Characters this chapter: Michael, Calcifer, Howl, Sophie, Hunch
Chapter 23: Blackest Melodrama
Michael gasped as Calcifer nodded his confirmation. "You might have said so to begin with, Calcifer," Howell said.
"I knew you'd see it yourself as soon as you had a look," the fire demon snapped.
"Go get an old set of your clothes, Michael," Howell instructed him. "He's not likely to have any when I turn him back." As his apprentice pounded up the stairs to do as he'd asked, Howell patted the tiny rodent reassuringly with the tip of his index finger. "Don't worry, lad. We'll have this all sorted out in a moment." In truth Howell was far more dubious than he sounded. If Violet had turned Mrs. Pentstemmon's pageboy into a mouse, it followed logically that she'd done something similar to Hunch and Mrs. Pentstemmon herself. It shocked Howell to the bone to think she'd managed to get into Mrs. Pentstemmon's house. He tried to cherish a faint hope that perhaps the Witch had merely encountered Niccolo on the street, but it guttered like a candle flame before Howell's intuition.
Waiting for Michael to return before he cast the spell, Howell could not suppress the notion that tiny words were beginning to emerge amid the squeaking emanating from his hand. It took all of his considerable powers of denial to fail to hear those words. The humanity in the squeaks was bad enough. Howell had never heard a mouse weep before, and it was a sound he could happily go the rest of his life without ever hearing again.
When Michael finally came back with the clothes, Howell laid the transformed boy carefully atop the bundle of fabric before setting about finding the spell's weak spot. He knew there would be one, Violet had always been over-hasty and careless in constructing her spells. Finding it quickly, Howell pulled it like a cork and the spell unraveled. A few sparkles and some mist later, and a very miserable boy huddled before them, trembling just as the mouse had.
Like a race horse at the starting bell, Niccolo launched into his native language at full speed. Howell had trouble following, but there were four words he could discern easily enough; the same four words he'd been trying not to hear in the mouse's squeaking: 'Maestra Pentstemmon', 'morte', and 'strega.' Howell sat back hard in the ashes. He'd known it somehow from the moment he'd recognized the mouse as Niccolo. That special space in the corner of his mind left from the bond they'd established as tutor and pupil was gone.
Howell felt more empty inside than ever. She had seen her own death coming, but he'd had no idea it would be this soon. Overcome by a moment of grief and loss, he cradled his face in his hands, thinking, If only...
A comforting hand squeezed his arm. Michael had not yet mastered the fine art of masculine shows of affection, but he was trying. Howell looked up at him gratefully. "It's all right, Michael." But it most definitely was not. "Bound to happen, eventually." For a moment, Howell was not exactly certain to what he was referring. Mrs. Pentstemmon's death? That had certainly been an inevitability. But Howell had a sneaking suspicion what he'd really meant by that was that it was bound to happen someone would be killed because of his cowardice. If he hadn't run away from Violet, this never would have happened.
"Don't blame yourself," Calcifer said cannily, sounding acerbic by nature rather than intent. "And by no means act on your guilt and go running out of this house. You're the one she's looking for. The damage is done now. At least honour the old lady's memory by not throwing in the toilet what she died for."
Suddenly, a cold fear gripped Howell hard enough to steal his breath away. "Sophie!" He leapt to his feet and was sprinting toward the door before he'd even had time to process a need to do so.
"Howell!" Calcifer yelled.
"Howl, no!" Michael cried.
"Don't forget you're a despicable coward," Calcifer reminded him helpfully.
Howell stopped at the door and collapsed against it, one hand on the knob. "Damn you, Calcifer."
"Too late," the fire demon said.
"Why did you have to remind me?"
"I don't have to," Calcifer replied, sounding annoyed. "Your heart's pounding like a herd of wildebeest. You're terrified and you know it."
"But...Sophie!" Howell cried in despair. He whirled around dramatically and collapsed back against the door, slowly sliding down it until he was sitting on the stone floor. "I can't let her get Sophie!" he wailed in pathetic protest.
"Don't be stupid," Calcifer snapped. "Sophie's not a target. The Witch knows nothing about her connection to you at this point. But if you go charging out there right now looking to rescue someone who isn't even in danger, you might as well write the Witch a letter carefully detailing everyone who's precious to you." He paused for emphasis. "Idiot."
"Why must you be so sane?" Howell whined, over-dramatically. "I don't feel very sane just now." He threw a sweeping sleeve across his eyes.
