Rachel Maguire stepped out of her car, opened the boot and took out her bag before walking round to the hotel entrance.
"Hello," she said to receptionist. "I've got a reservation, my name is Rachel Maguire".
"Oh I know who you are, Miss Maguire," said the receptionist. "I've read all your books and I must say I love them all. We're all very excited to have you staying with us. I hope your readings go well - and I'm sure they will, everyone loves your books round here."
"Thanks," said Rachel, actually meaning it. She was at the stage of her writing career where she still liked meeting strangers who told her how much they liked her books. Meeting people who liked her books made her happy, so much so in this case that she did not correct the use of "Miss".
"You're down a bit later than we were expecting, did you run into any trouble on the way?"
"That's always happening. They really should do something about the signposts. It's fine for us locals, but visitors are always getting lost."
"There was one odd thing," said Rachel, not sure if it was worth mentioning to the friendly receptionist but doing so anyway. "I was driving down a quiet road when I rounded a corner and saw, ahead of me, this big black dog. He was right ahead of me, blocking the road. A huge black dog, right in the headlights, just standing there on the road. And he didn't move, he just stood there."
"A big black dog," said the receptionist, an odd note creeping into her voice. "What did you do?"
"Well I swerved - I didn't want to hit him. I swerved past him and went on up the road, but when I looked back in the rear view mirror, I could see him there on the road, only he had turned around and was looking on after me. And there must have been some kind of trick of the light, but it seemed like his eyes were glowing bright red."
"Glowing red eyes!" said the receptionist. She sounded worried now. "That was no dog!"
"Well it looked like a dog," said Rachel.
"Oh Miss Maguire, it may have looked like a dog, but it was no dog. Round here there are things people have heard about from their parents and grandparents before them, and one of them is the Black Dog, or something that looks like a black dog, that people see on the road barring their way. Some say it is the Devil himself in the form of a dog, others that it is a sign that something terrible is going to happen. I don't know what it is myself, but I know nothing good happens whenever it is seen. Oh heavens, I hope nothing bad happens to you!"
"So do I!" said Rachel, trying to put a brave face on things but genuinely rattled by the receptionist's concern. In the safety of your suburban Dublin home it is easy to scoff at the folk beliefs of country bumpkins, but when someone tells you that what you have seen is a harbinger of doom… well, one can forgive her for being a bit alarmed.
"Anyway," she continued, "I'd better get up to my room."
"Oh of course, Miss Maguire," said the receptionist, the switch back to the normal work routine calming her somewhat. She fumbled for a key, told Rachel where her room was, gave her the times for breakfast, and then finished up by telling her to ring down to reception if she needed anything. Rachel went on up to her room and settled in. The place was clean and tidy, perhaps a bit old fashioned in the décor, but rather quaint and charming. Then she decided to go out for a stroll and perhaps see if there were any nice pubs in the town. It was a weekday night so they would not be too crowded, surely?
Back in the reception area she decided to ask about the lay of the land. "I'm going out to have a look around. Tell me, are there any nice pubs or bars here in Ballykillduff?"
"Well now," said the receptionist, "we have our own little bar here in the hotel which obviously we consider quite appealing. But there are some nice pubs out in the town too. But there are some not so nice ones, so you'd want to be careful, Miss Maguire."
"We get a lot of those stag and hen parties here in Killduff, and the kind of pubs they go to probably would not be the kind of thing you are looking for."
"Probably not," said Rachel. "But would there be stag and hen parties here on a weekday night, at this time of year?"
"There's always some, but it's easy enough to spot their kind of place, so you'll be able to stay away from them. If I were you I'd stick to the local pubs".
"That does sound a bit better," said Rachel, who was imagining herself reading a book (or taking notes for her own next one) in a cosy local pub with an open fire and old men with dogs warming themselves while a trad session went on in a corner.
"The thing is though," said the receptionist, "the local pubs are not all the same, and there are some of them that someone like you wouldn't want to go into. You wouldn't think it to look at it, but this town can get a bit rough, and some of the towns attract a rather rough element. But there are some nice ones. The more respectable visitors here tend to like Meagher's and Teague's. Meagher's is good for food, and Teague's has traditional music most nights. And they're both beside each other, just round the corner on Main Street. But I would stay out of Duffy's, if I were you. They're a rough lot who drink in there and they don't like people they don't know."
