AS Astrong spotlight was trained on the window to dazzle us, we all turned to one side and let the blind fall back into place. Retreating, Vancha cursed at his loudest and vilest, while the rest of us glanced uneasily at one another, waiting for someone to propose a plan.

"How did they sneak up without - us hearing?" Harkat asked.


"We weren't paying attention to what was happening outside," I said.

"Even so," Harkat insisted, "we should have - picked up on the sirens."

"They didn't use sirens," Steve laughed. "They were warned to tread quietly. And, before you waste time checking, they've got the rear of the building and roof covered as well as the front." As we stared at him questioningly, he said, "I wasn't distracted.I heard them coming."

Vancha bellowed madly at Steve, then made a dive for him. Mr Crepsley stepped into his path to reason with him, but Vancha shoved him aside without regard and charged towards Steve, murder in his eyes.

A voice from outside, amplified by a megaphone, stopped him.

"You in there!" it bellowed. "Killers!"

Vancha hesitated, fingers balled into fists, then pointed at Steve and snarled, "Later!" Spinning, he hurried to the window and nudged the blind aside a fraction. Light from the sun and spotlight flooded the room.

Letting the blind fall back into place, Vancha roared, "Turn off the light!"

"No chance!" the person with the megaphone laughed in reply.

-- Advertisement --

Vancha stood there a moment, thinking, then nodded at Mr Crepsley and Harkat. "Check the corridors above and below. Find out if they're inside the building. Don't clash with them - if that lot outside start firing, they'll cut us to ribbons."

Mr Crepsley and Harkat obeyed without question.

"Bring that sorry excuse for a dog over here," Vancha said to me, and I dragged Steve to the window. Vancha wrapped a hand around Steve's throat and growled in his ear, "Why are they here?"

"They think you're the killers," Steve chuckled. "The ones who killed all those humans."

"You son of a mongrel!" Vancha snarled.

"Please," Steve replied smugly. "Let's not get personal."

Mr Crepsley and Harkat returned.

"They're packed tight two floors - above," Harkat reported.

"The same two floors below," Mr Crepsley said grimly.

Vancha cursed again, then thought quickly. "We'll break through the floorboards," he decided. "The humans will be in the halls. They won't expect us to go straight down through the apartments."

"Yes they will," Steve disagreed. "They've been warned to fill every room below, above and adjoining."

Vancha stared at Steve, looking for the slightest hint of a bluff. When he found none, his features softened and the ghostly traces of defeat welled in his eyes. Then he shook his head and put self-pity behind him.

"We have to talk to them," he said. "Find out where we stand and maybe buy some time to think this through. Anyone want to volunteer?" When nobody replied, he grunted. "Guess that means I'm the negotiator. Just don't blame me if it all goes wrong." Leaving the blind over the window, he smashed a pane of glass, then leant close and shouted at the humans below. "Who's down there and what the hell do you want?"

There was a pause, then the same voice as before spoke to us via a megaphone. "Who am I talking to?" the person asked. Now that I concentrated on the voice, I realized it was a woman's.

"None of your business!" Vancha roared.

Another pause. Then, "We know your names. Larten Crepsley, Vancha March, Darren Shan and Harkat Mulds. I just want to know which one of you I'm in contact with."

Vancha's jaw dropped.

Steve doubled over with laughter.

"Tell them who you are," Harkat whispered. "They know too much. Best to act like we're - co-operating."

Vancha nodded, then shouted through the covered hole in the window, "Vancha March."

As he did that, I peeked through a gap at the side of the blind, looking for weak points in the defences below. I didn't find any, but I did get a fix on the woman who was speaking to us - tall and broad, with short white hair.

"Listen, March," the woman called as I stepped away from the window. "I'm Chief Inspector Alice Burgess. I'm running this freak show." An ironic choice of words, though none of us commented on it. "If you want to negotiate a deal, you'll be negotiating with me. One warning - I'm not here to play games. I've more than two hundred men and women out here and inside your building, just dying to put a round of bullets through your black excuse for a heart. At the first sign that you're messing with us, I'll give the order and they'll open fire. Understand?"

Vancha bared his teeth and snarled, "I understand." Then he repeated it, louder, so she could hear. "I understand!"

"Good," Chief Inspector Burgess responded. "First of all - are your hostages alive and unharmed?"

'"Hostages'?" Vancha replied.

"Steve Leonard and Mark Ryter. We know you have them, so don't act the innocent."

"Mark Ryter must have been the vampet," I remarked.

"You're soooooo observant," Steve laughed, then pushed Vancha aside and put his face up close to the window. "This is Steve Leonard!" he yelled, mimicking terror. "They haven't killed me yet, but they killed Mark. They tortured him first. It was horrible. They?"

