He shook his head. “It’s dead easy,” he said. “We can figure out the details later. Tonight all you need to know is this lever,” creak-creak, “this way if you want the fire to burn up more, this way if you want it to die back a little. You put the wood in here,” clunk, “and you keep an eye on it. You don’t want it burning hard—that just wastes wood”—the lever made a faint scraping noise as he moved it—“you probably want it about there, but we’ll check in a few minutes.”
He looked past me into the vast cavern of the parlour. “I suppose you do have central heating . . .”
“I can’t afford it,” I said, and hesitated, looking at my dog and reminding myself how it was I was renting a house about twelve times bigger than I needed. If I was going to stick a pin in a map, why couldn’t I have been on the Florida page? Although there were alligators in Florida. I would end up in a town with alligators. “And I don’t need an attic and six offices anyway. Hayley said they’d lean on the landlord to put in a wood stove. Another wood stove.” If wood was cheap I really did have to learn how to use the thing. Things.
“Your Guardian should keep the downstairs warm—you may need a fan, and you want to start keeping a big kettle of water on top—it depends on how good the insulation is and how bad the drafts are. And how you feel about being cold.”
I wrapped my arms around myself and tried not to shiver.
“Okay,” said Mike. “Then you’ll want the second stove. Maybe upstairs, if the floor’ll stand it.”
“And an electric blanket,” I said, concentrating on not shivering, although I was beginning to feel a little heat radiating off Caedmon. I needed to carry some book boxes and get my blood circulating again.
“An electric blanket?” said Mike. “Why? You have a perfectly good dog.”
Sid, as if on cue, walked delicately past us and lay down in front of Caedmon.
She looked up at Mike as he looked down at her. “Although she may need you to keep her warm at the moment.” He bent down to pat her. “She’s got more ribs than a Fourth of July barbeque.” She flopped over on her side and raised a leg to encourage him to rub her ski-slope tummy. “If Bridget—and Jim—hadn’t told me you’d caught the Phantom I wouldn’t believe it,” he said, rubbing. “This is not your average one-day-reclaimed wary, nervous stray dog.” Sid’s eyes were half-closed and her relaxed top lip had fallen away from her teeth, giving her a kind of mad half-smile. “They’ve been trying to get anywhere near her for months. Dad and me too, of course, and half the town,” he added. “This isn’t a successful stray-dog area: stray dogs don’t survive the winter. But your Phantom did. We figured she—now we know she’s a she—must have found shelter somewhere. But wherever it was didn’t include food.”
He stood up and Sid’s eyes instantly snapped open and she turned her head up to stare at him. “Sorry, honey,” he said. “I have boxes to carry, and it’s going to start getting dark soon.”
“And never mind tripping over the steps,” I said, “or getting the van back in time for JoJo, we have a neighbour to frighten the socks off. The hand-knitted silk socks with the tasteful lace edging.”
“You’re catching on,” said Mike.
I followed him back to the van and did another sweep for squishy lightweight plastic bags. There were also a couple of five-pound sacks of dog kibble I thought I could just about manage. Thanks to Mike we were almost done. I bore another of those disorienting and rather sick-making waves of excitement and dread: major life change, ahoy. Last week I’d still been in Manhattan, where I’d lived thirty-nine years. Last year I’d still had a husband. . . . I gritted my teeth and clutched my underwear and my dog food. What was that against the front wall of the van? It didn’t look like boxes. I’d been pretty out of my mind, that last night, packing to leave, but I had still been relatively sane when I started loading. It got worse later. I squinted, but it was too dark in the windowless van to see anything. Whatever was back there, it would be out soon enough, and then I’d take the van back for JoJo and pick up Merry and . . .
I looked up at Rose Manor. From the bottom of the driveway it looked as tall as the Chrysler Building. The sun was going down behind it at an angle so while the shadow wasn’t falling on me, the front of the house was still in darkness almost as profound as the back of the van. Anything could be hiding in the shadows on the porch. Cosmic horror was only the beginning.
Stop it, Macfarquhar. You live here now. Yes, I replied silently, I know.
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