I know I keep going on about the wonderful book-lover friends I meet online, but, seriously. They are amazing.
Take my lovely writer friend Winter Reid, for instance. I think I’d known her about a week before she sent me these photos and said, “they made me think of you!”
Firstly, that is awesome. People mostly seem to think of me when cats or cake are under discussion, which are associations I’ve very happy with indeed. But to be the person someone thinks of when the subject of grim reapers on summer holiday comes up, well. I can now say I feel I’m living my best version of me.
And secondly, I know a certain reaper who is just the sort to try a mini-break.
If you haven’t met Gertrude the reaper before, you might want to check out her first story here.
Read on, lovely people!
(PS – The Swim Reaper is a New Zealand creation. Because of course it is. 😉 )
The Dangers of a Mini-Break
(A Reaper Short Story)
Gertrude stood in the water with her robes hiked up above her knees, the excess material bundled in her arms. She looked at Emma doubtfully.
“Now nothing. Paddle.”
“But I don’t have a paddle.”
Emma shook her head, then waded into the shallows and started walking in circles. “Just, you know. Paddle.”
Gertrude lifted one foot then the other, stirring the coarse sand into a cloud around her ankles. “Like this?”
“Close enough.” Emma waded a little further out, the water licking at her shins below her summer dress. The sea was calm, rippling softly out to the horizon, and the nearly full moon hung low enough to admire its own broken yellow reflection. Gertrude stayed where she was, dutifully shuffling her feet, and wondered if she was missing the point somewhat. She couldn’t quite see what was so special about having wet, sandy feet.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Emma asked. She was staring back toward town, at the abbey perched on the cliff and lit from below with spotlights, at the soft illumination of the pubs by the docks and the warm glow of old town windows.
Gertrude scratched her arm with bony fingers. It wasn’t that she burst into flame if she went in the sunlight, but she had a horrible allergic reaction to it. And, it being summer, it was rather hard to avoid the sun entirely unless she wanted to hide in their little holiday rental all day. So she was itchy, in addition to being wet and sandy. “It’s very pretty,” she agreed. “Are you happy we came?”
Emma smiled. “Of course. The Caribbean would have been better, but I know you couldn’t take that long off work.”
“No, I couldn’t.” Gertrude kept her eyes on the murky water. The truth was that she hadn’t officially taken time off work. Opening a coffee shop stocked with baby ghouls was one thing, but she had a feeling that requesting time off for a mini-break would have been a step too far for Grim Reaper Yorkshire. He was still confused by the whole cafe concept, and couldn’t understand why humans assumed that they were petting cats rather than a more unusual variety of small, malignant corpse-eaters. Gertrude couldn’t either, to be fair, but Emma had been proved right on that one. Humans saw what they wanted to see.
“It’s nice being away, anyway,” Emma said, and waded back to the beach. “Come on. You can watch me drink a G&T.”
“Wonderful.” Gertrude followed her out of the water, wriggling her toes in the sand. She supposed it was nice, in a damp, gritty sort of way. “Is it usual to have small animals on my feet?”
Emma gave her a puzzled look, then wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Are those crabs eating you?”
Gertrude flicked them off, grumbling. “I don’t think I like the seaside.”
“I suppose they thought you were dead.”
“I’m only technically dead.” She let her robes drop down around her ankles again.
The little apartment with its white walls and blue trim was deafeningly still, the cobbled streets outside empty. Gertrude sat in the little combined living and kitchen area with her book open on her lap, half-waiting for a call from Departed Human Logistics (DHL) even though she knew she’d left her work phone with Secretary Reaper. She didn’t need to sleep any more than she needed to eat or drink, and at home she’d have been in the kitchen, baking cakes and cookies for the cafe. But the cafe was shut for the duration of their mini-break, and the Secretary was looking after the ghoulets as well as Gertrude’s stray souls. She wondered if the little creatures were behaving themselves. Relatively speaking, of course. Just not gnawing through the walls or escaping into the streets would do. There weren’t many at the moment – ghouls normally have litters in the winter, so by summer most of them were full-grown, just a handful of late bloomers still left at the shop. It was a good thing, really. Less potential for escapees, and less frozen chickens for the Secretary to deal with.
