Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer
Christmas, 1945, Germany
Xavier Blackwood and his buddy, Duluth, have abandoned their station and are tromping through the snow with an axe on a top secret mission… to get a Christmas tree! Duluth, a young guy, barely looks old enough to drive but wants a go at chopping down the tree that they find, but instead of whacking the trunk, he sends the axe flying. Xavier goes after it and finds a body instead. Next to the body is a box. Duluth wants it to be Nazi gold, but when Xavier opens the box, he finds something different inside.
December 1, 1986, New York
Lussi Meyer is heading for an interview as an editor at Blackwood Publishing Company. The old brownstone is black with soot and grime, there are wrought iron bars on all the windows and at least six locks on the door, but inside is much quainter and more pleasant. The receptionist sends Lussi up to the fourth floor to meet Mr. Blackwood, and his secretary, Agnes, sends her in, but upon meeting him, he instantly turns her away, telling her she'll never do.
Lussi stands up for herself. She's got to get this job. Since the small horror publishing house she worked for was taken over by a larger house, she's been out of a job and Blackwood is her last hope. She's edited several books that have become bestsellers, but Mr. Blackwood dismisses them as tripe. As she leaves, Lussi tells him that he wouldn't know a bestseller if it bit him in his cold black heart. Unfortunately, she trips right after this zinger and crashes into a bookcase, knocking several things around, including a box with something familiar inside. A Percht doll, just like the one her Oma had when she was a kid that she played with all the time. Mr. Blackwood tells her the Percht is not a toy, but then he has a heart attack.
Lussi goes to visit Mr. Blackwood at the hospital the next day only to find out he died. She overhears a conversation a young man is having on the phone about his death, and it turns out, he is Mr. Blackwood’s son, Digby, and he's in charge of the publishing company now. Lussi takes a gamble and introduces herself and ends up convincing Digby she can find him the next Stephen King, which he insists she do before the end of the year, or the company will be going out of business. Ohhhkay. That's only a few weeks away. She's hired on as Senior Editor and she starts Monday.
Lussi makes a stollen, a traditional German fruitcake, for her first day, hoping to make a nice impression. She meets a few people like the receptionist, the editor-in-chief called The Raven, and some copy editors, one of which is called Sloppy Joe. Lussi asks him where they keep the slush pile, all the manuscripts they've received that no one has bothered reading in who knows how long. Sloppy Joe tells her they're in the basement and to take a flashlight with her because it's spooky down there.
Sloppy Joe was right. It is spooky down in the basement and it gets even spookier when the lights go out and Lussi gets stuck inside a storage cage after finding several promising horror submissions in the slush pile. Then she hears a voice. A hungry voice. Luckily, Digby comes down and finds her and she's able to make it out of the basement and up to her first editorial meeting.
The meeting is awkward, led by The Raven and Dracula’s Brides, three big haired girls that don't seem to have much going on upstairs, but Lussi makes it through. She even suggests a cover redesign for a book they're working on and everyone seems to like it. Before the meeting ends, there's an odd interaction with the art director, Stanley, and his mechanical pencil that he seems to cherish, and information is relayed about the Secret Santa exchange that Lussi was too late to sign up for. What's strange though is that she already has a present under the office Christmas tree.
After the meeting, the rest of Lussi’s week goes fairly well, or pretty normally anyway. After work one day, she goes to a book signing for her friend Fabien Nightingale. She edited the book for him, so it's only right that she attend his signing, and it's a good thing because only one other person comes. When that guest falls asleep, Lussi and Fabien head to a bar. The next day, complete with absinthe hangover, Lussi goes to work to find she has a young college bro intern, Cal, who has his feet propped up on her desk. She tells him twice to put his feet down and threatens to break his leg if he does it again, then she realizes she's stepped in something that may or may not be human poo. It is. It is human poo.
After a trip to the bathroom to wash her shoe and get a contact high from The Raven who tells Lussi that the poo probably belongs to Alan the maintenance man/custodian, it's time for the Christmas party. Lussi goes to get her stollen from the fridge but … it's gone. Sloppy Joe suggests maybe the ghost of Mr. Blackwood took it, but that's not likely because ghosts don't eat, unless we're talking about Slimer from Ghostbusters. As Lussi leaves the breakroom to go to the Christmas party empty-handed, she mutters under her breath that she hopes whoever took her cake chokes on it.
