Those of you who have read the second Gobbelino London book, A Contagion of Zombies, may have already come across Gertrude, and be wondering just how a reaper becomes fixated on baked good.
This story (written before Gobbelino even arrived on the scene), doesn’t answer that question, but it may answer a few others – specifically about ghoulets, really …
Coffee, Cake, & Ghoulets
“Stop it,” the reaper said.
The ghoulet rolled onto its back, displaying a pale moon of a belly, and the reaper sighed. She scratched bony fingers through the creature’s fine hair.
“We have to go,” she told it. “You can’t be out here, you know.”
The ghoulet flopped upright, knobbly knees up around its ears, and peered about the graveyard. Moonlight silvered the trees and turned the wilting flowers into pastel watercolours, motionless and silent. He looked up at the reaper questioningly.
“I know there’s no one here now, but that doesn’t mean the night watchman won’t come by to check on things.”
The ghoulet grinned, exposing rows of sharp, erratically aligned teeth.
“No,” the reaper said firmly. Her name was – or had been, she didn’t have an awful lot of use for it these days – Gertrude, and she was tired. She wished she could still drink tea. This was turning into the sort of night where a more technically alive person would drink tea. Possibly spiked tea. “Come on. Into the – err – nice box thing.” She pointed at a large object draped in dark cloth, sitting askew on the edge of a grave.
The ghoulet looked at the object, then back at Gertrude. He gave a little coughing cry that sounded a little like a cat hacking up a hairball, then dropped to all fours and took off across the graveyard. His fat belly brushed the short-cropped grass as he ran, flabby limbs unpleasantly spider-like in the night.
Gertrude pinched the scant skin of her forehead. “Well, damn,” she said, and sighed again. At least she didn’t get migraines any more. Because this would definitely be giving her a migraine. She bundled her robes into two handfuls at her waist and set off at a sprint after the ghoulet, dodging between the graves with bony, sure-footed grace.
Her mobile was ringing by the time she got back to the cloth-draped cage and bundled the ghoulet unceremoniously inside, where he sat grunting and coughing grumpily with his siblings. She fished the phone out of the folds of her robes and stabbed the screen with unnecessary force. A crack splintered across the flat glass, and she used some language she’d never had much use for in pre-reaper days.
“Hello?” she demanded. She’d cracked her shin on a gravestone in the tussle with the ghoulet, which had done nothing to improve things. And given how few people called her, this was almost certainly going to be Departed Human Logistics (DHL) with another missing soul that she’d have to go and reap manually. Just what she needed, with a cage full of whining baby ghouls and the night almost gone.
“Reaper Leeds?” The voice had the flat, toneless note of bored assistants everywhere. “Please hold for G.R. Yorkshire.” A soundtrack of looping water droplets and sighing angels replaced the voice before Gertrude could respond. Not that she had any choice. She tugged the cloth back over the cage, quieting the ghoulets, and waited.
“Reaper Leeds.” G.R. Yorkshire’s voice flooded the phone, warm and ringing with baritone confidence. “How’s that ghoulet problem coming?”
“I’m on top of it, sir – just caught a litter in Killingbeck graveyard.”
“Any sign of the ghouls themselves?”
“Hmm.” The word was a rumble, a deep underground earth-moving sound. “That’s unfortunate.”
“Sir, I’m not equipped to—”
“Oh, I know, Reaper Leeds. I know.” There was a sigh in his voice, and Gertrude felt absurdly disappointed in herself, as if it were somehow her own oversight that she wasn’t a creature control reaper. “But you are looking for signs? Overturned graves, broken headstones, the usual drill.”
“Well. I think the damn ghouls are in Lancashire, myself, and just coming over the border to lay their bloody eggs. But it’s not like Grim UK are listening to me. Oh no, they just say the days of such skirmishes are over, and I’m holding on to the past, not moving with the times. Am I not talking to you on a mobile telephone, Reaper Leeds?”
“Well, yes, sir.”
“Exactly. Behind the times. Ha!”