Movement caught her eye, and she peered out the window into the dim yellow of the streetlights. A slim tabby cat slouched along the alley with her head low and her ears forward. She looked up at the reaper, and Gertrude nodded politely. The cat’s eyes narrowed, then she kept on about her business. Gertrude stuck her tongue out at the cat’s back. Snotty things, real cats. She preferred pictures. But the cat had the right idea. She’d had enough of being cooped up in here. Emma was snoring gin-flavoured snores in the bedroom, and there was little enough time between now and when the sun came up.
Gertrude got up and shrugged her robes on over her favourite unicorn-cat pyjamas, the hood falling forward over her face. Emma got to spend the whole day out, while Gertrude had to wait until the sun was low enough to be comfortable. A walk in the wee small hours was only fair.
Other than the cat, the town seemed to be sleeping. Gertrude prowled barefoot through the old narrow streets, passing under the swinging signs of pubs and through crooked, arched lanes, smelling everywhere the heavy scent of salt and seaweed. Humans described this place as a haunt for vampires, which was nonsense. Vampires needed nightlife. They tended to congregate in big cities – even the ones in Leeds complained that it was a boring little northern town. She could just imagine their faces if confronted with a village that slept through the night like this. Not to mention the fishy smell. They’d be all wrinkled noses and dah-ling about that, fussing about getting their suits dirty.
She turned a corner and spotted worn stone stairs, climbing silently up the cliff into the moonlight. They probably went to the crumbling ruins of the abbey, holding its watch over the seas. She hesitated. Reapers are meant to keep to their own territory, and she didn’t want to run into one of the roving ones who took care of the rural souls that DHL missed. It could raise questions, or even get her reported to Grim Reaper Yorkshire. Reapers aren’t tourists. She should go back and finish the holiday as she’d started it, passing her time with Emma in human places, and not risk trouble. Yes. That was the best thing to do. She nodded firmly. Definitely for the best.
The stairs were steep, and there were a lot of them. She padded up on soft feet, smiling a little as she imagined Emma puffing and complaining if she were here. Maybe they could do a night walk. It wasn’t like Emma had a bad reaction to the dark. If the abbey’s graveyard was unused, there was no danger of running into another reaper, either. It wasn’t like reapers hung out around churches for fun. That’d be like a human going into the office for a night out. But it would make it safe for her and Emma. They could even bring a midnight picnic up. It’d be nice, eating among the gravestones under the stars. She thought. Sometimes the things she thought Emma would like weren’t at all right, and she had a feeling that this might be one. Like that jewellery tree she’d made from squirrel bones. Emma had said she liked it, but it hadn’t escaped Gertrude’s notice that it had broken exceptionally quickly.
Her thoughts were interrupted by noises from above, and she paused, frowning. It had been quite nice out here in the silence. She didn’t think it was a reaper up there. After-death was usually a quiet experience. She climbed a little higher, and the noises began to resolve themselves into rhythmic chanting, the rise and fall of voices, a drone of fuzzy words. In the still of the windless night, they carried to her easily, and she should have been able to understand them, but there was something off about the sound. She stopped again, wondering if she should just go back. She could walk around to the other side of the harbour, climb up to the grand old houses on the opposite hill, and watch the moon paint its path across the sea. She didn’t want to meet anyone.
A wail rose from the hill, something unearthly and horrifying. Well, if you weren’t a reaper. Very little is horrifying to a reaper, except for poorly made robes. But it wasn’t a good sound, even to her. It was a Someone Is Doing Something They Shouldn’t Be sound. Gertrude looked longingly across the bay, and the terrible wail dragged its fingernails across the night again. She wasn’t even meant to be here. She was on holiday.
The chanting rose and fell, and the night shivered in a way that made strange colours swirl on the edge on the dark. Gertrude groaned and broke into a run, leaping up the steps with a light, ungainly grace, her hood falling back to let the moonlight play in her pale hair.
The circle of hooded figures in the shadows of the ancient church worked by moonlight and candles, shielded from the road beyond the graveyard by the high wall surrounding it. That droning chant continued, spilling off the cliffs and rolling out to sea, and Gertrude felt her skin crawling with magic as she ran up the last few steps and emerged among the leaning headstones. The words circled her, tugging at the edges of her being, threatening her with the darkness that reapers know waits beyond the world. It’s not where souls go once they’re reaped – no one knows where that might be – but the dark is there anyway, circling and hungry. She wished Emma hadn’t made her leave her scythe behind in Leeds. Whatever this was, it was very bad indeed.
