In the village of Cowston Field there is a pub. Some think it quaint. Others disagree, and prefer to go to the wine bar the next block over. Still others say it smells funny, but only because pubs shouldn’t smell like a mixture of pine needles and daphne. There are two things that everyone agrees on, however. First, it’s haunted by the ghost of Redhead Harry. Second, the pub is named for that ghost: Red Harry’s Arms. There is perhaps third thing that everyone agrees on about Red Harry’s Arms. It is simply this: it is operated by a man called Cal. Cal – if he ever put his mind to it – might beg to differ, since his name is actually Logan. But he never puts his mind to thoughts that won’t make him any profits. He doesn’t really care what people call him, so long as they hand over their cash while they’re doing it. At this moment, Cal is confused as to why the four pints of beer he just put on the bar – two IPA’s, one Red Ale, and a Weissbier – have disappeared without any exchange of currency.
“Alright, very funny. Which one of you jokers absconded with my beers sans payment?” Cal looked around, nobody seemed willing to own up to what he hoped was a practical joke. Not a funny joke, but slightly more humorous than the possibility of four pints of stolen beer. His eyes fell on a beautiful young woman. She seemed to be the only person, besides himself, that was even at the bar. She was drinking Weissbier. “Excuse me miss.”
“I don’t mean to cause offense, but that’s not one of the pints I just put down, is it?” Cal thought his question odd. He had completely meant to cause offense. But the young woman was so desperately beautiful. It was, he thought, the kind of beauty that was bound to take the force out of any man’s snarky question. Probably, it could take the force out of any woman’s snarky question, too.
“Oh, I do apologize Cal,” the young woman said sweetly. “It is one of your missing beers. Did Jeremy not pay? Only, he said he would take care of it.”
“Not to worry, I’m sure he just forgot.” Cal felt quite enamored of this young woman. He’d gone squishy inside.
“I am so sorry. Here, let me just take care of that myself. Four pints was it?”
This wouldn’t do, thought Cal. Poor beautiful woman, left to pay for her own drinks. “No need to worry, Miss…?”
“Daisy. Daisy Wheelwright.”
“A beautiful name,” Cal gushed. “As I was saying Miss Wheelwright, there’s no need to worry. Young Jeremy is well-known for being good at nothing. Even his mother says so. I’ll just put it on his tab, shall I?” Cal glared across the room at the no-good Jeremy. “You hear that, Jeremy?”
“Hear what?” Jeremy looked up, startled.
“I’m putting this young woman’s drinks on your tab.”
“I have a tab?”
“Yes, and those four pints are going on it. You know what? Since you left this poor woman in the lurch, I’m going to pour another four for her, and those are also going on your tab.” Cal thought for second, then added “you’ll be leaving a generous tip, too. Sound fair?”
Jeremy didn’t think this sounded very fair at all, and was about to say so, but was stunned into silence by the ravishing beauty who would receive the drinks. “Sounds fair Cal.” Wow, he thought, what a show-stopper she is. “Hi there,” he said to her in what he felt was his most seductive voice. “How about you come over here and join me and my friends for those drinks?”
“Later,” said Daisy, with flirty blinks, “we’ll definitely be seeing each other later.”
Jeremy felt a bit deflated. “Later, you promise?”
“Oh yes,” Daisy said with pregnant emphasis, “you’ll be seeing a lot more of me later.” Daisy gave Jeremy a cheeky wink, just to soften the cryptic nature of her last remark. She turned back to Cal and flashed him her cutest smile. Cal had already finished pouring the pints. The glasses were happily condensing moisture in front of her. “Why thank you Cal, it was very kind of you to come to my aid. Such a gentleman.”
“It’s no problem, Miss Wheelwright. I’m happy to help a lady in distress. Well, just holler if you need anything else, I better get my old bones out the back.”
What Daisy said was: “I will most definitely call if I need anything.” But what she thought was: your bones aren’t nearly as old as mine young man.
As Cal walked out to the storeroom – he needed to check the keg supply, they’d been running dry quicker than usual today – he became puzzled. Funny, he thought, I don’t remember Jeremy ordering those first four pints? Still, she was a very beautiful young woman. Stands to reason that Jeremy would try to seduce her with beer.
“This is great!” giggled Haldrick.
Daisy looked at him, she was smiling agreement. Of course, from Haldrick’s point of view she was always smiling at something. Mostly on account of the fact that her true appearance was that of a nicotine-stained skeleton. The skeleton look was traditional; all Deaths had to look that way until they retired. The nicotine staining was the result of Daisy’s serious tobacco addiction.
“I concur,” confirmed Finley from beside Haldrick, “I do look particularly great today.” As usual, Finley’s latest outburst of self-involvement was being ignored by his companions.
