Title: Absent Friends
Setting: Post Chosen. Giles, Ethan and friends.
Length: 6850 (my, that was longer than I intended)
Prompt by wickedfox I'd love to read a sort of The World's End type story. Giles and Ethan go on an epic pub crawl that was never finished by his deceased mates back in the day. Unfortunately this go of it gets interrupted by something supernatural.
Giles wasn’t familiar the town he was in that night, but he’d reasoned the High Street would be pretty central and possibly even followed the layout of the Roman road network. It was a cold night and he pulled his overcoat collar a little closer to his throat and pushed up his scarf. January was an inhospitable time of the year to be visiting and the narrow streets, lit only a dirty orange glow from inadequate overhead lighting, seemed to want to shun his company. He checked his invitation again – a picture postcard dating from the 1970s depicting ‘Carchester, Historic Roman Town’ as the legend promised, though really all that remained were the oversized defensive walls that dominated around a two mile diameter. On the reverse of the card had been printed todays date, the time of 8pm and a numbered list of five public houses. There was no name or accompanying cheery greeting, but the date resonated with him immediately - it was not the sort of date you forget. The significance of the town name took him a little longer to register, and the pub names not at all but he'd done a little research and found the location of the first one.
As he bisected onto the High Road, he wondered at his decision to keep the appointment, and most especially to not tell anyone where he was going. He had written it in his diary for them to find if necessary, but he hadn't publicised the trip in advance. He didn't want the company of some bored slayer rolling her eyes or a keen young watcher who wouldn't understand Giles’ shady past and ask too many annoying questions. Giles had found himself surrounded by young people in his current role and while he found it invigorating to be useful, it was also incredibly tiresome at times. Being at the heart of something made him feel alive, he'd always slightly worried about being on the periphery, not quite fitting in and feeling lonely, but sometimes he yearned for a different company to a bunch of young people expecting him to be perfect and have all the answers. Giles found himself nostalgic for the old friends who knew his flaws and accepted them. Realising he hadn’t called Buffy for two weeks, he decided he’d do so the next day, but in the meantime he was in Carchester and keeping an appointment common sense told him he should be spurning.
5: The Travellers Rest
The Travellers Rest public house on the High Road was an easy place to spot. The young congregated there in great numbers every Friday night, and spilled out into the street in noisy brash groups. Rupert Giles found he had to push through a great mass of drinkers, standing with their bottled beers, talking wildly to be heard over the incessant thump of the sound system, before he could get anywhere near the bar. He bumped into a girl collecting empties and apologised. She smiled briefly and shouted, “Your friend is over there.” Giles assumed she’d mistaken him for one of the regular customers but she gestured to the far corner, touched his arm with the briefest of concern and added, “Be careful tonight, sir. Stay within the town walls,” before vanishing back into the sweaty throng.
That warning had become a commonplace sign-off for the people of Carchester. Giles was a stranger there, but even he knew about the importance of the town walls. The Romans had been attracted to the topography to the area and skirted the town with minor forts to protect their administrative claims to the region. There hadn’t been a single recorded military attack against them, but inexplicably they’d opted at some point to build some very high and very wide stone defences. A common belief was held that they had been afraid of the pagan customs of the area and responded the only way they knew. The marshy hills and downs did have something of a reputation for the supernatural. In the thousand years since, several attempts to build churches in the hill communities had faltered through fire, flood or financial mismanagement. After that the smart money chose to stay within the Roman town walls and the locals took to warning each other out of habit.
Giles removed his scarf and gloves and pushed through to the corner he’d been sent. The sea of young people thinned and revealed a table and two stools. He had barely a shred of doubt that the privacy of the area was being maintained by magick, and no shred at all when he saw the man who was waiting for him. Ethan! Ethan? It didn’t seem possible but his old friend put down his pint glass and beamed back at him.
“I knew it was you all along, Rupert.” He gestured to the other stool and an untouched drink. “I got them in. Quite like old times isn’t it?” Giles stood transfixed. “Here,” Ethan picked up the second pint and held it out to him. “Flesh and blood, I assure you, old friend.”
Giles reached passed the glass and gripped Ethan’s wrist. He was solid and warm and Giles even felt the slight throb of his pulse. “I thought, I thought…” he stammered.
