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Black Dog - Chapter 18

Getting everyone into one room was like herding cats. Grace had disappeared into the kitchen to chat with Auntie Imogen and clean up the mess Verity had made, and Siobhan had followed. Hoping for scraps. Siobhan had the dirty, hungry look of a stray, and though Olivia did her best to dismiss that uncharitable thought, she found she didn't much want the company of a zombie. The ghosts came and went, with their poor sense of time and space, and Malcolm had fallen asleep again. Olivia had made an effort to engage Theo in conversation about his poetry book, and had failed dismally. At least Giles had relaxed a little - either because he'd finally realised Olivia had no intention of leaping on him and wreaking horrible vengeance, or because Eli had disappeared. Giles, as it turned out, was a keen musician. The shaking melted away from his voice and his wet eyes brightened as he told Olivia about his latest project. He might even have been convinced to give a demonstration on the old piano, if it hadn't been for the sly disparaging looks from Theo.

"And what did you say you claim to be?" Theo asked Olivia, when he'd reached the end of the book. "A writer?"

Olivia's heart sank. "I dabble," she said. "But..."

"But you haven't actually had anything published, have you?"

"Well, no," - that's not fair! I've never tried! But she had to stay polite - "I'm starting work at the local library on Monday, so I expect that'll take up most of my time, and then there's the work on the house…"

"Hmm." Theo opened his book again at the start.

Giles tapped Olivia so gently on the elbow that it was like a spider or an ant trying to get her attention. "Do you like photography?" he asked her shyly, showing her what looked like a brand new and expensive camera. "I just had a roll of film developed this morning, if you'd like to see."

"What, you don't even have your own dark room?" Theo sneered, but Giles and Olivia set their backs to him and a couple of the ghosts leaned in closer to peer at the glossy rectangles of the wider world. The photographs were no great masterpieces, and unsurprisingly a lot of the more recent ones featured Grace, always happy to pose for the camera.

In the corner, Malcolm stirred, opened his eyes and looked around. Olivia quickly drew him into the conversation, pleased with how skilfully she was managing the situation. Auntie Imogen would be proud. "Isn't he talented?" she prompted Malcolm.

"Mm. Must be hard work, taking pretty pictures of a girl like that," he said sleepily, and at those words Giles went quiet and his face settled back into its natural look of unhappy apprehension.

"You're Malcolm, aren't you?" said Olivia, annoyed to see her own hard work undone so easily. She wondered if he'd ever really been asleep at all, or if he'd been listening to every word. "And you're going to tell me you're a vampire, I suppose." He had the same strikingly vivid blue eyes as Verity.

Theo laughed. "He only wishes."

Malcolm didn't rise to the bait, and went back either to sleep or to feigning sleep. Olivia tried to strike up a conversation with Giles again, but he refused to be drawn, and it was a relief to both of them when Auntie Imogen came back from the kitchen, and the others began to converge on the living room too.

"Well," said Auntie Imogen, clapping her hands together as she stood before the assembled creatures of the night. "Now that everybody's here, I'd like to thank you all for taking time out from whatever it is you would otherwise be doing with your time. I hope this may become a regular opportunity for us to get to know one another, and make life a little easier and happier for all of us."

Theo smirked. "Life?"

Auntie Imogen gave the vampire a despairing look. "Death, if you prefer," she said, with a steely edge to her voice. "Death is never easy to deal with," she continued to the room in general, "and as you know, it's not just the living who struggle to cope sometimes. Most of us were given no preparation at all for coping with our own deaths. However, there are enough of us here that I'd like to think we can all help one another."

The girl zombie, Siobhan, reached for a biscuit from one of the neatly arranged trays set out for the guests. "We don't have to go round raking leaves or cleaning windows or anything, do we?" she asked with her mouth full.

"That's not really what I had in mind," Auntie Imogen told her gently. "Moral support is what most of us need, more than anything."

Looking relieved, Siobhan reached for another biscuit.

"You'll regret eating those," said Eli, making Siobhan flinch and peer at the biscuit suspiciously. Eli caught the death glare Auntie Imogen was aiming at him. "What? Not your baking," he assured her defensively. "'Cos of what she is."

"Zombies don't eat?" Auntie Imogen's indignation vanished, giving way to uncertainty. For the first time she appeared nervous in the company of ghosts and monsters. "Oh dear," she turned to Verity, "do you think we've made too many sandwiches?"

Verity looked faintly cross, having stumbled upon a gap in her knowledge. "I didn't know zombies can't eat food," she said.

Eli shrugged uncomfortably as if he could physically slough off the looks of the others in the room, who'd turned to him for an answer. "Didn't say they couldn't. Said it's not a good idea. I'm not stopping her."

"How did you end up as a zombie, anyway?" Grace asked Siobhan.

Siobhan pulled her sleeves tighter down over her knuckles, glancing anxiously at Malcolm. "I, um. I don't really…"

She was rescued by a sudden gust of cold wind, and the slamming of the front door. Jim appeared, walking into the midst of the gathering and throwing his findings into Eli's lap: a packet of tobacco and a mouse-sized parcel untidily wrapped in brown paper and string, which Eli shoved hastily into his pocket.

"You're welcome," said Jim sarcastically.

"Right. Thanks," said Eli. "Cup of tea, Jim."

The gathering dissolved into a gossipy knitting circle at the first introduction of a particularly juicy piece of news: the new vicar! Who'd seen him? What did everybody make of him? Olivia tuned out the ghostly whispers and made a last effort to engage Giles in conversation again, but he'd closed up completely.

