This short story takes place after the events of The Gatekeeper on the Docks, so consider this a spoiler warning.
“I’m not sure about this George. I kind of feel out of place here.” said Charlie. She nervously looked around at all the other guests at the party. She was very much aware of the fact that she seemed to be the only human present. George placed the stack of burgers he had brought along to the barbeque party on the table full of all sorts of exotic meats and grillable vegetables that other guests had provided for the master griller.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it luv. Pazulivul is ‘appy ta ‘ave ya along. Even insisted on it ya know.” replied George, not seeming to notice Charlie’s discomfort at her surroundings. He surveyed the surroundings, trying to locate the party’s host. “Ahh, there’s tha bugger. Come on, Charlie mate, I’ll introduce ya.” He led Charlie through the crowds of demons and angels happily chomping on burgers or hotdogs, drinking beers and cracking jokes with each other. Charlie found herself weaving through an ocean of Hawaiian shirts and baggy swimming shorts. All the guests seemed to be pointedly not talking about the pressures of work as they let their hair (or wings) down and got increasingly drunk from the ever growing stockpile of beers and cocktails. A group of angels from the Discipline and Completions Department were taking on a group of demons from Communications at a game of water polo in the pool; it didn’t take long before it degenerated into drunken splashing and taunting a timid group of Gremlins that had banded together to huddle in the corner away from the rest of the party. Charlie subconsciously peeled the label of the bottle of wine she had brought along with her as her offering to the booze surplus. She gradually came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the most grown-up gift that she had ever given in her entire existence was completely out of place at this particular party. She had been very pleased with her choice of fine wines from a jolly angel named Farmer Gabrillio in an especially pleasant district of the Light After-worlds. She had even asked advice from one of her wine expert colleagues at the offices in the Deliveries department.
Since being released from her short stay in Purgatory four months previously, George had been pestering her with increasing regularity to come and meet his friends and get to know more people. She had quickly found a selection of pubs and bars that she found pleasing enough but all of them were almost exclusively frequented by humans. The human population of the After-worlds rarely mingled with the rest of the land’s denizens, Charlie could see exactly why. If she hadn’t already known George to be a good guy and nice enough, she would probably have been a little intimidated too. Even then, she found most of the non-human population more than a little scary, or at least strange. It was hard to acclimatise to the new world she was in. Just different cultures Char babe, a little different to what you know but you’ll get the hang of it, she told herself. George shook her out of her reverie when he nudged her in the shoulder. Being friends with a small human was a bit of a strange experience for him too, he forgot that a playful nudge of the shoulder could send a human rocking off their feet unless he dialled it back a bit. Charlie managed to stay on her feet, eliciting a drunken cheer from a nearby group of demons.
“Ya alright luv?” asked George.
“I don’t know anyone here George. You sure it’s okay to be here?” Charlie nervously strangled the neck of the bottle of wine, she was certain that at any moment someone would point and shout “Human! Get her” and she would be chased out by burning torch and pitchfork wielding hordes. George smiled warmly at her.
“Come on girl, ‘ow many times I gotta tell ya? Yer more than welcome ‘ere. Me mates wanna meet tha girl that caused all that mischief an’ such.”
“I’d argue that the mischief happened around me, not because of me.”
“Maybe so. Whatever, they wanna meet ya.” He smiled once more and carried on pushing through the crowds, occasionally stopping to greet someone, throw a loose beach ball back to its owners or give a friendly thump on the back of an old acquaintance. Charlie took a deep breath to try and steady her nerves and followed him. She felt her mobile phone vibrating in the pocket of her black jeans and fished it out to see the message. It was another text from Zeitgeist. Guess he’s bored sat at home again, she thought. She did not bother to read it, she knew that it would just be another message taunting her and making lame puns about house arrest. She would give herself time to think up something witty to send in retaliation. George reached his target group of demons and angels. A tall slender demon in an old American Army Air Force cap and the most explosively colourful Hawaiian shirt Charlie had ever seen was telling a story about a spirit he had chased across half of California with a broken leg and one of his horns blown to pieces, as the spirit had stolen his shotgun and turned it upon its pursuer. The audience were highly amused by his tale and took great pleasure in making fun of him. He took it all in good grace.
“Needed a new leg of course but Inventory couldn’t find a new horn in my size, so I’m stuck with this here stumpy horn...” The demon broke off his story as he saw George approach.
“Maybe it’d be best ta just go ‘head, bite tha bullet an’ request an ‘hole new body mate, save tha rest of us from needin’ ta stare at yer ugly mug.” said George with a big grin on his face.
