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Breath of Heaven

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Barnabas whipped him. Hard. With a switch. Told him to take down his trousers, bent him over the table, and whipped him for an offense that seemed so inconsequential when he'd done it, that by the time Barnabas let him up from the table to pull up his clothes, all thought of it had vanished from his head. The only thing that remained was the leftover taste of his heart sliding into his guts from Barnabas pouncing on him the moment the sun went down, and the slices of acid heat that now marched up and down his backside and legs. The cloth beneath his armpits and along his back was soaked with sweat, and a single hot track of it traced its way along the back of his ear, sliding down his neck to join its fellows. Heart thumping, pushing blood through new cuts and welts that his pants now pressed against, his fingertips pulsing with each shivery jerk of his lungs.

Barnabas stood in front of him, blood-laced switch gripped in his hand, eyes glinting in the twilight light of the kitchen, his face like a white blast of light, shimmering from an unknown source. Still mad, furious, his bolt-edged shoulders casting a firm, hacked-off line as he leaned slightly forward, bringing the flick of the switch up for emphasis.

"Your propensity to attempt to determine your own course is a habit I intend to vanquish, do you understand?"

It was one of those questions that Barnabas would not consider rhetorical, and Willie nodded, trying to stem the whistle of air along his throat, swallowing, wiping the sweat from the side of his temple with the heel of his hand. "Yes, Barnabas."

"Your response comes all too easily, the fine art of a liar," said Barnabas, apparently not satisfied, his voice still too sharp for someone who should feel, by Willie's account, that a strong message had been justly delivered and correctly received. "Suppose you tell me now exactly what it is I don't want you to do?"

It would, of course, happen, that Barnabas would want a reckoning of something that had completely shot itself out of Willie's head. A sour taste from his evening's supper burbled in his stomach, jackknifing its way up to the back of his mouth. He swallowed again, back teeth clicking against each other, and tried to look Barnabas in the eyes. Succeeded for only a second, gaze dropping away, casting like a fisherman with a fouled line, coming up with nothing but bottom mud and scraps of trash.

Breathed in, part of the sound forming words that didn't mean anything. Didn't give any information. "I--I, that is you d-don't want me to, well, you s-said that--"

Barnabas smacked him with the back of his hand, connecting against Willie's face, hard enough to rock his head. He resisted it as well as he could, but his hand came up, cupping his cheek with fingers that trembled hard enough to beat a steady tattoo against the bone. The vampire watched this with narrowed eyes.

"Well?" he asked, entirely without sympathy. "You don't remember, do you?"

Willie backed into a mental corner and shook his head, tempering his submission with defiance by not actually saying it aloud. Lowered his arm, and stared at Barnabas' empty hand. The one without the ring on it. The one that had just hit him. He shook his head again, feeling the scowl on his face. An expression other than a strictly neutral one was never, as Barnabas would say, propitious, but it was beyond Willie to change it. He was swallowing blood now and it tasted bad.

"Then I shall remind you. The colors of the rainbow are not yours to choose from. White is the appropriate color for trim on the third floor landing. Not eggshell or linen or any of these other fancy appellations masquerading as white. Do I make myself clear?"

"But it was on sale," said Willie as quick as he could as Barnabas took a breath. "And I thought--"

Thunder churned in the vampire's eyes. He took a step forward, and Willie could almost see the hackles rise on the back of Barnabas' neck. "Your job is not to think, your job is to obey," he said, a dire chill crackling through his voice. "Do I make myself clear?"

It was clear. Crystal clear. Another word out of Willie other than yes, Barnabas would send him over the table for another lesson in obedience, followed by, at the very least, a trip to the cell in the basement so that he could lick his wounds and contemplate the error of his ways with plenty of peace and quiet and darkness. He could see it in Barnabas' eyes, the vampire was that close to tearing him apart.

"Yes, Barnabas," he said, casting his eyes up, feeling the meekness on his face, swallowing more blood, heart hammering against his ribs.

"You will go into town, now," said Barnabas, satisfaction smoothing out his tone. "And you will purchase white paint. You will come back and you will repaint the third floor landing trim by morning."

"The paint store--" Willie began.

"Is open late on Friday," said Barnabas, stalling him with a glance. "You will attend to this, Willie, and you will finish it tonight, or I will attend to my servant problem once and for all."

There was no leeway in the vampire's voice. No room for negotiations, were Willie be foolish enough to begin any. Only the slow, sure fire still burning in the vampire's eyes, and the complete pitch darkness that the kitchen had now become. Willie pressed his hand to his pants, feeling for the keys, seeing them on the counter only seconds before Barnabas reached for them and handed them to him. With some force.

"I'll go now, and--" Willie began, and then stopped, watching as the shadow of Barnabas' outline reached for the pocket of his suitcoat. Pulled out the long leather wallet, and thumbed through the bills. Willie could hear the sounds of flesh against paper, and then reached out to take what the dark arm was offering him. He wouldn't need a coat, just the money and his keys. Half an hour at most, maybe 45 minutes, and he would be on the third floor landing, painting till dawn.

"--and I'll be back with the paint."

Starting for the door, he glanced back at the motion-less figure standing in the center of the kitchen. "White paint only, Willie," said Barnabas. "Even an idiot can buy a can of white paint."

Yeah, but an idiot who doesn't know better than to open a dead man's coffin deserves to get what he gets, right Barnabas?

Not that he would say that aloud. Not that he dared to say anything as he closed the door behind him.

Even in the heat of mid-summer, he was shivering by the time he reached the paint store, the clerk selling him three cans of pure white trim paint only moments before closing time. Eyeing him askance, as if suspecting him of a crime Willie knew he could not possibly want to commit. Handing back the change and the receipt, which Willie stuffed into his pocket hard enough to tear the lining. Had to switch pockets, and all the while, the clerk thumped his fingers on the countertop.

"Take it outside, Loomis," he said, with the non-courtesy he felt due the caretaker of the Old House. "I am closing up shop."

Willie hustled his three cans of paint out to the curb, and listened to the door being shut and locked behind him, and then beyond that, the scratching of crickets in the vacant lot next door. Hefted the cans up, two in one hand, and one in the other, feeling the lines of metal cutting into his palm as he staggered to the truck. It waited at the end of the sidewalk, parked a little kitty-corner in his haste, and he practically threw the cans in the back. Thought better of it, and settled them close to the bed wall, just in front of the wheel well. Wedged them in with a burlap sack and his toolkit, and reached into his pocket for the keys.

Only they'd fallen out through the hole in his pocket, and with his heart in his throat, he retraced his steps. All the way back to the front door of the paint store. Where he found them, glinting in the streetlight, looking oddly out of place against the chewing gum grey concrete.

