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The Blind Auction Diversion

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"Today?" Willie's voice rose on the question higher than he'd meant it to, and he tried to sigh the tone away, but caught the edge of Barnabas' cold glare just the same. "But it's raining and I was planning on refinishing--"

"Enough," said Barnabas, holding up his hand. "I just found out about this other piece and the deadline for the blind auction is today. The armoire will keep."

This took Willie aback. He'd not thought that Barnabas ever noticed any of his little projects that he did on his own, especially not ones he had tucked away in one of the half-finished bedrooms. The sudden image of Barnabas prowling around the house while Willie slept, taking notes and not missing a thing, snapped him to attention.

The vampire handed him an envelope, the contents of which were mostly inside of it, except for a picture. Willie took it, his eyes falling on the image of a curious tri-angle-shaped table with thick, twisting scrollwork on the edges, and smooth, rounded legs. The surface, even in the badly lit photograph, was scarred and dry, but he could see that beneath the layer of carelessly removed paint it was solid cherry.

"Well, okay," he said to the picture, "I was going into Bangor anyway today, so I guess--"

"The estate office for this piece is in Portland," said Barnabas, interrupting him. "And this table looks exactly like the one that my mother possessed before my parents moved into Collinwood."

Here the vampire paused, drifting them both into a silence that caused Willie to look up in alarm. But Barnabas was looking at the picture in Willie's hands, his expression still and almost unreadable. As the vampire tipped his head forward it seemed to Willie that the darkness of the room softened the hardness of his face.

"I believe it is the same piece," he said at last.

The odds against it being the table the vampire's mother had owned were so high that Willie did not dare speak his doubts aloud. It was better to let the table speak for itself, once it arrived, as to whether or not it had once sat in the Old House. Then Barnabas could chuck it into the fireplace if he'd a mind to and it would have nothing to do with Willie.

"Okay, Barnabas," Willie said, tucking the picture in the envelope with the rest of the papers, "I'll head up to Portland after I take care of things around here."

The drive to Portland was normally around three hours in good weather. He didn't figure it would be much more than that, even in the rain. If he hurried. Which he probably wouldn't. Plus he needed to get some sleep first as he'd spent the entire night polishing every piece of marble in the Old House, from all the fireplaces to the inlaid plates of marble in the library. Barnabas had suddenly remembered that this needed to be done and had charged Willie to make haste. As if there were any reason for it, which there wasn't. But experience had taught Willie to keep his mouth shut and so he did. And spent the night with his hands in paste, newspapers spread around, and his knees aching from kneeling. At least it was a job that didn't need doing often, and he had to admit that the fire-places looked brand new and caught the candlelight in such a way as to make the dusty darkness of the Old House almost festive and pleasant.

At dawn, he led Barnabas down to the basement, holding the candelabra high and stifling his yawns against his shoulder. Once the vampire was safely ensconced, he stumbled up the stairs, lit the candle by his bed, and fell into it, the sound of rain against the window soothing him into a hard sleep.

When he awoke, he knew it must be around noon, as the room was lit by the eerie glow of the sun coming through grey, coastal clouds. Still plenty of time to get to Portland well before the deadline of five o'clock, which was the deadline for blind auctions in the estate office in Bangor anyway. He shuffled down the stairs, absently scratching his ribs and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The Old House came slowly awake around him as he built up the fire in the cast-iron stove, the vast wood frame moving against the aging foundations as the heat from the stove reached it.

He made himself some black coffee and pulled one of the kitchen chairs close to the stove to sit on while he drank it. And wondered at the peacefulness of the Old House that came when Barnabas was asleep for the day. Not a perfect silence to be sure, not with the house in constant motion about him, not with the sea sending breezes to keen through the branches of the trees outside or whistle through any chink in the Old House's armor. But it was a good silence, one made of the burble of the coffee on the stove, the hiss and spit of the embers, and the sigh of his breath, warm in the cool air as it passed over the surface of hot, black coffee.

If only it could always be like this.

At least he had a nice little road trip coming. Three hours out, a bit of time in Portland, and then three hours back. More than six hours without Barnabas looking at him or shouting for him or anything. In addition to which, Barnabas had no real concept of how long it really took to get to Portland and back, so Willie knew he could actually take longer if he liked. Stop for a nice, hot meal on each leg of the trip and hand over the receipts with impunity.

With this thought in mind, he made his way upstairs to his room to finish dressing, then brought his coat downstairs to warm in the kitchen while he gave himself a quick shave with barely warmed water. Not even stopping to leave a note, as Barnabas would surely remember where he had gone, he grabbed the keys and stepped out into the rainy yard.

The truck's engine rumbled to life and he sat there in the driveway for a minute, letting the engine warm up before he turned on the heat.

What am I missing?

Oh.

He carefully set the truck in neutral, jammed on the parking brake, and went back inside the Old House for the envelope with the necessary papers. It was lying on the kitchen table where he'd left it the night before. Checking to make sure there was a readable address, he slipped the envelope inside of his jacket and zipped it up, bracing himself again for the chill air outside. The benefit, of course, was that the truck was now warm as toast, much warmer than the Old House ever got in winter, and he slid into the front seat with a sigh.

As he drove down the road toward town and the intersection that would take him southwest to Portland, he thought he might even stop at the Collinsport Inn for some sandwiches and hot coffee to go.

The rain-slicked roads had done their best to slow him down, and every logging truck in the state had decided that today was the day to transport their heaviest, bulkiest loads along exactly the route that Willie needed to take. He'd been okay for a while, chewing on ham and butter sandwiches while driving one handed, listening to the radio and relaxing, but as the day had inched toward three o'clock, and then four o'clock, he started getting antsy. Normally if he was late on an errand and the shop or dock had closed before he got there, he'd just find a cheap motel and start out first thing in the morning, not that it was any fun facing Barnabas' wrath over such a dalliance. Missing the deadline, however, on a piece of furniture such as the triangle table would earn him a far worse fate, he was sure.

Laying down the half-eaten sandwich on the seat, he eased the truck toward the middle of the road and peered through the dappled fog created by the truck in front of him. He had at least 30 minutes worth of driving before he got to the edge of Portland, then maybe 15 or so minutes to the estate office, which only gave him 15 minutes lee-way. He waited while a trio of cars zipped past and until there was a good straight stretch of road. Then he hit the gas and hung on to the wheel, steering the truck to the opposite lane, wishing with all his heart that there was a real passing lane. Wouldn't it be just too ironic if he got killed here on the road after all that had happened to him in the safe confines of the Old House?

But luck was with him as he was well ensconced on the correct side of the road before he encountered any traffic going the other way. And the rain was letting up. And he could see the Portland city limit sign.

He made it to the estate office with a good ten minutes to spare, pulling into a parking place with a squeal of tires. When he bounced through the estate office's front door, the jangle of bells announced his presence completely, and he was instantly greeted by a clerk from behind the long wooden counter.

"May I help you, sir?"

Willie pulled the envelope from his jacket pocket and smiled at the thought of being called sir. Portland was too far from Collinsport for anyone to really know who he was.

