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Black Dog - Chapter 11

An icy breath awoke Verity. She lay still, her eyes closed.

"Would you like a cup of tea, dear?" asked a familiar elderly voice in the dark. Verity opened her eyes to see Imogen looking down at her. The cheerless watery light of morning shone through big French windows. Verity sat up, wiping her bleary eyes and trying to remember why she'd gone to sleep curled up on the sofa in the icy cold living room, when there were several perfectly good beds upstairs, with warm blankets and soft pillows.

"I wanted to put a blanket over you, but," Imogen gestured helpless with hands like mist, "there was nobody around, and I didn't want to wake you. You looked comfortable enough."

"I'm all right, thank you," Verity mumbled. "When did I fall asleep?"

"I don't know. I dozed off while the two of you were still chatting, and it was late then. Now, how about that cup of tea? Eli will get it for you," said Imogen, glancing towards the door.

"Eli won't," growled another familiar voice. Eli had arrived with a fresh stack of newspapers, which he dropped onto the floor by the armchair, where they raised a cloud of dust from the grubby carpet.

"What on earth are all those for?" Verity asked.

Eli glared at her. "Reading."

Verity decided then to make her own cup of tea, stalking off to the kitchen with Imogen in tow. The ghost chattered away cheerfully, not even appearing to care if Verity listened or not. Verity made polite noises anyway as she put the kettle on and searched the pantry for anything interesting to eat.

"Verity?"

Verity realised she'd missed a question. "Hmm?"

"Do you trust Grace?"

Verity continued to rummage as she considered her answer. Although she barely knew Grace, and certainly didn't like her, she had to admit she saw no reason for the werewolf girl to lie to them. "Erm…"

"Come on, now, Verity. Did you believe her or not when she said Olivia would be all right?"

"I think she knows what she's talking about," said Verity, grudgingly.

"But I was thinking about it last night and we only have her word for it that she's a werewolf herself."

"No, I can tell." The stink of it had been easily recognisable on the blonde girl, and Verity had known her for what she was the minute they'd first met. She hoped, for Imogen's sake as much as anything, that the werewolf scent on Olivia had been more than just a remnant of Giles's smell. She wandered back to the living room with her tea, Imogen still trailing behind, and stopped at the nearest bookshelf. "Can I read your books?" she asked, although she'd already leafed through a few of them during the night.

"Of course you can." Imogen continued to drift behind her, obviously bored. As a new ghost, she had the distinct disadvantage of no longer being about to touch anything, limiting available pastimes considerably.

Skimming over a selection of cheap flaking paperbacks, Verity eased a leather-bound book off the shelf to look at the front cover, since the gilt writing on the spine had become all but illegible with age. "Lockwood Hall," she read aloud.

"Yes! This house was built on the site of the old Hall, several years after the fire. Generations of our family have been buried in the churchyard here. I could show you if -"

"I've seen the Lockwood Corner, thank you," said Verity.

"Of course, how silly of me. There are books in the local library -"

"Yes, I've read them all, thank you."

"Oh. In that case, you probably know more about my family history than I do."

"Mm. Probably." Verity had discovered a wide selection of romance novels on the shelves by the sofa. She flicked through one at random before selecting another.

"And the Black Dog." Imogen squinted at the cover of the book Verity was holding, looking apprehensive. "You're not going to read that, are you, dear?"

"I may, unless you'd prefer me not to for some reason."

"I must say, that particular book is dreadfully smutty. Not one of her better work at all."

"Do you have any suggestions?" asked Verity pointedly, although apparently her frustration was too subtle for Imogen to register it.

"Well, for romance, I can highly recommend that anthology of short stories - the book lying flat on the shelf at the top there. That's the one. Short stories are just the thing when you have a lot on your mind. Getting involved in an epic at a time like this - Eli if you insist on doing that, then kindly do so outside!" she barked. Eli flinched and stared stupidly at Imogen for a moment before looking down at the newly lit cigarette in his hand. She glared at him sternly, hands on her hips. "I'm sorry, but smoking is a filthy habit and I absolutely detest it, as I've told you before. I've never allowed it in my house all my life and I'm not about to let such revolting behaviour go on under my roof now merely because I am dead. You can take your disgusting habit out into the garden until you've finished with it."

Eli unfolded from the armchair, but didn't move fast enough for Imogen's liking.

"I shouldn't have to tell you twice," she aid, watching the drift of pale blue-grey smoke. "I may no longer have a physical nose, but believe me I'm finding that smoke just as unpleasant as ever."

