WE RETURNED to the hotel at the end of another long, disappointing night. We'd stayed at the same hotel since coming to the city. We hadn't meant to - the plan had been to switch every couple of weeks - but the search for the vampaneze had left us so exhausted, we hadn't been able to muster the energy to go looking for fresh accommodation. Even the sturdy Harkat Mulds, who didn't need to sleep very much, was dozing off for four or five hours each day.
I felt better after a hot bath and flicked on the TV to see if there was any news about the killings. I learnt it was early Thursday morning - days melted into one another when you lived among vampires, and I rarely took any notice of them - and no new deaths had been reported. It had been almost two weeks since the last body was discovered. There was the slightest hint of hope in the air - many people thought the reign of terror had come to an end. I doubted we'd be that lucky, but I kept my fingers crossed as I turned the set off and headed for the welcome hotel bed.
Sometime later I was roughly shaken awake. A strong light was shining through the thin material of the curtains and I knew instantly that it was midday or early afternoon, which was way too soon to be even thinking about getting out of bed. Grunting, I sat up and found an anxious-looking Harkat leaning over me.
"Wassup?" I muttered, rubbing the grains of sleep from my eyes.
"Someone's knocking at... your door," Harkat croaked.
"Tell them to please go away," I said - or words to that effect!
"I was going to, but..." He paused.
"Who is it?" I asked, sensing trouble.
"I don't know. I opened the door of my room a crack... and checked. It's nobody connected with the hotel, although... there's a staff member with him. He's a small man, carrying a big... briefcase, and he's..." Again Harkat paused. "Come see for yourself."
I got up as there was a round of fresh knuckle raps. I hurried through to Harkat's room. Mr. Crepsley was sleeping soundly in one of the twin beds. We tiptoed past him and opened the door ever so slightly. One of the figures in the corridor was familiar - the day manager of the hotel - but I'd never seen the other. He was small, as Harkat had said, and thin, with a huge black briefcase. He was wearing a dark grey suit, black shoes and an old-fashioned bowler hat. He was scowling and raising his knuckles to knock again as we closed the door.
"Think we should answer?" I asked Harkat.
"Yes," he said. "He doesn't look like the sort who'll... go away if we ignore him."
"Who do you think he is?"
"I'm not sure, but there's something... officious about him. He might be a police officer or in... the army."
"You don't think they know about...?" I nodded at the sleeping vampire.
"They'd send more than one man... if they did," Harkat replied.
I thought about it for a moment, then made up my mind. "I'll go see what he wants. But I won't let him in unless I have to - I don't want people snooping around in here while Mr. Crepsley's resting."
"Shall I stay here?" Harkat asked.
"Yes, but keep close to the door and don't lock it - I'll call if I run into trouble."
Leaving Harkat to fetch his axe, I quickly pulled on a pair of trousers and a shirt and went to see what the man in the corridor wanted. Pausing by the door, not opening it, I cleared my throat and called out innocently, "Who is it?"
In immediate response, in a voice like a small dog's bark, the man with the briefcase said, "Mr. Horston?"
"No," I replied, breathing a small sigh of relief. "You have the wrong room."
"Oh?" The man in the corridor sounded surprised. "This isn't Mr. Vur Horston's room?"
"No, it's-" I winced. I'd forgotten the false names we'd given when registering! Mr. Crepsley had signed in as Vur Horston and I'd said I was his son. (Harkat had crept in when no one was watching.) "I mean," I began again, "this is my room, not my dad's. I'm Darren Horston, his son."
"Ah." I could sense his smile through the door. "Excellent. You're the reason I'm here. Is your father with you?
"He's..." I hesitated. "Why do you want to know? Who are you?"
"If you open the door and let me in, I'll explain."
"I'd like to know who you are first," I said. "These are dangerous times. I've been told not to open the door to strangers."
"Ah. Excellent," the little man said again. "I should of course not expect you to open the door to an unannounced visitor. Forgive me. My name is Mr. Blaws."
"Blaws," he said, and patiently spelt it out.
"What do you want, Mr. Blaws?" I asked.