"Looking for dropped dimes, Loomis?" said a voice behind him. He didn't recognize it, and whirled to face it, only to find the curled edges of a fist coming at him seconds before his head hit the pavement. The tumbled keys winked at him as he passed out.

*

The tart, shiny hospital smell was hard to disguise, for it was always accompanied by a pine disinfectant, and so closely associated with it, could never be separated. At least in Willie's mind. Like a plume of smoke that signals an unseen fire, Willie knew where he was even before he opened his eyes. And cold too, shivering before he could stop it, thinking that it might signal to someone that he was awake before he could figure out a way out. Barnabas didn't like him to be in hospitals, yet here he was. Barnabas wouldn't like it at all.

His hands drifted across the starched sheet to his face. Yeah, he had a goose egg all right, thumping over his cheekbone, and a hefty slice of opened flesh that someone had kindly pasted shut with a butterfly bandage. It would heal. Eventually. After competing with whatever blows of admonishment that Barnabas would care to add. Once he found out where Willie was. The trick was to get out of the hospital before the vampire found out. He could say he'd had a flat tire, or engine trouble to explain his lateness home. Or even that he'd stopped for a drink. Punishable offences all, yes, but anything was better than being caught in a hospital.

Pushing against the thin-sheeted mattress, he tried to raise himself up, only to realize that he was in a hospital Johnny. One that tied in the back, and was now cutting into his throat. Well-worn cotton covering him from neck to thigh in the front, and telling him, as soon as he shifted his legs, that he had nothing else on.

Worse and worse. He'd have to find his clothes first, and then perfect his cover story. A flat tire and engine trouble might work. Not that it would stop Barnabas, but at least his fury wouldn't be of the head-ripping-off variety. Hopefully.

He opened his eyes. He was in a room at the Collinsport General, one with pale grey walls, the night sky pushing through picture windows, and soft local lighting brimming from the head of the bed. And he was by himself. There was another bed, but it was empty. This fact flickered in the back of his mind, but he told himself that the semi-private room was a nod to his boss, not to him-self. Any other city and they would have put a sea tramp in a communal hallway until a bed in the indigent ward opened up. He'd been mashed up in enough local bars to know how it worked. But it also meant that he could scrounge for his clothes in private, get dressed, and scoot out without an audience. Slipping along a corridor, well lit or not, was a technique he'd perfected at the Old House. He'd have no trouble with evading nurses who thought he was still unconscious.

Within seconds of slipping out of bed, he realized that his clothes weren't anywhere. Nor his wallet, or his shoes, or those blasted keys. If he'd not dropped them, he'd have been well on his way back to the estate, buckets of paint in tow, long before whoever it was who had decked him had arrived in the paint store's parking lot. A sweat of panic bubbled up along his forehead and upper lip as he gave the room another going over. Echoes of the voice of the unknown questioner boomed in his head, Looking for dropped dimes, Loomis?

Nope. He could not place the voice. Nor find his clothes.

Standing, he wiped his palms on the front of his Johnny, and circled his fingers around the long bar of the door handle. Unlocked, the door was heavy, and he had to shift his weight to move it. Looking down, making sure his bare toes were out of the way, sending the streaming light from the hallway into the room behind him.

Some faraway voices made soft patterns down toward one end of the corridor, which might be the nurse's station. That or a coffee pot, and nurses taking a break around it, because he could smell the disinfectant being cut with the darker odor of coffee being brewed. Either way, he didn't want to try to be invisible as he sauntered past them, so he stepped out into the corridor, his feet making a soft slapping sound on the patterned and well waxed floor, letting the door snick shut behind him. Intending to go the other way, when a sound that was more like a grunt of surprise than a shout alerted him to his most definitely non-invisible state, and he pressed into a sprint.

"Loomis!"

He bolted.

Three quick strides to where he thought the back stairs must be, and there were arms around him, throwing him to the wall. His feet, somehow damp as if the soles of them were sweating, slipped. Sending him to the icy floor, hard, on his welts. His hands coming out almost automatically to push himself up, heels moving under him so he could stand. The soft pinpoints of tearing as the flesh over sealed flesh broke open. And the warm, almost molten shift of something down the back of his thigh.

Someone pulled him up. It wasn't Sheriff Patterson, it was a deputy that he did not know. And that did not know him either, apparently, if the chair by the door was anything to go by. He had been on guard, this deputy, reading the current newspaper, now folded on the seat. Perhaps the promise of coffee and a nice flirt with a sweet young thing had drawn him away from his post. Maybe he had thought Willie Loomis was an easy mark and would not run. Regardless, he would obviously be in the doghouse if his charge were to escape and so his fist gripped Willie's upper harm hard enough to tear cloth.

"Back in your room, Loomis," he said, his voice trying to sound mean beneath the breathlessness. "Nurse!"

He shoved Willie in the room, now dim in contrast to the well-lit corridor, and the nurse came running, both of them following Willie in, shutting the door behind them. He backed away from them, one hand clutching the edge of his Johnny, wanting to pull it into more cloth than it was. Fingertips brushed the edge of his thigh and came away damp. He didn't need to look to know that he was bleeding.

"Restraints, this time, officer?" asked the nurse.

"Definitely," came the clipped reply.

The nurse picked up the phone and dialed for an intern, all the while staring at Willie as if he'd interrupted her sleep rather than her coffee break. The disinfectant smell was now clouded with the smell of his own sweat, which cut through the now chilly room with a salty tang. He wanted a bath. Wanted to lie down. Wanted his clothes. Wanted to go home.

The glare the deputy gave him when he shifted on his feet told him that none of these things were going to hap-pen. In fact, the heavily muscled intern who quickly joined them seemed to imply that exactly the opposite was going to happen. Except, perhaps, the lying down part.

"But what did I--what did I do wrong?" he asked, his voice thick, tumbling over itself. "I didn't know where I was, got confused an' all? You don't need to tie me down, no sir. You c'n lock me in, if you want, I won't try to run again."

The nurse seemed to consider this option. "Officer?" she asked. Her brown eyes were not unkind, just concerned with being efficient.

"Hell no," snapped the deputy. "This is my first week on the job and I ain't gonna screw this up. Besides, didn't you tell me he fought the ambulance crew all the way here?"

Ambulance?

"Yes," said the nurse, "that's true."

Willie glanced behind him. There were shackles attached to the bed. Leather and cloth manacles, kindly lined with padded cloth, but they were shackles just the same. Stepping back, he put his hands up. "Look, I musta been out of my head on the way here. I won' cause no more trouble, okay? I just gotta get outta here, 'cause my boss--"

"Your boss has been called," said the nurse, "and the social worker is on her way."

Barnabas? Social worker?

He didn't know which was worse.