He stopped, as though we'd cut him off mid-sentence, and stepped back, taking a self-indulgent bow.

"Sons of ?" the officer cursed over the megaphone, then collected her wits and addressed us calmly and dryly. "OK - this is how it works. Release your remaining hostage. When he's safely in our custody, come down after him, one at a time. Any sign of a weapon, or any unexpected moves, and you're history."

"Let's talk about this," Vancha shouted.

"No talking," Burgess snapped.

"We're not going to release him," Vancha roared. "You don't know what he is, what he's done. Let me?"

A rifle fired and a volley of bullets tore up the outside of the building. We fell to the floor, cursing and yelping, although there was no cause for concern - the marksmen were aiming deliberately high.

When the scream of bullets died away, the Chief Inspector addressed us again. "That was a warning - your last. Next time we shoot to kill. No bargaining. No trade-offs. No talking. You've terrorized this city for most of a year, but it stops here. You're through.

"Two minutes," she said. "Then we come in after you."

A troubled silence descended.

"That's that," Harkat muttered after a handful of slow-ticking seconds. "We're finished."

"Maybe," Vancha sighed. Then his gaze fell on Steve and he grinned. "But we won't die alone."

Vancha brought the fingers of his right hand together and held them out straight so they formed a blade of flesh and bone. He raised the hand above his head like a knife and advanced.

Steve closed his eyes and waited for death with a smile on his face.

"Wait," Mr Crepsley said softly, halting him. "There is a way out."

Vancha paused. "How?" he asked suspiciously.

"The window," Mr Crepsley said. "We jump. They will not expect that."

Vancha considered the plan. "The drop's no problem," he mused. "Not for us, anyway. How about you, Harkat?"

"Five storeys?" Harkat smiled. "I could do that - in my sleep."

"But what do we do once down there?" Vancha asked. "The place is crawling with police and soldiers."

"We flit," Mr Crepsley said. "I will carry Darren. You carry Harkat. It will not be easy - they might shoot us before we can work up to flitting speed - but it can be done. With luck."

"It's crazy," Vancha growled, then winked at us. "I like it!" He pointed at Steve. "But we kill him before we leave."

"One minute!" Alice Burgess shouted through her megaphone.

Steve hadn't moved. His eyes were still closed. He was still smiling.

I didn't want Vancha to kill Steve. Although he'd betrayed us, he'd been my friend once, and the thought of him being killed in cold blood disturbed me. Also, there was Debbie to think about - if we killed Steve, R.V. would certainly kill Debbie in retaliation. It was crazy to worry about her, considering the trouble we were in, but I couldn't helpit .

I was about to ask Vancha to spare Steve's life - although I didn't think he'd listen to me - when Mr Crepsley beat me to the punch.

"We cannot kill him," he said, sounding disgusted.

"Come again?" Vancha blinked.

"It is not the end of the world if we are captured," Mr Crepsley said.

"Thirty seconds!" Burgess screamed tensely.

Mr Crepsley ignored the interruption. "If we are captured and taken alive, there may be chances to escape later. But if we kill Steve Leonard, I do not think they will spare us. These humans are ready to butcher us at the drop of a pin."

Vancha shook his head uncertainly. "I don't like it. I'd rather kill him and take our chances."

"I would too," Mr Crepsley agreed. "But there is the Vampaneze Lord to consider. We must put the hunt before our personal wishes. Sparing Steve Leonard is?"

"Ten seconds." Burgess bellowed.

Vancha glowered over Steve a few seconds more, undecided, then cursed, twisted his hand, and whacked him over the back of the head with the flat of his palm. Steve toppled to the floor. I thought Vancha had killed him, but the Prince had only knocked him out.

"That should shut him up for a while," Vancha grunted, checking his shuriken belts and wrapping his animal hides tight around him. "If we get the chance later, we'll track him down and finish him off."

"Time's up!" Alice Burgess warned us. "Come out immediately or we open fire!"

"Ready?" Vancha asked.

"Ready," Mr Crepsley said, drawing his knives.

"Ready," Harkat said, testing the head of his axe with a large, grey finger.

"Ready," I said, taking out my sword and holding it across my chest.

"Harkat jumps with me," Vancha said. "Larten and Darren - you come next. Give us a second or two to roll out of your way."

"Luck, Vancha," Mr Crepsley said.

"Luck," Vancha replied, then grinned savagely, slapped Harkat on the back, and leapt through the window, shattering the blind and glass, Harkat not far behind.

Mr Crepsley and I waited the agreed seconds, then jumped through the jagged remains of the window after our friends, and dropped swiftly to the ground like a couple of wingless bats, into the hellish cauldron which awaited us below.

-- Advertisement --