Red. All I could see was red.
The art gallery wasn’t my usual haunt. But I’d come along for the sake of a friend. His exhibition was a red room coupled with equally red lighting. The walls oozed a gunky liquid that looked like blood.
What was I supposed to get out of this? I didn’t understand this kind of art. It just wasn’t my thing.
I wasn’t exactly blending in either with my fitted jeans, four inch Louis Vuittons and cashmere jumper. The other attendees were predominantly hipsters, and seemed to be absorbing the room with much more interest than I was. The reason for the heels was the Tinder date I was supposed to meet in twenty minutes. I almost hadn’t worn them. I hadn’t put heels on since…hell, I dunno when.
Angus appeared at the end of the room wearing a violent orange bow-tie over his shirt. We weren’t a likely pair of friends, but we’d bonded at university. We’d lived in halls together for the first semester and had grown closer ever since. It was hard to believe we’d graduated a whole year ago.
“Austin!” Angus cried, throwing his slim arms around me. “I can’t believe you came.”
I was named after the city in Texas. My parents had met there. I was the only remaining reminder of their love for each other. After they’d gotten a divorce when I was six, that love had been quickly forgotten. They were never warm to each other anymore. The bitterness between them had hardly dwindled at all, making the holidays horrendously awkward. They’d insisted we continue to share them together for the sake of me and my younger brother. They’d finally given up on the effort after we’d both gone to university. Which at least made seeing them a whole lot easier.
That didn’t stop the questions though. “Is your father still screwing his whore of a secretary?” “Is your mother still pumping her face with Botox?”
“Of course.” I beamed at Angus.
“It’s just not really your scene, darling.” Angus was camp to the max, but surprisingly not gay. His girlfriend, Mindy, was twice his size since the girl was a pro-wrestler. I’d always liked the way they balanced each other out though, especially because they didn’t fit cultural norms.
“No, but it’s your scene. And you’ve worked on this all year, Angus. Of course I wouldn’t miss it.” I tossed a dark, blonde-dipped curl over my shoulder. I was probably a bit late on the dip-dye trend. But it suited me, so I wasn’t gonna change it any time soon. Angus eyed my hair with interest like it was one of his art pieces.
“So what do you think of it, darling? How does it make you feel?” He gestured to the room and I frowned, taking it in again.
I feel like I’ve walked into the aftermath of the chain-saw massacre.
“It’s interesting,” I tried.
“But what do you feel? What does your heart say?”
I fiddled with my clutch bag. Awkward? Grossed out? Like I’m in an abattoir?
“Um…” I fiddled with the clasp on my bag again. “Well I guess I feel…haunted? Halloween is approaching so I guess the gore is fitting.” I raised my brows, hopeful that Angus wasn’t going to demand I attempt another answer.
He clapped his hands together, beaming. “Exactly what I was going for. It’s a gothic bloodbath, isn’t it wonderful?”
I nodded non-committally.
I glanced at my Gucci watch – Dad was the owner of Crestfield Holdings and Mum was a high-up trader in an opposing company. I could have sworn they were competing over who was able to buy me the most expensive gift. I didn’t usually purchase anything with a designer label on it, didn’t really see the point. But I wasn’t going to waste the items they’d bought me either.
“I’m afraid I have to get going, Angus. I’ve got a date.”
His jaw dropped. “Austin, darling. You haven’t been on a date since…well, ever! You passed up the hottest guys in university for your studies. What on earth has gotten into you?” He swung his dark hair out of his eyes with a head flick.
I shrugged, but I knew he’d never let it go.
“Don’t be a bore. Give me details!”
I sighed, giving in. “My mother keeps harping on about me getting a boyfriend. Trust me, I’m really not that bothered, but she looks like she’s going to cry every time I tell her I’m not seeing anybody. So I figured, what the hell?”
Angus, pressed his hands to either side of my neck, gazing into my eyes seriously. “Do not give him a blowjob on the first date.”
“Angus!” I smacked his hands away. “Why the hell would I do that?”
He laughed, throwing his head back. “You wouldn’t darling, that’s why it’s so hilarious. Have you even lost your V-card yet?”
I glanced around at the people in the room, my cheeks flushing. I had to be glad of the red lighting to hide it.
“That’s none of your business.” I hadn’t. Hadn’t even kissed a guy, in fact. Maybe it was my parents’ bitter divorce that had kept me away from boys my whole life. Sure, I’d fancied guys. But I usually found reasons why they weren’t a good match until my hormones got the message to back down.
