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Black Dog - Chapter 24

There was one place Olivia hadn't even considered when choosing a bedroom to call her own. Late the evening of the secret funeral, she stood before the door at the far end of the first floor hallway. She knew the house reasonably well from her childhood visits, when she'd been allowed to run free, mostly.

She remembered trying to get into whatever lay behind this door a couple of times, but it had been locked for twenty years or more. All Auntie Imogen would ever say was that there was nothing in there worth hunting down the key, and eventually, young Olivia had decided that she might as well believe that. There was nothing extraordinary about the locked door, after all - serviceable wood, brass handle. What lay behind it was likely to be more clutter.

And yet she had the unfriendly weight of the bunch of keys in her hand. Checking to see that nobody was about, she tried the keys one by one, until one turned, and tentatively, she pushed the door open.

Behind the door, a staircase led up into darkness. Bare wooden stairs, not well worn. Unpapered walls, and no sign of electric lighting. Up ahead, she could just see where the staircase turned ninety degrees. Was she imagining things, or did she see a faint glow of light up there? She heard the voice again, the girl singing, this time louder and markedly closer than before. Curiosity overcame Olivia. The walls and ceiling in the hidden chamber were uneven, closing in towards the top of the stairs, but a thin line of yellow-orange light shone from underneath a door on the top landing. The wooden stairs squeaked under Olivia's hesitant footsteps, and abruptly the singing stopped.

"Go away!" the stern voice was unmistakably Verity's.

Olivia paused, crouched awkwardly in the cramped space in front of the undersized door, her skin crawling with cobwebs. "No!" Why should she go away? "Let me in!"

"Olivia?" There was a rustle of paper. "Hang on a minute." The door opened up just enough for Verity to peer out and confirm Olivia's identity. "I didn't think Eli could get up here. But then, I didn't think you could, either."

"I found the key," said Olivia, holding it up for Verity to see. "Oh, but I suppose you must have one too."

Verity gave her a disdainful feline look, as if she could scarcely believe Olivia was bright enough to put one foot in front of the other in order to climb the stairs. "What I meant was: you're too big. This room is perfectly sized for me. Come in and take a look," she said, then added with a smirk, "if you can."

She was exaggerating, Olivia thought as she clambered through the oddly small doorway, but not by much. Eli certainly wouldn't bother to come up here.

A single oil lamp lit the attic room. A mess of books and papers covered not only the dresser, the chair, and the narrow bed, but most of the floor as well. The furniture was 'Verity-sized' to fit.

"What do you think?" asked Verity. She had dust all down the front of her black dress from lying on the floor reading, but if she noticed, she didn't seem to care.

"Very nice," Olivia lied, hastily flicking a large spider off her arm.

"It's lovely, isn't it? Quiet. Private. Or it was, until you found it."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you."

"'Sorry'," Verity sniffed, sweeping papers off the bed and sitting down. "'Sorry', she says. But why did she have to go nosing about in the first place, that's what I want to know."

"I live here," Olivia reminded her, picking her way carefully over to the chair. "What are you doing up here? You don't sleep up here, do you?" she asked, eyeing the rumpled bedclothes.

"This is my room. Don't put that there!" she shouted, almost making Olivia drop the heavy old book which she'd moved from the chair. "Books on that pile are to read; books on that pile are to refer back to; books on that pile are to… oh. Never mind. Just put it on the floor for now."

Olivia did as she was told. "Anyway, I meant what are you doing with all these books." She scanned the titles of the nearest stack on the dresser: Creatures of the Night; Ancient Folklore; Vampyre; A History of Lockwood Hall. "Did you find these in the house?" Anger stirred in her chest. "Did you take these from the library here?"

"I was going to put them back."

"Verity!" The house's library had been Olivia's prize to claim and explore. "Go wherever else you like, but not there." She bent to pick up a crumpled piece of paper from the floor, and Verity snatched it out of her hands before she could read a word.

"Leave it!" Verity ordered, holding the paper close to her chest, fiercely protective. "It's a surprise," she said quietly, her pale cheeks turning pink.

"What, for me?"

"For Eli! For his birthday. Or possibly not, because I'm not actually sure he has a birthday." She fixed Olivia with a cold hard stare. "Don't you dare tell him about this."

"Tell him what? I don't know anything."

"If he comes up here, I shall know it's because of something you've said to him."

Olivia sighed. "Yes, Verity, because the first thing Eli does when he sees me is to ask how my day's going, and what I've been up to lately, and then we get right on to having a good old chat about your secret projects."

"Sarcasm is very unbecoming, you know," said Verity sulkily.

"So is paranoia. What kind of surprise is it, anyway?"