"As if you ever did," the fire demon muttered.
"Calcifer, have a heart," Michael chided, gently.
"I do!" Calcifer protested.
Their not-quite-arguing was interrupted by a fourth voice, one quite small and timid compared to those that normally echoed through the castle. "Please excuse," Niccolo interjected, his Inglish having gone to hell in a handbasket given recent traumatic events. "But I must go back. Mr. Hunch, I dinna see what she do to him. And someone--" his voice suddenly choked up and his large, sensitive eyes filled with tears. "Someone gotta call the mortuary."
"Oh, lord!" Howell was on his feet again. "Hunch, too?"
"I do not know, Signore Pendragon. I must go check. Perhaps he a mouse, too."
Howell suddenly thought of something awful. His eyes grew wide with dread as he uttered a mystical word or expletive unknown to either Michael or Calcifer. "Cadbury!"
"Cadbury?" they asked in unison, looking as though they suspected Howell might in fact have gone mad. If they had ever seen the twenty pound black and white miniature panther of a tomcat in question, they would have understood the danger.
Niccolo was nodding. "He chase me outta the house, so I have hope for Mr. Hunch. Maybe he not go back inside."
"That cat's not one to roam," Howell said. "He's as possessive of his creature comforts as--well, as I am." Throwing the door open on Kingsbury, he cried, "Come on, Niccolo! There's no time to lose!"
"Howell!" Calcifer yelled. "You'll get us both killed!"
"What should I do?" Michael shouted as Niccolo ran to the door.
"Stay here in case Sophie returns!" Howell called back. "And by heaven, don't tell her anything that might get her up in arms and running after me!" In other words, the truth of where he'd gone. Howell did not hear Michael's response, for he and Niccolo had already rounded the corner toward Mrs. Pentstemmon's. They made quite a sight, the tall, thin overdressed Wizard with his hair all askew, stretching his long legs to take each block in a few strides as the small fine-boned boy in clothes two sizes too big for him sprinted to keep up. Not a few heads turned to watch them as they flew past.
Niccolo called out behind him. "You cannot throw the transport spell, Signore Pendragon?"
"No," he shouted back. "If I cast a spell and she's in the city looking for me, it's like shooting off a flare."
"She'll be watching for the signs." Fortunately for Howell, the Witch of the Waste was at that moment watching with maleficent satisfaction as Sophie hobbled up all 313 stairs to the Palace. She did not see the two of them go flying past just a few blocks away.
They reached Sedge Court in only a few minutes. Howell stopped at the front stairs, bending over the railing to catch his breath. "It's been a few years," he told Niccolo by way of explanation. "It's not that I'm approaching thirty." The boy, busy trying to get his own breath back, responded with a confused look.
Howell chose to miss it, instead casting about for any signs of Cadbury or a second rodent victim. "There!" Niccolo pointed to the open doorway where the gargantuan cat sat, regal but distressed. He let out a deep-throated yowl to further evidence his unhappiness.
"Poor puss," Howell cooed at him, leaping up the stairs. "Show us your teeth, now. No bits of anyone in there, I presume." Cadbury allowed himself to be picked up, but he did not take kindly to Howell prying his jaws apart to look inside. "Well, nothing recent, at any rate," he concluded grimly.
Niccolo came up the stairs more slowly, eyeing the cat warily. "Il gato male," he chided Cadbury. "You try to eat me. Bad cat." Cadbury squirmed out of Howell's arms and fell to the polished tile with great dignity. Lifting his tail high, he calmly marched further inside the house to show what he felt of such slander uttered against his character.
They stepped in after him, looking round warily. Niccolo's livery lay in a pile just inside the door, showing that he had been the first line of defense to fall to the Witch. "It was upstairs," Niccolo told him, looking as if his chocolate brown eyes might fill with tears again at any moment.
Howell clapped him on the shoulder, attempting to be reassuring. "You don't have to go up."
But Niccolo was shaking his head. "No, I...am brave. I can do. I show you."
Howell was about to explain that this was not the point, when Niccolo started up the stairs to the second floor. Shaking his head, he followed, extended his magician's senses and finding to his great relief no indication that Violet was still in the house. Her lingering presence could be felt in the giant hole she'd exploded through Mrs. Pentstemmon's wards and in the slithery afterglow of the murderous spell she'd cast, but no more. Howell automatically began gathering up the tendrils of her magic signature and grounding them out as they proceeded down the hall. That kind of energy left to fester could attract all sorts of unsavoury things. Especially in a house where someone had...