When Jim returned with the cup of tea, Eli pulled him to one side before he could sit down again, whispering something close to the fat zombie's ear. Olivia couldn't make out a word of it over the general chatter of the room.

"Again?" said Jim. "All right, all right, I'm going." Jim certainly didn't look like the kind of man blessed with any special talents or extraordinary intelligence, but off he went on another mystery errand. Glancing around the room, Olivia saw Auntie Imogen listening intently to Grace, and Verity and Theo facing away from each other, each with their nose buried in a book. Quietly, Olivia slipped out, off down the hall and down the garden path, following the grumbling of the fat zombie.

Olivia skulked from behind the trees and sidled down the road close to the hedge, careful to keep her distance from Jim. She was managing to keep out of his sight, but getting some odd looks from the other residents of the village. Halfway down the hill she was almost overcome with embarrassment, and while hiding from Jim behind a letterbox, she posted the shopping list from her coat pocket. This didn't stop the two old ladies chatting at the gate of a nearby cottage from staring at her, and as soon as Jim disappeared round a bend in the road, Olivia hurried on.

The crossroads at the bottom of the hill posed a problem. No people, no cars, no zombie. While Olivia had been distracted worrying about her reputation, Jim had shambled right out of sight. She thought about giving up and going back to the house. After all, was it wise to leave the deathly tea party to its own devices in the house that really ought to be her responsibility. She couldn't think of anything specifically terrible that they might get up to in her absence, but then perhaps she shouldn't give them the opportunity to show her what they were capable of. The only one of them she really knew was Auntie Imogen, and a ghost couldn't be expected to handle any problems that arose.

Olivia took a deep breath - and caught a whiff of rancid meat. Decay, something not unlike vinegar. Ah, and the smell of old running shoes that she'd noticed earlier. It all tangled in with the more expected smells - pine trees, woodsmoke, lingering exhaust fumes - but half a dozen paces in one direction the horrible smell faded away, and two dozen paces in the opposite direction, it grew stronger. The new werewolf followed her nose. The moment she saw the sign of the Crow and Grapes, she knew she'd found Jim's destination.

Inside, a haze of blue-grey smoke obscured the low ceiling, and it took several surreptitious scans of the gloomy place before Olivia caught sight of Jim sitting alone in a corner, waiting for someone. Olivia ordered herself an orange juice and took a seat where she hoped Jim couldn't see her, but she could watch the door.

By the time she'd finished her drink, Jim's contact still hadn't arrived. Olivia ordered a second drink, resolving to make it last longer, and took out her notebook in an effort to look busy - not that anybody showed any interest in disturbing her. Conversation was sparse and low, and even the old men playing bridge operated in a state of quiet and intense concentration.

Dear George,
Well this is all very strange. It hardly seems like yesterday I was at university, miserable and failing my first year exams. Now I'm redecorating a haunted house, and getting invited to tea parties by the ghosts. It's been hard enough to keep it together lately, and right now I'm trying to spy on a man who is apparently a zombie. You'd believe it, too, if you'd smelled him.

She just managed to choke back on a hysterical giggle, drowning it in a gulp of her drink. It probably did make more sense to believe she'd suffered some form of brain damage, but here she was.

I went to a lecture once about folkloric creatures - I'm trying to remember if zombies were mentioned. Something about them having been brought back from the dead to serve some purpose for their master, and Eli does seem to make use of Jim for fetching things and making tea, and it's clear enough Jim doesn't do that out of friendship or a desire to be helpful. I wonder what he's supposed to be doing now.

Olivia paused, looking up to check that Jim was still there, still drinking.

Of course! Folklore is full of examples of how careful you have to be when talking to supernatural creatures: genies, fairies, golems. Tricky, inhuman things who twist your words to misinterpret your wishes. Does it work that way with zombies? Eli sent Jim off on some errand, but if he didn't say when it had to be done by, then Jim might well sit here drinking and wasting time until he either runs out of money, or Eli comes looking for him, or they kick him out at closing time

Olivia's latest insight, of which she'd been so proud, had led her investigation to a dead end. She'd wasted more than an hour of her afternoon waiting for somebody who almost certainly wasn't coming. Well, she wasn't going to have it all be for nothing. Finishing her drink, she got up and went over to the corner where Jim sat.

"Excuse me," she said, as politely as she could, "but I thought you were meant to be getting on with something."

Jim looked up, startled, slopping beer over the already sticky tabletop. "Don't you start. Don't you think you can tell me what to do, just 'cos Eli..."

"I'm not planning on it," she interrupted him. "But, perhaps you could do just one favour for me?"

"No." On principle, no doubt.

"Could you perhaps just tell me what it is you're supposed to be doing?"

"No. Not allowed." A slow creeping grin dawned on Jim's face. "You been spying on me? You been sitting there all that time drinking orange juice and thinking you was spying on me?"

"Should you be drinking that?" Olivia asked. "Eli said -"

The redirection worked. "I'm not here to make life easy for him."

"I think you probably are, actually."

"You'll get your nosy questions answered soon enough," said Jim, returning his attention to his drink. "Don't tell him I'm here, all right?"

Olivia had no intention of exposing Jim's hiding place. She wished she'd spent her time talking to Grace instead, but by the time she returned to the house, Grace and Giles had gone home. For the time being, her questions would simply have to wait.

 

 

 

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