"I'm a school inspector," he replied. "I've come to find out why you aren't in school."
My jaw dropped about a thousand kilometres.
"May I come in, Darren?" Mr. Blaws asked. When I didn't answer, he rapped on the door again and sung out, "Darrrrennn?"
"Um. Just a minute, please," I muttered, then turned my back to the door and leant weakly against it, wildly wondering what I should do.
If I turned the inspector away, he'd return with help, so in the end I opened the door and let him in. The hotel manager departed once he saw that everything was OK, leaving me alone with the serious-looking Mr. Blaws. The little man set his briefcase down on the floor, then removed his bowler hat and held it in his left hand, behind his back, as he shook my hand with his right. He was studying me carefully. There was a light layer of bristle on my chin, my hair was long and scruffy, and my face still carried small scars and burn marks from my Trials of Initiation seven years before.
"You look quite old," Mr. Blaws commented, sitting down without being asked. "Very mature for fifteen. Maybe it's the hair. You could do with a trim and a shave."
"I guess..." I didn't know why he thought I was fifteen, and I was too bewildered to correct him.
"So!" he boomed, laying his bowler hat aside and his huge briefcase across his lap. "Your father - Mr. Horston - is he in?"
"Um... yeah. He's... sleeping." I was finding it hard to string words together.
"Oh, of course. I forgot he was on night shifts. Perhaps I should call back at a more convenient..." He trailed off, thumbed open his briefcase, dug out a sheet of paper and studied it as though it was an historical document. "Ah," he said. "Not possible to rearrange - I'm on a tight schedule. You'll have to wake him."
"Um. Right. I'll go... see if he's..." I hurried through to where the vampire lay sleeping and anxiously shook him awake. Harkat stood back, saying nothing - he'd heard everything and was just as confused as I was.
Mr. Crepsley opened one eye, saw that it was daytime, and shut it again. "Is the hotel on fire?" he groaned.
"Then go away and-"
"There's a man in my room. A school inspector. He knows our names - at least, the names we checked in under - and he thinks I'm fifteen. He wants to know why I'm not at school."
Mr. Crepsley shot out of bed as though he'd been bitten. "How can this be?" he snapped. He rushed to the door, stopped, then retreated slowly. "How did he identify himself?"
"Just told me his name - Mr. Blaws."
"It could be a cover story."
"I don't think so. The manager of the hotel was with him. He wouldn't have let him up if he wasn't on the level. Besides, he looks like a school inspector."
"Looks can be deceptive," Mr. Crepsley noted.
"Not this time," I said. "You'd better get dressed and come meet him."
The vampire hesitated, then nodded sharply. I left him to prepare, and went to close the curtains in my room. Mr. Blaws looked at me oddly. "My father's eyes are very sensitive," I said. "That's why he prefers to work at night."
"Ah," Mr. Blaws said. "Excellent."
We said nothing more for the next few minutes, while we waited for my 'father' to make his entrance. I felt very uncomfortable, sitting in silence with this stranger, but he acted as though he felt perfectly at home. When Mr. Crepsley finally entered, Mr. Blaws stood and shook his hand, not letting go of the briefcase. "Mr. Horston," the inspector beamed. "A pleasure, sir."
"Likewise." Mr. Crepsley smiled briefly, then sat as far away from the curtains as he could and drew his red robes tightly around himself.
"So!" Mr. Blaws boomed after a short silence. "What's wrong with our young trooper?"
"Wrong?" Mr. Crepsley blinked. "Nothing is wrong."
"Then why isn't he at school with all the other boys and girls?"
"Darren does not go to school," Mr. Crepsley said, as though speaking to an idiot. "Why should he?"
Mr. Blaws was taken aback. "Why, to learn, Mr. Horston, the same as any other fifteen year old."
"Darren is not..." Mr. Crepsley stopped. "How do you know his age?" he asked cagily.
"From his birth certificate, of course," Mr. Blaws laughed.
Mr. Crepsley glanced at me for an answer, but I was as lost as he was, and could only shrug helplessly. "And how did you acquire that?" the vampire asked.
Mr. Blaws looked at us strangely. "You included it with the rest of the relevant forms when you enrolled him at Mahler's," he said.
