When night fell, we departed. Declan andLittle Kenny bid us farewell. They were settling down in the living room, mobile phones laid in front of them like swords. Debbie and Alice's vampirites had been scouring the town for traces of Steve and the other vampaneze since the massacre in the stadium. Declan and Little Kenny were to coordinate that search in the ladies' absence.
"You have our numbers," Alice said to Declan as we were leaving. "Call if you have anything to report, no matter how trivial it might seem."
"Will do," Declan grinned, saluting clumsily.
"Try not to get yourself shot this time," Little Kenny said to me, winking.
Alice and Debbie had a rented van. We piled in, Harkat and Vancha in the back, covered by several blankets. "If we're stopped and searched, you two will have to break free," Alice told them. "We'll act like we didn't know you were there. It'll be easier that way."
"You mean you'll act the innocent and string us out to dry," Vancha grunted.
"Exactly," Alice said.
Even though it was night and the moon was only half-full, I wore sunglasses. My eyes were especially sensitive that night, and I had a splitting headache. I was also wearing earplugs and had little balls of cotton wool stuffed up my nose.
"Maybe you should stay behind," Debbie said, noting my discomfort as Alice switched on the engine.
"I'm OK," I groaned, squinting against the glare of the headlights, wincing at the roaring grumble of the engine.
"We could walk," Alice said, "but we're more likely to be stopped and searched."
"I'm OK," I said again, hunching down in my seat. "Just don't blow the horn."
The drive to the old football stadium where the Cirque Du Freak was encamped was uneventful. We passed two security checkpoints, but were waved through at each. (I took my glasses off and removed the earplugs and cotton wool as we approached, so as not to arouse suspicion.) Alice parked outside the stadium. We let Harkat and Vancha out of the back and walked in.
A big smile broke across my face as the tents and caravans came into sight - it was good to be home. As we exited the tunnel and made for the campsite, we were spotted by a group of children playing on the outskirts.
One stood, studied us warily, then raced towards us, yelling, "Godfather! Godfather!"
"Not so loud!" I laughed, catching Shancus as he leapt up to greet me. I gave the snake-boy awelcome hug, then pushed him away - my skin was tingling as a result of the purge, and any form of contact was irritating.
"Why are you wearing sunglasses?" Shancus frowned. "It's night."
"You're so ugly, I can't bear to look at you without protection," I said.
"Very funny," he snorted, then reached up, picked the cotton wool out of my left nostril, examined it, stuck it back in, and said, "You're weird!" He looked behind me at Vancha, Debbie and Alice. "I remember you lot," he said. "But not very well. I was only a kid the last time I saw you." Smiling, I made the introductions. "Oh yeah," Shancus said when I told him Debbie's name. "You're Darren's bird."
I spluttered with embarrassment and blushed bright red. Debbie just smiled and said, "Am I, indeed? Who told you that?"
"I heard Mum and Dad talking about you. Dad knows you from when you first met Darren. He said Darren goes googly-eyed when you're around. He?"
"That's enough," I interrupted, wishing I could strangle him. "Why don't you show the ladies how you can stick your tongue up your nose?"
That distracted him, and he spent a couple of minutes showing off, telling Alice and Debbie about the act he performed on-stage with Evra. I caught Debbie smiling at me sideways. I smiled back weakly.
"Is Truska still with the show?" Vancha asked.
"Yes," Shancus said.
"I must look her up later," Vancha muttered, using a ball of spit to slick back his green hair. The ugly, dirty Prince fancied himself as something of a lady's man - even though no ladies ever agreed with him!
"Is Mr Tall in his van?" Harkat asked Shancus.
"I guess," Shancus said. Then he glanced at Debbie and Alice and straightened up. "Come with me," he said officiously. "I'll lead you to him."
All five of us fell in behind the snake-boy as he led us through the campsite. He kept up a running commentary, telling Debbie and Alice who the various tents and caravans belonged to, giving them a rundown of that night's coming show. As we neared Mr Tall's van, we passed Evra, Merla and Urcha. They had the family snakes out in big tubs of water and were carefully scrubbing them down. Evra was delighted to see me and rushed over to check that I was all right. "I wanted to come visit," he said, "but Hibernius told me it wasn't a good idea. He said I might be followed."
"The Cirque's being watched?" Vancha snapped, eyes narrowing.
"He didn't say so in as many words," Evra said. "But I've felt eyes on my back a few times recently, late at night when I've been wandering around. I'm not the only one. We've all been edgy here lately."
"Maybe we shouldn't have? come back," Harkat said, worried.
"Too late now," Vancha huffed. "Let's go see what Hibernius has to say."
Merla grabbed Shancus as he made to lead the way again. "No you don't," she said. "You've a show to prepare for. You needn't expect me to groom your snake for you every time you want to go and play with your friends."
"Aw, Mum!" Shancus grumbled, but Merla stuck a sponge in Shancus's hand and dragged him over to the snake I'd bought for his birthday.
"I'll catch up with you later," I laughed, feeling sorry for him. "I'll show you my new scar, where I was shot."
"Another one?" Shancus groaned. He turned appealingly to Evra. "How come Darren gets all the excitement? Why can'tI get into fights and have scars?"
"Your mother will scar your backside if you don't get busy on that snake," Evra responded, and winked at me over Shancus's head. "Drop by when you have time."
"I will," I promised.
We moved on. Mr Tall was waiting for us at his van. He was standing in the doorway, looking more impossibly towering than ever, eyes dark, face drawn. "I have been expecting you," he sighed, then stood aside and beckoned us in. As I passed him, a strange shiver ran down my spine. It took me a few seconds to realize what the sensation reminded me of - it was the same sort of feeling I got whenever I saw a dead person.