“Sit down, Rupert. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Giles sat and drank about a third of the drink. “The Initiative…I was told…” he began, but Ethan interrupted.
“Water under the bridge, old man. I hold no grudges. Besides,” Ethan produced a postcard from his pocket. “You must have known I was at large, else why send me this?” Giles looked at the picture of the market stalls nestled against the Roman walls, the shoppers in mini-skirts and flares. The tourist officers in their present town hadn’t seen the need to update their stock photos. On the reverse were the same date, time and list of five public houses.
“It’s not from me.” Giles pulled the identical card from his own pocket and laid it on the table.
“Snap,” said Ethan thoughtfully. “Do you know anyone here? Have you ever been here before?”
“No, not a soul except for…” Giles broke off and drank some more.
“Ah. Yes, he was from here, wasn’t he?” Ethan opened his eyes widely as he understood. “And it’s the seventeenth today….” He also took a long pull on his drink. “Which means it’s thirty years ago to the day since…”
“Since Randall passed away,” Giles finished and balanced both postcards thoughtfully. “Hometown boy or not, I very much doubt he is in a position to be sending out party invitations.”
“So who is it then? Someone bearing a grudge do you think? He didn’t have any family as I remember, and we were his only friends.”
Giles sipped the pint thoughtfully. It was strong and dark with quite a heavy alcohol thickness about it.
“Which didn’t exactly work out well for him.” Giles spoke quickly and his statement came out with a guilty bitterness. “He had more friends than just the two of us anyway.” Randall had been a major part of the group that had welcomed Giles when he had run away from Oxford and his perceived Council shackles to recklessly see how far he could fall: a chain of events that ultimately led to Randall’s own death. Since then, the other members of the group, Thomas Sutcliffe, Philip Henry and Deirdre Page, had all perished to the demon that Ethan and himself had raised thirty years ago. If tonight was to be a party, there weren’t going to be many people show up.
Ethan cut into his thoughts. “Old girlfriends perhaps? There were plenty of them.”
Giles couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “God, yes. He was like fly-paper wasn’t he? That used to drive Philip nuts.”
“He was young, good-looking and completely immoral. We were all quite the reprehensible hedonists back then. Happy days.” Ethan smiled his most serpent-like smile, and whilst Giles pulled a disapproving frown, he nevertheless joined in on the toast. His beer tasted good and he was already nearing the bottom of the glass.
He remembered how Randall had hated the restrictions of the heavy Roman walls and fled to London at fifteen, as soon as he was able. He couldn’t have been more twenty-three when Ethan introduced Giles to the group but he’d seemed older than those years, older and far wiser than a runaway Oxford dropout anyway. It was a time when ordinary people were more open to the possibilities of the occult and Randall had sought it all. He wanted to stay young forever and he was charismatic enough to make you believe he could do it.
Giles ignored the rather fond look Ethan was throwing him and said, “Do you remember when he spoke of his home town, the only good thing he said was the pub crawl? He hadn’t managed to get all the way to the end for some reason” He drained his glass. “He said he needed our help.”
“After thirty years, we’ve probably left it a bit late,” Ethan replied drolly. “I don't think the rest of these places exist anymore. I couldn’t find any of them except this one. Time has not been kind to the licensed trade in these parts, don’t you think? Seems rather a pity with beer like this.”
It was a good pint certainly and Giles craved more but he let common sense prevail. “Drink up,” he declared. “I don’t like this. I don’t like postcards from the grave. Let’s get out of here.” He rose a little unsteadily and caught Ethan smirking as they left. “You better not have spiked this.”
“Certainly not. I’d never interfere with a good pint of beer. Face it, Ripper. You’re just not a drinker anymore.”
Giles was about to remonstrate outside when there was a cry of recognition from across the street.
“Good God, I don’t believe it!” A familiar short man with a black goatee beard raced across the road to greet them. “Rupert, Ethan. How long has it been?” He shook Ethan’s hand quickly then grasped Giles’ hand warmly and with both of his. “So good to see you, you old devils.” He bounced with a surprising enthusiasm at the reunion while Giles stared dumbfounded back at him.
“Well, as I live and breathe, Philip,” Ethan said evenly, as if there could be nothing out of the ordinary in his having manifesting before them. “Philip Henry. This is a turn up for the book.”
