It’s 1986, and Lussi Meyer dreams of discovering the next Stephen King. Publishing is in the midst of its first love affair with horror novels, and she’s bent on bringing her publisher back from the dead with the help of a bonafide bestseller.
But the heart attack her new boss has mid-interview is more than just a sign of flatlining sales. There’s something horribly wrong at this publishing company—and it’s about to be unleashed with the team’s annual Secret Santa gift swap.
Andrew Shaffer’s delightfully macabre tale will bring some doom and gloom to your holidays, all while leaving you laughing. This black comedy-horror novel is the perfect remedy to winter doldrums, and we’re thrilled to be including it in our December/January Creepy Crate!
Read on for an excerpt of Secret Santa, then subscribe to Creepy Crate for your chance to receive a copy.
Lussi took the stairs one at a time, steadying herself against the brick walls, which seemed to grow closer together the farther down she went.The boards sagged under her weight.What would happen if Sloppy Joe, a man three times her size, attempted to make the trek into the basement? She knew the answer to that: an out of order sign, graffitied with another gravestone.
She found another light switch at the bottom of the stairs.The overhead fluorescents flickered to life, waking a gang of roaches huddled around a floor drain. They scattered for cover. Lussi was sorry to upset their little powwow, but not upset to see them go. They were twice the size of the ones at her apartment.
She hadn’t brought a flashlight, but there was more than enough light. Metal shelving extended a hundred feet or so in every direction. Boxes were stacked haphazardly, both on the shelves and on the damp cement floor. Spooky? The spookiest thing about the basement was how much it reminded her of the Staten Island Mini-Storage where she kept the worldly possessions she couldn’t cram into a New York City apartment. (Basically everything she owned.) She wiped dust off the closest cardboard box to read the label. Taxes 1955.
Along the far wall were a series of ten-by-ten cages with chain-link fencing on all sides, reinforced with wooden beams. Perhaps they’d once kept sticky-fingered staff out of office supplies, but they were no longer padlocked. Now they housed unused holiday decorations, shrink-wrapped pallets of overstock books, and—just what she was looking for—stuffed envelopes and loose manuscripts towering all the way to the unfinished ceiling. The slush pile.
Lussi stepped inside the cage with the stacked manuscripts. As soon as she let go of the door, it swung closed behind her with a snap, like a triggered mouse trap. She jumped half an inch. Good to know her reflexes were still working.
The shortest stacks topped out around her shoulders, so that’s where she would start her search. It was a gold mine just waiting to be panned. She began flipping through the manuscripts one by one.The unpublished authors addressed their letters to Mr. Blackwood and other editors at the house, begging, pleading for a book contract. Sloppy Joe hadn’t been clear whether anyone sent out rejection letters, or if these poor authors were still waiting on pins and needles to hear back from the prestigious publishing house. Either way, there wasn’t a cent of return postage. Some destitute editorial assistant had been absconding with the stamps authors included for their manuscripts’ safe return.
The third submission she looked at was a horror novel. In Dog We Trust. Promising title. She read the first line: Last Thursday night was the first time I saw the werewolf pissing on my grandmother’s grave.
Getting it past Blackwood-Patterson’s formidable editor in chief would be an uphill battle, but it sure beat the hell out of “Call me Ishmael.”
It wasn’t the only horror novel. In fact, for a literary publisher, there were a surprising number of horror submissions. It made some sense, what with the explosion of the horror market over the past decade. She began setting them aside, but soon realized she was building her own tower of manuscripts—thirteen or fourteen. And that was just from the one stack, so far. She’d about reached the limit of what she could safely carry up those rickety steps in one go. She hoisted what she had up into her arms and was about to head for the stairs when the lights went out.
“Hey, there’s somebody down here,” she shouted.The darkness was absolute. “Hello? Could you turn the lights back on?”
No answer. She listened for footsteps on the stairs, but all she could hear was a flood of water rushing through the pipes overhead. When that finished, the quiet returned. She called out for help again and again, her voice a little louder each time. If only she’d brought a flashlight like the copy editor had insisted . . .
