait for it… Branded.
Book One, Sanctified, is the story of Abbey Beckett, a twenty-something goth who finds herself pitted against the evil Judas Clan, a coterie of bloodsuckers that refuse to play by the vampire rulebook.
To celebrate the imminent release of Sanctified, we’re sharing the first three chapters here today, so dig in, have a read, and let us know what you think!
It isn’t actually my job title, but it might as well be.
I work for the London Underground’s Lost Property Office, or the LPO as it’s known in the biz.
Who am I kidding? This isn’t Hollywood. There’s no glitz or glamour to this job. I man a phone, I tag lost items, I enter data into a computer. Any monkey could do it. It’s a career so meaningless that the nameplate on my desk is a piece of paper folded into a Toblerone shape and inscribed in ballpoint pen.
But you didn’t come here to hear me bellyaching about my poor life choices, did you? You came here for the vampire stuff: for the sprouting fangs and the stakes through the heart and the blood spraying phut phut phut against the walls. And spray it will. Gallons of the stuff. But this is an origin story, and you can’t have an origin story without a bit of preamble.
I know. Boo, right?
Don’t worry, you’ll get to meet the vampire-killing machine who strikes fear into the hearts of the undead soon enough, but first of all, say hello to boring old Abbey Beckett.
The Desk Babysitter.
The girl who didn’t get the grades she needed for university and wound up working in a lost & found. I know, I know, I can already guess what you’re thinking…
How bad can it be? A job’s a job. Buck up and stop your whining, girl!
Besides, it sounds like a cool place to work, doesn’t it? London’s famous Lost Property Office. You’ve probably read about it in one of those whimsical articles on The Guardian, or a Buzzfeed listicle if you’re hard of reading. Maybe you’ve cycled through a photo gallery of all the weird and wonderful things that find their way into our basement. The peculiar artefacts that people leave on the Underground, all piled up on top of each other like the treasures of Aladdin’s cave: wedding dresses and false limbs and grandfather clocks and wheelchairs and water skis and burial urns and medieval swords. Only the other week we recovered a stuffed swordfish mounted on a big wooden plaque. It must be at least five feet long. I mean, how exactly do you leave a thing like that behind?
I’ve taken delivery of a lot of strange stuff since I started working in that office. All day long it comes my way, and all day long I tag it, bag it, and send it down the chute to the basement for storage.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Working at the LPO is the same as any other dull-as-dishwater office job. The kind you tell yourself you’ll stick at for a month or two before moving onto something better, then before you know it, it’s been a year, then two years, then some more. I started my stint there as a temp – a stopgap job before I retook my exams and headed off to uni. That was three-and-a-half years ago.
I like to tell myself that everything would have been different if I’d made it into Higher Education. What a laugh. Even if I did have my Honours, I’d still have no prospects. The job market’s a joke these days, and the economy’s in the toilet. It’s not like having a few letters after my name was going to bury me tits-deep in diamonds.
So, there I was, twenty-one years old and already feeling like nothing. Like I belonged down the chute in the LPO’s basement, stuffed to the back of some creaky old shelf, collecting dust, long forgotten.
I know, I sound like a right cheery one, don’t I?
As I sat at my desk, head in my hands, the new temp hoved into view; peppy, eager to please, and done up nicely in zingy colours and respectable footwear. In other words, the polar opposite of me; dressed like Halloween and wearing makeup that has been described, on more than one occasion, as looking like it was applied by a drunk mortician.
I saw the temp mouth a sweet hello as she approached. What was her name again? I’d promised myself that I was going to take the time to remember it one of these days, but this was not one of these days.
A middle-aged woman trailed after her, grossly overweight, and moving with one of those lumbering walks that looked as though it ought to be accompanied by a tuba.
The temp spoke first. ‘Hi Abbey,’ she chirped, as she pulled up in front of my workstation. She’d taken the time to learn my name, and she’d only been there a week. That’s a level of politeness I find genuinely hostile. ‘This lady could really use your help,’ she added, beaming a Colgate smile.
I was about to protest, but before I could think of some other sucker to palm the woman off on, the temp was already flitting away. I tried calling after her but, like I say, her name eluded me. This is what happens when you don’t take the time to socialise with your co-workers; you end up dealing with *ugh* members of the public.
‘Are you who I talk to about lost property?’ the woman barked, which, given where she was standing, ranked pretty highly among the most inane questions I’d been asked that week (the other contenders being, ‘Will you be taking the full hour for your lunch break, Abbey?’ and, ‘Are you going to finish that chocolate pudding in the fridge?’).
