The Sugar Quill
Author: Eudora Hawkins  Story: Barking Mad  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Chapter 2: Heath Returns

Barking Mad

 

A/N: All the usual disclaimers apply.  Sirius Black, Lucius Malfoy, and Remus Lupin appear courtesy of J.K. Rowling.  I only dabble in her world.  No money is being made or copyright infringement intended.  However, Miss Smyth and her bookshop are creations all my own. 

 

The rain-soaked dog stares up the street in the direction of Diagon Alley.  Sodden fur clings to his bony ribs, blacker than a midnight sky.  A shudder travels down his flank from the chilly March rain.  I glance behind me, past the “Hawkins and Smyth Booksellers” marquee, into my dry and cozy bookshop.  Then I gaze at the poor, shivering creature.  I must be daft for what I’m thinking.  A huge dog in my little shop?  But then I think of that awful vicar and what he might have done had I not been there.

“Well?” I open the door to my shop and glance behind me. “Are you coming or not?”

The pooch regards me for a moment, his head cocked to one side as if he’s sizing me up. His black ear falls over one eye with a sort of rakish abandon.  His mouth hangs open in a panting grin.  I wonder what he’s thinking.

“I know,” I say. “Pathetic middle-aged witch.  What could she have to offer?”  I hold the door open. “How about a good meal and a warm, dry bed, eh?”

I regret the invitation as soon as it leaves my lips.  Before I can blink, the huge beast bolts past me into my bookshop. A trail of muddy paw-print puddles marks his path. 

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” I shout. “Trailing mud all over my nice clean shop?” I slap my thigh and shoot a commanding glare at the black backside. “Heel! Heel!”

The great canine beast skids to a stop with a slimy, slippery slide.  He turns to glance at the mucky mess he’s left behind.  A hang-dog look haunts his eyes under dripping brows.

Scourgify!” The command leaves my wand in a streak of pink. Translucent soap bubbles float through my shop. Pink froth covers his four paws like gigantic fuzzy bedroom slippers.  I purse my lips to bite back my sniggers.

The mud vanishes in a series of pops, but large sudsy puddles dot the floor.  The dog cocks his head.  One ear gives a soggy flop against his head, a comical pose. The grey eyes spark with mischief. I see the tremor travel down his flank moments too late.  He gives his fur a shake, sending water flying everywhere.

I mutter an Impervious Charm in the nick of time.  A thousand invisible umbrellas shield my precious books from the storm.  Me? I’m not so fortunate.  Icy droplets spatter my clothes and cling to my nose and eyelashes.

“Irascible imp.” I huff a strand of soggy hair from my eyes, a scolding glare on my dripping face.  I plant my hands on my hips. Perhaps taking in this stray was not such a good idea.  What could I have been thinking?

I’m all set to give this menace his marching orders.  But the pooch stares back up at me with penitent puppy eyes.  I feel the muscles on my cheeks tighten. My lips hitch up at the corners, defying my every effort to maintain the frown.  My resolve melts away at the sweet innocence of that face.  I sigh. He’s only a pup, after all. 

Smells of wet dog, reminiscent of old, sweaty gym socks, fill my shop.  I sniff and grimace. As dysfunctional as my olfactory senses are, even I can’t abide that.  Imagine the effect on my customers. Business isn’t brisk, as it is.

“Let’s get you dried off. Can’t have you driving away the customers, can we?”

I wave my wand at the pooch and utter an incantation. Poof! My eyes widen in surprise. Oh dear, I may have overdone that drying spell a tad.  His ebony fur sticks straight out, the whole lot.  The dog’s head resembles a gigantic black Puffskein with a great pink tongue hanging out in front.

My fingers work to pat the hairs back down into place. I pretend that my actions are just a playful petting, hoping that he won’t notice my attempts to remedy my mistake.  Perhaps I’m being silly.  He’s just a dog, right?

The pooch arches his back and leans into my massaging fingertips, begging for more. I oblige, fingers flying to smooth down the fur along his flank.  My efforts tame the wild strands of black fur standing at attention. His muscles relax under my touch.  My hands stroke his muzzle and the velvety softness of his ears. His pink tongue licks at my fingertips.  Dog kisses.  Cheeky thing.

