Title: The Pencil Box
Author: N.J. Nidiffer
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 13,909
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 9)
Summary: There’s nothing Willie’s more afraid of than the dark, yet that’s where he must go in order to get through his chores so he can earn the money to buy Polly Logan a present. He’s been invited to her birthday party, you see, and come hell or high water, Willie is determined to be there.
A/N: This story was actually written after Polly, because Nik wanted to figure out how and where Willie acquired the gift wrapped in that old, blue paper.

***

Willie lay in the candleglow of his bedroom, listening to the world breathing spring around him.

He could hear the rustle and click of a field mouse sorting through the cinders at the far edge of the hearth, searching for an edible crumb or two that might be lost amongst the clinkers. Two floors below, the mantle clock gonged, though he couldn’t make out the individual brassy peals to judge the hour. Somewhere closer by, a door closed. Barnabas wandering around. And here in his own bed, soft and warm and quiet, was the muted thump of Willie’s heart, resonating through the sounding board of his chest and into his waiting ear.


Off in the distance he could hear the whistle of the train coming through the valley, faint at first, like a cry lost in the fog, then louder as a trick of the wind brought it closer. The shush of the ocean beneath the cliffs enveloped the whole, a sound so constant that Willie never noticed it anymore unless he concentrated. He could hear it now, though, and if he waited a little while longer he would eventually hear the blast of air horns from the fishing fleet as the ships went out on the tide, leaving Collinsport harbor for the deeper waters of the bay.

 

A little while longer, nothing. There was the first of the fleet heading out now. It must be an ungodly hour of morning, and Willie still awake, waiting for sleep to claim him.

 

Well, there was no point in this, was there?  Willie gave up trying to sleep and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, kicking off his blankets as he went. He found his jeans and shirt where he had dropped them on the floor before retiring and pulled them on. Slipped on his shoes without bothering with socks. He was going only as far as the kitchen, no further. He had only to be modest, not completely dressed. On his way out he slipped a heavy square of paper from the top of his bureau and stuck it in his hip pocket, careful of its glittered edges so they wouldn’t get smudged or torn.

 

Moving stealthily down passages he had long since learned to navigate in the dark, Willie snuck down the stairs and across the parlor without running into Barnabas. Once in the servants’ hall he could afford to be more relaxed. There were slow-burning candles in the downstairs’ sconces so there was always plenty of light to see by. And Barnabas—the master of the house and the person Willie most wanted to avoid even on the best of nights—wouldn’t come into this part of the mansion unless he expected to find Willie there, an unlikely prospect at this hour of morning.

 

Nevertheless, Willie was careful not to clatter his only saucepan onto the round of the woodstove, or to thump the poker against the iron door as he stoked up the fire. No sense in drawing attention to himself. He needed solitude. Peace and quiet so he could think. He would have none of those things if Barnabas came upon him unawares.

 

It was still cool enough in the house at night for him to leave the milk carton on the counter without the milk going bad. Willie sloshed what was left into the waiting saucepan. In the cabinet beside the sink he found the phial-sized brown bottle that Gina Logan had given him. Pure vanilla extract. He measured out a capful and dumped it in the pan, watching its caramel swirls turn the milk a dusky beige. The scent of warm vanilla rose up to fill the room, steaming and sweet.

 

Vanilla milk. The very simplest of recipes. Gina had taught him how to make it. She used it to sooth the children to sleep when they were too tired and cranky to rest. Willie had been doubtful of its benefits at first, but he had accepted a mug when Gina had offered it to him because it was warm and it smelled good. Before he knew it he had fallen asleep on the Pedersons’ couch, Danny conked in his lap, both man and child snoozing in the middle of the afternoon.

 

Gina had smiled at him when he finally woke. And when he got back to the Old House, he had found the phial of vanilla tucked into his jacket pocket, wrapped in a napkin so it wouldn’t leak. Just another of Gina’s countless small kindnesses to him. Which was why he had to figure out what to do now so he wouldn’t disappoint her. Her, or pretty little Polly Marie either.

 

Willie poured his milk into a mug before he tugged the square of paper from his pocket and smoothed it out on the table in front of him. It was a colorful mishmash of construction paper and glitter, undoubtedly made by Miss Polly herself. A yellow paper lion was glued to the front, its tangled mane of yarn coming loose in places where the adhesive hadn’t taken. Across the lion’s belly was the legend “COME TO MY BIRTHDAY.”  And beneath that, in Gina’s more careful script, a date and an hour. A date and an hour that were now less than two weeks away.

 

Willie took a sip of milk. She gave you plenty of time, at least. Plenty of time to figure out what to do.

 

But that would be like Gina, too. She knew he had no money. She also knew that Willie would never come to see Polly on her birthday without bringing her a present. He would have to make one, or scrounge one, or something of the sort. Gina had thought to give him the time to do that, hand-delivering the invitation a good three weeks before the party, which would, of course, be held early in the day so Willie could take his place amongst the guests without asking his boss for permission.

 

Willie had never been to a child’s birthday party before. Not even his own. His family hadn’t cared enough about him to mark the occasion. But he knew enough to know that a normal kid expected a present on her birthday. And he was going to have to come up with something, though what that particular something might turn out to be Willie still hadn’t a clue.

 

He was a fair hand with wood these days. He might have carved some trinket from a lumber scrap if it was a present meant for Danny. But Polly was different. She was older, for one thing, and a girl, for another. He couldn’t hope to make anything pretty enough to please her. He hadn’t the necessary wood, or the paint, or the skill to make a puzzle or a pony or a doll. All of the things that he knew Polly liked best.

 

The milk in the mug was mostly gone, and he still hadn’t found an answer to his problem. Willie got up and walked to the sink, watching the dove gray dawn take wing from the window above the basin.

 

He had two weeks. Two whole weeks. Surely he would figure something out by then.

 

The hallway door leading to the basement clicked shut, sending its echo into the kitchen. Willie slipped past the doorway his master had just passed through on his way to his coffin and quietly climbed the stairs to his own third-story bedroom. He could sleep for an hour or two now, once the vanilla milk finished its magical work on his muscles. He could already feel it twining through his limbs, stealing the tension trapped in his neck and shoulders and dissolving the knots in his belly.

 

Maybe he would dream of a present for Polly. If not, he might ask Vicki about it. She knew kids better than he did. She was a governess, after all, even if her charge was a wildly curious little boy rather than a mischievous girl-child.

 

Willie smiled faintly, snugging down into his blankets for a catnap before he began his long day’s work. Yes, he thought. I’ll ask Vicki.

 

That was exactly what he would do.

 

*

 

“Well, what does she like to do, Willie?  Do you know?”

 

Willie shrugged, watching David poke holes in the scrim of ice along the brook with a hazel twig. Spring was a relative term in Maine. One moment could be absolutely balmy, the next frigid enough to freeze a crayfish in its tracks.

 

“I dunno, Vicki. What does any little girl like? She’s got all kindsa dolls and stuff. She likes horses. I was thinkin’ maybe a puzzle, cause she likes to put them together as fast as Danny takes ’em apart. But I didn’t know how hard ta make it for a kid her age. You know?” Even if I had the money to pay for it, he added silently to himself. Which I don’t.

 

“Did you look in the toy store on Main Street?” Vicki asked. “They’re small, but they have a good selection. Surely they would have something in there that would appeal to her.”

 

“Nooooooo,” Willie admitted slowly. “I don’t think so. Anybody could get her somethin’ from there.” Anybody but me. “I wanted to make it something special. Somethin’ nobody else would think of to give her.”

 

Vicki smiled. “You really do enjoy those children, don’t you Willie?  I remember you were good with David when you were staying at the Great House. When you . . . when you first came here.”  Vicki faltered over the compliment, apparently just remembering that Willie’s first days at Collinwood had been anything but peaceful. “Well,” she said more confidently, regaining her composure. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. You know Polly better than I do, you know.”

 

“I know,” Willie sighed. “But I was hopin’ you might have an idea. I’ve been thinkin’ about it for more than a week and I haven’t gotten anywhere. Not anywhere good.”

 

“Well. Don’t worry, Willie. It will come to you. I’m sure it will.”  Vicki turned back to the brook, where her charge had found a new and damper form of entertainment. “David!” she called, exasperated. “Don’t splash in the water like that!  You’ll ruin your shoes!”