That wail came again, piercing and desperate, and this time it was followed by an exclamation of “Goddamn!”
“I mean – devil take the stupid thing.”
The chanting stumbled as the second voice said, “Can’t you even control a cat?”
“I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” The wail came again, then dissolved into hissing and spitting. “Ow!”
“What are you doing?” Gertrude demanded, hurrying across the fine grass of the graveyard toward the little group. “Put that cat down!”
The man holding the cat stared at her in astonishment, and the chant fell apart entirely as thirteen robed figures turned to look at her.
“Keep going,” a woman said impatiently, the same one that had asked Rudy if he couldn’t control the cat. The group started up again, a little unevenly. “Who’re you? We’re not taking on new members, you know. Thirteen’s the magic number.”
“It’s not,” Gertrude said matter-of-factly.
“Oh, you know, do you?”
“As it happens, yes.”
“What’s the magic number, then?” Rudy asked. He was wearing welder’s gloves and holding the cat at arm’s length. The cat glared at Gertrude as if this was all her fault.
“There isn’t one.”
The woman snorted. “Shows how much you know. Anyhow, Rudy here is useless—”
“—so you may as well stand in with the chant, if you know it. Your robes look a bit cheap, but they’ll do.”
Gertrude touched her hood, offended. “These are handmade.”
“Aw, Clare – that’s not fair,” Rudy whined.
“Just try and hold the damn cat steady, can’t you?” The woman he’d called Clare pulled a rather fancy knife from under her robes, and the cat spat at her furiously.
“Put the cat down,” Gertrude said again. She didn’t like the look of the knife. It looked authentic.
“Look, if you’re not going to help, you can just leave,” Clare said.
“Give me the cat and I’ll leave.” Gertrude’s skin was crawling horribly. Something was close, something big and toothed and clawed, something scratching at the edges of reality. She really wanted her scythe.
“We need the cat.” The woman raised the knife, and the cat twisted violently in Rudy’s grip, teeth bared in rage. Rudy gripped the creature harder, the long gloves protecting him from her violently flailing back legs.
Gertrude took a deep breath of suddenly syrupy air, the edges of the world melting around her. The abbey loomed too large beyond the churchyard and the shadows were too dark, full of too many uneasy colours. The chanting was reaching a crescendo. “Give me the cat,” she bellowed in her best reaper voice, but other than Rudy looking startled, no one took any notice.
“Bugger off,” Clare said, almost conversationally. “We’re nearly there. Soon our lord will rise!”
“Rise!” The chant gave way to fervent wails. “Rise! Rise, our lord of darkness. Rise!”
Oh, this was not good. This was working, and that shouldn’t be happening. These silly little rituals weren’t meant to work. Gertrude started forward.
“Stop her,” Clare commanded, pushing her hood back. Underneath, she had carefully curled blonde hair and prim pearl earrings.
Still shouting for their lord of darkness, two big men with red noses and potbellies started towards Gertrude.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” she snapped. “Would you stop this nonsense?”
“Rise, our lord! Rise and drink of the blood we offer you!” Clare intoned, looking more like she should be advertising stain remover than making sacrifices to the forces of darkness.
“No one wants anyone rising,” Gertrude said, sensing a tremor that was more in the skin between dimensions than it was in any one world. The two men made a grab for her, and she side-stepped them absently. Their eyes were bulging with excitement and alarm, and she could smell their sweat. “Stop that,” she told them, feeling like she was dealing with baby ghouls again.
“Take this offering as a taste of what is yours to come!” Clare roared, and lunged at Rudy with the knife, ignoring the cat entirely. Rudy shrieked and threw the furious, spitting feline at her, then spun away and broke into a panicked run.
“Stop this right now!” Gertrude shouted over a chorus of fervent shouting. Clare charged after Rudy with her perm bobbing gently, and the still-chanting group splintered as they joined the chase. The cat had latched onto Clare, scrambling up the woman’s back with her fur standing on end and her tail the size of a toilet brush. One of the big men grabbed Gertrude, and she swung him neatly around, bouncing him off his friend with a clatter of colliding heads. They went rolling to the ground, legs and arms tangled. Rudy ran past her, wailing as he headed for the stairs, and she shouted, “That is really quite enough!”