Gertrude held the phone away from her ear at a burst of furious static, then put it back. “Yes. What can I do for you, sir?”
“Is there something you need?” G.R. Yorkshire wasn’t exactly in the habit of calling his reapers up for a chat. Well, not her, anyway. Maybe he had a poker night every Monday with other reapers, and she just didn’t know about it. Even for a reaper, she wasn’t particularly social.
“Why? Are you in a rush? Am I inconveniencing you by calling your mobile telephone?”
“No sir. But I do have a cage of ghoulets to deliver to the unnaturals foster centre, and I don’t want to be here so long that I risk encountering a night watchman.” Although, never mind what she’d said to the ghoulet – judging by the state of the place they couldn’t even afford a groundsman, let along a night watchman.
“Huh. Well. Yes. We can’t be having any unnecessary civilian incidents. Ah, you’re going to have to take the ghoulets home with you, Reaper Leeds.”
“Oh, no need to be sorry. Not your fault.”
“Right,” Gertrude said. “I just—“
“Secretary Reaper will sort out some compensation. The damn centre say they can’t take any more at the moment – should’ve known, bloody witches. One minute they’re going all gooey over ghoulets, the next they’ve grown bored of the whole thing and are saying we can’t make them take any more. If this was the old days—” he stopped, and Gertrude heard him take a deep breath. When he spoke again, the peevishness had gone, replaced by the familiar, muscular tones, thrumming in her ear. “Anyhow. I know I can rely on you, can’t I—” there was the sound of rustling paper “—Gertrude?”
She looked at the cage. A corner of the cloth had been tugged through the bars, and she could hear chewing and slobbering coming from inside. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yes, sir.”
“Well done, well done, Reaper Leeds. Ah – yes.” There was a pause, and she could hear the clatter of his bony fingertips on a table. “Well. I’ll hand you back to Secretary Reaper.” There was a crash, a piercing digital beep that made Gertrude jerk the phone away from her ear again, and then the sound of G.R. Yorkshire shouting something at his assistant.
“Reaper Leeds?” the bored voice was back, smooth and efficient.
“Good. Additional funds will be credited to your account to allow for potential property damage by the ghoulets, and to cover the extra work of procuring sustenance for them. You—”
“Feeding them. You—”
“I know what it means. But you expect me to feed them in my apartment?” Gertrude was fairly sure that was outside the terms of her rental agreement.
“Or wherever you choose to house them. Funds will be made available if you wish to rent, for example, a storage unit or small crypt.”
“I’m 99% certain you can’t rent a crypt on a monthly basis, and I don’t think a storage unit is a great place for hungry ghoulets, do you, Secretary Reaper?”
“That is, of course, entirely your choice—”
“Ethel,” Gertrude said. “Please.”
There was a pause, the sound of a door closing, then the Secretary said in a low voice, “What do you want me to do, Gertrude? The ghoulets are showing up absolutely everywhere, and the witches say they just can’t manage any more. None of the other divisions will help. And we can’t just leave baby ghouls running wild across Yorkshire.”
“I understand that, I do. But I live in an apartment, Ethel. What do I do with them?”
“Fill the bath with grave dirt so they’ve got somewhere to sleep, feed them some chicken, and teach them to be good little ghouls. That’s it.”
“That’s it, is it? No ghoulish nursery rhymes at bedtime, or graveside etiquette lessons?”
There was a pause. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” the Secretary said, sounding uncertain. “Unless, of course, you want to.”
“No, I don’t want— never mind.” Gertrude swallowed a sigh. Ethel was as friendly as she could afford to be, but she’d been a reaper for a long time. Even longer than Gertrude, and that was already a terribly long time. There wasn’t exactly a lot of movement in the reaper job market. “Just put the money in my account. And this is temporary, understood? I’m not raising ghoulets to ghoulhood.” Not least because chicken wouldn’t keep them happy for long.
“Absolutely. We’re working on a solution.” The Secretary sounded much more confident, but it didn’t exactly impress Gertrude. She thought it was probably less confidence in a solution than confidence that she had something scripted to say.