“We can’t all have a fabulous new body like you now can we? Look at you, not a scar or even a hint of a blemish. How long are you spending on your beauty regime these days, you sexy beast you?”
“Smooth as a baby’s bum Georgey boy.” said a demon in a grass skirt and with a coconut bra on.
“Don’t pretend ya don’t luv it Beth.” replied George. Beth chuckled and raised her martini glass to him. George gave a good hearty embrace to the demon telling the story. “Pazulivul, good ta see ya mate.”
“You too buddy. Glad you could make it. Get George a drink will you Zachary?” said Pazulivul to one of the angels in the group. The angel hopped off to find a beer for the new arrivals as George said hello to everyone else and introduced his human friend.
“So this is the famous, no, infamous, Miss Phillips then?” said Beth as she scrutinised Charlie, making her feel naked and even more uncomfortable than she already was. “I think it’s fair to say that we all got a good kick over your evidence giving at Samson’s trial. ‘Suited cock muffin’ has become something of a department favourite down in the pits.”
“So glad to be such entertainment.” replied Charlie sheepishly.
“Lot of folk in the Extractions Section were fond of Samson. Casual Wednesdays were pretty popular you know?” said another demon. “We were all glued to the news when the verdict was read.” Charlie went white as a ghost and took an involuntary step back. She suddenly feared that she had been set up and only brought along in order to let Samson’s followers get revenge on her. Beth broke Charlie’s paranoia when she burst out laughing.
“Oh how precious! She thinks we’re out to get her.”
“Don’t worry luv, we don’t talk politics ‘ere. If any of Sammy’s folk are ‘ere, they’ll leave ya be. He dug ‘is own ‘ole, no one blames ya fer ‘im getting taken down.” said George reassuringly. Charlie wasn’t as fully convinced as she thought George probably intended and quickly took the drink Zachary had returned with to offer her. He took her bottle of wine silently, to go and add it to the booze pile. He looked at the label and nodded to himself appreciatively. Charlie was relieved to see that her gift had not been ridiculed and rejected at first sight and had been taken away out of sight, so if anyone did take offence to the bottle, she wouldn’t get blamed. She listened in as the conversation began to turn to the annual inter-department sports day that was approaching. George was confident that he could take first place in the four mile egg and spoon race this year. His new body was in perfect working condition, unlike the previous few years in which he had sorely let himself down with his showing.
“Been training much then George?” asked Pazulivul.
“Yeah mate. Don’t wanna loose ta that bugger Benny again. He ain’t a good sport about it. What ‘bout you? Enterin’ the long jump again?”
“No, I’m sick of having to fish annoying sand grains out of my hooves for weeks after. Going to go for the caper toss this year. Think that’s more my sort of thing.”
Charlie was beginning to loosen up and feel more comfortable. She remained self-consciously silent for the most part, keeping focused on the conversation around her and her drink. Beth questioned her for a while about her and the Samson trial. She was teased a little as George told a slightly embellished version of how he and Charlie had met, much to the amusement of everyone else. She was about to venture to tell an equally embellished story of her battle in her own mind-space with Zeitgeist when she realised that there was a hush rolling over the party.
“Oh ‘eck.” said George under his breath when he realised the reason for the change in the party’s atmosphere.
“Aww crap. Sorry George, I didn’t think he’d be here.” said Pazulivul.
“No worries mate, I’ll ‘andle it.” He put his arms up in a friendly greeting and shouted over to the newest arrival. “Skut, buddy, good ta see ya.” Skut stood by the pool with a look of fury on his face; the moment he had laid his eyes upon George his blood had begun to boil. A gap in the crowds appeared and Skut stormed through, up to George.
“Buddy? You’re calling me buddy? After what you did?” he yelled.
“Ahh, come on mate. No ‘ard feelin’s yeah? Just a disagreement over politics.”
“Is that all is it? Politics? You shot me in the head, dumped my body in a canal and then when I got out, smashed my head on a hard floor. Politics? How long had we been partners? Four, five hundred years?”
“Yeah, we worked together a long time, fer sure, but ya had ta see ‘ow things were gettin’ a lil’ bit rotten with the jobs we were bein’ asked ta do. Charlie ‘ere,” George nodded over to Charlie. She grimaced and tried to hide behind one of the larger demons nearby. Thanks for reminding him about me George mate, she thought. “well she was just a job too far. Somethin’ needed ta be done. It wasn’t anythin’ personal Skut. Ya know that. You just didn’t want ta see it my way.” Skut said nothing for several moments before laughing bitterly.
