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Black Dog - Chapter 26

The following day, Olivia woke up just enough to call in sick: flu, so sorry. She wanted to lie down and die. Instead she padded to the bathroom, grumbling and berating herself for allowing Verity to lead her off to the vampires' den and forcing her to choose between sleeping in a nest of monsters or walking through town alone after dark. Verity shouldn't have left her alone with the vampires, but then perhaps she shouldn't have left Verity alone, either. Anger gave way to worry. Olivia had arrived home safely in the end, even if she couldn't remember doing so, but she hadn't heard Verity come home at all. By lunchtime, Olivia still couldn't face the thought of food, and her conscience wouldn't let her be. When she'd confirmed her fears that Verity was nowhere to be found in the house, she ventured out into the cold.

Olivia had hoped she might find Verity in her usual place, under the yew tree, but there was nobody there. A teenage couple were sitting on one of the benches at the churchyard crossroads, whispering intently together, lost in each other's eyes. Olivia's footsteps on the gravel path startled them, and it was only once they thought she was out of earshot that they resumed their conversation. If Olivia had been in a better mood she might have found it funny to see that Auntie Imogen was sitting by them, leaning close to hear the whispered heart to heart. It wasn't the first time Olivia had caught Auntie Imogen eavesdropping on the living when they talked in the supposed seclusion of the churchyard. She'd always been nosy like that, but since her death it was easy to quietly and invisibly sidle up to them and listen in. A ghost had to find something to fill up all the empty hours.

Olivia finally found Verity at the far end of the churchyard, close to the vicarage. She had Giles' camera and was chasing the crows, laughing at their indignant cawing.

Scowling, Olivia called out "Hey!"

Verity whirled round with a flare of ruffled black skirts, grinning devilishly with her finger poised over the button. Her eyes glittered jewel-bright and she showed no sign of the previous night's drinking, nor of ill-feeling from her argument with Theo. She faltered at the look on Olivia's face, though. "Hello," she said, and flashed a quick snapshot. "Don't you look moody today," she commented, and grinned again. "I think it almost suits you."

"I take it you and Theo spent last night patching up your differences, then?"

A guilty look crept across Verity's face, and she hid it behind the camera. "Not exactly."

"No?"

"We broke up, actually."

"Well you've certainly cheered up a lot since last night." They'd gone to the party to forget about Giles for a while, and Verity appeared to have found it most effective. Olivia's gaze was drawn back to the shiny new camera. "I know you and Giles weren't exactly friends, but still."

Verity looked down at the camera, and her expression turned sheepish as it dawned on her what Olivia meant. "Oh, don't be like that," she pouted. "You can't expect me to mope about for weeks on end over somebody I barely knew. And it's not as if he was a close friend of yours, either: you only ever met him once or twice."

Verity had a point there, but Olivia refused to admit it out loud. Having allayed her fears for Verity's safety, she stomped off back to the house. Her mood worse than ever for that encounter, she slammed the French windows behind her and found Eli pulling the sofa out from its new place and into the middle of the room.

"Do you mind not doing that?" Olivia snapped. "I put it against the wall for a reason."

"Imogen wants it over here."

"Well I want it over there," Olivia grabbed the opposite end of the sofa, "as I would have thought you could tell from the number of times I've put it there the last couple of weeks."

Eli glowered at her as she shoved the sofa back against the wall. "Imogen said -"

"Yes, but it's not Imogen's house any more, is it? It's mine!" The volume to which Olivia's voice rose antagonised her own headache as she continued, "Who do you think is paying to keep the water and the lights on, and food in the pantry? And it's my sofa too and I'll have it where I want it!" And with that she stormed off again.

By the following morning, the sofa had found its way back to its usual place, in the middle of the room.


Ghostly paws padded through the lush green of the graveyard in perfect silence, disturbing not one blade of grass, not one glassy bead of fallen rain on the leaf of a dandelion. The mouse froze, hunched and trembling, aware of malevolent eyes upon it. In a flash of black and white fur, the cat called Duke Archibald snatched up the mouse. Duke Archibald was an excellent mouser,e he wasted no time batting his prey around, just took a moment to chew on the unfortunate little animal's head before sauntering back towards the house. The grey ghost cat remained, winding around Eli's shins like a fog.

Verity, under cover of her black parasol, darted through the drizzle towards where Eli sheltered in what she'd come to think of as their usual meeting place.

"Hello, kitty cat," she greeted the ghost cat cheerfully, crouching to make a fuss of it. She pulled away rather quickly, wiping her palm on her skirt - the creature was not only mist-like in appearance, but unexpectedly cold and damp to the touch. "Stroking cats is supposed to be pleasant and calming, you know," she told the ghost cat resentfully. It stared back at her with defiant yellow eyes, as if to tell her that it wasn't a cat's job to be pleasant to people.

"What are you wittering on about down there?" said Eli.

"Oh, hello to you too," said Verity, still engaged in her staring match with the ghost cat.

Imogen had arranged another tea party, and Eli had slipped away from the house minutes before the first of the guests arrived. Verity had followed, assuring Imogen that she would persuade him back into the house where he could be 'sociable'. She got up, wiping damp soil from her knees, and lit a cigarette, more out of companionship and something to do with her hands than because she really wanted one. She watched the house enviously, imagining she could hear the chatter of conversation and laughter inside. She liked Imogen's new friends, even if Olivia had been sulking ever since the morning after the party.

"No boyfriend today?" said Eli. He looked out over the sunny churchyard, the brightly lit houses of the village spread out below, practically glowing despite the thunderous backdrop of purple-grey sky. "Too bright for him, I expect. No lacy umbrella," he said, glancing at Verity's parasol.