I painted on a smile. ‘How can I help you, Miss?’ I asked.
She replied with a tart, ‘It’s Mrs, actually.’
‘Okay,’ I said, measuring just how much of a shit I gave about her marital status and finding the scales tipping not one bit.
‘I’ve recovered a lost item that I’d like to hand in to the proper authorities,’ she went on, terribly pleased with herself.
I’d dealt with her sort before. The type of person who considers themselves a scrupulously honest samaritan, but is really just a pious old shrew.
‘And what is it you’d like to hand in?’ I asked, clicking on the Received tab of the LPO’s computer system, which, would you believe, is called Sherlock. It’s named after the fact that our office is located on Baker Street, right opposite the super-sleuth’s fictitious residence, as though reuniting clueless members of the public with their knackered old brollies can be equated with Holmes solving some great, police-eluding mystery.
The woman reached into her handbag and produced a wallet; one of those old-fashioned bifolds with the metal clasp that the elderly love to lug around.
‘Here you go,’ she said, digging around in its bulging depths and fishing out a single pound coin.
I watched her place it down on my desk as if it were a solid gold nugget.
‘A quid?’ I said, staring at the thing. ‘You came all this way to give me a quid?’
‘Yes,’ she said, indignantly. ‘Why, what else should I have done with it?’
I could think of about a dozen alternatives, most of which involved her shoving the thing up one of her bodily orifices, but instead of answering, I settled with staying quiet and corkscrewing my hair in frustration.
The woman stared at me, hard and unblinking. ‘You don’t seem very grateful,’ she noted.
‘Of course I’m bloody not,’ I thought back.
The woman snatched up the coin. ‘Maybe I should just keep it then, if that’s the way you feel.’ She said it with the intonation of a serial killer shouting at a victim she was keeping at the bottom of a well.
‘What’s going on here?’ asked a new voice.
It belonged to Gary, my idiot supervisor. Gary was kind of like a man, only smaller.
‘I came here out of the goodness of my heart,’ screeched the woman, ‘but this girl’s been nothing but rude.’
‘I absolutely haven’t,’ I said, and I hadn’t, not out loud anyway.
Gary shook his head in my direction and apologised on my behalf, never once taking my side into account or considering that I might be the one in the right. He then spent the next ten minutes consoling the old bat and assuring her that no, of course she hadn’t wasted a journey, and yes, of course her pathetic donation was appreciated. He even took the lone pound coin and placed it in a Ziploc bag, like it was forensic evidence in a murder. Meanwhile, I sat there with my arms folded, listening as Gary alternated between grovelling for forgiveness and admonishing me sideways for my lack of professionalism. Only once the woman had been reluctantly appeased and had left the building, did he engage me directly.
‘What was that all about?’
‘Seems like you already made up your mind,’ I replied.
He jutted out his chin to make himself look more authoritative, but ended up looking like he was trying to blow a troublesome fly off the tip of his nose. ‘I suggest you have a good, hard think about the way you talk to me, Beckett, because if your attitude doesn’t buck up sharpish, you’re going to be out of a job. Get me?’ The last part he said so close to my face that I could smell the vending machine coffee on his breath.
‘I get you,’ I mumbled back, the words like tin foil in my mouth.
‘Good,’ he said, then did a strut around the office, peacocking for the sake of my so-called co-workers, who sat at their desks, sniggering into their sleeves. For a moment, I thought he was going to go in for a round of high-fives.
Having completed his “victory” circuit, he then arrived back at my desk for round two. ‘Since you’re obviously so keen to carry on working here,’ he said, ‘I’m going to need you to step up your game. I’ve got sixteen bags of unsorted lost property over there that need dealing with, and someone needs to input the backlog into the system.’
‘I’ll get right on it,’ I muttered.
‘Too right you will,’ he replied, ‘tonight. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours. And don’t make that face, you’ll get paid for the extra time. Standard rate,’ he added, under his breath.
Instead of voicing my disapproval, I bit my tongue, stayed quiet, and imagined setting him on fire a bit.
‘Oh, and one more thing, Abbey,’ he said, holding up a finger, ‘there’s a dress code now—new company policy—so no more coming into work looking like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.’ He eyeballed my black clothes and matching nail varnish. ‘It’s morbid.’
