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Black Dog - Chapter 30

Verity came storming out of the kitchen, and Imogen melted into the darkness behind the door, breathless and silent. Unseen, she watched Verity stomp off up to the attic and Olivia climb wearily back to bed.

Too weak to stand, Imogen sat down on the floor of the hallway. Verity had everything: youth and beauty and a baby. A perfect healthy baby that she didn't even want, that she planned to throw away!

Deep in thought, Imogen chewed the ends of her dark hair. She wouldn't allow it... and what had Olivia meant, ghosts can't raise a child? Why ever not? So many empty rooms for it in this old house, waiting for the sound of laughter and the running of little feet.

Verity, on the other hand... what to do about living, breathing, lying Verity? Imogen couldn't allow Olivia and Reverend Milton to take the girl away, but she couldn't physically intervene. Nor would she be able to do anything if Verity herself tried to run. Imogen couldn't stop them by herself.

She'd need Eli's help. Eli had restrained Olivia easily enough before, and Verity was half Olivia's size, dainty as a doll.

The baby must stay in the house.


Some time later, as light rain hissed in the grass beyond the shadow of the yew's branches, Eli leaned on the shovel, staring at the date carved on the stone: 1852. The years had eaten into the once clear lines of the letterforms, grey-green and yellow blooms of lichen had grown over the name and the epitaph.

Imogen had come to him with a torrent of angry words, telling him terrible things about Verity. That she was an impostor, an enemy of the creatures of the night. Fragile mortal creatures moulded form the mud, and still God's favoured children. A living girl, who must be kept from leaving.

Eli hadn't wanted to believe he'd been taken for a fool, and couldn't trust the word of Imogen when she was hysterical like that, but the doubt had come and wouldn't go away. Either the girl Verity who'd died in 1852 was hiding away in the attic with her nose in a book, or she was still lying in a state of peaceful and well-advanced decay far deep below the heavy earth... she couldn't be in both places at once. He began to dig.


It was getting dark by the time he reached the coffin, but he could see clearly enough that it had lain undisturbed for years, seamless in wet mud. Roots, wounded stark white where the shovel had scraped and broken them, clung to the sealed box, living wood folding the dead and varnished into a familiar embrace. The coffin had remained stubbornly intact, the tangle of roots by chance holding together what they so often tore apart. Still, he had to be sure. He pulled away fistfuls of the fibres, scraping away dirt to find the nails and set to work prying them out, scratching at the soft rotting wood with pocketknife and fingernails. Finally, a large corner of the lid broke away with a wet creaking sound, opening the interior of the coffin to white moonlight and eyes long-adjusted to the darkest of places.

Eli sat down there in the grave for a while, considering what he'd found. The creature who'd been interred there all those years ago lay there still, quiet as a mouse, and though there wasn't much of her left to look at, it was enough evidence to damn the girl up at the house who called herself Verity.

He laid the fragments of lid back in place, put the knife away, and tried to pull himself up onto the rim of the pit. Getting out was not so easy as getting down had been, with the mud slippery and treacherous under his hands and feet.

"Imogen told you, then?" It was barely more than a whisper, but anger lay in wait under the soft surface of that voice.

Eli froze guiltily. He hadn't meant to let her catch him exhuming what might have been her grave.

"I just knew she'd heard us," said the girl standing at the graveside. "I knew I couldn't trust her to keep her big mouth shut." She kicked the shovel. "And you had to do that, didn't you? You couldn't have come and asked me like a civilised person whether or not the rumours were true. Oh, no, you had to go digging behind my back." She flicked a dog-end down into the grave beside him. "As if you don't have a few skeletons in your own closet."

He hauled himself up onto the grass. He could walk away from all this, past the vicarage, down the hill and out of the village, the houses at the roadside getting fewer and further between. It would be safer than continuing involvement with this living girl. "So you're not Verity."

"Must you? Oh, all right. My real name," the girl paused, drew a deep breath and folded her arms in defiance, "is Penelope. Don't you dare laugh," she added sharply.

He should have seen her for what she was. He would have seen signs, if only he'd been looking. Why hadn't he looked? Why'd he let her get so close, her with eager questions and bright eyes? And what had he done to discourage her? Nothing. Bad enough that he'd let it happen once before, but Imogen had been tolerable as his one vice. And, of course, Imogen had finally had the decency to die, which had helped a lot. Imogen was different.
The girl stood there, waiting.

"Thought you were a vampire," he said at last. Should have known better.

"No. How much did Imogen overhear? That I have the Second Sight, yes? More than that?"

"Everything."

"Everything? Oh, wonderful." She tilted her pale heart-shaped face up to him, her eyes shining with tears. "This isn't going to ruin our friendship, is it?"

He stared at her. "You stole her grave."

"Yes, that was a terrible thing, I realise now. Can you forgive me?"

"You lied to us."

The girl bit her lip and the tears spilled over. "I'm sorry." She rushed to him, grabbing him, burying her face in his shirtfront. "I didn't mean it."

He tried to push her away, but she clung to him fierce as a cat, still begging forgiveness.

"Not me you should be saying 'sorry' to like that," he growled.

"What?"

He stood with his hands in his coat pockets, not looking at her, trying to ignore the unfamiliar closeness of body heat. "Tell all this to Imogen, not me."

"No! It's Imogen's fault this conversation is even happening!"

"Get back indoors, or…" There was another way to make Imogen happy again. His hand had found the pocketknife, unfolded deftly. No time to think. A moment later the girl gave a breathless, soundless cry and the blood ran hot over his hands in the small dark space between them. He pried away the little white fingers clinging to his coat, and she stumbled backwards, over the edge, landing with a thud and a crack on top of the coffin.

He leaned over the edge, staring into the murky depths of the defiled grave. She stared back up at him, not angry, not afraid. In between her agonised gasps for air she found no space for emotion, no words. He picked up the shovel and began to fill in the grave.

With nothing more to think about besides the task at hand, an unsettling thought arose. He would have to leave. He'd been careless and returned to the village for Imogen's sake far too often. Her niece had known him.

He'd say goodbye this time, remind her that he'd only been gone for a while. Imogen would wait. In fifty years he could return to the village and nobody would recognise him. In a hundred years, nobody alive would remember him at all.

 

 

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