“You’re a fucking disgrace George. Turning on your own to help out a weak, stupid little girl who’s in over her head. Yet you’ve still got you licence and you’re still on payroll. The whole department is nothing but a bunch of weak human loving apologists now. You bastards never did deserve Samson...”
“Alright, that’s enough fellas. This isn’t the place for this. Come on man, let’s all just try to get on with each other. It’s a good party, no need to ruin that eh?” pleaded Pazulivul. ‘Go get a drink Skut and we’ll all pretend this ugly little scene didn’t happen...’ Skut wasted no more time in grabbing George by the horns and throwing him to the ground. George tumbled over into a group of party goers, scattering them like bowling pins. Skut kicked him in the stomach a few times and then turned on Charlie. She froze in horror as the large demon advanced upon her. Pazulivul and Beth tried to shield her but Skut was determined not to be held back and pushed them aside without much resistance. He grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and snarled at her.
“Time to do what should have been done a long time ago and take you to your cell.”
“I... I served my time though.”
“Pah. You served a token week. That’s not a punishment, just a shit holiday. No, you need to rot in purgatory.”
“I really don’t. What I really need is one fewer grumpy demons in my life... err... death.”
“You really don’t have a choice in it girl.”
“Maybe not. However, I do have a nice friendly demon watching my back and about to twat you with a wine bottle.” said Charlie quickly, hoping that no one noticed that she was desperately close to a full on panic attack. Skut swung his head around, expecting to see George behind him and about to hit him with a wine bottle. He seemed almost disappointed to see that George was in fact still languishing on the floor, drunkenly trying to get back up. Charlie capitalised as well as she could on Skut’s momentary confusion by biting the back of one of his hands. He grumbled and let go of her with that hand, Charlie wiggled out of the grip of his other and ran to hide behind Beth once more. Beth was a little more prepared to keep Skut back this time and managed to keep Skut from just pushing her out of the way again to get at the little human woman. Pazulivul took the opportunity to tackle Skut to the ground and pin him down. The two struggled on the floor for a while, wrestling awkwardly with each other and stopping each other from getting back up. Charlie stepped out from behind her guard and sighed.
“Guys, this is kind of getting embarrassing now. I mean even more so than it already was.” she said. The two demons stopped wrestling and looked up at her as she moved to stand by them, looking down disapprovingly at them. “You’ve been drinking haven’t you Skut.”
“It’s a party, of course I’ve been drinking.”
“You only just got here though; you’d been drinking by yourself before coming. Drinking a lot, your breathe reeks of meths. Am I right?” Been there myself so many times my friend. Well, maybe not with meths as such. Skut looked at the ground sheepishly.
“Yeah, maybe. So what?”
“Maybe you need to just chill out a bit? You seem very angry at the universe and everyone in it. George has told me before about how angry you used to get when you two worked together. I know I don’t really know you and I’m certainly no expert, but maybe it’s time to seek out an anger management therapist?”
“You’re talking such crap human.”
“Am I? You came here today, after drinking vast amounts of methylated spirits, with the sole purpose of picking a fight with an old friend, correct?” Skut nodded silently in agreement. “Maybe it’s for that sort of reason that you don’t seem to have any friends these days. Maybe it’s time to seek help Mr Skut.” Careful Char, don’t push it. For a horrifying moment, she thought that Skut was about to start crying. She was relieved to see George was back on his feet and came to help Skut to his feet. He didn’t seem angry or upset with his former partner, just concerned for his well being.
“Ya know it wasn’t anything personal Skut. Ya know I ain’t like that. I respect ya too much fer that an’ I knew you’d be getting a new body an’ all.”
“You bastard...” Skut was unsteady on his feet and had to hold back from vomiting on the ground. George put an arm around him and began to lead him away.
“Come on mate, I’ll get ya back home and put the coffee on.” said George softly. As he walked a dejected looking Skut away he turned his head to thank Pazulivul for the party and apologise for having to leave early. “Catch ya later Charlie mate.”
“Yeah, see you George mate.” responded Charlie. With her link to the rest of the party gone, she suddenly felt very self-conscious again and began to think of how to bow out gracefully from the party herself. Beth had other ideas and beckoned for her to come and join the conversation and handed her a drink.
“Don’t worry about those two, Charlie. Not the first time they’ve come to blows. Doubt it will be the last time. Come on; tell us all about your little rampage back in that silly mortal world of yours.”
The Gatekeeper on the Docks is available here (or at your own friendly regional Amazon store) on Kindle and in paperback. Hey, wow, did I mention that the kindle version is free from the 4th March until the 7th? Because it is you know.
The Gatekeepers of Gloucester will be available at some point in the (hopefully) not too distant future.