The party isn't terrible. Lussi meets some coworkers who are relatively pleasant, drinks some spiked punch and then it's time for Secret Santa. Everyone gets their presents and some are silly inside jokes and some are sentimental, and then it's Lussi's turn. She opens her box and is shocked and pleased to see the Percht doll from Mr. Blackwood's office. She thinks Digby is responsible but he's sitting right next to her, can see in the box, and has no idea what the Percht is. Everyone else is curious as to what's inside the box, but Lussi doesn't want whoever is playing jokes on her to get the satisfaction of seeing her embarrassed, so she says it's empty, and the party continues.
Lussi goes to her office to put the Percht away and/or hide, but soon after, her friend Fabian Nightingale comes by, apparently invited the night before when they were drinking absinthe. He also brought Lussi his latest manuscript about vampires which she promises to read that weekend. Fabian sees the Percht and they talk about how it used to be Mr. Blackwood’s and how it's supposed to keep evil away. Fabian wonders, looking out the window through the iron bars, what evil Mr. Blackwood could have been keeping away.
After walking Fabian out, Lussi sees Cal’s bag is still in her office and she realizes she hasn't seen him in awhile. She mentioned earlier that she wanted him to go get more manuscripts from the basement, but surely he's not there now. Lussi grabs her flashlight and heads down to check. She hears a terrible mewling sound and, thinking it's Cal, she goes to investigate, but it turns out to be drunk Digby lamenting over the fact that the company hasn't turned a profit in its forty year existence. After he passes out, Lussi hears the mewling again and this time, it is Cal, and he is crushed under a ton of manuscripts. Don't worry, Cal is still alive, but his leg is broken.
On Lussi's way into work on Monday morning, a man named Peter who says he works for OSHA asks to speak with her, but she pretty much brushes him off. Why would he want to talk to her? Shouldn't he talk to someone in management? He warns her that her life may be in danger and then she rushes into the building. Surely that's not true. Yeah, Mr. Blackwood had a heart attack and Cal broke his leg, but like, those were isolated incidents. Lussi tells Gail, the receptionist, about the man outside and she pulls a huge gun from under her desk and accidentally shoots the Christmas tree. Maybe the OSHA guy was on to something.
Digby is waiting inside Lussi's office when she goes in to tell her that his father's funeral is scheduled for the next day. He's also shoeless, having stepped in poo that he says came from Cyndi Lauper, a raccoon, not the singer. He sent Cal away to clean his shoes for him, and Lussi is surprised to learn that Cal came back at all, much less so soon. When he returns, Digby leaves, and then The Raven comes to ask to borrow Cal. Before he leaves, Lussi notices that the Percht is missing, just like her fruitcake. She asks Cal if he recalls seeing the doll, but no.
Lussi goes down to the basement with plans to tidy up the collapsed slush pile, but someone has apparently already taken care of it. While she's down there, though, she finds the Percht. Did she take it down there on Friday when she found Cal? She doesn't think so. Lussi then goes toward the breakroom, still carrying the doll, but she hears the roof door bang, so she goes out there instead. She can see into the conference room and notices that everyone is in there, having a meeting without her. Sloppy Joe closes the blinds.
Angry that she was excluded from this meeting, Lussi stomps back toward her office, but stops at the art department, Percht still in hand. No one is there, of course, so she goes in to look at the cover redesign that she suggested and it looks good! Before she leaves, Stanley, the art director, comes in. He accuses Lussi of taking Norma and breaks down sobbing. The Raven comes in then, holding Norma, which is the mechanical pencil. She tells Lussi she'll need to apologize to Stanley later (seriously?) and Lussi agrees to, but not before saying she'd love to shove that stupid pencil where the sun doesn't shine instead. Unfortunately, she left the Percht in there, so she'll have to go back for it at some point. Not now though.
Lussi goes to her office and reads Fabian’s manuscript for hours. It's good! She realizes that most everyone has left for the night, but she didn't notice Stanley leaving. She wants to avoid him at all costs. She gets a phone call from her sister and asks her about their Oma’s Percht, but all her sister thinks is that Lussi’s going to get one for her daughter and begs her not to. The phone call ends and as Lussi leaves the building, she passes the art department and can hear someone inside. Stanley must still be in there. She'll have to get the Percht tomorrow.
The next day is the day of the funeral and Lussi has completely forgotten. Everyone looks to be leaving together, but The Raven stops Lussi and asks her to hang back and wait for a package of galleys to be delivered, even though they have a receptionist for that. The Raven implies it's not like she knew Mr. Blackwood or anything, so she agrees to wait, but insists that The Raven read Fabian's manuscript in exchange. The Raven agrees and everyone leaves for the funeral. Lussi steps out for a few minutes to get coffee, avoids a homeless guy out front, and returns with plans to go into the art department and get the Percht back. Inside, she finds Stanley, blood all down his front, twitching at his desk. She sees a metallic glint inside his nostril. It's Norma.