The door to Mrs. Pentstemmon's dressing room stood suspiciously ajar. Niccolo stopped prudently just before they reached a point where one might look inside. "Wait here," Howell told him, and the boy nodded obediently, clearly relieved that he would not have to see the carnage within. Howell watched his own hands tremble as he placed one on the doorframe and literally pulled himself forward to have a look. Perhaps Calcifer had been right about that herd of wildebeest.
Inside, Howell saw nothing but a disarray of clothes at first. It was curious, as if Violet had decided to pillage Mrs. Pentstemmon's wardrobe after she'd killed her, or perhaps Mrs. Pentstemmon had hurled shoes and dresses at the Witch in an attempt to ward her off. He stepped over an old-fashioned corset sprawled across the middle of the floor and that was when he saw them: two tiny, exquisite, pointy-toed gold shoes peeping out from behind the ornate dressing screen. Howell's throat closed up with grief, but he forced himself to go on. What if she were merely unconscious?
He rounded the corner to look, keeping back several feet, afraid to get too close for reasons that should be obvious to any coward. Mrs. Pentstemmon lay in her underdress, which was every bit as revealing as a starched, high-collared school marm's gown. She was flat on her back with her eyes wide open, her expression one of outrage and defiance still. One finger was pointing as if to chide or cast a spell of her own, but it seemed not to have been enough. As Howell inched closer, a sudden movement in the garments strewn by her side caused him to leap back. Calcifer was mistaken if he'd thought Howell ever needed reminding he was a coward.
The movement coalesced into the most pathetic-looking dog Howell had ever seen. Not only did it bear a striking resemblance to the business end of a raggedy old dust-mop, but it had the sorrowful expression of ten basset hounds condensed into one. It shuffled forward on tiny feet which did not seem adequate to support its fat, ragged body and let out a wheeze, showing it could not even bark properly. Howell wondered at Violet's sense of humour for the 197th time.
"At least you're all right," he told the pathetic creature, squatting down to offer his hand. Another wheeze intimated the dog did not agree. Howell gave it a sympathetic pat before rising and casting about for Hunch's clothes. Of course, the room was covered in garments, but this was no time for humourous cross-dressing. He found the butler's uniform in a heap by the door, having passed it over at first, distracted by what lay within. Howell carried them over to the dust-mop-dog, who had not left Mrs. Pentstemmon's side. "Just a moment," the wizard told him, sliding his fingers into the raggedy mass of fur to get a proper feel for the spell the Witch had cast on him. This one was more complicated than the simple transformation she'd set on Niccolo. Apparently Hunch had given Violet more trouble, and she had repaid him in kind. Patiently Howell sorted through the knots, slowly unraveling the spell until there was enough gone to pull the whole thing apart with one sharp tug. Then he stepped back and gave Hunch some privacy while he dressed.
When after a few minutes he heard more of that pathetic wheezing, Howell turned around, afraid the spell was the recurring kind. But all he saw was Hunch kneeling on the carpet at Mrs. Pentstemmon's side, attempting not to weep in an undignified manner into a large silk handkerchief. Howell went to him and offered an awkward sideways hug. There were no words adequate for a time like this.
Not long after, Hunch sent Howell packing. The two of them had performed their first round of mourning together, and now it was time to do what Hunch said he did best: clean up. Howell left Niccolo instructions for a simple spell that would get a message to him in a hurry in case the Witch returned, but he honestly did not expect her to. She'd done nearly as much damage as she could there, and Calcifer was right; it was himself she was after.
Howell ambled back to his front door just in time to meet a messenger from the Palace. He dearly hoped it was not news that Sophie had somehow been jailed for offending the King, though at least that would have meant she was inside and safe. Suliman's wards on the Palace had held in spite of his long absence. Howell had to respect workmanship like that.
That was when he realised how truly awful he must look; the page was completely uncertain whether he had the right man. Howell prided himself on being a recognisable personality in Kingsbury. In his days at court, he had started whole fashion trends. And if he did not look like himself, suddenly… It was ironic as, in a way, Howell was currently more himself than he had ever been. He wondered if he even cared to fix up his appearance just now, but Howell did brush absently at his disheveled hair as he replied, somewhat testily on behalf of his wounded vanity, "Well who else would it be?"