Eli disappeared out of the French windows, the doors banging shut behind him. He stood just outside with his back to the two women, sullen as a cat who's been thrown out of the house for scratching the furniture.

"In that case," said Verity, "I think I too shall have to take myself outside and be disgusting for a minute or two."

Imogen looked disappointed. "Oh, you don't, do you dear?"

Verity dug into the space between the shabby sofa and the end table to find her handbag, retrieving half a pack of cigarettes and an elegant silver lighter from within. She grinned at Imogen. "I'm afraid so."

"It is a disgusting habit, Verity. I don't say it to be unkind."

"It's your house, so I completely respect your wishes and if you don't want anyone to smoke indoors, then we shan't."

Verity nipped out onto the patio, trying not to let the cold into the house. Eli had wandered off towards the gate through to the churchyard, and Verity hurried after him. She sighed in exasperation as she realised Imogen had drifted through the French windows and was tagging along. "Imogen, dear," she snapped, slamming the little iron gate behind her with a clang and following Eli to the shadow of the big yew tree, "is there any point in us taking our filthy habits elsewhere if you're only going to follow us?"

The ghost wavered. "I'm sure our werewolf friends don't appreciate it one bit," she said. "As dreadful as that smoke smells to me, I can't even imagine how terrible the two of you must smell to Grace." She sniffed. "Well, I'd better get back to the house, then," and she vanished into thin air without so much as a goodbye.

Verity perched on her gravestone, rearranging her skirt modestly where it had hitched up over her knees. She let most of her cigarette burn away, watching the glowing embers inching steadily towards her fingers. It was bitterly cold out in the churchyard, but despite the overcast skies, the birds chirped happily in the trees.

"Bloody birds," growled Elli, who still looked put out at the way Imogen had scolded him.

"Hmm?"

"Don't see what they're so bloody happy about. Wish they'd shut up."

"You know, I think that's the most I've ever heard you say, all in one go," Verity observed.

Eli glanced over at her. He shrugged. "No one around worth talking to, usually."

Verity made up her mind to take that as a compliment, and smiled to herself. She gazed at the churchyard spread out in front of them, the grass silvered with dew, the neat little church with its vicarage and rose garden, and the green hills fading into the distance. "The village is quite dull, isn't it? But you must admit it's very pretty here."

He snorted. "'Pretty'," Then he went quiet again. Verity couldn't tell if he was enjoying her company in silence or just ignoring her. She didn't want to ask, and it annoyed her just as much either way.

"So, are you new to the area?" she asked, in an effort to revive the conversation. "I'm pretty sociable amongst the dead, but I hadn't seen you around here before Imogen's funeral."

"I travel," he said. "Been here a week, perhaps."

"Then I suppose -"

"Could've been longer than that. A year. It's the same everywhere anyway."

"Oh. Why do you bother, then?" Verity asked, rather crossly. She had a certain fondness for the village, dull as it might be. He didn't answer, and instead began to walk back towards the house. Verity ran after him. "Then what are you doing here, if you could just as easily be anywhere else?"

He shrugged. "Visiting."

Imogen was waiting for them in the living room when they returned. She gave a disapproving sniff as Eli sat back down in the armchair and picked up a newspaper from the pile. "I take it there were no problems last night?" she asked. "I went upstairs earlier this morning and the door still seemed to be locked."

"Oh, that," said Verity, settling back down on the sofa, which felt warmer after the autumn chill of the churchyard. "No, no problems. No problems at all. Well, she did get a bit noisy, and I'm sure she's made an awful mess of the room, like I said she would, but obviously she didn't get out."

"Poor thing," said Imogen. "Do you think we should go and check on her?"

"Hmm." Verity stretched out her legs, thinking about resting her feet on the low coffee table in front of her, then thinking better of it. "It's a little early."

"Don't be ridiculous! I've been awake for hours!"

Verity grimaced. Although the thought of facing a werewolf had become a great deal less frightening in the light of day (not to mention with Eli there for support) she was a creature of the night, and despised early starts. "I don't know, I still think it's too early to disturb her. Don't you, Eli?"

"Sun's up," he pointed out, turning a page. And if they could believe Grace, a werewolf's transformation reversed at daybreak, in most cases.

"But it's so early," Verity protested. "And she's had a terrible night. I'm sure she'd appreciate a lie-in."

"We don't have to wake her if she's sleeping," said Imogen. "Nor do we have to get her out of bed if she's awake. I just want to be sure she's recovered."