 

Vicki started down the embankment, slipping and sliding on the muddy earth so she could stop David from wading in water that couldn’t be above thirty or forty degrees. Willie shook his head, bemused. If he had to find a present for that brat, there would be no problem. All Willie would have to do would be to poke around in the woods until he found the nastiest bug or toadstool imaginable, and David would be delighted. He was a strange little kid. Not like Polly, who did normal things like skip rope and play marbles and. . . .

 

. . . and . . . .

 

Draw!

 

Of course!  That was it. An answer so simple that Willie couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. What did Polly do most but color and draw? She was forever on the floor with her box of crayons, her construction paper and her glitter. Willie would find her a set of chalks or something. Something she didn’t have yet. The only trick left was how to pay for it.

 

But that wouldn’t be much of a problem either, would it? Chalk couldn’t be that expensive. A couple of quarters at most. He’d skim the money from his food budget if he had to. Barnabas would never know the difference as long as Willie was careful about it. A doll or a puzzle were expenses he couldn’t afford. But a box of chalk?  That was easy.

 

“Thanks, Vicki!” he shouted down the embankment, to where Vicki was dragging David out of the water, ruining her own shoes in the process. “Bye, David!”

 

“Bye, Willie!” David shouted back. But Vicki didn’t say anything. She was too busy wringing water out of David’s pants’ cuffs.

 

*

 

Willie found the dime-sized art shop crammed into the loft over the hardware store—and just in time, too. The place was about to shut down. There were more than a dozen packed boxes scattered all over the parquet floor. Stacks of prints and painted postcards sat in shifting piles next to wads of crinkly newspaper packing. A few lonely framing squares still swung from nails tacked deep into the wooden walls.

 

Yup. This place was on the way out, all right. And before Willie had even known it was in town. ‘Course, that wasn’t too surprising, considering art supplies didn’t top his regular shopping list. Lumber or masonry or roofing nails were more his speed. He didn’t even know what half this stuff was, or what it was used for. The oil paints and brushes were obvious enough. But gesso? What the heck was that?  Some kind of primer?

 

Willie glanced through the loft’s oversized windows onto the vacant street below. When he hadn’t found colored chalk in the toy store or in the school supplies section of the Collinsport Grocery, he had asked a clerk where he might find such a thing. That was when he had first learned of the Golden Harlequin, an ill-fated specialty shop that hadn’t had a chance of surviving in a rural seaside village. An art store in Collinsport?  Who would have thought of such a thing?  There were barely enough people in town to keep the grocery and the drug store afloat, much less anything flashier. Especially a shop with no storefront on the street to advertise it, like the one the toy store on Main Street enjoyed.

 

A blond head suddenly popped up from behind a framing table, startling Willie half out of his wits.

 

“Oops!  Sorry.” An elfin woman in dangling silver earbobs came around the table to greet him. “I didn’t hear you come up the stairs. Can I help you, sir?”

 

Willie caught his breath and took his hand off his heart, so the woman wouldn’t think she had given him a heart attack when she sprang out at him like a jack in the box.

 

“Um, yeah,” he said. “I’m . . . um . . . looking for some colored chalk?  Like you draw with.”  His hands shaped a square in the air, showing the chalk box’s supposed dimensions.

 

The tiny blond shook her head. “Sorry again,” she said. “It’s probably in here somewhere, but I’ve no idea where. I think I packed it already.”  She waved a hand around the expanse of the loft, flashing turquoise rings on every finger. “All I’ve got is whatever is stacked on the floor.” She smiled up at him, a merry smile that put deep dimples in her work-flushed cheeks. “But you can look around if you like. You can be my last sale before I finish packing this stuff up and lock the door. Assuming you find anything you want, of course.”

 

“Okay.”  Willie glanced around again, wondering if anything but colored chalk might do. Polly wouldn’t have any use for a framed drawing or a print, even if Willie could afford to buy her one. But there might be something else that would make a nice gift. With any luck, he would know it when he saw it—and have enough change in his pocket to pay for it, too. He could always tell Barnabas that he had been forced to park in front of one of the town’s few parking meters and had fed coins into it all afternoon while he went about his business.

 

The shop was a clutter of miscellaneous stuff stacked in no particular order. Packets of paintbrushes. Flats of paper. A whole stack of pre-stretched canvases with speckled white hides. Nope, nope and nope. Tubes of oil paint, horrifically expensive, even though they were supposed to be on sale. Nope again. Fat, pink erasers. Maybe, if nothing else looked better. They were three for a nickel, though they weren’t the sort of thoughtful gift that Willie had hoped to find for his young friend.

 

He turned to search another corner and paused when his foot knocked against something that rattled. Willie looked down and saw a plain black box resting by the toe of his shoe. He bent down and picked it up. Flipped it over to find the rainbow on the front of the flat metal palette.

 

Oh my gosh. . . .

 

Drawing pencils. A beautiful set. Sitting all by itself in the shadow of uninspiring tins of turpentine and blocks of sealing wax.

 

No way you can afford these, Willie thought, though his heart was flying high in his chest at the notion of giving the pencils to Polly. They’ll be five or ten bucks. Maybe more. Besides, they’re too classy to give to a kid. They’re meant for an artist. Someone who knows how

they’re supposed to be used.

 

“Find something?”  The blond elf was back, smiling at his elbow. She was awfully cheerful for someone who was going out of business. Willie handed her the pencils, not daring to ask what they might cost. “Pencils? Oh yes, these are a nice set. And they’re on sale, too.” She chuckled. “Everything is.”

 

Willie still didn’t say anything. The pencil set didn’t have a price tag. They could be ten dollars or a hundred—either way they would be out of his reach. It was terrible, really, because whether they were intended for a kid or not, Polly would love to have them. Willie knew that she would. He could picture her on the floor in the Pedersons’ living room, drawing and drawing until the whole room was a pastel garden of flowers and butterflies.

 

“These were twenty dollars originally, but I should have known that they would never sell for that in Collinsport,” the shopkeeper said. “Tell you what. I’ll give them to you for five. How’s that?”

 

Willie’s soaring heart fluttered and sank. He didn’t have five bucks. He’d skimmed two in change from his grocery money. He couldn’t afford any more than that. But to make such a penny-pinching counter-offer to such a generous shopkeeper would be nothing short of an insult. The woman had been too nice to him for that. “Guess not,” he mumbled, turning away. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry I wasted your time. . . .”

 

He started for the door, but the shopkeeper caught up with him. The pencils rattled sharply in their box as she snagged him by the elbow, as though the slender wooden bits tipped with colored lead—rather than the woman herself—were begging him to wait. Not so fast, they said. There was a deal here still waiting to be made.

 

“Tell you what,” the shopkeeper said. “I think I can do you one better than that. If . . . well. . . .”  It was her turn to look shamefaced. “The truth is, I don’t know how I’m going to get these boxes down to my van by myself. I can handle the smaller ones, but there are at least six that are going to need two people to get them down the stairs. If you’ll help me do that, you can have the pencils for free.”

 

Willie couldn’t believe his luck. “Free? Really?”

 

“Yes. Otherwise I’ll have to leave the big stuff here and hire someone to bring it to me later. I would hate to do that. It would be such an expense. Really, you would be doing me a very great favor. It would be worth a lot more than a box of pencils, if you want to know the truth, but. . . .”

 

Willie cut her off. “I’ll help ya,” he said, “I’ll help ya. But when?  You aren’t packed up yet?”

 

“I’ll be done by tonight. Say around seven?”

 

Damn!

 

So close. But even with every ace falling in his favor, he still wasn’t going to win. He had to be back at the Old House by dark. He could never help this woman get her gear down to her van and make it back to Collinwood by sundown. Not unless he could figure out a way to stop the sun in its tracks.

 

“I . . . uh . . . well . . . I gotta be at work before then,” he said. “I wish I could help you. I really do. I’ve got a friend with a birthday comin’ up, an’ she would love those pencils, but. . . .”

 

“You tell me, then,” the shopkeeper said. “It’s me imposing on you, after all. We can make it tomorrow if that’s better for you. You would really be helping me out.”

 

“Tomorrow?” “Sure. Say around lunchtime?  Would that be better?”

