Invitation Accepted Chapter Three

You can find Invitation Accepted Chapter One here and Invitation Accepted Chapter Two here to read the story from the beginning

Gareth pulled into the mill car park and reversed neatly into his usual place. He turned off the car and paused. Until a month ago, he had been the loser that sorted the post. Then he had been unexpectedly good at some marketing ideas and yesterday he had somehow rescued Carli from collapsing boxes of dye powder. His muscles ached from it, and whatever happened last night. He had another missing block of time and a huge bruise covering his ribs on his left side. Still, whatever that Gareth was doing, his knuckles were healing up nicely and toughening up or whatever they did. He looked at the building. The last thing he wanted to do was go in and be the focus of attention before going on his first lads’ night out with the sales team, but he was out of options. He wanted a warrior spirit. It was time that he lived up to that.

Surjit was still looking pale as he went in. “Hi, Gareth,” she said, straightening the notepad on the reception desk and avoiding his eyes. “I’m glad that you made it today.” She pushed over a wad of envelopes. “And I’ve got the post.”

Gareth’s heart ached as he saw the echoes of yesterday’s accident in her. “How are you?” he asked. “Are you feeling okay?”

Surjit’s eyes brimmed with tears as she looked up at him. “I just went to pieces,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for you and Luke and Syed, Carli could have been killed.”

“Surjit, don’t be hard on yourself,” Gareth said gently. “You kept it together and got the paramedics here. And I know that Carli was glad that you were there for her when we got her free and she needed someone to speak up for her when the paramedics turned up and it all got complicated.” He gently patted her hand. “So you can take the credit and get on with things. I guess Luke is going to be ordering more dyes. You’ll have your hands full with the companies ringing about that.”

Surjit nodded. “He was so upset,” she said. “He was talking about getting some proper racking built for the dyes. They’ve just been bunged in the corner for years.” She looked down at her desk and then forced herself to smile up at Gareth. “Is that a new shirt?” she asked. “I know that the team usually bring in suits and stuff for the nights out.”

Gareth deliberately flexed his shoulders to show off his shirt, concentrating on distracting Surjit. “Do you like it? I finally got some shopping done last night in Leeds. I was thinking that I ought to look like someone in marketing,” he said.

Surjit laughed. “I can’t imagine you as ‘someone in marketing’. You’ve got too many muscles,” she said with a quick glance over him.

Gareth shook his head. “I don’t know about that, but I’ve got a suit and a nice shirt in the car for tonight. I don’t think I’ll live up to Syed and Jed, though.”

Surjit looked at him thoughtfully. “You more than lived up to them yesterday,” she said quietly.

“That was yesterday,” Gareth said, picking up the orders. “Tonight I’ve got to keep up with them in a pub. I’ve heard about what they’re like and I don’t think that I have a chance.”

Syed was in the kitchen when Gareth went to get his morning cup of tea. “Nice shirt,” Syed commented. “Is that what you’re wearing tonight? The Red Lion can get a bit dressy on the weekend. I’m not saying it’s no good,” he added quickly, “but it’s a bit low key.”

“It’s okay,” Gareth said. “I’ve got something in the car.” He grinned a little shyly at Syed. “But I got the hint that perhaps I should get some new clothes.”

Syed laughed. “And with you bulking out, you must need them,” he said. “Your gym routine must be punishing.”

Gareth carefully poured boiling water on the teabag. “It’s working anyway. So, tonight we head to the Red Lion and celebrate the new sales?”

“Yeah, Luke is really pleased with how it’s gone,” Syed said. He looked at Gareth thoughtfully. “You seem to have a knack for those adverts.”

Gareth shook his head. “As long as I don’t have to talk to anyone,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it all day.”

“You made it a lot easier,” Syed said. “And you’ve earned your drinks tonight. We’ll start off at the Red Lion with some drinks and bar food, then take a tour around town. We could end up anywhere.”

“That’s near Otley, isn’t it?” Gareth said.

Syed nodded. “We start off at a distance and work our way towards home, so the last taxi doesn’t cost so much. Anyway, I’ll catch you later.”