It took four trips up the three flights of stairs to her apartment, dragging precariously full bin bags of grave dirt, before the bath was full. And she was pretty sure the woman in 2B had heard her. She could feel herself being watched – as much as she could be with the lights off in the windowless stairwell. Well, no point worrying about that. She folded the bin bags neatly and put them back under the sink, then went to peek into the bathroom. The ghoulets had fallen on the sack of KFC eagerly enough, although they seemed a bit unimpressed by the secret spices. One had thrown up violently on her good hand towel, but with that out of the way they’d returned to the chicken, crunching through bones and splattering shreds of skin across the walls and floorboards. She was going to have to re-paint before she moved, at the very least.
Now the bathroom was quiet, the muted light from the street slipping through the uncurtained window to light snoring mounds in the tub of dirt. There was an unpleasant-looking puddle next to the potted fern, and Gertrude made a mental note to buy puppy training pads. She hoped the Secretary was going to be generous with the compensation.
She eased the door shut and wedged a chair under the handle, the back across the frame so it couldn’t be pulled open from the inside, then went to put the oven on. She’d make a Victoria sponge. There wasn’t much in life – or after-life – that a little baking couldn’t make better.
The afternoon was wearing on, the early winter sky already turning toward dusk, and someone was knocking on the door. Gertrude sighed, closing her book with a finger marking her place. It’d be 2B. Sure enough, a quiet voice drifted under the door.
“Hello? I … thank you for the cake. It was lovely.”
Gertrude scratched her ear. She always left some cake outside 2B, in a small pink tin decorated with kittens. She liked kittens. They didn’t like her so much – animals were never too happy with the not-technically-alive.
“I brought you some coconut biscuits. They’re from work. Sorry, I know that’s cheating, but, well … yeah, it’s better than me trying to make you something.” The woman outside the door gave an uncertain sort of laugh that faded to a sigh. “Anyway. Thank you.”
Gertrude waited until she heard the woman’s footsteps fading back down the stairs before she got up and retrieved the tin from the mat outside. She’d given cake to all her neighbours when she first moved in, but hadn’t received so much as the empty tin back from anyone except 2B. She seemed nice. A little broken, perhaps, but wasn’t everyone? She sniffed the coconut biscuits and put them in the box with the rest of the Victoria sponge. She’d give it away when she went out tonight.
She picked up her book and settled back into her favourite chair, plumping the throw cushions and draping a fluffy pink blanket across her lap. She had a couple of hours yet before she’d go out. The sun didn’t exactly make her cower and hide, but it did hurt her eyes, and her skin came up in a miserable sort of rash. So she read in the day, or sat watching the shadows shorten and lengthen across the floor of the apartment, her thoughts running in the strange fields that were as close as she got to sleep.
The ghoulets were rampaging around the apartment when she let herself in. The chair across the bathroom door had held, but they’d chewed a hole in the bottom of the door itself. The pantry was open, bags of flour (plain, pastry, self-raising, bread) disembowelled and scattering explosive halos across the kitchen floor. Golden syrup and honey spilled from shelf to shelf in slow motion cascades, and packets of chocolate chips, dried fruit and marzipan were strewn haphazardly across the living room and down the hall to her bedroom door. Powdery footprints tracked across the rugs and decorated the sofa, and there was a baking goods-encrusted ghoulet sat on the coffee table, trying unsuccessfully to lick his belly clean. Gertrude stood in the doorway, watching them in dismay, then hurriedly slammed the door shut behind her as three of the creatures made a dash forward, the little long-limbed monsters trailing flour and cocoa powder behind them.
“No,” she said. “No, no, no! Bad ghoulets. Bad!” The one on the table spat a mouthful of floury fur at her, and another squeezed between her legs to start scratching the door energetically. She opened her Tesco’s bag and pulled out a raw chicken. “Dinner. Now.”
