“But it’s Christmas.”
“It’s almost Christmas.”
“It’s not even the month of Christmas.”
Emma folded her arms. “We’re in the hospitality business, Gertrude. It’s been Christmas since Halloween.”
“I liked Halloween,” Gertrude mumbled, piping deep purple petals onto the top of a lavender-infused lemon drizzle cake. Her hands shone pale in the bright overhead lights.
Emma sneaked a crumb that had fallen onto the counter. “You would. But we need at least a few seasonal cakes. If you won’t make Christmas cake, how about some gingerbread men? Snowmen cookies?”
Gertrude put the piping bag down and inspected her handiwork critically. She’d never tried much in the way of decorating before they’d opened the ghoulet cafe, but she’d since discovered that she quite liked it. The tidy repetition of sugarwork flowers and frosted crowns on cupcakes was reassuring. “I’ll do some gingerbread cookies. And some Christmas spiced molasses cake. Fruitcake is, frankly, boring. And heavy.”
Emma sighed. “What about for the kids, though? Gingerbread men, or little Santas – something like that’d be really fun.”
“No,” Gertrude said firmly, rolling the tension out of her shoulders. “I’ve got a few calls tonight. Do you want to come?”
Emma wrinkled her nose. The afternoon had been dark and drizzly when she popped out to the bank, with that cold that bypassed every scrap of clothing and gnawed its way into your bones. Hanging around graveyards half the night didn’t exactly sound appealing. “I’m good.”
“Alright.” Gertrude took off her apron – yellow with kittens chasing butterflies across it – and rolled the sleeves of her robe down. “I’ll clean up when I get back. DHL sent me a message first thing this morning, saying they were missing one. I want to find it before the poor thing gets too confused.” DHL – Departed Human Logistics – were responsible for the transport of souls into the afterlife. Occasionally they missed one, and when they did, they called Gertrude. In this area, anyway.
“I’ll finish the cleaning.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I know.” Emma watched Gertrude take her scythe from the broom cupboard and pull her hood up over her thin, pale hair. “Be careful.”
The reaper smiled her bony smile, and stepped out the back door, climbing the old stone steps into the night.
It didn’t take long to clean up. Gertrude’s version of mess consisted of an unwashed measuring jug and a dusting of icing sugar on the counter. Emma heated some soup left over from lunch and headed upstairs to eat in front of the TV, pausing to check on the ghoulets. There were only six of them at the moment, although Gertrude said there’d be more before long – ghouls often gave birth in winter, so their litters could take advantage of the long hours of darkness to forage. Ghoulets were born fully equipped with teeth and ready to start gnawing, which had had some unfortunate repercussions for several items of furniture in the cafe, not to mention two doors. But then they’d discovered that dog chew bones would keep the little monsters occupied between meals. And stop them from biting customers.
The ghoulets were in the big back room, where the floor was knee-deep in graveyard dirt and the light was low and dim. They were settling in for the night, the chickens Gertrude had thrown in for dinner reduced to nothing more than one foot resting just inside the door. They turned to look at her sleepily.
“Night, kids,” she said, and the smallest crawled over to have his belly scratched. His long hair was silky under her fingertips, and he made happy little grunts as she stroked him. They were sweet little things, really, as long as they were entertained and well-fed. And no one was bleeding.
Upstairs, Emma settled herself into a floral couch scattered with too many throw cushions and fluffy blankets. She’d managed to persuade Gertrude to stop covering every surface with doilies (partly by feeding them to the ghoulets), but the cushions were proving more persistent. There was a re-run of GBBO on, and she snorted at the showstoppers. Gertrude could do much better. Not that the reaper would be interested, even if she’d been able to take the dubious English summer sun. She was quite happy in her kitchen, turning out sponges so fluffy you half-expected them to float across the room, and carrot cakes that were so moist and intense you thought you’d have to fight off the Easter bunny to get the last slice. Gertrude couldn’t eat them herself, of course – she just liked making them. And what else was she meant to do, she’d asked Emma? Reapers don’t sleep. One could get into bad habits, like embroidery, in such a situation. Emma personally had no complaints. Although she’d had to buy some slightly larger trousers last month, which probably meant that she should lay off the cream, at least.