Lussi calls 911 and is a mess. Luckily, Fabian comes by, but it's to pick up his manuscript. Lussi explains that she's being hazed or pranked or something and she's got a list of who could be doing it, but now Stanley isn't on it anymore. Before Fabian can inquire more about this list, Lussi is beckoned into the park and/or the homeless encampment by Peter, the OSHA guy.
It turns out, his name is not Peter, but Frederick, and he used to work at Blackwood, but he only lasted a couple of months. He also got hazed and pranked, and weird things happened around him, too, and people got hurt. He explains that he worked on the religious imprint that Blackwood was starting and has a background in religious studies. He gives Lussi a book and tells her “Do not bring detestable things into your home, for then you will be destroyed, just like them,” and mentions that the bars that are supposed to keep evil out might be keeping it in, too.
Back at the office, Lussi opens the book Frederick gave her and waits for the package delivery. The book is a Bible from the 1920s. She decides to put it in her office and not take it home based on the cryptic thing Frederick said to her. She must doze off or something because The Raven comes in with an advanced reader copy of a book she had to buy from a homeless man. Apparently, Lussi missed the delivery. The Raven sees she's covered in blood and so Lussi explains what happened to Stanley. The Raven sends her home for the rest of the day.
At home, Lussi calls Fabian who is a little miffed about her running off into the homeless encampment with a stranger. She asks him to meet her at the library because she wants to show him the Bible and talk about her suspect list that really isn't going anywhere. She goes back to her office to get the Bible, but before she can leave, one of her coworkers, Rachael, comes by to tell her about Stanley. He's still alive, but can't talk or really do much of anything except draw because Norma went three-quarters of an inch into his brain in what the doctors assume was a suicide attempt. Rachael then shows Lussi a drawing that Stanley gave her. It's the Percht.
Lussi wonders about all the accidents and how she said that she would shove that pencil where the sun doesn't shine… it's all very weird, but she didn't literally mean for that to happen! Just then, something begins to strike the window and Rachael assumes it's the terrible neighborhood kids throwing snowballs. Nope. It's not. It's birds. Lots of them. Rachael screams and as Lussi looks out the window, she smells something strange and passes out.
When Lussi wakes, she's strapped to the conference room table with Christmas lights and her mouth taped shut, surrounded by several of her coworkers in cloaks and wearing Halloween masks. The Green Witch, who Lussi assumes correctly to be The Raven, pulls out a Bowie knife with plans to do a spiritual cleansing ritual by cutting out Lussi's heart. Before that, though, she wants to give Lussi a chance to talk things over, so the tape is removed.
The Raven says that Cal put his feet up on Lussi's desk and she threatened him with broken legs, and here he is, with a broken leg. Stanley put his pencil where the sun doesn't shine, just like she said, too. But what about the stolen fruitcake? Lussi wished that person would choke and that hasn't happened. The Raven explains she couldn't use her magic because she didn't know who took the cake, but then admits it was her, and immediately chokes and dies.
Suddenly, the Christmas lights tying Lussi to the table go out, are loosened, and the knife is put into her hand. One of her coworkers must be helping her! Lussi manages to escape from Blackwood and luckily, there's a cab right out front waiting. Inside is Fabian and he pays the cabbie extra to get them out of there fast. He waited for a long time at the library and knew Lussi wouldn't blow him off, so he knew something was afoot.
They go back to Fabian's apartment and Lussi tells him everything. He's pretty sure he's heard rumors of terrible things happening at Blackwood for a number of years, like all the interns they've had dying or disappearing, and he doesn't want her to go back, but she has to get her purse and the Percht and figure out who is killing people based on weird things she's said under her breath. Fabian, who always has the best drugs, offers Lussi some pills to help her sleep, but when he turns away, she drugs his tea and goes out looking for answers.
Lussi goes to see Agnes, Mr. Blackwood’s secretary, who left the same day that he had his heart attack. They were not-so-secret lovers so Lussi figures she'll know a lot about all the weird stuff that's been happening at Blackwood for the past forty years, and she does. Lussi finds the box that held the Percht when it was in Mr. Blackwood’s office and she knows now that Agnes was her Secret Santa. When Lussi asks her why she gave her the Percht, Agnes has an interesting answer.
