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K'Barthan Shorts,
M T McGuire.

Caveat: this is an extract taken from the raw manuscript before editing. Any mistakes and inconsistencies you find here will be removed before the book is published. To be honest, this will probably make it in but it may not

The Pan of Hamgee strolled through the city, whistling nonchalantly. Actually, it wasn’t exactly the city he strolled through so much as the roofs above. As a blacklisted person his very existence was treason, so walking the roofs was a bit less demanding than walking the streets in day time. He could, of course, and often did, because it was only a matter of keeping his eyes open. But it was best to stick to the larger, crowded thoroughfares where he could be lost in a throng of others, and sometimes he just didn’t want to give it the concentration. Even now, when it was winter and dark early The Pan needed to stay on his guard. Police patrols were thin on the ground up here and while he was visible from above, most of the airborne patrols were in transit, hurrying from one place to another or concentrating on some unlucky individual on the street below who was less used to being followed. So it was that The Pan of Hamgee often found himself walking above the streets, along the roofs, rather than actually down them. There were footpads up here of course, but as a fellow member of the criminal fraternity The Pan knew they were creatures of habit. None of them would be out until after seven and anyway, they were fellow K’Barthans. Somehow he had fewer misgivings about being murdered by a member of his own nation. So it was OK. Probably.

The Pan stopped to admire the twinkling lights of the city. It was bitingly cold but the air was fresh and clear. He breathed in deeply and exhaled a satisfyingly large cloud of steam. It felt good. He supposed it helped that he’d had a bath, visited a laundrette and eaten a ‘chicken’ quaarl from Squeaky Joe’s van. In times of hardship, The Pan considered paying for food far too much of a luxury when it could be blagged in return for odd jobs or stolen fresh from the market every morning. He hadn’t been able to afford to treat himself for several months and the clear sinuses and pleasant chilli buzz he was experiencing were exacerbated by the cold evening air. He smiled and blew out a cloud of steamy breath, trying to make ‘smoke’ rings.

It didn’t work but The Pan didn’t care. It was so long since he’d eaten a Squeaky Joe that it was like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

The Pan checked his watch, he was ahead of schedule and for a moment he toyed with the idea of returning to the van for another portion. Squeaky Joe always teased The Pan about the relish with which he ate.

‘You’d eat shoe leather you would!’ he would say and The Pan would counter,‘Why not? If it’s cured correctly and the spices are right.’

Then Squeaky Joe would give him a second tub, half price.

The Pan once asked Squeaky Joe where his nickname came from.

‘Squeaky clean of course!’ He’d pointed to the certificate on his van wall confirming a sky-high hygiene rating. Very possibly he’d invited The Pan to notice how spotlessly clean the work surfaces were, and how meticulously careful he was to adhere to all the cardinal rules of safe food preparation, in order to allay any fears about what he was preparing. Because there was another rumour that the van was spotlessly, suspiciously, clean because most of the meat Squeaky used was … well, put it like this, if Squeaky Joe’s hot quaarl was really made with chicken he’d probably have been called Clucky Joe. But nobody ever got food poisoning, or died and since The Pan came from Hamgee where folk were renowned for eating anything, he had few qualms about eating anything that was prepared with as much meticulous care, and attention to hygiene, as Squeaky Joe’s hot rat quaarl. That said, after ten days without food, The Pan felt his decision not to have second helpings was probably a good thing. It was rather hot on an empty stomach and it was lying a little heavy.

Or maybe it was the prospect of this evening’s meeting that was making The Pan’s stomach churn.

Yep. Best not think about that.

He took a running jump across an alley, burping as he hit the surface of the roof the other side, which somewhat ruined the effect of a neat landing.

‘Pardon!’ he said to no-one in particular.

He stopped.

‘Am I really going to do this?’

When The Pan was stuck or needed to talk things through with someone, he would imagine his parents in his head, before it all went wrong, when he still got along with them. He called this, virtual parenting.

You’re on your way to the pub aren’t you? said the imaginary voice of his father.

‘Not necessarily, I could blow them out.’

Blow out Big Merv? Himself? Hardly wise is it? He’ll have you killed.

‘Mmm there is that.’

And you’ve taken his money.

The Pan’s heart sank, oh hadn’t he just? Not that much money but … yeh. More than he could ever hope to earn and pay back.

‘Very, very good point.’

That’s how they get you, of course.