Clare appeared to give up on Rudy and swerved towards Gertrude instead, oblivious to the cat that was trying to fight her way over her stiff hair. The knife sliced through the dark and made unpleasant (and rather threatening) shapes out of the night. Gertrude squeaked and ducked, twisting away in a swirl of robes. The cat manoeuvred herself onto Clare’s shoulder and started clawing at the woman’s ears. Rudy vanished down the stairs, his steady screams drifting back to them, and Gertrude found herself surrounded by robed figures. Their chanting had notched up a level in their excitement, echoing off the broken walls of the abbey.
“Now,” she said warningly. “You really don’t want to do this. You have no idea what you’re doing.” The night was thrumming with magic. She could see it reflected in their eyes along with the moonlight.
One of the men grabbed the cat and pulled her off Clare. The woman ignored them, the knife pointed steadily at Gertrude. It did look exceedingly sharp. Blood was dripping from the woman’s ear and cheek, and soaking into the dark cloth of her robe, and she mopped it up with her hood.
“Stupid animal,” she hissed, and the cat hissed back, then twisted in the man’s grip, mouth wide and claws spread.
“No!” Gertrude shouted, as the cat buried her teeth in the man’s thumb with a crunch that echoed across the graveyard. Hands grabbed the reaper and she flung them off without looking, sending robed figures tumbling away from her. The man holding the cat howled and let go, but the creature clung to him with wild-eyed determination even as he thrashed about desperately, shrieking in pain. Gertrude lunged forward and grabbed the man and the cat by the scruffs of their respective necks, and the cat glared at her reproachfully. “Let go,” she snapped, then staggered as something thumped into her back, sending pain blossoming down her spine. “Ow.”
She released her captives, turning around as the chanting roared into a new rhythm. Clare stared at her with wide eyes, moonlight shining on her tidy earrings.
“You stabbed me,” Gertrude said.
Clare made a startled sound, then recovered herself. “It’s for the dark lord!” She gave Gertrude a tentative little shove, obviously expecting her to collapse. Gertrude glared at her, and tried to reach the knife. She couldn’t. It was planted solidly between her shoulder blades.
“Well, that’s just fantastic. And you’ve ruined my robes. Handmade, I said.”
The chanting straggled to a halt, and the group exchanged uneasy glances.
Clare opened and closed her mouth a few times, then said timidly, “Are you the dark lord?”
“Do I look like the dark lord?” Gertrude demanded, still trying to reach the knife. Two of the smaller robed figures nudged each other and started to sneak off toward the parking lot.
“Um. Well. Maybe I was a little presumptuous calling you a dark lord,” Clare said, then dropped to her knees. “All hail the dark queen!”
“Oh, sod off,” Gertrude grumbled, giving up on the knife. There was a general, tip-toeing retreat going on. “You’re all horrible people!” she shouted, and it turned into a rout. Clare grovelled in the grass at her feet, pawing at the edge of her robes, and that heavy feeling in the air was intensifying. Gertrude pulled her robes away from the woman, frowning, and heard a shuddering whoomph, followed by a polite cough from behind her. She turned.
“We may have a small problem,” the cat said, and the reaper glared down at her.
“I told you not to bite him, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but in all fairness, he was trying to sacrifice me to the devil. And he didn’t have to flick blood all over the place.” The cat peered pointedly at a large hole, the exact shape and size of a man. Darkness pooled in it, swallowing even the blades of grass at the edges, and it rolled with a texture that hurt the eyes. “Speaking of …”
“Well, that’s just great. I’m on holiday, you know.”
The cat inclined her head. “That seems problematic for any lost souls.”
She scowled. “Someone’s covering me. And I’ve never been to the sea before.”
“Well, good for you.” The darkness was intensifying, and there was a groan rising from somewhere deep in the hole, a groan that could topple cities and tear the world apart.
“I paddled,” Gertrude said. “And smelled cotton candy.”
“Don’t like either of those things, myself,” the cat said.
“My queen,” Clare whispered, tugging at Gertrude’s robes again. She wrapped her arms around the reaper’s legs, rubbing her permed head against her knees. “My queen, let me serve you. Let me bathe your feet.”
“Ew,” Gertrude said, and shook Clare off as the woman tried to lick her bare feet. “Look, you want to help? Take the knife out.”