Philip seemed excited. “I need to buy you two a drink! Not this place though. I know a better pub up the street. Come on.” He set off happily but as Ethan made to follow Giles grabbed his arm.
“Wait. That can’t be him. He’s dead. I saw Philip’s body in the morgue. We both saw him dead.”
“I know. Great fun isn’t it? Someone seems to be going to a lot of trouble to resurrect the old gang.” Ethan smirked and added, “Quite literally.”
“It’s not funny.”
Ethan pouted. “It is a bit. Come on. Where’s your spirit of adventure?”
“Come on you two lazy buggers,” Philip called. “I’m buying.”
“That’ll be a first,” Giles muttered, suddenly drawn in to old memories he thought he’d lost a long time ago. “Oh alright.” He knew it was wrong and reckless and somehow that made him feel happier than he had been in years.
4: The Lamb and Slaughter
They walked along the High Road, Phillip babbling happily, until they passed under an archway through the Roman Walls. There was grim medieval humour in naming the ornate structure Martyr’s Gate. As they left the town, the road on the other side grew narrower and the street lighting grew further apart. The beginning of an evening mist started to form. Eventually as they rounded a corner, the welcoming lights of a public house drew them closer. Its painted sign proudly announced it was The Lamb and Slaughter - the second name on the postcard invitations. If Giles felt mildly uneasy, the décor of the pub seemed reassuringly all too familiar to him. It was of a type that had been tossed around by breweries for many years. The rooms had been knocked through and renovated constantly. Where once had stood imposing oak beams, now stood imposing fake oak beams sporting obligatory horse brasses for decoration.
The bar was filled with middle aged men who’d parked their Audis and BMWs across the grass verges. It was just as raucous as the first pub, the only difference being these men insisted on drinking from ‘proper’ glasses as they put the world to right. Ethan found a table and Philip, as promised, produced three pints.
“Cheers,” they toasted.
Giles liked the taste of this beer too and found a third of it had disappeared quite quickly. “Philip,” he began almost belligerently. “I don’t mean to be rude, but aren’t you dead?”
Philip smiled conspiratorially before replying, “Well you know what they say: you can’t keep a good man down.”
“Not unless you hold him under water long enough,” muttered Ethan dryly, causing Giles to splutter his drink in amusement.
“What was that?” Philip turned sharply and tried to brush it off. “Oh very good. Yes, you did like your little jokes didn’t you, Ethan? Very, very little jokes.”
“No but really, Philip,” Giles cut in, fondly remembering the slight antagonism his two friends always had to each other. “How have you been keeping?”
Philip eyed him coldly. “I’ve been dead, Rupert. How have you been?”
Giles was feeling quite warm and took his overcoat off. “But you’re looking awfully spry for a dead chap,” he persisted. “How come you are out and about, and up from underneath the daisies?” This time Ethan giggled and Giles realised with an ache how much he’d missed that sound.
Philip addressed the pair of them. “Seems I’ve got a One Night Pass only.” He pulled a familiar looking picture postcard from his pocket. “Courtesy of you two jokers I presume? As the Penn and Teller of the Dark Arts, I’d expect nothing less.”
Giles and Ethan intuitively slapped their matching postcards on the table at the same time and shouted “Snap!” together.
Philip waited for laughter to subside before asking coolly, “Are you enjoying your drink, Rupert? Can I get you another?”
“No, no.” Giles waved a hand. “Sorry, Philip. We’ll be good. It’s just great to see you again.”
“Yes, it’s great,” Ethan chimed in with just a hint of wooden mockery.
“And we’re not at all prejudiced that you’re dead,” Giles continued. “If that’s a lifestyle choice that works for you, then we’re one hundred percent behind you. I mean, you’re not a zombie, that’s got to be good.”
“Thanks. I’m not a vampire either.”
“Better and better.” Giles waved his hands expansively.
Philip sucked his teeth a little and tried to introduce some calculated reasoning. “This has to be something to do with it being Randall’s old stomping ground before he moved to London hasn’t it? Remember how he used to bang on about how the only decent thing worth doing was some spooky pub crawl?”
“I didn’t spend much time actually listening to him,” Ethan said smoothly. “He was a dear boy but he talked a lot of bollocks.”