Verity glared. "A secret one. Really, I don't want him to know I'm working on this. For all I know, it isn't even possible, and it would be bad enough to have wasted my time on these stupid books, without disappointing him as well."

"I still have no idea what you're talking about."

"Good. Keep it that way. Lock the door on your way out, please."


The last minute announcement of a second tea party interrupted Olivia's work on the house. Auntie Imogen had enjoyed the first one so much that she'd invited everybody again, although she hadn't been too disappointed when she'd heard Theo wouldn't be coming. Olivia almost expected Grace to make excuses too, so she was pleasantly surprised when Grace arrived early on Saturday morning, offering to help out with the afternoon's refreshments. Her makeup was neat and her expression cheerful, but she'd arrived alone.

"How's Giles?" Olivia asked. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, especially when Grace's smile faltered, but she felt guilty for not keeping her promise to visit.

"He seems to be on the mend. I thought it might be good for him to get out and about, but I couldn't get him to -" She stopped in the living room doorway, her shoulders tensing. Verity, who was sitting on the sofa chattering away happily to a young man in a shabby black suit - someone with the faintly insubstantial look of a ghost.

Verity looked up. "Hello, you. I thought I heard the doorbell." Then she turned back to the man in the suit. "The tall girl is Olivia, and that pretty blonde lady is Grace," she told him. "They're big bad wolves, but we're not afraid of them, are we?"

"I know Olivia," said the stranger, with an unsettling smile.

"No you don't," said Olivia. The moment the words were out of her mouth, she regretted her rudeness.

"You're my cousin," he said.

Olivia nodded, digging back into her childhood memories for a cousin who might have died, but she came up with nothing.

"We used to play together," he said. "But you don't remember me." He huffed. "All right: pleased to meet you, Olivia." Not getting up from the sofa, he offered a hand, and several earwigs fell out of his sleeve. His hair was grey with dust and tangled with cobwebs, and Olivia thought she saw things crawling in the tangles. Olivia braced herself before bending to grip the offered hand in a firm handshake… or at least she meant to. It felt like putting her hand through a spider's web, and the sensation clung even when she let go. Politely, she resisted the urge to wipe her hand on her skirt.

"I don't mean to be rude," said Olivia, "but what's your name?"

This earned her a scowl and a slap on the hand from Verity. "This is Nick! You used to play together!"

Olivia felt the creeping heat of a blush. "Sorry." Would it be rude to ask when he'd died?

Verity was still glaring at her. "This is his house too, you know!"

"It is? I'm very sorry, I don't remember -"

"I like to play under the beds," said Nick.

Olivia thought of bad dreams: of a hand reaching from under the bed in the middle of the night to grab an exposed foot; the laughter underneath the bed that had made her scream for Auntie Imogen. "How old are you, Nick?" she asked, hoping that was politer than 'when did you die?'.

"I'm a hundred and eight and a half." He looked in his early twenties and sounded a lot younger. He scowled, brushing away a big furry brown spider that was abseiling down the side of his face, and flicked it in Grace's direction. She yelped, ducking out into the corridor, and returned cringing but with fury in her eyes.

Verity giggled. "Is the big bad wolf scared of spiders? Is she really?" She and Nick exchanged grins, and Olivia could have sworn the cobwebs covering his suit grew thicker. Olivia didn't much like spiders herself, but thought she'd better keep that a secret if she could.

"Look," said Grace, grabbing Olivia rather too firmly by the arm. "Is Imogen around? Because if she's not, I might go for a walk and come back later."

"Try the churchyard," Olivia suggested. "She spends a lot of time out there. Are you all right?"

Grace nodded yes, but those dark expressive eyes clearly said no. "I could do with some fresh air. Too much time indoors this week. I'll see you in a bit." And she vanished.

"They're not wolves," said Nick. "They're not real wolves."

Verity elbowed him in the general vicinity of his ribs. "Be nice, Nick," she encouraged. "Maybe then Olivia will play with you again."

Olivia declined to comment, glancing at the empty armchair by the French windows, and the stack of newspapers still beside it. "I hate to sound like I care, but where did Eli go? I thought he'd gone for good, and then he showed up at -" At the funeral for Imogen's child. She'd been sworn to secrecy, and would take that secret to her own grave.

"Oh, he probably wandered off and got lost again," said Verity, offhand. "He has the most appalling sense of direction, and apparently it's not unusual for him to disappear for a while."

"Really," said Olivia, flatly. "With a bit of luck, he'll get himself lost permanently this time."

Verity gasped, covering her mouth daintily with her hand. "Olivia! You're so mean!"

Olivia scowled. "Am I? Maybe I ought to keep better company. I'm going out to see if I can catch up with Grace."