Willie's heart started to jump. Like a grasshopper in a bamboo cage, the impulse to escape drowned by the hammering sound against his ribs. Then his stomach gave a thumping heave, leaving him reeling, sweat bouncing up all over him. The nurse reached him, throwing an arm around him, scooping up a trash can for him to throw up in, the muscled intern pushing through, barely missing the stream of vomit, grabbing Willie by both arms, practically cartwheeled him over to the bed.

"Help me lift him, Larry," he said to the deputy, and Willie felt his head lolling briefly on a hard shoulder before his skin hit the sheets. And the back of his legs, he could feel the blood being wicked away by the cloth beneath him seconds before the stinging jolts of pain shafted up his spine to the back of his brain.

"No, the other way. We've got to treat him."

He didn't know who said it, only that his body began to struggle before his brain registered the words.

Tied up? Face down? With Barnabas coming? You gotta be kidding.

But it was done. With two spine cracking pushes, and each arm held down at the same time while the nurse, her brown-eyed efficiency smothered by the task at hand, buckled on the manacles and made them tight. He was face down on a hospital bed, tied up like a jerked pig, his Johnny falling down the sides of his thighs, the breathy air of the hospital room shifting over him like he was in a windstorm.

"That otta hold him," said Deputy Larry, again breathless, but sounding satisfied. "First rule they teach you, you know. Get the perps on the floor face down."

"Or in this case on the bed, face down," said the intern, his voice shifting like he thought it was funny. "I've heard about this guy. You gotta watch him every minute."

"Thanks," said Larry, friendly slapping sound punctuating this. "I'll keep that in mind."

"You gonna treat him, Ida Jo?"

"No, not yet," she said, and muffled by the edge of the pillowslip that waffled over the side of Willie's head, he could almost hear her shake her head. "The social worker wants to see the evidence for the file."

"File?"

"Yeah, somebody called it in, maybe one of the ambulance guys. They're always on the lookout for stuff like this."

"This ain't no kid, Ida Jo," said Larry.

Willie turned his head to see her shrug, and when she saw him looking at her, she reached out to pat him, pulling a light sheet over him up to his shoulder blades. "I'll get you some dressing for those legs, as soon as the social worker gives me the all clear, okay?"

He could only stare at her as his legs throbbed in response, his throat too dry to speak. The turn of the evening was like an avalanche gathering speed and size as it roared downhill, and he, riding shotgun could only hold on to shifting snow. Handfuls and handfuls of nothing but crystallized air.

The three of them left the room, leaving him in the half-dark, panting into his pillow, shivering.

The smell of his sick in the garbage pail floated through the air, and presently, someone came in and apparently took it away, leaving a clean empty one in its place. He froze when the door opened and could only take a breath when he heard the click on the floor and the voice-less someone went away. Voices in the corridor as his heart continued to pound, as if he were running, charging up a hill, or wading through deep water. He tugged at his restraints, but the effort barely rocked the bed. They were on good and proper.

Then he jumped out of his skin as the door opened, and he heard Ida Jo say, "He's in here. We had to, well, you see--"

"Yes, I see," said a voice that was not Barnabas'. But Willie could not slow his breath any more than he could slow the moon. Or the avalanche that had him firmly along for the ride.

"Willie Loomis?" asked the voice, in a soft accent that he could not place. Careful, almost silent footsteps approached the bed, and a light hand touching his shoulder. "I'm Nadine Morris, I'm the social worker in charge of your case, and--here, take a deep breath for me. Are you going to be all right? Should we take these restraints off? You're hardly in any condition...."

The voice of Nadine Morris stopped, midstream, a little gasp cutting off her words in a way that told Willie she was quite new to the life of a social worker. An old hand would have not gasped, or would have covered it with a stream of meaningless chatter to fill the void of their shock or surprise or uncertainty. He'd been in enough foster homes to know a greenhorn when he saw one.

He heard the soft thup of something being put on the ground, a purse maybe, and then the clack of a clipboard. A pen being opened, and then the whole thing balanced on the edge of his bed.

"Don't move, okay, Willie? I'm just going to…" A touch. His Johnny shifted with the cool edge of her fingertips against his hip.

"My basic medical courses," she began, obviously remembering her fill-the-silence-with-chat lecture, "tell me that you will live, but there is blood clotting these welts that broke open when Larry, well . . . Larry said . . . any-way, there are so very many welts. Can you tell me how you came by them?"

Silence filled his head as the avalanche ended, leaving him at the bottom of the hill, tumbled ass over elbows, tied up, a pounding heart, his backside sliced to ribbons, and a quiet voice asking him the one question that Barnabas would never sanction being asked. Not by anyone.

If Barnabas came . . . when Barnabas came, if she asked that of the high and mighty master of the Old House, her name would be marked on the vampire's list as a troublemaker.

Troublemakers never lasted very long in Collinsport.

Willie opened his mouth, trying to push himself up on his elbows, but being tacked down by the restraints only succeeded in shifting his Johnny so that it slipped off his right shoulder.

"Oh, no," said Nadine Morris with some dismay. "Sheriff Patterson told me about a fight in a parking lot. It looks like your shoulder is torn open as well."

He'd not even noticed. Well, in the aftermath of Barnabas' anger, a torn shoulder wasn't going to matter very much. Now, though, it began to sting, and he imagined he'd ripped it but good when whoever-it-was had punched him to the ground.

She placed her hand, light as always, on the bed next to his head. He could get a good glance at it now, sweet smelling as if she used rosewater to wash with, and long fingered. A graceful, narrow palm, stirring the cotton sheet only barely, as if she were touching a butterfly, a harp player's hand. He'd seen a harp player once, at a vaudeville show his dad had taken him to. Midway between the burlesque of the dancers and the talking wooden man with a top hat had come a harpist. Strangely out of place amidst the bravado and screaming laughter of the audience, she'd nevertheless charmed the entire place with a trio of songs, none of which Willie could remember the name of but recognized whenever he heard them. Her hands had flown across the harp like bird's wings, and now, Nadine, patting his cheek with cool fingers, took him back to that moment.

"Willie," she said. "Can you tell me what happened? Who did this to you?"

Sure, he could tell her. The room was soft, and quiet, and cool, and he opened his mouth and lifted his head to look at her. The explanation wouldn't take very long, and then after, she could take him with her when she left.

The moment vanished beneath the heavy clip of a cane on the linoleum and the click of shoe leather as Barnabas Collins announced himself into the room. Those black eyes were on him in a second as if they knew exactly what he'd been about to say. Willie's chest jumped as his heart screamed into high gear, his mouth dry, sweat springing in an icy coat along the back of his neck.

"Good evening," said Barnabas, a question in his voice for the presence of a stranger in the room standing next to his servant. "I'm Barnabas Collins. And you are?"