Of course. They were hazing the new girl. How could she have been so blind? Sloppy Joe’s hushed “warning” had been a bit too melodramatic. Nice try, guys, but she was no stranger to hazing. Her first day at Broken Angel, her coworkers had locked her inside a storage closet with a clown. “Seven Minutes in Hell,” they’d called it. There had been whiskey on the clown’s breath—cheap whiskey. Fortunately, the clown passed out within thirty seconds. There was no way they could have known she’d always had an irrational fear of clowns. But that day, clutching a mop for protection in case the drunk woke up, she learned that she’d never really been afraid of clowns. What scared her were the men underneath the pancake makeup.
God, she missed the Broken Angel crew. They’d had a lot of fun together.
“Hazing the new girl, ha-ha,” she said, projecting her voice more forcefully this time.“You can turn the lights back on. Anytime now would be great.”
Lussi waited, but heard nothing. No giggles. No footsteps.
Were they really going to leave her in the dark? Okay, then. Her eyes had adjusted as much as they were going to. It would have to be enough. Only a sliver of natural light filtered through the windows, which were boarded up with plywood. She’d heard once that pigeons could find their way home blindfolded. She was smarter than a pigeon. Probably.
Manuscripts in hand, she nudged the cage door with her foot. It didn’t open. She jammed her shoulder into the crisscrossed wire. It refused to give under her weight. Groaning, she set her load down and tried the door again, this time grounding her legs and pressing into it with her arms. It was stuck. She slipped her fingers through the wire, felt for the door handle.There was no latch, inside or out. No lock.
It didn’t make sense.
“Open up, open up, open up,” she hissed, rattling the door harder. The air seemed to have cooled off, as if somebody had shut off the building’s heat. She stopped shaking the door and started counting backward from one hundred in her head. It was a technique her analyst said would help her quell anxiety. Slowly, as she hit ninety, then eighty, then seventy, her breathing began to return to normal.
She was not alone. She sensed someone watching her from the darkness. She couldn’t see them—couldn’t hear them—but they were there beyond her field of vision, swallowing up the silence itself.
She rattled the door again, but felt even more resistance this time. It was like someone was holding it closed from the other side, which made no sense—she could see through the chain-link, and there was no one there. And yet . . .
Her thoughts were drowned out by a whispering voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Hunger. “You’re hungry?” Lussi said, backing away from the door. “I don’t understand. Who’s hungry? Let me out, please, please just let me—”
That’s when she heard the unmistakable sound of the door being ripped off the front of one of the cages. She heard boxes tumble over, and then, to her absolute horror, she saw a glowing white figure hovering in midair in the next cage over.
Whatever came out of her mouth next was involuntary and almost certainly unintelligible. In fact, she hadn’t even been aware she was capable of issuing such high-pitched sounds. The rational part of her brain was trying to calm her panic—there had to be an absolutely, perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this.
The emotional part was running in circles, naked and howling. The overhead lights came back on.This snapped her back to reality long enough for her to shake the door again. “I’m back here! I’m stuck in a cage!” She gave the door one last good kick and the wooden frame splintered, releasing the door and sending her hurtling out of the cage. She landed hard on her hip.
Heart still pounding, she whipped around to face the ghost. And indeed, it was a ghost—the kind you put in your front yard in October, as the days grow short and the leaves change colors. A glow-in-the-dark blow-up mold, propped up on a card table.
She took a moment to catch her breath.
What the hell just happened?
Digby rounded the corner and stopped when he saw her on the floor. “Listen, I’ll have to call you back . . . Hello? Hello?” He looked at his cellular phone. “Lost him.” He glanced from Lussi to the broken cage doors, then back at Lussi. She imagined her face was frozen in the twisted shape of that Edvard Munch painting, The Scream.
“So, ah, how’s your first day going?” Digby asked.
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