DURING THE walk to the hotel, I filled Steve in on what I'd been up to. It was a greatly condensed version, but I covered most of the bases, and told him about the War of the Scars and how it started.

"The Lord of the Vampaneze," he muttered. "I thought it was strange, how they were organizing."

Advertisement

I asked Steve about my family and friends, but he hadn't been home since he was sixteen, and knew nothing about them.

At the hotel he clambered on to my back and I scaled the outside wall. The stitches in my leg strained with the effort, but held. I rapped on the window and Harkat quickly appeared and let us in. He stared suspiciously at Steve but said nothing until I'd made the introductions.

"Steve Leopard," he mused. "I've heard much... about you."

"None of it good, I bet," Steve laughed, rubbing his hands together - he hadn't taken off his gloves, although he'd loosened his scarf slightly. There was a strong medicinal smell coming from him, which I only noticed now that we were in a warm, normal room.

-- Advertisement --

"What's he doing here?" Harkat asked me, green eyes pinned on Steve. I gave him a quick run-down. Harkat relaxed slightly when he heard that Steve had saved my life, but remained on guard. "You think it was wise to bring... him here?"

"He's my friend," I said shortly. "He saved my life."

"But he knows where we are now."

"So?" I snapped.

"Harkat's right," Steve said. "I'm human. If I fell into the hands of the vampaneze, they could torture the name of this place out of me. You should move on to somewhere new in the morning, and not tell me about it."

"I don't think that will be necessary," I said stiffly, angry with Harkat for not trusting Steve.

There was an uncomfortable silence. "Well!" Steve laughed, breaking it. "It's rude to ask, but I have to. What on earth are you, Harkat Mulds?"

The Little Person grinned at the directness of the question and warmed to Steve a bit. Asking Steve to sit, he told him about himself, how he was a ghost who'd been brought back to life by Mr. Tiny. Steve was astounded. "I've never heard anything like this before!" he exclaimed. "I was interested in the small people in the blue robes when I saw them at the Cirque Du Freak - I sensed there was something weird about them. But with all that's happened since, they'd slipped my mind entirely."

Harkat's revelation - that he'd been a ghost - unnerved Steve. "Something wrong?" I asked.

"Kind of," he muttered. "I never believed in life after death. When I killed, I thought that was the end of the matter. Knowing that people have souls, that they can survive death and even come back... It's not the most welcome news."

"Afraid the vampaneze you killed will come after you?" I smirked.

"Something like that." Shaking his head, Steve settled down and finished telling the story he'd started earlier that night in his apartment. "I came here two months ago, when I heard reports of what appeared to be a vampaneze presence. I thought the killer must be a mad vampaneze, since normally only the crazy ones leave bodies where they can be found. But what I discovered was far more disturbing."

Steve was a highly resourceful investigator. He'd managed to examine three of the victims, and found minor differences in the ways they'd been killed. "Vampaneze - even the crazy ones - have highly developed drinking patterns. No two kill and drain a victim exactly alike, and no vampaneze varies his method. There had to be more than one of them at work."

And since mad vampaneze were by their nature loners, Steve concluded that the killers must be sane.

"But it doesn't make sense," he sighed. "Sane vampaneze shouldn't leave bodies where they can be found. As far as I can figure, they're setting a trap for someone, though I've no idea who."

I glanced questioningly at Harkat. He hesitated, then nodded. "Tell him," he said, and I told Steve about the fake forms which had been sent to Mahler's.

"They're after you?" Steve asked incredulously.

"Possibly," I said. "Or Mr. Crepsley. But we're not entirely sure. Somebody else might be behind it, someone who wants to pit us against the vampaneze."

Steve thought about that in silence.

"You still haven't told us how you were... there to save Darren tonight," Harkat said, interrupting Steve's reverie.

Steve shrugged. "Luck. I've been turning this city upside-down, searching for vampaneze. The killers aren't in any of their usual hiding places - abandoned factories or buildings, crypts, old theatres. Eight nights ago, I spotted a large man with hooks for hands emerging from an underground tunnel."

"That's the guy who attacked me," I told Harkat. "He has three hooks on either arm. One hand's made of gold, the other of silver."

"I've been following him every night since," Steve continued. "It isn't easy for a human to trail a vampaneze - their senses are much more acute - but I've had plenty of practice. Sometimes I lose him, but I always pick him up again exiting the tunnels at dusk."

"He comes out the same way every night?" I asked.

"Of course not," Steve snorted. "Even a crazy vampaneze wouldn't do that."

"Then how do you find him?"

"By wiring manhole covers." Steve beamed proudly. "Vampaneze won't use the same exit night after night, but they tend to stick to a strictly defined area when they set up base. I wired every manhole cover within a two hundred metre radius - I've extended that to half a kilometre since. Whenever one of them opens, a light flashes on a kit I have, and it's a simple matter to track the vampaneze down.

