I COULDN'T believe Debbie was in league with the vampaneze or Mr. Tiny, or had played any part in setting me up to go to Mahler's. I told Harkat how stunned she'd been to see me, but he said she might have been acting. "If she went to all the trouble of getting... you there, she'd hardly not act surprised," he noted.
I shook my head stubbornly. "She wouldn't do something like this."
"I don't know her, so I can't voice... an opinion. But you don't really know her either. She was a child when you... last saw her. People change as they grow."
"You don't think I should trust her?"
"I'm not saying that. Maybe she's genuine. Maybe she had nothing to do with faking the... forms, or with you being there - it could be a... huge coincidence. But caution is required. Go see her, but keep an eye... on her. Be careful what you say. Put some probing questions to her. And take a weapon."
"I couldn't hurt her," I said quietly. "Even if she has plotted against us, there's no way I could kill her."
"Take one anyway," Harkat insisted. "If she's working with the vampaneze, it may not be... her you have to use it on."
"You reckon the vampaneze could be lying in wait there?"
"Maybe. We couldn't understand why... the vampaneze - if they're behind the fake forms - would send you... to school. If they're working with Debbie - or using... her - this might explain it."
"You mean they want to get me at Debbie's alone, so they can pick me off?"
I nodded thoughtfully. I didn't believe Debbie was working with our foes, but it was possible that they were manipulating her to get to me. "How should we handle this?" I asked.
Harkat's green eyes betrayed his uncertainty. "I'm not sure. It would be foolish to walk into... a trap. But sometimes risks must be taken. Perhaps this is our way to flush out... those who would ensnare us."
Chewing my lower lip, I brooded upon it a while, then followed the most sensible course of action - I went and woke Mr. Crepsley.
I rang the bell for 3c and waited. A moment later, Debbie's voice came over the intercom. "Darren?"
"The one and only."
"You're late." It was twenty past seven. The sun was setting.
"Got stuck doing homework. Blame my English teacher - she's a real dragon."
There was a buzzing noise and the door opened. I paused before entering and looked across the street at the opposite block of apartments. I spotted a lurking shadow on the roof - Mr. Crepsley. Harkat was behind Debbie's building. Both would rush to my rescue at the first sign of trouble. That was the plan we'd hatched. Mr. Crepsley had suggested beating a hasty retreat - things were getting too complicated for his liking - but when I pulled rank, he'd agreed to make the most of the situation and attempt to turn the tables on our opponents - if they showed.
"If a fight develops," he warned me before setting out, "it may not be possible to choose targets. You are not prepared to raise a hand against your friend, but I am, if she is working with the enemy. Do not get in my way if that happens."
I nodded grimly. I wasn't sure I could stand by and let him harm Debbie, even if it turned out that she was conspiring against us - but I'd try.
Trotting up the stairs, I was painfully aware of the two knives I was carrying, strapped to my calves so as not to show. I hoped I wouldn't have to use them, but it was good to know they were there if needed.
The door to 3c was open, but I knocked before entering. "Come in," Debbie called. "I'm in the kitchen."
I closed the door but didn't lock it. Quickly scanned the apartment. Very tidy. Several bookcases, overflowing with books. A CD player and stand; lots of CDs. A portable TV set. A cover poster of The Lord of the Rings on one wall, a picture of Debbie with her parents on another.
Debbie stepped in from the kitchen. She was wearing a long red apron and there was flour in her hair. "I got bored waiting for you," she said, "so I started to make scones. Do you like yours with currants or without?"
"Without," I said and smiled as she ducked back into the kitchen - killers and their cohorts don't greet you with flour in their hair! Any half-doubts I had about Debbie quickly vanished and I knew I'd nothing to fear from her. But I didn't drop my guard - Debbie didn't pose a threat, but there might be vampaneze in the room next door or hovering on the fire escape.
"How did you enjoy your first day at school?" Debbie asked, as I wandered round the living room.
"It was strange. I haven't been inside a school since... Well, it's been a long time. So much has changed. When I was..." I stopped. The cover of a book had caught my eye: The Three Musketeers. "Is Donna still making you read this?"
Debbie poked her head through the doorway and looked at the book. "Oh," she laughed. "I was reading that when we first met, wasn't I?"
"Yep. You hated it."
"Really? That's odd - I love it now. It's one of my favourites. I recommend it to my pupils all the time."