"Yes, my good man," he replied loftily. "I have in my possession a bid for a blind auction."

"Certainly, sir," said the clerk, taking him at his word. He held out his hand.

Willie gave him the entire envelope, picture and all, placed his hands on the edge of the counter, and waited. This wasn't going to take long at all, he knew it wasn't, and he would drive back to Collinsport and the Old House as slowly as possible. Maybe not even get back before mid-night.

Gosh, Barnabas, the roads were terrible. There was nothing I could do.

The clerk, one Walter Thompson, according to his nameplate, unloaded the contents of the envelope, his overly oiled hair slipping forward a bit. He spread the papers out on the counter in front of him and then, after a minute, shook his head. His hair slid back into place.

He looked up at Willie.

"What?"

"This deadline has already passed," said the clerk in a polite voice.

"What?" asked Willie again. "What do you mean passed?"

Walter shrugged and pushed the pile of papers in Willie's direction. "I mean that the deadline," he said slowly, "has passed."

Willie pushed the papers back at the clerk. "You gotta be mistaken, the deadline is five o'clock, and it's not even that now."

They both looked at the clock, which read 4:55, and then they looked at each other.

"You are correct, sir, it's not yet five o'clock, but the deadline for this bid was at noon."

Willie grabbed the papers up before the clerk had a chance to shove them at him again. He scrambled through them, looking for the bid information sheet, ignoring the picture of the triangle table as it slipped to the counter top. Walter picked it up.

"Oh, I know this piece," he said, "a local craftsman to be sure, late 18th century."

A groan built up inside of Willie, but he swallowed it and tried to concentrate on what he was reading. And there, in black and white, was the information he'd neglected to look at earlier. Deadline: noon. But why? The deadline at the Bangor estate office was always five o'clock. Always.

"Why the hell you guys close your bids at noon?" The question shot out of him.

Walter didn't even bother being polite anymore. "We've always closed at noon," he snapped, as if at Willie's ignorance. "Always."

A fever chill swept down from the ceiling. Outside the rain had started again, and it was suddenly darker, as though behind the veil of clouds the sun was setting.

"Couldn't you--"

"No," said the clerk before Willie'd had a chance to properly begin. "I will not alter a bid's receipt time. More than my job's worth if I do," he finished, nodding his chin with a snapping motion.

"More than my life's worth if you don't!" shouted Willie back. This stupid clerk had no idea, no idea at all what had just happened.

The phone rang, and jerking his chin, Walter stepped back to answer it. He was talking into the phone and obviously didn't give a hang about any-thing except following the instructions of his job to the letter. Willie gathered the pieces of paper together with shaking hands, the dampness of his palms sticking to the paper and the gilt letterhead of the estate office, his eyes falling at last on the picture of the triangle table.

It was a beautiful little piece, and he'd been looking forward to restoring it to its former glory. It didn't matter whether or not the thing had actually belonged to Barnabas' mother; Barnabas had been fully prepared to believe that it had. And because of that, he was going to be unrelenting in his fury about Willie's failure, and Willie found he had no idea how he was going to break it to the vampire. No idea at all.

"You Mr. Loomis?" Willie looked up. The clerk was holding out the receiver of the phone to him. "Huh?" "I said, are you Mr. Loomis. There's a phone call for you."

A phone call? In Portland? He knew no one in Port-land. And no one knew he was in Portland, no one except--

"Tell them I've already gone," he said without thinking, which was pure foolishness as the clerk was already saying, "Yes, Mr. Collins, he's here," into the phone and handing it over. The clerk laid the black, round-edged phone and the receiver on the counter and stepped away.

"I can give you a few minutes," said Walter, "but I've got to close up soon."

Willie nodded, his eyes closing as he put the receiver to his ear. "Hello?" he asked, his voice sounding strangled to his ears.

"Loomis?" asked a voice. It was Roger.

Oh, God.

His stomach lunged at this reprieve. "Yeah?"

"Cousin Barnabas is here, absolutely frantic about his bid, and he was somewhat reluctant to let me help, but I managed to convince him that a quick phone call was the fastest way to put his mind at ease."

"Uh-huh," said Willie to this stream of rapid and clipped speech.

"He wants to talk to you," said Roger, "and please, please, Loomis, do say something to calm him down, or we'll be doing nothing but discussing antique furniture the entire evening."

Then the line went silent as Roger stepped away.

In that moment, Willie's hand, frozen next to his face on the receiver, went absolutely numb. He couldn't feel the texture of the plastic in his palm nor even the weight of it. Somewhere below the blankness of his head his body went into escape mode. White heat shot through his stomach and his knees began knocking ever so gently together. He felt as if he were balancing on his toes, that he was falling forward, and he reached out and grabbed the counter with his free hand.

"Willie."

It was that voice, coming through the phone wire, the distance and modern technology altering it not at all.

"Willie," said the voice again, Barnabas' voice, dark and strong all at once, and waiting.

Willie's reply was a garbled one, his breath catching in his throat, and he heard Barnabas as if from a distance.

"Are you sure this is working, Roger? I am unable to hear anything."

Somewhere in his mind the idea of Barnabas standing in the foyer of Collinwood with the phone in one hand and extreme puzzlement on his face was darkly funny. Willie couldn't recall a single time that Barnabas had ever used a phone, but that only proved how worked up the vampire was about this table. That he would march at sun-set to Collinwood itself and be in such a state that Roger would offer to make a long distance call for him. That Barnabas would allow it.

Willie shuddered.

"Willie?" It was Barnabas again, stern and irritated. "Willie, are you there?"

The vampire would not appreciate looking like a fool in front of his cousins or Miss Winters and it displayed in his voice. Willie took a deep breath and tried again.

"B-Barnabas, y-yeah, I'm here."

"Were you able to place the bid for that table?"

Right to the heart of the matter, of course. No how are you, or how was the drive, but direct to the point of this jolly little outing now crumbling into a disaster around him.

Willie shook his head, realizing only distantly that Barnabas could not see him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Walter looking at him with some alarm. He tried taking a true, solid breath, tried unhunching his shoulders, anything to grasp at some form of normalcy in front of the stranger behind the counter. But nothing worked. His breath was jagged in his throat, and for all that he felt so cold, his forehead was filmed with a sweat that came away in his palm as he pushed his hair back.

"Well?" asked the vampire sharply.

Willie's whole world became focused on the black half circle of plastic tucked against his chin. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a painful gurgle of air.

"What did you just say?" demanded Barnabas.

Willie hadn't said anything, anything at all, but he could almost see the expression Barnabas would be wearing at this moment, the dark brows narrowing the vampire's eyes to slits, the mouth frowning and cruel, the skin over the cheekbones tightening.

"Let me speak to the clerk," snapped Barnabas, and Willie jerked the phone away from his ear and held it out, wordlessly. Apparently the look on his face was enough for Walter, as he jumped out of his seat immediately and took the phone.

"Northbrook Estate Agency, this is Walter Thompson, can I help you?"