“So who is he?” Angus bobbed up and down in his loafers.
“Just a guy. I met him on Tinder.” I bit my lip guiltily.
“Tinder? Holy hell, he’s going to be looking for one thing. Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Something about the question irritated me. I was going on this date no matter what. Even if it was just to prove I could date. And Tinder had been the easiest way to meet someone. Besides, if the guy did want into my knickers, that didn’t mean he was going to get his wish.
“I’ll see you later, Angus,” I said, stepping away. Before he could hound me further, a man snared his attention.
I scurried away, heading out of the gallery onto the street. It was early October and the air held a chill in it that spoke of winter. London was busy as usual, bustling with people wrapped in coats and scarves. I headed along the street in the direction of the bar I was meant to meet my date in.
Nerves niggled at me. Was this really a good idea? What if Angus was right about my date? What if he was only after one thing?
Then you’ll deal with it, Austin!
I had to do this: pop my date cherry. If I didn’t like him, I could go home early and call it a win.
Satisfied, I took out my phone, checking the directions for the bar. My date, Ethan, had organised the meeting place, having texted me the address. It was located down a dark alley and as I walked into it, my neck prickled with discomfort. What if this was a trap? What if I’d been lured here to be killed?
I shook my head, spotting the name of a bar above a doorway, highlighted with a neon red light.
More red. Great.
I pushed the door open, finding my way blocked by a huge guy in a security jacket.
“Password,” he demanded.
I glanced down at the message Ethan had sent me. I’d been a little thrown by the idea of giving a password on arrival, but there were a lot of quirky places in London, so I wasn’t too concerned.
“Inferno,” I supplied and the guy stepped aside, revealing a narrow staircase with black walls running up each side of it.
I headed upstairs, stepping into a small bar with black floorboards and coloured lighting above each of the cosy booths. The bar was shaped like a mouth, with fake teeth running across the top and bottom of it.
A guy stood up from one of the booths, marching toward me.
My stomach dipped.
He was as hot as his pictures had suggested, his chest broad and his body sculpted. He had a buzz-cut with an army-ish look about it, which I’d expected considering that was his job.
“Hey, are you Austin?” he asked, his gleaming eyes travelling over me.
“Yeah, Ethan right?” My throat barely released the words.
He nodded, pulling me into his arms for a hug. It was unexpected and I stumbled a little on my heels from the strength of his hold.
As he released me, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
“You look gorgeous,” he muttered, taking my hand and guiding me to the bar.
“Oh, thanks,” I said in surprise.
I wasn’t used to the continuous contact and my instincts made me step away from him as we reached the bar.
When I had a glass of prosseco in my hand, I felt a lot better. Especially when the punch of alcohol gave me a boost of courage.
We sat in the booth Ethan had evidently reserved for us. The place was busy, which was surprising considering it wasn’t exactly on the map.
“I hope this bar is up your street. I know it’s a bit creepy, but they do the best Halloween cocktails.” He passed me a menu across the table and I giggled at some of the names, like the Vampire’s Fang-Banger and the Werewolf’s Toe.
“I like it,” I decided with a small grin.
He sat back in his seat, sipping on his pint. We made our way through some chit-chat, discussing work – I was a Law intern, still waiting for an actual job offer – our favourite Netflix shows and our travel experiences. Ethan was easy to talk to and I soon forgot my nerves.
“I hate Tinder by the way. I wish we hadn’t met on there,” Ethan said unexpectedly.
“Why do you hate it?” I frowned, leaning forward in my seat. He mimicked me, resting his arms on the table.
“It’s full of heavily filtered selfies and too many girls who claim pilates is their favourite thing to do in the world.”
I laughed, sipping my prosecco.
“You didn’t have any of that. Natural photos…pretty smile.” He grinned and heat rushed to my cheeks. “Just lucky I didn’t delete my profile any sooner, I guess.” He stuck out his tongue and I laughed.
“Well the men are just as bad. Shameless gym selfies and bare chests. I think I recall you had one of those,” I teased.
“Well if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He stood, waving the cocktail menu at me. “Want anything specific, or can I order for you?”
“Go ahead.” I ushered him away, unable to help eyeing his butt as he walked to the bar.
A voice inside my head sang, Pervert!
He returned a moment later with two fizzing red cocktails with green ice cubes inside. He planted one down before me.