Gareth nodded at him as he left and then poured his own tea. He had bulked up over the last month, there was no doubt about that. His old shirts were stretching over the shoulders now. And when that Gareth had bought all the clothes that he had found when he woke up that morning, the taste seemed spot on. He now had a small selection of decent quality, durable clothing fit for work that didn’t strain over his chest and hang loose around his waist. All he had to do was work out how that Gareth had paid for them.

Gareth raced through the morning’s work. The orders were drying up again so he should start blocking out the next idea. And all sorts of stuff was hitting the firm’s inbox, including the extra orders, so he had a lot to check. He stopped scrolling through the emails as he became aware of someone standing by the desk. “Hello, Carli,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

Carli smiled. “I’m doing okay,” she said. “I’ve got bruises on my bruises, but it could have been worse.”

“At least Luke is getting some proper racking for the dyes,” Gareth said. “And you’ll be able to have a clear out of the older stuff.”

“Forget about that,” Carli said. “I just wanted to stop by and say thank you. I could have been really badly hurt yesterday.” She smiled a little shyly. “You could literally have saved my life,”

“Perhaps I saved a few bruises,” Gareth said. He wasn’t used to this and he didn’t feel that he could take full credit. It may have been his body involved in the rescue but he had been pushed to the side.

“I brought this to say thank you,” Carli said. “I hope you like whisky.” She placed a bottle bag on the table. “I’d like to get together next week. Luke said that you’re taking over the advertising, and I’d like to talk through some ideas with you.”

“I’m usually busy on Mondays,” Gareth said. “But perhaps we can set aside Tuesday afternoon. And there’s all sorts of stuff in the archives that could be useful.”

Carli’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of the nostalgia angle,” she said.

Gareth shook his head. “I’m thinking of using some nostalgia, but it’s got to be up to date,” he said. “We can talk about it on Tuesday.”

Carli nodded. “I’ll make some notes. We can perhaps put something together for Luke on Tuesday. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

Gareth was horrified as he heard his voice say, “And perhaps I could take you out afterwards, on Tuesday evening. Just for something like fish and chips or a curry. It would be a great chance to wind down.” He watched the colour flood Carli’s face and she smiled shyly again.

“I’d like that,” she said, and then whisked herself away.

Gareth looked into the bag. What was happening to his world? He recognised this brand of scotch. It was his father’s favourite and Gareth could remember, very faintly, seeing his father sip it carefully while he watched the rugby final on tv. Gareth had very few memories of his father before he died, but one of them involved this relatively expensive single malt. And now he had a date. Perhaps she was doing it out of gratitude for his actions yesterday. But Gareth remembered the blush before Carli left and something, somehow, said that she wasn’t just agreeing out of pity.

Gareth carried on working at his desk through lunch, eating as he scrolled through the endless pages of advertising. He needed to work with Luke on a good angle for the marketing, and he had a few ideas. He wiped his fingers clean on a tissue and made a few more notes. He needed to check some more sites. He could have a look through some of the fashion ‘influencers’ that fell into the demographic that also bought knitwear. He took an absentminded bite out of his hunk of cheese and quickly wiped his fingers before making some notes. He became aware of a presence and looked up. “Hi, Jed,” he said. “I’m sorry I was caught up in some research for the ‘how to make people buy our stuff’ stuff. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jed said. “I’m still coming down after yesterday. How about you? You were right in the middle of it. Carli reckons that you saved her life.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Gareth said with an uncomfortable smile. “We all pitched it. I think we’re all a little shaken. Still, at least we’ll get the dye sorted out. I’ve been hearing the factory floor complaining about the storage since I started here.”

Jed laughed. “Me too, and they were probably complaining about it when Luke started as an office junior. But you really stepped up,” he said. He looked thoughtfully at Gareth. “I was wondering, do you want to come along to rugby training next week? We could do with a decent fly half and you seem to have the speed and strength. They’re a good crowd.”

