Gladys sneered. She redoubled her grip on her gun, pressing herself further into the unyielding, wooden wall behind her.
Great, this was just great. Not only was this bloody building soon to be full of fiends of the underworld, but she wasn’t alone either.
She wasn’t talking about the horde of zombie-esque lords of death that were winding their shadowy way toward this rundown farmhouse. No. They couldn’t technically be classed as company. Rather the heavily armed incursion team that was very noisily making their way through the front door was definitely company. But they were very unwelcome. The little situation developing here – a very dangerous, very terrifying situation – was just about to hit boiling point. And five heavily armed, steel-capped scouts would be the match to the gas-filled oven.
Gladys heard the silent patter of feet behind her. She heard the silent patter because she could feel it reverberating down each of her vertebrae. She twisted on the spot. Dropping to her feet and punching the gun to the left, she fired off two shots in one smooth move. The familiar hush of sand cascaded into a pile on the floor.
Oh, this was even better. Now those machine-gun-toting ballerinas would know she was here. She could see them in her mind’s eye, frozen on the stairs waving their hands about in a silent “holy crap, boys, we are not alone” sort of way.
Now what was she going to do? She could have played the innocent little “who me?” game if they’d caught her. “Oh, hi there, I just wandered into this deserted farmhouse in the middle of a military training ground… yeah, I was looking for the bathroom… got a bit lost… no, I can’t read signs….”
That clever plan could no longer work. They would see straight through it and to the shiny gun in her hand. Whoopee, now she had to think of something else.
Gladys put one finger to her chapped lips and let the other hand drop to her waist, the firm butt of the gun brushing lightly against her worn cargo pants. Practiced footfall avoided the creaks in the wooden stairs, the almost imperceptible shake in the floor beneath her the only indication she had that her new visitors were moving up.
This room was blocked off, no windows, only one door that led out onto the landing beyond. That’s why she’d picked it – only one entry… only one entry?
She turned quickly to survey the rest of the room. She hadn’t been thinking clearly. How the hell had that Sand Jackal found its way in here? She’d been guarding the door, and no seven-foot gray shadow of a man with the head of a jackal had slipped past her.
“Righty-oh.” Gladys parted her lips to form the words, careful not to give her exact position away with a flippant one-liner.
There was a hole in the ceiling that led to the rafters, rat-eaten insulation, and wiring of this decrepit house. Gladys stared at it. She really shouldn’t have missed that. So what if she’d had other things to think of? If she wanted to stay alive in this game, she had to play with her eyes wide open.
This did, however, present an opportunity. She knew the incursion team was seconds from bursting in on her – time to get rid of the gun.
She took one quick stride into the middle of the room and, clipping the safety on the gun, threw it up into the small opening above her. It landed with a dull thud above.
She quickly threw herself against the far wall in direct sight of the door.
She watched it open as she dropped to her feet and huddled against the wall.
“Stay where you are.” Five guns pointed at her.
They’d filed into the room in classic action-movie style: two crouching by the door as the others followed the leader in. It was a small room, though. She hoped they’d appreciate how cramped they’d made it.
“Lie down on the floor, hands behind your head.”
Sheesh, did they really have to shout so loudly? She was right here, for crying out loud! Gladys slowly uncurled herself and made to lie on the dusty floor.
“Hold on,” said the soldier in the lead.
“Captain?” asked Mr. Shouty McShouty.
“Gladys?” the Captain’s voice, though strong and determined, wavered slightly.
She knew that clipped Scottish brogue. How could she possibly not know it?
She lifted her head slowly and looked up at the hulk in shades of navy blue and black above her.
“Max?” she responded, her voice shaking with the smallest hint of amusement. This was totally ridiculous.
“What are you doing here?” his question was a command, a snapped demand for her to explain very quickly how she had found herself in such a very compromising situation.
Gladys ground her teeth, maintaining eye contact – or goggle contact, at least – with the heavily armored bulk of Captain Max Angus Cook. She knew better than to get up; Max may know her, but the very angry and confused soldiers beside him would be happy to shoot and ask questions later.
“Well…” she managed, blowing a thick cloud of dust off the ancient timber floor with every breath. “You’re not going to believe—” she paused.
“Yes?” he prompted.
But Gladys wasn’t listening. Her eyes widened slightly, her brow furrowed, and her arms and legs tensed. There was something moving above her – and no, it wasn’t a rat or a rowdy cockroach.
A little cloud of dust fell from the attic opening in the ceiling. She watched, almost in still frame, as Max slowly lifted his head and looked up.