“Bloodberry flavour apparently.” He took a sip and I did the same, the sweet cherry flavour rolling over my tongue.
“Delicious,” I announced.
He held out a hand to me. “The barman says there’s a secret room through a bookcase back there, wanna check it out?”
I nodded, getting to my feet, his fingers sliding between mine.
The bookcase was located behind the bar in a quiet corridor. We ran our hands along the books, searching for a door knob and I discovered it with a squeal of delight. Pulling it open, a narrow door swung inwards and an eerie green light glowed from within.
Ethan slid his arm around my waist as we stepped inside and the door swung shut behind us. I turned, pressing a hand to the smooth surface, but it wouldn’t budge.
He turned, pushing it too. “Shit, maybe there’s another way out?”
I nodded, hoping he was right as we descended the dark stairs several flights until I was sure we were underground.
Cool air washed over me as we arrived in a dark room with an empty cage at the heart of it, full of bones. I stopped dead and Ethan did the same. An eerie clicking noise sounded from somewhere.
“Do you think it’s one of those fright night things?” I whispered and Ethan shrugged, looking doubtful.
“Hello?” he called and I glanced back toward the stairs, wondering if we should try the door again.
No answer came and his shoulders tensed.
“Come on, let’s check it out.” He urged me forward, his hand still around mine as we moved past the creepy cage toward an archway at the back of the room.
Maybe the bar was just through there…
A rush of movement sounded behind me and I snapped around, my heart thumping in my ears.
There was no one there, but I was certain I hadn’t imagined it. Ethan pulled me closer as we stepped under the archway.
Footsteps pounded. My heart reached for my throat as I glanced over my shoulder.
Someone collided with my back and a needle pierced my neck. I cried out, falling forward, hearing Ethan fighting with someone as I hit the ground. My cocktail smashed into a hundred shards, the red drink spilling everywhere.
My eyesight faded and I heard Ethan cry out before he slammed into the ground beside me. His gaze locked with mine before I passed out and his voice followed me into oblivion.
“I’m here, Austin, I’m right here.”
I woke abruptly, my head throbbing. It took me a couple of seconds to realise I was upside down, my legs wrapped in chains, hanging from a hook on the ceiling. My bag was gone and my phone with it.
I groaned, my thoughts groggy as I spotted Ethan beside me, unconscious as he swung slightly in his restraints.
A concrete room was all I could see. It was empty, thank God. But I didn’t know how long that would last.
Fear rippled through me. I didn’t want to scream, afraid some killer would show up and finish the job they’d started.
I swung myself to the side, reaching out to Ethan and pushing his limp body.
He blinked awake, his brow furrowing as he gazed at me. He said nothing, taking in the room with a sweeping glance, then gazing up at his tethered ankles. With a grunt of effort, he drew his body upwards, reaching for his feet. On the second go, he managed it, grabbing hold of the chains and tugging as hard as he could.
“Quickly,” I begged, glancing at the door across the room.
I spotted a camera high up on the ceiling, aimed right at us and my heart squeezed sharply.
“Ethan, someone’s watching us. There’s a camera.”
“I saw it,” he grunted, straining against his chains. “If I can just-” He ran out of strength, falling back down to hang, rolling his shoulders.
“Oh god,” I breathed. “We’re going to die.”
“We’re not going to die,” Ethan promised, lifting himself up again to reach his restraints. With a clink of metal, the chains loosened and he slammed to the ground. He jumped upright, turning to me just as the door flew open.
The most horrible thing I’d ever seen sped into the room. It was humanoid, but its face fish-like, its arms overly long. It had no clothes, but its body was smooth and scaly. Running up its spine was a row of jagged spikes.
A scream tore from my lungs.
There was only one word for it: mutant.
The thing ran at Ethan and he twisted around to intercept it. The creature dove atop him and Ethan fought it fiercely, grabbing its throat and slamming it to the ground.
I swung uselessly, gazing up at my ankles, wondering if my measly once-a-week workouts were enough to get me up there. I lifted my body as high as I could, miraculously grabbing hold of the chain and dragging myself upright. My feet were wrapped tight, but there was no lock. As if someone wanted us to get free. I wriggled wildly, trying to shake it loose and with a satisfying chink, they came free.
I hit the floor hard, tearing the skin on my hands and knees. Ethan was fighting with the mutant, but it was on top of him, its puckered lips pressed to his abdomen. He threw wild punches, yelling as he tried to battle it off. I ran forward, slamming my four inch heel into its side.