Gareth froze. He had been an abject failure at rugby at school and his strongest memory of it was a feeling of pain and complete humiliation. He had been too small, too slow and too weak. He hesitated. Yesterday he hadn’t been slow. The now familiar sensation of his voice speaking without any input from him washed over him. “I’d love to, but I’m too small,” he heard himself say. “But I’d be interested in coming along to a game. Are you playing tomorrow?”

Jed looked slowly over Gareth. “I don’t know about too small,” he said. “You’re bulking up nicely.” He nodded at Gareth’s lunchbox with the remains of steamed chicken, cheese and a pasta salad. “And you’re obviously taking it seriously. But it would be great to get any support. I’ll send you the details.”

“I’ll be there,” Gareth said, finally getting control over his own voice.

“And it’s good that you’re putting a lining on your stomach,” Jed said, grinning. “I hope you can keep up.”

“I don’t have a chance,” Gareth laughed. “But it’ll be a good night.” He was thoughtful as he watched Jed go. He was still a bit lightweight for rugby. Even after the muscles he’d put on, he had a way go before he could take the field. But perhaps one day… He didn’t finish that thought. He checked his new watch (and where the hell had he found the money for that?) and got back to work.

Gareth got an admiring glance from Surjit as he came out from getting changed. The suit was sharp and a dark, sophisticated blue and the crisp cotton shirt had cost, according to the label, more than Gareth’s previous wardrobe put together. He smiled at her. “I’ve scrubbed up okay, I think,” he said.

“You look really good,” Surjit said. “I wish I was coming with you.”

“I don’t make the rules,” Gareth said. “But I’m sure that you’ll hear all about it on Monday.”

“If any of you can remember it!” Surjit snorted. “Have a good weekend.”

“And you,” Gareth said. He watched her leave and cross the car park to her car. He turned around and looked for Carli. She was coming down the steps to reception and even after a hard week and a major accident, she was looking as trim as ever. He smiled. “I hope you can get some rest over the weekend. You must feel battered,” he said.

Carli smiled back. “I’ll be fine. I’ll spend some time going over the new shades that are out there. We’re practically starting our dye collection from scratch so I think it’s worth having a look,” she said. “But I think that a lot of the old favourites are used so often for a reason. I’ll see what I find.”

“I thought that the guys in the dye house would be having fits,” Gareth said. “But I think they agree with you. It will be interesting to see what’s new. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.” He paused. “If we can get overtime, I don’t mind staying back on Monday, if you’ve nothing else on. I’m following your designs, and I want to keep the advertising that I’ve started going.” He grinned. “We can even get some fish and chips afterwards.”

Carli looked thoughtful. “I get the feeling that we’ll work hard enough to earn it,” she said, then grinned. “I’ve got a few designs going through already, but I think I’ll need to add quite a lot more to keep up. Anyway, try and stay out of trouble tonight and I’ll see you Monday.”

“I’ll probably still have the hangover,” Gareth joked as he watched her wave goodbye and go out to the car.

“I think you’re in there,” Jed said as he came out of the men’s locker room. “There’s nothing like saving a lass’s life to get her to come on a date.”

Gareth looked at him calmly. “It’s not like that at all,” he said, “Is everyone here?”

Jed blinked at the unexpected pushback but nodded. “It’s only the sales team tonight,” he said. “And you count because of the flyers.”

Syed came up behind them and nodded. “And that’s why Luke put £100 behind the bar,” he said. “Do you think you can stand the pace?” he asked Gareth.

“Not a chance,” Gareth said, leaving the building to the night porter and security to lock up.

Pizza and drinks at the Red Lion led to more drinks led to a different pub and then Syed thought that there was a pub just down the road but had forgotten that it had shut and after some drunken wanderings they ended up at The Iron Sickle. Gareth hung back as the others staggered in. He had been carefully nursing a vodka and tonic in each bar, drinking perhaps half and then ‘forgetting’ it, or simply abandoning it. Once the sales team had ploughed through the money at the Red Lion, they were buying their own and no-one was watching Gareth sitting quietly on the edge of the group or realised when he switched to straight tonic. Now, as they approached the dirty building, Gareth was grateful that he mostly had his wits about him.