"Thanks very much," said Rachel. "I will go and have a look at Meagher's and Teague's." Bidding farewell to the receptionist she went forth into the night.
Rachel nursed a pint while eating a pleasant meal in Meagher's and then went next door to catch some music in Teague's. The pub had a pleasant atmosphere and was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday evening. Rachel found a small table but was very close to a couple seated nearby, a man with an odd combination of a carefully-trimmed and pointed beard with long hair that was distinctly unkempt, and a woman whose long red hair looked very much like its striking colouration came from a bottle. There was indeed music playing. Rachel nursed another pint and slipped into a relaxed frame of mind, not bothering to take her book or notebook out of her bag.
Then a sudden question from the bearded man jerked her out of her reverie.
"You're not from round here, are you?"
The man was looking at her with an intense expression. The thought flashed quickly through Rachel's mind that she had mixed up the pubs and gone to one where they did not like outsiders. Then the red-haired woman laughed and slapped the man playfully on the arm.
"Oh Tom!" she said. Her accent was North American.
"Sorry," said the man, whose name must be Tom. His accent sounded mor Irish. "Just my joke. We're not from round here either. My name's Tom."
"And I'm Cassandra."
"Oh hi," said Rachel. "I'm Rachel".
"Are you visiting Killduff?" asked Cassandra.
"Yes," said Rachel. "For about a week or so."
"We live down here", said Tom. "Well, we live outside the town. Accommodation's much cheaper than in Dublin, you know how it is. Our artistic endeavours did not really cover the cost of a pre-crash Dublin mortgage."
"Oh, you're artists?" said Rachel.
"Yeah," said Cassandra. "I do visual stuff, mainly conceptual things."
"I do experimental films," said Tom. "The kind of thing that never gets shown in cinemas". He laughed.
"And we make music together", said Cassandra.
"Sweet music," said Tom, chortling.
"Well, avant garde electronic music that most people would not consider music at all," said Cassandra.
"My favourite kind!" said Rachel.
"Really?" said Tom.
"Well, no," answered Rachel. "I couldn't really say it's my thing though it's not like I hate it or anything."
After that they chatted on a bit more. It turned out they had mutual acquaintances. Ireland is a small country. After comparing notes on different people Tom suddenly said: "Ah wait, I do know you from somewhere. I don't think we've met before, but I have seen your photo."
"On Facebook?" said Cassandra.
"No, stupid. In the paper. You're a writer, aren't you? You write those books".
"Yes," said Rachel, somewhat apologetically, as she reckoned that these avant garde artist types would probably not be too impressed by the kind of books she wrote.
"Oh yeah," said Cassandra. "Christmas Heartbreak, that was one of yours, wasn't it?"
"I'm afraid it was."
"I gave that to my mam for her birthday," said Tom. "She loved it."
"She did," said Cassandra. "He's not just saying that."
"That's nice to hear," said Rachel. Then the conversation moved onto other things. Eventually Rachel mentioned the strange black dog she had seen on the road outside the town.
"Might just have been someone's dog," said Tom.
"It was a bit on the big side," said Rachel. "The woman in the hotel seemed a bit spooked by it. She seemed to think it might be the Devil or something. Jesus, I can't believe I'm sitting in a pub saying that I might have seen the Devil!" She laughed. In this cosy pub it was hard to imagine the demonic impinging into the material world.
"That whole Devil Dog thing is a bit tradition all over England in Ireland," said Cassandra.
"Cass is into all that witchy stuff," said Tom.
"Yeah?" said Rachel.
"Just reading!" said Cassandra. "I like reading about it, but I'm not into all that stripping naked and worshipping the Earth business".
"More's the pity," said Tom.
"Anyway, there are a lot of local traditions that see that uncanny black dog thing as being an apparition of the Devil or a harbinger of imminent death," said Cassandra.
"Not to worry you or anything," added Tom.
"Oh dear," said Rachel.
"But even for people who believe all that kind of stuff, it's not necessarily that bad," continued Cassandra. "Some see the Black Dog more as a warning - it's like the dog is telling you, watch out, trouble ahead."