 

Willie smiled. This really was turning out to be a red-letter day. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said. “Say twelve-thirty or one. I can do that just fine.”

 

“It’s a deal, then. Oh!”  The shopkeeper extended the palette. “And you can take the pencils with you, if you like.”

 

Willie stopped smiling. “Take ’em with me?”

 

“Yes. You’ll come back for your side of the bargain. I know you will.”

 

Willie shook his head. Lady, you are out of your mind. No wonder you didn’t make it in business. I bet you got a ledger full of unpaid bills from making gestures just like that one.

 

“That’s okay,” he said aloud. “I appreciate it, but I’ll pick ’em up after we finish loading the van. Tomorrow at twelve-thirty. Right?”

 

“Right!”  His temporary business partner beamed, a cheerful spirit made happier still by their arrangement. “That sounds like a deal. And . . . oh.”  She stuck out her hand, dusting it off on her jeans before offering it to him. “I’m Jamie. Nice to meet you, Mister. . . .”

 

“Loomis,” Willie said. Four rounds of ring-metal pressed their half-moons into his palm. Her hand was tiny, but strong, reinforced by her turquoise armory. “Uh . . . Willie Loomis. I . . . I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then.”

 

“That’ll do,” Jamie said. “I appreciate your help, Mister Loomis. And don’t you worry. You’ll earn those pencils by the time you leave here tomorrow. I can promise you that!”

 

*

 

There were rolls of wrapping paper in the pantry. God only knew how long they had been there, or why they had originally been purchased, but there they were, tied up with tags of twine to keep them from unrolling.

 

Willie stroked a finger through the film of dust on the topmost roll. The original cerulean was still visible at the creases, but most of it had faded to a softer, more lackluster color, bled dry by mustiness and time. Still, faded as it was, there were no obvious stains or mildew marring the paper’s pale blue surface, and that’s all that Willie cared about. When he got possession of Polly’s pencil box, he would need something to wrap it in.

 

He stuffed the rolls back on their shelf next to a trio of ancient tape dispensers. One empty, one full, and one with a sliver or two of yellowed tape still clinging to its cardboard core. It would be a wonder if the stuff turned out to have enough adhesive left on it to stick to anything other than itself. Well, Willie would worry about that when he needed it. Right now he had better get his mind back on his work and light the candles on the parlor mantle. Sundown was coming, and with it the inevitable approach of his master. He had better be ready to greet him, or Barnabas would know that his servant was up to something unrelated to Old House business.

 

There’s nothing wrong with it, Willie insisted to himself, though he knew better in his heart—down deep where his sense of self-preservation still tried to keep him from killing himself in spite of his seeming determination to outwit it. There’s nothin’ to it but shifting a stack o’ boxes down a flight o’ stairs. Barnabas can’t get mad about that. Besides, it’ll only take a coupla hours. Just make sure you get your work done here first and he’ll never know the difference.

 

But the same part of him that had known that Barnabas would not approve of Willie’s skimming money from his food budget to buy Polly a birthday present also understood perfectly well that the vampire would be infuriated at the idea of his servant working for somebody else without permission, no matter how harmless the arrangement might be. Willie might help Jamie out, all right, and receive Polly’s pencil box in return. But only if he did it surreptitiously, so that Barnabas never found out about it. Because otherwise. . . .

 

Well. There could be problems.

 

Problems. Yeah. That’s one way to put it. He’d take the pencils, that’s for sure. Trash ’em or burn ’em. And you. . . . Well, he’d want to remind you who you work for—and that ain’t some hippie chick who lost her art shop in the space of a year. Better just to do what you gotta do and keep it quiet, Willie. You know how sharp he is. How suspicious he is. Keep it cool. Keep it quiet. And whatever you do, don’t mess up.

 

But that was easier said than done where Barnabas was concerned, even with a scheme as harmless as this one. The vampire seemed to have a peephole into Willie’s soul that permitted him to see things that Willie would just as soon keep private. Thoughts. Plans. Personal motivations. Things that Willie didn’t always realize he was communicating, until Barnabas confronted him with the proof of it through a slap or an angry word.

 

That invisible portal into his heart wasn’t always open. Willie had gotten away with sneakier projects than bartering for a pencil box in the past. But there was always the chance that Barnabas might look into Willie’s tattletale eyes and intuit that his servant was hiding something. If that happened, Willie didn’t know what he was going to say, because once the vampire’s suspicions were engaged Barnabas would never let the subject drop until he felt he had reached the truth of the matter. Even if it cost Willie skin in the process.

 

Far better to stay out of Barnabas’ immediate proximity for the time being. At least until Willie’s business with Jamie was complete, and he had Polly’s pencil box stashed safely away on a pantry shelf. Until then, he had work to do.

 

Night seemed a long time coming, but the candles in their sconces were lit and the drapes safely drawn by the time Barnabas came up from the basement. Willie ducked his head in his master’s presence as he always did while waiting for instructions, a small tremble of foreboding at what he intended on the morrow quivering in his gut. But Barnabas only waved him away and started sorting through the day’s mail. Willie blinked, surprised at the reprieve. That was one hurdle crossed, without him even aiming to make the leap.

 

“I won’t have need of you tonight,” the vampire said, sorting and then discarding the small stack of letters and bills on the console. “You may tend to whatever chores remain for you, then retire if you wish.”

 

“You goin’ somewhere, Barnabas?”

 

The vampire frowned, even as Willie winced. Dammit!  If only he could snatch those words out of the air and cram them back into his mouth!  He knew better than to ask Barnabas something like that. Of course he did—hadn’t he learned? The vampire resented such open intrusions into his privacy. He had made that plain enough to Willie in the past.

 

You forget, Willie, the vampire had said. It is not I who is beholden to you. It is you who are beholden to me.

 

But Willie in his edginess had asked the question anyway. A simple blunder of nerves. And tonight of all nights, when he had started out determined to keep a low profile.

 

“I am going to the Great House, if that is any concern of yours,” Barnabas said. “Shall I expect you to wait up for me? Or will it suffice for you to mind your own business?”

 

” ‘m sorry,” Willie muttered. “I was just. . . .”

 

“Meddling,” Barnabas finished for him.

 

“I wasn’t tryin’ to,” Willie tried again, still mumbling. Please just let him drop it. Please don’t let him get mad. “I just thought. . . .”

 

“Perhaps you should quit while you are ahead,” Barnabas advised, retrieving his cloak from its habitual place on the hallway coat rack.

 

“Yeah,” Willie stammered. “I mean, I will.”

 

But he couldn’t do it. He tried to make himself hush—he even clenched his hands in front of his apron to distract himself—but he just couldn’t do it. Apprehension combined with guilt had always resulted in Willie giving way to nervous babbling. It was a habit he was unable to break. Now he listened, horrified, as his mouth went bounding off ahead of his brain, insisting that he apologize to a vampire who had all but told him to shut the hell up.

 

“You know I’m sorry, Barnabas,” he said, “I didn’t mean to argue with you, but. . . .”

 

“But since you persist,” Barnabas said, stomping Willie’s apology flat, “I see you have so much time on your hands that you cannot help but concern yourself in my personal affairs.”

 

“No!  I. . . .”

 

“Perhaps I can amend that by finding some work for you to do,” Barnabas continued. “Something that will keep you well occupied, so you won’t have to wonder where I am going, or why.”  He fastened his cloak, then turned back to the coat rack, the heavy hem of the cape flaring out around him as he moved. “Ah,” he exclaimed, taking down his cane, “I think I have it. You’ve been putting off repairing the basement cistern for some time now. Perhaps you could take care of that tonight.”

 

“To-tonight?”

 

Willie’s compulsive apologizing stopped short as his brain bumped up against a concept that it didn’t want to grasp.

 

“Tonight?” he asked again.

 

“Yes,” Barnabas answered, as though he was issuing a perfectly ordinary order that he expected Willie to execute at a reasonable time of day. Polishing the silver first thing in the morning, perhaps. Or making a quick package delivery to the Great House tonight before going on to bed.

 

But the cistern. . . .