Nadine walked right up to him, fearless. They shook hands, because that's what ladies and gentlemen did, even if one of them was a wealthy vampire and the other one only a newbie social worker.

"I'm Nadine Morris, Mr. Collins. The social worker assigned to Willie Loomis."

"Assigned to Willie Loomis?" Willie could almost hear Barnabas' eyebrows shoot up on that one.

"To his case, I should say. I'm assigned to his case."

Nadine came back over to the bed, and there was a whispering sound that must have been Barnabas thinking out loud. "His case?"

"Yes," she said, her voice slipping into the clipped tones that Willie recognized as the let-me-explain-this-to-you-gently kind that social workers were trained to use. "He's been the victim of abuse, as you can see, someone has beaten him, and severely too. Recently. And then, on top of that, Paul Jordan, at Jordan's paint store saw, well, he was just closing up when he says someone by the name of Archibald Pound come up to Willie and punched him for no reason."

"Was there an altercation?" asked Barnabas in a way that made Willie's spine start to unravel.

"An alter--? Oh, no, definitely not," she replied. "Mr. Jordan says that this Pound fellow attacked Willie, when all Willie was doing was looking for something on the ground. Mr. Jordan says after he called the police, he came out and found some keys to a Chevy truck. Which turned out to be Willie's truck, apparently he'd dropped them. Mr. Jordan said he'd been in a terrible hurry to leave."

"I see," came Barnabas' reply, dusky tones that pack-aged the entire evening's events into one neat, tidy, Barnabas-controlled box. The vampire was smiling at Nadine Morris in that kindly, courtly gentleman way he had with young women whom he felt confidant he could control.

"Yes," said she, touching the side of the bed, so gently that Willie could barely feel the vibration of it. "But I'm more concerned about these welts. Can you shed any light on them?" Her voice had a tone to it, as though she were already asking for form's sake alone and already knew the answer.

"Welts?" asked Barnabas, as if he'd never heard the word before, let alone ever considered the notion.

They were both standing by the bed, now. Nadine flipped the sheet back for a moment, the cool air of the room circling over Willie's skin, along with the weight of Barnabas' gaze like a heavy iron clasp on the back of his neck.

A moment of silence. Willie buried his head in the pillow as she dropped the sheet back down. The sweat on his face soaked into the cloth, and he closed his eyes against the white expanse of pillowslip. His breath came in jerky gasps and would have been the loudest thing in the room, had it not been for the muffling effect of the pillow and cotton sheets.

"How very distressing," said Barnabas, in slow, level tones, as if trying to hide his dismay. "Violence against another human being goes against the core of my existence. I cannot abide--"

It was the perfect ruse, of course. Barnabas could use his voice like a fine-tuned instrument, delivering the effect he wanted it to have. Always. But in that moment, his voice broke off and Willie heard him take a breath with true harshness.

"What are these?" A stern hand plucked at the restraint on Willie's right wrist.

"Th-hey're restraints," Nadine hurried to explain, stumbling over his snapped-out question. "He tried to run, and the deputy thought that he--"

"I am removing them."

Anger, like a pure vein of black coal shot, through each word, and then Barnabas' hands were tugging at the straps, undoing the buckles on each wrist. "How disgusting to tie him as if he were an animal."

Barnabas sounded truly mad now, rather than for show, and Willie curled his fingers to each palm and pulled his hands close to his chest. Barnabas' hands were rough, his skin shied at their touch, but he didn't want Barnabas taking it into his head to grab him and yank him out of bed. Yet he was trapped there, the two of them stood between him and the door. His clothes were nowhere to be found. And Nadine Morris was about to ask the question again.

"B-barnabas?" he asked, lifting his face free of the pillow. "C'n I go home now?"

"Certainly," said Barnabas, without hesitation. "Arise and I will take you there."

The Old House was the last place he wanted to be, today or any other day. But to stay here, in the hospital, was to encourage another avalanche to start.

"Definitely not," said Nadine Morris, now, sounding as if she'd gotten her wind back. "This boy needs to be treated and his case investigated. I have been entrusted with his welfare by the State of Maine, and I intend to see that he gets the care he deserves."

Willie shifted on his side, drawing the sheet up from the bottom of his bed over his legs, all the way up to his chest. Clutched at it, blood pounding through his wrist, his legs screaming at him as he looked at the cold, drawn lines of Barnabas' face as he stood, solid and dark in the soft, electric light. Barnabas didn't like being confronted about his wants and desires. Especially not by a female upstart. Bad enough that Willie was in a hospital in the first place, now, to add legendary insult to injury, the State of Maine was insisting that he stay.

"I am his employer," Barnabas said now, lip curled down in a sneer. "I will see that he gets what he deserves. He will come home with me. It is where he belongs."

"As his employer," Nadine said, almost shouting, but not. A Barnabas trick, that. "You should be more concerned with his condition than where he happens to be. These welts are fresh, Mr. Collins, and I ask you again, do you know anything about them?"

Nadine Morris. Soon to be walked all over, dismissed, and ignored. But getting her dander up over being denied the right to exercise the power of the state, as was her due. Standing as firm as a ship's figurehead before the foam, tall, like Barnabas, eyes blazing ocean blue. Like she'd just walked out of a wave, her hair, held back in a tidy clip, streaming over her shoulders like brown seagrass filtered gold in sunlight. Tailored suit, sensible shoes, fists clenched at her sides. Not afraid of Barnabas Collins, not by any means. Even though she should be.

Willie opened his mouth to speak, when the door opened and in walked Sheriff Patterson. Hat in hand, looking sweaty and worried, as he perpetually did. Eyes lighting on Willie with a surety that he was the cause of this night's trouble. But it was almost comforting to have him there. Patterson knew the lay of the land. He would work as a good referee to keep Barnabas from killing Nadine outright.

"Well, Mr. Collins?" asked Nadine, her voice rising, sharp, as if she had enough evidence to prove that it was he who had marked up her new charge. "What do you have to say to me? Anything? Anything at all? Or are you going to play the innocent on me? I may only be a two-month intern, but believe me, I have the full weight of the State of Maine behind me."

"Nadine," said Sheriff Patterson, "I think you forget who you are speaking to. This is Mr. Collins. Of Collinsport." This last emphasized for her benefit.

Two flags of color appeared on Nadine's face. Right over high cheekbones, making her eyes darken. "And I'm Nadine Morris of Manhattan, New York, what of it? This boy is battered and bruised by a fight through no fault of his own, yet his employer seems unconcerned with this fact. He's overly thin, and not only that, he's welted from hip to heel, and has not stopped shaking since the moment I stepped into this room, and yet his employer seems more concerned with keeping me in my place than with what happened to Willie. I will get to the bottom of what happened tonight and it will be on file in Augusta by morning."