Gladys blinked once then quickly rolled to the side as a huge, sinewy guard of the underworld flung itself from the rafters above. A giant, gold scimitar sliced into the floor where she’d been lying. The wave from the sudden action blew her tangled, dull brown fringe into her eyes as she walked her feet quickly up the wall in front of her, using the traction to push herself into a backward roll and onto her feet.
The three soldiers in the room had all taken a collective step back at the sight of a 7ft giant dog-headed man jumping from the ceiling.
“What the hell?” Mr. Shouty McShouty offered.
These highly trained men may have been prepared for anything – but they weren’t prepared for a dusty Sand Jackal of underworld doom. In fact, the tensed, obviously frightened stances of their bodies – their guns raised in automatic freak-out – would’ve made her laugh if she’d had a gun herself. To their credit, though, barely a moment passed before they composed themselves, but that was all the Sand Jackal needed.
Gladys pivoted on the ball of her foot and faced the beast, which was now between her and the wall. The soldiers behind her wouldn’t shoot… well, she hoped they wouldn’t shoot. So it was up to her to bring this one down.
She watched and waited as the thing grabbed the scimitar, which it had driven deep into the floor, one contraction of its long arm muscles plucking it up with ease. It lunged at her, the glint of gold held at head height. Gladys brought an arm up to meet the hilt of the blade clutched tight in the beast’s viselike grip. She pivoted again, dropping quickly and curling her back. The momentum of the monster brought it over her, and she sharply kicked up with both legs, landing a hard blow to its stomach and catapulting it behind her.
If Gladys had been wearing a tiny slit dress and a studded collar with her hair in two side buns, she could have put Street Fighter to shame. Though she doubted whether she could do a handstand on the spot and twist-kick her assailant repeatedly, a little judo flip was still pretty impressive against a creature not even H. P. Lovecraft could have imagined.
As she jumped back to her feet, she noticed with half an eye that she had accidentally hurled her assailant into the equally foreboding form of Mr. Shouty McShouty. The two lay sprawled near the far wall, a tangle of gray and black.
Gladys seized the opportunity and seized a gun. The force of a giant muscle-bound dog of death slamming into him had separated Mr Shouty from his assault rifle. The other soldiers, though they were now coming to terms with the situation, would not risk shooting at the creature when their comrade lay firmly entangled in its bulk. She didn’t have the same qualms.
She could see Max finally catch up to the situation. To be fair, it was a pretty odd situation. Someone he held to be a very pathetic, weak, total geek had just thrown the hulking form of a mythical creature across the room and was now going to shoot its monstrous form for good measure. It must be quite challenging for him, Gladys reasoned, as she darted clear out of his reach.
She aimed the gun at the creature’s chest as it quickly untangled itself and rose to its feet. Perfect chance, she squeezed off two rounds….
Except nothing happened. The gun did not fire.
Gladys’ face snapped to deathly white. This was not supposed to happen. She was not prepared for any countermove. She was too close to use the creature’s momentum against it. She didn’t even have time to squeeze her eyes shut.
Someone slammed into her back, knocking her out of the creature’s path and heavily to the wooden floor below. She felt the person twist around and fire off two quick, sharp shots. A waterfall of sand exploded over her back.
Near fatal situation averted… almost. Now she was going to have to explain herself to Captain Max Angus Cook.
Several months earlier
Gladys pushed her glasses further up her nose as she idly shot at the zombies with the gun in her other hand. This was a very cool move – she would have looked very swanky indeed if it weren’t for the fact she was a short, stumpy 23-year-old in her moccasins, threadbare t-shirt, and trackie dacks, standing in an arcade full of weedy teenagers. Yeah, check her out – hell she could even twist the gun around in her grip and blow the smoke away… well, she could if it wasn’t attached to the game by a cord.
