Today is the Saint’s Day of St Frances of Rome. She’s a medieval Italian saint that is the patron saint of motorists. Apparently an angel used to light her way as she travelled around the countryside in a quest to help those in need. My late mother would have had a fit at the thought of me invoking a saint. My view is that when you see an Audi barrelling towards you as it overtakes a learner driver that’s overtaking a tractor, it helps to have something to call on.
My late mother also used to knit bikinis for Barbie dolls, and it’s National Barbie Day, as well as National Meatball Day and National Get Over It Day. For me, it’s more like an ‘Oh Bugger Day’
I was looking through some stuff for the Grumpy Old Gods Anthology (there’s a new one coming out in April, and I love the mix of them), and I found a lot of stuff. I mean, lots and lots and lots of stuff. I found stuff I started but abandoned, stuff I’d submitted, had rejected and forgotten and things that were actually quite good but needed tidying. And they are in every folder. Someone has randomly distributed my writing, scattering it in many places and under many names in a gazillion folders – and that someone was me. I know I’ve got something missing and I can’t find the dratted thing. I can remember roughly what it was about, but not what I called it about three years ago or so. Or I may be remembering something else. Or I did write it, but it got lost when the last computer died. Or it’s somewhere I haven’t thought of looking yet.
So, when it comes down to it, today is National Oh Bugger Day and also National Sort the Darn Computer Out Day. And because that isn’t particularly interested to read about, here’s something that I wrote and forgot.
I nearly fell off the chair at the unexpected knocking which thundered down the hall. I stood cautiously and edged towards the side window. At least the rain had stopped for now, but it was still cold and windy. The tiny cottage was miles from any streetlight and there was no light over the door, but the moon was bright enough to give me a glimpse of the visitor.
He was tall, and looked well built, and was wearing a leather jacket and a worried expression. He banged on the door again. I crept down the hall, checked the chain and cracked the door slowly open. “Hello?”
“Hi, I’m Carl Armstrong.” He glanced over my shoulder. “Can I come in?”
“No,” I said flatly.
Carl hesitated. “I’m looking for a stray.” He looked over his shoulder at the sound of barking in the overgrown bushes surrounding the garden. “I’m looking for a stray dog. I’ve got some dogs with me, looking for this stray dog. I wonder if he had managed to get into your cottage.” He craned to peer past me again.
“There are no dogs here,” I said. “It’s just a holiday cottage. I got here yesterday and there has been no sign of a dog anywhere. Perhaps you could check with the owner.”
“The dog hasn’t got an owner.” Carl checked again over his shoulder. In the silver light I could see dogs trotting across the weed covered lawn. “It’s a stray.”
“I meant you could ask the owner of the cottage.” I could see Carl better in the light of the hall. He was good-looking enough, with short, brown hair and a friendly, open expression, but he was built like a barn and I wasn’t letting a stranger in, not even for a stray dog. “Anyway, there are no dogs in here.”
“And you don’t have a dog yourself, miss?” Carl persisted.
“No, I don’t have a dog,” I said. “Goodnight.”
I started to close the door but Carl held it open. I may as well have tried to push over a car as push past his hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?” Carl looked at me expectantly.
“Because I didn’t give it to you. Excuse me?” I pushed ineffectively at the door.
“This stray dog, miss, is quite dangerous,” Carl looked around at the pack of dogs now lining up behind him. One of them yipped. “You shouldn’t approach any dog tonight, not even one of mine, just in case. The stray dog is not safe, miss.” There was another bark from the dogs behind him. They were snuffling at each other and restless. “In fact, the dog is sick, very sick. And that makes him unpredictable. You shouldn’t approach him at all.”
“Are you the police?” I asked.
“Not exactly.” Carl leaned back and tried to get a glimpse down the side of the cottage. “You should check all your doors and windows, miss, and make sure that they are all locked. I can come in and help if you like.”
“Dogs can’t open doors and windows,” I pointed out. “But don’t worry, I will definitely be checking everything.”