Then the clerk listened in silence for a minute, and then said, "Yes sir," followed by a "no, sir," which was followed by a "the bid closed at noon, sir, but Mr. Loomis did not arrive until just before five o'clock. Sir."

Barnabas must have said something harsh and dire for Walter jumped, his eyes going wide, and he thrust the phone back at Willie. Willie took it, his eyes closing once more as he put the receiver to his ear.

"You are to come directly home, Willie. Now."

Then the line went dead.

He was in so much trouble it wasn't even funny. Not only had he failed in his duty to Barnabas, the entire Collins clan was on hand to witness his misdeed. Handing the phone back Walter and gathering the papers up from the counter gave him something to do while he ignored Walter's expression of sympathy.

"He was pretty upset about that table, I guess," said Walter.

"I guess," replied Willie shortly. Upset didn't even begin to describe it. He shoved the envelope in his jacket pocket and fingered the keys to the truck in his hands. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, he listened as the clerk locked the door behind him. The sound was so small but so finite, locking him out in the wet, drizzly world with only one course of action open to him.

Towns became just blips in his headlights, glowing shapes in the rain as he steered the truck through them. Rockport, Belfast, Ellsworth, and then past the exit sign for Bar Harbor, to follow the two-lane highway that would take him to the sea's edge and Collinsport. A three-hour drive had gone by in mere seconds, and he on the road for-ever, driving toward something that burned in the darkness, cut through the sheets of rain, and pulled him close. By the time he was on the cutoff from the black-topped road on the Collins' estate and the tires hit the dirt lane that led to the Old House, he couldn't stop driving even if he wanted to. Was unable to steer the tires in any direction other than the Old House.

Home, Barnabas had called it. If Willie'd been able to stop shaking he would have laughed as he pulled to a stop next to the Old House and laid his head against his hands as they gripped the steering wheel. It was no home, it was a shell made of wood and stone and plaster, and it echoed with the long-dead voices of those who had lived and hated and died.

I don't . . . oh, God, I don't want to go in there.

Rain hit the roof of the truck cab in high, metallic waves. His windshield had become a watershed, the rain making the darkness darker through its shimmering liquid curtain.

His world had narrowed to two choices, both of which sat heavily in his stomach making him wish he'd not eaten at all, let alone ham and butter sandwiches hours earlier. Either he could stay out in the truck, in the rain, and wait for Barnabas, which would make the vampire even more angry than he already was. Or he could go inside and face up to the dirge of his horrible mistake, and hope against hope that it would be enough.

It won't be. It never is.

Something slammed in the darkness and he was bolt upright and staring through the sheet of rain on his wind-shield before he realized that it was a loose shutter. Only that and nothing more, though it was still echoing in his head, reminding him that if there were doors to be slammed, it would be Barnabas doing the slamming and there would be no mistaking it for anything else. His heart hammered, slowing down only through great effort and deep breaths.

There was no help for it. The rain was coming down harder now and with the engine off and the heater shut down, the interior of the truck was so cold he could feel the shivers start from deep inside his bones. His teeth clamped together only made his muscles shake harder, and he knew he had to go inside. Go inside and hide, maybe. Find a dark, dry spot and duck his head and hide.

As if Barnabas would have any trouble at all in finding him.

He uncircled his fingers from the steering wheel and took the keys out of the ignition. Getting out of the truck and attempting to dodge raindrops was only an exercise in futility, and by the time he'd gotten in through the kitchen door, he was soaked through. And the house was totally dark. Which meant that Barnabas was at Collinwood still, standing next to the enormous fire, talking someone's ear off, probably Roger's, and pretending to drink their fine brandy.

Soaked through with no fire and no brandy, Willie fumbled for the box of matches that he knew was on the ledge above the stove. He found it with one hand and the candlestick with the other, and set the candle on the top of the ice-cold stove to light it. One flick against the box and the single blue-edged flame flared up in the darkness, and as Willie lit the candle, he looked up to see someone standing there in the darkness.

With a sharp cry, Willie's arm moved out and he knocked the candle over and the match fell to the floor and burned out almost instantly, leaving him once again in the chilly and total darkness of the Old House. With the vampire standing by, watching him, a black angel in the dark, his face glowing white at the back of Willie's eyes, which still echoed the single spark of the match as it went out.

"Light the candle, Willie," said Barnabas. And Willie heard the sharp footstep as the vampire took a step closer. And then another.

Instantly Willie went to his knees, his hands sweeping out across the rough, icy floor. Grit and dust bit into his palms, the cold metal of the candlestick just beyond his reach, and then the sound of another footstep nearer to him now, and it seemed that the blackness was taking solid shape above him. He froze, tucking his shoulders in closer to his body, tucking his head to his chest. He was shaking so hard he couldn't think, so cold he could barely feel the floorboards beneath his knees, water from his hair drip-ping into his eyes.

"You will do as I say."

Something brushed against the top of Willie's head, and he made a sound that was so like a whimper that he clamped his mouth against it. Huddled down so close to the floor that he almost became a part of it. And then the hand descended, as he knew it would, cold and hard on the back of his neck, pushing him to one side, saying, and "The candle, Willie."

The candle, the candle, he couldn't find it, his hands searched, his fingers reached out, but there was nothing.

"I-I can't, I can't--"

"Be silent," snapped the vampire, "be silent and open your eyes."

The vampire could see the candle, even in the pitch-black void that was the kitchen. He could see it as Willie could not, even with his eyes wide open, and could have picked it up easily, but this he would not do. Willie knew, somewhere in the back of his head that Barnabas would consider it beneath him as the master of the house to light his own candles. Not with a manservant so close at hand.

"But where is it, where is it?" the wail escaped him. "Why don't you just tell me where it is?"

The hand shook him with a hard snap. "To your left."

That would be . . . that would be almost under the stove then, and he reached his hand out till his forearm brushed against the ice-cold iron edge of the stove and found the smooth, circular curve of the candlestick, candle still attached. The hand did not let him go as he fumbled with the match and lit the candle and stared at it as it sat on the floor in front of him. The hand only pulled him to his feet, the thumb and forefinger pressing hard against the soft flesh beneath his skull. When Willie was on his feet, the hand released him and reached out to take the candle and place it on the table.

In the faint, isolated circle of light, the hand reached out to him. Unthinking, Willie placed the box of matches in it and stepped back as the vampire cast the object against the wall, sending the wooden sticks bouncing and skittering to the floor.

"Your ineptitude has lost me my mother's table," the vampire snarled without preamble. "You--"

Something rose in Willie quickly, all unbidden and uncontrolled. "Now, hey, Barnabas, you don't know for sure, right? I mean, it could have been anybody's table."

"I beg your pardon?" asked Barnabas, a rigidness snapping through him. "What did you just say?"

He'd been right, then. Barnabas had been completely and utterly prepared to accept this as his mother's property.

Shut up, Loomis, shut up.

"H-how could you tell, I mean, there being no markings and all?"