She marched into the little spare room with the chicken held aloft, and threw it into the bottom of the waiting cage. The ghoulets crowded around her legs, drooling and distrustful. “Get in there. You obviously can’t be trusted, so into the cage it is. Go on!” She grabbed two of the ghoulets by the scruffs of their necks and hefted them after the chicken, their skinny legs pedalling wildly. They pounced on the carcass without a backward glance, tearing at the flesh with bony fingers and snapping teeth, and their siblings charged in after them. Gertrude dropped two more chickens into the cage, then locked the door behind them. The ghoulets didn’t even look up.
She went back into her devastated living room and looked around wearily. This was going to take all night to sort out. And then there was the bathroom. She pinched the bridge of her nose and went to get a bucket.
The phone rang just as Gertrude was scraping the last of the golden syrup out of the joins in the shelving. She eyed it balefully, then stripped one flower print glove off and checked the display. It was the Secretary. She’d have preferred DHL, to be honest.
“Reaper Leeds?” the Secretary asked.
“Yes, Ethel. What is it?”
There was an uncertain pause on the other end of the line, and Gertrude could hear the nervous tap of the Secretary’s fingertips on her desk. “Ah … we have a report of ghoulets in Harehills Cemetery.”
Gertrude looked at the bin bag full of flour and beyond-saving cushions. She was going to have to throw her rug away, too. She loved her rug. She’d bought it from a very nervous travelling salesman, back when there were such things. “Is the foster centre taking them in yet?”
“Mmm. No. Not as yet.”
“I already have eight ghoulets in my apartment, Ethel. I’m not even allowed a hamster in this apartment. The landlord was quite clear.”
“Well, more funds will, of course—”
“They chewed their way out of the bathroom and broke into the pantry. They destroyed most of my baking supplies. And they threw up on my sofa. Twice.”
“Yes, I understand the difficulties—”
“I don’t think you do. How am I even meant to catch more ghoulets when I have to keep the ones I’ve got locked in the cage? And it’s no life for them.”
“It’s a temporary solution—”
“One moment.” Gertrude’s phone was beeping with an an incoming text. DHL. Brilliant. Now she had lost souls to deal with too. She sighed deeply enough to compete with Reaper Yorkshire’s on-hold music and said, “Ethel?”
“It’s really better to use our titles, Reaper Leeds.”
“If I’m going to be a ghoulet nanny, I expect a little more personal treatment than usual,” she said, startling herself. She usually didn’t mind the cool efficiency of the after death services. They were clean, simple. One always knew where one stood. But this … she looked around, tucking the phone against her shoulder as she peeled her other glove off and threw them both into the bin bag. They were as irredeemable as her rug. There was golden syrup and flour caked in the feather trim around the wrists. “I will go and get the other ghoulets. But this really can’t continue.”
“We are doing our best, Reaper Leeds.”
She supposed they were, at that. It wasn’t like they’d be happy increasing her funding just because of ghoulets.
She hung up and checked the text. DHL hadn’t been able to reap a soul in Hunslet, which was in almost exactly the opposite direction to Harehills. She sighed again. This was the problem with automated systems. Once, reapers had done all the reaping, and souls were rarely missed. Now there was barely a night where she didn’t have a call out. DHL just didn’t allow for some souls being a little confused, or reluctant, or simply scared. For them being human, or at least very recently so. And she never felt it was right, somehow, people being reaped by remote servers.
But that was progress for you.
It was almost 3 a.m. when Gertrude came back in, dragging a sack full of chicken carcasses in one hand and an enormous storage crate in the other, the top firmly bungy-ed down. There was a lot of scraping and muttering coming from inside the crate as she bounced it up the stairs, but she really didn’t care. So far the slick plastic had resisted their attacks, and that was all that mattered right now.
She was on the first landing when she heard the front door bang open below. She froze as the lights came on, pale and sickly but more than bright enough to see that the bag of chickens was bleeding onto the tatty wooden flooring. Maybe it was someone from one of the downstairs flats? But no – footsteps coming up, not entirely steady, and she hurried towards the stairs that led up to her own apartment, knowing she wasn’t going to make it. She could carry an awful lot, but that didn’t mean she could carry it quickly.
