Two eyes and a short beak. The great horned owl brass knocker awaited use. Its polished gleam caught the rusty afternoon light. Set into hard dark wood. Allen lifted the ring held in the owl’s beak, had to use some muscle, must have weighed at least five pounds. A hollow thud met each thump. He set his shoulders, stood more straight. The ride from London had taken half the day, and of all the sights nothing stood out more than the dogs.
Pulling into the drive—had to have been at least half a mile long—there had been plenty to catch his eye. The immaculate lawn, the gorgeous hedges, the rows of flowers, the pebble lined paths weaving between it all, the naked trees with murder in their branches.
The door’s handle turned without peep. Oiled to silence. Open a foot, a dried-apple face bent its neck to the side. “Allen Collins?”
“Yes, sir. That’s me. Duke Hann?”
A subtle hint of a smirk. “Not likely. Just his butler. Call me Casper.”
“Like the ghost?”
“The, uh…It’s a cartoon. Ah, a movie too, but…Sorry, nothing.”
“Not a ghost, not yet.”
“Right, sir. Of course.”
“Save your sirs for Duke Hann.”
Inside was as clean as outside. Not a speck of dust. Dim lights lined long halls. Allen caught his reflection in the wood polished to a glassy shine. Pictures hanging off the walls showed scenes of nature. A forest grove, a bog, sunset along a river, a lone dog. That reminded him. The dogs.
“Mmm.” Casper led the way up a coiling flight of stairs.
“On my way in I saw dogs.”
“On the roof.”
“What’re they doing up there?”
“Watching? For what?” Allen lifted his eyes, as though he would see one of the huge hounds somewhere inside. Casper didn’t answer. “They’re the Duke’s pets then?”
“Oh.” They were headed down a narrow hall. Not much wider than two thin men standing shoulder-to-shoulder. “Then—”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Your first job will be feeding them. You’ll need to get to know them. They’ll be the ones deciding if you’re a good fit for the Duke or not.”
“They’ll be…And what if they decide I’m not a good fit?”
Casper opened a door. Inside was a chest-high hill of smooth white bones. “Ah, wrong door. Not your room.” Casper turned and winked. “At least not yet, eh?”
Allen’s eyes shot wide. “A-ah…What?” He tried to smile. He glanced back into the room as Casper pulled the door close. Tried to make out the bones. What had they belonged to?
“It’s a joke, son.” Casper winked. “You’ll meet them tomorrow. Here we are, this one is your room, get a good night sleep.” Casper opened a door next to the room of bones.
Allen lay on the small bed, eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Above he could hear the patter of paws. The scrap of claws. An occasional harsh sniff. He tried to push the image of dogs gnawing on bones from his head. It was going to be a long night.