If Philip took affront at that, he swallowed it down quickly and opted to ignore Ethan in favour of Giles. “Some sort of dare wasn’t it? Do you remember, Rupert? No-one could actually finish it.”
“Why ever not?” It sounded familiar but even more like a challenge to Giles - a noble quest even.
“Because they can’t find all the pubs. I think some chap did it once just after the Great War…but that was nearly ninety years ago now.”
“We can’t ask him the way then,” giggled Giles as his put his empty glass down. “Let’s just do it. I bet with our combined wits we can do this thing.”
“How can you not find a pub?” asked Ethan cautiously but Giles was already retrieving his overcoat from the floor.
“Perhaps you need the right spirit guides,” he laughed as rose unsteadily to his feet and fought the arms of his coat that had become tangled. “Let’s blow this place and find somewhere better. Come on! Let’s make a night of it.”
They walked on in the moonlight and Giles felt the security of the old walls grow fainter and fainter. Philip opened a gate to a field on their right. “Short cut,” he said and Giles followed dutifully through and onto a rough trackway that had been walked diagonally across the field. Ethan and Philip maintained a mild reproving banter as they walked and Giles smiled at how nice it felt to be in the company of his friends even if he did feel a little light headed. Impulsively he ran past them to reach the far gate first. Ethan took up the challenge and tried to barge him off the path, but Giles held firm and with the slight advantage of the start, touched the gate first. Victory was his and he raised his arms in triumph to the stars. Ethan swore at his dirty tactics and Phillip tutted disapprovingly as he worked the top bolt and led them back onto a country lane.
3: The Hanging Judge
The pub named The Hanging Judge came resplendent with a painted wooden sign of unspeakable gruesomeness. If the Judge in question had been in favour of capital punishment, he could not have predicted the anguish of his own end on the gallows. His eyes bulged grotesquely as the artist portrayed him swinging on the rope as his white wig stayed resolutely on his head.
“Now that’s poetic justice for you.” Giles observed.
They pushed inside and found the bar.
“My god,” a familiar voice boomed. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
“Tommy!” Giles shouted exuberantly.
Giles had lost touch with Thomas Sutcliffe and was a little shocked at how the years had changed him. His hair was thinning badly and his prominent forehead and nose seems even more striking now that age had pulled back the skin across his skull. Sutcliffe had fled after Randall’s death and had worked his way to law school, disassociating himself completely from the old gang, building up a respectable career and ruthlessly supressing any suggestion about past indiscretions that might have frightened the local politicians and their wives.
Sutcliffe smiled thinly at Giles’ greeting. “That’s Sir Thomas to the likes of you,” he replied sternly.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Ethan declared.
“Not at all,” Giles slurred his slight admonishment at Ethan’s surprise. “Tommy became a minor circuit judge don’t you know, and then he got a knighthood. Before he got killed that is. Her Majesty isn’t all together broad-minded about dubbing the dead.”
Everybody laughed, or so it seemed to Giles because other people were becoming a blur of odours and colours. The only thing tangible seemed to be the beer that Sutcliffe had quickly pressed into his hand.
“Drink up, Rupert,” the ex-Judge implored, smiling slyly as Giles obeyed. “I presume we’ve all worked out the significance of today’s date?” They all nodded. “The night you clever boys lost control of your party trick and Randall died.” Sutcliffe’s words left a slight taste of guilt in Giles’ mouth, he’d seemed surprisingly harsh.
Ethan spoke carefully. “Now, we were all at fault that night, Tommy. Even you,” he offered mildly.
Sutcliffe raised a hand in acknowledgement. “I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. I have paid the price for that night’s folly. After all I could have been a High Court Judge by now.”
“I find that thought truly terrifying,” said Ethan.
Giles had stopped listening and mused out loud, “I wonder where Randall would have been had he lived?”
“In bed with a blonde,” Ethan suggested quickly. “There was always another pretty girl. Wasn’t there, Philip?”
Philip gripped his glass a little too tightly and Giles sought to clumsily keep the peace. “Oh course, you and Randall were close at one time.”
Philip looked at his statement with suspicion before shaking his head sadly. “He liked to try things and move on. As you say always another pretty girl,” he confirmed, in a voice that hinted at a good deal of frustration and hurt. “And of course he was fascinated by the occult and was star struck by anyone with real magick.” He directed the last remark at Giles.
