I ASKED Mr. Chivers if I could take the day off. I said I hadn't been feeling well to begin with, and couldn't face classes with the thought of Tara on my mind. He agreed that I'd be better off at home. "Darren," he said as I was leaving, "will you stay in this weekend and take care?"

"Yes, sir," I lied, then hurried downstairs to look for Richard.

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Smickey Martin and a couple of his friends were lounging by the entrance as I hit the ground floor. He'd said nothing to me since our run-in on the stairs - he'd shown his true yellow colours by fleeing - but he called out jeeringly when he saw me. "Look what the cat's dragged in! Shame - I thought the vampires had done for you, like they did for Ta-ta Williams." Pausing, I stomped across to face him. He looked wary. "Watch yourself, Horsty," he growled. "If you get in my face, I'll-"

I grabbed the front of his jumper, lifted him off the ground and held him high above my head. He shrieked like a little child and slapped and kicked at me, but I didn't let go, only shook him roughly until he was quiet. "I'm looking for Richard Montrose," I said. "Have you seen him?" Smickey glared at me and said nothing. With my left fingers and thumb, I caught his nose and squeezed until he wailed. "Have you seen him?" I asked again.

"Yuhs!" he squealed.

I let go of his nose. "When? Where?"

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"A few minutes ago," he mumbled. "Heading for the computer room."

I sighed, relieved, and gently lowered Smickey. "Thanks," I said. Smickey told me what I could do with my thanks. Smiling, I waved a sarcastic goodbye to the humbled bully, then left the building, satisfied that Richard was safe - at least until night...

At Steve's I woke the sleeping vampires and humans - Harkat was already awake - and discussed the latest twist with them. This was the first Debbie had heard about the murdered girl - she hadn't seen the papers - and the news struck her hard. "Tara," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "What sort of a beast would pick on an innocent young child like Tara?"

I told them about Richard, and put forward the proposal that he was next on the vampaneze hit list. "Not necessarily," Mr. Crepsley said. "I think they will go after another of your classmates - just as they executed those living to either side of Debbie - but they might go for the boy or girl sitting in front of or behind you."

"But Richard's my friend," I pointed out. "I barely know the others."

"I do not think the vampaneze are aware of that," he said. "If they were, they would have targeted Richard first."

"We need to stake out all three," Vancha said. "Do we know where they live?"

"I can find out," Debbie said, wiping tears from her cheeks. Vancha tossed her a dirty scrap of cloth, which she accepted gratefully. "The student files are accessible by remote computer. I know the password. I'll go to an Internet cafe, tap into the files and get their addresses."

"What do we do when - if- they attack?" Steve asked.

"We do to them what they did to Tara," Debbie growled before any of the rest of us could answer.

"You think that's wise?" Steve responded. "We know there's more than one of them in operation, but I doubt they'll all turn out to kill a child. Wouldn't it be wiser to trace the attacker back to-"

"Hold on," Debbie interrupted. "Are you saying we let them kill Richard or one of the others?"

"It makes sense. Our primary aim is to-"

Debbie slapped his face before he got any further. "Animal!" she hissed.

Steve stared at her emotionlessly. "I am what I have to be," he said. "We won't stop the vampaneze by being civilized."

"You... you..." She couldn't think of anything dreadful enough to call him.

"He's got a point," Vancha interceded. Debbie turned on him, appalled. "Well, he has," Vancha grumbled, dropping his gaze. "I don't like the idea of letting them kill another child, but if it means saving others..."

"No," Debbie said. "No sacrifices. I won't allow it."

"Me neither," I said.

"Have you an alternative suggestion?" Steve asked.

"Injury," Mr. Crepsley answered when the rest of us were silent. "We stake out the houses, wait for a vampaneze, then shoot him with an arrow before he strikes. But we do not kill him - we target his legs or arms. Then we follow and, if we are lucky, he will lead us back to his companions."

"I dunno," Vancha muttered. "You, me and Darren can't use those guns - it's not the vampire way - which means we'll have to rely upon the aim of Steve, Harkat and Debbie."

"I won't miss," Steve vowed.

"I won't either," Debbie said.

"Nor me," Harkat added.

"Maybe you won't," Vancha agreed, "but if there are two or more of them, you won't have time to target a second - the arrow guns are single-shooters."

"It is a risk we must take," Mr. Crepsley said. "Now, Debbie, you should go to one of these inferno net cafes and find the addresses as soon as possible, then get to bed and sleep. We must be ready for action when night comes."

Mr. Crepsley and Debbie staked out the house of Derek Barry, the boy who sat in front of me in English. Vancha and Steve took responsibility for Gretchen Kelton (Gretch the Wretch, as Smickey Martin called her), who sat behind me. Harkat and I covered the Montrose household.

Friday was a dark, cold, wet night. Richard lived in a big house with his parents and several brothers and sisters. There were lots of upper windows the vampaneze could use to get in. We couldn't cover them all. But vampaneze almost never kill people in their homes - it was how the myth that vampires can't cross a threshold without being invited started - and although Debbie's neighbours had been killed in their apartments, all the others had been attacked in the open.

Nothing happened that night. Richard stayed indoors the whole time. I caught glimpses of him and his family through the curtains every now and then, and envied them their simple lives - none of the Montroses would ever have to stake out a house, anticipating an attack by dark-souled monsters of the night.

When the family was all in bed and the lights went off, Harkat and I took to the roof of the building, where we remained the rest of the night, hidden in the shadows, keeping guard. We left with the rising sun and met the others back at the apartments. They'd had a quiet night too. Nobody had seen any vampaneze.

"The army are back," Vancha noted, referring to the soldiers who'd returned to guard the streets following the murder of Tara Williams. "We'll have to take care not to get in their way - they could mistake us for the killers and open fire."

After Debbie had gone to bed, the rest of us discussed our post-weekend plans. Although Mr. Crepsley, Vancha and I had agreed to leave on Monday if we hadn't run down the vampaneze, I thought we should reconsider - things had changed with the murder of Tara and the threat to Richard.

The vampires were having none of it. "A vow's a vow," Vancha insisted. "We set a deadline and must stick to it. If we postpone leaving once, we'll postpone again."

"Vancha is right," Mr. Crepsley agreed. "Whether we sight our opponents or not, on Monday we leave. It will not be pleasant, but our quest takes priority. We must do what is best for the clan."

I had to go along with them. Indecision is the source of chaos, as Paris Skyle used to say. This wasn't the time to risk a rift with my two closest allies.

As things worked out, I needn't have worried, because late that Saturday, with heavy clouds masking an almost full moon, the vampaneze finally struck - and all bloody hell broke loose!

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