‘Yes, I am aware.’

The Pan’s gaze strayed to the cluster of bright lights in the distance that marked the position of the current phase of construction work on the Outer Ring. He didn’t want to be part of a motorway stanchion, not yet, although he was aware that it might be preferable to anything the Security forces would do to him if he was caught.

So you’re going to join a gang.

‘No, I’m going to run errands for Big Merv.’

Exactly, you’re working for a gang lord.

‘For now,’ said The Pan with a sigh.

Which makes you a gang member.

‘No, it makes me an employee. Gang members hang out with the boss and help him bash people.’

The Pan could think of few things he’d like to do less than hang out with Big Merv. He turned his back on the view and carried on his way. There were advantages to being part of Big Merv’s organisation, he tried to tell himself as he walked. After all, he might, possibly, have just scored himself a steady income and since he was on the Blacklist, and paying him a wage was illegal, this was probably about as close as he’d ever get to holding down a job. Sure he’d been recruited to work for a gang lord and yes, that was a Bad Thing. His parents, if they were still around, would definitely NOT approve. But on the other hand he was only running errands. Small fry. He wasn’t hurting anyone.

Yet. Running errands my foot. That’s how it always starts, the imaginary voice of his father told him.

‘Maybe,’ he conceded, ‘but it’s not as if I’m killing anyone.’

No, just carrying the orders to kill them.

‘Hopefully not. And let’s face it. It’s not as if I can do much else is it? In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a GBI. The only people who are going to give me a job are people who are a bit … you know,’ The Pan shrugged, ‘louche about obeying the law.’

And Arnold, The Prophet, knew it beat starving.

Or becoming one with the Outer Ring.

He thought about how incredible it had felt to be able to afford a portion of Squeaky Joe’s hot rat quaarl.

‘Yep, definitely.’

****

The Pan arrived at The Parrot and Screwdriver early for his appointment with Frank and Harry. He recognised the alley running alongside of it as the place where he’d spent the previous night, wrapped up warm in the bin bags. At least he’d been well hidden so with luck none of the staff had seen him. If they had, he'd probably be thrown out before he even got to meet Frank and Harry and-

No, this was not a productive line of thought.

Despite being in an impressively run down area, the facade of the Pub was neat and tidy, the windows glinted in the feeble street lights and the frames and the door looked freshly painted. As The Pan moved a little closer he noticed that the front step had been scrubbed to within an inch of its life in a similar manner to Squeaky Joe’s van. He tried the door but it was locked which caused another fleeting moment’s panic until he noticed the sign with the opening hours on. It didn’t open until six. He went and found a spot out of the wind a little further down the street, wrapped his cloak around him and waited.

He’d see Frank and Harry arrive from here, anyway.

By ten to six there was a group of about twenty beings waiting to go inside. Most were human but there was a Swamp thing as well, a couple of Spiffles and a Galorsh. Soon the door was unlocked and they filed in. The Pan checked his watch. It was six o’clock and neither Frank nor Harry had shown up yet.

Arnold’s pants let this not be the wrong pub.

The Pan gave the regulars time to get pints in and get seated. Still no sign of Frank and Harry and since it was bitingly cold outside and he had enough cash for a beer, at least, he decided he may as well go in. As the door banged behind him the conversation petered out and all the regulars turned to stare at him. Par for the course in a place like this, The Pan supposed. Except that clientele aside, the place was sparkling clean. Not really what The Pan would have expected when, from the looks of the area, it should have served the dregs of society. Especially not when he took in the appearance of the other customers and realised it clearly did.

There were two staff behind the bar, a big chap, with brown eyes and dark hair who looked to be in his late thirties or early forties and a little old lady with fuzzy white hair and a wrinkled face. She came out from behind the woodwork to greet her new customer. She was small. Four foot something. The Pan was surprised she could see over the bar and wondered if she stood on a box.

‘Hello,’ said The Pan.

‘Good evening,’ said the little old lady, who was wearing a green, well yes, The Pan supposed that was a dress although it had clearly seen many hard winters and boil washes, ditto the green cardigan she sported over the top. ‘I is Gladys Parker, proprietoress of this establishment and that there is my son Trev,’ she gestured to the bloke behind the bar with her. The Pan noticed how big he was as he folded his arms, which made him look a lot bigger, and nodded a greeting.

‘Wotcher,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ said The Pan.