“All forgiven,” I whisper, my tone softer this time.  “Upstairs you go, while I close up shop.  Mind the book stacks.”

He weaves among the book displays and bounds up the stairs to my flat above the shop.  I watch the wagging tail disappear from sight and turn to lock up.  I must be barking mad to let that monstrous dog loose in my little flat.  But I’ll be up in a flash.  What harm could he possibly do in a couple of minutes?

I climb the stairs and enter my flat just in time to catch him slinking from the bog of all places. Sounds of rushing water gurgle down the plumbing.  The dog eyes me with an almost guilty look.   What is it with this dog and water?

“Naughty boy.” I wag a finger at the pooch. “Have you been drinking from the toilet? Honestly, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.”

The dog’s brows shoot up with a look that I could swear is surprise.  Perhaps I’m mistaken.  I glance from the dog to the bog, then back again. No water drips from his chops.  But what, in Merlin’s name, was he doing in there?

I head for the sitting room of my little flat.  With a flick of my wand, a cozy fire crackles in the hearth.  Warmth radiates throughout the room, taking the March chill out of the air. A golden glow flickers over the braided woolen rug in front of the hearth and sends shadows dancing over the upholstered chairs. I meander to the bulging bookshelf that houses my private collection. Time for a bit of reading before dinner.

There’s nothing like a cozy chair and a familiar story on a cold, damp evening. I pull my favorite book from the shelf—a dog-eared copy of Wanda Witherspoon’s Moon over the Moors. A trashy romance novel, of course.

I glance behind me expecting to see my canine companion panting at my heels.  Instead he fetches the newspaper and settles his large carcass into my favorite overstuffed chair by the hearth.  The latest edition of The Quibbler drapes over the arm of the chair.  A boy in round spectacles shyly stares out from a photograph under the lead article and mats down the black fringe in his forehead. The dog stares at the paper and the photograph with his head cocked to one side. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was reading.

 “Great Crumple-Horned Snorkacks!” I say, my hands back on my hips.  “Just what do you think you’re doing?” My finger jabs toward the hearth rug. “Off the furniture, and be sharp.”

I’ve half a mind to give the dog a swat with that paper, but he’s bigger than I am.  He bares his teeth with a surly growl, but then slinks off my chair and settles himself on the hearth rug, taking his paper with him.

“Good boy.” I give him a little pat on the head, avoiding his sharp yellow fangs.

I plunk into my chair with a sigh of contentment and open to the early chapters of my book. My eyes scan the page, looking for my place.  Ah, yes, here we are. Luscious McFly, that pure-blood vixen, is working her Machiavellian plan on Heath, our intrepid hero.  Luscious is a villainess so unprincipled, so devious, that her plunging necklines are the only things lower than her scruples.

“That scar.” Luscious skimmed a manicured, blood-red nail across the jagged scar that marred Heath’s muscled chest. “One wonders how you could have acquired that. A wild animal perhaps?” She arched a thin brow. “Self-inflicted?”

Heath jerked free from her touch.  He gritted his teeth, biting back his anger. How much did she know?

“Such temper.” A cunning smile crept over her full ruby lips.  “One wonders how dear sweet Catherine would react, if she knew your little secret.  It wouldn’t take much. Just an innocent little slip of the tongue.”

Heath knew he’d lost. Luscious had him right where she wanted him.  He couldn’t tell Catherine.  Couldn’t risk losing her… 

A low rumble interrupts my pleasurable read.  A growl from the great black belly.  I tear my eyes from my text and gaze over the top of my book at the canine sprawled on the floor in front of the fire. I’m feeling a bit peckish myself.

A short time later, savory smells of steak and kidney pie waft through the flat.  I set the pie on top of the counter to cool. Steam rises in slender tendrils from the golden crust, brown gravy oozing through the vents.  I inhale, allowing the meaty scent to fill my nostrils. My cozy kitchen has never felt more like home.