The page made no apology, but having found his intended audience seemed to want to dispatch his duty as quickly as possible. With a practiced flick of the wrist, he unrolled the scroll in his hands and bawled in a street crier's voice. "A royal proclamation from the King!" Howell thought he might go deaf, and he had a bad feeling about this. "'I hereby decree on this day 6 in the 6th month of year 6 of my reign, it shall be so noted that I, Rolland of Ingary, have appointed a new Royal Wizard—'"
"Oh, give me that!" Howell snapped, yanking the scroll from the young man's grasp. This was absolute perfection. Just what had Sophie managed to do this time, recommend him highly to the King? The page gawped at him and attempted to take the scroll back so that he could complete his appointed task, but Howell held it capriciously out of reach. The last thing he needed just now was for this news to be shouted in the streets. "Thank you, that will be all." Howell knew that if he could just tip him, the page would leave. Unfortunately, he was still monetarily destitute after his shopping trip the day before.
Just then the castle door opened and Michael peered out. "Howl? Is everything all right?"
"Oh, everything is just fantastic," he drawled, making for the door. "Tip this good man, Michael, for this wonderful news he's just brought us, so that he may get on his way."
"Tip him?" his apprentice asked in dismay, clearly feeling there were better things to do with their hard-earned money.
"You heard me," Howell told him, and disappeared into the toilet. While Michael dealt with the page, Howell scrubbed half-heartedly at the tell-tale stains on his cheeks, fiddling with his hair, which he concluded was really a hopeless cause at this point. He soon found himself bent over the sink, staring down at nothing. Mrs. Pentstemmon was gone, and it was his fault.
"Howl," Michael called softly from the other side of the door. When there was no answer, he tried again. "Howl?" And then, after a few moments more, "I did what you said." The basin of the sink was wet, which was odd, as he'd turned the tap off. Howell thought he heard the crackle of Calcifer's voice, and then the door opened. Michael paused a moment over the threshold, taking stock of the situation before striding into the bathroom and solidly putting his arms round Howell without a word. This was one of few occasions Howell did not appreciate being comforted; it only made him more weepy.
"I'm all right, Michael," he lied, patting his apprentice's arm. "Really." He extricated himself, deftly changing the subject, "And look at the simply joyous news we've just received." He turned and picked up the scroll with its dangling seals of congratulations. "I've been officially appointed the new Royal Wizard."
"Oh no," Michael groaned. "But I thought that's why you sent Sophie to blacken your name! So it wouldn't happen."
Howell offered him an ironic smile. "Apparently things did not go according to plan."
"A carriage has just drawn up outside!" Calcifer bellowed, interrupting. Howell and Michael exchanged an apprehensive look.
Howell threw up his arms, deciding nothing mattered anymore. "Wonderful!" he declared. "Perhaps the King himself has arrived to congratulate me on this great honour!"
As always, Michael at least could be relied upon to keep his head. "I'll go see who it is." At the door to the bath, he turned and assured Howell, "If it's the King, I'll send him away." Howell cracked a smile at his apprentice's absurd protective streak and wandered to the doorway to listen to the exchange. His eavesdropping was foiled, however, when Michael ran out the front door.
"I'm sorry, Howell," Calcifer said, peering out at him from the grate with sad violet-flamed eyes. "She was a grand old lady." Howell merely nodded and scrubbed at his eyes with the dove-grey lace of one sleeve.
The familiar rasp and crackle of a dear voice drew him vaguely out of his grief and Howell wandered to the door absently, like a sleepwalker, still holding the forgotten scroll. He watched bemused as Michael, three royal servants, and seven Royal Troopers assisted Sophie out of the royal coach.
He caught her looking at him then, and her guilt was clearly-written on Sophie's face. Howell stepped out and tipped the sergeant an entire gold piece--which he'd just then magically liberated from one of Michael's 'secret' stashes--as payment for putting up with her. Luckily Michael did not seem to notice the amount of money he'd handed over, and Howell did not have to confess that his relief at having Sophie home and safe was worth far more than that sum. As they watched the sumptuous coach go clattering away down the street, Howell worked to put on a brave face and summon the jaunty sarcasm with which he would normally have greeted Sophie.