Grace hadn't gone far, and as soon as she caught sight of Olivia, she wanted to return to the house. She was apologetic for her manner (though Olivia didn't see that she'd done anything wrong) and by some miracle, she convinced Verity to assist her in making a back of shortbread. Olivia steered clear, leaving Auntie Imogen to mediate in the kitchen, but she listened anxiously whenever voices raised. Eventually, to take her mind off the thought of Grace and Verity both with sharp knives at hand, Olivia dug her neglected diary out of her suitcase, hoping it would tell her the phases of the moon. The full moon was coming soon, and that must prove or disprove this wretched 'werewolf' story once and for all. She went to mark it on the calendar in the living room, where she could keep an eye on the gradual creep of days.

"Put the kettle on, Olivie," said Eli, who'd materialised behind her with a batch of newspapers.

"Put it on yourself, why don't you?" Olivia snapped, turning to look him straight in the eye, and the strength drained from her like water through a colander, her vision swimming and darkening.

"Be a good girl, now," he said, his voice distorted as if by deep water, and he patted Olivia on the cheek. His hand was cold and damp, like the skin of a toad. She shrank away, pawing at the dampness on her skin… Tea. That was important: she had to put the kettle on. She stumbled to the kitchen.

"Olivia? Are you okay?" Grace asked, looking up from a tray of unbaked shortbread.

"I think, I just," Olivia wiped at her face again. The world was coming back into full focus. "I don't know."

Grace's eyes narrowed. She came up to Olivia, sniffing warily at her. "Eli?"

"Yes. I need to put the kettle on."

"Don't let him touch you again," said Grace firmly, dabbing Olivia's cheek with a damp dishcloth. She looked surprisingly mumsy in a floury apron, with her long blonde hair pinned up in a bun. "Stop that," she commanded, swatting Olivia's hands away from the kettle. She glanced over her shoulder to find Verity watching intensely, her eyes wide and shining with curiosity. Grace's painted red lips pinched into a tight line, and she put herself between Olivia and the audience. "Have a big glass of cold water," she said, her voice low, "it'll get it out of your system faster. And stay away from Eli for an hour or two, just to be on the safe side." She poured a glass of water and all but forced the drink down Olivia's throat.

Olivia glanced back down the corridor, towards the living room. "What was that?"

"We'll talk later," Grace promised, chivvying Olivia out into the back garden. "Have a nice long walk, let the fresh air clear your head," she said, shoving Olivia's coat into her hands before nipping back into the warmth of the kitchen.

Out in the open, the air was unpleasantly fresh, galvanising Olivia to hurry towards the first shelter that came to mind: the cosy vicarage across the churchyard. She found Reverend Milton throwing leftovers to the crows, and the sight of them reminded Olivia of the ghostly figure she'd seen in the tree. Imogen had sworn her to secrecy, but if she was careful not to say too much, she could probably let Grace know that the frightening thing in the woods was nothing more than a lost child.

"Hello, Olivia!" Reverend Milton called out as she approached. "How are you feeling about next weekend?"

"Next weekend? Oh, that." The full moon. Of course.

"Did you want to talk about it?"

Olivia had to confess that she didn't. Or at least, not with Reverend Milton. Perhaps it was only her bad mood, but she was beginning to find something false about his kindly smile and soft voice. She had plenty of questions for Grace, though, if she could get her alone. "Actually, there was something I wanted to ask you about." She glanced around to check that they were alone. "It's about exorcisms," she whispered.

Reverend Milton stared at her, his shock and horror plainly genuine. "Oh, I really don't think that's necessary! The restless dead can only work through their problems at their own pace, and we must give Imogen the chance to make her own way to the next world."

"What? No, I don't mean Auntie Imogen. I meant -" she decided at the last moment not to mention Eli, "- something else," she finished lamely.

"Oh, I see. Hmm."

This time, Olivia watched Reverend Milton closely for his reaction. "So? It's just I've been thinking lately that I might sell the house, when I've finished work on it." Olivia had had no idea what she wanted to do with her life before inheriting the house, and everything that had happened since only served to confuse her further.

"I'm sorry, Olivia, but I've never performed an exorcism in my life, and I really couldn't involve myself in such a thing. Time heals all wounds, though. Have patience, and trust in God."

Olivia was beginning to suspect that Reverend Milton was all hot air and empty promises, and she soon made her excuses to return to the house.

With her cold-bitten hands shoved into her coat pockets, she walked back across the churchyard deep in thought. Where did one go to find an exorcist? Who could she ask? Where could she look?

Reaching the kitchen, she hesitated, remembering that Grace had warned her to stay away from Eli. A sudden chill immersed her left elbow and she turned to see Auntie Imogen looking first confused and then annoyed with herself. The ghost had thoughtlessly tried to pull Olivia aside, forgetting her own ethereal state.