Giles thought back to the boarded up house in London they had taken possession of. How they lived on their wits as if every day would be their last. Randall was the centre, the leader who drew followers by his looks, charm and seemingly limitless access to Class A drugs. He had permitted Ethan to bring Rupert into the group despite the others’ misgivings. Sutcliffe had been too busy chasing Deirdre to object too strongly whilst Philip had been too busy trying to hide his jealously to make a really effective argument. Giles and Randall had spent long nights discussing the occult and vampires with Phillip hovering near the door and making excuses to interrupt. Giles had been careful not to over-romanticise vampires. Even then he’d sensed Randall could be egotistically unpredictable.
“Randall thought the world of you, Rupert.” Giles looked up to see Philip was still talking to him and that his tone held just a hint of resentment. He returned his empty glass to the table and felt a little unwell.
Ethan was defending him. “That’s because he was looking to find someone who could give him the secret of remaining eternally young.”
“Well Rupert certainly cured him of that ambition,” Sutcliffe said with a hint of amusement and soft malice. Philip went quiet, sat back in his chair and pushed his hands in his pockets. “Shall we move on?” the ex-judge suggested. “I think in his honour we should try and do this thing. I gather the youngsters don’t venture out anymore. No staying power.”
Giles pulled his coat on again and wrestled this time with a half buried memory. “What was the thing?” he mused. “Why did he say he hadn’t managed to complete the pub crawl? There was something at the end. Some reason it shouldn’t be done?”
Sutcliffe helped him with his coat and slapped him on the back.
“Nonsense. You just need to have the right kind of friends with you, Rupert.”
There was a charge in the night air that seemed to dance around him. The clouds were heavy with snow but seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for permission to begin. The fresh air and dredged up guilt began to play havoc with Giles’ head and hi powers of walking. He’d left his scarf and gloves somewhere and had to stuff his fingers into his pockets to keep them from freezing. He walked doggedly, keeping his nose to the frosty route like a determined bloodhound. His earlier exuberance was forgotten, all his concentration was on keeping up with the others and not letting the side down.
2: Last Chance Inn
The Last Chance Inn was empty and unwelcoming. It was an establishment of bare floorboards and bright lighting promoting a harsh and unwelcoming atmosphere. Deirdre Page was sitting elegantly in a curved wooden chair, smoking nonchalantly despite the rusting sign prohibiting the act. She eyed Giles rather coolly as he blundered in towards her. He’d been in awe of Deirdre back in the day and even now he felt like a gauche teenager in her presence.
“Rupert Giles. You actually came.” She blew smoke to the ceiling. “And I used to think you were the clever one.”
“I was so sorry when I heard of your death.”
“Oh that, well.” She waved her cigarette dismissively. “Shit happens.” Taking a long drag, she surveyed him critically. “Speaking of shit, you look dreadful. How are you feeling, tonight?”
“Not too good actually.”
“Here, drink this.” Sutcliffe was at his elbow helpfully passing him his glass. “Deirdre has bought you a pint already.”
“You two catch up over old times,” Sutcliffe cooed. “Whilst we just check something.” He jerked his head sharply to Ethan and Philip to step back outside for a conference. Giles was too wrapped up in fawning over Deirdre to notice the three men leaving. As he closed the door behind them, Sutcliffe’s avuncular smile vanished and a business like demeanour replaced it.
“Did you do as I asked?” he demanded of Ethan. “Did you buy him the first drink and Philip the second?”
Ethan nodded and spoke. “Listen, Tommy, I enjoy a good joke as much as the next worshipper of chaos, and even more if it means humiliating old Ripper, but this seems like a lot of trouble to go to just to get him pissed.”
“Oh it’s a little more than that.” Sutcliffe grinned. “It will be worth it in the end, you’ll see.”
“If this is about what happened to the late and unlamented Randall.”
The anger that Philip had struggled to keep in check boiled over at the casually insulting works. “Randall was a beautiful boy,” he spat. “I don’t like the way you speak about him, Rayne.”
Sutcliffe imposed his wiry frame between the two men. He had no intention of allowing disruption to his plan and spoke clearly and with authority.