Agnes tells Lussi that Mr. Blackwood had the Percht since he was in Nazi Germany and that when he found it, his luck changed, but always at a price. He got to come home early from the war, and made his fortune when his parents died in a car crash. The Percht will do great things, as long as he is fed. And what was he fed at Blackwood for all those years? The missing interns. When Lussi interacted with the Percht in Blackwood’s office and said what she said about him not knowing a best seller if it bit him in his cold black heart, well, the Percht liked that and Agnes knew Lussi was his new master. Lussi tries to deny the gift, but that's not how the Percht works. Lussi tells Agnes that she needs to turn herself in to the police for being complicit in all the intern deaths, but she kills herself instead. Well shit.
Lussi arms herself with lots of silver bracelets she found at Agnes’s figuring that silver is probably just as good as keeping evil at bay as iron. She takes the Percht box, steals Agnes’s car, and goes back to Blackwood. On her way into the building, planning to use the fire escape, she falls into the dumpster. Digby comes out, thinking she's a vagrant and threatens her with a gun that he doesn't have. She explains she left her bag and keys inside, so he lets her in through the front door. She tells him she has something for him, but he says the same thing at the same time, catching her in a jinx. He insists she buy him a Diet Rite to get out of it and she says she will, but she wants to clean up from falling in the dumpster first. She also wants to box up the Percht.
Lussi gets the soda and goes to her office to grab her compact from her purse. As she sits about to apply makeup, she sees an evil figure behind her in the mirror and knows this is what the Percht actually looks like. The room starts shaking then and slush pile papers swirl around her in a tornado. She manages to get the Percht back into the box and thinks everything will die down then, but it doesn't. The tornado of papers swirls out and into the lobby where it makes a mess of everything. It finally stops and everything falls eerily silent. Lussi, Percht box in hand, hears Fabian calling for help from the basement. Oh no. That's definitely going to be a trap.
Lussi goes down into the basement and finds Fabien in a pool of blood, bleeding out from a gunshot. He woke up not long after Lussi drugged him and figured she'd come here, so he came, too. As he searched around the back alley for a way in, someone shot him and that someone was probably Digby who must have figured out about the Percht and making sacrifices to it to be successful. Lussi doesn't want her friend to die, so she makes a deal with the Percht herself. Not long after, Alan, the maintenance man, comes down to the basement. When he sees Fabian, who looks very dead on the floor, he offers to cut the body up into tiny pieces, but no! He's still alive! Lussi insists he take her friend to the hospital. She goes upstairs to the fourth floor office to find Digby.
Digby is sitting at his father's desk, snorting what looks to be cocaine but is actually his father's ashes. Okay, so he's gone completely crazy. Lussi tells him he needs help, but then he notices the Percht box and goes off on a spiel about how his father cared more about that thing than anyone else and how he knows what it is and what it does and that's why he shot Fabian. He was trying to make a sacrifice to the Percht and had plans to sell the building to a developer and leave with the magic doll. He doesn't know that Lussi has already made a sacrifice though, and luckily, the Percht still seems to be favoring her. Digby even tries to shoot her, but the gun doesn't fire. He stabs her instead, pinning her hand to the desk, and walks out. She hears as he makes his way out the front door, then hears something being thudded into by a car, then hears sirens, then passes out.
When Lussi wakes, she's still in Blackwood's office, but she's no longer pinned to the desk with a knife and her hand is bandaged. Cal is there, waiting for her to wake up with a coffee at the ready. He tells her what happened to Digby even though she already knows he's dead. He also tells her that Fabian called to report that he is not dead. Sloppy Joe comes in the office then with a list of the people who tied her up and tried to sacrifice her. It turns out, he was the one who set her free. Cal realized they were up to something and told Sloppy Joe and they basically saved her, even though it's actually the Percht doing all the saving. Then they tell her that she is the new boss because she's the only person with Senior in her title. Well well well.
Lussi decides she's not going to fire all the people who tried to kill her, but she is going to keep that list when it comes time to feed the Percht again, and that time will come soon enough. All the workers come into the office and she tells them that things got out of hand but it's Christmas, the season of forgiving! Now it's time for them to publish some horror books and make people shit their pants!
December 1, 2019, New York
A young lady, the newest intern at Blackwood, is blathering on to Lussi about how horror is out and Young Adult is in. She loves YA and all the paranormal books that have been published, like Twilight and Beautiful Creatures and Vampire Academy. What? Lussi's never heard of Vampire Academy? Well, there are twelve books with vampires and dhampirs and a hot guy named Dimitri and a movie but the movie wasn't good… Oh, the intern just loves all that sort of stuff! She also loves that doll that Lussi has on her shelf. Her grandmother has one just like it! As the intern remarks about the Percht, Lussi dies and the Percht finds a new owner.