Willie could almost hear his heart thumping in the silence. A crystal silence, with Barnabas' eyes boring into Nadine as if he were contemplating how many pieces she could be cut into. Then those eyes flicked to Willie. Obsidian sharp, flaked and honed by use, and Willie pushed back against the mattress.

"Why don't we," suggested Barnabas, his voice tender with calm, "ask Willie what happened to him. After all, he was there. He can tell you what you need to know."

"He's afraid of you," said Nadine, sure and strong. Her eyes flashed to Willie and then back to Barnabas. "Why is that Mr. Collins?"

"Nadine...." said Sheriff Patterson. "Loomis has worked for Mr. Collins for many months, he would hardly do that if he were afraid."

Suave now, Barnabas looked at Nadine again. Smiled. "Ask Willie that, if you would. Ask him if he is, as you say, afraid of me. Ask him where the welts came from."

"I have already asked him," she replied, her temper not quite breaking. "And he has given me no answer. What are you going to do, Mr. High and Mighty, beat it out of him?"

"Nadine...." began Sheriff Patterson.

"I don't care if he's the supreme maharaja of Maharajaville," she said now, her voice icy, "I will not be given orders by the very man who could be implicated in Willie's condition."

"I only meant," said Patterson, soft, "that you might give Willie a chance to speak, as well." He looked at Barnabas and then Nadine and then Willie. Worrying his hat all the while. "It is true that Barnabas works Loomis pretty hard, keeps him on a tight rein, but Willie is an ex-con, if you knew the trouble he'd been in before--"

"I am only concerned with the here and now," she snapped.

"So," said Barnabas. Mild. Eyes registering her face. Her stance. The distance between their bodies. Willie could see it. Barnabas would attack her if he had to. Or would have, had Patterson not been in the room. The vampire was still ready for it, and Willie had never been so glad to have the sheriff there. "Ask Willie any-thing. Anything you like."

Willie swallowed. Nadine turned to him, those blue eyes intense and focused.

"Willie," she said.

"Yeah," he replied, his voice breathy.

"I want you to be honest with me. Nothing bad will happen to you, but I want you to tell me the truth. Okay?"

"O-okay."

She folded her long harpist's hands in front of her, as if she'd just been praying and had now dropped her hands and was finished. "Who whipped you?"

There it was. The question. Directed at Barnabas, straight as an arrow. Willie didn't dare look at Barnabas, not even for a second, though his hand clenched at the sheet for a moment as he stopped himself from touching the back of his legs. Then he looked at Barnabas anyway, at the even set of the vampire's brow, the impassive gleam in his eye. Coat still on, fingers curling around the top of the silver-headed cane, canted at an angle. Willie knew every inch of what he was looking at, though the electric light of the hospital room cast it with a glossy sheen. Saw, for a moment, what other people saw, the courtly gentleman, the kindly cousin. A soft mark for widows and orphans. Overseer of the truculent Willie Loomis.

What he didn't see was any clue as to how he should answer.

Then Barnabas nodded.

Nadine still had the flush of anger on her cheeks, like roses to bloom in the heat of summer. Willie brought up his hand to scratch at his temple. The sheet fell away, lightly touching the bruises there. Which Barnabas' fierce grip had left only last night, though they could be put off to the fight in the parking lot, or Deputy Larry's eager handling.

"It's kinda embarrassing," he began, starting slow. Not knowing what he was going to say, feeling his way through the expectant gazes of the three people he least wanted anything to do with. Now or ever.

"Barnabas, I mean, Mr. Collins, you see, he sets a store by...his roses. He's got all kinds, tea roses, and old fashioneds, and those new ones that grow and grow. Well, I was--do I have to tell this part, Barnabas?"

He looked to his employer as if for advice.

"I do not know, Willie," said Barnabas, as if he were being kind. "Since I do not know what it is you are about to tell us."

Willie mock-sighed. Or at least it began as a mockery of the real thing, and then it turned real. He did not know what time it was, but it seemed hours and hours since he'd woken up and even more hours than that since the sun had gone down. Which is when all the real trouble had begun. And his heart was still thumping. Not quite pulsing with the anxiety as it had been, but still pushing through his flesh with jumps and bolts of sharp adrenaline.

"I was, well, Barnabas had ordered a trellis, one of those metal ones that folds back, so you have a kinda curtain effect when the roses grow off it. You remember that trellis you ordered, Barnabas?"

Barnabas nodded, seeming to attend to Willie's every word with the utmost consideration, though no trellis had ever been ordered. "Well it came in finally, and I was putting it up today, you know, in the garden. Using the ladder, which I'd set in place with bricks. It wasn't gonna move, the way I set it up, but with that rain we had. . . ."

He looked at Barnabas now instead of at his hands. Barnabas was smiling. The vampire knew exactly where this was going. He knew the end of the story even before the end of it was reached.

"I was gonna wind the briers through the trellis, and I was reaching for my gloves, and, well, maybe it was the clippers, and then, well." Willie stopped. Looked up, right at Nadine, at her kind, sweet face, and saw that the shock that was opening her mouth. She knew it was a lie, all of it, and now would come the biggest part of the lie. "Well, the ladder moved in the mud and I slipped. And fell into the rose brier. The thorns tore through my clothes and I squashed it flat, I'm sorry Barnabas."

"When were you going to tell me about this?" asked Barnabas, concern flooding his voice. "Are you alright, Willie? Why didn't you tell me?"

"'mokay, Barnabas," he said, his lungs whooshing full of air now that the hardest part was over. His heart was still jumping, though, unable to slow down as if well past the memory of what a calm, normal heartbeat felt like.

"I got scraped up, like, and I messed up the brier pretty bad. Was gonna try and tack it up, an' fix it like. So you wouldn't find out, cause I know how much you like them roses. Tried messing with it all afternoon. Which is why I didn't get the painting done. Which is why I was at the paint store so late."

"I was wondering about that," said Barnabas, nodding. As if he were completely and utterly disconnected from the vampire who ranted about white paint and idiots who couldn't buy a simple can of it if their lives depended upon it.

"I don't believe it." This from Nadine, her derision clear, rolling her eyes at Barnabas as if she'd dealt with his kind before and couldn't believe it was happening again.

"You have to believe it, Miss Morris," said Barnabas, more kindly to her than he'd been all evening. "Willie would prevaricate to some, but not to me."

"It's true, Nadine," said Patterson, chiming in. He'd stopped worrying his hat, seeing now, obviously, that the weight of the argument was in the town patron's favor. "Willie can dance around the truth with anyone, even with me. But I've yet to see him pull a fast one on Mr. Collins here."