"I know what you're thinking," said Auntie Imogen. "You're going to sell the house, aren't you." She must have been listening in on the conversation with Reverend Milton - how much more had she heard?

"I, I don't know," Olivia stammered.

"So it makes no difference to you that I'm still here?"

"Should it? Mum said if I don't -"

Auntie Imogen tutted loudly. "Your mother! You're getting too big to be worrying so much about your mother's opinions."

That seemed uncalled-for. "She's right, though. This house is big for just me on my own."

"It wasn't too big for me on my own," Imogen argued. "What was it, forty years I lived here by myself? Not counting the cats, of course." She smiled indulgently. "You're never alone with a cat or two."

"Two dozen, more like," Olivia muttered under her breath.

"What?"

"I haven't made a final decision," said Olivia quickly. "It was just a thought, and the cleaning and decorating have to be done, so that'll give me

plenty of time to think things over."

"What is there to think over? The house wouldn't be too big for you if you hoped to have a family one day."

"Have a family? With who?"

"I don't know, but you'll want to have children someday, won't you? Most women do."

"You didn't." Olivia wished at once she hadn't said that. It was much too soon after the burial of Imogen's child, and that dreadful home remedy might have rendered Imogen barren. Not to mention that Imogen was right: while Olivia's immediate plans might not include marriage and children, she had to admit that when she imagined her future it generally included a family of her own. "But there's nobody I'm even interested in at the moment," she protested. "And I don't even know if I can, now." Her period should have started several days ago, and it might only be a matter of stress and upset, but it worried her.

"What do you mean?"

"Don't you think what I've been through recently might affect my ability to have a baby?" Olivia asked, feeling her cheeks flush red.

Verity poked her head round the door. "Who's having a baby?"

"Nobody," Olivia snapped.

"Olivia's worried about whether she'll be able to have children, now that she's, ahem," Imogen lowered her voice, "a werewolf. What do you think, Verity?"

"Well I'm sure I don't know!" said Verity. "I've told you before, I have very little interest in what werewolves get up to. Why don't you ask Grace?"

She grinned maliciously. "You could ask if she and Giles are planning to have puppies one day."


"I've got some bad news." Grace rushed the words out the moment Olivia answered the door to her on Sunday morning. "About Giles." It was clear she'd been crying again, but her eyes were dry and her voice steady when she said, "He's dead."

Olivia didn't know what to say. It should come as no surprise, after the first attempt. She wished she'd gone to visit him, just once.

Grace raised her eyebrows expectantly. "Can I come in for a minute?"

"Of course. Come and sit down. I'll put the kettle on."

Grace went and sat obediently and quietly on the sofa. Olivia lingered in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil and desperately trying to think what on earth she should say to Grace.

"Olivia?" Grace appeared at the kitchen door. "I thought you should know about Giles, but that's not what I came to talk about."

Olivia tried hard not to look relieved. "No?"

"I was up all night thinking this over, and I've decided…" she paused, gauging Olivia's mood before plunging on, "I've decided to move on. There's a place not very far from here where I have friends I can stay with. And I think it would be a good idea for you to come with me."

"What? I can't do that. I can't leave the house -"

"Of course you can leave," said Grace, with a strained smile. "You're more important than some old house, aren't you?" Her expression grew serious again. "Olivia, there's something here that's going to hurt you badly if you're not careful. I don't want you to end up like Giles."

The hairs on the back of Olivia's neck stood up, but in more than just fear. "I can look after myself," she said, unreasonably insulted by Grace's suggestion that she couldn't. "You said before that you thought I was stronger than Giles. Didn't you mean it?"

Grace gave a small sigh of defeat. "Yes, I meant it. Us girls are made of stronger stuff than men. We bleed, we cry, we keep going. We're better suited to this life, since we're built to take the monthly changes in our stride. So you better take that into account when I tell you you're still in over your head right now." She fell silent, and saw that Olivia would not be moved. "Well," she wrote a short note on the back of an old train ticket, and pressed it into Olivia's hand, "take this then. I want you to come and visit me some time."

Olivia looked down at the ticket: Grace's name, written in a looping feminine script, with a phone number underneath. "I will." When things are under control here.

"You mean it this time?" Grace asked pointedly. Then she smiled, giving Olivia a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek. "Call that number any time you like and ask for me. Any time. Even if it's the middle of the night: I promise I have very understanding friends. When things get to be more than you can handle, I'll be there for you. I just can't be here for you. You understand?"

Olivia nodded.

"You don't," said Grace, gently, "but you will. Take care of yourself, now."

 

 

 

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