HE WAS close enough for me to lunge at the gun barrel and maybe redirect it. But I couldn't move. I was stunned beyond anything but passive observation. Debbie Hemlock walking into my English class had left me gobsmacked - but Steve Leopard (his real name was Leonard) turning up out of the blue like this was ten times as shocking.
After a handful of anxious seconds, Steve lowered the arrow gun, then jammed it through a belt behind his back. He extended his hands, took my left arm above the elbow, and hauled me to my feet. I rose obediently, a puppet in his hands.
"Had you going for a minute, didn't I?" he said - and smiled.
"You're not going to kill me?" I wheezed.
"Hardly!" He took my right hand and shook it awkwardly. "Hello, Darren. Good to see you again, old friend."
I stared at our clasped hands, then at his face. Then I threw my arms around him and hugged him for dear life. "Steve!" I sobbed into his shoulder.
"Stop that," he muttered and I could hear the sound of his own voice breaking. "You'll have me in tears if you keep it up." Pushing me away, he wiped around his eyes and grinned.
I dried my cheeks and beamed. "It's really you!"
"Of course. You don't think two people could be born this handsome, do you?"
"Modest as ever," I noted wryly.
"Nothing to be modest about," he sniffed, then laughed. "You able to walk?"
"I think a hobble's the best I can manage," I said.
"Then lean on me. I don't want to hang around. Hooky might come back with his friends."
"Hooky? Oh, you mean the vampa-" I stopped, wondering how much Steve knew about the creatures of the night.
"The vampaneze," he finished, nodding soberly.
"You know about them?"
"Is the hook-handed guy the one who's been killing people?"
"Yes. But he isn't alone. We'll discuss it later. Let's get you out of here and cleaned up first." Letting me lean on him, Steve led me back the way I'd come, and as we walked I couldn't help wondering if I'd been knocked unconscious in the alley. If not for the pain in my leg - which was all too real - I'd have been seriously tempted to think this was nothing but a wishful dream.
Steve took me to the fifth floor of a run-down apartment block. Many of the doors we passed along the landing were boarded-over or broken down. "Nice neighbourhood," I commented sarcastically.
"It's a condemned building," he said. "A few apartments are occupied - mostly by old folk with nowhere else to go - but the majority are empty. I prefer places like this to boarding houses and hotels. The space and quiet suit my purposes."
Steve stopped at a battered brown door kept shut by an extra thick padlock and chain. Rooting through his pockets, he found a key, unlocked the padlock, removed the chain and pushed the door open. The air inside was stale, but he took no notice as he bundled me inside and closed the door. The darkness within held until he lit a candle. "No electricity," he said. "The lower apartments are still connected, but it went off up here last week."
He helped me into a cluttered living room and laid me down on a couch that had seen better days - it was threadbare, and wiry springs stuck out through several holes. "Try not to impale yourself," Steve laughed.
"Is your interior decorator on strike?" I asked.
"Don't complain," Steve scolded me. "It's a good base to work from. If we had to report back to some swanky hotel, we'd have to explain your leg and why we're covered in filth. As for accounting for these ..." He shrugged off the pair of arrow guns and laid them down.
"Care to tell me what's going on, Steve?" I asked quietly. "How you were in that alley and why you're carrying those?"
"Later," he said, "after we've tended to your wounds. And after you've-" he produced a mobile phone and tossed it to me "-made a call."
"Who am I supposed to ring?" I asked, staring at the phone suspiciously.
"Hooky followed you from your friend's house - the dark-skinned lady."
My face whitened. "He knows where Debbie lives?" I gasped.
"If that's her name - yes. I doubt he'll go after her, but if you don't want to run the risk, my advice is to call and tell her to-"
I was hitting buttons before he finished. Debbie's phone rang four times. Five. Six. Seven. I was about to dash to her rescue, regardless of my bad leg, when she picked up and said, "Hello?"
"Darren? What are-"
"Debbie - do you trust me?"
There was a startled pause. "Is this a joke?"
"Do you trust me?" I growled.
"Of course," she answered, sensing my seriousness.