“Philip, go back inside and make sure he is actually drinking Deirdre’s offering. We have to be sure we get the ritual right.”
The other man huffed and slammed back inside. Ethan blew him a kiss as he left then turned to the ex-Judge.
“So what’s going on, Tommy. Is this about Randall?”
Sutcliffe took a deep contemplate breath before grinning. “Not especially. Actually, I personally couldn’t give a fig about that lazy little sod. He was a useless sponger that spent most of his life in bed, one way or the other. Sleeping was his natural state. Only Philip here seems to want to mourn his passing. And as Randall had long since moved on in his interests, I find his devotion pathetically touching, like some bedraggled dog at his master’s gave.”
Ethan smiled his appreciation but wasn’t to be distracted. “If you are not all that upset about it then why are you orchestrating this?”
“Because whilst being killed by Eyghon the sleepwalker was probably poetic justice for Randall, it wasn’t for me. I happen to take it rather personally when some bloody demon turns up at my front down and kills me. Your friend Giles assured us had been dealt with – yet there is was, twenty years later, larger than life and twice as ugly, just as I was bringing in the milk bottles.”
“That is a bit rough,” Ethan smoothly agreed. “Although I don’t think that what happened with Eyghon was entirely Rupert’s fault…”
“Oh I agree there. We were all to blame in some part. I’ve thought about that night a lot. What if Randall hadn’t lost control? What if I hadn’t encouraged him to take a second turn? What if you hadn’t introduced us to your drop-out friend in the first place? The one who knew far too much black magick for other people’s good?
“And finally I thought: why are so many people dead when Rupert Giles, who dropped this demon in our laps, walks away scot-free? The rest of us paid the price for messing with unnatural forces but he didn’t. I’m a fair minded man and that just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Ethan fought to keep his voice breezy. “What happens if he makes it to the last pub?”
“Stop pretending like you care, Rayne. You'd sell your own grandmother if you thought there was mischief to be had by it.”
“I’d like to know all the same.”
“Wait and see. Randall gave me the idea actually. I suppose I should give some credit to the little work-shy shit. Now, be a good boy and enjoy the show, Rayne, or crawl back to where you came from. I don’t mind which, because either way, tonight, Rupert Giles is going to finish the pub crawl that can’t be finished and he is going to discover what paying the price really means.”
When the three men had withdrawn back outside for their conference, Deirdre had lent forward and poured some of Giles’ beer into her own glass. It struck Giles as a bit needy but he let it pass. He’d probably had enough to drink that night anyway.
“Deirdre, we are conducting an experi-ment.” His attempt at gravitas was undermined by his hiccupping in the last word. “We are going to complete Randall’s fabled pub crawl. What can you remember about it?”
Philip came back in and checked the level on Giles beer and made his way to the bar. He seemed angry but Giles chalked that up to the effect Ethan had on most people.
Deirdre’s eyes returned from the bar back to Giles. “More than you do, I dare say,” she said.
“What was so special about it? Why did he care about it?”
She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another before answering. “I believe he said even if people got this far, they could never find the last pub.” Giles looked glassily puzzled. “It’s not of the natural realm,” she explained. “Round here, once you leave the town walls, nothing rarely is. Randall was obsessed with getting there, but I don’t think it’s a good place for you to go.” She dropped her voice and Giles had to bend into her smoky haze which made him feel a little nauseous. “You should really just leave now,” she whispered. “Don’t let Tommy take you anywhere else.”
“I should see you home first,” he offered gallantly but she barked a laugh.
“Well, that really wouldn’t work either, my lamb. Can you see what’s happening? Can’t you see that you are in so much trouble?”
“Am I?” He blinked innocently. “What did I do?”
“I realise you are three sheets to the wind, Rupert darling, but it can’t have completely escaped your attention that dead men are buying you drinks.”
Giles considered her words for a slow moment and latched on to what his addled brain hoped was the flaw in her argument. “But Ethan isn’t dead,” he pointed out.
The door had opened behind him and Tommy’s voice boomed maliciously in his ear. “Of course he is! You handed him over to the US military for interrogation. What did you expect would happen?”
Giles felt his world go weak. “Not that. Not that.”
Philip stood over him and added with scorn, “Never were much of one to think about consequences were you?”