‘Is you lost?’ asked the little old dear, Gladys Parker, The Pan remembered she was called.

‘Um … no I’m meeting someone here, but they haven’t arrived yet.’

Gladys Parker said something that sounded like, ‘Hurrumph’ and went back round behind the bar. Her legs seemed to start at the outer hem of her dress and her feet met in the middle but she was surprisingly nimble for someone of such advanced years. Or perhaps she was younger than she looked?

No.

There was an air of expectation among the regulars and a couple of chairs scraped back as a fellow in a faux leather bomber jacket with curly blonde hair and his drinking companion, a big bloke with wild hair and strange teeth both stood up.

‘What does you want to drink?’ asked the little old lady and then looking at the two punters she added, ‘’Alan, Norris, ’s alright,’ before turning back to The Pan with an enquiring expression. He heard, rather than saw the two guys sit down again.

‘I’ll have a beer please.’

The old lady started down the bar towards a pump at the far end but then appeared to change her mind and stopped.

‘Does you have a preference, son?’

The Pan made his way over to the bar and took his time reading the labels on the pumps, hoping it was the right thing to do. He liked beer so it wasn’t difficult to look interested. As he regarded the array of pumps, something told him that Humbert’s Wallsmacker was probably the strongest beer but also, judging by the way the pump handle was just that little bit shinier and the metal label that tiny bit more sparkling than the others, that it was the flagship beverage.

‘Could I have this one, please,’ said The Pan, pointing to the cherished pump, ‘Humbert’s Wallsmacker?’’

With another, ‘hurrumph,’ the old lady pulled him a pint of the beer he’d requested, taking care to ensure the contents of the glass settled properly and then topping it up.

The Pan didn’t know much about many things but he could spot a good beer when he saw one and one look at the glass of dark amber liquid placed before him told him it was definitely a good beer. OK so Frank and Harry were on the way to meet him and that was scary but if it all went wrong and this turned out to be his last drink, at least he was going to enjoy it. He took a sip. Yes. Definitely. He realised that there was still an atmosphere of silent expectation in the bar. Perhaps he’d better try some polite conversation.

‘That is fantastic beer.’

‘Thank you young man, you is clearly a con- connes- knows your onions, beer wise, if you gets me.’

‘Thank you, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I know my onions but I enjoy a good pint as much as the next man. Is it brewed here?’

‘Yer,’ she said with obvious pride.

‘Well, Mrs …’ what was her name again? Oh yes, ‘Parker. It’s probably the best pint I’ve had in years, it’s really, really good.’

She smiled and suddenly she looked a lot less stern.

‘I is Ms Parker, but I expects as you can call me Gladys. I doubts you’ve been drinking more then one year, my lad, but I isn’t one to split hairs. I makes the beer here, with Ada, my colleague who is currently absent. Right Trev,’ she turned to the large fellow standing further along the bar for confirmation,

‘Right,’ he said giving The Pan a nod.

‘I see,’ The Pan hesitated. ‘I’m The Pan of Hamgee, and I am at your service,’ he said raising his glass.

He didn’t notice the way Trev looked up sharply when he said his name, he was too busy concentrating on Gladys but then Trev spoke.

‘I hasn’t seen you round here before,’ he said.

‘Nope, I’ve been past a couple of times this is the first time I’ve come inside,’ he looked around him taking in the warm glow of the fire burning in the grate, the buzz of quiet contented conversation and the punters … The Pan doubted anyone else was a GBI but otherwise, they looked as if they all from the same income bracket as he was. ‘I wish I’d come in earlier,’ he said. Because I fit right in.

‘Wipe my conkers!’ shouted a voice and The Pan was forced to duck, nearly falling off his bar stool as something hurtled over his head. It was only when it landed with a squawk that The Pan realised it was a bird.

‘Humbert! Humbert come here!’ trilled a female voice from another part of the building.

The bird was probably a parrot, The Pan decided, although it was impressively bald, so it was hard tell. It left its precarious perch on one of the pump handles and flew back down the bar, Gladys and Trev flapped and cursed at it as it skimmed dangerously low over people’s drinks. The Pan noticed the way the drinkers held their glasses steady with one hand and put their other hand over the top and thought it wise to do the same. That was why he didn’t have a spare hand to shoo the parrot away or try to discourage it, of course. Presumably that was why it chose to land on his shoulder.