 

Willie couldn’t believe his ears. Going down into the cistern was frightening enough in daylight, but the thought of entering that echoing well of brick in the depths of night was horrifying. Never mind that it could be high noon outside and his eyes would never know the difference in the bowels of the basement. No daylight ever bled as far as there. But Willie’s brain would know. His gut would know. He would be in the blackest part of the house after dark—with Barnabas off visiting his family a quarter of a mile away, too far to call for help if something should go wrong.

 

“I couldn’t get anythin’ done on that tonight, Barnabas,” Willie stammered. He shrugged and gave his master a nervous half-smile, as though the unreasonableness of the request made it obvious to him that Barnabas must be joking, awful as the jest might be. “I . . . it’s too late to start. You know?  And besides, I don’t have the know-how for that, I told ya so when the rocks came in. That’s a brick mason’s job.”

 

“You are the brick mason here, Willie,” Barnabas said coldly. “Just as you are the carpenter, the tinsmith and the jack of all trades. If your inexperience means you cannot finish the work tonight you will by all means have it completed by tomorrow evening, or I will know the reason why.”

 

“But Barnabas. . . .”  Willie was beside himself, now that he realized his master was serious—that he really did intend for Willie to brave the sub-basement after dark.

 

“Please!  I don’t want to go down there. Not that far underground. Not at night. There . . . there are things down there!  I know it!”

 

“Nonsense,” Barnabas retorted. “No one has drowned in that cistern in more than two hundred years. There is nothing down there but spiders, and perhaps a snake or two.”

 

The spiders and snakes had been the ‘things’ that Willie had been referring to. The idea that someone might have died in those dank depths—that someone had actually drowned—hadn’t occurred to him until Barnabas mentioned it. Willie’s hand went to his throat, encircling the frozen flesh there, as though he could already feel artesian water rushing down his windpipe and into his lungs.

 

“Please,” he whispered. “Please, Barnabas, don’t make me go down there. That cistern isn’t safe. It could cave in, I’d never get out in time.”

 

“That is true. So I suggest you work carefully. No vaulting off ladders, as it were. No short cuts, Willie. For as you must realize by now, I’ve no intention of returning to the Old House before dawn, so if some misfortune should befall you, you will be quite on your own.”

 

Aren’t I always?

 

This time Willie’s hand slipped over his lips before the damning words could leap free. If only he had managed that trick the first time, when a question that would count as harmless small talk to anyone but a paranoid vampire had tumbled out and gotten him into so much trouble. He stood there, head bowed, trembling in the dim light of the hallway, as Barnabas opened the door.

 

“Finished by tomorrow, Willie,” the vampire reminded him. “If you mean to manage that, I suggest you start now.”

 

Willie didn’t answer. But his hands closed into cold, numb fists as the vampire left the house. Fists that would do nothing to drive away the darkness waiting for him like a gollum in the basement.

 

There weren’t enough lanterns in the house for this. There weren’t enough lanterns in the world.

 

But Willie would have to do it.

 

Barnabas had said.

 

*

 

Shit. Shit. Shit.

 

The obscenity pounded in Willie’s temples as he scavenged the pantry for as many kerosene lanterns as he could find. Thank god he had a fresh supply of wicks, and the kerosene necessary to fill the glass reservoirs. Otherwise he would be making due with beeswax candles—useless pinpricks of light in a never-ending sea of darkness.

 

His shoulder bumped the shelf of wrapping paper as he stood up, his fingers looped with swinging, swaying lanterns. Willie pushed at the unsettled rolls with his elbow, trying to get them out of the way without sloshing kerosene on the fragile paper. Not that it mattered now. If Barnabas expected him to complete the repairs to the cistern before the following evening, Willie would be working all night. Probably far into the next day. He had some experience with minor bricklaying projects, but nothing like this. He would have to figure it out as he went along and pray that he didn’t wind up crushed beneath bricks or drowned in stagnant water in the process.

 

Even if you don’t drown yer stupid self, you’ll never make it back to the art shop by lunchtime tomorrow, he thought. Not unless you stop work. And if you do that, Barnabas won’t just stick you with a fresh round of busy work. He’ll beat the livin’ hell out of you for deliberately disobeying him. Especially if he finds out why you did it.

 

No. Willie wasn’t going to think about that now. Not until he had to. He couldn’t allow a simple slip of the tongue like he had committed tonight to escalate so far as a beating. He’d had a close call or two earlier this spring when a fall from a ladder had messed with his head, causing him to make mistakes he would never have made had he been thinking straight. But Barnabas had understood the extent of the injury and had cut his servant some slack until he judged Willie was himself again.

 

Well, Willie couldn’t hope for such a mercy now. He was all healed up. The bump on his head and the resulting concussion were no more than a bad memory. He couldn’t expect a reprieve if he provoked Barnabas to violence now that he was functioning normally again. And he certainly wasn’t going to do something as dangerously stupid as that. Not if he could help it.

 

Never mind the pencil box. Never mind the party. Never mind Polly, at least not now. Right now just get your work done, or you won’t be goin’ anywhere.

 

And that was another, more essential reason for Willie to avoid setting off Barnabas’ flash-paper temper, wasn’t it?  Not just because he was afraid of the physical pain such episodes inevitably caused him, but because with or without a gift, he couldn’t very well turn up at the Pedersons’ house bruised and limping like he had last Christmas. Gina would notice. She always did. And if she noticed she would want Willie to tell her what had happened. She would want him to tell her the truth.

 

He could just imagine how that would go.

 

Well, ya see, I pissed off my boss because I was thinkin’ about layin’ out long enough to do a job for somebody else in town so I could get Polly a present, and then Barnabas told me to do a job I haven’t a clue how to do, but I stopped in the middle of it because I still had that other job waitin’, and when Barnabas found out he decided to teach me a lesson. That’s pretty much it, Gina. Wanna pass me a piece of cake?

 

The wild whirl of his thoughts was interrupted at the doorway to the basement. Willie stopped, looking down the mouth of the stone stairwell into a cavern that was part man-made archways and part cave. The first level wouldn’t be so bad. There were plenty of candles there, illumination that Barnabas insisted upon in the rooms where his coffin lay. But beyond that was a second tier of stairs that led farther down. There were few if any candles on that level because people rarely went there—especially Willie.

 

That’s where the cistern was.

 

The cistern was nothing but a massive brick tank set into the sub-basement’s flooring. Rainwater reached it through gravity-fed pipes that had their gutters four stories up on the Old House’s black slate roof. The overflow from the artesian well terminated in the tank, too, but that stream was barely a trickle, easily shut off by a metal valve.

 

When it was first installed, the fourteen by eighteen-foot tank would have been a necessary safeguard against drought, ensuring that the occupants of the Old House always had fresh water, no matter what Mother Nature saw fit to provide. But now the cistern was an anachronism. The Old House didn’t need it. Not with its once bustling household reduced to a core of two. Barnabas used clean water to wash, but that was all he did with it. He certainly didn’t drink it. Willie drank it, and washed with it, and scrubbed the house with it as best he could. But all of the water he needed for those everyday tasks came up the kitchen pipes when the hand pump called for it. He didn’t need the thousands of extra gallons that would reside in the cistern once it was properly repaired.

 

Willie shivered, thinking of the rounded belly of the tank sloshing with freezing water and god knew what else. Draining and patching it was nothing but a waste of time. Just Barnabas’ way of telling his servant to mind his own business. But even if it took Willie away from other, more important tasks that he would rather be doing, he couldn’t very well refuse to patch it now that Barnabas had given him a direct order, could he? Barnabas wanted the thing fixed, so Willie was going to have to fix it.

 

He might as well get started.

 

The basement door clopped shut behind him as he started down the stairs. Willie waited until he reached the candles flickering at the farthest end of the stone floor before setting down his jangling collection of lanterns so he could light one to illuminate his way. The black doorway that led to the next coil of stairs yawned wide and hungry on his right.

 

I don’t want to go down there.

 

How in the hell am I gonna make myself go down there?

 

Because he didn’t have a choice. That’s how.

 

Silence breathed its chill on him, raising goosebumps beneath the sweat prickling across his shoulders.

 

I need a sweater. And heavier shoes, too.

 

But he didn’t go upstairs to get them. He probably would need warmer clothes if he wound up working in water, but at the moment that was just an excuse to delay his going into the sub-basement. He would go and get a sweater, and then decide he needed a jacket, too, and then discover that more lanterns were necessary, and he would spend the night going up and down the stairs rather than doing what needed to be done. Willie picked up his lanterns with the lit one rattling at the fore, swallowed hard, and stepped out onto the stairs, feeling moisture slip over his skin like an icy scrim of fear.