With that in mind, she regarded the little upstairs kitchenette moodily. They didn’t keep much up here – some cereal, and milk for tea. And usually cake, although the tin was empty, draining on the rack. She’d had the last piece of courgette cake for morning tea. Breakfast, if you wanted to get technical about it. But there were some chocolate cheesecake brownies left downstairs that really needed eating, now she thought about it. There were only about three left, so she couldn’t put them out tomorrow. They’d look a bit lonely. And Gertrude could make some more. Maybe with a Christmas theme. So these ones would just go to waste. Yes. She should get them.
Convinced, she pattered downstairs to the kitchen and put the overhead lights on, illuminating the sleek stainless counters and big fridges. There was also a Christmas baking book marooned in the middle of the kitchen island, the gingerbread man on the cover looking slightly startled, as if he’d been caught in the act of something not quite respectable. She looked at it thoughtfully, then went to find the brownies.
She ate her dessert standing up at the kitchen counter, the recipe book open in front of her, the light picking out silver threads in her dark hair.
Gertrude pushed into the kitchen in the long still hours of early morning, rain dripping off her robe and trickling uncomfortably down her back. The second soul had been horribly difficult – kept insisting that she wasn’t dead, everyone was mistaken, and that she didn’t have to be dead if she didn’t want to be. Gertrude knew that other reapers would have run out of patience and just swung the scythe, severing the soul’s connection to the world, but she preferred to see at least a little acceptance before she sent someone off to who-knows-where. So they’d been hours, and she’d even had to take the dead woman to see her dog and make sure it was being taken care of before she eventually agreed to go. Gertrude didn’t entirely blame her. After all, when she’d been offered reaping instead of the unknown she’d barely hesitated.
The kitchen smelled of spices, which was normal, and burned pastry, which wasn’t. Gertrude frowned as she put her scythe back in the broom cupboard, and pulled her robe off to wring it out in the sink. Everything looked much as she’d left it, the counters clear, the sinks scrubbed clean, the floors spotless. There were a couple of fingerprints on the front of the fridge, but Emma had probably been in for dinner. And cake. She smiled indulgently. It was nice cooking for someone, rather than just anyone she could give her cakes away to.
She pulled her damp but no longer dripping robe back on (underneath, she wore pink pyjama shorts with skeleton cats on them, and a long-sleeved shirt adorned with a cat in a spacesuit. She still wasn’t sure what she thought of modern cat depictions, and she wasn’t ready for anyone else to be having thoughts on her wardrobe choices), and pushed through into the little back hallway that led left to the ghoulet’s room and the stairs, and right to the cafe. And stopped.
The ghoulets were whining behind their metal-clad door (they could eat through a normal one in the space of a night), and there was raucous laughter coming from the cafe itself. Gertrude sniffed. Yes, still the scent of winter spices, which could be left over from the day. But the smell of burning was stronger. She went to fetch her scythe as a rather expensive-sounding crash came from the cafe.
As she stepped back into the hall, scythe at the ready, Emma appeared on the stairs looking sleep-dishevelled.
“I thought I heard something,” she said blearily.
“I think you did,” Gertrude replied, and led the way into the cafe, barefoot and silent. Emma followed, also barefoot but not nearly as quiet, and when they stepped into the main room it was still. A cake display lay on its side, the metal base bent and the glass cover shattered into shards that caught the light when Emma flipped the switch. “Go put some shoes on,” Gertrude said.
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Emma stayed where she was as Gertrude advanced across the floor, glass crunching under her feet, the scythe held casually in one hand. They only ever used the big overhead lights for cleaning, and now they lit the chewed legs of chairs that the ghoulets had nibbled on, and the torn edges of rugs where their claws had become stuck. It turned the room from something cosy and mysterious, all heavy cloth and candlelight, to a rundown and tatty underground room. One full of hiding places.