He was really going where he should not go, a desperation making him say what he should not say. The vampire's entire frame was drawn up in one dark line, his arms at his sides, and absolutely still in a way that would indicate, had Willie not known better, that the vampire was in a mood to listen to reason. The only sound was his own ragged breathing, harsh in his own ears and a sure signal to the vampire of his fear, and Willie strove to hide it, words bubbling out of him.

"And anyway, I mean, couldn't you find out who won the bid and then buy it from them? Maybe?"

"You think I haven't already thought of that? Do you think I'm a fool, Willie?"

"No, of course not, I--"

"You think I'm a fool and you imagine that the repairableness of this situation means that you will be pardoned for your careless handling of the matter." Those eyes narrowed until they were mere sparks in the single candle. "It won't, you know."

"Well," Willie said, gulping, unable for some unfathomable reason to shut the hell up, "you didn't know the estate office closed their bids at noon either, otherwise you would have mentioned it."

It was the freedom of the road that had gotten to him, but he realized this only belatedly as two arms reached out for him and pitched him at the wall. He landed with a thud, his teeth clicking together and his head snapping back on his neck. With the force of Barnabas' body moving against the table, the candlelight flickered.

"Please, Barnabas, wait--"

"I did wait," snapped the vampire, ripping the damp jacket from Willie's body with one harsh pull. "I waited two full hours up at Collinwood with my cousins and Miss Winters." And this said as if waiting with fine company and warm surroundings were an arduous task.

"Two hours I waited for word about my table, only to find that through your carelessness it has been lost. You had better pray that this loss is not a permanent one."

He jerked the belt buckle on Willie's waist loose, ripped the belt from the pant loops that held them, and with one hard look into Willie's eyes, pushed him down over the kitchen table. With a slam, Willie's chest caught the impact of the surface, and the candle, bumped off its center, toppled over and went out. The kitchen was in darkness once more.

He heard Barnabas step back. "You deserve to be whipped."

"Wait, B-Barnabas, please wait."

There was a pause. And then silence.

"The candle, please light the candle."

Another pause, as the vampire seemed to contemplate this and Willie could almost feel the dark eyes boring a hole through the back of his head. "What need do I have for a candle?" asked the vampire with mock gentleness, "when I can see you in the dark?"

Not in the dark. Oh, please, not in the dark.

In the dark echoed his dreams, his constant waking nightmares, and the subtle dance of fear that kept him only slight steps away from the abyss that Barnabas was eternally promising him. As the belt whistled down and wrapped its sharp lines around the backs of his thighs, it was the darkness that pulled the first cry out of him. In Barnabas the dark was embodied, and the belt only kept him facing it, even as he wrapped his arms around his head and clung to the hair on the back of his own neck.

The belt lashed at him, singing its own tune, and Willie could not keep the sounds inside of him. It was dark and the belt didn't care, and Barnabas' anger over the table, it seemed, had built inside of him while he'd waited for Willie. Had grown while Barnabas had waited in front of his family for the return of his servant whom it appeared he could not control. Thus, this anger unleashed, every blow bit into Willie, into his thighs, slicing into his hips, sending him with a hard force against the tabletop. He couldn't help but gasp and the gasp turned into a whimper and then, as the belt hit him across his lower back, a full-blown scream.

He writhed to get away as Barnabas' large hand clenched the cloth of Willie's shirt, pulling him up, his ribs sliding against the rough edge of the table, and held him there.

I'm sorryI'm sorryI'm sorryI'm sorryI'm sorry.

Another blow came, this time wrapping around to the front of his thigh, and the sound of his scream became higher pitched, and he wrenched to one side and found himself tumbling to the floor. Hands scrabbling, he reached up and found the roughness of Barnabas' suit coat, a hard strong arm reaching down for him and he clung to it with both hands, letting it pull him halfway up on his knees.

"B-Barnabas, ya gotta believe me," he pleaded, his words more sob than voice, "I didn' know, I wasn't tryin' to be careless, I left in good time, if the bid had been at five I woulda made it, I woulda--"

With a jerk, Barnabas held him tight, and the belt came down to slash across Willie's neck and the side of his face. He heard it being lifted again, and he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to clench his jaw, but the force of the belt across the side of his head seemed to unhinge it, and his whole face was on fire. And then suddenly, Barnabas let him go. He crumpled to the floor, and then there was silence. And stillness, as he clung to the hardness of the floorboards.

"I will write a letter," Barnabas informed him from the darkness above him. "You will take it to the estate office first thing in the morning, and you will persuade the clerk, this Walter Thompson, to inform you of the new owners of that table. Do you understand me?"

Somehow it felt rather like he was swimming, only instead of being surrounded by water, it was Barnabas' words that trailed around each other like seaweed. His head was ringing. And in the darkness, there seemed to be a haze of white coming towards him.

A hard-tipped shoe met his thigh and pushed.

"Answer me."

Answer what?

Something about a letter and the table.

"Uh," he managed.

"And when you have found the new owners, you will offer them three times the amount they paid, and you will return with that table to me by sunset tomorrow."

The back of his mouth tasted very nasty and Willie found it difficult to swallow.

"I suggest that you do not fail, Willie, or you will find your next homecoming more unpleasant than this one."

With that the belt was dropped on his head, and angry, hard footsteps made their way away from him, leaving him in the dark coldness of the kitchen. But it wasn't so dark now, or so cold. Like a blanket, the whiteness was over him, hovering as a cloud might before it gently lowers itself to become mist. He tried turning his head toward it, but something rippled up the back of his scalp and he knew if he moved again he was going to throw up. Laying the entire night in his own vomit was something he did not want to wake up to, so he lay very, very still and absorbed the white shroud as it descended over him.

*

The morning came to him through a haze of grey clouds holding back the sun and a headache that went all the way through his body. He could barely push himself up on arms that shook so badly he thought he would fall to the floor again. It had to be done in stages, he realized, and so he did it that way, first leaning against the table leg, then pulling himself up to sit in the chair, his head in his hands, even though sitting was its own kind of hell, and then finally standing, palms flat on the table top. With barely a glance at the two cream colored envelopes on the table, he made himself stumble to the sink, and, sending the water pouring from the pump with a few weak pushes on the handle, he cupped his hands and doused his face with the freezing cold water. Bruises sprang to life, and the sting in his lip told him that it was cut. How had that happened? The fall to the floor? Bringing his hand to the back of his neck he found two wickedly hard welts there as well, and traced the heat across his face with his finger-tips. The whole side of his face was stiff and hard and hot, and he had to close his eyes for a minute to breathe the lightheadedness away. He had so much to take care of today that he had no time for passing out

With a grunt, he bent down for his jacket and his belt, little pieces of matches falling to the floor, reminding him of last night when Barnabas had held out his hand. That was where the matches all over the floor had come from then. He put on the belt and tucked in his shirt and slipped the still damp jacket on as well. His body heat and the heat of the truck would dry it out quick enough. Then he picked up one of the envelopes and opened it. It was a letter Barnabas had written to the estate office, explaining the situation about the table, making the goal of the ownership of it a family affair rather than a personal one. Willie hastily stuffed this back and slipped it into his jacket. Not until he opened the second envelope did his hands begin to shake. It was fat with five thousand dollars in all denominations, and Willie couldn't imagine that anyone would pay that much for an old table that had been badly scarred and ill-treated as this one seemed to have been. Closing the envelope, he stuffed this one in his jacket as well, dug his keys out from under the stove, and tottered out to the truck.