 

Wide, damp, stone blocks. Brick archways dripping water. Slick patches of black mold lurking underfoot. Willie walked in the shadowy remains of footsteps he himself had laid down the previous autumn, when he had carted barrows of stone into this sub-basement with no intention of putting the stockpiled bricks to use. He had hoped that Barnabas would forget the project, and the vampire had obliged him. Until tonight, that was.

 

He knew you were scared to come down here. Maybe that’s why he never pushed it. There was plenty of other stuff that needed doin’ first. This job wasn’t so important. Until he had a reason to make you do it.

 

You had to give him a reason.

 

Willie sighed, putting the first of his lanterns down by the flat, tiled manhole that led down into the tank. It doesn’t matter, really, does it?  If it wasn’t this it woulda been something else eventually. Except this one means Polly doesn’t get her present.

 

So. Polly doesn’t get her present. Let’s just make sure that nothin’ creepin’ around down here gets me!

 

Matches were hard to light in the dank, green-tasting air, especially when hampered by trembling fingers. Willie wasted half a box getting his lanterns glowing. Once he thought he heard something rattling off into the rubble beyond the spreading ring of light, but he didn’t see what it was and he didn’t stand up to investigate. It’s just a rat, he told himself, shaking off a shiver while extinguishing the final match. Gotta be. Rat or snake, and either way, you don’t want to get a closer look, do ya?

 

No, he most certainly did not. He settled for examining the brick pile instead, along with the bags of concrete, iron trowels and other materials that were waiting for him against the wall. He knew how to mix up the concrete. In theory he knew how to lay the bricks. But how the concrete was going to dry in this waterlogged basement he hadn’t a clue. And what about the interior of the tank?  He knew by his quick look-see last spring that the inside wall had to be clean and smooth, but the broken areas would have to be patched. What lining material was it?  It sure hadn’t looked like concrete to him.

 

Well, the first step was to make sure that the tank was empty—of water and whatever else might be floating in it. And the next was to make sure that all the valves were jammed tight so he wouldn’t wind up with an unexpected torrent of water pouring in on his head from some spring squall going on four stories above him.

 

If he did all that—if he just kept busy—he wouldn’t have time to think about the weight of the earth and the house pressing down above him, or of the slimy creatures that might be slithering in the corners where the light didn’t reach, or of the inky well of darkness that he was about to climb into feet first when he entered the tank.

 

Or, come to think of it, where Barnabas was going or what he might be up to. The vampire had been right about that much.

 

Willie picked up a lantern. He would just shut off the main valve. He would handle the rest from there. One imminent disaster at a time.

 

*

 

He had to stop. He had to. There was nothing else he could do down here until the concrete had a chance to dry.

 

If he was very, very lucky that would take days. Months. Years.

 

Maybe he could arrange to be dead before Barnabas expected him to come down here again.

 

Willie struggled up the ladder to the manhole, then wrenched himself through the gap. His ring of lanterns was there to welcome him, a magical circle keeping the creepy-crawlies at bay. Down in the tank he had dared no more than two lanterns at a time, lest he trip over one of them and douse himself in flammable kerosene. It would have been an irony bordering on the biblical if he had managed to burn himself to death while working in a cistern full of muck.

 

He wanted to collapse on the floor and sleep. He didn’t. If he had to crawl out of this sub-basement on his hands and knees, Willie intended to rest where there was daylight. Surely the sun was up by now, glimmering through the kitchen windows, casting a patch of warmth across the blankets of his bed. He needed to get this cold, muddy cistern glop off his skin, drink something hot to warm his blood, and then go to bed. If he had the opportunity later he would apologize to Jamie for standing her up. If he didn’t . . . well, there would be one more person in the world with a poor opinion of Willie Loomis, and what was one more or less?  There were already so many.

 

Tired as he was, Willie found stumbling up the basement stairs a far easier proposition than walking down them had been, simply because there was sunlight waiting for him at the top. True light. Light that didn’t flicker and swoon and threaten to go out in every passing draft. Light that didn’t depend on kerosene to fuel it. He crossed the secret room at the foot of Barnabas’ wooden coffin, already shut and sealed for the day, and resisted an impulse to spit on the floor. Willie was drenched with sweat and mud and slime, but he hadn’t the moisture in his mouth to spare for an insult. He hadn’t thought to take any drinking water into the basement with him. And anyway, if Barnabas noticed the stain later tonight, he would demand to know what it meant. What would Willie have to say to that?  Nothing, that was what. He’d be in for a whipping for sure, if he wasn’t already in trouble for failing to finish the cistern.

 

One more tier of stairs and he was through the basement door. Willie fell to his knees in the first floor hallway, bathing in the faint, reflected daylight spilling through the parlor windows. Those drapes would not be closed today, nor would any others throughout the house if Willie could help it. He wanted all the light his skin could drink in. It wouldn’t keep him awake. He didn’t think anything would, once he got clean and warmed up a little.

 

The water from the kitchen pump was ice cold. Willie scrubbed down with it anyway, stripping off his filthy clothes as he worked his way down his body with a rough cotton towel. He had to keep sloshing fresh water onto the cloth to disperse the resulting streams of mud and ooze. He knew he was missing patches, especially on his shoulders and back. He couldn’t help it without a mirror to guide him. But as long as he got the worst of it off he would be satisfied. Shivering naked at the sink, he drew up another freshet of water and doused his head with it, running his fingers through his hair to loosen any clinging grime.

 

God, I’m freezing. I gotta get some clothes.

 

He wrapped a dry towel from the linen cupboard around his hips in preparation for a dash up the stairs, then hesitated. If he made it as far as the third floor there was no way he was coming back downstairs to eat. He would collapse on the bed, he knew he would. If he didn’t grab something now he wouldn’t eat until he woke, and who knew how long that would be?  As it was, he thought he must be shivering from lack of nourishment as much as morning cold.

 

I don’t care. I want to get warm. I want to sleep. Food can wait. I’ll eat when I get up if Barnabas gives me the chance.

 

Willie wasn’t entirely sure if that chance would be forthcoming. He hadn’t finished the job in the cistern. He couldn’t. No man could. Even Barnabas couldn’t force concrete to dry in a faster time than the dank basement air would let it. If Willie slapped an interior lining on top of wet bricks, the patches would simply collapse under their own weight, forcing him to start the job all over again. Surely Barnabas would understand that.

 

Except. . . .

 

Except he didn’t give you this job because it was something he really wanted done. He only meant it as a punishment.

 

What if he doesn’t care that the concrete hasn’t had a chance to dry?

 

The thought made Willie’s already used up body want to collapse in its tracks. He leaned against the kitchen table, goosebumped knees wobbling, then pushed upright again when he realized where he was. Barnabas might force him across those splintered plankings soon enough. Willie sure didn’t want to touch them now.

 

You know he’s twitchy about where he’s goin’ and why. Always has been since you’ve known him. Mostly ’cause he thinks you’ll get in the middle of it if he’s threatening somebody—not that you’ve ever stopped him, unless he wanted to be stopped.

 

So when are you gonna learn not to ask him? Huh? Will this do it?

 

Willie thought it might. Especially if Barnabas wound up beating him for leaving the cistern half finished when he had been specifically ordered to finish up the work by the end of the day.

 

His hunger forgotten, or at least pushed to the back of his exhausted brain, Willie gathered up his grimy clothes and trudged down the hallway to the stairs. He would put a sweater on. Something warm to sleep in. And he would sleep until Barnabas woke him up. Sometime after dark. Long past Willie’s supposed lunchtime appointment with Jamie.

 

Willie shook his head, disgusted.

 

So much for Polly’s pencil box.

 

*

 

A sunbeam was rubbing between his shoulderblades, warming the sensitive patch of skin through the wool of his sweater and making him sigh.

 

Willie opened his eyes on his dusty, third floor bedroom, a room he rarely saw in such sparkling luminosity. On an ordinary day he would be in other parts of the house by the time the sun hit these windows. He’d be scrubbing floors or tending fires or mending furniture. Barnabas didn’t approve of the mansion’s only daytime guardian sleeping through the afternoon, though Willie was sometimes forced to do it if the vampire kept him working all night. Like he had last night, in that damned muck-filled cistern.