“Could one of the ghoulets have got out?” Emma asked.
“Are you sure? I mean, I checked on them -”
“Shh.” Gertrude turned towards a sound just on the edge of hearing, a giggle half-formed then cut off. She took a slow step towards it, the edge of her robe dragging broken glass with the sound of claws on stone.
“Gertrude, look out!” Emma’s scream shattered the silence, and the reaper ducked, the scythe coming up to protect her as an enormous shape plunged downwards, huge wings flaring wide, a chorus of frenzied laughter accompanying it. She flailed wildly as the monster engulfed her and drove her to her knees, more confused than alarmed – at least until Emma screamed again. The reaper surged up with the music of tearing cloth surrounding her, popping into the light as the shredded remnants of the ceiling-height curtains fluttered to the ground around her.
“Oh,” she said, looking at the threads floating in the harsh light. “That was expensive.”
“Gertrude!” Emma shouted, and the reaper’s attention snapped back into focus. “The kitchen! They’re in the kitchen!”
Gertrude untangled herself from the torn curtain and tugged her scythe free. “Who? What were they?”
“I don’t know! They were just small and -” Emma was cut off by a resounding crash, and more shrieks of laughter.
“My kitchen!” Gertrude sprinted for the hall, Emma scrambling after her. They came to a skidding stop at the door, Emma careening into the reaper. It was like running into a very bony statue, who grabbed her before she could fall. “My kitchen,” Gertrude repeated mournfully.
The crash had been the Kitchenaid mixer hitting the floor. It wasn’t alone. Cupboards hung open, and bags of flour had exploded across the tiles like small dusty bombs, while food dye and sugar and treacle and honey glooped into multi-coloured swamps. The fridge doors were flung wide, and Gertrude’s carefully decorated lavender-infused lemon drizzle cake looked as if a toddler had been using it to make play-dough sculptures. Nothing moved except for the steady drip of cream drooling from a split bottle on the cooker hood onto the elements.
“Oh my God,” Emma whispered. “Gertrude – who would do this?”
“What,” Gertrude said.
“I said -”
“No, I mean what would do this.” She pointed her scythe at the fridge. “Come out.”
“Come out,” Gertrude insisted, and marched across the devastated kitchen. There were broken potatoes and crushed onions shoved into the tea-towel drawer, and her copy of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible was bleeding dishwasher rinse fluid into the toaster. She stopped next to the sink and scowled. “Come on. Whoever you are.”
A giggle floated around the kitchen, high-pitched and unsettling, and Emma gave an alarmed little squeak. Gertrude glanced at her. “It might be pixies,” she said. “Not dangerous, just a bit unruly.”
“Unruly? You call this unruly?”
Gertrude looked at the remnants of a particularly nice treacle tart, now wearing a crown of broken serving plate. “Troublesome, maybe?”
“This is awful,” Emma said. “They’ve ruined everything.”
“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” Gertrude began, then was cut off by an egg smashing into her cheek. She yelped, and spun to meet her attacker as a roar of laughter flooded the room. Suddenly there was movement everywhere, too quick to properly see, little flashes of brown and red and white, all accompanied by maniacal giggles and a salvo of missiles, eggs and spoons and jars of jam that Gertrude tried to catch before they could smash everywhere. She turned to shout to Emma to get out, but the doorway was already empty. The reaper hoped it was because she’d run, not because she’d been knocked out by a block of butter or something. She lunged towards the counter, scrabbling through the debris after the elusive little wisps of movement, that laughter ringing in her ears. It felt almost catching, that hysteria. Like you could go mad with it.
There was a sudden, sharp pain in her finger, like someone had bitten it, and she hissed in surprise then snatched up her attacker. “Gotcha!” she cried out triumphantly, then opened her hands to find she was holding an egg timer than had once been shaped like a hen. It had been beheaded. She swore in a very un-Gertrude-like manner, dropped the egg timer, ducked a bottle of elderflower cordial that was sailing towards her head, and scrambled across the floor in pursuit of those maddeningly elusive scraps of movement.
