We bundled murlough's body into a large black plastic bag. We'd drop him off later in the tunnels of blood he'd loved so much. As fitting a burial place as any for him.

We stuck the goat in a bag, too, but made a couple of air holes in it. We'd expected Murlough to kill the goat, which I'd stolen earlier from the children's section of the city zoo. Mr. Crepsley wanted to take it back to the Cirque Du Freak - it would make a nice snack for Evra's snake or the Little People - but I persuaded him to set it free.

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Next we cleaned up the mess. Murlough had shed a lot of blood, all of which had to be mopped up. We didn't want the Hemlocks to find it and start asking questions. We worked quickly, but it took a couple of hours.

With the cleaning finished, we climbed up to the attic and brought down the sleeping bodies of Jessie, Donna, and Debbie and laid them in their respective beds.

The entire night had been planned. The wine I brought for dinner? I drugged it when I was in the kitchen. I added one of Mr. Crepsley's potions to the wine, a tasteless little concoction that knocked everybody out within ten minutes. They'd be asleep for several more hours yet, and wake with sore heads, but otherwise no ill effects.

I smiled as I wondered what they'd think when they woke in bed, fully dressed, with no memories of the previous night. It would be a mystery, one they'd never solve.

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It hadn't been a perfect plan. Lots of things could have gone wrong. For starters, there was no guarantee that Murlough would find me when I had my ?fight? with Mr. Crepsley and stormed off on my own, and no guarantee that he wouldn't kill me instantly if he did.

He could have gagged me when he caught me, in which case I would have been unable to convince him that he ought to let me live. Or he might have disregarded my warning about the Vampire Generals - what I said was true, but the trouble was, Murlough was crazy. There was no telling how a crazy vampaneze would act. He might have laughed at the threat of the Generals and sliced me up anyway.

Convincing him to swap Evra for Debbie was always going to be the trickiest part. For it to work, I'd had to deliver a perfect performance. If I'd come straight out and made the offer, Murlough might have been suspicious and not walked into the trap. If he'd been in full control of his senses, I don't think he would have fallen for it, regardless of my performance, so on that score his insanity worked in our favor.

And, of course, there was the killing of him to account for. Murlough could have beaten Mr. Crepsley. If he had, all six of us would have died: Mr. Crepsley, me and Evra, Debbie, Donna, and Jesse.

It had been a dangerous gamble - and unfair to the Hemlocks, who knew nothing of their role in the deadly game - but sometimes you have to take chances. Was it wise to risk five lives for the sake of one? Probably not. But it was human. If I'd learned one thing from my encounter with the crazy vampaneze, it was that even the undead could be human. We had to be - without a touch of humanity, we'd be like Murlough, nothing more than bloodthirsty monsters of the night.

I tucked Debbie in under the fresh covers. There was a tiny scar near her left ankle, where Mr. Crepsley had drawn blood earlier. He'd needed the blood to smear on the goat, in order to mislead Murlough's sense of smell.

I looked up at the vampire. "You did well tonight," I said quietly. "Thanks."

He smiled. "I did what had to be done. It was your plan. I should be the one offering the thanks, were it not for the fact that you got in the way when I first had him in my sights. In my eyes, that makes us even, so neither need thank the other."

"What will happen when the vampaneze find out we killed him?" I asked. "Will they come after us?"

Mr. Crepsley sighed. "With luck, they will not find the body. If they do, I hope they will be unable to trace him to us."

"But if they do?" I pressed him for an answer.

"Then they will hunt us to the ends of the Earth," he said. "And they will kill us. We would not stand a chance. They would come in their dozens and the Generals would not assist us."

"Oh," I said. "I wish I hadn't asked."

"Would you rather I'd lied?"

I shook my head. "No. No more lies." I smiled. "But I think it'll be for the best if we don't tell Evra. What he doesn't know can't worry him. Besides, he's mad enough at me as it is. He thought I was really going to trade Debbie's life for his. He's furious."

"He will calm down when the facts are explained," Mr. Crepsley said confidently. "Now - shall we go and get him?"

I hesitated and looked down at Debbie. "Can I have a couple of minutes to myself?" I asked.

"Of course," Mr. Crepsley said. "But do not delay: dawn approaches and I do not wish to spend tomorrow trapped in those godforsaken tunnels. I will be downstairs." He departed.

I checked my watch. Nearly four in the morning. That meant this was the twenty-fifth of December. Christmas Day.

I worked quickly. I placed the bare Christmas tree to one side of Debbie's bed, opened the box of decorations, and covered the tree with glittering balls, tiny figures, streams of tinsel, and twinkling lights. When I finished, I turned Debbie so that she was facing toward the tree. It would be the first thing she'd see when she opened her eyes in the morning.

I felt bad about leaving without saying good-bye. This way, I hoped to make it up to her. When she woke and saw the tree, she'd know I hadn't slipped away thoughtlessly. She'd know I'd been thinking of her, and hopefully wouldn't hold my sudden disappearance against me.

I stood over her a few seconds, studying her face. This would almost certainly be the last time I'd ever see her. She looked so sweet, lying there asleep. I was tempted to find a camera and take a photo, but I didn't need to - this was one picture I'd always be able to remember in perfect detail. It would join those of my parents, my sister, Sam - cherished faces that would never fade in the mental galleries of my memory.

Leaning forward, I kissed her forehead and brushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. "Merry Christmas, Debbie," I said quietly, then turned and left - and went to rescue Evra.

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