The creature shrieked and flew toward me. I tried to run but it knocked me to the ground, peeling its lips back above my face, revealing serrated teeth and a mouth big enough to consume my entire head.
I screamed bloody murder, pressing my hands to its slimy shoulders, desperate to keep it away.
Oh my god. I’m going to die.
Someone took hold of one of my shoes and pulled it off. The creature shrieked, jerking wildly as Ethan stood above, beating it with the heel of my shoe.
The mutant collapsed dead atop me and green blood oozed over my body.
I trembled from head to toe as Ethan kicked it off of me, holding out a hand to help me up.
I took it, terror gripping my heart as I pressed into him, trying to get away from the dead thing, limping on my imbalanced feet. Ethan leant down, taking hold of my other shoe and pulling it off. My bare feet met the cold concrete, turning my bones to ice. I held onto his shoulders and he soon returned upright, gazing intently at me as he passed me one of the shoes as a weapon.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Define alright,” I breathed, gazing down at the dead mutant. “What is that thing?”
Ethan’s face twisted into a grimace. “I dunno, but we need to get the hell out of here before more of them show up.”
“More?” I echoed, horrified at the possibility.
In answer, an inhuman shriek sounded from beyond the open door.
The corridor was dark. I could see it stretching off into the distance, looking like the road to hell.
I gripped the shoe tighter in my hand, ready to use it if I had to. I was downright afraid. But I had to live through this. I wasn’t going to die in some icy cellar at the hands of these monsters.
I stayed at Ethan’s side as he crept toward the doorway, lowering himself into a fighting stance. Thank God he’d been in the army. I couldn’t think of anyone better to be with right then.
My bare feet slapped against the floor as we moved, so I started tip-toeing to keep quieter.
A shadow darted into the corridor ahead of us, flying in our direction, using its overly long arms to help itself along. I braced myself as Ethan did the same, forcing myself not to run, despite the fact my legs were shaking with the determination to do so.
I will not run.
The mutant released a bird-like cry, flying into the air and landing on Ethan. I dove forward to help, slamming my heel into its spiny back until it screeched in pain. Ethan battled it back, slamming it against the wall, locking his hands around its throat.
“Kill it,” he said through his teeth, holding it in place.
The mutant’s bald held was covered in welts, its eyes slit up the middle. That was where I aimed, slamming my heel into its right eye as hard as I could. Green gloop splattered me and I cringed away as Ethan released the mutant and it dropped to the ground, twitching in death.
Bile rose in my throat. I dry-heaved, expecting my prosecco to make a second appearance, but I held it down.
“Shit, Austin,” Ethan panted as he gazed at me in awe.
I gave him a taut smile. “Let’s go.”
He nodded and we hurried onward, turning down a maze of stone passages, left, right, left again.
I was losing my mind, panic burning through my chest.
As we met a dead end with a thick steel door in the middle of it, I ran forward, trying to wrench it open. Ethan slammed his shoulder against it several times before giving up. Stepping back, I gazed up at the blinking red light of a camera staring down at me. I put my middle finger up at it and Ethan took my hand, dragging me toward the door and pressing me against it so the camera couldn’t see us.
He dropped his mouth to my ear. “Whoever’s watching obviously wants us to die down here, Austin. So we have to fake it to make them open this door.” He squeezed my fingers, then lowered his tone further. “I’m going to pretend to hurt you. Fight back. We’ll make it look like we cancelled each other out.”
“What if one of those things comes?” I asked, the breath of a whisper.
“Let’s hope not.” He shoved me away from him and I stumbled back in front of the camera.
“Get the hell away from me,” I snarled, faking it.
Ethan stormed toward me and I started running. He was faster, snatching my waist and throwing me toward the wall.
“It was your idea to come down here!” he yelled in my face. He leant his arm against the wall, concealing me from the camera then slammed his fist into the stone beside my head, busting his knuckles.
He released me and I slumped to the floor, gripping my shoe tighter as he turned away from the camera, heading back the way we’d come.
I pretended to stagger upright, running toward him and smashing the blunt end of the shoe into his head. He fell forward, hitting the ground and I fell atop him, slamming the shoe into the ground beside his head over and over, hunching my back to hide him from the camera. I just prayed this looked real.