Shaking my head wryly, I laid the book down and went to view the kitchen. It was small, but professionally organized. There was a lovely smell of fresh dough. "Donna taught you well," I remarked. Debbie's mum used to be a chef.
"She wouldn't let me leave home until I could run a good kitchen," Debbie smiled. "Graduating university was easier than passing the tests she set."
"You've been to university?" I asked.
"I'd hardly be teaching if I hadn't."
Laying a tray of unbaked scones into a petite oven, she switched off the light and motioned me back to the living room. As I flopped into one of the soft chairs she went to the CD stand and looked for something to play. "Any preferences?"
"I don't have much in the way of pop or rock. Jazz or classical?"
"I don't mind."
Choosing a CD, she took it out of its case, inserted it in the player and turned it on. She stood by the player a couple of minutes while flowing, lifting music filled the air. "Like it?" she asked.
"Not bad. What is it?"
"The Titan. Do you know who it's by?"
"Mahler?" I guessed.
"Right. I thought I'd play it for you, so you're familiar with it - Mr. Chivers gets very upset if his students don't recognize Mahler." Taking the chair next to mine, Debbie studied my face in silence. I felt uncomfortable, but didn't turn away. "So," she sighed. "Want to tell me about it?"
I'd discussed what I should tell her with Mr. Crepsley and Harkat, and quickly launched into the story we'd settled upon. I said I was the victim of an ageing disease, which meant I aged slower than normal people. I reminded her of the snake-boy, Evra Von, whom she'd met, and said the two of us were patients at a special clinic.
"You aren't brothers?" she asked.
"No. And the man we were with wasn't our father - he was a nurse at the hospital. That's why I never let you meet him - it was fun, having you think I was an ordinary person, and I didn't want him giving the game away."
"So how old are you?" she enquired.
"Not much older than you," I said. "The disease didn't set in until I was twelve. I wasn't very different to other children until then."
She considered that in her careful, thoughtful manner. "If that's true," she said, "what are you doing in school now? And why pick mine?"
"I didn't know you were working at Mahler's," I said. "That's a freak occurrence. I've returned to school because... It's hard to explain. I didn't get a proper education when I was growing up. I was rebellious and spent a lot of time off fishing or playing football when I should have been learning. Lately I've been feeling like I missed out. A few weeks ago I met a man who forges papers - passports, birth certificates, stuff like that. I asked him to set me up with a fake ID, so I could pretend I was fifteen."
"Whatever for?" Debbie asked. "Why didn't you go to an adult night school?"
"Because, looks-wise, I'm not an adult." I pulled a sad face. "You don't know how miserable it gets, growing so slowly, explaining myself to strangers, knowing they're talking about me. I don't mingle much. I live alone and stay indoors most of the time. I felt this was an opportunity to pretend I was normal. I thought I could fit in with the people I most resemble - fifteen year olds. I hoped, if I dressed and talked like them, and went to school with them, maybe they'd accept me and I wouldn't feel so lonely." Lowering my gaze; I added mournfully, "I guess the pretence stops now."
There was a silent beat. Another. Then Debbie said, "Why should it?"
"Because you know about me. You'll tell Mr. Chivers. I'll have to leave."
Debbie reached across and took my left hand in hers. "I think you're crazy," she said. "Practically everyone I know couldn't wait to leave school, and here you are, desperate to return. But I admire you for this. I think it's great that you want to learn. I think you're very brave, and I won't say anything about it."
"I think you'll be found out eventually - an act like this is impossible to sustain - but I won't blow the whistle on you."
"Thanks, Debbie. I..." Clearing my throat, I looked at our joined hands. "I'd like to kiss you - to thank you - but I don't know if you want me to."
Debbie frowned, and I could see what she was thinking - was it acceptable for a teacher to let one of her pupils kiss her? Then she chuckled and said, "OK - but just on my cheek."
Lifting my head, I leant over and brushed her cheek with my lips. I would have liked to kiss her properly, but knew I couldn't. Although we were of similar ages, in her eyes I was still a teenager. There was a line between us we couldn't step over - much as the adult within me hungered to cross it.