Gladys sighed. Yep, another day drawing to a close. Another day spent at her boring, lifeless, dead-end job topped off with a half-hour on the machines. The arcade machines, not the gaming machines – no, she was way sadder than that. She didn’t throw her money away on the slim chance of a windfall. She threw it away so she could shoot the same old crappy, pixelated monsters on the same old crappy arcade machines. Monsters was a generous term – they looked like brown blocks with vaguely angry faces. Still, it wasn’t the graphics that kept her coming back, she just… well… there wasn’t anything else to do. She didn’t have a boyfriend, she didn’t have a cool gang of buddies, she didn’t even have a dog. In fact, Barney the 60-something guy who owned this fine, terribly smelly and aging establishment was probably the closest thing she had to a friend. Wait, no, back up – that sounded really sad. She had friends, they just weren’t here in this stupid little coastal village in the middle-of-friggin-nowhere England. Why would they be? There was nothing here for a self-respecting 20-something except for an arcade. Okay, technically there were several pubs and some sort of seafood restaurant. But they only constituted a good time if drunk, 6ft, beefy, ye-old fishermen were your idea of fun – it certainly wasn’t hers. In fact, the only men here who were vaguely her age looked like they could nut a crab clean open. There were no women her age, well none she’d care to mention. They had no doubt wised up and moved to the big smoke – not much in this village that didn’t have scales and smell of ammonia, after all.
Gladys rammed the worn, blue, plastic gun back into the holster attached to the side of the game machine.
Great, now all she had to look forward to was a short walk home, toast, and a bit of Eastenders. Or just bread; the toaster was broken, wasn’t it? She’d have to tell Myrtle to get that fixed, or rather, she’d have to ring the repair guy and get it fixed herself. Her grandmother would likely poke it with a screwdriver until it erupted in sparks and smoke. She was sweet enough, but for crying out loud, how many grannies had a workshop full of electronic equipment and a PhD in physics? It was frankly terrifying to think of her in her soldering helmet, a purple-rinsed curl slipping free as she played with fire.
Myrtle tried to fix everything, Gladys noted as she nodded to Barney and, hands thrust firmly in her pockets, walked out the door. Hell, Myrtle had even tried to fix Gladys. Fix her up, that was. Myrtle would constantly insist that a nice walk by the nice pier in a nice dress would be nice. Damn, if her granny actually thought she’d consider tarting up for a walk along the pier, then Myrtle’s ship had well and truly sailed.
A cold blast of salty sea air whipped the ends of Gladys’ long plait over her shoulder. She’d always been a bit of a no-hoper – she didn’t have a life plan, wasn’t terribly good at anything (other than Zombie Master 3000) and wasn’t anything much to look at. She didn’t have charisma, long legs, or a winning smile. Her hair was long and dark brown, her eyes a dull hazel, her face too round. She could touch her toes, though, and shoot a zombie at 40 paces. But that didn’t count.
Regardless of her lack of potential, she hadn’t exactly helped herself. She could have gone to uni – could have made something of her life. Instead, she’d just stayed in Sunny Bay.
Gladys jammed her hands further into her pockets as she tried to recede into her t-shirt. The sea breeze was blowing a cold one tonight. She quickly marched along the cobblestones that lead out onto the pier with its view of the blue-gray ocean beyond.
“Morning,” chirped the 70-something, curly-haired blur invading Gladys’ morning fog.
“Hi,” she mumbled in reply. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Toast!” Myrtle declared as if she were proclaiming the freedom of the enslaved.
“Nice…. Very nice.” Gladys shifted herself on the hard wood of the kitchen chair, its legs grating against the worn lino in protest.
“So, what are you going to do today?” chirped Myrtle as she pottered around the kitchen bench, shoving very stale bread into the dangerously hot toaster.
Gladys could have shouted at her: “the same thing I do every day, Granny M: absolutely bloody nothing!” but her grandmother was making her toast, and that would be rude.
“Not much,” Gladys said, “just going to work.”
“Oh, tell Matilda I adored that mint jelly.” Myrtle flourished the knife she was using to butter her toast, adding more enthusiasm to the phrase “mint jelly” than it justly deserved.
“Will do.” Gladys blinked, letting her eyes wander around the small kitchen. It was poky, dark, and musty. Its only feature – in the same way lava was a notable feature in a volcanic eruption – was the collection of brown and orange tiles above the bench. The ‘70s had a lot to answer for in terms of kitchen design.
“Oh dear,” Myrtle interrupted, looking at Gladys as though her face had suddenly exploded in a poxy rash.
“You’re being cynical again, aren’t you?” Myrtle clucked her tongue. “Chin up, dear; you’ll find Sunny Bay isn’t such a bad place after all!”
“I’ve practically lived here my whole life.” Gladys smiled wanly. She may be totally insane, but Grandma Myrtle was still as sweet as sugar. “I reckon that’s enough time for Sunny Bay to deliver all it can.”
“Oh pluck up, dear. You’ll have an adventure soon.” Myrtle passed her a plate of toast and marmite.
“An adventure? I don’t want an adventure, Gran – I just want something to happen!” Which wasn’t entirely true; if said adventure involved aliens and spaceship captains, she was well up for it.