Something snagged her robe, and before she could even turn to see what it was there was terrible tearing sound. Her robe – her favourite one, the dark blue one with a lining so soft and silent that missing souls could see peace in it, the one she’d had for the last fifty years – fell into pieces, the arms fluttering down around her wrists, the rest sliding off her back and onto the crowded floor.
“No!” she wailed, feeling horribly exposed in her pyjamas, and the laughter surged even louder. Something sharp stabbed into her side, and she cried out, scooting backwards across the floor and finding a pair of kitchen shears sticking between her ribs. A flicker of movement, and she jerked her head away, the kitchen knife that was meant for her face jabbing her shoulder instead. She lashed out, her hand closing over something that wriggled and bit even as someone shoved what felt awfully like a cleaver into her hip. She tightened her grip on her captive, lips pulling back from her teeth, and struggled to push herself upright in the mess. There was an echoing clang and she went sprawling again, ear ringing where the saucepan had hit her, starting to feel worried. They couldn’t kill her, but they could incapacitate her. And what happened to Emma then? And what if they got out?
She rolled over and found herself looking up at the big marble sheet she worked chocolate on.
“Oh, sugar,” she said, as her invisible attackers released the slab.
“Sic ‘em,” Emma said, not that she really had to say anything. The ghoulets poured around her legs and into the room, grumbling happily, and the laughter suddenly took on a panicked edge. Gertrude rolled sideways, but the slab would still have hit her on the side of her face if a ghoulet hadn’t grabbed it in his teeth as he leaped over her, smashing both it and himself into the cabinets beyond. He dropped it, staggered, shook his head and jumped back into the fray.
And fray it was. Even with her reaper’s eyes, Gertrude still couldn’t make out exactly what their attackers were. They were nothing but flashes of movement racing across the shelves and countertops, flinging missiles from seemingly empty space. The ghoulets, unperturbed, rampaged around the devastated kitchen, snatching up unseen things and swallowing them whole, or shaking them like rats, sending crumbs and flour flying. Gertrude sat where she was until she felt hands under her shoulders.
“Come on,” Emma said, her face pale. “Let’s leave them to it.”
“Oh. Yes, you shouldn’t be in here,” Gertrude said. “It’s dangerous.”
Emma’s eyes strayed to the knife sticking out of the reaper’s shoulder. “Yeah.”
Gertrude pushed the kitchen door closed and wedged her scythe under the handle, then followed Emma into the cafe. She was already pouring a vodka, her hands shaking violently enough to splash the alcohol onto the counter. Gertrude patted her awkwardly on one shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
Emma took a large mouthful of vodka and blinked at her several times before she answered. “You have a – a thing,” she said, and gestured at the reaper vaguely.
Gertrude nodded. “Of course. Sorry.” She removed the shears, the kitchen knife, and the cleaver, and put them on the counter, examining the tears in her clothing. The leathery skin beneath was already re-knitting.
Emma finished her vodka and poured another one. “Gertrude, what the hell were they?”
“Oh – yes.” She held up one hand, still clenched around something that twisted and bit and clawed. “Shall we see?”
“Should we? What if – what if it gets away?” Emma looked nervously at the collapsed curtain and upended tables. Something crashed in the kitchen, and she flinched.
“It won’t.” Gertrude opened her hand cautiously, trapping the half-seen thing inside with two strong fingers on its torso. “Hello,” she said, staring at a lopsided face. It had one white eye and one almost completely black, both of them bulging and somehow too high on its head, as well as jagged red teeth and some red thing on its throat that looked like an open wound. “What are you?” she asked. “You’re no pixie.”
“Ohhh,” Emma said.
Gertrude pinched the thing around the belly and held it up while it giggled helplessly and tried to bite her thumb. “No markings on its back – no clothes – just – are these pimples on its tummy?”
“No,” Emma said, and Gertrude gave her a startled look.