 

Sleepy, sun-warmed fingers flopped onto the bedside table, hunting for the wind-up clock that would tell Willie how much sleeping time he had left. He was comfortable enough now that the chill was worn off him, but he still felt dismally tired. If he could steal another hour of rest before Barnabas rose, he would do it. He would. . . .

 

Eleven thirty?

 

He hadn’t slept the day away after all. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet. He’d slept four hours. Maybe four and a half. No more than that.

 

Willie dropped the clock onto the bedcovers and sat up, tangling his blankets in his rush to leave the bed. If he hurried he could still make it to the art shop. Help Jamie drag her boxes down the stairs and into her van. Get back here and still snatch three or four more hours of sleep before Barnabas rose. And if he was careful, the vampire would never even realize that Willie had been gone.

 

If he figures it out, though, he’ll skin you.

 

Willie paused in the process of pulling on his jeans.

 

He told you to finish the cistern. You can’t do that. The concrete patchin’ the bricks is still wet. But it won’t matter. If you leave the house with a job undone, especially somethin’ he told ya to do special, he’ll rip the hide off you before he’s through.

 

Dammit. It was unreasonable as hell, but it was also the truth.

 

But there was another truth to consider here. A smaller truth, but a warmer, more human one that was strong enough to make Willie resume pulling on his jeans and tying up his shoelaces. If he didn’t go and help Jamie as he had promised he would, he couldn’t earn Polly her pencil box. He would have to go to her party empty-handed, if he managed to get there at all.

 

How would he explain such an insult to his little friend? Gina would realize that poverty prevented Willie from buying a gift, but a kid Polly’s age would never understand the strictures imposed on adults by non-existent finances. Willie certainly hadn’t when he had been five and six and seven years old, going birthday after birthday without so much as a cupcake with a candle stuck in it, when he knew that other, more fortunate kids had things like presents and ice cream and parties.

 

No. Polly would come to the same conclusion that Willie had assumed about his own shiftless family: that Willie didn’t care about her. That he had failed to bring her a gift because he had neglected to mark her birthday. Only in Polly’s case that assumption would be untrue. Willie did care about her and he wasn’t about to have her thinking otherwise if there was something he could do to prevent it.

 

He was going to Jamie’s, and that was that.

 

There was nothing portable in the kitchen cabinets but potted meat and crackers. Willie cracked the tin of meat before he left the house and stuffed the cellophane pack of saltines in his pocket. He munched them one-handed as he drove, swiping crackers through the thick, salty spread before stuffing them wholesale into his mouth. He was starving, but this snack would have to hold him. He didn’t have time for anything else right now.

 

Twelve-thirty on the nose. Willie pulled into the back lot of the hardware store, thrusting the empty tin of meat and the decimated sleeve of crackers under the bench seat of the Chevy before climbing out. He saw Jamie standing at the top of the loft stairway and waved at her to let her know he was there.

 

“Well, hi, Mister Loomis!  I knew you would turn up!  And just in time, too.” Jamie started down the stairs, a pile of boxes stacked in her arms. From what Willie could see, today’s costume was comprised of hip-hugger jeans, white sneakers and a blue and red sweater topped off with smoky black granny glasses.

 

“Let me pile this little stuff into the front seat, okay? And then we’ll. . . .”

 

The woman stopped mid-way down the stairs, staring down at her would-be helper with an astonished look on her face. Willie hastily swiped his sleeve across his mouth, wondering if he was wearing a cracker crumb and potted meat mustache. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was, considering how he had bolted the stuff.

 

“Mister Loomis,” Jamie said, starting down the stairs again one slow riser at a time. “Are you . . . well, I mean . . . are you okay?  You look a little peaked.”

 

Willie figured he must look considerably worse than that to get such a disconcerted reaction out of someone as cheerful as Jamie. But he only shrugged and tried to smile, as though this was the way he always looked at lunchtime—dressed in crumpled jeans and a slept-in sweater with his hair standing up in spikes because he had forgotten to comb it.

 

“I guess I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said. “Had stuff to do. You know?”

 

“Quahog hunting?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Looks like you’ve been down on the beach hunting quahogs. You’ve got mud stuck in your hair.”

 

“Oh.”  Willie ruffled the blond spikes with his fingers, feeling the stiff bits that were probably dyed green and brown with leftover muck. “Thought I got most of that out,” he said.

 

“Well, did you get any?”

 

“Get any what?”

 

“Quahogs.”

 

“No, they all got away this time.”

 

Jamie laughed and brushed by him on her way to her van with the first load of art supplies. She smelled warm and clean, of spring air and patchouli; nothing like the cistern cologne Willie was wearing, in spite of his efforts to scrub the worst of it off.

 

“No clam chowder for you then,” she chuckled, nudging him with her elbow as she passed. “Ah, well.”

 

Willie felt his cheeks flush at the friendly jibe, but he didn’t bother to contradict her. If Jamie wanted to believe that he had been up all night raking the tidal flats for shellfish, it was a misconception he could live with. Never mind that he didn’t think quahogs even lived on the rocky beach beneath Widows’ Hill. It was the simplest way to shrug off his disheveled appearance without further embarrassment or explanation. He was grateful to Jamie for suggesting it to him.

 

“What do ya want me to do?” he asked, once Jamie had settled her boxes onto the front seat and slammed the door of her van.

 

“Well, we’ve got six oversized crates to wrestle down those stairs.”  Jamie started back up the risers, Willie at her heels. “I think we can carry them between the two of us. But if I could convince you to hang around a minute after that, we might be able to load the smaller stuff in half the time it would take me to do it alone. Do you mind?”

 

Willie swallowed his sigh in case Jamie had ears sharp enough to mark it. Of course he minded. He was tired. His muscles ached. He wanted to get this job done and get gone, back to the sunwarmed safety of his bedroom, before something happened to alert Barnabas to the fact that Willie wasn’t at the Old House where he was supposed to be.

 

But Jamie had been good to him. Cheerful and pleasant. Besides, she was giving him a twenty-dollar box of pencils for a couple of hours work. That was more profit than Willie had ever managed to scrape out of Barnabas with his eighteenth century notions of a manservant’s right to ‘room and board’ and precious little else.

 

Unless, of course, one could consider the nightly preservation of one’s own life ‘profit.’ There was always that.

 

“No,” Willie said aloud. “I don’t mind helpin’. But let’s get movin’, okay?  I gotta be back at work in a coupla hours. Before my boss starts wonderin’ where I am.”

 

“Aw man,” Jamie laughed. “I’d forgotten about that. Guess I’ll have to get used to being part of the workforce again instead of being self-employed. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but you do what you have to do, right, Mister Loomis?”

 

“Yes,” Willie said. “Yes, ma’am, you sure do.”

 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

*

 

The pencils rattled in their metal box as Willie smoothed the last of the tape across the paper’s bottom-most seam.

 

No one would ever mistake his efforts for a professional wrapping job, that was for sure, but he didn’t think it looked too bad considering the stuff he had to work with. Besides, it was the gift inside the paper that counted, and on that he had scored a slam-dunk. Willie could imagine the smile on Polly’s snub-nosed face as she unwrapped her present, and that delighted phantom grin became the sun that burned away the frost of fatigue weighing down his bones, making the last thirty-two hours seem like no great sacrifice after all.

 

Sweet little kid, he thought, thumbing down an errant crease the tape hadn’t caught. Wonder what she sees in a mangy ol’ sea dog like you, anyway?

 

But there was no deciphering that. The simple fact was that Polly had taken to Willie the moment he had rescued her and her mother and siblings from an early autumn storm. She trusted him. Called him her pal. Picked up quirks of his, which could be disconcerting—he had had to start watching his behavior more closely so little Miss Polly would learn virtues like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ instead of vices like muttered curse words or cracking her knuckles.