‘Humbert! Come here this instant!’ shouted the voice, ‘leave that poor man alone.’

‘Rope my futtocks!’ said the parrot, loudly, pretty much down The Pan’s ear.

‘I’m sorry, come again?’ He looked sideways at it. It didn’t move. It really was very bald, he wondered how it actually got airborne. ‘Hello parrot.’

‘His name’s Humbert,’ said Gladys with a snort of disapproval.

The owner of the disembodied voice, and presumably also of the parrot, arrived and as he put his glass down on the bar and turned to face her, carefully, because Humbert’s claws were sharp and he was holding on rather hard, as their eyes met, The Pan’s stomach lurched. Obviously, the whole reason he was sitting in The Parrot and Screwdriver, on Turnadot Street, waiting for Frank the Knife and Smasher Harry was because he’d accidentally picked Big Merv’s pocket and the only alternative on offer was a trip to the suburbs to be concreted into one of the motorway stanchions of the new Outer Ring.

However, before he picked Big Merv’s pocket, The Pan had made an even more ham-fisted job of picking someone else’s, a little old dear who had been dressed from head to toe in maroon chiffon. This little old dear. And now here he was with her parrot. At the least it was her local, after all, the bar staff knew the parrot’s name, but The Pan suspected it might go further than that. What if she actually owned the pub? What if she the colleague, Gladys had mentioned, Ada, who helped brew the beer.

Arnold’s socks! Typical. Just as he’d been getting on so well.

The new arrival fixed him with a frosty glare.

‘Well I never,’ she said, in a more acidic tone than The Pan felt necessary.

‘I think this might be your parrot. Humbert is it?’ he squeaked nervously.

‘No, I’m Ada Maddox,’ said the old lady being deliberately obtuse so she could take more affront.

‘I’m sorry I meant,’ The Pan held his hands out either side of him and let them drop. Never mind, time to make the best of a bad situation. ‘How-do-you-do, Ada Maddox, I am The Pan of Hamgee, at your service,’ he said, again. He took off his hat with a flourish and tried to make a bow but the parrot dug its claws in and hung on to his shoulder for dear life so he opted for a quiet, ‘ouch!’ and an inclination of the head.

Chiffon Lady raised her eyebrows and put her hands on her hips.

Smeck she wasn’t impressed.

He took a panicky glance round, trying to read the situation from the way the punters were looking at him; mild interest, a dash of affront and a smidgeon of up-for-a-fight. Not one hundred percent, I-want-to-kill-you, but The Pan was prepared to bet they’d still be happy to chuck him out on her behalf. He’d have to meet Frank and Harry outside in the cold and neither Frank nor Harry would like that. They’d probably smash his face in. Then again, The Pan swallowed, he couldn't be certain what being thrown out would entail but there was a strong chance it would involve the punters smashing his face in as well.

‘I’m sorry, I’d give him back but he doesn’t seem to want to go.’

The Pan looked sideways at the parrot next to him and it responded with a low keening noise.

‘So I see,’ said Chiffon Lady, tartly except was she? Yes, she seemed to be thawing a tiny, tiny bit. She and the other old dear behind the bar, Gladys, exchanged glances. There was a lot being said in those glances, but nothing The Pan could read. An air of silent expectation descended on the room.

‘I’m really, really, sorry,’ he said again. He could feel himself going an even deeper shade of puce because both he and the old dear in chiffon were well aware that he wasn’t apologising for his involuntary custody of her parrot but for nicking her wallet and then pretending to ‘find’ it earlier.

‘Yes dear, I should imagine you are,’ she said but this time her tone was a lot more kindly. Perhaps she had forgiven him. ‘Humbert doesn’t usually take to strangers so you can’t be all bad,’ she added.

The Pan smiled and raised an eyebrow.

‘That’s very generous of you, as for Humbert, I’m not sure he’s taken to me, exactly.’

‘Oh he wouldn’t go near you if he hadn’t,’ she said. The Pan could feel the atmosphere beginning to relax and breathed a sigh of relief, it looked as if things were going to be OK. He risked a glance at Gladys and Trev. While Gladys’ face was expressionless and a little stern, Trev grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Hopefully that was a good sign.

Humbert sidled along The Pan’s shoulder, towards his ear and nibbled his earlobe.

‘Stop that Humbert,’ warned Ada.

‘Arse,’ said Humbert, softly.