"At least, it was." He paused unhappily. "After tonight, he'll probably move on to somewhere new. He won't know how much I know about him, but he'll expect the worst. I don't think he'll use those tunnels again."

"Did you know it was Darren you were saving?" Harkat asked.

Steve nodded seriously. "I wouldn't have come to his rescue otherwise."

"What do you mean?" I frowned.

"I could have taken Hooky out ages ago," Steve said, "but I knew he wasn't working alone. I wanted to track down his companions. I've been exploring the tunnels by day, hoping to trail him to his base. By interfering tonight, I've blown that chance. I wouldn't have done that for anyone but you."

"If he'd attacked an ordinary human, you'd have let him kill?" I gasped.

"Yes." Steve's eyes were hard. "If sacrificing one person means saving many more, I will. If I hadn't caught a glimpse of your face as you left your lady friend's, I'd have let Hooky kill you."

That was a harsh way of looking at the world, but it was a way I understood. Vampires knew the needs of the group had to be put before those of the individual. It surprised me that Steve was able to think that way - most humans can't - but I suppose you have to learn to be ruthless if you dedicate yourself to the hunting and killing of ruthless creatures.

"That's about the bones of it," Steve said, pulling his dark overcoat a notch tighter around his shoulders, suppressing a shiver. "There's plenty I haven't mentioned, but I've covered most of the major stuff."

"Are you cold?" Harkat asked, noting Steve's shivers. "I can turn up the heat."

"Wouldn't do any good," Steve said. "I picked up some kind of germ when Mr. Crepsley tested me all those years ago. I catch colds simply by looking at someone with a runny nose." He plucked at the scarf around his throat, then wiggled his gloved fingers. "That's why I wrap up so much. If I don't, I wind up confined to bed for days on ends, coughing and spluttering."

"Is that why you smell?" I asked.

Steve laughed. "Yeah. It's a special herbal mix. I rub it in all over before I get dressed every morning. It works wonders. The only drawback is the stench. I have to be careful to keep downwind of the vampaneze when I'm tracking them - one whiff of this and they'd have me pegged."

We discussed the past some more - Steve wanted to know what life in the Cirque Du Freak had been like; I wanted to know where he'd been and what he'd got up to when he wasn't hunting - then talk returned to the present and what we were going to do about the vampaneze.

"If Hooky was acting alone," Steve said, "my attack would have driven him off. The vampaneze don't take chances when they're alone. If they think they've been discovered, they flee. But since he's part of a gang, I doubt he'll run."

"I agree," I said. "They've gone to too much trouble preparing this trap to walk away the first time something goes wrong."

"Do you think the vampaneze will know it was... you who saved Darren?" Harkat asked.

"I don't see how," Steve replied. "They know nothing about me. They'll probably think it was you or Mr. Crepsley. I was careful not to reveal myself to Hooky."

"Then we might still get the better of them," Harkat said. "We haven't gone hunting for them since... Mr. Crepsley left. It would be too dangerous, just the... two of us."

"But if you had me to go with you," Steve said, reading Harkat's thoughts, "it would be different. I'm accustomed to vampaneze hunts. I know where to look and how to track them."

"And with us to back you up," I added, "you could work faster than normal and cover more ground."

We gazed silently around at one another.

"You'd be taking a big risk, getting involved... with us," Harkat warned him. "Whoever set us up knows all... about us. You might tip them off to your presence by... pitching in with us."

"It'd be risky for you too," Steve countered. "You're safe up here. Underground, it's their turf, and if we go down, we're inviting an attack. Remember - though vampaneze usually sleep by day, they don't need to when they're sheltered from the sun. They could be awake and waiting."

We thought about it some more. Then I stretched forth my right hand and held it out in front of me, palm downwards. "I'm up for it if you are," I said.

Steve immediately laid his left hand - the one with the scarred palm - on top of mine and said, "I've nothing to lose. I'm with you."

Harkat was slower to react. "I wish Mr. Crepsley was here," he mumbled.

"Me too," I said. "But he's not. And the longer we wait for him, the more time the vampaneze have to plan an attack. If Steve's right, and they panic and switch base. it'll take them a while to settle. They'll be vulnerable. This could be our best chance to strike."

Harkat sighed unhappily. "It could also be our best chance to walk... straight into a trap. But," he added, laying a large grey hand on top of ours, "the rewards justify the risks. If we can find and kill them, we'll save... many lives. I'm with you."

Smiling at Harkat, I proposed a vow. "To the death?" I suggested.

"To the death," Steve agreed.

"To the death," Harkat nodded, then added pointedly, "but not, I hope, ours!"

-- Advertisement --