"I make that four horses and ten men just to get rid of one old woman," he teased. "What did you do to the King?" It was an unspoken understanding between Howell and Michael that they not to tarry out in the street, considering the Witch was somewhere about and in a murderous mood. Howell backed through the door, subtly keeping an eye out while his apprentice helped Sophie back inside the castle. Once she had settled into her customary spot, and the three males heaved a communal sigh of relief that their household was once more intact, hatches battened down, Sophie answered Howell's question.
As if she were expecting a scolding, Sophie confessed that she had actually gone twice to see the King on his behalf. Howell turned and leaned on the hearth to face her, quirking a curious eyebrow as she continued her tale of calamity. When Sophie revealed she had met Violet in the street, Howell nearly fainted into the hearth with fright. It was one of his worst fears realised. Pale as death, he quickly looked away in order to conceal his reaction from her. And directly after the Witch had killed poor Mrs. Pentstemmon, too! Howell forced himself to take deep breaths, reminding himself that Sophie had somehow managed to survive the chance meeting. Meanwhile, Sophie launched into a more detailed account, not noticing Howell's reaction to her news. As she chattered away, Calcifer cast a warm glow on Howell's knees, a silent ray of comfort.
"I wish they hadn't made me leave Michael behind in the wood-paneled anteroom," Sophie was saying. "I shouldn't have got lost if he'd been there with me."
Michael patted her sympathetically. "I wouldn't have if I'd known there was another door to that room they took you into."
Sophie leaned forward, looking earnestly into Howell's pale face. "I did my best to tell the King all those things you told me," she said. "But I think he might have anticipated your tactics, Howl. He's a sharp one, though you wouldn't think it to look at him." Sophie looked thoughtful. "Actually, I believe he portrays himself as intentionally vague. Perhaps it's handy for political games.
"Well, everything I told him just seemed to make him more certain you were the right man for the job. I kept trying to tell him you weren't, but he wasn't having it. Said it all just proved your character, to him. I was so flustered and angry, I walked out the wrong door. And that's when I realised I was lost."
Focusing on her story and remembering his own recent experiences with the King's unexpected craftiness, Howell had been feeling a bit better, but now he experienced a mild sinking feeling. "And the room you walked out into...what did it look like?"
"Gaudy, to my mind," Sophie sniffed. "Mirrors everywhere--I suppose to make it look bigger for all the well-dressed people gathered there. Oh!" She suddenly realised. "Do you suppose that was the Court?"
Howell sighed. "I know it was." No doubt she'd wandered out of the King's war room just as he'd taken off in flight from the Court ladies. "And then?"
"Then the Count of Catterack recognised me and came over to help." It took effort for Howell to hold his tongue regarding their impending lawsuit thanks to the spell Sophie had sold the Count, but he managed just barely. She was shaking her head. "But that poor young man. He seems incapable of getting anything right." Howell nodded agreement. "He had me passed right out the front door with not a sign of you or Michael, and suddenly I was in the street. I thought I would just go home and wait for you there, but the next thing I knew I was lost again!"
She grimaced in aggravated mortification and Howell felt ill. Sophie had run into the Witch because of the misdirection spells that HE had cast. He should have put in a clause for her and Michael to be immune, but he hadn't. And it had almost proved to be the death of her. He felt too ill to apologise. "It's the damned heat down here," Sophie was saying. "Makes me feel all queer and fuzzy. I even asked people on the street for directions, but no one seemed to have heard of you."
Howell prudently decided to attribute this to a very effective spell rather than anything resembling obscurity. Of course people in Kingsbury knew who he was.
"I was just about to give up all together when I passed Mrs. Pentsemmon's street. I thought I could hobble down and ask the footman for directions, but I hadn't gone three steps when she came at me, that horrible woman." Sophie shuddered, and Michael gave her shoulder a little squeeze. "She bragged to me of having killed Mrs. Pentstemmon!" Sophie's eyes opened wide, and Howell could see the fury and outrage there. He did not wonder she had survived her second meeting with the Witch, who was less strong-willed these days than she'd once been. Sophie's expression softened as she looked up at him. "I'm sorry, Howl." He nodded and made a gesture for her to continue. "She said she'd come looking for you, and that Mrs. Pentstemmon wouldn't tell her where you were, so she killed her."
Michael gasped. Howell leaned heavily on the hearth, and his apprentice watched him carefully as though he really was going to collapse.
"Of course she didn't say that," Sophie continued. "She thought she was being very clever, I'm sure, not telling me who it was she'd been asking after. Then she started to question me about Mrs. Pentstemmon and about you."