I look up to see the great hound framed in the kitchen doorway.  His grey eyes are trained on my pie. His tail beats an excited rhythm against the wall.  His nostrils flair, sniffing out his quarry.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” I shake a warning finger at the scalawag. “This pie is for both of us and it needs to cool.”

A green light flashes in the fireplace behind the dog.  Visitors in my flue.  I’m not expecting anyone. Who could be visiting at this hour?

I stare past the dog into my sitting room. A well-dressed gentleman with sharp features and an air of aristocracy descends into my flat.  Two larger men follow, looking to the first for direction.  He gestures and they arrange themselves at his side.

“Don’t touch that pie,” I hiss at the dog through clenched teeth as I brush past.

The dog slinks into the kitchen out of sight.  I know what he’s thinking.  The nuisance is going after my dinner, while I’m occupied with visitors.  But what else can I do?  Not accustomed to being kept waiting, the gentleman taps his serpent-handled cane against a gloved palm.

“Good evening, Sir.” I arrange my face into the shopkeeper’s smile and give a deferential nod.

“You are Miss Smyth, are you not?” The gentleman does not even look at me as he speaks. Instead he surveys my humble flat over the end of his aristocratic nose as if he’s surveying territory he’s just conquered. He runs a finger over the mantel of my fireplace and flicks the dust from his gloved hand with a look of detachment. This man must be someone important.  But what could he want with me?

“Yes, I’m Miss Smyth.” I bustle forward and curtsey.  “How may I help you?”

“Hawkins is your business partner, is he not?”

“Why, yes,” I say. “Paul handles the accounts and bookkeeping for our shop.  I run the day to day affairs. Is there some problem?”

“Not for me.” A disarmingly charming smile crosses his lips.  His stare should be warm, but his look chills like a Dementor’s presence.  A sudden foreboding fills me.

“Why?” I fire off questions like spells in a duel.  “Where is Paul? Is he in some kind of trouble?”

“You might say that.”

The man looks me up and down with an appraising stare as if he owns me.  I’m old enough to have discarded any illusions of beauty long ago.  But I have the uncomfortable feeling of being undressed by his cold, grey eyes.  My arms cross over my chest, a defensive stance.  My feet are glued to the floor, immovable.

“Could it be that you are unaware of your partner’s business dealings?” He speaks in a slow drawl, drawing out every syllable. “How delightful.”

I get the feeling he revels in my discomfort and confusion. He chuckles, but there is no mirth in his laugh.  His two lackeys leer at me and guffaw in a manner most unpleasant. My right hand slips down the side of my dress.  My fingers search through the folds of fabric for the wand tucked in my right pocket.

“I assure you, I have no idea what you mean.” I force a brave countenance and look him directly in those chilly grey eyes, not daring to blink. “Who are you?  State your business.”

“Forgive me.” He laughs, a derisive chuckle. He seizes my right hand before I can reach my wand and brings it to his lips. “I’m Lucius Malfoy, your creditor.” His lip buzzes the back of my hand.  I try to yank my fingers from his grasp, but he holds them fast. “Your partner has borrowed vast sums from me to keep your little enterprise afloat and apparently has disappeared with my money.”

I feel the cold metal of his cane against my back.  He pulls me against him.  Much too close.  

 “Unless you can repay his debts,” he says in a slow drawl, his mouth level with my eyes.  I watch every enunciated word drip from his thin lips. “I will be forced to seize your assets and close your shop down.”

Great Merlin above! A gasp escapes my lips. He releases me, pushing me from him as if I’m a worthless trifle beneath the dignity of his touch.

“Whatever Paul owes, I’ll pay.” I’m shaking, but still I bristle at being so used. “How much?”

“I doubt there is enough in your meager account to settle our debt.” He glances around my flat, a mocking sneer on his lips. “Fifty thousand Galleons.”

Great stinking piles of dragon dung! Fifty thousand Galleons?  I knew our revenues were running a bit behind, but I had no idea our financial circumstances were so dire. My head reels. I step back and sink into my chair. My favorite perch holds no comfort for me now. What am I going to do?