Willie's hip was going numb from being immobile, and he shifted. Not that that helped any. The blood rushing through his legs now pulsed double time through his welts. Buying the wrong color of paint had a price that was too high to pay more than once. But the movement cast three pairs of eyes upon him, and none of them were pleasant. Nadine Morris was furious, the flags of color replaced by white anger. Patterson, no longer worried, looked smug, smiling, promising retribution if Willie Loomis caused any more trouble this evening. And Barnabas. Mouth making a little motion as if he were trying not to smile at his having averted the tragedy of suspicion. Eyes glinting, even so, with a kind of liquid heat, and another promise. More certain this, more certain than anything Patterson could come up with: that if Willie did not close the story, and soon, it would be his last.

"I couldn't lie to Mr. Collins. He always finds out anyway." He shrugged as if that were the price for working for such a big, important man.

Nadine's eyebrows flew up. "And when he finds out, does he whip you, Willie?

Willie wrinkled his forehead, thinking. "Does Barnabas do what?" He looked at Barnabas as if confused and looking for guidance. As if there was something that Barnabas should have told him before he, Willie, began his employment with the guiding light of the Collins family.

In the silence, Patterson twirled his hand. Willie read loud and clear Nadine Morris' disappointment, and he felt a little piece of his heart break off for her. She'd been trying to help. Wanted to help. And now she stood there, her harpist hands twisting into each other. That smiling kind mouth now a tight line to hold back the simmering anger that flashed now in her eyes.

"Satisfied, Nadine?" asked Patterson.

To which Barnabas chimed in, "Yes, Miss Morris. With the consideration to you that you are, as you say, only doing the job that the State of Maine has appointed you to, it is of the utmost importance that you are satisfied in this matter."

She didn't seem to have any trouble following this long string of words, not at all. She shook her head once, and eyed Willie as if he were a new breed of trouble. "I am writing up this incident, just the same. I was called out here by a paramedic, and it is my duty to make a note of it. It will be kept on record, and in one month's time, I will make a follow-up visit with Willie and you, Mr. Collins, to ensure that his supposed state of satisfaction remains that way. Do I make myself clear?"

Her voice held the power of her conviction, and with anyone else, her opponent would have been flattened. Conciliatory with defeat, and dancing with an eagerness to please. However, it was not her fault that her first major encounter was with Barnabas Collins. He tilted his head in a bow, and smiled. "I assure you that I look forward to that meeting with great eagerness."

Leaving no doubt in Willie's mind that were Miss Morris to remain untouched, being saved only by the publicness of her position, the records in Augusta would, during one months' time, be lost in the vacuum and dust of all such records. Misfiled by an idle and sloppy clerk, perhaps. Or be considered by someone to be not important enough to take up a quarter inch space in the L file drawer. Willie did not know which it would be in Barnabas' mind to justify or explain it. Only that it would happen. Eventually. He just hoped that in the meantime, Nadine would reconsider her career choice. Or get married. Social workers, the ones he'd known, were quickly ground into the dust by the demands of their position. Especially ones that cared too much. Wore their heart on their sleeve with such passion. Had harpist hands and a gentle touch.

Run, Miss Morris. While you still can.

"He will be properly treated before he is released from this hospital," said Nadine, turning to Barnabas.

"Certainly," he replied.

Barnabas reached out to shake her hand, but she tilted her chin at him, and gathered up her things. The clipboard went back in her big purse, and she slung it over her shoulder. Reached out to pat Willie on his forearm, her fingertips like a butterfly's kiss.

"Take care, Willie Loomis," she said, her moment of knowing him seared like a bright gem in her eyes. "I won't forget you."

He tried smiling at her, but felt some-thing twitch at his lip. It was too hard to smile, much easier to nod. He'd find him-self screaming for mercy if he so much as moved a muscle, as well. He knew that. With her standing there, and help so close. That genuine concern in her eyes, brave enough to confront Barnabas about what was right. Only inches away, and he could never ask her or tell her the truth. Desperation rose, climbing like an unbagged-snake.

"You okay, Willie?" she asked, her hand staying in its course along his arm. A warmer clasp now, her heartbeat shadowing through his skin.

"Yeah," he said, his voice coming out husky. "'m just tired, is all. Wanna go home."

"As you will," said Barnabas, "as soon as the nurse has seen to you, per Miss Morris' instructions." He bowed to her, a tip of his head, and smiled.

Nadine clutched her arms around her purse, gave one last smile to Willie and strode past Barnabas and the sheriff without another word. In one month's time, Willie would never see her again, even in one month's time, but now he could not even say goodbye. Only watch the sea-grass sway of her hair over her shoulders as she pulled at the heavy door and slipped into the corridor. Willie could hear a faint call for a nurse, and let his gaze drift to Barnabas. Frozen, like a mouse trapped by a snake.

"Thank you, Sheriff," said Barnabas, "you were indeed a help with Miss Morris. Overly educated women can be such a trial."

Patterson nodded, twirling his hat, and opened his mouth to speak.

"And now, if you would be so kind, I should like to speak to Willie alone."

Willie tried to tell himself that his heart did not sink straight into his gut, but he could practically hear the thump of it landing. Boom. Like a death knell of a single, hard note. As soon as the door closed behind Patterson, Willie took a breath.

"Be quiet," said Barnabas. It came out a hiss as the vampire stepped up to the bed and with one hand reached out and grabbed Willie by the back of his head. Hairs entwined with those hard fingers, roughly pulled, and Willie was forced up, half sitting, feeling the strain on his welts as they broke anew. The sheet fell away, the Johnny only a bare cotton shield now, Barnabas' face only inches from his own.

"Had you said anything other than what you did, you would have been removed from this bed a dead man."

He felt the vampire's breath on his face, a cold, bitter shift of air.

"Yes, Barnabas," Willie whispered, lips dry.

Barnabas released him with a flick and a shove and Willie fell back on the bed, shifting himself up on his elbow and scooting himself to the far edge as much as he could. Not that he could ever move far enough to be out of Barnabas' reach, but if the vampire was in a grabbing-and-throwing mood, the extra distance would, maybe, slow him down or give him pause.

"Your story lacked conviction, but that is to be expected from a manservant," Barnabas was saying now, starting a slow pace back and forth across the hospital floor alongside Willie's bed.

Willie watched him, moving only his eyes to keep the vampire in his line of sight. His heart would not slow down. And the back of his legs were screaming at him now, being so rucked about, and landed on and pushed and moved, they'd had enough. Willie had had enough, looking at the door to see if it would open soon, and then back to Barnabas. Raw nerve endings or bleeding on hospital sheets were the least of his worries.

"P-please, Barnabas--"

"You will be quiet." Barnabas stopped, mid-pace, his fist right next to Willie's head. "You will be quiet and you will listen to me. You will calm your nerves this instant."