We talked for hours. I learnt all about Debbie's life, how she'd gone to university after school, studied English and sociology, graduated and went on to become a teacher. After a few part-time appointments elsewhere, she'd applied for a number of permanent positions here - she'd seen out her schooldays in this city, and felt it was the nearest place she had to a home. She ended up at Mahler's. She'd been there two years and loved it. There'd been men in her life - she'd been engaged at one stage! - but none at the moment. And she said - very pointedly - that she wasn't looking for any either!
She asked me about that night thirteen years ago and what had happened to her and her parents. I lied and said there'd been something wrong with the wine. "You all fell asleep at the table. I rang for the nurse who was looking after Evra and me. He came, checked, said you were OK and would be fine when you woke. We put the three of you to bed and I slipped away. I've never been good at saying farewell."
I told Debbie I was living alone. If she checked with Mr. Blaws, she'd know that was a lie, but I didn't think ordinary teachers mixed much with inspectors.
"It's going to be bizarre having you in my class," she murmured. We were sitting on the couch. "We'll have to be careful. If anyone suspects there was ever anything between us, we must tell the truth. It'd mean my career if we didn't."
"Maybe it's a problem we won't have to worry about much longer," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't think I'm cut out for school. I'm behind in all the subjects. In some - maths and science - I'm not even within sighting distance of everyone else. I think I'll have to drop out."
"That's quitting talk," she growled, "and I won't stand for it." She popped one of the scones - they were chestnut brown, smeared with butter and jam - into my mouth and made me munch on it. "Finish what you start or you'll regret it."
"Buh I cahn't duh iht," I mumbled, mouth full of scone.
"Of course you can," she insisted. "It won't be easy. You'll have to study hard, maybe get some private tuition..." She stopped and her face lit up. "That's it!"
"What?" I asked.
"You can come to me for lessons."
"What sort of lessons?"
She punched my arm. "School lessons, you ninny! You can come round for an hour or two after school every day. I'll help you with your homework and fill you in on stuff you've missed."
"You wouldn't mind?" I asked.
"Of course not," she smiled. "It will be a pleasure."
Enjoyable as the night was, it had to end eventually. I'd forgotten about the possible threat of the vampaneze, but when Debbie excused herself and went to the bathroom, I fell to thinking about them, and wondered if Mr. Crepsley or Harkat had sighted any - I didn't want to come to Debbie's for lessons if it meant getting her mixed up in our dangerous affairs.
If I waited for her to return, I might forget about the threat again, so I composed a quick note - 'Have to go. Wonderful to see you. Meet you at school in the morning. Hope you won't mind if I don't do my homework! - left it on the bare plate which had contained the scones, and ducked out as quietly as possible.
I trotted down the stairs, humming happily, paused outside the main door at the bottom and let rip with three long whistles - my signal to Mr. Crepsley to let him know that I was leaving. Then I made my way round to the back of the building and found Harkat hiding behind a couple of large black rubbish bins. "Any trouble?" I asked.
"None," he replied. "Nobody's gone near the place."
Mr. Crepsley arrived and crouched behind the bins with us. He looked more solemn than usual. "Spot any vampaneze?" I asked.
"Things are looking good then," I smiled.
"What about Debbie?" Harkat asked. "Is she on the level?"
"Oh, yes." I gave them a quick account of my conversation with Debbie. Mr. Crepsley said nothing, only grunted as I filled him in. He appeared very moody and distant.
"... so we've arranged to meet each evening after school," I finished. "We haven't set a time yet. I wanted to discuss it with you two first, to see if you want to shadow us when we meet. I don't think there's any need - I'm sure Debbie isn't part of a plot - but if you want, we can schedule the lessons for late at night."
Mr. Crepsley sighed half-heartedly. "I do not think that will be necessary. I have scouted the area thoroughly. There is no evidence of the vampaneze. It would be preferable if you came in daylight, but not essential."
"Is that a seal of approval?"
"Yes." Again he sounded unusually downhearted.
"What's wrong?" I asked. "You're not still suspicious of Debbie, are you?"
"It has nothing to do with her. I..." He looked at us sadly. "I have bad news."
"Oh?" Harkat and me exchanged uncertain glances.
"Mika Ver Leth transmitted a short telepathic message to me while you were inside."
"Is this about the Lord of the Vampaneze?" I asked nervously.
"No. It is about our friend, your fellow Prince, Paris Skyle. He..." Mr. Crepsley sighed again, then said dully, "Paris is dead."