‘Look, I will go if you’d rather,’ said The Pan, partly because he felt it was polite to make the offer but mainly because he was pretty sure, now, that she wouldn’t say yes.

‘No dear, that won’t be necessary.’

Phew. Still a relief.

‘I’m very glad, I wouldn’t want to leave this beer.’

‘Don’t push it with the smooth talk son, we wasn’t born yesterday,’ said Gladys.

‘No, I can see that. Aargh, no I didn’t mean- You’re not- I mean I wouldn’t imply that- Right. I’ll just stop talking I think,’ said The Pan.

‘Good idea, lad,’ said Trev with a wink.

Humbert the parrot finally decided to fly away. The Pan watched as he made a swift exit into the hall, he could just make out the flash of green-and-bald disappearing up some stairs.

Ada went and took station behind the bar while Gladys disappeared through a door into a kitchen area behind. The Pan slipped back onto his stool and continued to enjoy his drink. He hadn’t been in a pub for months, thinking about it, he hadn’t been indoors for over three weeks, unless he counted his wheels and the shelters along the side of the River Dang up on the Planes. Indeed, he began to feel so at home in The Parrot and Screwdriver that he almost forgot why he was there in the first place.

The door banged making The Pan jump. Frank and Harry had arrived and for a second time, everything stopped, only this time, it seemed to have stopped a bit more thoroughly. Even Trev and Ada, behind the bar, ceased polishing glasses. The silence brought Gladys to the door of the room behind, too.

‘There you are, you little scrote,’ said Frank heading towards The Pan.

He didn’t seem to notice the silence until he was halfway across the stone flagged floor, then he hesitated a fraction of a second before ignoring it and ploughing on. Harry followed in his wake apparently oblivious to any of the effects of his arrival. Well, they were high profile gangsters The Pan supposed they were probably used to it.

‘Do you know these gentlemen?’ asked Ada sharply and the punters looked silently from The Pan, to Frank the Knife and Smasher Harry, and back, trying to compute. The Pan cleared his throat..

‘I-’

‘Yer we’re old mates ain’t we?’ Harry slapped The Pan on the back Ada gave The Pan an enquiring look. With an apologetic shrug he turned back to his pint, Frank and Harry taking stools either side of him. The punters stared on in open mouthed wonder.

‘That’s enough o’ that! Your ears is flapping so hard you is causing a draught,’ said Gladys and the hubbub of conversation and chinking of glasses gradually resumed.

‘Frank the Knife and Smasher Harry, what an honour it is to serve you,’ said Ada.

‘Yer, it is.’

‘I had no idea our new customer was so well connected,’ said Ada in a slightly reproachful tone. ‘What can I get you?’

‘I regrets that the hot dinners is not ready yet,’ said Gladys, firmly.

‘Such a shame but it is a bit early dears,’ said Ada, smoothly cutting off Frank and Harry’s protestations.

‘You are welcome to try our famous cheese sandwiches, we also provide chutney if you want it but it can be a little fiery.’

The Pan perked up at once, fiery chutney and cheese sandwiches? Bring it on.

‘The cheese is home made,’ added Ada.

‘Mmmmmm,’ said The Pan quietly. His stomach rumbled so loudly he had to cough to try and cover the noise. Squeaky Joe’s rat in hot sauce seemed a long time ago all of a sudden.

Harry nodded.

‘Give us two rounds,’ said Frank.

‘For you and your young friend.’

‘Nah, for me an Harry. If the staff wants fed they can buy their own.’

‘For two gentlemen of your esteemed reputation, it would be on the house,’ said Ada. ‘Would you like a round?’ Ada asked The Pan.

‘Thanks, it sounds delicious.’

‘Two pints an’ all,’ added Harry, ‘an make it quick. We ain’t stopping long.’

‘Of course,’ said Ada. ‘For you young man?’ she asked The Pan.

‘I’m doing fine with the one I have.’

It was strong stuff, this beer and since The Pan hadn’t had any alcohol for over a month he felt it wise to take things slowly and keep a clear head.

Harry got up and made his way to an out-of-the-way table in the corner, away from all the other punters.

‘C’mon you little smecker ,’ growled Frank, hauling The Pan off his stool by the scruff of the neck and shoving him forwards. The Pan staggered after Harry with a regretful glance at his pint, which he hadn’t had time to bring with him.

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