"Yes, Barnabas," he whispered, wild shots of some-thing that felt white and hot scattering through his heart.

"When the nurse comes, you will allow her to administer whatever lotions or liquids she cares to. You will resist all blood tests, of course. And then you will demand that I take you home. I will not have you over-night here, is that clear?"

Willie let his head fall to the pillow, pulling up the sheet in a half-tired gesture, stopping it when he realized what he was doing. Cutting off the vampire, closing his eyes, turning away, which was not permitted. He opened his eyes, but found that he could not summon any strength to lift up his head.

"Is that clear?"

"Yes, Barnabas." It was all he could manage. Surely the vampire knew it?

Barnabas nodded. "I will send in the nurse, and wait outside in the corridor for you."

Willie could let his head stay on the pillow now as Barnabas left the room, the muscles in his neck almost relaxing. Almost, because he was not home yet. Not by a long shot.

Before the door could close behind the vampire, the nurse was in the room, carrying a tray of different kinds of treatment, which she planted on the swinging table and moved closer the bed. It was Ida Jo.

"I'll be quick, if you'll be cooperative."

Willie nodded. Yes, he'd cooperate. Barnabas had said so.

"On your stomach, then, please."

Willie did as he was told, feeling the hollowness of his stomach gurgle as his weight shifted on it. Folded his arms on top of the pillow and sank his head inside of them. The sting and swell of each welt as it was exposed to the bare air.

He could feel Nurse Ida Jo pulling down the sheet, peeling apart the Johnny, loosening the ties. A cold, not ungentle touch as she pressed what felt like the tips of her fingers against a welt.

"These keep pulling apart, but we'll get you patched in a jiffy, Willie," she said. "I've got just the stuff to fix you up."

Willie believed her. He had seen it in her eyes how seriously she took her job. Brown eyes, detached and calm and that crisp, pert nurse's hat whose sharp edges spoke of much ironing and starching.

She started with something that stung, leaving Willie's eyes watering madly while she did it. Not as bad as the salt water that Barnabas applied, not by a long shot. But hard, hard enough to clean, smelling like iodine, and feeling like it as well. Then something cool, that she applied with long strokes, almost sending him to sleep, except when she would catch a jagged edge of skin. These she clipped with quick snips, jerking Willie into wakefulness with each one.

"They'll heal better with a clean edge," she said. "I'll give you something to kill the pain, after."

More long strokes, not sending him into sleep anymore, but waking him right up, smelling like a juniper tree berry and feeling like whatever she was putting on him was soaking right into the skin.

She swiped something along his upper thigh. "Here you go, painkiller, straight up."

It was a shot, something to kill the pain, and he sighed. Knowing that hospital-administered painkillers went straight into the system, instead of taking half an hour to work like the over the counter stuff did.

Then she pricked him again, and he twisted his head to see what she was doing.

"I'm going to take a blood sample to make sure you aren't on the verge of getting blood poisoning or anything. The doctor can tell you--"

Willie reached back, and with one quick, unthinking move, grabbed the heft of the tube, half filled with his blood, pulled the needle out of his leg and hurled the entire mess against the far wall. It shattered with high notes, as if it were made of fine crystal, and splattered red across the metal grey of the door.

"Oh!" said Ida Jo, shocked out of her efficiency. "Of all the--Willie Loomis, I will take a blood sample and you will let me. Do you understand? Or I will get your boss, that nice Mr. Collins, and he'll make you!"

"Get him," said Willie, his throat almost closing up with his rage. He sat up in the bed, ignoring the pressure of his weight against the back of his legs, the pain was fast fading anyway. "And get my clothes while you're at it. I'm going home."

Ida Jo stood up, the edges of her pert hat still crisp, but her brown eyes muddied by her confusion. "I will get Mr. Collins, I will," she threatened. "And you're supposed to stay overnight. For observation."

"Do it," said Willie, pushing back the swinging table and standing up. Tubes and bloodied cloth and the scissors fell off and clattered to the floor, but he marched over them. Advancing on her. And she, backing up. All the way to the door.

"Do it," he said again. "Do it now. Go get him. Ask him. He'll tell you. No blood tests."

Willie couldn't be sure, absolutely sure, that Barnabas would back him up on this one. Not after the last blood test fiasco, when the vampire had seemingly switched sides in a fast dance to outwit the doctor, leaving Willie to stagger in his wake, confused. And hurt, even, that Barnabas would not entrust him with the entire plan.

"No blood tests," he ground out. "And bring my goddamn clothes. Now!"

With a little shriek she pulled open the door, shouting for Barnabas in a high voice. Barnabas would come and would either bully Willie into giving blood, even after giving him strict instructions to the contrary, or he would back Willie to the hilt and carry Willie out of the hospital. Stark naked if necessary.

Willie found he was shaking now, standing in the empty space between bed and doorway. In front of the bathroom where the light that shone on him brightened up the mirror like a painting at the end of a dark hallway. His face was white, eyes glittering back at him as Barnabas' sometimes did, cutting through darkness or candlelight with equal sharpness. He could not see the backs of his thighs, but he did not want to. His mouth was frowning into a thin line, his shoulders square, the Johnny shifting off him, moving like silk instead of the cheap cotton that he was. In a second, or even less, he would be completely naked. Not a good idea. Even if everyone beneath the hospital roof professed a certain acquaintance with the human form in the altogether, Willie did not want to be caught by Barnabas that way. Felt too much like exposing the softest flesh for a vampire's rampage.

Catching the tail ends of the Johnny as it slithered off him, he pulled it up to hid neck and turned away, so that he could not see himself in the mirror anymore. Tied the first tie around his neck, and then the second, and then reached back to gather the Johnny closed, just as the door opened. It was Barnabas, and the nurse, with his clothes, and a doctor he'd never seen before.

"I assure you," Barnabas was saying, "that should he show he slightest sign of fever, I will call for you at once."

The trio stopped inside the room, the doctor staying in the doorway, his expression saying that he resented being called from some obviously more important matter to tend to the trouble presented by the obstinate caretaker of the Old House up at Collinwood.

"As you wish, Mr. Collins," said the doctor. "Ida Jo, give that man his clothes and get back to work. And next time there's a problem? Don't go screaming down the hall-way, it isn't professional. And clean up this mess." He snapped the door shut behind him, seemingly not troubled by its weight.

Now chastened, cheeks flaring with color, Ida Jo handed Willie his pile of clothes. Roughly, eyes flashing her dislike of him.

"There," she said. "Happy now?"

Willie didn't say anything in return, not with Barnabas standing right there. Not with the pounding in his head, either. He felt tired enough to drop, but didn't know if Barnabas was finished with him yet.

She stormed out of the room, not waiting for Barnabas' courteous thank you, or even one final sneer in Willie's direction.