“At once, my queen!” The woman scrambled to her feet and tugged the knife out of Gertrude’s back, not without some difficulty. Gertrude could feel it scraping on her ribs. In front of her, the man-shaped hole trembled, the edges crumbling as an unpleasant scraping started up. It was the scraping of something climbing, something immense and hungry. The woman rushed to stand next to the reaper, the knife clutched to her chest. “And now?”
“In you get.” Gertrude pointed at the hole.
“Um – what?”
“Get in. It’s the only thing that will seal it, the knife and the priestess going in there.”
“Well.” Clare regarded the hole with some alarm. “Aren’t we going to cover the world in darkness and rule as one?”
“Where do humans get these ideas?” the cat asked, cleaning a paw.
“Look, you head on down there, and maybe you can convince them to let you do some ruling.” Gertrude smiled encouragingly. The scraping noises were getting alarmingly close.
“I’m not sure,” Clare began, and the cat, who had been on the other side of the hole, was quite suddenly on the same side as the woman and the reaper. She appeared mid-leap and hit Clare in the small of the back with surprising force. The woman pitched forward with a scream, her feet stumbling over the edge of the hole, and Gertrude stepped out of reach as Clare grabbed for her with a final shriek of “My queen!”
The cat fell with her, muscles bunching as she made to leap away again. But the hole had a gravity of its own, and Clare was snapped downward, too fast for the cat to push off. She gave an enraged yowl as her feet found no purchase, nothing to stop her own plummeting momentum. The groan below turned into a snarl that was part dissatisfied greed, part eternal rage, and Clare vanished into the dark, the cat in free-fall after her. The earth snapped back into place with a slam that echoed across the bay, shocking the birds out of sleep and setting car alarms squalling. It left behind nothing but grass burned in the shape of a man’s body and a lingering scent of unwashed socks.
“Mini-breaks,” Gertrude said, and sighed.
Emma came into the main room of the little holiday apartment with her hair in her eyes, smelling of toothpaste and soap. “Morning,” she said to Gertrude.
“Morning,” Gertrude said, and handed her a cup of tea. “Did you sleep alright?”
“Mostly.” Emma sipped tea and sighed. “Oh, that’s lovely. I had such a weird dream, though. That there was an earthquake, and it went all the way to hell, and things were coming out.”
“That doesn’t sound very nice,” Gertrude said, taking eggs from the fridge. “It must have been the gin.”
“Maybe.” Emma sounded doubtful. “Normally it’s only tequila that gives me those sort of dreams.”
“Remind me to keep you away from that, then.” Gertrude mixed the eggs with milk and dredged bread through it. She couldn’t bake here, but she could make eggy bread. That was something.
Emma watched her for a while, then said, “Gertrude?”
“Why is there a three-legged cat on the sofa?”
Gertrude sighed. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
The cat looked up from examining her neatly cauterised stump. “I would have thought a reaper would have better reflexes.”
“I would have thought a cat would have better sense than to bite someone in the middle of what was clearly a blood sacrifice.”
“Huh,” Emma said, and took another sip of tea. “I didn’t know cats talked.”
“I prefer them when they don’t,” Gertrude said, sliding eggy bread onto a plate.
“Do you have any salmon?” the cat asked. “I could go some salmon. I’m recuperating, you know.”
“You see?” Gertrude said. “With any luck the ghoulets will eat her.”
Emma nodded. “We may have to rethink this holiday thing if you’re going to bring home strays all the time.”
“Tuna?” the cat suggested. “Come on, we just saved the world!”
Gertrude sighed, and wrote salmon on the shopping list, then went back to the eggy bread. Holidays indeed.
I did actually go to Whitby on a mini-break, probably six or seven years ago now. There were no reapers in the streets or arcane rituals at the abbey (not that I saw, anyway), but we did have a cat scratching at our bedroom door to be let in at about 6am or so. We assumed he belonged to the B&B, so let him in. He acquiesced to a few head scratches, then went to sleep in the bathtub.
We left him there when we checked out, and let the manager know, in case she was wondering where he was.
“Oh, not him again,” she said. “He’s always breaking in and doing that.”
How about you, lovely people? What’s your favourite mini-break been? Any memorable stories to share? Pop them in the comments below!
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