I feel the hard edge of my romance novel against my leg, pinching my thigh. My fingers fish it from the cushions. I glance down at the brawny man on the cover.  I’ve no Heath to rescue me now. I must do this on my own, but how? I steel my resolve. What would Heath do? Make a plan. Stall for time.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” My eyes shoot up to face my nemesis. “Paul never mentioned any of this to me.”

Malfoy’s pale brows rise.  He didn’t expect me to be so bold.  But his face regains its composure instantly.  His gloved hand reaches into his cloak. Coins jingle in his purse. The firelight glints off the solid gold watch chain that dangles from his waistcoat and the silver serpentine stick pin that secures his silken ascot. Clearly, he has no need of my money.

“I think you will find this proof enough.” He hands me a parchment.  A sneer of disdain appears on his face.

I take the parchment.  Even my best efforts at bravery are not enough to still my trembling hand.  I scan the papers, a promissory note with dates and amounts.  Paul’s signature in a familiar crabbed hand marks every entry. Oh, Doxie droppings! Paul’s been borrowing money from this man at exorbitant interest for more than a year. He’s used our shop and this building as collateral on the loan.  My heart sinks.

“I need time,” I whisper. I look up with a pleading gaze. No more hope.

A most unpleasant smile crosses his countenance.  Too many teeth.  He knows he has won.  His accomplices crack their knuckles. Violence flickers in their dark eyes.

“I’m afraid, my dear Miss Smyth, that your time has run out.” Malfoy snaps his fingers at his goons. “Search the premises for anything of value.” He smirks. “And don’t forget the bedroom.”

Noooooo!” I leap to my feet and grope for my wand.

The two men lunge forward, eager to get their grappling hooks on my things.  And perhaps on me, as well. I push the thought aside.  Think of a spell, damn it! What a time to go blank.

The great black hound bounds from the kitchen like Cerberus from the bowels of Hades. He plants himself between me and my attackers, teeth bared, hackles raised.  He snarls, a low, rumbling, menacing growl.

His sudden appearance startles the great lumbering oafs. I seize the opportunity. My tongue loosens. I point my wand and shout the first words that come to mind.

“Great stinking piles of dragon dung!”

Red light streaks from my wand tip and blazes against the chests of the two goons. A thick, mud-colored substance covers both men from head to toe. A stench unlike anything I have ever smelled fills my tiny apartment. 

The two oafs grimace and swipe the grime from their eyes. They slip, skidding in the slippery ooze. Malfoy’s triumphant look fades from his pinched face. He blanches and wrinkles his nose in disgust, backing away from his own men. The dog barks, a loud laughing howl.

“You have one week,” Malfoy hisses.

He turns, careful not to tarnish his robes against the soiled bodies of his henchmen. He retreats through the Floo Network in a puff of green smoke. His minions stare at each other for a moment or two, gobsmacked.  My canine guardian lowers his head and bares his teeth. Razor-sharp fangs glow against a backdrop of midnight fur.  A single growl from his jowls sends the two oafs scrabbling for the hearth.

“We did it!” Laughter spills from my lips, a sound that surprises me. I give the sweet pup’s head an affectionate tousle. “We sent the great stinking clods packing.”

The dog barks, then buries his sensitive snout under one paw and whimpers.  I catch a full blast of the reeking odor and pull a face.

“Let’s get this mess cleaned up, shall we?”

I aim my wand at the smelly lumps that stain my hearth rug and bury my newspaper. I never did get a chance to read my Quibbler. Nine spells later, I’m left with only a slight stain to mark the site of my first successful battle, although a faint unpleasant odor lingers. Sometimes a less-than-perfect sense of smell is quite a blessing.

I look up from my handiwork to find that my canine companion has disappeared. Where has he gone? Oh, Merlin, not my steak and kidney pie! 

I race to the kitchen.  The great brute has his front paws on the counter.  His nose lies buried in the pie tin.

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake!” My hands return to my hips.

The pooch looks up from his meal and regards me with a mischievous glint in those grey eyes. Brown gravy drips from the hairs on his chin.  A great panting grin appears on his face. My dinner is ruined.  

Then I think of my own pudgy waistline and his bony ribcage that I can feel through the fur. He’s earned it, I think.