"Then get out now. Throw some gear into a bag and scram. Find a hotel for the weekend. Stay there."
"Darren, what's going on? Have you lost your-"
"Do you want to die?" I interrupted.
A silent beat. Then, quietly, "No."
"Then get out." I hit the disconnect button and prayed she'd heed my warning. "Does the vampaneze know where I'm staying?" I asked, thinking of Harkat.
"I doubt it," Steve said. "If he did, he'd have attacked you there. From what I saw, he stumbled upon you earlier tonight by chance. He was casing a crowd, selecting his next victim, when he saw you and picked up your trail. He followed you to your friend's house, waited, trailed after you when you left, and..."
I knew the rest.
Steve fetched a first-aid kit from a shelf behind the couch. He told me to lean forward, then examined the back of my head. "Is it cut?" I asked.
"Yes, but not badly. It doesn't need stitches. I'll clean it up and apply a dressing." With my head seen to, he focused on my leg. It was deeply gashed and the material of my trousers was soaked through with blood. Steve snipped it away with a sharp pair of scissors, exposing the flesh beneath, then swabbed at the wound with cotton wool. When it was clean, he studied it momentarily, then left and came back with a reel of catgut and a needle. "This'll hurt," he said.
"It won't be the first time I've been stitched back together," I grinned. He went to work on the cut, and did a neat job on it. I'd only have a small scar when it was fully healed. "You've done this before," I noted as he tucked the catgut away.
"I took first-aid classes," he said. "Figured they'd come in handy. Never guessed who my first patient would be." He asked if I wanted something to drink.
"Just some water."
He pulled a bottle of mineral water out of a bag by the sink and filled a couple of glasses. "Sorry it's not cold. The fridge won't work without electricity."
"No problem," I said, taking a long drink. Then I nodded at the sink. "Has the water been cut off too?"
"No, but you wouldn't want to drink any - fine for washing, but you'd be on a toilet for days if you swallowed."
We smiled at each other over the rims of our glasses.
"So," I said, "mind telling me what you've been up to these last fifteen years?"
"You first," Steve said.
"Nuh-uh. You're the host. It's your place to start."
"Toss you for it?" he suggested.
He produced a coin and told me to call. "Heads."
He flipped the coin, caught it and slapped it over. When he took his hand away he grimaced. "I never did have much luck," he sighed, then started to talk. It was a long story, and we were down to the bottom of the bottle of water and on to a second candle before he finished.
Steve hated Mr. Crepsley and me for a long, long time. He'd sit up late into the night, plotting his future, dreaming of the day he'd track us down and stake us through the heart. "I was crazy with rage," he muttered. "I couldn't think about anything else. In woodwork classes I made stakes. In geography I committed the maps of the world to memory, so I'd know my way around whichever country I traced you to."
He found out everything there was to know about vampires. He'd had a large collection of horror books when I knew him, but he'd doubled, then trebled that in the space of a year. He learnt what climates we favoured, where we preferred to make our homes, how best to kill us. "I got in contact with people on the Internet," he said. "You'd be surprised how many vampire hunters there are. We exchanged notes, stories, opinions. Most were crackpots, but a few knew what they were talking about."
When he turned sixteen he left school and home, and went out into the world. He supported himself through a series of odd jobs, working in hotels, restaurants and factories. Sometimes he stole, or broke into empty houses and squatted. They were rough, lean, lonely years. He had very few scruples, hardly any friends, and no real interests except learning how to become a killer of vampires.
"To begin with, I thought I'd pretend to befriend them," he explained. "I went in search of vampires, acting as if I wanted to become one. Most of what I'd read in books or gleaned through the Internet was rubbish. I decided the best way to rid myself of my enemies was to get to know them."
Of course, when he eventually tracked a few vampires down and worked himself into their good books, he realized we weren't monsters. He discovered our respect for life, that we didn't kill humans when we drank and that we were people of honour. "It made me take a long, hard look at myself," he sighed, his face dark and sad by the light of the candle. "I saw that I was the monster, like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, chasing a pair of killer whales - except these whales weren't killers!"