It is true that I have a morbid streak. For instance, whenever I meet a new person, I always think to myself, ‘I wonder what I’d wear to their funeral?’ It’s just a habit really, not because I actively wish the person any ill will. With Gary though, things were different. With Gary, the thought occurred every time he opened his idiot mouth. And every time I imagined standing over his coffin, I pictured myself dry-eyed and dressed in my best and brightest.
Seeing as my flat in Thamesmead was an hour’s commute away, it didn’t seem worth making the long trek home just so I could drag my skin all the way back to the office again. That left me with a big slab of time to kill between the end of my crappy day shift and the beginning of my crappy night shift. A big slab of time that I ended up spending in the staff cafeteria gorging on high-calorie snacks while I caught up on some reading.
My boyfriend, Neil, is a novelist. I’d been lugging around his newest manuscript for days under the pretense that I’d finish the thing, but I was stuck at the three-quarter point still. Don’t get me wrong, Neil’s a great writer, but his stories… they just don’t float my boat. While I like to read weighty hardbacks about orphaned peasant girls overcoming historical prejudice to become successful, independent women, Neil—how can I put this kindly—Neil paints in more… primary colours. His protagonists tend to be of the fantastic variety: modern-day magicians and shapeshifting monsters and generals of Satanic cabals. I mean, I love the boy, I really do, but seriously, give me a break. Just because I dress like a character from an Anne Rice novel, doesn’t mean I want to sit down and read one.
Anyway, this particular manuscript was book five of Neil’s W&W Investigations set, a pulpy, urban fantasy series about a warlock and a werewolf who run a detective agency in San Francisco. Maybe that’s your bag, I don’t know. To me, that’s homework. Still, I only had a few chapters to go, so I took a deep breath, knuckled down, and got to reading. Or at least I would have, if I hadn’t been disturbed by the sound of a nearby conversation…
I looked up from the loose pages of Neil’s manuscript to see my supervisor, Gary, a couple of tables over. Apparently, he’d decided to take a break from getting on my case so he could chat up the office temp.
‘…There are a lot of old secrets in the Underground network, you know,’ he told her, apropos of nothing. ‘For instance, did you know there’s a hidden tunnel that runs off the Circle line and connects to a classified military bunker in St. James’ Park? Fascinating, right?’
The temp’s barely suppressed sigh said quite the opposite, but Gary continued to drone on at her regardless. Over his shoulder, the two of us exchanged knowing eye-rolls.
‘If you like,’ Gary continued, flashing the temp his supervisor laminate, ‘I could take you on a tour of the tunnels some time. My treat.’
The temp cleared her throat. ‘That’s nice of you to offer,’ she replied, ‘but I can’t that day.’
‘I didn’t say a day yet,’ he huffed back, then turned and caught me earwigging on the conversation.
He narrowed his eyes at me, as though I’d somehow poisoned his otherwise perfect pitch. Annoyed, he marched over to my table and used a pudgy finger to stab at the face of his Casio watch.
‘About time you got to work, I reckon,’ he said, pressing his palms to the surface of the cafeteria table.
I stood slowly and straightened up. ‘Aye aye, Cap’n,’ I said, firing off a sarcastic salute.
He gave me a stare that I think was meant to look tough. ‘Enjoy your shift, Abbey,’ he said, taking his jacket from the back of a chair and tugging it on. ‘I’ll be going home and putting my feet up now.’
And with that, he turned on his heel and strutted away.
What an actual prick.
It was getting on for half two in the morning and I still had a long way to go before I was finished doing Gary’s dirty work. I was fuming, but more than that, I was experiencing a heavy crush of disappoint. In myself. I always thought I’d be on the road to something by this stage of my life, but instead I was stuck in a rut, on my own, slaving away in a windowless tomb until the sun came up.
I jolted at the sound of a sharp buzz.
The office intercom.
I made my way to reception and checked the CCTV monitor to see a stocky man from the LPO’s collection team shielding himself from the rain with a newspaper. Using the button on the underside of the reception desk, I buzzed him in and he fired into the foyer, shaking himself off like a wet dog.
‘Bit late for deliveries, isn’t it?’ I said, checking my phone for the time. ‘Or is it early?’
He didn’t bother answering, just dumped a plastic basket full of junk on the reception desk and thrust a device into my hand for an electronic signature. I rattled off a jagged scrawl and cast a glance to the basket. Inside, nestling among the usual assortment of umbrellas and mobile phones, was a brown leather briefcase.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘At a guess, I’d say a brown leather briefcase.’