The steps behind her had stopped, and she knew whoever it was could see her. She didn’t turn around, dragging the crate up one more stair.
“Do … do you need some help?”
Gertrude peeked over her shoulder, the hood of her robe hiding her face. It was her. 2B. She was standing with one hand on the wall, a handbag dangling in her other. She wasn’t exactly smiling, but she didn’t look panicked, either. “Ah, no. Thank you.”
The woman looked at the puddle of chicken blood on the landing, then at Gertrude’s hunched form. “The … your cakes. I really love them.”
Gertrude straightened, her grip on the crate easing. “Really?”
“Yeah. They’re amazing. Better than anything we sell at the cafe, for sure.” The woman took a step forward. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
Before Gertrude could answer, one of the ghoulets launched an attack on the roof of the crate, making it jump and almost slip out of her grip. She grabbed it with both hands, dropping the sack, which disgorged badly wrapped chickens that thumped fleshily down the stairs. She closed her eyes, hoping the woman wouldn’t notice the scuffling coming from the crate.
The woman looked at a chicken that had come to rest by her feet, then crouched to pick it up. “Either I’m more drunk that I thought,” she said, “Or you’ve had a few, too. Who buys half a dozen chickens at three in the morning?”
“They were on special,” Gertrude said, which was actually true. “They put all sorts of things on special in the middle of the night.”
“I guess they do,” the woman said, and picked up another chicken. “I’m Emma. Pass me that bag.”
And Gertrude did.
Of all the strange things that had happened since Gertrude became a reaper, she was fairlysure that none of them were as strange as brewing tea for Emma at half past three in the morning, the chickens stuffed into her fridge and the crate of ghoulets deposited in the spare room. The woman stared around the pink, ruffled living room with a mystified expression on her face, and poked the surviving doilies on the coffee table with one slightly unsteady finger. But she drank the tea and ate four chocolate chip cookies, while Gertrude brought the rose-decked cup up to her lips and took it away again, untouched.
“So, do you sell your cakes?” Emma asked.
“No, not really. I just make them for me.”
Emma looked pointedly at the untouched cookie on Gertrude’s plate. “I can see that.”
“Oh, well. I can’t eat them all myself.” She gave an embarrassed laugh.
“You should sell them. I’m serious. Open your own place.”
“Well, I’m not good in the days. I’m highly photo-sensitive. But that’s really nice of you.”
“It’s not nice. It’s true. You’re lucky to be so good at something.” Emma looked down as she spoke, and Gertrude saw her shoulders hunch forward, as if in anticipation of a blow. “I’m not much good at anything.”
“I’m sure that’s not right.”
“It is, though.” She shrugged, and took another sip of tea. “I’ve never done anything, or been anything. Now I work in a coffee shop with kids half my age.” Her voice was flat, accepting, but the skin of her face was drawn taut with the hurt of it.
Gertrude looked down at the table, scarred by the ghoulets’ claws, and said, “No one has ever given me anything back for my cakes. Most people don’t even bother to say thank you. And no one’s ever knocked on my door before. Not once.”
Emma was silent for a moment, then she laughed. There was a sour sort of sadness running under it, but it was genuine. “What a pair,” she said. “What a perfect pair.”
It was early evening a week later, and Gertrude was chasing a ghoulet around the living room with a tea towel. The creature had had chicken skin stuck in its teeth for the last few days, and it was starting to stink. Well, stink more. Still no more word from the Secretary, although she had to admit that Reaper Central had been generous with the funding. They had to be, really, considering that she now had twenty-three ghoulets living between the bathroom and the spare room. She’d solved the breaking out problem by lining the bottom half of the doors and walls with sheets of metal, and both rooms were knee-deep in graveyard dirt. If this was going to carry on she really needed to move somewhere bigger, but it was hard enough with just her. Moving twenty-three ghoulets and who knew how many cubic metres of graveyard dirt unnoticed was going to be tricky.