"But you can walk through walls - it's one of the biggest advantages of being a ghost! Why don't you go and try it out?" she suggested, with an encouraging smile.

"And what if she needs help? Or what if she's up and about and would like to come down for breakfast or, for that matter, do anything besides sit on her bed, chained to the furniture?"

"Oh, fine," said Verity, getting up.

Imogen beamed, sweeping gracefully towards the stairs. "There's a good girl. And I know you're excited to find out how it went last night. Eli?"

Eli glowered over his newspaper more fiercely than was necessary, as if hoping to make up for earlier. "What?" he growled.

"You have the key, don't you? Be a dear, and accompany us upstairs."

Standing at the door to the guest bedroom, aware of the eyes of the other two upon her, Verity hesitated only a fraction of a second before knocking. "Hello?" she called, putting her ear to the door to listen for a reply, or simply for signs of life. "Are you all right in there?" She gestured to Eli to unlock the door, while beside them, Imogen drifted serenely through the wall.

"Poor thing," they heard Imogen say from inside the bedroom. "She's sound asleep."

Verity opened the door and peered in. There were deep scratches on the inside of the door and the door frame - part of it had been ripped away in large, raw splinters of pale wood. The watery sunlight shone through curtains that hung in ragged shreds drooping onto the floor, and Imogen crouched over a still figure lying on the floor. The girl was naked, a mound of insensible soft pale flesh, barely breathing. "Poor, poor Libby," Imogen murmured. "We must get this chain off of her. Do you have the key for this padlock?" Then she glanced up. "Eli! Turn around! Verity, help me get her covered up first."

Eli obediently turned around, grumbling that Olivia didn't have anything he hadn't seen before, while Verity ran to fetch a clean blanket from the blanket box in Imogen's bedroom. Imogen deemed this insufficient, and wouldn't leave it be until Verity had located a nightdress and wrestled the still-unconscious werewolf into it. It took quite an effort, with a lot of puffing and unkind comments from Verity, who was half Olivia's size and (in her own words) 'not accustomed to hard labour'.

"There," said Imogen at last. "You can turn around now, Eli." She looked at Olivia, still lying on the bare floorboards, exhausted and oblivious to the world. "Well, I can't see that she's done herself any harm during the night. We ought to get her back into bed and let her sleep. Eli, help Verity move her."

Thankfully, the bed had stood up to Olivia's wolfish rage, but the chair was no longer fit for anything other than firewood, and the remains of Olivia's clothes were virtually indistinguishable from what remained of the bedsheets.

"She ought to have warned up about that," said Verity.

"Who's she, the cat's mother?" said Imogen reflexively, and sat down on the bed beside her niece.

"Grace," Verity spat. The name alone was hateful enough. "She ought to have warned us about Olivia's clothes. Poor thing must have been awfully cold this morning." She sat down on the edge of the bed opposite Imogen, peering curiously at the unconscious werewolf lying between them.

"Yes, and lying on the floor like that, probably in a draught… But I'm sure Grace didn't do it out of spite," said Imogen, rather doubtfully.

"Perhaps she thought it too obvious a thing to even mention?"

"Perhaps she doesn't wear anything to bed," Eli suggested.

"Shouldn't Libby be awake by now?" asked Imogen, who seemed to think it was a good time to change the subject.

Verity agreed. The fear of the night before had faded with dawn's light, leaving her impatient to see what the next stage would bring. "Still, it must be exhausting. I can't say I know much about werewolves," and it went without saying that if she did, Grace would never have set foot in the house, "but as I understand it, the physical change takes up a fair amount of energy. And then she worked herself up into quite a state, howling and scratching and kicking up a fuss."

Imogen looked around at the wreckage of the bedroom. "She'll be ever so glad she didn't get far with the decorating."

"Why was she decorating? There's nothing wrong with the house as it is."

"That's what I thought, but she's been busy since she arrived. This room was really quite cluttered when I, erm, left it. Remember how it looked when we brought her up here, though. I think she planned to spruce the place up a bit: I found decorating supplies in the pantry the other day, and I know I didn't leave them there."

"Tins of paint," said Eli, and added, "Orange," as if this colour choice cast doubt on Olivia's moral fibre.

"It was more of a Burnt Vienna," said Imogen, who had always fancied herself something of an artist.

"You mean Burnt Sienna," said Verity.

Imogen looked dubious. "I don't think so, dear."

"You can't Burn Vienna, it's an Austrian city!" said Verity indignantly. "People would object!"