Well, ask the obvious.
‘Someone handed it in at Bakerloo,’ he said.
The front of the briefcase was adorned with a brass plate featuring a name.
‘Are you sure it’s okay to bring this here?’ I asked. ‘Shouldn’t the, you know, bomb squad have looked at it first?’
To me, the name Vizael sounded—and please don’t judge me for saying this—a bit… Middle Eastern.
‘Fucked if I know,’ replied the delivery man, making no attempt to stifle a yawn. ‘Anyway, it’s your problem now.’
He pushed through the exit, back into the downpour, and the door clicked shut behind him.
I gingerly picked the basket up, carted it into the back office, and set it gently on my desk. With a click of my mouse, I booted up Sherlock and started logging the basket’s contents, picking around the mystery briefcase like a faddy eater dodging her greens, until eventually, the case was all that was left.
Sighing, I swiped away some clutter on my desk, pushing aside unopened letters, a couple of half-empty drink cans, and the deer skull whose eye socket I used as a pen holder (someone left it on the Northern Line a while back, and since they didn’t claim it in the allotted ninety days, I made it my own. Like I say: morbid). Having cleared a space for the briefcase, I lay it flat on my desk, lid-side up. Its leather was well worn and faded, but continued to survive in the way that expensive things often do. A pair of brass clasps held the case together, each of which sported a three-digit combination lock.
I began to enter the item into the computer system:
Item #Misc205AG629. Vintage brown leather briefcase. Identifying markings: Brass plate with name, VIZAEL. Brand: Unknown. Contents: Unknown.
What was in that thing? A nail bomb? A laptop containing Top Secret files? Military launch codes? I had to know.
I took a quick glance over my shoulder to check no one was watching—despite the fact that I was the only mug still in the office—then span the brass wheels of the combination locks with my thumbs.
I didn’t even look to see which numbers I’d randomly arrived at, I was too distracted by the clasps simultaneously standing to attention.
‘What are the chances…?’ I muttered, as I carefully lifted the lid.
What I saw next came as a bit of a shocker.
Inside the case, sat in a black velvet tray, was a weapon.
Not a bomb, or a disassembled sniper’s rifle, but a knife. A dagger, like something you’d see in one of those Hobbit movies. The dagger’s blade was polished to a mirror finish, its handle wound with a length of purple leather, and its bottom bit—whatever that bit’s called—was a finely-cut gemstone the size of a baby’s fist.
‘Niiice,’ I gasped.
It was a beautiful bit of craftsmanship, and I couldn’t help but pick it up and test its weight.
Along with mouthing off at my supervisor, that was the second huge mistake I made that day.
The moment I picked up the dagger, I knew something was wrong. The pain didn’t come right away, but only because it was so intense that it took a moment for my brain to register. When it did hit me, it almost knocked me out cold.
A burning sensation lit up my palm, white-hot and raw. It felt like sulphuric acid had been poured onto my skin, stripping it down layer by layer, etching its way through fat, muscle and bone.
I let go of the dagger and it tolled on the edge of my desk like a rung bell.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I screamed, and filled a speech bubble with some more choice blasphemies.
Clutching my wrist, I turned my wounded hand over to review the damage. There, in the dead centre of my palm was a brand: a perfect circle containing a big letter Z.
‘Motherfucker,’ I noted.
I shot an accusatory look at the dagger and crouched down to get a better look at the thing, lying innocently on the office floor. Wrapped around the weapon’s handle, I found an embossed metal circle containing a symbol that matched the one burned into my palm.
I was in agony, but thankfully for me, I was also the designated first-aider for my floor, and knew exactly where to find the little green case with the white cross on it.
I made it to the staff kitchen, found the box, and rifled through tape, gauze, disinfectant, and hydrogen peroxide, until finally I laid my hands on the burn cream. I unscrewed the top of the tube with my teeth and was about to squeeze it dry, when I heard another buzz.
The office intercom, again.
I checked my watch. It was three in the morning now. I looked down again and saw the dagger lying on the office’s navy blue carpet, out of its case, and where it didn’t belong.
‘Motherfucker,’ I reiterated.
I should have ignored it. Should have kept my head down and let the door carry on buzzing. So of course, I let curiosity got the better of me.
The office wasn’t due to open for hours, and we’d already had our last delivery for the day. Who could possibly be calling at this hour?