 

Willie smiled to himself, turning the flat expanse of the pencil box over in his hands. That was the first time he could remember Gina being put out with him. She hadn’t yelled or turned icy about it, but she had quite firmly asked Willie to stop cracking his knuckles around the children because Polly had learned to do it and had been caught trying to teach it to Danny. It’s not good for them, Gina had said. And it’s not good for you, either. You’ll damage the joints in your fingers, Willie. And then she had blushed, perhaps remembering that thanks to her late husband, the joints in three of Willie’s fingers were already permanently damaged, which was the reason he cracked them from time to time. To ease the stiffness when the weather turned cold.

 

In spite of Willie’s admittedly questionable influence on her children, Gina Lee had nevertheless continued to welcome him into her family circle. And Polly, the eldest and most talkative of the three Logan kidlets, had welcomed him most warmly of all. Now the little girl had invited him to her birthday party. And Willie, thank goodness, finally had a gift that he wouldn’t be ashamed to give to her, in spite of its shabby wrappings.

 

Giving the pencils one last satisfied shake, Willie slid the package beneath the remaining rolls of paper stacked on the pantry shelf. Jamie’s extended parade of packing and box hauling hadn’t left her time-rushed helper enough time to snatch another catnap before Barnabas rose for the evening, but Willie thought he might manage to heat a quick can of soup for his supper. If he hurried, that was.

 

The can opener didn’t want to crank its way round the rim of the tin. Willie struggled with it, trying not to slice his fingers on the ragged edges his clumsiness produced before he was able to plop the golden liquid with its sprinkling of stars into his saucepan. A can of water followed, sloshed in rather than poured. A quick stir that sent carrot curls swirling in the current and all he had to do was stand there a while, letting the warmth from the stove bake into his aching muscles while he waited for his supper to heat.

 

In less than a minute the freshly stoked flames crackling in the firebox sent a puff of steam wafting beneath Willie’s nose, making his weary eyes water with heat and sleepiness. God, but he was tired. Thirty-two hours of work on four hours of rest were beginning to take their toll. Adrenaline and necessity had kept him on his feet this long, but if Barnabas insisted that Willie continue his work on the cistern tonight, Willie didn’t know how he was going to do it. He could barely keep his eyes open, much less do anything that required extended concentration.

 

Well. It’s like Jamie said. You do what you hafta do. Especially when you haven’t got a choice. But still. . . .

 

I hope he doesn’t make me go down there again. Not tonight, anyway.

 

A yawn interrupted the shiver of unease that had tried without success to break through his growing lethargy. Willie wished he had met the hippie chick before her store went out of business. He liked her. Though he suspected her idea of recreation must include an artificial joy maker of the tokeable variety. Otherwise how did she stay so consistently happy?  No one could be that cheerful all of the time. Could they?

 

Wonder where she’s gonna go. She never did say.

 

Maybe she’ll set up shop somewhere else. Bangor, maybe. She’s certainly got enough stu. . . .

 

The hiss of soup boiling over on the stovetop brought Willie awake with a lurch. He’d been drowsing on his feet, thinking of Jamie. Now he scrambled to salvage his supper before it steamed away completely, leaving him nothing but chicken and sludge in the pan.

 

“OUCH!”

 

He had forgotten to use a dishrag to take the bubbling soup off the stove. Willie shook his hand through the air, slinging off the sting of rising blisters, and used a handy stick of kindling to poke the pan to a cooler round than the one it was sitting on. The boiling soup subsided, settling back to a slow simmer.

 

“Ouch!” Willie said again, sucking on his scalded fingers. Dammit, Loomis, wake up. Wake up and get with it. Barnabas will be up here soon. You gotta look alive when he gets here. Splash some water on your face and wake up!

 

The cold water did more to soothe the burns on Willie’s fingers than it did to rouse him, but that was gift enough. He slicked his damp forelock out of his eyes with his palm and fumbled for a bowl in the cabinet, careful to grab a dishcloth this time before he took hold of the saucepan’s metal handle. Two attempts told him he was never going to get the soup into the bowl without pouring half the liquid on the counter, so he gave it up, settling for dipping a spoon directly into the pan.

 

Ouch! Again. This time from his scalded taste buds. The soup was too hot to eat. He would have to let it cool a moment before he slurped it down.

 

A second dishrag folded on the tabletop served as a handy trivet. Willie sat down in a chair near the stove and leaned his forehead against the wedge of his palm, letting his shoulders relax for the length of time it would take for the soup to cool.

 

The clatter of the saucepan as it was deposited in the bottom of the sink woke him up. Willie looked up through bleary eyes to find Barnabas turning toward him. Startled, the younger man jerked back in his chair, nearly tipping it over. He grabbed the edge of the table and would have tipped it, too, if Barnabas hadn’t put out a hand and caught it, toppling it back onto its legs with a thud.

 

“I take it,” the vampire said, as though he assumed Willie was fully awake and listening, “that the cistern is complete, or you would not have time for malingering in the kitchen.”

 

Cistern. Complete. No, it wasn’t, but. . . .

 

Willie couldn’t form a coherent thought. He was too befuddled with sleep, too flushed with adrenaline at the shock of finding Barnabas standing over him, to answer. He could only stare upwards in the newly fallen gloom of evening that was barely dissipated by the flicker of the firebox, his mouth hanging open like a freshly gutted fish.

 

“Well?” Barnabas demanded. He turned away long enough to take a candlestick from the mantle and placed it on the table in front of Willie, along with a box of matches. The unspoken order was for his servant to light the wick.

 

“I . . . um.”  Pull yourself together, idiot!  Answer him! “I . . . I got as far as I could with it,” Willie stuttered, fumbling a match from the box without dropping his eyes to watch what his hands were doing. He knew Barnabas’ silent implication was that if Willie had been doing his job the household candles would have been burning by now—and retribution, if it came, was likely to be swift. Willie wanted to be able to see it coming so he could at least brace if he couldn’t duck. “It . . . um . . . well, the concrete is . . . um. . . .”

 

Barnabas’ eyes narrowed, in irritation or from the candle’s brightening glow, Willie couldn’t tell which. “Did you complete the cistern or didn’t you?”

 

“Yes. No. Partly.”  Willie dropped the extinguished match and raised his hands in a hey, wait gesture, trying to appease the vampire before Barnabas could get angry at a job left half-done. “It’s the concrete, I toldja,” he said again.

 

“What about it?”

 

Willie used one quick pass of his palm to wipe the sleep from his eyes while never losing sight of the vampire standing over him. “It’s . . . well, you know . . . it’s wet. You know how damp it is in that sub-basement, Barnabas. The concrete’s gotta have some time to dry. If I trowel the tank lining on top of the bricks while the mortar is still wet, it’ll be too heavy to hold. See?”

 

“Too heavy?” Barnabas inquired, one eyebrow cocked, as though he didn’t believe a word of it.

 

“Yeah,” Willie said. “The whole thing will come down. I’ll have to start all over. Ya see?  I did as much as I could, but . . . it’s not quite done,” he finished lamely. He wished Barnabas would move back so he could get to his feet. He felt too vulnerable sitting in the chair, where Barnabas could knock him over with one blow.

 

“I see,” Barnabas said. “You’ve completed the patching, then.”

 

“Um . . . yeah. The holes are all filled in. And once the bricks are solid I’ll put in the lining. But that’s probably gonna be at least a week.”

 

“A week!”

 

“I told ya,” Willie said patiently, appeasingly, “the concrete has to dry. It’s damp as a marsh down there, Barnabas. I can’t help that. It’s just the way it is.”

 

“Is it, now.”

 

The vampire finally stepped back, but he didn’t look pacified to Willie. Rather, he bore a striking resemblance to angry dockmasters that Willie had worked for in the past. Dockmasters who inevitably caught their laziest employee napping on the job—not for the first time—and were just on the verge of firing him.

 

Only if Willie was fired at the Old House, it wouldn’t be a last paycheck he would be collecting, would it? More like his last breath, right before Barnabas drained him dry.

 

“Bring the candle,” Barnabas said. “We will go into the basement. And you will show me this marsh that is obstructing you.”

 

*

 

The mouth of the sub-basement was even darker without Willie’s galaxy of kerosene lanterns to illuminate it.

 

Barnabas walked slightly ahead, not in the least hampered by the crush of darkness that kept Willie cowering around his candle flame. One candle flame, as solitary as a moth fluttering in a coal mine. This place had been bad enough when he could halfway see where he was going. But now the dripping archways were an eternity above his head. The black marks his earlier passage had scuffed in the mold were invisible on the steps. So were his feet, for that matter, unless the toe of his shoe happened to glance into range of the candle’s wavering sphere.

