Having died already in my dream, the day could only get better. It had already dawned with an implacable leaden sky and a bitter chill. It probably wouldn’t brighten up much today and I was sorely tempted to have a duvet day. That’s one of the things about this job, you can’t pull a sickie and you can’t have time off, a life, or anything else to which you mistakenly think you’re entitled. Only five more sleeps until Santa and I suddenly wondered what my family were going to be doing. Given that I hadn’t met any of them (that I knew of) and didn’t know if any of them were even alive, that was really going to stretch my creative abilities.
I chewed dispiritedly on a fried egg sandwich loaded with ketchup and tried to force my brain to come up with the goods.
After clearing up I put on just about all the clothes I’d brought with my coat stretched to capacity on top. I went out through the French windows into the overgrown garden beyond and didn’t bother locking them. Whatever lurked here was not going to be put off by locks and bolts.
I called for the dog and the parallel between the beast that Lucille Harper-Hodge had told me about and the dog I’d taken to the vet wasn’t lost on me. She had said that although she hadn’t actually set eyes on it, she had seen a trail of blood leading from the door across the grass. Well, it looked like there was another wounded dog out there, prowling around in the garden and the woods beyond. Maybe they would breed and the Harper-Hodges could start their very own best-in-show Devil Dogs.
I walked over the grass and down the gravel path that curved into the wood at the foot of the garden. There was a little stream that I had to jump and thought, like the Rowan tree, what a good protection it usually was. It was true that some of the nastier beasts didn’t like crossing running water. Pity the problems were so much bigger in little old Midnight. The wind had that damp chill presaging snow and I pulled my collar tighter. Fallen leaves in colour swatches of gold, ochre and burgundy littered the grass and reminded me of Jean’s hair. Where had she been the previous night? I couldn’t imagine her missing such fun and frolics for all the world.
Crunching across the leaves I entered the dense, silent wood where no bird sang and no animal rustled. Just as well my coat wasn’t red and I didn’t have a little hamper with a polka dot cover over the top.
“Douglas,” I called, “Here doggy, doggy. Come on now, wouldn’t you like something to eat?”
I cursed myself, because that’s what I should have done: brought some food and the hound would have been mine. But nothing stirred in the wood, not the flick of squirrel’s tail or the flap of a bird’s wing. As I walked through the trees I could see some of them were diseased and some had partially collapsed onto other healthier trees making them buckle under the combined weight. It was like everything else in this place: the closer you looked the uglier it got. And anyway what was I thinking of? Why the hell was I trying to attract the attention of a creature that I wasn’t even sure was actually a dog? But even as the question formed, I knew the answer: he didn’t have anyone else, didn’t even have a name and I, god help me, felt sorry for him. Anyway it was a moot point now because it looked like I really was Dug less after all.
A bitter wind made foreplay with the portion of my face that was exposed, promising much and expecting little in return. I ignored it and pressed on much as I had in my dream. I felt uneasy and out of my depth. That my dream had been genuine, I had no doubt. What I wasn’t sure of was why I was having it now. Yes it was a premonition of death, but warnings from the great beyond don’t necessarily occur just before the big event. The fact was that, like everyone else, I was going to die. In my line of business, the likelihood of it being violent and untimely was quite high. The only question left was when. Besides the obvious point of the dream, it seemed to me to be more a message within a message. As though someone was trying very hard to tell me something. If they had known whom they were dealing with, they would have been a lot less subtle.
Dreaming about the Washerwoman was completely over the top. Sort of like being told in a dream you were going to die by a skeleton with a scythe. It was overdone to say the least. The Washerwoman was, like the skeleton, an archetypal figure representing death. The difference between her and the skeleton was that she existed in Gaelic lore: she was specific to this place and someone born and brought up here oh let’s say three hundred years ago just might have known who she was well enough to dream about her. While I knew a little about the folklore, or at any rate, enough to have heard of the Washerwoman, she certainly wasn’t uppermost in my mind. So if the dream was a straightforward portent of death that I’d picked up with my spidey senses, I’d bet a bottle of my favourite malt that my sub-conscious would have come up with some other way of depicting my impending demise.
I did occasionally get dream premonitions and this didn’t feel like one of them. And that was the crux: it didn’t feel right. Usually with warning dreams, or any dream about future events, the feel of the dream was crucial. From that you could generally figure out whether it was going to turn out in the end or not. Not with this one. Well, obviously I died, so how could that have a happy ending? But my instinct was that someone or something that didn’t know much about twenty-first century symbology and was far more familiar with ancient Gaelic folklore had sent me that dream. But who would that be and what would be the point to sending me such a message?
And what about the part containing Luke? That was the bit where I fell down a mountain of skulls and crashed to my death. Now that was definitely more like one of mine. But that was more about fear and being pursued by something that to me was the epitome of evil. I was feeling better about this whole thing by the second.
That was the problem with being psychic. You got the messages, but you didn’t get the decoder to crack them with.
My boot caught in tree root and I fell over in into a pile of bracken, winding myself. I looked up at the trees, anorexic branches raised as though in supplication to the blackening cloud gods rolling in from the east. And having looked up I saw it. It was made of the half decayed corpse of a rabbit, rotting flesh hanging off in red strips, with a glimpse of the pus coloured fat visible below the skin. The rabbit had what looked like withered leaves and stalks stuffed into the mouth. It was hanging from the first branch of a deciduous fir and swung gently in the wind. Something caught my eye and looking to the left I saw another one, identical to the first and then another. A rabbit serial killer’s treetop dump site. The small pathetic corpses swung and dripped in the wind them a surreal vestige of life.
It looked like black magic to me. And in fact walking around the trees from which this voodoo fruit hung I could see they were arranged in a circle and the trees themselves had small, almost insignificant marks cut into their bark. Something had been summoned here and scary as that was, the questions were by whom and why.
There was something lying in the bracken just by the drenched bark of a silver birch and the smell of mulch and leaf mould cloyed in my nostrils as I picked it up. I carefully turned it over in my hand and saw it was a crudely constructed doll made of sticks and human hair. Blond hair, just like the absent Henry’s from what I could see from the photographs in the Harper-Hodge living room. The doll, three sticks (one almost snapped in half and used to represent the legs) bound together with string, had no face and the head was hanging on by a thin piece of bark. The hair had been wrapped around the top of the stick representing the head at an incongruously jaunty angle and there was also a small rusted pin piercing the stick torso. Wrapping it carefully in a large hanky I put it into my pocket and walked thoughtfully back to the house which awaited me with open doors. I got my best scrying glass out and went to work.