"Not so much a Devil Dog as a spectral watch dog?" suggested Rachel.
"Perhaps so," said Cassandra. "Either way, the dog is a sign of trouble. If you believe in that kind of thing. Do you have any reason to believe you might be cursed by dark forces?"
"Well, John Banville wrote a mean review of my last book."
"Oh dear," said Tom. "Have you made a will?"
The conversation move on again. Eventually Rachel found herself saying: "This really is a lovely pub."
"Yeah, it is", said Tom. "There's some nice pubs in this town."
"And some not so nice ones," said Cassandra.
"Oh yeah, Christ," said Tom. "Do you remember that one we went into when we came down here first? Real duelling banjos stuff. Everyone went quiet when we came in and stared at us until we left. I think if I have been with another guy rather than Cass here they might have started laying into me."
"It had a definite atmosphere," said Cassandra.
"Not somewhere I'll be going back to," said Tom.
"I must make sure not to go near it," said Rachel. "What's it called?"
"Mmm, can't remember," said Tom. "Duffy's, maybe?"
"It's the run-down looking place on Main Street," said Cassandra. "The one that looks no one in their right mind would ever want to go into it. I think we only tried it because Tom fancied getting down with the less sophisticated locals."
"I'll keep an eye out for it," said Rachel.
Rachel stayed a bit later in the pub then she had intended and only remembered as they were calling for last orders that she had to give a reading to a ladies' club somewhere in the local backwoods, so when Cassandra asked if she wanted one more she had to decline and say that she really had to be going.
"It was lovely meeting you," she said, as she got up to go. "I hope we run into each other again".
"Cheers," said Tom.
"Hey," said Cassandra, "if you're in town over the weekend, there's going to be a small festival on in the Courthouse Arts Centre. It'll be loads of weirdo music like we make, only done by people who are much better at it."
"We're organising it," said Tom, "so we have to try and drum up business. Ticket sales have not exactly been brisk. But it will be a lot of fun, if weirdo music made by men with beards is your idea of fun."
"I'll give it a go," said Rachel. "I don't really have anything else planned for the weekend, apart from book readings during the day."
They made their farewells and Rachel left them to return to her hotel. Her walk back took her past the rough pub that both the receptionist and the two artists had warned her against. Low, guttural noises came from inside it. She thought of sticking her head in the door to see what all the fuss was about, but even after a couple of pints she was not feeling quite so daring. She continued on the street to her hotel and turned in for the night.
But her sleep was troubled. Strange dreams and thoughts prevented her from resting properly. She imagined herself out on the streets of Ballykillduff again, only there was something strange about the place. The streets and the buildings around them seemed to be writhing. They were assuming a living character that was both animal and vegetable at the same time, with branches and leaves sprouting from the buildings while everything moved in a manner that called to mind the sinuous movements of a snake or reptile. In her dream she found herself once more outside the pub she had been warned against. The low noises of conversation she had heard earlier were louder now. Now, though, they did not sound like the idle chatter of a pub's customers engaging in their separate conversations, but as something more uniform, like the people in there were engaging in some kind of call and response with one solitary voice being followed by the whole pub saying the same thing - something that Rachel was unable to hear. Then the people inside the pub stopped their call and response… now Rachel could hear what seemed like laughter coming from them, but laughter of a kind that made her not want to know what the subject of the joke was. And then the door of the pub seemed to be opening outwards, and she felt a terrible compulsion to go in and join the customers, even though she knew that something terrible would happen if she did so. She could feel herself taking a step forward, even as the ground beneath her feet pulsed and the pub building stretched up and around her as though it was going to swallow her before she even stepped through the door.
But then she heard the bark of a dog - not the high pitched bark of a terrier but the low, powerful bark of a large hound. And she turned around and saw behind her, close but not too close, the same terrible black hound she had seen on the road earlier. This time there was no mistaking its supernatural qualities. The dog's eyes glowed bright red and it was hovering about the undulating roadway. It started to approach Rachel, walking even though it was not touching the ground.
And then she woke up. She was back in the hotel room. It was dark and quiet outside. Or was it? Maybe she had really heard the bark of a dog outside?