 

God, let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be down here!

 

The thought of what Barnabas might do if he wasn’t pleased with his servant’s progress on the cistern had Willie’s heart clenched like a faltering fist in his chest. The vampire might very well decide to leave him down here in the sub-basement with only this single candle to show him where the next trowel full of concrete had to go. Not that it would do any good. For once Willie was telling the truth. He couldn’t do any more useful work on the cistern until the mortar he had already placed had had a chance to dry. If Barnabas insisted that he proceed anyway, the result would be an enormous, brick-tumbled mess. Willie was sure of it. And then Barnabas would be even angrier with Willie than he already was.

 

Angry enough to toss you in the cistern and leave you there with no way out?

 

Don’t think that, Willie! What if he picks up the vibe, gets the idea from you?  Don’t give him any ideas!

 

God, no, don’t give him any ideas. Barnabas was inventive enough on his own when it came to demonstrating his displeasure with his unsuitable servant.

 

The sound of their combined footsteps echoing in the basement gained a deeper, hollower note, indicating that they were now walking over the top of the submerged tank. Barnabas stopped at the cistern’s tiled entrance. Willie watched him, wondering if the vampire intended to risk his suit by climbing down into the tank to check the patchwork. Willie hoped he wouldn’t, not because he was ashamed of his work—he thought he’d done a damned fine job under the circumstances—but because it was so dirty down there. The tank was cleaner than it had been, thanks to Willie clearing away most of the muck and slime, but it was still, after all, a cistern that hadn’t yet been lined. The stonework walls were far from pristine.

 

“You’ve patched the interior?”

 

Barnabas’ voice startled Willie out of his thoughts.

 

“Y-yeah. Patched it and cleaned out as much of the mud as I could. It’ll take a couple of rain showers to send water through the line to clean it all out, though. And any dirt that comes in after that will settle to the bottom, just like the stuff that’s in there now did. But that won’t hurt anything.”

 

Barnabas’ white hand swam out of the gloom, reaching for the candlestick. Willie didn’t want to give it up, but he couldn’t very well play tug-of-war with the vampire for it, so he handed it over, despairing as his fragile sphere of light left him to gather itself around his master instead.

 

The mouth of the cistern was patched, just as the interior was. Barnabas brought the candle flame to hover over the freshly repaired brickwork, examining the care that Willie had used in shaping the stones to fit.

 

I told ya I’m not a brick mason, Willie wanted to protest, before Barnabas even commented. I did the best I could. But he couldn’t see Barnabas’ face, so he decided to keep quiet for the moment, waiting for the vampire to criticize the work before he was compelled to defend it.

 

Barnabas reached out and prodded the mortar with one finger. It must have been damp, just as Willie had said it would be, because Barnabas rubbed the resulting grit against his thumb before turning to face his servant once more. The vampire’s gaunt, white face shone in the candlelight, a marble bust of a Roman emperor glimpsed in a pitch-black tomb.

 

“And you believe this mortar will be suitably dry within the space of a week?” he asked.

 

Willie let out a breath. “Yeah,” he said. “Somewhere about then.”

 

The candlestick came back in his direction. Willie forced himself to accept it with a steady hand rather than snatching it out of Barnabas’ grasp, which is what he wanted to do. His sphere of light again enfolded him, a gilded bubble armoring him against the dark.

 

“All right,” Barnabas said. “You will give it the necessary time to dry, then install the lining. Do you have all the materials you require to proceed?”

 

“Um . . . yeah, I think so. The rest is just a slurry that goes over the brick and. . . .”

 

“If you have need of additional equipment or materials, then purchase them,” Barnabas interrupted. As usual, he wasn’t interested in the details of a repair project once he was assured that Willie was performing it correctly. “Otherwise, go on to whatever is next on your list. The third floor dormer, I believe. The one that is leaking into the attic.”

 

Willie swallowed. Great. He was leaving the sub-basement and its hungry, light-eating darkness in favor of a sloping third-story roof that could drop him sixty feet to the ground if the slate shingles gave way beneath his feet.

 

Wonderful.

 

Well, he’d take it. At least there was sunlight up there.

 

“O-okay, Barnabas,” he said, nodding once. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

“See that you do.”

 

Greatly relieved, Willie followed Barnabas out of the sub-basement, into the basement proper, then back to the first floor of the house. He didn’t extinguish his nub of a candle, but took it into the parlor with him so he could light the spires waiting on the mantelpiece there.

 

Barnabas settled into his chair by the hearth, watching his manservant as he knelt to build a small fire in the grate. Willie felt him there, but pretended that he didn’t. He only laid in the logs, no more than an armful, since the flames were intended more for light than heat on such a mild spring night. When the tinder refused to catch right away he opened the damper a bit, trying to get a decent draw without making the resulting fire so hot that he would have to replenish its fuel every half hour or so.

 

“Tell me, Willie,” the vampire said into the growing silence. “What did you do today?  You must have finished your work in the sub-basement relatively early. By mid-morning, I should think.”

 

Willie leaned back on his heels, keeping his eyes on the logs that were just now beginning to take, their crusted brown bark blackening and snapping as the hungry flames burrowed in. “Well, I . . . I was tired, Barnabas,” he said honestly. “I cleaned up and went to bed.”

 

“You must not have slept very well,” Barnabas observed. “I found you sleeping over your supper when I looked for you at dusk.”

 

Willie shrugged. A spark of fear hotter than the flames licking at the hearth logs had ignited in his belly, but he kept his eyes on the fire lest Barnabas take note of his unease.

 

“Since you slept the day away, I expect you to see to your regular chores before you retire,” Barnabas continued. “But do not stay up too late. I can see that you are not well rested from your exertions, which must have been formidable indeed to exhaust you so thoroughly.”

 

Was there sarcasm in that mildly pleasant tone? Willie couldn’t be sure. He had the feeling that Barnabas was playing with him—that he knew perfectly well that Willie had left the house that afternoon and was deliberately neglecting to mention it.

 

He knows. He even knows why you left. I don’t understand how he knows, but he does.

 

But that was only paranoia, wasn’t it?  Barnabas couldn’t possibly be aware of Willie’s afternoon at the Golden Harlequin. The vampire didn’t just sleep when he spent his days sealed in his basement coffin. He was dead. His heart did not beat, his lungs did not draw breath, his mind did not think nor dream.

 

At least Willie prayed that that was so. Because if he was wrong, Barnabas knew a lot more about his servant’s daily life than Willie wanted him to know.

 

“I . . . I won’t stay up too late,” Willie said, low-voiced. He covered the quaver in his words by reaching for another log and placing it on the fire. “I haven’t got much left to do. Mostly sweepin’ and stuff.”

 

“Then take care of it. But not in the parlor, Willie. I do not wish to be disturbed. You can complete whatever chores you need to do in this room tomorrow.”

 

“All right, Barnabas.”  Willie stood up and dusted his hands on the thighs of his pants. He kept his head averted as he left the room, trying to make it seem natural, trying not to let Barnabas realize how much he had rattled his guilty servant by uttering a few mundane words that might or might not have a double meaning.

 

He knows. And if you let it go . . . if you don’t tell him . . . he’ll use it against you some day. Just like he used the repairs on the cistern to get to ya last night.

 

Well. That was a risk Willie was going to have to take. If he was wrong—if he did tell Barnabas that he had spent the day helping some hippie chick shopkeeper load up the last of her wares, only to discover that the vampire hadn’t recognized his servant’s lapse of duty—Barnabas was liable to punish him severely. That was something to be avoided at all costs any night of the week, but especially tonight, when Willie was already so tired that he could barely keep his feet. He couldn’t endure a punishment tonight. He just couldn’t.

 

No. He was going to be a dutiful servant and do exactly what Barnabas had told him to do. He was going to finish up the few chores remaining him. He was going to have a glass of cold water for supper. And then he was going up to bed. Maybe that would keep him out of trouble for a while.

 

Willie had to stay out of trouble if he could. Because Polly’s party was coming up. And her ol’ pal Willie planned on being there. He wouldn’t miss the expression on her face when she unwrapped that pencil box for all the riches in the world.