The door buzzed again, a long, shrill cry for attention.
I ran a tea towel under some cold water, wrapped it twice around my hand and headed off to reception to see who it was. On my way there, striding past my workstation, I snatched up the dagger with my bandage-slash-makeshift-oven-mitt, dropped it back into its briefcase, and snapped the lid shut before swiping at the combination locks until they looked suitably randomised.
Moving behind the reception desk, I checked the monitor to see a man standing outside, braving the downpour in nothing more than a tailored suit. I squinted, but didn’t recognise him. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and—even going by the pixellated picture provided by our ancient CCTV—a looker.
I cleared my throat and answered the intercom. ‘Can I help you, sir?’
He leaned in to the microphone to state his business. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘is this lost property?’
‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘Do you know what time it is?’
‘I know, I know,’ he said, apologetically. ‘Look, this is really embarrassing, but I left something on the tube tonight, and I have to get it back right away.’
‘What is it?’ I asked, already knowing the answer.
‘It’s a brown leather briefcase with a brass nameplate on the front,’ he replied, predictably. ‘It’s very valuable. I’m hoping someone might have handed it in.’ He rubbed at his head like life hurt. ‘I need it for work.’
Really? What line of work was this guy in exactly? What kind of job required a gilded dagger with realistic flesh-melting action?
Maybe he was in the movies and the dagger was some kind of prop. That wouldn’t explain why it had made such a mess of my hand though, I thought, squeezing my wrist in the hope that it might cut off the pain to my throbbing palm. Unless the dagger had a live battery inside and was wired up wrong or something. Oh, what did I know? I already told you I didn’t get the grades for a second-rate university degree.
I hit the intercom’s answer button again. ‘Can you stop by at nine when we open?’ I asked, then decided to offer the poor guy some hope. ‘I’ve a feeling we might be able to help you out if you do.’
‘Please,’ the man pleaded, rain whipping at his face. ‘I’m going to be in so much trouble with my boss if I don’t show up to work with this thing.’
Shitty bosses, eh? I knew how that went.
He spoke again. ‘Is there any way we can talk about this face-to-face? It’s tipping it down out here.’
My finger hovered over the button for the front door. I had his briefcase for sure, it just seemed cruel to say no to him at that point. Him out there, soaking wet while I lorded it up in my fortress, bone-dry and hoarding about twenty-thousand umbrellas.
Then again, I was there alone, in the middle of the night, and a stranger was trying to get in to reclaim a large, weird dagger.
‘I’m begging you,’ he said, looking like a very handsome drowned rat. ‘I really need to get that briefcase back. If I don’t, it’s my arse.’
Against my better judgment, I stabbed the button and the door swung inwards, already wondering if I’d just made a very stupid decision.
‘Thank you so much,’ the man said as he dashed in from outside, leaving puddles in his wake.
The door gasped shut behind him, closing on pneumatic hinges.
Remembering my wounded hand, I thrust it into the pocket of my cardigan to disguise the burn. ‘You’ll have to be quick,’ I told him. ‘I really shouldn’t be doing this.’
I led him to my desk and his eyes immediately fell on the briefcase. ‘That’s it,’ he exclaimed, his face lighting up.
He went to make a grab for it, but I stepped in his way. ‘I have to see proof of ownership first,’ I explained.
‘It’s mine,’ he said. ‘It’s my case.’
‘You saying that isn’t really proof though, is it? For example, I could just say, I dunno, the shoes you’ve got on are mine.’
‘Well, they’re not.’
‘Exactly. I would never wear shoes like that. Look, I believe you, but I need confirmation. For the system. Can you show me something with your name on it?’ I read off the case’s nameplate. ‘Mister Vizael?’
It occurred to me that his face wasn’t much of a match for his moniker. His supposed moniker.
For a moment, his features seemed to curdle, then he brightened suddenly. ‘Look, I don’t have my wallet on me right now,’ he said, his voice smooth as the hum of a new Ferrari, ‘but I’d be happy to stop by later with my details. For the system.’
No wallet? Who walks around without a single piece of identifying information? A bank card, a driver’s licence, Christ, I’d have taken a Blockbuster card if he had one.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I can’t let you make a claim without proper ID.’ I felt like a tool saying it, but I just didn’t trust the guy. Something about him was giving me the bad feels.
He nodded sullenly, then looked away for a moment. When he looked back, something incredible happened. And by “incredible”, I mean “bloody terrifying”.
