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Black Dog - Chapter 42

The ringing of the telephone dragged Olivia from the borderlands of sleep and she answered with a growled "Who is it?"

A crackling pause, then: "Libby, is that you?" The voice on the other end of the line was faint, obscured, familiar from a lifetime ago. "This handwriting is near illegible, dreadful low class scribble..." the words choked off into tears.

"Auntie Imogen?"

Imogen gave a shaky sigh, composing herself. "I've been thinking, well, ought to bury the hatchet, hadn't we? Eli's home, so…"

Silence opened up, Olivia's heart quivering with fear. One question surfaced from the confusion and horror, "How?"

"That grubby little man from the hospital came to the house," said Imogen, her voice high and strained, far from the nonchalant tone she was aiming for. "We found this number in his belongings. I don't entirely understand what just happened, and Eli is… um… not feeling talkative. You know how he is. Please come home, Libby. I didn't mean any of those things I said."

Olivia looked around the neat little flat she shared with Polly, the fragile normal life she'd been building for herself. She didn't dare think any further before she promised: "I'll be there soon."

*

She couldn't go back to the house without at least letting Grace know, and Grace refused to let her go alone. They arranged to meet at the train station cafe the next day, and walked down to Peter's Cross without stopping, both restless, both quiet.

Olivia rubbed irritably at her nose: a woman had got on the train wearing half a gallon of perfume, soaking the entire carriage in an overwhelming miasma of lavender, and by the time Olivia had made her escape, her eyes had been watering and her sense of smell temporarily crippled. She could still taste it. Dry like chalk, like dust, like pepper caught in the back of her throat, closing out any and all subtler scents. For someone who'd grown used to following her nose without a second thought, the sensation was like walking out of bright sunshine into a room with curtains drawn, and it made her anxious, knowing that Eli could be close by.

"You knew he'd come back, didn't you?" said Olivia, as she and Grace passed under the arch of the lych gate. They hiked up the hill towards the top of the graveyard, but both of them had turned their faces to the shadowy figure of the house in the grey moth-laced dusk. Behind it, the moon lurked low, incomplete, but Olivia's attention was on the windows, all dark. Imogen didn't need much light, the house having become an extension of her own body over the decades. Eli simply didn't need much light.

"I had my suspicions," said Grace. "He never stays gone for long, they all said."

"They?"

"The old stories. The books, upstairs." Grace gestured airily overhead at an imagined library, then glanced at Olivia. "I'm not a reader, but you know how Henry is for history, and our family has a long history."

"How old are you?" Grace's appearance at the station had shocked Olivia for a moment. Her cousin was not her usual bright self, her bleached blonde hair pulled back in a spartan bun, her face stark without makeup, her coat a drab tan colour. Glamour put aside, worry wearing at the lines around her eyes and mouth, she looked decades older. Nevertheless she smiled as shook her head.

"Too old to be answering that question. Immy didn't recognise me, did she? Well, we were never that close." 

Before Olivia could ask any more questions, Grace took a sharp turn off into the undergrowth, and in the gloom it took most of Olivia's attention to avoid tripping on bindweed and half-submerged wrecks of stone marking old forgotten graves.

Grace stopped in the shadow of a handful of low trees. "Here's a corner of the graveyard you won't have seen before."

It had the look of a fairy ring. Native stones unworked by any man's hand, pale in the twilight. Half a dozen of them standing tall in the centre, more of them scattered in a large rough circle. Between the trees and some grand old mausoleum, they were hidden from view of the path, the house, and the church.

Pointing out each stone, Grace recited the names of those who'd gone before. "He took them as children when he got the chance. Easier to train a puppy, I suppose," she said bitterly. "Of course, none of us ever found the way through, you've seen for yourself how impossible it is." She stared at the stones as if in a trance. "You should learn their names too. I'll help you do it."

"Thank you," said Olivia, her voice low with reverence. "What about Imogen, though?"

Grace shook her head. "Imogen was special, so she didn't have to go through it. It only takes one of us, out of every generation. I..." She wiped at her eyes and gave a shaky laugh. "Keep on track now, Gracie," she warned herself. "No sense in getting worked up about ancient history."

Olivia said nothing, the most prominent thought in her head being that Giles ought to be buried here, but his name had not been in the roll call of the dead. How many generations had the family been sacrificing its children to a lost cause? Those unmarked stones bore no dates, only moss and lichen and the pitting of countless years.

"You said I wasn't the first to try," said Olivia.