“And don’t come out if you hear some strange noises from the dogs here,” Carl said, waving a hand at his massive dogs who were now separating into two groups and heading down the sides of the cottage. “They are very well trained, but they don’t really spend much time around people.” There were a few deep woofs from the back garden. “Hopefully there won’t be any problems, but if there is…” He pushed a small card towards me, which I took reluctantly over the door chain. Carl smiled reassuringly at me. “You may like to put the number in your phone if you’re here for the next few days, in case of trouble with the stray.”
“Thanks,” I said, and closed the door firmly. I took a breath and checked the chain, turned the lock and slid the two bolts across the door. I took a step back and pulled the curtain across the door. I listened carefully. I could hear the sounds of barks and howls around the house. The dogs had reminded me a little of huskies as they had milled around behind Carl, which would explain all the noise, but perhaps with some Alsatian mixed in. They were nothing like my sister’s bad tempered shih tzu, at any rate, and far too purposeful to allow in.
I spent some time methodically working around the tiny cottage checking all the doors and windows. Half the windows on this old place were rusted shut anyway, but I checked and placed inconvenient vases and ornaments behind the bigger windows before pulling over the heavy curtains. I had come here to get away from my problems and have some peace and quiet, not to get entangled in a lost dog saga. Finally I checked the back door. It was still locked and bolted and I sighed with relief. Then I went back into the large kitchen and settled back onto my laptop.
The cottage was tiny, remote and cheap and exactly what I needed. I had been desperate to escape so I had thrown my case in a car and driven into North Wales, carrying on until I was tired. Now I was somewhere I couldn’t pronounce, just past Llandegla, and surrounded by dogs.
It wasn’t too bad, I thought, as I settled down in the most comfortable chair in the house next to the small open fire and opened my laptop. The wi-fi was surprisingly good and the house was finally warming up despite the autumn chill. I had bought an insane amount of firewood with my groceries and this morning I had lit a fire not only in the kitchen hearth but in the grate in the small parlour at the front of the house and in the lavender scented dormer, which had helped. The house was clean, although unlived in, and it was enough for me. I checked the card that Carl had pressed on me and start searching the internet.
I tried to ignore the insistent barking and howling that was echoing around the outside of the house and garden. Carl had claimed that his dogs were well trained but they certainly weren’t quiet. I took a mouthful from my mug of coffee and frowned. According to what I could find, Carl was a chef at a pub just outside Chester. There was nothing about the half dozen dogs that had been prowling behind him earlier. I checked deeper. Carl was definitely not a fan of social media, but I tracked him through a few qualifications and college message boards. He was perhaps the only dog-owner I had met who hadn’t filled their pages with pictures of their pet. He was apparently single, seemed to be close to his family, and had nothing to give a reason why he should bang on my door late at night and talk about stray dogs. I took another mouthful of coffee.
At least chasing down the digital footprint of Carl Armstrong gave me something to think about and I wasn’t sitting and brooding about my ex-boyfriend getting engaged to my sister. They had been pretty decent about it. He had broken up with me when he met my sister and had avoided my family for months until my sister got transferred to his office and the rest was inevitable. I had given them sincere good wishes, kept meticulously sober throughout their engagement dinner, handed in my notice at work and fled. They would be very happy. I needed space.
The noise from the dogs was getting louder. I wondered if I dared to risk peaking through a curtain. I put another log on the fire instead and settled back down. There was something chilling about the howls echoing around the nearby fields. I wondered if they were really looking for a stray dog, or whether there was something more sinister. Carl had looked like one of the good guys, but then apparently so did most serial killers.
I set the old-fashioned coffee percolator on the plate over the fire and rinsed out my mug. I peaked through a chink in the thin kitchen curtains. Carl was clear in the moonlight, crouched and talking urgently to one of the huge dogs. I stared for a moment, transfixed. Seeing Carl, who was tall and extremely well-built, crouching next to one of the dogs and looking up, demonstrated their massive size, and it wasn’t just height, like a Great Dane. These looked muscled and hardened, and their immaculate coats gleamed in the moonlight. If the stray was anything like these, I would have no chance. I shivered and went back to pour my coffee.