His eyes were two voids, a pair of black holes, bottomless, endless, drawing me in, sucking me beneath a dark tide. My blood ran cold and I felt my body go slack.
‘Give me the briefcase,’ he commanded, his voice thick and full of menace.
Instinctively, I felt my fist leave the pocket of my cardigan and go to pass him the case. I didn’t want to, I tried to stop it, but I had no agency. It’s like I was no longer a participant in my own actions, I was a witness, a puppet, acting out his will.
As I reached for the case, the wet tea towel wrapping my hand came loose and flopped onto my desk.
The man with the black eyes saw the brand on my palm and his face twisted into a snarl. ‘What is that?’ he growled, his eyes snapping back to normal.
The pain in my hand disappeared suddenly as though I’d been shot with a tranquiliser, and when I looked at the brand again, I saw it glowing, the big Z lit up bright blue.
The man seized me by the wrist, his skin so icy cold it actually hurt. He pulled me closer and brought my hand to his face, studying the mark upon it.
‘That can’t be,’ he said.
I struggled to get away from him, but his grip was vice-like.
Then something else happened.
A new pattern appeared, not on me this time, but on him. A symbol decorated the man’s forehead, a glowing emblem in the shape of a letter J.
Who was this guy? What was this guy? I felt a cold, crawling sensation on my scalp, like a trickle of ice water.
The man scowled. ‘You’re no Nightstalker.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m Abbey, I just work here!’
He whipped me around and tossed me across my desk like I weighed nothing, sending stationery scattering in all directions.
I landed hard on the other side in a crumpled heap, eyes blurred, stung with tears. The man laughed before collecting the leather briefcase and removing the dagger from inside. He held it up to examine its blade, then looked to me, now cowering on the floor.
‘What the hell were they thinking?’ he spat.
He stalked toward me, pushing my heavy desk out of his way like he was sweeping aside a fold-up picnic table.
Time seemed to slow down as a mad scramble of half-conceived plans presented themselves—call for help, dial 999, pull the fire alarm, go for your house keys and stab his eye out—but the plan that won over was the one that told me to get off the floor and head away from that man as quickly as possible.
I scrambled to my feet and ran, not knowing where I was going until I got there. Within moments, I found myself in the staff toilets. I don’t know why, but somehow the idea of being in a place with lockable doors trumped the more intelligent notion that playing hide-and-seek in the bogs would mean backing myself into a dead end.
Too late to turn back, I dashed into the farthest cubicle, threw the latch, and climbed on top of the toilet to hide my feet. Dumb, I know, but that’s the situation I put myself in.
The outside door to the Ladies creaked open. Terrified, I held onto my breath and found myself entirely rethinking my liberal stance on gender-neutral bathrooms.
Footsteps bounced off the cold ceramic walls. My skin prickled as the steps grew louder, the intruder doing nothing to disguise his presence. I was drenched in sweat, and my heartbeat rang in my ears, loud as a Keith Moon drum solo. I felt like I was stuck in a dream—an incredibly vivid dream—every detail painted just right, every character cast to perfection. Except I knew I was awake. I knew this was really happening.
‘This little piggy went to market,’ the man cackled, as he kicked open the nearest cubicle door and sent it crashing flat. ‘This little piggy stayed at home,’ he went on, as he put his foot through the next door along, edging ever closer to my cubicle. ‘This little piggy had roast beef,’ he roared, kicking down the neighbouring door. ‘And this little piggy,’ he said, pausing for effect, ‘…had none.’
Eyes fixed on the gap at the bottom of the cubicle door, I saw his foot separate from the ground as he readied to make his kick, and that’s when I made my move. Pressing my back to the wall behind me, I kicked out the door as hard as I could, sending it the other way and smashing it into the intruder’s face.
He howled in pain.
I paused, open-mouthed, surprised by my own strength. I’d hit the door so hard it had come right off its hinges.
Shocked, the man held a hand to his pulped nose, which streamed twin rivers of blood.
‘You little fu—’ he started, but before he could finish his thought, I smacked him in the face with a toilet brush, painting the red brown.
Without giving him a chance to recover, I slid between his legs and took off.
I ran for the way out this time, but when I got to the reception desk and found the button that opened the front door, I saw it had been ripped from its housing.
I was stuck with this fucker. Trapped.
I ran for the basement, hoping I could find something down there to defend myself with, but the intruder had me cut off.