A door slammed downstairs, and she paused in her pursuit, frowning. She thought she’d heard something else. A cry? The ghoulet scrambled up her bookshelves and grabbed a winking porcelain cat, hefting it gleefully. She touched a bony finger to her lips, and the ghoulet stared at her, confused. A thud, faint through the door, the sound of someone falling on the stairs or crashing into a wall. She stepped to the door, slipping the latch and easing it open to let in the muddy scents of damp and dust and boredom. She really should move. She could afford somewhere nicer on ghoulet nanny wages.
A cry, bitten off, and she pulled the door wide at the sudden thunder of running feet, flight and pursuit. She hurried to top of the stairs as Emma lurched onto landing below with blood on her cheek. She lunged for the door, but someone out of sight around the turn of the stairs grabbed her, jerking her backward and almost out of sight. Gertrude stared at the woman’s fingers clawing at the stained boards, and heard a man snarl something ugly and violent behind her. The fingers vanished, and Gertrude followed, feet bare and silent and fast.
From the landing she could see Emma. The woman was pinned to the wall, clawing at the man’s hand on her throat. Her eyes darted to Gertrude, and she shook her head minutely, the message clear. Don’t. He’ll kill you too.
Gertrude nodded understanding, then spun the scythe with an oddly brutal elegance. It whispered through the air, sharp enough to sever a soul from the world, and she brought the blade to a halt resting against his throat. He froze.
“Put her down,” she said pleasantly.
The man released Emma and she skittered away, wide eyes fixed on Gertrude.
“Turn around.” Gertrude didn’t move the scythe, so he turned in the hook of it, his face twisted with fury.
“You—” he began, and she tutted.
“I have no interest in what you have to say. You can go quietly, or I can reap you. Your choice.”
The man hissed something wordless, and she let the scythe drift across the skin at the back of his neck, raining severed hair across his collar, blood beading on the skin.
“No,” she said, her voice mild.
After a moment he said carefully, “I’ll go.”
“There we go, then.” She dropped the scythe away and stood watching him, her face hidden in the depths of her hood. “Run along.”
He took a wary step across the landing, then turned back to spit at Emma. She flinched as if he’d thrown a punch, and he glared at her, then started for the stairs. Gertrude watched him go, thinking that he’d be back. He was the sort of person that would convince himself she hadn’t scared him, that he’d just let her think she had, that he’d left of his own fee will to wait for a better time. She sighed. She couldn’t kill him. Reapers don’t kill people. So she just held a hand out to Emma and helped her to her feet.
“Are you okay?”
“What … is that?” Emma asked, and for a moment Gertrude thought she meant the scythe, which seemed fairly self-explanatory. Then she heard a joyous, hairball-hacking cough, and she spun around to see the ghoulets pouring down the stairs and across the landing, teeth bared and legs flailing wildly. One lost her balance and tumbled into her siblings, setting up an avalanche of ungainly limbs and snapping mouths and hungry bellies.
“Oh dear,” Gertrude said, without any great concern, as the man on the stairs below them shrieked. “Bad ghoulets.”
Hungry ghoulets are terribly efficient, and the man didn’t manage more than one scream. Clearing up the blood splatters took longer, but it was done before dawn, and Gertrude personally thought the most suspicious thing was how clean the hallway actually was now. She made Emma another hot lemon and honey, and watched her top it with a generous glug of brandy that she’d brought up from her own apartment. The sated ghoulets were sleeping in a pile-up of pale fur and bulging bellies in the middle of the floor.
“So you’re stuck with them until they grow up.”
“And become ghouls.”
Emma pressed the ice pack against her cheek again. “And you still have to go out and reap souls.”
“If the system fails, yes.” Gertrude had pushed her hood back – it seemed a bit pointless keeping it up now – and her hair hung flat and pale against her hollow cheeks.
“This is so … goth,” Emma said.
“Just – scythes, and ghouls, and grave dirt in the tub.”