"Austrians, probably," said Eli. Verity gave him a sidelong glance, unsure if he was mocking her or genuinely attempting to contribute to the conversation. As usual, his expression held no clues.

"Well then where's this Sienna?" said Imogen, "and why won't anybody mind if we burn that?" She realised they were getting off topic again. "Anyway. That colour isn't my cup of tea either, whatever you want to call it. Frankly, I'm disappointed in Olivia. To think she was planning to paint any room in my house that horrible… orange colour."

"Cheer up," said Verity. "You can tell her now, when she wakes up."

Imogen's face brightened considerably at the prospect. "I suppose I can, can't I? And I rather think I will, too. I found some absolutely ghastly fabric downstairs."

The ghostly figure of a tabby cat wandered into the room, sniffing warily before proceeding with disdain through the mess. Verity squealed at a near-inaudible frequency. "Oh my goodness! She's adorable!"

"She is lovely, isn't she?" said Imogen, with a tender smile. She patted her lap and and the ghost cat jumped up, purring. "She's called Fruitcake, but her real name's Esmeralda, since that's what I called her when she was tiny. Of course, she's a cat so it's not as if she'll answer to either name. She's pretending to be a lady now, since we have visitors, but she's mad as a hatter, really."

"She's so pretty. Before I met you, I'd only seen the ghost of a cat once or twice before, and even then I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. But I've seen more of them in the last couple of days than I have in years."

"You'll see a lot of them here, I expect. I've had so many cats I can't keep count of them all."

Verity shook her head in disbelief. "I didn't even know cats had souls. I mean, I like them, but I've only ever met human ghosts before."

"You see other ghosts, if you look out for 'em." Eli had appeared in the doorway, holding a chair. Placing the chair in the corner, he sat down. "Dogs, from time to time. Maybe seen a ghost horse, once, couldn't be sure." When he saw the two women waiting with interest to hear more, he looked faintly embarrassed. "What are you staring at me for? Get back to your embroidery, or whatever it was you were nattering about."

"We weren't talking about embroidery," Verity informed him calmly. "We were talking about interior design, and I for one do not natter, thank you very much. Tell me more about the ghost horse."

"Strange looking thing. Horse doesn't know what he looks like."

Verity nodded. People did know what they looked like - they'd recognised themselves in reflections all their lives, and tended to have fairly firm predictable self images, with rare but intriguing exceptions.

"Oh, don't do that, dear," said Imogen, as the ghost cat walked onto Olivia's chest. "I'm afraid she'll get a chill if you settle there. Shoo, you rotten thing," and she pushed the cat gently off her niece.

"Come to me, Esmeralda," said Verity, patting her knees invitingly. She watched the tabby ghost curiously as it settled on her lap, almost weightless and radiating cold. "But then, what about cats?" She could see the cat just as clearly as she could see Imogen, if not more so. What did that say about cats? What did it say about people, for that matter? "Are the rules the same for the ghosts of cats and other animals as they are for people?"

Eli shrugged. "Near enough."

"I didn't realise the affairs of cats were complicated enough to prevent them from moving on. Or do cats do as they please, and turn their noses up at even the grim reaper?"

Eli stared at her, and didn't answer.

Imogen brushed imaginary cat hairs from her skirt. "Personally, I didn't think it strange to find the house full of all my darlings when I came back from, you know. And it was so lovely to see them again. I cried for weeks when Fluff died." She sniffed tearfully at the memory. "Poor little thing."

"Fluff?"

"Tiny thing, about six weeks old. But she's still here." Imogen smiled and pulled the memory of a lace-edged handkerchief out of her cardigan sleeve. She looked at the cobwebby wisp in some surprise, then blew her nose on it. "I've seen her about, and no doubt you will too, if you're quiet. A little black kitten with big blue eyes. It must have been the spring of - oh, the year George published his second book. I expect Olivia could tell you when that was. Fruitcake! Esmeralda! Stop it, you ratbag!" The tabby ghost had settled down on Olivia's chest again, staring unapologetically at Imogen. Olivia began to sir: whether she'd been disturbed by Esmeralda's presence or Imogen's shouting was unclear, but Imogen leapt forward and grabbed the cat with both bony hands, hauling her up and a way, as the cat clung with ghostly claws to the source of warmth. Olivia flinched and half-opened her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing approaching words came out to begin with. Verity, seeing that Imogen had her hands full removing the angry ghost of Fruitcake from the bedroom, leaned forward, smiling.

 

 

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