‘You’re not going anywhere,’ he said, taking a goalkeeper’s stance.
There was another way down though. He saw my eyes dart to it. The chute.
The one we used to deliver logged items from the office floor to the building’s storage area.
He ran for it, but I was closer, and quicker too.
I jumped feet-first into the chute, which was only just big enough for my frame. Seriously, if I’d had a slice of Janet’s 40th birthday cake that day, I’d have wedged it.
I hit banged down the chute, metal rushing by me in a blur until I landed in the padded basket at the bottom, which was thankfully parked where it ought to be.
Looking up, I caught sight of the intruder leering wolfishly down the chute at me. He snarled, and as his lips shrank back from his teeth, I saw his canines sprout, long and sharp and impossible. I wasn’t stuck in this place with a psychotic, I was stuck here with a monster. A genuine monster!
I didn’t stick around to find out what the hell was going on. Instead, I leapt out of the basket and sprinted off deeper into the storage area, trying to stop my brain from fixating on how impossible this all was, and tasking it with keeping me alive.
Passing between two towering metal racks, I scanned the shelves for something—anything—I could use as a weapon. I saw lost scooters, cellophane bags full of footballs, towers of shoe boxes, but nothing that would be any use in a fight.
Then I saw the broadsword.
Thank Christ for this lunatic city and its scatterbrained residents.
I went to snatch the weapon off the shelf, but before I could lay my hands on it, I felt a familiar grip close around my wrist.
The fanged intruder smiled, and bony ridges rode up beneath his drawn skin, now white as freshly-poured milk. ‘This is where you die,’ he remarked, matter-of-factly.
Dagger in hand, he strode forward and stabbed the point of the blade in my direction. I swerved aside just in time to avoid the thrust, and the knife embedded itself in the belly of a giant gorilla plush toy.
I tried for the broadsword again, but the fanged man barred the way. Before I could move out of his reach, he landed me with a stinging backhand that lifted me off of my feet and deposited me halfway up a rack of shelves. I hit it so hard that the metal crumpled as I tumbled down the rack, then the entire unit teetered and toppled, crushing me under its weight.
I struggled to pull myself free, but I was pinned like a framed butterfly.
‘No!’ I cried.
The intruder giggled and clapped his hands together, the nails now long and ragged.
I wriggled helplessly, but couldn’t free myself. I was done for. The fanged man was going to get me, kill me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Why me? I shouldn’t even have been pulling the night shift, and now there I was, trapped with a monster from a horror film about to put a violent end to my disappointing life.
It made me… angry. I hadn’t done anything. I’d barely tasted life. I’d spent too much of it cooped up in this stupid, boring place, and now it was all going to be taken away from me. Taken away before I could do anything to change things for the better. It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair!
I winced as my hand throbbed, and looked down to see the brand on my palm glowing blue again, burning bright as the sun.
And as the brand came alive, so did I.
Power flowed through me like a raging, frothing waterfall. Muscles I didn’t know I had tensed and sprung up, strong as steel cables. With a furious yell, I worked my knees under my chest, bucked my spine, and levered the shelves up and off me.
The fanged man stopped in his tracks. I couldn’t say I blamed him. Whatever it was he’d just witnessed was more than just a spike of adrenaline, and we both knew it. He switched his grip on the dagger so the tip of the blade was pointing down, then came at me like I was a block of ice he was setting a pick to.
I scurried backwards, panicking, feet propelling me across the floor, but ended up backing into a dead end at the farthest reach of the aisle. The fanged man stepped forward and lifted the dagger, and as he did, my hand instinctively went up to protect my face. The dagger came down and I acted without thinking, catching the man by his weapon arm.
As my fingers closed about his flesh, I felt his skin go from polished marble to fine china. Bones ground and popped as I tightened my grip, and the fanged man yowled and pulled free of my grasp. He scurried away, face pinched with pain.
‘You little bitch!’
The dagger slipped from his crumpled paw and I snatched it up, forgetting what had happened the last time I took it in my hand. On this occasion, I found the weapon cool to the touch, so I kept a hold of it and turned it in my attacker’s direction. The blade glowed cobalt blue as if lit by some inner fire.
I liked the way the dagger felt in my hand. The weight. The possibilities. It felt… right.
The fanged man hissed at me and my heart kicked into a higher gear. I bounded up on spring-loaded legs, landing on my toes with perfect poise. My muscles were singing and my blood sizzled and popped like a can of Red Bull in a paint-shaker. Knock-kneed Abbey Beckett with the toothpick arms was no more. In her place was an amazon. A nuclear-powered valkyrie ready to kick monster arse!