I had a little more luck tracing Carl’s family. They had apparently owned the Red Lion for generations. There was an online form for bookings and a sample menu, which looked pretty appetising. There was even a picture of the family winning the village tug of war competition. I could see the family resemblance. They were all tall, strong and reasonably good-looking, although most did not look as easy-going as Carl. There was nothing about dogs.
There was an eerie howl echoing along the valley. I checked the clock. It was quarter past midnight and far too late to be looking for a stray. I stared at the fire and wished I had less imagination. Carl had said he was sick. Perhaps he was carrying a new plague developed in a top secret facility. I shivered, then stood and took the last mouthful of coffee in the mug. I didn’t feel sleepy but I did feel cold. I could get a jacket from the bedroom.
The hall still felt damp and I shivered as passed the unheated bathroom. I quickly looked in. I had remembered to check the window, which had rusted shut, but there were no curtains to pull. I paused for a moment in the chill. The room was eerily bright as the full moon shone unhindered and reflected brightly around the polished white tiles. There was no need for a light. Every detail was starkly illuminated in the glare.
For a second the window went dark as a shadow moved across and then it smashed. I screamed in shock and then screamed again. A older, naked man, scrawny and underweight with a crazed look in his eye was climbing in heedless of the risk of broken glass. I backed out of the bathroom and slammed the door shut and raced towards the kitchen. I could hear the scrabble for the bathroom handle and then a desperate, hoarse voice. “No, no, nooooohhh…”
I skidded into the kitchen and grabbed for the poker. “Get away from me!” I whirled around ready to swing. The man was on all fours, lurching and ungainly, his eyes rolling and froth dripping from his slack mouth. Then he flowed. Suddenly instead of the skinny junkie there was a large, drooling hound, its ribs showing through its matted, grey streaked fur and its eyes were rolling. Instinctively I swore and swung as hard as I could at whatever it was.
It wasn’t enough. The hound yelped as the poker caught it, but I didn’t have the strength and the dog barely slowed, leaping at me and snapping, its claws scratching deep as I scrabbled to keep away. There was a blur of teeth, claws and stink as I was nearly overwhelmed, then I fell backwards over the chair by the fire. I grabbed the percolator and hurled it at the dog. The scalding coffee splashed into its face and it screamed and fell back. I took the chance to race out of the kitchen. The front and back doors were locked and the windows were fastened. The quickest way out was through the broken bathroom window.
I dived into the bathroom, locked the bathroom door and wriggled quickly through the window frame, falling awkwardly onto the flower bed outside, rolling out of the mud and on to my feet. Which way now? My phone was on the kitchen table, next to my car keys. I had to head for help. I could hear the creature crashing against the bathroom door and howling. I couldn’t stay here. But where was the nearest help?
“Kelly, over here!” I looked around and saw Carl beckoning me over towards the lavender hedge. “It’s okay, we’re here to help.”
I could hear the door splintering behind me and I swore and ran over to where Carl and his dogs were crouched. In the cold, pale light I looked at the dogs and then over my shoulder. “They’re like him, aren’t they?”
“It’s complicated.” Carl said awkwardly. “But they’re not going to attack you.”
I could hear a crash and another howl inside the cottage. “Werewolves.” I managed. “It’s all werewolves.”
“It’s not exactly what you think.” Carl said. “Yes, but we won’t hurt you. Hang on, you’re bleeding.”
“Are you a vampire?” I asked, my head starting to swim.
Carl looked offended. “Of course not. I’m a werewolf, just the same as the rest of us, but I’ve got clothes with me. It’s not the done thing to walk around naked in front of strangers unless you’re in fur.”
An icy wave ran through me. “I don’t feel very well.”
Carl grabbed my arm. “How did you get this wound?”
I looked down at the jagged tear on my arm. “I’m not sure,” I mumbled.