"You may get dressed now," said Barnabas. "I will take you home."

There was a small pause, as Willie waited, then discovered with some abashment, that Barnabas was not leaving.

"Now, Willie."

He could only but obey. Barnabas was not in a mood to respond well to being asked to leave so that a lowly manservant could dress in privacy. Not ever and especially not now. Willie felt the back of his neck slick up with sweat, but there was no help for it. Barnabas would get an eyeful of his handiwork, if that's what he wanted, but Willie made himself not care. Not easy, though, as he moved to the bed and put the pile of clothes on top. Shed the Johnny with quick movements, letting it fall in a cloudy puddle at his feet. Pulling on his underwear and socks first, all while standing, knowing it would be hell to sit. Tugged his t-shirt over his head, still sweat stained from his earlier whipping, smelling like it hadn't been laundered in months. And then his pants. Having to bend over to pull them on made him grunt. Low in his lungs, an unwilling sound, one that should have been lost in the soft, low purr of his zipper being raised.

"That will teach you, will it not?" asked Barnabas. "And hopefully cure you of any future independent thought, if you would but remember it."

Willie picked up his cotton button-down shirt and pushed his arms through the sleeves. Considered for a moment leaving it at that, but knew that any deviation from Barnabas' dress code for servants would earn him another whipping. Especially at this time of night. He buttoned the cuffs and then fastened the front and tucked it all in, fastening his belt, and then lifting his head as if for inspection. Barnabas turned on his heel, and pulled the door open and Willie followed him, walking a step behind, as a servant should. Ignoring the pairs of eyes that trailed after them as they made their way down the corridor. Then down the stairs to the first floor, and even out to the parking lot.

Then Barnabas turned to face him, tall against the shadows cast by the streetlight. Towering over Willie with a grim expression, his cane held tightly in one hand.

"You will now walk to the paint store and collect your truck. You will return home. And then," here Barnabas paused, eyes glinting down at him as if making sure he had his servant's full attention. "Tomorrow," he paused to emphasize the word, "tomorrow you will repaint the trim on the third floor landing. With the correct paint."

"Tomorrow?" asked Willie, not believing his ears. That meant he could go home and go to bed. He wanted to ask why, but clamped his jaw shut against the impulse. Better not to question why, and follow a madman's orders, than have the vampire's tempest and full fury come down squarely on his head.

"Tomorrow. Yes, Barnabas."

The vampire strode off across the hospital parking lot, and Willie watched him go. Stood watching until the vampire's shadow was no more than a memory beneath the flickering electric lights.

*

By the time he pulled into the driveway of the Old House, his spine felt permanently fused to the bottom of his skull, rusted stiff like metal flagpole too long exposed to sea air. Going through the kitchen door, ignoring the fusty smell of damp and dirt rising up from the floor-boards, he slipped down the hallway in the dark, not bothering to light a candle to ease his way. His eyes were mostly closed anyway, screwed up against the exhaustion ripping through him with indecent ease, and his feet knew the way. Knew every board, every squeak of the stairs. Willie wanted to avoid Barnabas, if he was even around, and a lit candle would have been to the vampire the boldest, most imprudent signal. Let him forget that he had a servant, even if only for a little while.

He reached his room only by the starlight he brought with him, from the vaguely remembered drive home, the spear points of light that flickered behind his pounding headache. And the back of his legs, the painkiller had not worn off, but it would. Eventually. He wanted to be flat on his stomach, in bed and asleep, when that happened. Closing the door behind him, he sighed. Lit the courting candle and peeled off his clothes. Everything smelled medicinal, as if someone had soaked his clothes in some-thing to clean them. But they were still dirty, so he knew it was just his mind playing tricks on him. He let the clothes fall to the floor, and crawled naked between the sheets. It was summer enough to forgo the fire, or socks to warm his feet, and even if he was still shivering, did not feel as if he could ever stop, he would rather not have any-thing binding him, even in sleep. His wrists still tingled from the manacles' grip, and jaws singing slightly from the smack he'd earned earlier from Barnabas or the punch from the guy on the street. Willie rolled onto his stomach and rested his head on his arms. Was there any part of him that did not ache?

With a shudder, his body jerked itself to relax, the thumps of his heart slowing pace by pace, but snail slow, as if it expected that it would, at any second, start speeding up again. Had been happening all evening, Willie could not really blame it. And now, now in the quiet, the welts on his legs stirred a bit. Blood thrumming through them as if only whispering now. Later, in the morning, it would be a shout, but now it was so quiet he could pretend to ignore it. And concentrate instead on a pair of ocean blue eyes burning with the passion to defend and protect. Sea-grass hair bound by a clip only because it wanted to be. And a harpist's hands, moving the air as if to summon heaven's breath for Willie to inhale into his lungs.

You're loosing it, man.

Yeah. Loosing it. But, having lost it long since, what did it matter?

It didn't. Nadine Morris was history. Yesterday's news. She would not be able to do more than she had done, even if she were to come back in a month. Barnabas would spin the tale he wanted her to hear, she would be forced to drop any investigation, and though Willie knew he would probably be spared any whippings in the days to come, he had no doubt in his mind that on the very next day after her visit, if she came, any twitch out of place, any misspoken word, any . . . any anything would have Barnabas fast delivering the punishment that he'd been saving up for some thirty-odd days. And Willie did not relish the prospect. Barnabas denied any of his wishes or wants was a nasty promise that Willie knew would be kept.

He yawned, his body finally reaching a point where it wanted to shut everything down. His brain was reaching the same conclusion, his thoughts skipping around from Nadine's blue eyes, to the back of Barnabas' hand slicing through the air to meet his face. The cooling ointment beneath Ida Jo's touch, and the soft sweet smell of rose water as Nadine patted the mattress beside his head.

Go to sleep now, Willie, she said. I'll be looking out for you. I won't forget you.

But I'll forget you. I have to. Otherwise I'll go mad.

Though it wasn't a certainty that he hadn't done that already.

Below him in the Old House, he heard a door open and close. Footsteps, in even treads, along the hallway and into the front room. The faraway snap of a match being lit, the faint sizzle of a candle being lit.

You're not really hearing that, you know. You just think you are.

That had to be true, for how could someone half asleep hear the sounds of a candle flame? But it was enough that he heard it. The back of his neck eased out of tension, the muscle lifting from bone. The weight of his head like bricks in a sack, and the slight pulse of a vein on his hand beneath his cheek. He shifted the hand, moved it under the pillow, and took a breath.

Goodnight, Nadine, wherever you are. And thanks.

A gentle breath, and a sigh, somewhere, an echo in his head, not real, not possibly real, and the soft dusk of rosewater on warm skin. And then the blackness of sleep, sweet and still and quiet.

 

~The End~