"What, stranding him out there in that horrible place? I tried it myself, but I wasn't quick enough. In the morning I ran away, thought I could break the chain. I thought if he couldn't find any of us, he certainly wouldn't be able to make more, but..."

"He found one of you?"

"Mm."

The ring of stones kept drawing Olivia's eyes. "All the wolves are our family?" She remembered Grace saying so before, but she hadn't really taken it in at the time.

"All of us. We don't live forever. We live long, because we're Lockwoods, even if not by name, but we burn out."

Olivia thought of Mr Green with his pewter-topped cane, and of the teary anxious wreck that Giles had become, and of everything she knew Grace had done to try to put an end to this. "What are we going to do? How can we stop Eli from doing this again?"

"I don't know. Don't expect him to do as you tell him anymore, no matter what nonsense Malcolm sold you. You won't catch him off guard with that again."

Olivia had ordered Eli never to come back, so obviously that hadn't stuck. Someone, somehow, had undone all her hard work. She had several horrible suspicions about who and how and why.

"I'm going to snoop about and see what I can see," said Grace. It made sense of her newly drab appearance: surprising as it was see her dressed down like that, Grace would now disappear into any crowd.

Olivia nodded. "I need to talk to a couple of people. Best if I do it alone."

"Keep your wits about you," Grace advised. "We don't know where he is now."

Olivia glanced again at that moon. Any plan must come soon or wait another month, her strength and courage waxing and waning. With Grace already melting into the distance, Olivia stood on the path, looking towards the bright lights of the vicarage. The next person she must talk to was already walking out, raven-dark wings folded solemnly at his back. Olivia hiked up to meet him at the crossroads.

"This is the last time I'm going to ask for your help," she said. Her hands had curled into fists, fingernails sharp against her palms.

"I..."

"No! Don't say it. You can help me." An idea had been forming in her mind, feeling as slow as a green shoot coming up, but she'd need Reverend Milton's help. She told him what she was thinking. As she'd suspected, he began to shake his head.

She pursed her lips. Her eyes and nostrils still burned from the lavender perfume and she couldn't afford to linger in the graveyard, a sitting duck. "Fine," she snapped. "If he kills me, you can bury me in the stone circle over there, can't you? I've already had to dig one grave, bury one friend, so I hope that means I've paid my dues."

Milton froze as still as any of the lovely stone angels perched on their monuments.

"Verity: that was her name," Olivia pushed. "Why do you go on protecting him? You knew what he was doing to my family, and you just let him."

Milton shook his head again, as if he could deny everything. "Eli's kind are God's creatures too. He was suffering."

"Eli was suffering?" Rage bubbled up in Olivia's chest.

"He was lost, and I couldn't help him. I've always done my best to make sure your family didn't suffer unduly," Milton protested. In subtle ways he'd been able to protect the Lockwoods: healing their ills; keeping the local fields bountiful and free of disease; by divine inspiration cautiously intervening to decide where the family's young men must go to war, when they had to. All that to assuage an angel's guilt.

His story didn't much impress Olivia. She folded her arms across her chest. "What about Imogen's baby? You didn't do anything to protect her."

Milton looked wretched. "I didn't know, not in time to..."

"And Uncle George?"

"I…" Fallible angel. Hadn't he known about that, either?

"There seems to be quite a lot you don't know," said Olivia sharply. "Help me this once, and I'll never ask you again." The angel could consider his work done, and do as he pleased after that.

A small dark figure pulled away from the shadow of a nearby tree. It looked like something half-drowned, hair and clothes clumped with heavy mud, white face in the moonlight, sharp teeth and eyes shining in a malicious grin.

Olivia's heart flipped. Too late the sickly scent of jasmine and decay wound their tendrils down her throat, penetrating the numb fog and finally overpowering the taste of lavender. "Verity..."

"You'll never make a gravedigger. Six feet deep, it's supposed to be. You hardly managed three, and you made sloppy work of that." Verity glanced shrewdly from Olivia to Milton. "So she's finally caught up with the rest of us, has she? And now she's looking for a new way to be rid of her family's curse for good."

"It's true, is it? Eli's back? You've seen him?"

The nasty grin faltered. "I don't need to see him, I just know. How else could I have climbed out of my grave a second time?" she sneered. "You have no idea what it's like, down there in the dark. You died quickly. I choked on dirt, and he was the last thing I saw. You want revenge? Not as much as I do, never as much as I do." Then she smiled, smug. "And unlike you, I know how to get it. Right here: the crossroads." She looked down at the gravel beneath her little feet. "It has to be here."