“Did Roy bite you?”
“Roy?” I stared at Carl. How could a werewolf be called ‘Roy’?
The biggest of the werewolves barked urgently at Carl, who nodded. “Roy is sick. He’s got white jaw. It’s really bad and can send a werewolf crazy. He didn’t have a pack, but he kept himself to himself and didn’t cause any trouble. But now he’s not in his right mind. He may have bitten you.”
“It could have been the glass in the window,” I said.
The main werewolf barked again. Carl nodded. “You’re right, dad.” He turned to me. “We’ve got some first aid stuff in the van in the lane. We’re only supposed to track Roy down, poor lad. There’s a doctor on his way, and some more official back up, but we came prepared. We need to get you cleaned up.”
“I’m sure it’s just the glass in the window.” I said, feeling queasy as I watched my blood drip slowly from my arm.
“Come on, let me give you a hand,” Carl said. “White jaw is pretty bad.” He looked around at the jumpy werewolves who were watching the bathroom window with care. “But it’s easy to treat if it’s caught early enough and we’ve got a great doctor.
I could hear another crash in the cottage. Dimly I wondered how much I would be charged for all the damage. There was a lull in the banging and then a thumping against the front door. The leader of the werewolves barked urgently at Carl, who nodded.
“Roy is hallucinating. He seemed to get fixed on this cottage for some reason. He’s a good man, really, normally wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Carl looked down at my arm. “I’m sure it’s just the glass, really.”
“And if it isn’t?” The world seemed to be fading in and out.
“It’s okay. White jaw can be treated,” Carl said awkwardly. He looked around as the leader woofed urgently. The front door of the cottage bulged and burst outwards. A slavering werewolf staggered out.
It was an awful sight. Foam dripped from his mouth and ran into the matted fur around his neck and chest. His hands and arms were flowing from human to wolf and back, leaking blood from hand or paw and flinching any time he tried to use them. The back paws stayed wolf like but were also bleeding from the glass in the bathroom and he was swaying as he advanced towards me.
Carl pushed me behind him as the werewolves formed an arc, baying at Roy to keep him back. Roy slumped down and started to crawl forward. I was glad to lean on Carl as he helped me back away from the snarls and the snapping. “How did you know my name?”
“I called in a favour and looked up your details from your car.” Carl wasn’t paying full attention. His eyes were fixed on Roy who was struggling forward, snapping at the encircling werewolves.
“Is that legal?” I asked.
Carl forced his horrified gaze away from Roy. “I really need to get that arm cleaned up. Lean on me.”
There were horrified yelps from the werewolves as, in a sudden surge of unexpected energy, Roy leapt over the nearest werewolf and then bounded towards me. Carl pushed me behind him as the drooling beast gathered to spring and then there was a loud explosion. I flinched and stumbled but Carl caught me. I stared first at the stranger who stood next to us, impassive, slowly lowering a large handgun, then at Roy, slowly flowing back to the shape of a skinny, naked old man with black veins spreading over his pale skin.
“I’m sorry, Carl,” the newcomer said. “I know you had a soft spot for Roy. But he was too far gone. I had to take him out.”
“It’s okay, Mike.” Carl said quietly. “If we could have just caught it a few hours earlier…” He trailed off, staring sadly at the pitiful remains. He looked up slowly at the barks from the leader. “Okay, dad, I’ll get Kelly out of here.” He managed a smile at me. “Come down to the van and I’ll get you cleaned up. This is Mike Doyle, and he’s a pretty good medic. He can have a look at it.”
“There’s a doctor on the way,” Mike said soothingly. “He’ll get any infection sorted out.”
“How about the werewolf thing?” I asked, still unable to look away from Roy as a chill ran through me followed by a wave of fever. I felt Carl exchange a look with Mike.
“It may not have been a bite,” Carl said, “And, if it was, it’s not so bad being a werewolf.”
I felt darkness slide over me. My last thought as I passed out was, ‘and the first thing I do as a werewolf is to faint. What a great start.’