“Where is he? Where’s Ethan? Ethan!” Giles called.
“I’m afraid he’s gone, old chap,” Sutcliffe said. “He said he had something better to do than hang about with you.”
“No.” Giles shook his head and risked blurring his vision from all the alcohol he’d consumed. “No.”
“You shouldn’t be surprised,” the ex-Judge continued. “He was never one for long goodbyes. Disappearing tricks were a particular forte of his after all.”
“No, he wouldn’t just go. He wouldn’t just leave me.”
Philip hissed in his ear, “You got him killed. Of course he would.”
Sutcliffe gestured to the pint glass on the table. “How much of that has he had?”
Deirdre shrugged with her reply. “See for yourself.”
“Ethan’s really dead then.” Giles pushed the drink away in his fresh grief and started to stand up. “I’m going to go home now.”
“Hold him,” Sutcliffe barked and Giles found himself caught up by Philip. He tried to swing his way free but took a punch to the head and forced back into his chair. Philip pulled Giles arms behind his back sharply causing him to cry out in pain yet try to kick out, his strength leaving him Sutcliffe punched him again then grabbed his jaw open and unceremoniously poured the drink down Giles’s throat. When the two men let go finally, Giles collapsed to the floor unconscious, breaking a chair as he fell.
Deirdre began a slow, sarcastic applause. “Oh well done. Very, very, well done. I’d say he’s finished for the night now.”
“Nonsense. Philip, grab an arm.”
The other man struggled and complained, “God, for such a lightweight, he weighs a tonne.”
Sutcliffe scowled. “Lend a hand, Deirdre.”
“Oh no. Not me,” she said, having not moved from her chair as they had enacted their assault. “I did as you asked and bought him a drink. This is as far as I help you.”
The two fought to bring Giles to his knees but he sunk back to the floor almost immediately.
“Always a spectator, even in death, eh?” Sutcliffe snarled back at her. “You were hiding behind the sofa, I think, when we had to kill Randall.”
“And I think that’s the bit you are most proud of about that night. Killing a man. Thank god we didn’t have the death penalty when you became a judge.”
“I’ve mellowed, my dear. I believe in long custodial sentences now.” He looked at his watch. “Four drinks from four friends. Right on schedule. He just needs to buy the last pint for himself.”
“He’s in no state,” she mocked. “And aren’t you cutting it rather fine? Rural licence restrictions apply in this part of the world. You should remember that, being a judge. They close at eleven tonight and this mysterious last pub is how far away? Assuming you can even find it.”
“I can find it. Pick him up, Philip,” he snapped angrily.
“Come on Rupert,” Philip coaxed. “Time for walkies.”
“Wannasleephere.”A voice mumbled from the floor.
“Can’t do that, attaboy, up we get. Well done.” Philip had half pulled Giles upright and Sutcliffe ducked under his other arm to help take the weight.
As they made their way staggering to the exit Deirdre called accusingly, “Judge, Jury and Executioner now, Tommy?”
He shrugged. “Shit happens, Deirdre, unless you are going to break the habit of a lifetime and actually do something? No? Thought not.”
Deirdre watched Philip and Sutcliffe haul Giles out into the night, and then she lit another cigarette before muttering, “Drop dead, Tommy.”
It was incredibly dark and cold and Giles idly wondered where he’d left his top coat as he stumbled, and was occasionally half dragged, up a hill side. The snow clouds had completely blanketed the sky obscuring both the moon and the stars, and his visibility was maybe only a foot or so on the ground in front of him. He couldn’t see the bigger route or even his friends but he felt them help him to his feet when he stumbled and though their hands felt too bony and dug into his ribs a little too deeply, he thanked them and apologised and worried they were disappointed with him when all they returned was silence.
His head was spinning, his lungs close to explode at the exertion, and his arms and legs felt not to be his own. He couldn’t remember what it was he was supposed to remember. Danger? No, that idea washed away from him as he concentrated on keeping warm by moving in the icy air, and ignored the bony hands and claws of his companions and how they seemed to have teeth and fur if he looked across too sharply. That was nonsense of course.