“Could someone pass me one of those straws for my beer?” Stag sounded grumpy, “I’ve been asking for half an hour.” He really wanted to get stuck into his Red Ale. It’s a little known fact that all deer – be they a prehistoric one that has been transformed into a Spirit Animal, or just normal deer – love Red Ale.
“What happened to the last straw I gave you?” Haldrick was slurring slightly, they were all well in their cups by now.
“It fell on the floor.”
“Can’t you just pick it up?”
“Did you not hear me ghost? I said, it fell on the floor! Have you seen the floor? It’s filthy, I’m not putting that thing back in my mouth.”
“Can’t you just, sort of, you know, put your snout in the glass? The glasses look big enough.”
Stag was indignant. “I could, but I’m not going to. It’s not dignified.”
“As opposed to drinking beer through straw?” Haldrick hadn’t considered that, in some situations, quaffing beer through a straw might be classier than putting your face in it.
Daisy plucked a fresh straw from a nearby dispenser with a dainty skeletal hand, and placed it in Stag’s glass. This would go on forever if she didn’t step in.
“Thank you, Daisy,” said Stag pointedly.
“What I don’t get,” said Haldrick, ignoring Stag’s comment, “is how Cal only just noticed that the beers he’s been pouring keep disappearing. How are you managing to do that, Daisy?”
“You mean, how am I managing to order the beer?”
“Yeah… well… no… I mean, I’ve seen how you’ve been doing it. It’s more that I’m not sure how it is that he hasn’t noticed that three out of every four pints become invisible? Until just now, that is.”
“I ran out of money to put on the bar. I forgot to check our funds before I yelled our last order from across the room. You know Cal; so long as it’s timed right, he doesn’t notice much except for the cash. In the absence of cash, he becomes more attentive.”
“Are you telling me we’re out of beer money?” This news had grabbed Stag’s attention. It sounded like the worst news, ever. He’d already had to wait too long to start on his current Red Ale. The possibility that the next one – now quietly warming on the bar – could be his last was not a welcome turn of events.
“That’s obviously what I’m saying. Why would I have bothered going to all the trouble of pretending to pay for drinks if I actually had the money?”
“And that’s another thing,” Haldrick interjected, “where are you get–.”
“Shut up ghost.” Stag was in no mood for interruptions. He hadn’t noticed that, technically, he had interrupted Haldrick and Daisy first. “I still have some questions for Daisy. Like: you better find more money. Specifically: we need more coinage for the purposes of purchasing Red Ale. I’m not ready to sober up. This is the first holiday I’ve had in over ten centuries.”
“Those aren’t really questions, Stag.” Daisy observed. “But don’t worry, young Jeremy over there won’t be needing his cash much longer, so we’ll be able to replenish our supply then. Also, at least three of his friends are almost comatose, so I can probably pick their pockets while I’m there.”
“Hold on,” Stag was not convinced. “I thought you could only take money from the recently dead, as compensation for services rendered. His friends are only slobbering drunk. I didn’t think you were allowed to take money off the living?”
“That’s true,” Daisy conceded. “But there’s a loophole.”
“Oh really?” Stag still looked doubtful. “What’s that then?”
“Slobbering drunk is a kind of ‘dead’, so I’m allowed to help myself to whatever is in their wallet. It’s quite often the reason why, once they’ve sobered into a hangover, many people are shocked at the amount of money they spent the previous evening.”
Stag felt mollified. “Well, that is good news.” He went back to his straw.
“You wanted to ask me something, Haldrick?”
“What? Oh yes, but it doesn’t matter, you’ve answered it now. Well, there is something else. Why have you been yelling our drink orders from across the room? Surely, you could just order in the normal way? Cal can see you. It seems like a much more complicated way to order four pints than is necessary. You haven’t bothered doing it that way in any of the other places we’ve been.”
“No real reason. I just thought it might be a bit fun to order drinks differently this time.”
“Oh… fair enough, I guess.”
“Is there something wrong?” Daisy noticed that Haldrick looked slightly maudlin.
“It’s nothing. Only, since I come from these parts, I know young Jeremy quite well. He’s not as bad as his mother says, not really. Are you sure he’s going to, you know, die?”
“Everybody dies Haldrick. It’s just Jeremy’s turn. Anyway, it’s not the dying that’s going to be the problem, it’s that he’s not going to be able to cross over without my help. It’s the reason we came to this old haunt of yours today.”