“Oh, all right.” I say, placing the pie tin on the floor for him.

He devours the meal in minutes, licking the platter clean. I give him a playful scratch behind the ears.  His tongue licks a last bit of gravy from his nose, then searches for my fingers.  Cheeky thing.

Such an intelligent, well-trained dog must belong to someone.  I brush the thought aside and sniffle back a little tear.  Why can’t he be a stray?  How could I let myself get so attached to the lovable pooch after only one evening?

 

* * *

 

Shafts of morning sun flood through the open drapes and bathe my worn roll top desk in a pink glow.  The quill by my side scribbles a few more figures on the ledgers. I rub my tired eyes with ink-stained fingers and struggle to make sense of the numbers in front of me.  I try the maths again, but red ink still fills the page. Fifty thousand in debt. How could my business partner allow our finances to get into such dire straights?

I sigh and glance across the bedroom at the massive canine stretched across my bed. His great sides heave with each sleeping breath.  Fur, the color of a moonless midnight sky, contrasts with the creamy whiteness of the coverlet.  He whimpers a little in his sleep. His legs twitch. Chase dreams. 

A brawny man gazes at me from the cover of the romance novel propped on my roll top desk. I think of the handsome gent who wandered into my bookshop on Valentine’s Day. A wan smile works over my lips. We’re all chasing after something in our dreams, are we not?

Just yesterday, romance was all I wanted. What a fool I’ve been.  Today, I’m fighting for my home, my livelihood, my beloved little bookshop.

A carved Transylvanian clock on the nightstand chimes.  Miniature bats flitter over the top, then disappear by the final toll.  Nine o’clock? Oh, Merlin, I’m late. Time to open shop.

I run to my wardrobe and throw on a clean frock of midnight blue that matches the color of my eyes.   Yesterday’s humidity has left my hair a mass of frizzy curls.  I rake a brush through the tangles and arrange my hair in a messy twist.  I check the result in the mirror and make a half-hearted attempt to tuck a few uncooperative tendrils of mousey brown hair back into place.  Far from perfect, but it will have to do.

“Come on, then,” I say to the dog, with a clap on my skirts. “Breakfast.”

The dog’s head bobs up.  He bounds from the bed to my side.  His claws clatter across the floor to the kitchen, then skid to a stop in front of the ice box.  I put on the kettle, then extract a couple of cold sausages for him and refresh his water bowl.

He scoffs down the meal in a few eager gulps.  Then he leaps away with a playful bark and paws at the door.  His bark grows more urgent, as if he’s trying to speak to me. I’d love a cup of tea, but my breakfast will have to wait.

“All right,” I say. “I’m coming.”

The dog leaps through the doorway and bounds down the stairs into my bookshop below.  Excited barks punctuate his every tread.  I bustle after him, taking the steps two at a time. I arrive at the bottom of the staircase a bit breathless.

My canine companion runs to the shop door and paws at the handle.  His thunderous barks echo in the empty shop. I glance out the picture window, past the “Hawkins and Smyth Booksellers” marquee, to what has attracted his attention.  My breath catches in my throat. It’s him!  The handsome writer who visited my shop on Valentine’s Day.

My hair must look a fright.  I brush a lock of frizzy hair from my eyes.  My fingers fly to smooth my dress.  Why hadn’t I taken more time on my appearance?

I hustle to the door.  My fingers fumble to fit the key into the lock, an attack of nervous jitters.  Oh, Merlin. Why won’t my fingers work this morning?

I open the door.  The dog bursts past me and jumps on the gentleman, placing his huge front paws on the man’s shoulders.  His curious laughing bark rings out in the morning air.  His black tail wags faster than the pounding of my heart.

“Pad…erm…Snuffles,” the man says to the dog. “Is this where you’ve been? I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Hello,” I say, aware that my voice has gone an octave too high. “Is this your dog?”

“My dog?” The sandy-haired gentleman pushes the dog from his shoulders and pats the furry head.  He avoids my stare. A slight blush creeps across his cheek, highlighting a jagged scar. “He…erm…belongs to a friend.”  His eyes look up to stare at me with more confidence. “I’m just looking after him, that’s all.”