There was no road or track, they climbed up a hillside, gripping icy clumps of grass that crunched but gave solid purchase under foot. And then just as he wondered if his lungs would shatter, there is was: the final objective of the night. A small two roomed and white-washed building of considerable age with a string of jaunty coloured lights and a heavy oak door. The plaque above the door named it as The Mortal Man. Landlord Ronald Watson, who had been licensed to sell strong liquor and beers since 1919.
Sutcliffe had a steadying arm around his waist, for which, after such a long night, Giles was grateful.
“Now Rupert. To complete the pub crawl, you have to buy the last pint for yourself. You don’t want to let us down do you?”
“No, no. Won’t do that, Tommy.”
“Good boy, off you go then.”
“Aren’t you coming in with me?”
“We can’t. Only the living may enter this place. There are rules that must be observed, even beyond the town walls.”
“It’s nearly eleven,” Philip said impatiently.
“Go on inside, Rupert. We’ll wait for you here.”
Giles nodded and after some confusion with the handle, managed to open the oak door and enter the final pub.
1: The Mortal Man
It was a small intimate room with a good log fire and seemed far more welcoming than all the previous bars. A huge clock that looked like it could dominate a train station clanked its hand nearer to the hour. There were no other customers present.
The landlord, Giles had already forgotten his name, was young looking with freckles and sandy hair and seemed surprised to see anyone come through his door. He wore a white apron and an old fashioned shirt with separate collar held by a stud at the back. He swallowed his surprise, pulled his tie up and smoothed his hair.
“Can I get you a drink, sir?” he asked nervously.
Giles looked at the primitive bar, instead of the usual electric pumps hooked up to the cellar, the beer was in a single wooden keg on the bar. It was out of a history book. The sort of pub his father or grandfather might have known.
“Whatever made you choose this place?” he said conversationally.
“It was more of an accident really,” the young man replied with a hint of bitterness. He glanced at the clock. “What can I get you?”
“Well,” Ethan’s voice broke into Giles’ concentration. “I’d love a Pina Colada with crushed ice, a cherry on a stick, and a couple of those little umbrellas.”
Giles turned and smiled in delight. “Ethan! I thought I’d lost you. I knew Tommy was lying. I knew you couldn’t be dead.”
“Ah. Well, I’m afraid I am, though.”
The landlord grew agitated. “Hey. Who are you talking to? Who’s dead? Only the living allowed in here. It’s the rule.”
Giles ignored him “Then how...?”
“You have no idea the favours I’ve called in to get in here. And all to stop you doing something colossally stupid in the nick of time. As the handsome hero should.”
“And I suppose quite a lot of it is to do with thwarting old Tommy. He always did think he was better than the rest of us. So he deserves a good thwart.”
“I don’t understand. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Pint of best is it, sir?”
“No, Ripper. That’s the last thing you should do. Now shut your mouth and look at me. Focus on me.” He couldn’t resist a grin. “On my handsome chiselled features. Ah ha. Say nothing remember.” The clock started a tune building to its hourly chime. “You know, after all you've seen and done, you still have a beguiling naivety at times, did you know that?”
Giles opened his mouth to protest but Ethan shook his head commandingly and Giles closed it again. When the clock chimed, Ethan relaxed. “There now. All is well in the world. Nick of time and a great big climax in the final reel.”
“Time, gentlemen, please.” The bar lights closed and the landlord took off his apron and threw it on the counter. “Night after night all the same. Do you know how long I’ve waited? Just for someone to come and have their name on the door instead of mine. ”
Giles looked at the young man in confusion as his drink washed brain sought to make sense of things. “Randall always wanted to find ways to be immortal,” he said finally and with an honest sadness as the penny dropped.
“Not like this he wouldn’t.” The landlord replied with anguish. “You don’t know the loneliness of it. We’re closing again now. Goodnight.”
Ethan spoke softly. “I have to be going too now. Look after yourself, Rupert. Don’t ever change. I doubt we’ll be seeing each other again.”
Giles reached out a hand but Ethan dissolved in front of his eyes. He turned swiftly back to the landlord but he too had gone and then the whole room and pub evaporated and Giles found himself alone on an indistinct fell top, with no sign of Philip or Sutcliffe, and only his tracks could to be seen to have climbed up there. Looking across the landscape, he could distantly see the Roman walls that protected a frightened town from things it didn’t want explaining. Giles shivered as the long threatened snow finally broke through the clouds and began to fall about him.