Verity fidgeted. Since the party, she'd been trying not to think about Theo, and doing a good job of it, too. "I would have thought you were too old to believe everything you hear in fairy tales."

He shrugged. "You can go out in sunlight if you want to?"

She darted him a sharp glance. "Haven't seen me burst into flames so far, have you?"

Long silence followed, broken only by the occasional drip of rainwater through the branches. Eli appeared to be giving the last few weeks some serious thought.

"Anyway," said Verity, "you shan't be seeing any more of Theo. I broke up with him." She was glad when Eli asked no further questions. She'd wasted enough time picking the final incident to pieces, and had no desire to discuss the whole humiliating mess with anybody else.

"You'll be all right?" he asked gruffly. Or at least, she thought it had sounded like a question.

"Pardon?" She scrutinised his face, his wary expression.

He scuffed the wet grass with the worn-down heel of his boot. "You'll forget about him soon enough."

She stared outright. "What are you doing?"

"Saying something reassuring," he muttered.

Verity rolled her eyes. Well remembered, even if such concern from Eli was unnerving. "Thank you, yes," she said with measured courtesy. She had to bite her tongue to keep from smiling, it was sweet of him to make the effort. "I'm sure I shall be perfectly fine."

"Hmm. Good."

Verity busied herself digging into her purse for her compact and checking her makeup. "Do you like poetry, Eli?" Quickly, before her resolve could crumble, she whipped a much-folded piece of paper out her purse and shoved it towards him. Holding it stiffly at arm's length, she thought for one horrible moment he would just stand there staring at it until she withdrew in defeat.

He took the paper, unfolded it.

She wondered if he noticed the perfume she'd sprayed on the page - too much of it, really, blurring the ink, but - "I didn't write it," she pointed out, suddenly wanting to distance herself from it. "I just found it while I was..." she stumbled over the words, remembering she'd intended to keep her project a secret for the time being, "while I was reading… something, and I thought you might like it. Thought the theme might be, erm..." she blushed fiercely. "Thought you might like it." She wanted to snatch the paper back from him, but before she could do that, he refolded it and put it in his pocket. His grey eyes fixed on her, eyes without a soul behind them, reflecting only the sky.

Verity, suddenly dizzy, tightened her grip on the tombstone. She'd hoped Eli would have something to say about the poem; about the writer's take on a subject that she thought must be close to his heart, assuming that he was actually in possession of such a thing. Now that he'd read it she found herself hoping he would say nothing at all, for fear of the confirmation that he thought her foolish and naive. A brisk change of subject seemed in order. "So. Siobhan. She's an odd thing, isn't she? Zombies. Ha! I'd never met one before and now I know two of them. Siobhan's not like Jim, though, is she? Jim's one of yours and Siobhan's not. I rather think yours are better made."

"'Course they are." He stopped staring at her, which was a relief.

"Of course they are," Verity repeated under her breath. "Malcolm did get to Siobhan as quickly as he could, though. No messing about in graveyards. All things considered, why does she..." There was no daintier way of putting it, Siobhan had already lost several fingernails, she shed horrible clumps of long ginger hair on the furniture, and one of her eyes was beginning to look suspiciously loose in its socket. She'd been so pretty before, but now… "Why does she look so terrible?"

"'Cos she's dead."

"Yes, I know that, thank you ever so much. But Jim's dead too, and you'd hardly notice, in a flattering light."

Eli sighed as if he'd been tasked with explaining to a small child why the sky was blue. "The spirit wants to carry on with its business, and the body wants to lie down and be dead. It's…" he gestured awkwardly with both hands, interlocking his long thin fingers, "you want to keep the two things stuck together." He stared at her as if he could make her understand by sheer force of will.

Verity sat quiet on her tombstone, trying to imagine the kind of patient and delicate persuasion such a task must require. "I see," she said, frowning. Mankind had been looking an awfully long time to find a way of keeping soul and body interlocked when they no longer wanted to be. They'd been drafting in ghosts and demons to help them answer that riddle almost from the very beginning. Malcolm had been annoyingly coy about what he knew, when Verity had asked. "Can anyone learn?"

Eli shook his head. "Cheap tricks, that's all your friend knows. He should have got her to do whatever he needed and let her go again. 'Course it's different with Jim -"

"Of course," Verity agreed, feeling that she ought to contribute something to the conversation, but not sure what.

"I made a good job of him, considering he'd been in the ground so long and he doesn't look after himself."

Verity found herself adrift in one of Eli's long pauses. Duke Archibald returned to deposit the tiny body of a shrew at her feet, and she scratched the black and white cat behind the ears, waiting until he left before she nudged the shrew to one side with the toe of her shiny black boot.

"That red-haired girl," Eli said. "Don't get too attached."

"Siobhan? Why?" Despite a certain natural distaste for the signs of decay, Verity didn't personally dislike poor pathetic Siobhan.

"She's falling apart. She'd be all right if I'd got to her first." He crushed the dead end of his cigarette into the dirt. "Not that I'd have bothered."

"That's not very nice of you," said Verity.

Eli leaned down towards her, as if he needed a closer look. His eyes were ancient and cold. "I don't mean to be nice."

Verity cringed in spite of herself, before pulling herself back up by the shoulders. "Siobhan is our friend: she's one of us. You shouldn't say things like that about people we like." She stared back at him, determined not to be the one to look away first, but she soon blinked. "And I'm not afraid of you, so you can stop working your voodoo on me," she snapped.

He straightened up, gave her room to breathe again. "Not voodoo," he muttered, turning away from her, closing off.

Verity sniffed, and in an effort to compose herself she began reshuffling the conversation in her head, sifting through for any details she might have overlooked. Not voodoo. But what else, then?

 

 

 

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