 

 

*

Walking rapidly towards the house, Olivia began to piece a plan together from conversations with Grace, Reverend Milton, Verity. She didn't trust Verity, she couldn't rule out the possibility that Eli had sent her to spy on and mislead them, but Verity's hunger for revenge had been all too real and ugly, boiling like maggots bringing dead meat to life.

Olivia knew what had to be done, but first she must consider every detail. Fitting ideas together, rejecting them, trying again, running it over and over in her mind's eye. The immediate future spread out like the branches of a great tree, and so many of those branches ended in her death or enslavement.

Every muscle taut, every nerve alive and singing, Olivia slipped in through the back door, her eyes darting to the position of the kitchen knives, the heavy cast-iron frying pan. "Auntie Imogen?" she whispered into the empty house, "I'm home."

A spectral figure appeared in the gloom: thin, frail, wringing arthritic hands together anxiously as if washing them. Her face was drawn and pale. "Libby, there you are."

"Where's Eli?"

"Out. He was hungry and didn't like the look of anything in the pantry."

I bet he didn't. Dogfood and stale biscuits. Olivia relaxed slightly, though she thought of Grace out there, alone. No, don't think about that. Grace could take care of herself.

"I didn't mean for it to happen," said Imogen.

Breathing carefully and steadily, Olivia filled the kettle with water. She didn't know how long she had. "What happened, exactly?" she asked, concentrating on matchbox, match, gas, familiar ritual.

Silence stretched out. Olivia let Imogen think on what she wanted to say, conscious that the truth was being edited, whittled down to whatever suited Imogen best. "He shouldn't have come here."

"Who, Malcolm?"

"I shouldn't have let him in." Imogen sighed wearily. "I'm a stupid old woman…"

"No you're not. Malcolm's -"

"A friend of Verity's, so he said." The ghost flitted agitatedly around the kitchen. "I'd taken him to be a bit backwards, at first glance. He just had that look about him, you know? Then, when he came to the house, looking for Verity, seeming not to know what had gone on, acting all pathetic and lovestruck, I felt sorry for him. He went upstairs, saying he wanted some things of his that he'd lent to Verity. We let him into the attic, Lizzy and I, though Lizzy said maybe we shouldn't. He… um… he called Eli back from... I don't know. It was all very strange. Eli didn't want to hurt him, not to begin with..."

The kettle whistled in the hollow house. Olivia had seen no other ghosts since her return.

Olivia carried the tray of teapot, two cups, milk and sugar into the living room. Treading softly, still careful, still focused on what she knew, but with one ear turned to the door. She made herself a cup of tea, and placed the second cup close to Imogen's hand. Empty, of course, but nobody likes to be left out.

The smell of death lingered, but here it was sharper and newer, none of the gravedirt smell that softened Verity's scent, not the sickening mothball scent of Jim.

Olivia curled her cold hands around the heat of the cup, leaning forward, inhaling deeply the comforting steam rolling off it in the cold room. "Eli killed Malcolm?" She'd suspected this, or something like it, from the phone call. She remembered distinctly Imogen saying she'd got the phone number from Malcolm's belongings and not from him.

Imogen reached instinctively for the empty cup to occupy her hands, and refused to meet Olivia's gaze. She gripped the arms of the chair tightly. "No, I... It was an accident." Her voice shook. "I didn't mean for it to happen like that, but -"

"Shush, shush," Olivia soothed, laying a hand gently over the ghostly knuckles, ignoring the chill, stilling the shiver. An accident. Olivia's heart accepted the notion too readily, while her head warned how soon she could end up as the next 'accident'. "Where's the body?" she asked softly. "I'm sure we can sort something out." She'd have to bury another. She'd have to pray that Malcolm had no more family than Verity had. "Auntie Imogen? Where's the body?"

"Oh. That. Eli took that away." One hand flipped unconsciously towards the woods. "Don't ask me where."

Olivia bowed her head to drink, the curve of china disguising her expression. "I see."

"He shouldn't have come here," said Imogen.

"No, you're quite right. He brought it on himself."

"He did, didn't he? Horrid little man, snooping about. Will you stay here tonight?" The look in her eyes was desperate, and Olivia had never seen her so old or so frail. "Please? In case anyone else comes."

Nothing about Olivia's few encounters with Malcolm suggested he had a family. "Won't Eli mind?"

Imogen thought about this. "We won't tell him you're here. Not just yet. Please stay, love."

Olivia forced a smile. "I'll stay as long as you need me to."