Gradually his hatred subsided. He still resented me for going off with Mr. Crepsley, but accepted the fact that I hadn't done it to spite him. When he looked back at the past, he saw that I'd given up my family and home to save his life, and hadn't tricked or plotted against him.
That's when he dropped his crazy quest. He stopped searching for us, put all thoughts of revenge from his mind, and sat down to work out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. "I could have gone back," he said. "My mother's still alive. I could have returned home, finished my education, found a normal job, carved out an ordinary life for myself. But the night has a way of claiming those who embrace it. I'd found out the truth about vampires - but also about vampaneze."
Steve couldn't stop thinking about the vampaneze. He thought it was incredible that creatures like that could exist, roaming and killing as they pleased. It angered him. He wanted to put a stop to their murderous ways. "But I couldn't go to the police," he smiled ruefully. "I'd have had to capture a live vampaneze to prove they existed, but taking a vampaneze alive is almost impossible, as I'm sure you know. Even if they believed me, what could they have done? Vampaneze move in, kill, then move on. By the time I'd convinced the police of the danger they were in, the vampaneze would have vanished, and the danger with him. There was only one thing for it - I had to take them on myself!"
Applying the knowledge he'd gathered when studying to be a vampire hunter, Steve set himself the task of tracking down and killing as many vampaneze as he could. It wasn't easy - vampaneze hide their tracks (and the bodies of their victims) expertly, leaving little evidence of their existence - but in time he found people who knew something of their ways, and he built up a picture of vampaneze habits, traits and routes, and eventually stumbled upon one.
"Killing him was the hardest thing I'd ever done," Steve said grimly. "I knew he was a killer, and would kill again if I let him go, but as I stood there, studying him while he slept..." He shivered.
"How did you do it?" I asked quietly. "A stake?"
He nodded bitterly. "Fool that I was - yes."
"I don't understand," I frowned. "Isn't a stake the best way to kill a vampaneze, like with vampires?"
He stared coldly at me. "Ever kill anybody with a stake?"
"Don't!" he snorted. "Driving it in is simple enough, but blood gushes up into your face, over your arms and chest, and the vampaneze doesn't die straightaway like vampires do in movies. The one I killed lived for the better part of a minute, thrashing and screaming. He crawled out of the coffin and came after me. He was slow, but I slipped on his blood, and before I knew what was happening, he was on top of me."
"What did you do?" I gasped.
"I punched and kicked him and tried to knock him off. Fortunately he'd lost too much blood and hadn't the strength to kill me. But he died on top of me, his blood drenching me, his face next to mine as he shuddered and sobbed and..."
Steve looked away. I didn't press him for further details.
"Since then I've learnt to use those." He nodded at the arrow guns. "They're the best there is. An axe is good too - if you have a good aim and the strength to chop a head clean off - but stay away from ordinary guns - they're not reliable where the extra tough bones and muscles of the vampaneze are concerned."
"I'll bear that in mind," I said, grinning sickly, then asked how many vampaneze Steve had killed.
"Six, though two of those were mad and would have died before long anyway."
I was impressed. "That's more than most vampires kill."
"Humans have an advantage over vampires," Steve said. "We can move about and strike by day. In a fair contest, a vampaneze would wipe the floor with me. But if you catch them in the day, while they're sleeping...
"Although," he added, "that's changing. The last few I've tracked have been accompanied by humans. I wasn't able to get close enough to kill them. It's the first time I've heard of vampaneze travelling with human assistants."
"They're called vampets," I told him.
He frowned. "How do you know? I thought the families of the night had nothing to do with one another."
"We hadn't until recently," I said grimly, then glanced at my watch. Steve's story wasn't complete - he still hadn't explained how he'd wound up here - but it was time I made a move. It was getting late and I didn't want Harkat to worry. "Will you come to my hotel with me? You can finish telling me about yourself there. Besides, there's someone I'd like you to share your story with."
"Mr. Crepsley?" Steve guessed.
"No. He's away on... business. This is somebody else."
"It would take too long to explain. Will you come?"
He hesitated a moment, then said he would. But he stopped to grab his arrow guns before we left - I had a feeling Steve didn't even go to the toilet without his weapons!