It was still well before noon, and the clouds were beginning to break into large grey and pewter and iron-colored sheets, letting the sun through with such a begrudging attitude that it seemed to be not worth the fight at all. Willie got into the truck and headed back to Port-land, stomach empty, head spinning, and his busted lip the least of his irritants. Once or twice along the road his neck seized up to the point that he couldn't move it at all and he'd had to pull over to rub the heel of his hand over the muscle. Which hurt the skin so badly it began to sting and throb. But it was either that or not be able to drive, and so he grit his teeth and rubbed at his neck until the muscles relaxed and his skin felt on fire.

At least there were no big eighteen-wheeled trucks on the road, hardly any traffic at all for some reason, and Willie made it to the estate office in record time, slamming on the brakes just as he heard a distant clock chime eleven. The same clerk, Walter, was inside, this time in the company of two other office workers, both in suits and ties, both who, when Willie entered the office, looked at him with narrowed eyes and pinched expressions.

"I'm afraid you are in the wrong office," said one of them.

Willie ignored this and pulled out the envelope with the letter and, keeping his eyes only on Walter, walked over to him and handed him the letter. Walter, sitting safely behind his name plate, at a desk this time, looked up at him open-mouthed.

"Read that," said Willie, a rasp in his voice. "Hurry up and read it."

Willie could have sworn that the oiled hair on Walter Thompson's head was shaking, but the clerk fumbled his way into the contents of the envelope and without missing a beat, handed it back to Willie. It was the one containing the money.

"I don't know what this is for," he said, stiffly.

With a sigh, Willie handed him the other envelope, taking the one with the money back and tucked it away, thinking that it was a lucky thing that estate agents tended to be honest types.

Walter read the letter with apparent speed and care, and then he laid it on his desk and looked up at Willie, who suddenly realized that his lip must be bleeding. He reached upend wiped the blood away and tried not to care that he was being stared at by every single person in the estate office.

"Would you care to sit down, Mr. Loomis?"

Mister was it yet? That was mighty nice of them, considering that he must look like something the cat had dragged through the bushes backwards. He knew his hair was sticking straight up in places and that the marks on his neck stood out like purple racing stripes, but it didn't matter. It couldn't matter because taking care of those things would have slowed him down, taken precious time, and he only had a finite amount of it to fix things right or Barnabas was going to make true his most constant and ominous of threats.

"No," he said, shortly. He was stiff from last night's whipping, and sitting in the truck for three hours had made him even stiffer. Now that he was standing, he wanted to stay that way and only have to deal with bending his legs to sit one more time.

"I think," said Walter, his eyes flicking over Willie as if to take in the bruises and the rumpled shirt and jacket and tousled hair, "this is a special case, but I will have to consult with my colleagues and then with the new owners. Perhaps I could contact you in a few days with the results of my inquiries?"

"No," said Willie, almost choking, "it has to be today. My boss said today, or--" He stopped, closing his eyes, knowing that there was no way he could regale to Walter what the consequences of that failure would be.

He had to come home with the triangle table wrapped in a blanket in the back of the truck by nightfall or he might as well throw himself over the nearest cliff.

"Today," he said again. And then he looked directly at Walter. "Couldn't you please call them now and ask them?"

Walter looked across the office at the man in the suit who had told Willie to get lost only moments before. He came towards them and stopped, leaning over Walter to read the letter.

"Collins," he said approvingly. "Whatever they want, Walter, you go right ahead." Then with a sniff in Willie's direction, the man turned and walked away, and it seemed as if this was a signal to the rest of the office, as the low undercurrent of sound and industry began to rise until it reached normal levels and hardly anyone was paying any attention to Willie at all. Except Walter.

"Let me . . . here's the number," said Walter, thumbing through his Roladex. "And three times the original amount, your boss says?"

"Tha's right," said Willie, taking his first deep breath of the day. "Three times, that's what he said."

As Walter dialed the phone and began conversing with someone on the other end of the line, he looked at Willie out of the corner of his eye. There was the same expression on his face that he'd had the night before, the narrow, shuttered gaze of someone who is unpleasantly stirred by what he sees before him. Which in this case was Willie himself, and Willie looked down. His jacket was filthy with dirt from the Old House floor, and the edge of the table had ripped a ragged tear in his once white shirt, a tear through which he could just see a wood burn and abraded flesh over his ribs. Blood had speckled its way through the cloth, and he fought the urge to close his jacket around him. That would only attract more attention, more than it was worth, and in the last minute before he looked up, he realized that he'd put his belt on inside-out. No wonder it had been so hard to buckle.

It was hardly likely that any kind of report would get back to Barnabas about his appearance, but it never hurt to play it on the safe side. So he waited until Walter hung up the phone.

"A ladder," Willie said, waving a vague hand over his jacket.

"A ladder?" asked Walter.

"Yeah, a ladder. I fell off from a ladder. In a barn," he added hastily at Walter's raised eyebrows. "An old, dusty barn."

Walter shrugged as if this meant nothing to him, and Willie could see in the clerk's eyes the sudden withdrawal of effort. Walter wasn't going to say anything to anyone, but neither did he care to find out the real reason behind Willie's appearance.

The clerk held out a piece of paper to Willie, and Willie took it, keeping his hands from shaking with a supreme bit of effort he knew was going to cost him later.

On the paper was an address and a telephone number for a place in Edgecomb, only half an hour away.

"The Litchfield's collect old furniture, but they said they'd be happy to sell it to you at the rate Mr. Collins is prepared to pay."

Willie nodded, not wanting to revel in his good for-tune so soon.

"I told them that you wanted to make the transaction today, and they agreed to this, and I also told them you'd be right over, which is what I assumed you would want to do."

Again he nodded, the last of his adrenaline fading away. It was going to be alright. He was going to be able to make it okay, and Barnabas would be so overjoyed that his anger of last night would only be a bad memory.

"Their place is right off the main street in Edgecomb, I imagine you'll be able to find it easy enough. Edgecomb is not a very big place."

Willie spun on his heel and walked as quick as he could out to his truck, realizing only later, when he was almost to Edgecomb, that he'd not said goodbye or thank you or any of the other polite things people in normal circumstances said to each other. What Walter and his co-workers thought of him he had no idea, he only knew that he never, ever wanted to go into that estate office again. In Bangor, they knew him, they knew the Collins family and their history almost as well as they knew their own, and all Willie had to do was hand over the paperwork and the furniture or artifacts were either delivered or Willie was politely informed as to where he could pick them up. And never, ever did he have to handle large sums of money.

The envelope in his pocket with so much cash was almost as nerve-wracking as the realization that he'd driven almost all of the way through Edgecomb, and he'd forgot-ten to check for the side street that he was supposed to turn on.

