IT WAS almost dawn before we got to bed (Debbie dismissed her police guard earlier in the night). Everyone crammed into the two hotel rooms. Harkat, Vancha and I slept on the floor, Mr. Crepsley in his bed, Steve on the couch, and Debbie in the bed in the other room. Vancha had offered to share Debbie's bed if she wanted someone to keep her warm.

"Thanks," she'd said coyly, "but I'd rather sleep with an orangutan."

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"She likes me!" Vancha declared as she left. "They always play hard to get when they like me!"

At dusk, Mr. Crepsley and I checked out of the hotel. Now that Vancha, Steve and Debbie had joined us, we needed to find somewhere quieter. Steve's almost deserted apartment block was ideal. We took over the two apartments next to his and moved straight in. A quick spot of tidying-up and the rooms were ready to inhabit. They weren't comfortable - they were cold and damp - but they'd suffice.

Then it was time to go vampaneze hunting.

We paired off into three teams. I wanted to go with Debbie, but Mr. Crepsley said it would be better if she accompanied one of the full-vampires. Vancha immediately offered to be her partner, but I put a quick stop to that idea. In the end we agreed that Debbie would go with Mr. Crepsley, Steve with Vancha, and Harkat with me.

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Along with our weapons, each of us carried a mobile phone. Vancha didn't like phones - a tom-tom drum was the closest he'd got to modern telecommunications - but we convinced him that it made sense - this way, if one of us found the vampaneze, we'd be able to summon the others swiftly.

Disregarding the tunnels we'd already examined, and those that were used regularly by humans, we divided up the city's underground terrain into three sectors, assigned one per team, and descended into darkness.

A long, disappointing night lay ahead of us. Nobody found any trace of the vampaneze, although Vancha and Steve discovered a human corpse that had been stashed away by the blood-suckers many weeks earlier. They made a note of where it was, and Steve said he'd inform the authorities later, when we'd finished searching, so the body could be claimed and buried.

Debbie looked like a ghost when we met at Steve's apartment the following morning. Her hair was wet and scraggly, her clothes torn, her cheeks scratched, her hands cut by sharp stones and old pipes. While I cleaned out her cuts and bandaged her hands, she stared ahead at the wall, dark rims around her eyes.

"How do you do it, night after night?" she asked in a weak voice.

"We're stronger than humans," I replied. "Fitter and faster. I tried telling you that before, but you wouldn't listen."

"But Steve isn't a vampire."

"He works out. And he's had years of practice." I paused and studied her weary brown eyes. "You don't have to come with us," I said. "You could co-ordinate the search from here. You'd be more use up here than-"

"No," she interrupted firmly. "I said I'd do it and I will."

"OK," I sighed. I finished dressing her wounds and helped her hobble to bed. We'd said nothing about our argument on Friday - this wasn't the time for personal problems.

Mr. Crepsley was smiling when I returned. "She will make it," he said.

"You think so?" I asked.

He nodded. "I made no allowances. I held to a steady pace. Yet she kept up and did not complain. It has taken its toll - that is natural - but she will be stronger after a good day's sleep. She will not let us down."

Debbie looked no better when she woke late that evening, but perked up after a hot meal and shower, and was first out the door, nipping down to the shops to buy a strong pair of gloves, water-resistant boots and new clothes. She also tied her hair back and wore a baseball cap, and when we parted that night, I couldn't help admiring how fierce (but beautiful) she looked. I was glad it wasn't me she was coming after with the arrow gun she'd borrowed from Steve!

Wednesday was another wash-out, as was Thursday. We knew the vampaneze were down here, but the system of tunnels was vast, and it seemed as if we were never going to find them. Early Friday morning, as Harkat and I were making our way back to base, I stopped at a newspaper stand to buy some papers and catch up with the news. This was the first time since the weekend that I'd paused to check on the state of the world, and as I thumbed through the uppermost paper, a small article caught my eye and I came to a stop.

"What's wrong?" Harkat asked.

I didn't answer. I was too busy reading. The article was about a boy the police were looking for. He was missing, a presumed victim of the killers who'd struck again on Tuesday, murdering a young girl. The wanted boy's name? Darren Horston!

I discussed the article with Mr. Crepsley and Vancha after Debbie had gone to bed (I didn't want to alarm her). It said simply that I'd been at school on Monday and hadn't been seen since. The police had checked up on me, as they were checking on all students who'd gone absent without contacting their schools (I forgot to phone in to say that I was sick). When they couldn't find me, they'd issued a general description and a plea for anyone who knew anything about me to come forward. They were also 'interested in talking to' my 'father - Vur Horston'.

I suggested ringing Mahler's to say I was OK, but Mr. Crepsley thought it would be better if I went in personally. "If you call, they may want to send someone to interview you. And if we ignore the problem, someone might spot you and alert the police."

We agreed I should go in, pretend I'd been sick and that my father moved me to my uncle's house for the good of my health. I'd stay for a few classes - just long enough to assure everyone that I was OK - then say I felt sick again and ask one of my teachers to call my 'uncle' Steve to collect me. He'd remark to the teacher that my father had gone for a job interview, which would be the excuse we'd use on Monday - my father got the job, had to start straightaway, and had sent for me to join him in another city.

It was an unwelcome distraction, but I wanted to be free to throw my weight behind the search for the vampaneze this weekend, so I dressed up in my school uniform and headed in. I reported to Mr. Chivers' office twenty minutes before the start of class, thinking I'd have to wait for the perennial late-bird, but was surprised to find him in residence. I knocked and entered at his call. "Darren!" he gasped when he saw me. He jumped up and grasped my shoulders. "Where have you been? What happened? Why didn't you call?"

I ran through my story and apologized for not contacting him. I said I'd only found out that people were looking for me this morning. I also told him I hadn't been keeping up with the news, and that my father was away on business. Mr. Chivers scolded me for not letting them know where I was, but was too relieved to find me safe and well to bear me a grudge.

"I'd almost given up on you," he sighed, running a hand through hair that hadn't been washed lately. He looked old and shaken. "Wouldn't it have been awful if you'd been taken as well? Two in a week... It doesn't bear thinking about."

"Two, sir?" I asked.

"Yes. Losing Tara was terrible, but if we'd-"

"Tara?" I interrupted sharply.

"Tara Williams. The girl who was killed last Tuesday." He stared at me incredulously. "Surely you heard."

"I read the name in the papers. Was she a student at Mahler's?"

"Great heavens, boy, don't you know?" he boomed.

"Know what?"

"Tara Williams was a classmate of yours! That's why we were so worried - we thought maybe the two of you had been together when the killer struck."

I ran the name through my memory banks but couldn't match it to a face. I'd met lots of people since coming to Mahler's, but hadn't got to know many, and hardly any of the few I knew were girls.

"You must know her," Mr. Chivers insisted. "You sat next to her in English!"

I froze, her face suddenly clicking into place. A small girl, light brown hair, silver braces on her teeth, very quiet. She'd sat to the left of me in English. She let me share her poetry book one day when I left mine in the hotel by accident.

"Oh, no," I moaned, certain this was no coincidence.

"Are you all right?" Mr. Chivers asked. "Would you care for something to drink?"

I shook my head numbly. "Tara Williams," I muttered weakly, feeling a chill spread through my body from the inside out. First Debbie's neighbours. Now one of my classmates. Who would be next...?

"Oh, no!" I moaned again, but louder this time. Because I'd just remembered who sat to my right in English - Richard!

    

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