“Are you sure this is worth it?” Gareth asked. “It looks a bit of a dive. We could head back towards the Eagle and maybe get a game of pool or something.”

“Nah, mate, we’ll be fine,” Syed yelled as he held on to the broken streetlight. “We’ll have a pint here and then head to the Eagle after. I bet I can beat you at pool!”

“I’m not betting against you!” Gareth said, as the rest of the lads erupted in laughter. He could feel part of his mind working out how to hustle money out of pool but it was being drowning by his unease. It looked like the sort of pub where only locals drank, they drank hard and didn’t like strangers. The half dozen or so lads from the sales team were walking into a potential mess. He looked up and down the street with no idea how they had ended up here. Half the streetlights were out and drifts of rubbish surrounded a burned out car in the tiny pub car park. Before all the strangeness Gareth would have had no hesitation in turning around and going home. Now he followed the team in, every sense on alert.

The pub was dated and shadowy. Too many hard faced men sat around the stained tables with a pint in front of them, and the single bartender didn’t smile as he saw the team heading to the bar. Gareth hung back. He could feel the unease of the other Gareth overlying his own and he didn’t feel reassured. He found himself discreetly noting all the corners, counting the men and checking the exits. At least there weren’t too many big brawlers but the wiry drinkers looked like they could handle themselves. Something else was nagging at the back of that Gareth’s mind, but he was distracted as the bartender refused to serve Syed.

“You’ve had enough, sir,” the bartender said. “We don’t want any trouble, so you can call a taxi from the phone on the end of the bar.”

Gareth’s heart sank further. All those in telesales were trained to identify and overcome objections and he could see Syed accepting the challenge. Syed and Jed would enjoy the arguing as much as the beer. He checked his phone and wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t get a signal. He stuffed it deep into his pockets and loosened his shoulders. “Come on,” he said. “We can get a few games in at the Eagle. I can call the taxi now.”

“Listen to your friend,” the bartender said. His eyes swept the room. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Listen, mate, we’re just wanting a few pints, and you can’t refuse legal tender,” Syed started.

“It’s cash as well, so no fees from a card company,” Jed added. “All legal tender. You can’t refuse to take that.”

Gareth glanced briefly at his friends who were swaying gently at the bar before continuing to watch the other men around the bar. It was never a good sign when there were no women in a bar, not in a rundown place like this. “Come on, mate,” he said. “It’s not worth the bother. Trouble is the last thing we need.”

“But it looks like trouble is what you’re getting,” a tall man said, unfolding from a stool near the bar.

“I’m going down to the cellar to check the kegs,” the bartender said. “I won’t find any trouble when I come back, will I?”

There were some unpleasant chuckles from around the bar. “We won’t leave any traces,” the tall man said. “Take your time.”

Gareth watched the bartender slowly walk into the back and then he heard the sound of a cellar door opening then clicking shut. “Come on, Jed,” he said. “We’ve all had a lot to drink, let’s get a taxi and a kebab.” He didn’t have much hope of getting through to the man. Jed and Syed were the main sales reps and they prided themselves on their ability to drink hard and to talk their way into and out of everything. They were also big lads who looked hard to push around. In the back of his head, that Gareth was almost screaming with unease which intensified as men from around the shadowy edges of the bar started to stand. “Come on,” Gareth urged. “It’s going to be ages before he comes back and I don’t feel like waiting for a drink. We might as well go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Syed said. “We can go where our money’s welcome.”

Jed scowled as he looked around. “Yeah,” he said. “And somewhere cleaner.” He tried to stalk towards the door, only staggering a little.

“But we haven’t had our fun yet,” another of the watchful drinkers stood between Jed and the door.

“We’re leaving,” Jed blustered and tried to push the man out of his way. Instead he received a push to the chest that sent him sprawling backwards onto the floor in an undignified heap.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” the tall man said. “Anyone can see it’s a local bar, not for kids like you.”

“What did you say?” Syed snarled.