It took another troll through town to find Slate Avenue and another u-turn and a backtrack before he found the right block. 46 Slate Avenue was a white house with green shutters and roof, and a tidy little wraparound porch that even had a swing. A few fall leaves had gathered on the emerald green lawn, but only a few, and as Willie pulled up against the curb next to the house, a rangy looking elderly man gave testament as to the reason why everything was so tidy. He was equipped with gloves and a jacket and strode purposefully over to the red and white shed at the side of the house. But when he saw Willie pull up, he stopped, and took off his gloves. And waited on the front step until Willie approached him.

"You Mr. Loomis?"

Willie nodded, feeling the chill of the recent damp weather shudder through him without warning.

"Say now...."

Willie looked up at the older man, apprehension filling him. If he made the wrong impression or displeased Mr. Litchfield at all, the deal would be off. And the rest of his life would be over.

"You look a mite roughed up, you been in an accident?"

Nodding, relief flooding him at this benign question, Willie managed an answer. "Was in an old barn yester-day, got tripped up."

But standing was taking it out of him, and there suddenly appeared two Mr. Litchfields, each reaching out with a wiry hand to lead him into the house. And two echoing voices calling for someone named Rose, and two yellow padded kitchen chairs rising up to meet the back of his legs. When the two chairs became one and met the rough and hot flesh of his thighs and backside, he found himself hissing between his teeth and leaning forward.

I will not pass out, I will not pass out.

But passing out became a very real possibility, and he was vaguely aware that Rose Litchfield had arrived, a pair of sensible dark laced shoes appearing on the patterned floor in front of him.

"What on earth--what did you do to him, Dean?"

A faint scent of lemons and cinnamon fell in the air around him and he brought his hands to his head and felt the film of sweat there.

"Didn't do anything, dear wife," replied Dean, unperturbed. "Said hello, how are you, like anyone would and even that was too much for him."

The floor below him was white and black checked, huge squares of black and white, just like the chess board that Barnabas wanted polished and ready at all times up at the Old House. And two pairs of feet, both clad in dark shoes, waited, and he could sense them looking at each other, wondering what to do with the strange man doubled over in their kitchen.

Someone else would have thrown him out, but someone else, apparently, was not Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield. Something gentle as a feather touched the back of his head, and he realized with a start that it was a hand.

"Mr. Loomis," asked Rose, with a voice that was as gentle as her hand, "you fixin' to pass out on my nice clean floor?"

As if anyone cared. Barnabas never had, never cared where Willie passed out, dirty floor or clean one, just as long as he was up and moving when there was work to be done. Just as there was work to be done now, like the transaction of the stupid triangle table Barnabas had his heart, or what passed as a heart, set on. Gritting his teeth, Willie unclenched his arms and pushed with his palms against the seat of the chair until he was at least mostly upright. Dean's barn jacket and blue pants and Rose's smocked housedress and second-best sweater came into view. More hands reached out to steady him, holding him up as he felt the blood rush from his head, and still holding him while the world stopped spinning at so brisk a rate.

"Get some cool water, Dean," said Rose, and Willie looked up at her.

Dark, young eyes in an old, faded face, with wiry, iron colored hair springing in curls all around her head. And an old mouth, lined, tight with concern, but soft, for all that.

"And a wet cloth, get a washcloth from the linen cup-board."

Dean trotted off to do her bidding as Rose took Willie's face between two warm hands. "You look like you been wrestling with the devil himself," she chided, smiling.

Willie almost smiled in return at this description, and of course Rose would never know how close she came to the truth, but the ache in his head and the sharp stinging in his lip prevented him.

Dean returned with the cloth and Willie heard him wetting it at the kitchen sink as Rose pushed the tangled hair back from his forehead. Then Rose took the cloth and, to Willie's surprise, she began wiping his face with it. Long, slow, careful strokes, cleaning up traces of sweat, and tears, and the blood from his lip. The long stripes on his neck she merely blotted as if knowing somehow that to wipe at them with the cloth, no matter how gently, would only hurt more than it helped. Then she handed Dean the cloth, and gave Willie the glass of water.

"Drink that, young man, and we'll see if we can't get you back on your feet again."

Willie did as he was told, not realizing how thirsty he was until the water hit his lips. He drank the contents of the glass down in four solid gulps, gasping when he came up for air and handed the glass back to Rose.

"I'm s-sorry to be--"

"No bother," said Dean, folding the used cloth his hands, "We'll just let Rose make you some of her tonic tea and see if you don't feel a might better straight away."

"N-no, no tea, I gotta--"

But Rose would have none of his protestations and she put the kettle on the gas range and waved Dean away from his attempts at helping her. "You just sit, and I'll make tea, and we'll get Mr. Loomis looking like some-thing other than a half-dead soul, and then we'll fix the deal with the table."

Dean waved his hands in the air in mock resignation and helped Willie turn his chair around to face the table. On the table sat a green and red tin, which Dean opened with a flourish to reveal a nest of sugar cookies. "These are good," he said solemnly as he took one and bit into it.

With a flurry, the tea was made and cream and sugar added for him, and he looked at it and at the tin of cookies and the bright and clean kitchen around him. Then he looked at Rose as she sat next to her husband, and then at the two of them as they looked at him from across their square, neat table.

Something unfamiliar overwhelmed him, almost to the point where his throat closed up and his eyes stung, but he swallowed. And swallowed again, and reached blindly for the tea and took a huge hot gulp. This steadied him, and he took another mouthful, tasting the cream and the sugar and the solid tang of homebrewed tea.

"Have a cookie, Mr. Loomis."

The tin was shoved over to him and he took one, not knowing if his hand was shaking, not wanting to know how he must appear to this solid couple, or what they must make of his appearance. He was just about to bite into the cookie when he paused as some semblance of good manners inside of him insisted on being shown. "Th-thank you, I meant to say it b-before, this t-tea is very good."

Both Dean and Rose nodded together, as if to say, of course it is, we knew it all along.

It was a cup of tea he was going to remember for a very long time. He knew this, even as the sugar and caffeine raced through his system, letting him raise his head a little higher and giving him the energy to push his shoulders back. It was ordinary tea, of course, but the sweetness of it, combined with the dappled rose pattern on the cup, and the sparks of sunlight coming through lace curtains, made it extraordinary.

"Really, Mr. Loomis, you must eat that cookie, not save it."

He looked up. Rose was smiling at him again, and Dean was reaching for another cookie himself, and so Willie did as he was told. Grains of sugar fell from the corners of his mouth as he inhaled the cookie and washed it down with another swallow of tea. His lip stung like hell but he ignored this and licked the sugar away.

"Good, eh?"

"Yes, ma'am."

He polished off three more cookies, and another cup of tea besides, and was feeling very much like his old self again when Dean looked at Rose and Rose looked at him.

"Well, then, young man, I understand you've come to make us an offer on that triangle table we picked up at Northbrook's?"