Of course, that would explain his chagrin.  Imagine agreeing to look after a friend’s pet and losing him in a rainstorm.  The clever pooch must have escaped from his yard and wandered off. Lucky I was there last night to rescue him from that awful vicar.  Who knows what would have happened to him, had I not intervened.

“Oh, you must have been dreadfully worried.” I pat the gentleman’s arm before I realize what I’m doing.   Heat flares up my face.  I look down and stroke the dog instead.  “But he was safe with me all night.”

The dog cocks his head in a comical pose, his grey eyes shining, his panting tongue hanging out.  He shifts his body, pressing his weight against my hand.  I oblige with another stroke along his furry flank.

“All night?” The gentleman watches me pet the dog.  He shuffles his feet and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “With you?”

“Yes.” I nod.  “He was the perfect watchdog. Never left my side.”

A crease appears on the gentleman’s forehead.  Then his brows rise, as if in sudden understanding.  His cheeks and ears redden.  He stares down at the dog with a look of mortification. What could he be thinking?

A shrill whistle sounds from my upstairs flat.  Oh, Merlin. I must have left the kettle on.  I turn to the gentleman and flash him an apologetic grin.

“Tea kettle. Upstairs.” My hand points to the backstairs that lead to my flat over the shop. “I’ll only be a minute.”

I grab his arm and pull him into the shop.  The dog follows.  I close the door behind them both.  I don’t want him to leave this time. Anything to make him stay.

“Please make yourself comfortable,” I shout over the shrieking kettle. “I’ll bring us both a nice cup of tea.”

Before he can protest, I race up the stairs to my flat.  My hands fly to pull teacups, saucers, and spoons from the cupboards.  Faster than a snitch, I pour two steaming cups and arrange the sugar bowl and creamer on a tray.  I descend the stairs with the full tray floating before me, taking care not to spill. 

Voices rise from the shop below.  Two male voices.  One I recognize as the voice of the writer, but the second is a deeper voice that I’ve never heard before. They speak in sotto voce whispers, but the acoustics in the stairwell are very good and I catch almost every word. 

“What were you thinking, Padfoot?” the writer says.  “You could have been discovered.”

“I had to get out of that stinking hellhole,” a low voice growls. “Dumbledore won’t let me do anything useful for the Order. Just thought I could do something useful for you.” 

“My love life doesn’t need help, thank you. And is not worth putting you at risk.”

“Your love life is non-existent.” A guffaw punctuates his remark.  It reminds me of the dog’s odd bark. 

“You know very well—”

“The old Moony I knew would never let that stop him. What’s happened to you?”

“You weren’t there.” The writer’s voice has become quiet, almost pained. “Catherine…she was…well, you just don’t get over someone like that.”

Catherine?  Just like in Wanda Witherspoon’s Moon over the Moors.  Oh, my poor dear Heath.  I clasp a hand over my mouth.  The tray totters. The cups clank. I grip the tray with both hands this time to steady it.

“I’ve got to go before she comes back,” the low voice barks an urgent whisper. “Good luck, Moony.”

“Padfoot, you can’t—”

The tinkling of the shop bells sound, then the door snaps shut.  Did my gentleman just leave?  I bustle around the corner into view. Tea sloshes on the tray in my haste.  The gentleman is staring out at the street.  A look of overcast sadness clouds his eyes.

“I thought I heard voices,” I say, arranging an innocent expression on my face.

“My friend.” The gentleman gestures toward the street.  A congenial smile appears on his face. “The dog’s owner.  He just came to fetch his dog.”

I set the tea tray down on the counter and glance out the display window up the street. The large black dog patters out of sight on the heels of a man in a grey cloak.  I’m sorry to see the lovable pooch go.

“Such a good dog,” I say, with a wistful smile.

“Irascible hound,” he adds under his breath with an affectionate glance up the street. He turns toward me. “Right then, about that tea…”

 

Endnote:  Many thanks and much appreciation to moonette for her valuable suggestions and comments on this story.  If you want to know the real story behind Remus and Catherine, check out moonette’s Lonesome Love. 

//
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