Ethan fell still, giving me a ghost of a smile as I stumbled upright, pulling the heel free from his palm and holding it against my belly. I fell to my knees, crawling toward the camera, delivering my best acting skills as I hit the floor, pretending I’d been impaled.
I lay still, holding my breath for as long as I could.
Seconds ticked by.
Eventually, the door screeched open and blood pounded in my ears.
I shut my eyes, trying to look as dead as possible.
“The last mutant’s got stuck down in the east corridor,” a man grumbled, wheezing as he walked toward us.
“Why do you think they attacked each other?” another asked.
“Dunno. I wanted the girl to last a bit longer. Always like seeing the mutants eat those pretty faces.”
Boots paused just before my face as I peered through my eyelashes.
My heart beat like a war drum.
You can do this, Austin. Keep it together.
“I hate this bit,” the first man muttered.
“I dunno…watching the bodies melt in acid is kinda satisfying.”
My heart crashed into some other vital organ.
Someone took my arm, hauling me upright. With a scream of defiance, I rammed the shoe up toward his neck. The guy was huge, all fat. At least three times as wide as me. He was short though, giving me a good shot at his throat. The heel pierced his skin and he stumbled back, wide-eyed with horror. He grasped his neck as blood leaked down onto his nerdy black t-shirt, with the words GAME OVER written across it in bold letters.
A scuffle sounded behind me as I pulled the shoe free, wheeling around in fear. Ethan was slamming the second guy’s head on the ground, over and over until blood poured.
A shriek caught my ear and I cried out for Ethan, grabbing his arm as a mutant appeared around the corner, tearing toward us. The large guy wasn’t quite dead and the mutant quickly locked its lips over his entire face.
My stomach churned.
My body was fuelled entirely by adrenaline as we fled through the door, slamming it behind us as we went. We entered a room full of computer screens, showing the live camera feeds from the maze. Crisp packets and old takeaway boxes were strewn everywhere. I spied a stained bathtub through a plastic curtain and my gut writhed.
We fled to the door on the other side of the room, ripping it open.
Moonlight poured down on us from a glass door at the top of a hundred steps. We ran up, up, up. Sweat poured down my back. Ethan clung to my hand, never letting me go. And I clung to him just as fiercely as we barrelled our way through the door onto a quiet back street.
Ethan slammed the door and I buckled forward, resting my hands on my knees as I caught my breath.
“What do we do?” I gasped, standing upright.
Ethan’s jaw ticked as he glanced up and down the road. “My place is a few streets from here. We could head there then call the police?”
I nodded, sagging against him as he led the way. I memorised our location as we moved back onto the main road. The people moving up and down the street seemed completely at ease. Totally unaware of our situation.
I wondered whether we should cry out to them for help, but I didn’t think anyone would listen.
No, we’d go to Ethan’s. Get somewhere safe, then tell the world what had happened.
“Do you think anyone’s going to believe us?” I asked as people eyed my bare feet and the greenish blood on my clothes. They probably thought we were part of some Halloween stunt.
Ethan’s fingers wrapped around mine and he halted me in the street, a frown creasing his forehead. “No, but we have proof. The police will go there. They’ll see the truth.”
I nodded, leaning against him a moment as my heart rate settled. “You know, it’s funny, I almost didn’t wear those stupid heels tonight.”
He tilted my chin up, breaking a relieved smile. “Thank god you did.”
Despite everything that had happened, I tip-toed up and he stole the kiss he was clearly hungry for. A shiver ran down to my bare toes. Stupid really, after everything that had just happened. But the adrenaline was still pumping through my veins, my mind wild and wayward.
“This was my first ever date,” I revealed with a half-hearted laugh.
He clawed a hand into my hair before releasing me. People were stopping to look at us now. Some had their phones out, taking pictures.
We should probably keep moving.
“Damn,” Ethan sighed. “I was thinking the date was going okay before all that shit went down. I’m sure you wanna forget all about me and this night.”
I lifted a brow. My life had always been a clear-cut path. Tonight had changed everything. In more ways than one.
“I don’t want to forget,” I whispered. I hadn’t felt this alive in years. Possibly ever.
He cupped my jaw, his thumb skating across my cheek. “No, I don’t want to either. Not the good parts anyway.”
“Tell me the good parts,” I said, shaking my head.
He grinned, taking my hand as we hurried on in the direction of his home. “Everything up until the mutants, Austin. But most of all, the part where you walked in the door.”