Popular novelist Rachel Maguire is still on a reading tour of the Leitrim area.
Over breakfast the receptionist came over to Rachel and handed her a copy of the Leitrim Observer. "Have a look at that article," she said, nodding in a way that suggested that the article contained a matter of grave import.
The headline immediately caught her interest. "DEVIL DOG SIGHTING OUTSIDE KILLDUFF". The article described how a local farmer, travelling home late one evening, had seen a spectral black dog in the road ahead of him and had only just managed to swerve and avoid the apparition. The tone of the article was faintly mocking, implying without stating explicitly that the farmer had perhaps been over the alcohol limit for drivers, thereby falling into a suggestible frame of mind. The article did however mention that there had been a number of other reported sightings of a mysterious black dog in the vicinity of Ballykillduff.
"No," answered Rachel.
"So I wouldn't worry about it too much, Miss Maguire. If so many people have seen it then it can't be a bad sign for however sees it."
"Unless," said Rachel in a faux-ominous tone, "something terrible is about to happen that will doom us all."
"Oh don't say that, Miss Maguire!" said the receptionist, rattled. She took back the paper and went away. And now Rachel was a bit concerned too. Her remark was meant to be a joke, but what if there was some terrible tragedy waiting to occur?
After breakfast, Rachel did another reading in a tiny library in some completely out of the way place before returning to Ballykillduff. She had the afternoon off and decided to pay a visit to the town's public library. Approaching the library desk, she said: "Hello. Tell me, do you have any books on local history?"
"Why yes," said the librarian. "Over there on that shelf." She waved at a shelf bearing the words "LOCAL HISTORY" in large letters.
"Thanks," said Rachel. She went over and had a look. Ballykillduff was not a big place so she was not expecting there to be some kind of enormous tome giving the town's complete history, but she was hoping there would be some kind of history of Leitrim that would tell her at least something about the place's past. And indeed there were a couple of books on the county's history. She took them from the shelf and sat down to go through them. As is often the case with such works, they were written by amateur historians and published by small presses, which meant that they lacked anything useful like an index and had a rather eccentric approach to the organisation of information.
Finding the kind of details she was looking for was not easy, but perseverance threw up a few gems. In one book, she found that while people often assume that the town's name derives from the Irish for Town of the Black Church, it actually came from the Irish for Town of the Black Wood, a reference to a dense forest that had once stood in the vicinity. In another she learned that the Cantwells had indeed been in the area since the Norman Conquest. One odd detail was a claim, backed up by reference to monastic annals, that some local Irish clans had actively assisted the Norman Robert Cantwell in his conquest of the Ballykillduff area. The history books also mentioned that what is now the town's Anglican church was originally built by Robert Cantwell, almost as soon as he arrived in the locality and then renovated on a number of occasions over the centuries. The books did not have much information on the Cantwells themselves. Rachel noted, however, that they always seemed to be in place in Ballykillduff, through all the upheavals that had swept through Ireland over the last 800 years. She reckoned that they must have remained astute political players over the generations in order to avoid being on the losing side in any of the country's many conflicts.
"Ah Miss Maguire! Doing some reading?"
Rachel looked up to see the vicar standing over her. He was with a much younger woman whose outfit was rather figure hugging.
"Why yes," said Rachel. "I am reading up on local history."
"How fascinating," said the vicar. "May I introduce my wife, Marjory? Marjory, this is Rachel Maguire, the author of those books you like."
"Oh I know, silly," said Marjory to her husband, reaching out to shake Rachel's hand. "I do like your books, Miss Maguire." She spoke with an English accent.
"Why thank you," said Rachel.
"Have you found anything interesting about our little town?" said the vicar.
"Well, not too much. It was the history of the Cantwell family I was particularly looking for, but there isn't much on that."
"Ah, the Cantwells," said the vicar. He managed to make the comment sound like it contained many implied layers of meaning.
"They are a very well regarded family here," said Marjorie. "Though poor Maurice Cantwell has been a bit unlucky in love."
"It would rather irk him if he were to be the last of the Cantwells," said the vicar. "And it would be a great upset to all of us here in Ballykillduff. Well, apart from a certain element who have never had any affection for that family."
"Well I can't really help perpetuate the Cantwell line myself," said Rachel. "But I'll ask some of my girlfriends in Dublin if any of them want to give it a go."
The vicar and his wife laughed awkwardly at Rachel's attempt at humour.
"Well, we must be going now," said the vicar. "But perhaps we might see you at Sunday service?"
"I'm not really much of a church goer," said Rachel. "And I was kind of brought up as Catholic."
"Well everyone is welcome in St. Michael's", the vicar continued. "Even if you do not care to pray with us, the church is well worth having a look at. It is one of the oldest in the country, you know?"
"Really?" said Rachel. She had picked this up from her local history reading.
"Yes indeed," said the vicar. "It was built soon after the Norman conquest and…"
"Oh James," said Marjorie. "I don't think Miss Maguire wants a history lecture."
"Ah yes, of course. Well Miss Maguire, if you do care to look around the church or to join us on Sunday morning you will be most welcome. And that music festival will present another opportunity to see St. Michael's interior. We will be hosting a number of concerts, mostly during the day but one at night on -"
His flow was interrupted by the arrival in their vicinity of a rather irate librarian. "Vicar, please!" she said. "This is a library! I must ask you to be quiet."
"Ah yes, of course, my apologies", the clergyman whispered. "Come along Marjorie, we must away."
His wife smiled at Rachel as they left the library. The librarian returned to her desk.
That evening Rachel dined alone and then rang her boyfriend. He seemed to be managing well enough without her. She mentioned that she had met a local member of the gentry who seemed intent on her helping him to perpetuate the family line. "You've fallen on your feet there," was all Alan had to say in reply to that. She also said: "Oh yeah, I saw a strange dog the other night as I was driving down, and the receptionist in the hotel reckons that it is a sign I am doomed to die in the near future."
"Oh, really? I suppose I could edit your papers and bring out your next novel posthumously."
"Love you, Alan."
"Love you too, Rachel."
* * * *
Rachel was becoming used to disturbing dreams. This time, though, it felt a bit different. It was not like she was feeling that she was being menaced in some way. Instead she felt that she was feeling strange and unnatural sensations and emotions of a kind that is entirely alien to the human experience. She felt herself in water but was conscious only of a strange and terrible hunger. Then she was coming out of the water, creeping furtively through the streets of Ballykillduff. She saw a man on his own and felt herself resolving to sate her need to feed on this human. She stalked him as he moved through the streets, oblivious to her presence. When she was close to him she began to reach out for him, conscious at some level that it was not human hands she was stretching out to take him. At the last moment he became aware of his peril. He tried to run but she caught his legs. He tried to scream but she stopped his mouth. He tried to struggle but she ensnared him. Then she dragged him away to the water. He squirmed and wriggled but there was nothing he could do. He would provide her sustenance.
Nightmares often end with the dreamer about to die at the hands of whatever horror is molesting them. With this one it was the opposite. Just as she was dreaming that she, or the alien entity she was dreaming herself as, was about to feed on the victim, then she awoke. She lay in bed, drenched in her own sweat, and was afraid to to back to sleep in case the dream returned to her.