When we were all seated, Mr Tall closed the door, then sat on the floor in the middle of us, legs crossed neatly, huge bony hands resting on his knees. "I hope you do not think me rude for not visiting," he said to me. "I knew you would recover, and I had much to put in order here."
"That's OK," I smiled, taking off my sunglasses and putting them to one side.
"It is good to see you again, Vancha," Mr Tall said, and then welcomed Debbie and Alice.
"Now that the pleasantries are out of the way," Vancha grunted, "let's get down to business. You knew what was going to happen at the football arena, aye?"
"I had my suspicions," Mr Tall said cagily, his lips barely moving.
"But you let Darren go regardless? You let his friend die?"
"I did not 'let' anything happen," Mr Tall disagreed. "Events unfolded the way they had to. It is not my place to interfere in the unravelling of destiny. You know that, Vancha. We have had this conversation before. Several times."
"And I still don't buy it," Vancha grumbled. "IfI had the power to see into the future, I'd use it to help those I cared about. You could have told us who the Lord of the Vampaneze was. Larten would be alive now if you'd warned us in advance."
"No," Mr Tall said. "Larten would have died. The circumstances might have differed, but his death was inevitable. I could not have altered that."
"You should still have tried," Vancha persisted.
Mr Tall smiled thinly, then looked at me. "You have come to seek guidance. You wish to know where your onetime friend, Steve Leonard, is."
"Can you tell us?" I asked softly.
"No," Mr Tall said. "But rest assured, he will make himself known soon. You will not have to dredge the depths for him."
"Does that mean he's going to attack?" Vancha pressed. "Is he nearby? When does he plan to strike? Where?"
"I grow weary of your questions," Mr Tall growled, his eyes flashing menacingly. "If I could step in and play an active part in the affairs of the vampire clan, I would. It is much harder to stand back and watch, passively. Harder than you could ever imagine. You wept for Larten when he died - butI grieved for him for thirty years in advance, since glimpsing his probable death."
"You mean 'you didn't know for? sure that he'd die?" Harkat asked.
"I knew he would come to the point where it was his life or the Lord of the Vampaneze's, but I could not see beyond that - though I feared the worst."
"And what of our next encounter?" I asked quietly. "When Vancha and I face Steve for the last time - who'll die then?"
"I do not know," Mr Tall said. "Looking into the future is more often than not a painful experience. It is better not to know the fate of your friends and loved ones. I lift the lid off the present as seldom as possible. There are times when I cannot avoid it, when my own destiny forces me to look. But only rarely."
"So you don't know if we'll win or lose?" I asked.
"Nobody knows that," Mr Tall said. "Not even Desmond Tiny."
"Butif we lose," I said, and there was an edge to my voice now. "If the vampaneze are triumphant, and Steve kills one of us - which will it be?"
"I don't know," Mr Tall said.
"But you could find out," I pressed. "You could look into the future where we've lost and see which of us survived."
"Why should I?" Mr Tall sighed. "What profit would there be in it?"
"I want to know," I insisted.
"Maybe it would be better?" Vancha began to say.
"No!" I hissed. "Imust know. For two years I've dreamt of the destruction of the clan, and listened to the screams of those who'll perish if we fail. If I'm to die, so be it. But tell me, please, so I can prepare myself for it."
"I cannot," Mr Tall said unhappily. "Nobody can predict which of you will kill the Vampaneze Lord - or die at his hand."
"Then look further ahead," I pleaded. "Go twenty years ahead, or thirty. Do you see Vancha or me in that future?"
"Leave me out of this.'" Vancha snapped. "I don't want to mess about with stuff like that."
"Then just look for me," I said, staring hard at Mr Tall.
Mr Tall held my gaze, then said quietly, "You are sure?"
I stiffened. "Yes!"
"Very well." Mr Tall lowered his gaze and closed his eyes. "I cannot be as specific as you state, but I will cast my eyes a number of decades forward and?"
Mr Tall trailed off into silence. Vancha, Harkat, Debbie, Alice and I watched, awed, as his face twitched and glowed a light red colour. The owner of the Cirque Du Freak seemed to stop breathing and the temperature of the air dropped several degrees. For five minutes he held that pose, face glowing and twitching, lips sealed. Then he breathed out, the glow faded, his eyes opened and the temperature returned to normal.
"I have looked," he said, his expression unreadable.
"And?" I croaked.
"I did not find you there."
I smiled bitterly. "I knew it. If the clan falls, it will fall because ofme . I'm the doomed one in the future where we lose."
"Not necessarily," Mr Tall said. "I looked fifty or sixty years ahead, long after the fall of the vampires. You might have died after all of the others had been killed."
"Then bring it forward," I demanded. "Look twenty or thirty years ahead."
"No," Mr Tall said stiffly. "I have already seen more than I wished. I don't want to suffer any further tonight."
"What are you talking about?" I huffed. "What have you suffered?"
"Grief," Mr Tall said. He paused, then glanced at Vancha. "I know you told me not to look for you, old friend, but I couldn't help myself."
Vancha cursed, then braced himself. "Go on. Since this fool's opened the can of worms, we might as well watch them wriggle. Hit me with the bad news."
"I looked into both futures," Mr Tall said hollowly. "I did not mean to, but I cannot control these things. I looked into the future where the vampaneze won the War of the Scars, and also into the future where the vampires won - and although I found Darren in the latter future, I found you in neither." He locked gazes with Vancha and muttered gloomily, "You were killed by in both."