‘Come on then,’ I said. ‘Let’s be having you.’
The fanged man looked dismayed. ‘No,’ was all he had to say for himself.
Pulse jacked and acting on instinct, I lashed out with the flaming blue dagger and left the fanged man clutching a six-inch gash in his shoulder. It wasn’t deep—just a scratch, really—but it gushed like a busted water pipe.
‘You stupid cow,’ he snarled, his voice a cable about to snap.
Spotting the broadsword, still on its shelf, he snatched it up and launched himself at me, swinging the weapon with both hands. Jaw firmed, I brought my own blade up to intercept his, and our steel met in a shower of blue sparks.
I fought back reflexively. Confidently. No thought, no strategy, just letting my body move how it wanted. The dagger felt natural to me, like an extension of my own arm.
My attacker came at me again and I swung the dagger in a powerful half-moon. It sang as it cut the air, and a long, horizontal gouge appeared across the fanged man’s midriff. He rocked back on his heels in shock, bleeding like a haemophiliac, blood blossoming beneath his torn dress shirt like a big red flower.
The fanged man’s surprise turned to rage. He dumped the sword with an ear-splitting clang and came at me with his bare hands. He moved fast—too fast—like a scratched DVD, skipping from one frame to another and losing the moments in between. I thrust the dagger at his throat, but before I could get there, he deflected my forearm and knocked me aside.
His fist connected with my jaw and the pain threw green and purple splotches into my eyes. After that came his other fist, knocking a fresh helping of pain into my guts.
When I regained my senses, I found myself dangling in the air, feet tracing tiny circles above the floor. The dagger lay on the ground beneath me, and the fanged man was holding me up by a fistful of hair, a rictus grin on his face. I raked at him with my fingernails, but he held me at arm’s-length, just out of reach.
‘They’ll call me a hero for this,’ he said, smiling so wide that it made it look like he was unhinging his jaw to swallow a baby.
As I gasped for air, his hand went for my face and I felt his fingers slither between my lips. I gagged as he forced himself into my mouth, his graveyard flesh invading my throat, ripe with corruption. I tried biting down on his knuckles, but he just smiled as blood trickled from his hand and into my gullet. I hacked and spluttered, desperate for one ragged intake of breath, but there was nothing I could do.
As I fought, terror turned into hopelessness, then into resignation. My body, clenched and rigid, sagged and went limp. The fringes of my vision darkened, and my body grew numb. I was drifting away. Slipping gently into a deep, hot bath. All I wanted was to close my eyes, to tip back my head and slide beneath the black water. But no. I had to stay awake. A voice in my head told me so; a nagging, insistent demand that I open my eyes, plant my feet, and get back into the fight.
With my last ounce of strength, I kicked up a foot and swung a Doc Marten at the space between the fanged man’s legs.
He folded like a lawn chair as the steel-tapped toe connected with the jelly of his balls, and I felt my feet touch back on the ground. Without taking a pause, I threw my shoulder into my attacker’s chest and sent him stumbling backwards. He lost his balance and keeled over, and as he did, I saw a long, silver knife sprout through the centre of his chest. It was so coated in blood that it took me a couple of seconds to realise what it actually was…
The business end of the five-foot long stuffed swordfish.
A pink mist of blood shotgunned from the fanged man’s mouth and his body went stiff as a board. All at once, he changed. It was like watching a time-lapse video of a man decomposing, only played in fast forward. His eyes became hollowed-out sockets and his lips turned blue. His skin went tight like he’d been vacuum-sealed, then turned brittle and papery. Steam spat from his mouth like tea from a kettle, then BADOOF! he exploded in a cloud of soot.
I watched incredulously as the black confetti spiralled down, cinders mixing with the red pool on the ground, like pepper shaken into a bloody mary.
I was alive. Alive! A monster had tried to end me, and instead I’d ended him. I should have collapsed with relief. Instead, I realised I was grinning wildly.
I looked at my palm and saw the symbol had gone dim now, the glowing blue letter Z returned to a dull, pink cattle brand.
‘Hello there,’ said a voice over my shoulder. I whirled around to see an elderly man stood before me, smiling beatifically. His eyes went to the dagger. ‘I believe you have something that belongs to me.’
So, what happens next? Pre-order your copy of Sanctified HERE!