“No? What would you call them then? They look like pimples.”
“Well. No. They look like – like buttons.”
“Buttons? They’re all bulgey and ulcerous.”
“They’re buttons,” Emma said firmly.
“But how -” Gertrude stopped, and sniffed the critter. It tried to grab her nose with its stumpy arms, teeth gnashing. “Gingerbread.”
“Yes.” Emma took a gulp of vodka.
“You made gingerbread men.”
“In my kitchen.”
“Yes – but -”
“You are aware I’m a magical creature, yes?”
“Is a reaper – does that count as a magical creature?”
“More so than your average pastry chef.”
“Yes, but I made them. Not you!”
“You do remember that I refused to make bat or cat cookies at Halloween?”
“I kind of assumed you thought they were tacky.”
“They are tacky. Also bitey.”
“Well, I didn’t know! And you didn’t even make them!”
“Apparently I don’t have to, as long as it’s my kitchen.” They both stared at the writhing gingerbread man. He was gnawing on Gertrude’s thumb, and it looked like it would have been painful if he’d been doing it to a more technically alive person.
“I’m sorry,” Emma said. “I’ll clean up.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t know. Neither of us did.”
“I burned them, too.”
“I know. I’m not sure if it’s that or just the – ah, Picasso influences in the decoration that made them a bit unbalanced.”
Emma snorted. “’Picasso influences’. You’re very tactful for a dead person.”
“Technically dead.” Gertrude held the gingerbread man out. “Shall I give him to the ghoulets? Sounds like they’re finished in there.”
Emma nodded. “It seems safest.”
They trudged back down the hall, and Gertrude opened the door cautiously, at first just wide enough so she could peer through the gap, then fully. There was a ghoulet sitting in the sink, eating a green apple, and another sat behind her licking golden syrup out of her hair. Two others were fighting over a broken slab of cooking chocolate, and another was chewing eggshells. There was no sign of the gingerbread men, although Gertrude spotted what might have been a leg or an arm lying under the sink.
The smallest ghoulet trotted eagerly up to her, and she held out her still laughing captive. The ghoulet sniffed it, then pounced and gobbled it up as its giggles became screams, then silence. Emma wrinkled her nose.
“You wanted to eat it?”
“Well then.” Gertrude scratched the ghoulet under the chin and stood up. “Clean up time, I suppose.”
Emma nodded, then giggled.
Emma burst into laughter, wrapping her arms around her belly and leaning against the door. The ghoulets looked at her, then went back to their scavenging.
“Emma, are you okay?” Maybe it was hysteria – it had been a rather nerve-wracking time, Gertrude supposed.
Emma managed to get herself mostly under control, and wiped her streaming eyes. “I’m fine,” she said, then giggled again. “Nice PJs.”
Gertrude looked down at her bare, bony legs and cat astronaut shirt, then back at Emma. “Oh, ha. At least I didn’t create gingerbread men from hell.”
“They were Picasso-esque. You said so yourself.”
“I really am far too polite.”
“Did you go to Primark? Do you reap people while wearing Primark pyjamas?”
“No one normally sees under my robes,” Gertrude said primly, and that set Emma laughing so hard that the reaper couldn’t help but join in. They stood there in their devastated kitchen, laughing until they had the hiccoughs, while the littlest ghoulet pawed hopefully at Gertrude’s legs until she calmed down enough to pick him up.
“Cuppa?” Emma suggested, using her sleeve to dry her cheeks.
“I wish,” Gertrude said with a sigh. “I’ll just smell yours.”
“Reapers really are an odd lot,” Emma said, and gave Gertrude a quick, one-armed hug. “You’re lovely, though.”
“Oh,” Gertrude said, feeling fairly certain that if she could still blush, she’d be doing so now. “So are you.” Then she put the ghoulet down and started putting the kitchen back to rights, while outside the night pulled on towards dawn, and Christmas rolled ever closer.
You can read about how Emma and Gertrude met here, if you haven’t already. Enjoy!