(Wild Rose Manor’s rose beds during better times.)
Pausing on the Nevermore side of the Wild Rose gate, I used my set of skeleton keys to relock the lock behind us. Then, I accidentally scared the peewaddens out Wood by following Joseph’s instructions and energetically rapping my knuckles against the solid oak door.
Wood (scanning the windows and whisper shouting): “Ssshhh! You’re going to wake someone up!”
Me (grinning and stepping around him): “Relax, no one’s lived here in decades, and security only checks on the house at dusk and dawn, so we’re safe.”
Which is one of the reasons why I’d chosen to meet Joseph here instead of the Crossroads.
Though by the state of things, I’m not sure anyone but security has swung by Wild Rose Manor in some time. Several of the lightbulbs that should be burning brightly were dark, a deep drift of leaves decorated the porch, and the lawn underfoot was shaggy. However, the detail I found most shocking was the state of the rose beds. The plants were leggy, their leaves starting to sport rust spots, and every bush was crowded with spent flower heads.
What on earth’s keeping Ira from dispatching his groundskeepers to taken care of them? On the upside, the negligence should provide me some pretty good cover when Joseph gets here.
Talking to plants is a thing – right?
Crowley, from Good Omens, kept an apartment full of house-plants terrified by talking to them and occasionally mulching them. However, the pertinent point here is I’ve got a plant talking precedent. Though I’m sure, Wood will have something pithy to say about using a demon as a role model – even if deep, deep down he’s a little good…
Either way, it’s better cover than trying to convince him I’m rehearsing for an improv workshop – again.
Wood (following me up the path): “So why are we here?”
Me (stepping towards the roses near a working light): “I need to talk to a guy.”
Wood (watching me start to deadhead the roses): “A different guy than earlier?”
Me (starting to create a small brown mound of blossoms): “Yup. There you go, you gorgeous thing….”
Wood (grinning): “Thanks, I’ve started running in the mornings.”
Me (rolling my eyes): “Not you, the rose bush. Talking to them promotes growth. So, running?”
Wood (absently answering me): “Yeah, it helps me wake up in the morning….Do you hear that?”
Off in the distance, the bright bark of a dog broke the night. Dropping the last spent flower on the ground, I wiped the blade of my pocket knife on my jeans then put it away. Joining Wood on the central path between the rose beds, I started walking towards the rapidly swelling sound.
Wood: “Does Nevermore’s security guards use dogs?”
Me: “Every now and again, but they prefer shepherds or mastiffs. That’s a little dog’s voice…”
Stepping in front of Wood at the first pinprick in my toes not only saved me from explaining my watery eyes away (the current arching across my toes was brisk). It also kept Wood from witnessing my jaw hit the ground when a pint-sized blur of white fur bounded thru the lavender, ricocheted off my shins and landed on his haunches at my feet.
Me (utterly failing to pick up my jaw back up): “Toby?”
Tongue lolling out in a mischievous smile, only a small dog can manage to make charming, the little terrier jumped up, planted his front paws on my knees, and gave me a joyful yip.
Wood (walking around me): “Friend of yours?”
Hand trembling, I touched Toby’s furry head and received a friendly frisson of electricity up my arm as well as a quick lick. Bouncing back onto four paws, the little dog took a shy sniff of Wood’s ankle.
Me (feeling like I’d just downed a stiff drink too fast): “I believe his name is Toby.”
Wood, who adores all canines, crouched down and held out his hand for a sniff. Cautiously Toby inched forward until he was in nose range. Apparently liking what he sniffed, he bellied forward a few more steps. Allowing Wood to give him a quick head scratch before dancing out of reach again.
Wood (concentrating on making a new friend): “Hello Toby! What are you doing running around Nevermore all by yourself at this hour?”
Joseph (following the path around the lavender): “Apparently, he’s trying to alert everyone to our presence. Good-evening Phoebe.”
Upon hearing Joseph’s voice, Toby raced over, completed one tight circuit around his legs, then dashed back to flirt with Wood. However, instead of playing Toby’s game Wood stood up, waited a beat for me to perform introductions before realizing none were forthcoming, and held a hand out to Joseph.
Who. Took. It.
Wood: “Dourwood Utley, nice to meet you.”
Joseph (a breath of hesitation between first and last name): “Joseph Marx, nice to meet you as well.”
Doing my best impression of a goldfish, I stared at the spot where the two men just clasped hands, gobsmacked.