Gulping, Willie reached for the envelope in his pocket. "My boss, Mr. Collins, he thinks that the table used to be owned by . . . one of his ancestors." He laid the envelope on the table.

"So Thompson said," replied Dean as his wife picked up the envelope and thumbed through the bills. There was an awkward silence as Rose stared at the money, both hands clasping the envelope. Then she raised her eyes to Willie's.

"Your boss is a generous fool," she told him. "We bought the table because it was different and I took a hankering to refinish it myself. But it isn't worth this much."

Willie shrugged, wincing as his skin rubbed against his shirt. "Doesn't matter to him," he said, "but he sets such a store by making the place just like it was when his ancestors lived there."

"What place?" asked Dean.

"Th-the Old House," replied Willie, feeling oddly shaken by this question. "Th-that's where he lives. Up in Collinsport."

Dean looked at his wife, and Willie could see the mental shrug pass between them, and it was strange to think that to these two people, and to the world in general, he supposed, the Old House meant nothing. Nothing at all. Not even a flicker had crossed their faces when he'd said it. It made part of him want to continue telling them about it, and with the caffeine in his system, he found him-self doing just that.

"He's got me doing most of the work, and we're fixing it up just like it was. And this table, well, I'll be refinishing that myself--"

Rose interrupted him, her eyes widening. "Oh, you will? Well, that's wonderful! You know, most folks would take that table and try to make something modern out of it, but if you're going to make it just like it was, well, that'll be fine. Just fine."

With a soft smile, Dean looked at his wife, shaking his head slowly. "There, you see? It'll be in good hands." Then he looked at Willie, the smile still in place. "She was bit worried it was going to some beatnik or other who would ruin it with modern paints and suchlike."

Here Willie had to laugh, an unfamiliar feeling, low in his throat. "He's no beatnik, my boss."

They shared a moment across the table, then, a good-natured dismissal of all things modern and flashy, and the then laugh died in Willie's throat. Barnabas was no beatnik, this was true, but it didn't help matters any. And he had to get the table back to him, today, and there was no time to spend in this easy and bright kitchen, with two people who laughed and joked with each other and shared their house with him without asking a single question. No questions, just have some more tea, and have another cookie. If he stayed any longer she would be inviting him to dinner, and then he would never want to leave. And Barnabas would come looking for him and find him there.

And that would be bad.

Time to go, then.

With his hands on the edge of the table, he made a little push and caught Dean's eyes with his own. Like the true gentleman that he was, Dean patted Rose's hand and got up, and, pushing his chair back with his legs, allowed Willie permission to do the same.

"Well, dear wife," he said, pushing his hair back, "I'll help Mr. Loomis haul the table from the garage to his truck, and you can count our loot."

"Oh, you," she said with mock annoyance, "it's not loot, it's our new trellis for the back yard. And a fountain."

"Yes, dear," said Dean, rolling his eyes at Willie.

Dean led the way out into the garage, as neat and tidy as the front yard, where the triangle table itself sat, laid over with a new tarp.

"Just had this delivered this morning, but we'll get her something else to refinish," he said, pulling the tarp off. "Didn't know where we were going to put it anyway, it being such an odd shape and all."

The photograph had not done the table justice. Yes, it was roughed up by a recent paint removal job gone bad, but the legs were solid and the scrollwork looked like it had been hand done. The legs had been most likely turned on a foot-powered lathe, as well, and when Willie moved his hand slowly and lightly across the surface, he could feel the spring of the wood beneath his hand.

"Solid cherry, Thompson said," Dean informed him, opening the garage door to the driveway.

"Yes," said Willie, "veneer wasn't used much at that time."

He'd thought that Dean hadn't heard him, but as they bent at the same time and lifted the table together, Dean said, "Sounds like you know your stuff, Mr. Loomis."

They set the table down next to the back of the truck and Willie shrugged. "I've worked with a piece or two, mostly like this table, so you just know, you know?"

Willie opened the back of the truck and laid the padded blanket down. Then they turned the table over and laid it, legs up, on the blanket. With several tucks and folds of the blanket, the table became wedged in solid, well padded on all sides, and Willie shut the tailgate.

Now it was really time to go.

He turned. Dean was holding out a hand for him to shake, and Willie took it, responding to the warm pressure of the other man's hand deep down inside.

"I hope I didn't--" he began but Dean interrupted him.

"You don't worry about her, there are more old tables in this neck of the woods than you can shake a stick at. Your boss was so taken with this one, obviously, and who are we to turn up our noses at a profit?" He smiled at Willie. "You tell your boss, that Mr. Collins, it was our pleasure, okay?"

"Okay."

With a wave, Dean went back into his white house with the green shutters, back to his pleasant wife and bright kitchen, and Willie climbed in the truck and started the engine. He kept his mind focused on the two and a half hours of driving that he had before him, on the fact that he had to be back well before sunset, and on whether or not he was going to actually pass along Dean Litchfield's message. Probably not. Barnabas didn't deserve anyone's thanks, least of all someone who had never met him and probably never would.

After an hour of driving, the sun, having escaped the clouds at last, danced through the trees as he drove along. It became warm enough for him to be able to turn down the heater, but he kept it on high. He was shivering. His hands on the wheel could barely keep hold he was shaking so badly, and he didn't know what it was. He wasn't cold, the aches that hummed up and down his backside had sub-sided to a dull roar from being sat on, and he wasn't scared.

He pulled into a rest stop and brought the truck to a halt with two jerky pumps on the brakes. And then the engine died. With his heart leaping in his throat, he turned the key and pushed the accelerator to the floor. The engine gunned to life as if ready for a race and Willie let his head sink against his hands on the steering wheel until his heart-beat slowed to normal. That would have been the last straw if the truck had died on him. There was no way he could have explained that away, no way to have gotten word to Barnabas in time to avoid the explosion of anger that would have most assuredly followed. Truck failure was not on the vampire's list of acceptable excuses. Come to think of it, he didn't think that there were any acceptable excuses, let alone such a list. No excuses, that was Barnabas' motto.

His mind, when his heart had slowed, drifted back to the morning. That cup of tea in that rose-patterned cup, the sun through the window, the smell of cinnamon as if something had been recently baked, and Rose's face above him, concerned, smiling.

No. Don't go there.

It was already too late. With the adrenaline still swimming in his system, his whole body so sensitive to every shift of muscle and bone, it was as if he was already on the edge, and the image of Rose and Dean sitting across from him so kindly and sensible and still, sent him over the painful barrier in his mind.

You idiot, Loomis. Don't.

He tried laughing at himself, chiding himself for it, but it didn't help. The small laugh turned in his throat, became a half-choked sob, and he released the wheel to cover his face with his hands. And with that, released the hard knot inside of him, deep below his heart, an ache he had not known he'd carried.

Christ. Such nice people.

Hot tears pushed through his fingers, and his hands slipped from his face as he tucked his head down and willed them to stop. They didn't of course, even as he wiped them away with the back of his hand over and over.

Who you cryin' for, Loomis? Them or you?