This was only two-parts true. For instance, it was true that Haldrick is also known in the village as Redhead Harry, and that until recently he had haunted the pub that bears that derivation of his name. It was also true that Jeremy was going to die in that pub fairly soon, and his soul would not be able to make it into the last mystery without Daisy’s help. As the current Death – a position she inherited from Old Grim, the previous reaper – it was her job to clear out all the lost human souls. Jeremy was not the only patron that was going to die in Red Harry’s Arms tonight, but he was the only one that wouldn’t be able to make it to the ‘other side’ without help. Less true, was the implication that Daisy had directed them there on that specific ‘business’. In fact, it had really just been a lucky coincidence. Simply put, Red Harry’s Arms had been the next stop on their extended pub crawl, and Jeremy’s impending demise merely allowed Daisy to write it off as a business expense. They’d already visited several drinking establishments on their trip where nobody had died at all. Except, of course, as a loophole technicality.
The pub crawl had actually been Daisy’s idea. She’d suggested it to her three companions, slightly over a month ago, after Mamma Universe had ‘popped out to quickly check on something’ and failed to return. Its origins lay in Daisy’s offer of a drink to help them pass the time. Haldrick had been surprised about this. It had been his understanding that, as a ghost, such liquid vices were now out of his reach. Finley, the other ghost, was not surprised at all, feeling himself a remarkable man, it made sense that he would be permitted drinks from beyond the grave. Stag, neither technically alive nor really dead, already knew he could have drinks and accepted his with a grunt… and a straw. Haldrick had become even more surprised when, in addition to the possibility of drinks, he found he could also get drunk. When he questioned Daisy on it, all she had said was: “it’s sort of like muscle memory,” and then cracked open a fresh barrel of cider. At the the end of that barrel, Haldrick had uttered the phrase “this is great” for the first time. The second time he had uttered it was when he found out that ‘spectral-muscle-memory’ didn’t extend to hangovers or brain damage. With that, Daisy’s idea for the pub crawl/lost-soul-reap was born.
The idea had been mixture of convenience and pleasure for Daisy. Like the little known fact that all deer love Red Ale, there is also another little known fact about the nature of Death-as-lost-soul-reaper. Death has no list of lost souls she has to collect. Instead, she has look for them. In short, Daisy has to go on patrol, and reap whatever wayward apparition she finds. This gives all statements to the effect that ‘Death walks amongst us’ a very literal truth. Most people – during the course of their lives – have actually seen Death walking at some point, but just never noticed. Which is understandable, because to the living, Death just looks the same as he or she did when she/he died. Daisy, for example, had been an extremely beautiful young woman, which is why the patrons at Red Harry’s Arms didn’t soil themselves at the sight of a skeleton drinking Weissbier at the bar. Her true form only became apparent for one of two reasons: either you were already dead, or you were about to become so very shortly. Because, and contrary to popular opinion, lost souls generally prefer to hang out in places they liked being when they were alive, drinking, eating, and shopping establishments are the best places to find them. Ghosts hardly ever hang out in graveyards, or near graves of any description, which is why Haldrick’s ghost had never been collected. Death just doesn’t go to those places. So, taking her companions with her on a pub crawl had been a convenient way for Daisy to fulfil her task whilst also having a bit of fun. It was nice to have companions to drink with for a change. Companions, moreover, that really ‘got her’.
“How do you know that Jeremy is going to die and not cross-over?”
“Haven’t I explained this to you before, Haldrick?” Daisy was sure that she had, but that was two wine bars, one hotel lounge, and four pubs ago. Probably he’d just forgotten. He’d really been enjoying as much IPA as he could. Mostly, this was because it was a type of ale that hadn’t been invented by the time of his murder all those centuries ago. She guessed it was still a novelty for him.
“Could you pass me that next Red Ale,” Stag interrupted, again.
“No thanks,” said Finley, appropriate of nothing, “I think I’m alright at the moment.”
Daisy passed Stag his Red Ale and ignored Finley. “Well Haldrick, it’s like this. People that are about to die give off a smell. Not a bad smell, it’s sort of sweet, actually. Souls that will pass on with no problem smell like honey, while those that are going to get stuck smell like treacle.”
“And Jeremy smells like treacle, rather than honey?”
“What’s he going to die of?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Daisy said truthfully. “Type-Of-Death is odorless.”
“I see.” Haldrick grew pensive. “Well,” he said brightening, “I suppose it can’t be helped.” He took a long pause, he was starting to switch gears. “Where do you suppose Mamma Universe got to?”
“I don’t really know, I’d expected her to be back by now and giving me a hard time. I have some theories, though. If you’d be interested in hearing them?”
“Yes,” said Haldrick, reaching for his next IPA, “I would very much like to–.”
“Hey boys!” Jeremy’s voice came drifting across the room, “have any of you noticed that there’s a skeleton drinking at the bar?”
“Hold that thought,” said Daisy, sculling back the last of her drink. “That’s my cue. This shouldn’t take long. We’ll pick it up when I get back. Should have money for more drinks then, too.”
What Daisy didn’t know, as she strode towards the soon to be more-than-loophole-dead Jeremy, was that all her theories about Mamma Universe were wrong.
END OF PART FOUR