She stayed, but she didn't sleep.

She washed up the tea things and put them away, exactly as they'd been when she'd arrived.

She consulted the calendar.

She prowled the towering stacks of the plundered library, one ear tuned to the sound of creaking timbers.

She made what preparations she could while Imogen dozed at the cold fireside.

She propped a cricket bat against her bedside in the guest bedroom, leaving the light off, the curtains open. Then she sat fully-dressed on the bed, knees drawn up to her chest, settling down to wait.

The slam of a door jolted her from near-dozing. She held her breath. A cricket bat would not be nearly enough, and worse than that - she'd cornered herself. So much for all her planning… Stealthily she lifted the cricket bat from its place, gripping it tightly to keep her hands from shaking. She waited, minutes inching by. Had her breathing always been so loud?

The door slammed again, the house falling into silence. Hours passed and Olivia's head nodded forward onto her chest.

Imogen appeared in front of her as if by magic, looking worried. "You won't tell anyone what I did, will you?" she asked, timid and frail in the morning light. She was so very old.

"Of course not," Olivia mumbled. Her eyes were bleary and her mouth tasted sour - she must have slept after all. "Where's Eli?"

"Out again. Don't worry, I didn't tell him you were here."

Obviously not. "Thank you."

Olivia walked into town that morning, making more preparations, packing a bag with the things she'd need, stashing it at the vicarage porch. Mid-afternoon she came home, made a cup of tea, sat down with Auntie Imogen, talked about this and that. Her nerves were strained to the limits, but she maintained a mask of pleasant company. Her gaze kept wandering to the stopped clock on the mantelpiece. Afterwards, she washed up the tea things again, maintaining her charade. The conversation lulled into a not-quite-comfortable silence. Banana prowled the windowsill outside, meowing, and Olivia opened the window to let him in. It took considerable effort to pull the window tight into the frame and latch it closed again, something Auntie Imogen had never worried too much about it. The house had never been burgled in her lifetime. This time, however, she didn't tell Olivia not to bother. Banana sat down on the draining board, purring while Imogen stroked him absently.

"He could forgive you," she said. She didn't sound much like she believed her own statement. "Eli, not the cat."

Olivia laughed. "Oh, yes. Give it a century or two, maybe he would."

"Well I hope it doesn't take quite that long. I'll talk to him in the morning."

"Mm. You do that, then. Oh, you weren't planning on going for a stroll this evening, were you?"

Auntie Imogen looked more worried than ever, and Olivia knew she'd have to be careful what she said. Auntie Imogen couldn't be allowed to know too much too soon. Olivia was already relying heavily on her too-shaky understanding of the way the ghostly mind worked, the simplification and abstraction of a haunted memory. "No, no plans. Why?"

"Probably better if you stay indoors tonight." She shouldn't have said anything. There had been no serious risk of Imogen leaving the house after dark anyway, not until Olivia had opened her big mouth.

"But why?"

"I can't really explain," said Olivia. "Just humour me, please?"

"What's all this ominous claptrap, out of nowhere?" Imogen rolled her eyes. "Oh, I know what this is about. I remember the way you always used to disappear off into the woods with Eli, every full moon. You're still embarrassed about your doggy business after I got in a tizzy about it that once. That's it, isn't it?"

Olivia laughed in relief. "My 'doggy business'? Is that what we're calling it these days?"

"Well I at least can be a grownup about it, and admit the sight of my poor little niece turned into a slavering monster reduces my legs to jelly."

Olivia winced at the sting of the 'monster' comment. "I felt so awful about it, blundering in and frightening you and the cats like that." It was true. Perhaps it wasn't quite the right truth for the moment, but it was certainly a truth.

"Will you be all right out there by yourself? Eli always used to..."

"I've got Grace," said Olivia too sharply, because it was that or tears.

Imogen didn't seem to notice. "Very well then, I shall stay in all night reading a book like a proper old spinster with my cats, if it makes you happy. I'll give up all my social engagements for the evening and make way for the bright young things. Go on then, off with you. I did tell you not to do it in the house again."

Olivia smiled sheepishly. "You did."

"Take care, and I'll try not to disturb you in the morning." And the ghost drifted off, back to the living room.

Olivia stood a moment, waiting to be confident she was alone. Lifting the large heavy kitchen scissors off their hook, she opened them into a cross and slipped them carefully under the doormat. She locked up on her way out, having pocketed the spare key as well, and set off towards the churchyard at a brisk pace.

 

 

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