Gareth felt relieved as he felt the other Gareth, that Gareth push him aside. There were half a dozen of the sales team plus him. There were at least a dozen other drinkers in this dirty bar, most of them were standing and all of them looked like they could handle themselves in an unfair fight. Something nagged at the back of that Gareth’s mind, the way that the drinkers were looking hungrily at the sales team like chickens to be plucked, but he didn’t have time. The tall man swung at Syed and connected, sending the big man flying backwards against the bar. As Syed and Jed pulled themselves to their feet, Gareth stepped forward.

He didn’t have time for this and he didn’t have the luxury of space. The numbers might be close, but this wouldn’t be a fair fight if it got going. He had to close it down fast. The time for talking and calculations was over. That Gareth stepped forward with precision, grabbed the tall man’s hair and slammed his head hard down on the bar. The man slid down onto the floor but Gareth wasn’t paying attention. Instead he had kicked a bar stool towards two approaching drinkers, slowing them down as they pushed it out of the way and giving that Gareth time to punch another of the drinkers hard in the sternum. As that one fell back, winded and gasping, Gareth glanced behind. “Get the door clear,” he snapped.

Jed and Syed were taking on a couple of the other brawlers. They were too drunk to do much more than slow the locals down, but it meant that Tony and Dean could hustle and jostle the local guarding the door out of the way.

“We haven’t had our fun yet,” another drinker snarled. “And don’t think you won’t pay for what you did to our mate.”

That Gareth sensed a hostile presence behind him and drove his elbow back and high. There was a crunch as something connected and a lot of swearing as someone fell back but Gareth ignored it as he stamped on the back of the knee of knee of a local about to swing at Syed following with a swift kick to the head as his target crumpled. “Everyone – get out!” Gareth called.

“I said we haven’t had our fun yet,” the drinker’s voice sunk to a growl. The speaker leaned forward and flowed. Before their appalled eyes, the wiry drinker with dirty hair was now a wolf – a skinny wolf with matted fur and hatred in its eyes.

Gareth swore and, triggered by some ancient memory, kicked the creature hard in the throat. It would have killed anything else, and it at least slowed it down. He grabbed up a pint glass and rammed it hard into the nearest hostile face. “Get out of the door!” he yelled.

“That’s not real! That’s not real!” Syed cried as Gareth grabbed his jacket and almost threw him towards the door.

“Move!” Gareth snapped as he flung a barstool hard into the side of an approaching local. The snarls coming from the corners were too chilling to be ignored. He glanced around quickly and then backed towards the door.

“I’ll make you pay!” one of the few remaining locals snarled, crouching down. Gareth didn’t wait to find out, but slid quickly through the door and out.

“Come on!” he said. “We can’t hang around.”

“They weren’t real,” Syed said.

“We’re all out,” Gareth confirmed as he glanced quickly around the shocked group. “It must have been the dodgy beer.”

“Yeah,” Syed said doubtfully, not objecting as Gareth marched them down the road.

“And we can have a few games of pool at the Eagle,” Gareth added.

Jed stumbled as he looked over his shoulder. “They’re not coming after us, are they?” he asked.

Gareth glanced quickly behind him. “I don’t think so,” he heard himself say, “But it’s probably not a good idea to come back. The beer’s foul anyway.”

Syed nodded, blankly but Jed met Gareth’s eyes. “It wasn’t the beer,” Jed said softly. “And thanks, mate. It looks like you’re making a habit of saving people.”

Gareth glanced back again, but there was still no sign of pursuit. “I just saw what was happening,” he said.

Jed looked at him steadily. “I don’t know what’s happened to you, Gareth, but it scares the living daylights out of me,” he said. “I’m still glad it happened, though, and I definitely owe you a pint.”

Gareth felt the adrenalin draining from him. “I’m keeping off the carbs mate – make it a vodka and tonic and a game of pool,” he said. He looked over at the rest of the stunned team. “We’ll have a few games of pool, a quiet drink and a kebab and we’ll forget that this ever happened.”

“No,” Jed said, “We won’t forget. We just won’t remember so often.”

“That works,” Gareth said as the other Gareth, that Gareth, slipped back beneath the surface of his mind.

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