"Mahler's?" Mr. Crepsley repeated.
"The school you chose to send Darren to."
Mr. Crepsley sank back in his chair and brooded on that. Then he asked to see the birth certificate, along with the other 'relevant forms'. Mr. Blaws reached into his briefcase again and fished out a folder. "There you go," he said. "Birth certificate, records from his previous school, medical certificates, the enrolment form you filled in. Everything present and correct."
Mr. Crepsley opened the file, flicked through a few sheets, studied the signatures at the bottom of one form, then passed the file across to me. "Look through those papers," he said. "Check that the information is... correct."
It wasn't correct, of course - I wasn't fifteen and hadn't been to school recently; nor had I visited a doctor since joining the ranks of the undead - but it was fully detailed. The files built up a complete picture of a fifteen-year-old boy called Darren Horston, who'd moved to this city during the summer with his father, a man who worked night shifts in a local abattoir and...
My breath caught in my throat - the abattoir was the one where we'd first encountered the mad vampaneze, Murlough, thirteen years ago! "Look at this!" I gasped, holding the form out to Mr. Crepsley, but he waved it away.
"Is it accurate?" he asked.
"Of course it's accurate," Mr. Blaws answered. "You filled in the forms yourself." His eyes narrowed. "Didn't you?"
"Of course he did," I said quickly, before Mr. Crepsley could reply. "Sorry to act so befuddled. It's been a hard week. Um. Family problems."
"Ah. That's why you haven't shown up at Mahler's?"
"Yes." I forced a shaky smile. "We should have rung and informed you. Sorry. Didn't think."
"No problem," Mr. Blaws said, taking the papers back. "I'm glad that's all it was. We were afraid something bad had happened to you."
"No," I said, shooting Mr. Crepsley a look that said, 'play ball'. "Nothing bad happened."
"Excellent. Then you'll be in on Monday?"
"Hardly seems worth while coming in tomorrow, what with it being the end of the week. Come early Monday morning and we'll sort you out with a timetable and show you around. Ask for-"
"Excuse me," Mr. Crepsley interrupted, "but Darren will not be going to your school on Monday or any other day."
"Oh?" Mr. Blaws frowned and gently closed the lid of his briefcase. "Has he enrolled at another school?"
"No. Darren does not need to go to school. I educate him."
"Really? There was no mention in the forms of your being a qualified teacher."
"I am not a-"
"And of course," Blaws went on, "we both know that only a qualified teacher can educate a child at home." He smiled like a shark. "Don't we?"
Mr. Crepsley didn't know what to say. He had no experience of the modern educational system. When he was a boy, parents could do what they liked with their children. I decided to take matters into my own hands.
"What would happen if I didn't turn up at Mahler's?"
He sniffed snootily. "If you enrol at a different school and pass on the paperwork to me, everything will be fine."
"And if - for the sake of argument - I didn't enrol at another school?"
Mr. Blaws laughed. "Everyone has to go to school. Once you turn sixteen, your time is your own, but for the next..." He opened the briefcase again and checked his files "...seven months, you must go to school."
"So if I chose not to go...?"
"We'd send a social worker to see what the problem was."
"And if we asked you to tear up my enrolment form and forget about me - if we said we'd sent it to you by mistake - what then?"
Mr. Blaws drummed his fingers on the top of his bowler hat. He wasn't used to such bizarre questions and didn't know what to make of us. "We can't go around tearing up official forms, Darren," he chuckled uneasily.
"But if we'd sent them by accident and wanted to withdraw them?"
He shook his head firmly. "We weren't aware of your existence before you contacted us, but now that we are, we're responsible for you. We'd have to chase you up if we thought you weren't getting a proper education."
"Meaning you'd send social workers after us?"
"Social workers first," he agreed, then looked at us with a glint in his eye. "Of course, if you gave them a hard time, we'd have to call in the police next, and who knows where it would end."
I took that information on board, nodded grimly, then faced Mr. Crepsley. "You know what this means, don't you?" He stared back uncertainly. "You'll have to start making packed lunches for me!"