Howell looked at her in open panic.
"Oh, don't worry. I'm not stupid. I told her I'd only ever heard of you, and that you're a wicked man. She knew I'd been going to see Mrs. Pentstemmon, but I'd never said I was, so I managed to fob that off, as well. But I had to tell her something. She was walking and walking with me down the street, and I just wanted to get away. So I told her I was going to see the King. She took me to the Palace and made me go up all those dratted stairs again, thinking it was funny, that--that--"
"Witch?" Calcifer offered.
"That's one word for her," Sophie growled. "I was frightened you or Michael would come out of the Palace while she was waiting and watching me, but thank heaven you didn't. It was the only thing that went right today. The guards handed me back to see the King, then, and I tried again with him. But..." She looked sheepish, considered saying more, and then decided against it at the last. "But I don't think it worked."
Howell flicked his wrist, setting the ribbons on the royal seals of his scroll flapping. "Behold the new Royal Wizard," he announced. "My name is very black." Sophie drew back with her frightened mouse look, as though expecting him to start shouting at her for having ruined his plan, and suddenly Howell could no longer hold it together. He burst out laughing, feeling nearly as mad as he'd said he was earlier. Sophie looked startled and Michael and Calcifer eyed him with concern.
"And what did she do to the Count of Catterack?" He laughed harder, picturing for the first time what the duel must have been like with the aid of Sophie's 'spell.' "I should never have let her near the King!"
Sophie became defensive, rightly thinking he was laughing at her. "I did blacken your name!" she argued.
Howell waved a hand to show he wasn't angry about the mess. "I know. It was my miscalculation." Tallying up all the disasters of the day, misjudging the King was the least of Howell's worries. He changed the subject, because the rest didn't bear thinking on. "Now, how am I going to go to poor Mrs. Pentsemmon's funeral without the Witch knowing?" For he knew Violet well enough to know her killing the old dame had served two purposes: 1) to get revenge on him by killing someone dear to him and 2) to trap him into a situation where he would have to come out of hiding and be caught at last. Apparently, she could not wait for the curse to kick in. "Any ideas, Calcifer?"
Calcifer just looked at him for a moment. "Do you honestly think this is what Mrs. Pentstemmon would have wanted? I told you before, Howell, she died protecting you! If you go to her funeral and show yourself, you're throwing away everything she died for!"
"I can't not go," Howell told him quietly with a rueful smile. "I can't."
"Then you're a fool, and you'll need far more help than I can give to make it through without being caught." Calcifer dove under his logs, ending the argument, knowing Howell did not have the heart to pursue the topic.
"Well," he said, drawing himself up as straight as he could. "This has proved to be such a wonderful day, I don't believe I can stand another minute. I'm going to bed."
"The sun hasn't even set, yet," Sophie pointed out.
"Hasn't it really?" he said. "Thank you for pointing that out to me, Sophie." The look on her face as he turned to go to the stairs made Howell regret having used such a tone with her. He knew she did not deserve it, but Howell was used to taking his misery out on those around him. It was a hard habit to break, even for Sophie's sake.
Michael hovered uncertainly between the need to look after Howell and the need to comfort Sophie. "Good night, Michael," Howell told him firmly, indicating that he intended to go upstairs alone.
"G-good night, Howl." Michael looked frightened, as if he thought the Witch might still burst in on them. Howell didn't have the energy to reassure him. And after today, he didn't feel there was anything he could take for granted, including the safety of his own home.
With one foot on the second step, Howell turned and looked back at the chair by the hearth to see that Sophie was watching him ascend. "Surviving a meeting with the Witch of the Waste is quite an accomplishment," he told her. "I don't believe I shall ever complain about your cantankerous manner again. No doubt that's what saved you." He couldn't come right out and say how glad he was she'd come home safe. If he did, Howell knew he would confess everything to her, his feelings, his fears, his hopes, all at once. When Sophie snorted and turned back to the fire, he considered it his dismissal.
Upstairs in his room, Howell crawled into bed with all his clothes on and pulled the covers up over his head. He fantasized that he'd been buried alive, perhaps in the grave next to Mrs. Pentstemmon's, a fitting end for someone who'd had a hand in her murder. Howell was too depressed to stay awake for long.
Author's Note: I included a few lines of DWJ's original dialogue toward the end. You can tell which lines they are (the clever ones). Wasn't able to check the Italian with a friend in advance this time, so it may be wrong.