“Well, anything’s possible dear. You’ll see. Speaking of which, your cousin Brittany rang for you last night.”
Gladys furrowed her brow. Myrtle may as well have told her that Flash Gordon had called and had left a message that he’d be getting around to kicking her butt later that day. “Oh good,” she managed after a large bite of toast. “Whash did she wansh?” she managed through a mouthful.
“She’s taking you somewhere next Saturday, didn’t say where, though. I’m sure it’ll be fun!” Myrtle added with a virtual thumbs-up sign ringing in her voice.
“Gran, the last time Brittany took me somewhere, she treated me like her backward, freakishly geeky cousin who she was doing the charity of introducing to the real world.”
“Oh yes, she can be a bit of a chump.”
Gladys spluttered as she choked back her laughter.
“But she is your cousin, dear. And you never know, she might take you someplace exciting.”
Gladys grinned a Mr-Sheen-esque smile over her toast. “Quite an imagination you’ve got there, Gran.”
“Ever hopeful, dear. Oh! You better be off!” Myrtle cried with one look at the oven clock. “You’ll miss your early morning entertainment.”
Entertainment? Gladys thought. Then she felt a blush warm her cheeks. “Gran,” she rebuked.
“Go on, lass.” Myrtle gave a stage wink. “He should be jogging by any moment now.”
Gladys rolled her eyes and made a point of slowly putting down her plate. However, with one glance at the clock, she realized she really did have somewhere to be. With half a smile and the kind of speed available to only the most dedicated arcader, Gladys grabbed her toast and ran.
Today was not going to be a good day, Gladys noted as she placed another label on another rhubarb jam jar. Not only had she missed the aptly named Jogging Man through her feigned ambivalence, but it was Thursday. Thursday was alarmingly close to Friday. And Friday was far, far too close to Saturday. And on Saturday she would likely die of boredom and/or embarrassment from whatever hellish play-date Brittany had organized.
Gladys took a deep, belly-shaking sigh as she scooted the labeled jar over to join its friends at the other end of the counter. She had all the evidence she needed right here that nothing ever happened in Sunny Bay. Nothing but boredom, fish, and rhubarb jam – which was an utterly unappealing combination. Her Grandma was well and truly bonkers if she thought an adventure could happen to anyone originating from or inhabiting this locale. The people in this sleepy village were imbued with the kind of lethargy that defined clinical catatonia. Well… her sample size was a little skewed, wasn’t it? Gladys conceded as another old dear walked in.
“Hello dear!” Mrs. Arnold piped up as she shuffled into the store.
Gladys managed what she hoped was a cute smile. “Nice to see you, Claire.”
“And you, dear. Patsy told me Doris has just finished another batch of rhubarb.”
“Well, Patsy sure as heck wasn’t lying, Claire.” Gladys held up the freshly labeled jar in her hands as if it were the Holy Grail.
“Ooh!” Claire chirped.
Yep. This was about as exciting as it got in Sunny Bay, Gladys accepted as the door closed behind a contented Claire Arnold.
All Gladys had to look forward to in this tiny little fishing village was an arcade… that smelled like fish.
She stared blankly out of the window of Vera’s Haberdashery. It offered a great view of the town slipping away to the port and the vast ocean beyond. One thing she was happy to concede was that this town was quite picturesque. If she were 70 and wanting to retire, she may consider one of the little bungalows on the hill overlooking the bay. But she wasn’t 70; she was 23, for god’s sake. She shouldn’t be anywhere near this place.
The only reason she hadn’t moved away to make something of herself yet was she had to look after her grandmother.
Gladys reached a hand forward and parted several stray strands of lavender fastened on a drying string across the ceiling. They were obstructing her view of the window – of the port and the ocean beyond. Not that anything was going on, of course. She would have to have mutant powers to see anything other than the tiny black dots milling around the port. Still, she was trying to maintain a convincingly brooding position as she stared sullenly at the boredom that was Sunny Bay.
In many ways, her grandmother was right: Gladys would give anything, anything at all, if only something would happen to her.
Unbeknownst to Gladys as she stared down at the port, something was happening. Though it didn’t involve her at this point, the large oblong case being unloaded from the recently docked Cleopatra would eventually change her entire world. More importantly, the strange, tall, dark, gaunt figure that stood at the side of the dock watching as the package was loaded into a truck would be the catalyst for it all.
They say be careful what you wish for.
The rest of Gladys the Guard Episode One is available from most ebook retailers.