Series: Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog: Book 5
By Claire Barker
Chapter One: Cold Snap
Knitbone Pepper glanced over at his friends; a jolly jumble of animal ghosts, huddled around the library fireplace. They snuggled together in the flickering orange glow, trying to keep warm. It was winter in Bartonshire and, as was usual for this time of year, Starcross Hall was as chilly as a penguin’s pants.
Wrapped up in a tartan shawl, his beak chattering, Gabriel the goose flicked through a holiday brochure advertising “Sunshine Tours”. Valentine the hare shivered on a wobbly hot-water bottle, wearing three jumpers that he had borrowed from various old teddy bears. Martin the hamster sat in a fluffy slipper, eating hot and spicy ginger biscuits. Meanwhile Orlando, the little Elizabethan monkey, had tucked himself and a collection of his very best spoons into a woolly bedsock and was hopping up and down. In the middle of the gathering, as unique as a snowflake, sat Winifred Clementine Violet Araminta Pepper, heir to Starcross Hall.
If a passer-by had looked through the frosted windowpanes on that Friday afternoon, all they would have seen was a young girl curled up by the fireside alone. But Winnie Pepper was never alone. In fact, within the grounds of her home, she was always surrounded by this cheerful gang of ghosts. The friendly spirits of her ancestors’ pets, the Beloveds had been pattering around the corridors of Starcross Hall for centuries, keeping an eye on the Peppers and getting stuck into adventures. These days Winnie was an honorary member of S.O.S. (the Spirits of Starcross) too, even though she was both human and alive, which made her feel very special. Best of all, this invisible band of chums included her very own ghost dog and best friend forever, Knitbone Pepper.
From over near the window, Knitbone gazed intently at Winnie. Watching her now in the firelight, back from school at last, her head cocooned in cosy scarves and blowing on
her fingertips to keep them warm, he thought how much he loved her. He loved her more than all the frisbees, bicycle wheels and cowpats in the world, more than sticks and balls, even more than squirrels and bones. They went together like tea and toast, strawberries and cream, chips and beans. She was the icing on his bun, the cherry in his pie and he never, ever tired of worshipping her.
“Knitbone, do you want something?” Winnie asked, glancing up, feeling his starry-eyed gaze on her.
“He’s always doing that,” chuckled Valentine.
“Like a lovesick puppy,” giggled Gabriel, not bothering to look up from his book.
“He EEZ a lovesick puppy. Loony-moony woof-face,” crooned Orlando, sock-hopping
over to Knitbone.
He wrapped his little monkey arms around Knitbone’s leg and gave it a tight squeeze.
Martin the hamster stood up in his slipper and saluted. “Knitbone is just doing his Beloved duty. And very good he is at it too. Carry on, that dog.”
“Thank you, Martin,” woofed Knitbone, wagging his tail. “I certainly shall.” He trotted across the bare floorboards and snuggled his head under Winnie’s arm.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Knitbone,” said Winnie, her teeth clattering in the cold air. She pulled her scarf closer and shivered. “Brrr. It’s very draughty in here today, isn’t it?”
Winnie put another log on the fire and watched the golden sparks fly up the chimney.
“You’d think after selling all those Von Fluff paintings we found in the attic, that Lord and Lady Pepper might have got around to fixing the heating by now,” sighed Valentine, chipping away at a frozen cup of tea.
It was true that Winnie’s parents had spent some of the fortune on making rickety-rackety old Starcross Hall slightly more comfortable.
But being eccentric aristocrats, they thought that comfortable meant more beehives and a helter-skelter, not actually fixing important things that were broken, like the leaky roof or the wonky heating. Other than a lick of paint, the house was very much as it had always been – a higgledy-piggledy, 950-year-old tumbledown wreck.
This wasn’t a problem for most of the year. In the spring, daffodils and crocuses sprang up along the brick pathways. Summertime was a season for flinging open the windows, a time for letting in sunshine, the air and the birds. Then the long golden days warmed the walls and bright green lizards basked on the front steps. The blowy autumn was just as beautiful, a coppery delight with windfall apples to munch. But it took real determination to get through a Starcross winter.
Some days it was so cold that the Peppers stayed tucked up in bed, as draughts sliced under doorways and stabbed through the chinks in the window frames. Water froze in the washing-up bowl and taking a shower felt more like braving a blizzard. There was a big old boiler in the cellar, but it was very temperamental. On the rare occasions it did work, its grumpy pipes creaked and whined in protest, sending out nothing but a whimper of warmth.
Luckily the Peppers were made of strong stuff and, from medieval times to the present day, generations had battled the cold with typical cheer. Starcross Hall was their home and all of the Peppers – both dead and alive – loved it whatever the weather. Winnie’s parents believed the solution was to “wrap up warm, do lots of star jumps and think cosy thoughts”. Indeed, Lord P simply saw it as an opportunity to wear several hats at a time and Lady P said it was the perfect temperature to make her infamous donkey milk ice pops.
But that morning, Lord Pepper had awoken to discover his wizard hat frozen solid to his head, as firmly as an upside-down icicle, and he finally decided that enough was enough.
He grabbed a fistful of cash from the biscuit tin and disappeared down the lane to catch the bus into Bartonshire, with the plan of finding a central-heating engineer. But that had been hours ago and now a veil of darkness was falling over the house.
“What can be taking Lord Pepper so long?” asked Gabriel, waddling across the room and craning his long neck to look out of the window. He cupped his wings against the glass and peered out into the gloom. “He’s been gone all day.”
Winnie looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. “I hope the number eight bus hasn’t broken down again.”
Suddenly Knitbone’s nose twitched and his tail stood straight out. A deep woof rumbled up in his chest and popped out like a particularly surprising burp. “Wait a minute.”
“What is it, boy?” asked Winnie, joining Gabriel and the others at the window. “Is it him?” A tiny dot appeared in the distance.
Martin took his telescope out of his utility belt and peered down the driveway. “Yes, it’s Lord P, all right.”
“Hooray for Dad!” cheered Winnie. “We aren’t going to have to spend winter in bed after all! We’ll be warm and cosy in no time!” She stood on her tiptoes and squinted through the frosty glass.
“Has he got the engineer with him?” asked Valentine, hopping up and down on the spot.
“No,” said Martin adjusting the spyglass, “he’s alone. But it looks like he’s carrying something… It looks like…a… A pancake?”
Knitbone Pepper is a friendly ghost dog, haunting the crumbling Starcross Hall with a gaggle of other ghostly pets. When Lord Pepper buys an antique top hat he brings home a ghost rabbit looking for a young magician called Ernest Salt. But there’s skulduggery at play and Ernest’s guardians are determined to keep his identity secret...
Claire Barker graduated from Bath Spa University with a degree in English Literature and History. She studied illustration for a further two years and worked as a teaching assistant for several more. Claire used to live on narrowboats but now lives with her family on a small, untidy farm in deepest, darkest Devon. When she’s not busy writing or illustrating she spends her days wrestling sheep, battling through nettle patches and triumphantly catching rogue chickens.
Visit clairebarkerauthor.com to find out more.