It had to be for them, didn't it? Self-pity had never been something he set much store by, so it had to be them and the loss of that table that he felt bad about.

Yeah, right. They made a packet of money on that deal, and you feel sorry for them?

With a snort of derision, he made himself sit up straight, grab the steering wheel with both hands and look through the windshield. Open his eyes to look at the hood of the truck through his tears, at the sun-dappled patterns the leaves on the trees made on the white paint, and the gravel of the parking lot. The engine was still running, the heater was pumping out warm, toasty air, and he took a deep, hitched breath.

Dean and Rose were going to be fine, they'd weathered so many winters together, one table more or less was not going to trouble them overly much. That, at least, was a good thing. Tears finally coming to a halt and drying on his face was another, and he took a swipe at them with the back of his sleeve. He had the table, and that would make Barnabas satisfied, for the moment, anyway. Other than that? Well, it wasn't raining anymore. And that was all he could say that was good.

With a sigh, he put the truck into gear and turned the wheels on the road towards Collinsport and the Old House.

*

Two hours later, and it wasn't quite sun-set, and Willie was ready to lay down and die. His head pounded, and a heavy feeling of fatigue had settled in his chest. Pulling into the drive next to the Old House, he wondered how he'd get the table in the house before sunset. Before Barnabas woke up. It had taken two men to haul that table only a few feet, and Dean had helped him arrange it in the back of the truck. His legs had seized up with the long drive and he knew that getting up and straightening them would be pure agony, not to mention the trick of carrying a solid cherry table by himself.

First, he had to prop open doors and clear a path to one of the empty rooms, which would be a start. Then he could figure out how to maneuver the table inside. So he shut off the engine, wrenched himself, teeth grit against the scream along the backs of his legs, from the driver's seat, which kept his mind from anything but the task at hand, and went inside.

The Old House felt like it always did when he returned after an extended trip, like an abandoned building with a deserted air that gave the impression it'd not been occupied for years. Even with some of his things scattered around the kitchen, the house somehow absorbed the newness from them and they looked like ancient artifacts. Even the matches, still spilled on the floor, looked old. He bent and picked one up, feeling the protesting stiffness in the back of his legs. Maybe a warm fire would help this be just a little bit easier, and so he built one in the stove, piling the coal on quickly and lighting the match to the tinder. Spreading his fingers over the small area of heat, he tried to ignore the bolts of pain that shot through him, and tried to think instead of what he could use for doorjambs.

He ended up using chunks of wood, and when they were all in place, he was dismayed to see the beginnings of twilight start to descend over the yard. It was just this side of too late, and he raced for the kitchen door with thoughts of muscling the damn table inside, when he heard the step behind him.

"Wherever are you going?"

Whirling, Willie opened his mouth to speak, his hand still on the knob, when Barnabas crossed the kitchen floor amazingly fast and latched on to his jacket with one hard, white fist.

"Where is the table, Willie?"

Mouth dry, Willie released the doorknob to point through the glass in the door. "I-in the truck, I was j-just propping open the doors to--"

Barnabas cut him off with a shake. "The table is outside? In the weather?"

"It-it's in the truck, in the back, th-they--it's okay--"

With a sudden jerk, Barnabas released him, and shoved him aside to open the door. Hastily, Willie followed him, out to the truck to open the tailgate at the vampire's gesture. Reaching in, he tried to pull the table out, but again Barnabas shoved him aside and grabbed the legs himself, moving the table until it could be lifted out.

"Open the door," said Barnabas, and Willie watched, amazement widening his eyes as the vampire lifted the table to chest level with one heft of his arms. "I said, open the door, Willie."

He was almost running to do Barnabas' bidding, opening the kitchen door and kicking the chunk of wood out of the way as Barnabas maneuvered the table through the doorway and into the hall. Willie had been planning on taking the table into the back parlor, where he'd done a few of his other refinishing jobs, but Barnabas marched straight into the front sitting room and placed the table down in the center of the floor.

"Light the candles, Willie."

Willie lit them and stepped back as Barnabas turned the table over on its side. Grabbing a candle from its holder, the vampire bent down and held the light close to the underside of the table. He was looking at something, something Willie couldn't see, and he moved the finger-tips of one hand over the rough wood. When he stood up, he was actually smiling.

"It is the table."

Astonishment brought the question forward before Willie realized it might not be the smartest thing to ask. "H-how do you know?"

"When my sister Sarah was born, it was such a difficult time for my mother, being with child so late in life, and so the house was in quite a stir. In my agitated state as my mother's screams echoed through this house, I took refuge in picking up several pieces of furniture and hurling them across the room. This table was the only one to not shatter on impact. So, with my penknife, I carved my initials and the year."

Barnabas waved at the table, and shoved the candle at Willie.

"You may take a look, if you like."

It was more like an order than an offer, but the curiosity sprang inside of him and so he took the candle and stepped up to the table. Bending low, he held the candle at eye level. There, almost worn flat by the years, were the crooked initials B. C. and the year 1785.

As always when Barnabas reflected upon the sentiment he felt for members of his family, Willie didn't quite know what to feel. Or to think. He straightened up, knowing that he didn't know what to say either. When he was human, Barnabas had been any number of years older than Sarah, but had been quite attached to her, just the same.

"Well?" asked the vampire, tilting his head back.

"Well," said Willie, slowly, knowing the vampire wanted acknowledgement for his superior ability in finding lost relics, "I guess you were right."

"You guess, Willie?" Barnabas advanced on him, snatching the candle from his hand. Wax flew and splayed on Willie's arm in hot, hard circles. The vampire was right in his face now, the candlelight hot, in contrast to the cold air and darkness all around, and Willie felt the memory rise of the Litchfield's kitchen, white, and soft, and clean, and he jerked away. Barnabas grabbed him by the shirt-collar.

"It would serve you well in the future to do a great deal less guessing," he said darkly, "and it would serve you even better to remember to be far less careless in carrying out the duties I assign to you."

"B-but--" Willie stopped, feeling the grip of hard fingers through his shirt.

"But what?"

He didn't want to say it, touring up the fact that Barnabas also had not known about the closing time of the bid. And what good luck they'd had in the Litchfield's, so willing to sell, so willing not to ask questions. And the fact that he'd gotten the table after all. It would be stupid to say anything about it, but somehow, it had to be said.

"But I got you the table, I did what you asked."

"Yes, but at a great deal of expense," came the stern reply. "And unnecessary delay.

Money and time it had cost the vampire, as if he didn't have an eternity of both. Barnabas gave Willie a hard shake and let him go.

"See that this is refinished right away, my cousins are eager to see what the excitement has been all about."

Then Barnabas turned on his heel, and taking the candle with him, walked out of the room. Willie did not watch the vampire go, his brain registering only distantly the sound of retreating feet. Of the front door opening and shutting. He was left alone in the vague, blue twilight of the front room, now with the silent air of the Old House settling around him. With a sigh, he leaned over and ran his palm across the surface of the little triangle table laying on its side in the darkness of the Old House. And closed his eyes as the wood sprang to life beneath his touch.

~The End~