“Well, I can’t help that,” Gertrude said. “We’ve been doing it longer than them, anyway.”
Emma put the ice pack down and stared at the lemon drizzle cake, pale golden and soft as clouds. “And you’re getting compensation because no one knows how long till the ghoul situation gets sorted out.”
“Yes. Did you get hit quite hard on the head? Only you keep repeating things.”
“Quite hard, yes. But I also have an idea.”
“An idea?” Gertrude said doubtfully.
“Reaper Leeds? Please hold for G.R. Yorkshire.”
Gertrude stared at the Secretary. “Ethel, you’re right in front of me. He’s right in front of me.”
“Oh. Yes. Right. I’m not very good in person.”
Gertrude patted the Secretary’s shoulder, feeling bones shift beneath her robe. “Never mind. Come in. Come in, sir.”
“Reaper Leeds – wonderful to see you again!”
“Yes, sir.” Wonderful. It had a few hundred years since the one and only time they’d met in person – only Grim Reapers can reap reapers. She had been given a choice, of course, but when it came down to reaping or being reaped – well. Not many reapers said no.
“So, explain this place to me again.” They’d come in the back door, and Gertrude led them past the office and the storeroom to one side, her tidy kitchen to the other. It was small, but that was okay. It didn’t need to be big.
“It’s a cafe.”
“A ghoulet cafe.”
“The ghoulet cafe.” She couldn’t help feeling a thrill of pride as she said it. “Dead Good Cafe. Coffee, cake, and ghoulets.”
G.R. Yorkshire frowned, and stopped in the doorway as the cafe opened up before him. The windows were draped with heavy layers of curtains in shades of purple and grey, and the walls were rendered in rough stone. The chairs and sofas were low and soft, and more heavy curtains and decorative hangings turning clusters of tables into semi-private alcoves. Red and orange lamps lit the room in a dim glow, candles burning on the tables. Music pulsed and groaned around them, and most of the customers had a clear preference for black clothes and piercings. Ghoulets snored among the stacked cushions, or accepted snacks from the clientele, and a few were having a wrestling match in a clear patch of floor.
“You have ghoulets and humans in here together.”
“Yes, sir. Hiding in plain sight, sir.”
“Cat cafes are very popular these days, sir. No one sees the ghoulets for what they are.”
“And you did want a solution to the ghoulet problem, sir.”
“Imagine if G.R Lancashire saw this,” the Secretary said in a wondering voice. “Making an asset out of ghoulets!”
Gertrude grinned. “My thoughts exactly, Secretary Reaper.”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Hello! Mister Grim Reaper, sir. I’m Emma.”
“Emma?” G.R Yorkshire said weakly, as she shook his hand enthusiastically.
“My human business partner, sir,” Gertrude said. “And friend.”
“Never mind Lancashire – Grim UK will be so impressed” the Secretary said. “Talk about moving with the times! Gertrude – I mean, Reaper Leeds, this is setting the standard!”
“Why, thank you. What do you think, sir?”
G.R. Yorkshire heaved a sigh that blew out two candles and made a couple sitting at a table nearby shiver in alarm. “I wish I could still drink whiskey,” he said, a little sadly, and Gertrude patted his arm.
“I’ll get you a glass, sir. The smell’s still the same.”
She padded off across the Turkish rugs, and he sat down at a coffin-shaped table, watching the couple drinking cocktails from skulls.
“How come they don’t leak?” he asked Emma.
She followed his gaze. “Oh, they’re fake, sir,” she said. “If enough things are fake, no one notices the things that are real.” She plucked a bone from between the sofa cushions and flicked it to a ghoulet, who caught it and crunched it down eagerly.
“Oh.” G.R Yorkshire said. “Well. Always good to have some human insight, I guess.” He watched a woman, a top hat crowning her extravagantly green hair, stoop to rub a ghoulet’s belly. It wriggled and grunted in delight, and he shook his head. “Gods know, I don’t understand them.”
“We don’t understand ourselves,” Emma said. “But everyone knows you can’t ever go wrong with good cake.”
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