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In Exhile

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Northbrook's Estate Agency and Walter Thompson. Willie'd sworn he'd never have another thing to do with either of them again, and yet here he was. In a motel on the edge of Portland, getting ready for bed. Waiting for morning. For nine o'clock to roll around.

You will make this bid, Barnabas had said. You will do whatever is necessary to ensure that my bid is the first and the highest, or your hide will be forfeit.

Barnabas never lied about things like that. Willie had learned that early on.

Okay, Barnabas.

What else could he have said? It would hardly have done to protest or to even attempt to explain why he didn't want to go back to Northbrook's. Why Barnabas should probably handle it. He should use an agent in Collinsport, or if he couldn't find one there, somebody up in Bangor. They'd have one for sure. Then the two agents could do the deal and Willie wouldn't feel like he was about to be tossed on a hot griddle.

Just don't fuck it up, okay, Loomis?

Easier said than done.

The Providence Street Motel was one he'd used before, when Barnabas had sent him on errands that warranted Willie being in Portland early in the morning. To get the jump on the competition. As if anyone would ever dare compete against a Collins. The other guy always lost.

Don't think about it. Just do it.

Willie made sure the door was shut and locked and then opened the single window at the back of the room. He'd lucked out getting the end unit where there were no streetlights and no cars rushing outside of his window, which looked over an empty field tangled with brambles and old, rusting fence posts. He could sleep in the fresh air, with the cool breeze cutting through the thickness of the summer's night and the acid smell of industrial cleanser from the bathroom. As for the sound of the ocean, he could fake it for one night, though he tended, sometimes, to sleep badly without the shu-shu-shu sound in his ears. Funny how he'd gotten hooked on it.

Stripping off his shirt, he turned off everything but the bedside lamp. A shower would wait until morning. For now, he would brush his teeth and wash his face and go to bed early. Without Barnabas hovering nearby, or the threat of the door exploding open inside of a dark second between peace and calamity, he would sleep rather well. He turned on both taps, and waited till it ran warm. Another benefit to these little motel jaunts. Hot and cold running water, the blissful scent of clean sheets, and a soda machine humming only a little way off.

He bent over the basin and scooped up handfuls of water, sending them over his head. Over his face. Splashing the water on his chest. Closing his eyes, pressing his damp palms against his cheeks. His heart thumped beneath his fingers. He wasn't going to screw this one up. It was impossible. He had tipped the front desk guy to give him a knock at seven in the morning. The estate agency opened at nine. It would take fifteen minutes to get there. Willie would leave at 8:30 and wait it out on the steps. Nothing to it.

He turned off the tap and straightened up, shaking his hair out like a dog as he reached for a towel. Rubbed his face with it as he felt the cool water sliding down his ribs. The sudden, cutting breeze that whistled across his spine.

He jerked the towel down as ice spears shot through him, and water cut like tears down the back of his neck.

Barnabas stood there, in the angled light from the nightstand. Though it was summer, he was wearing his cloak, as if he expected to be traveling in heavy weather. Cane at his side, glinting overly bright in the electric light. His face was in shadow, and Willie couldn't see his expression. Nor fathom why the vampire was here. He must have gotten in through the open window, though there hadn't been a sound. But there was a new smell, one of dark, damp earth, and the overly sweet smell of dying flesh.

"B--" he began, cutting himself off. Barnabas, what are you doing here? he wanted to ask, but then realized that he did not want to know the answer. And surely, Barnabas, without any prompting on his servant's part, would explain exactly why he was here. And what the problem was.

"A forgetful servant is one thing," began the vampire without preamble, "but a servant who forgets on purpose with the intent to ruin his master's plans is entirely another."

Willie's fingers clutched at the towel in his hands, rough now against his damp chest. Water dripped from his hair onto his face. Then he realized he was shaking his head no as Barnabas took a step closer. Opening his mouth to speak, he tried to think what it might be that Barnabas was mad about. Coolly mad. In control, by the looks of him, taking another step with placid slowness. Knowing that Willie couldn't run. Wouldn't dare.

"F-forget?" he said, wincing, as if he'd already been struck.

"The contract for the estate agent."

"Contract?"

Barnabas didn't answer. Took another step closer.

Willie took a step back.

"You didn't give me no contract," he said.

"Indeed, I did," came the reply.

"But you didn't," Willie said, clutching the towel to him as if it were a shield. Paper thin and unbearably fragile, and all he had between him and the vampire's wrath. "You gave me the list and the money and tole me to be there when they opened. You said--"

"Are you contradicting me?" The vampire took out a sheaf of paper and placed it on top of the TV where the money and the paperwork were lined up, laid out in marching order for when the morning came.

"No, I ain't, but I never seen that before. You never said--"

"Silence." Barnabas' voice arced through the air, cutting into his brain as if razors had been thrown.

--nothing 'bout no contract.

There was a pounding at the door. Sudden, like a bomb going off. Willie froze, his mouth open.

"Attend to that," snapped Barnabas. "And then send them away."

Why? So you can kill me in private? They charge extra to get blood out of the carpet, you know.

Willie jumped to obey, sliding past Barnabas' still form, tossing the towel on the bed. He unlocked the door and opened it, feeling the rush of summer night across his bare, damp chest, and the ashy, smoke-scented presence of the front desk clerk.

"Yeah?" asked Willie.

"You the one that wants that eight o'clock wake up?" asked the guy.

Willie shook his head. "No, seven, I gotta be up early." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill and shoved it into the man's hand. "Seven, okay?"

The clerk nodded, satisfied and, tucking the bill into his own pocket, sauntered away.

And in that second, between peace and calamity, Willie felt a cold touch on the back of his neck. A gentle stroke that pulsed with something harder beneath it. That could turn dangerous at any second.

"Shut the door," came the command, sending shivers up the entire length of his body. He'd been damp and now he was shaking and the small shield of his towel had been tossed away.

"Honest, Barnabas," he began as he did as he was told and turned to face the vampire. In the darkness, with the lamp casting all of Barnabas' expression into shadow. "Y'never mentioned any contract. I took alla papers you gave me an--"

"I said, be silent. You have the audacity to disobey me and then to flagrantly deny it. Did you imagine that you would not be called to task for this?"

Willie's mouth worked. What kind of question was that? There was no answer, no sensible answer anyway, not one that he could grab hold of inside the span of time as he saw Barnabas' hand reaching for him. Cold on his neck, clamping down hard, each finger made of ice, and the only thing saving him was the flash of the silver-headed cane being laid down. Laid away, on the chair next to the TV. Barnabas pushed him to his knees, the rough carpet scraping his kneecaps, even through his jeans, with friction.

With a quick, silent motion, Barnabas took his belt from him, sliding the leather through the loops, pushing Willie down against the bed with the spread of his palm on Willie's back.

"P-please, Barnabas, I didn't--you never said--"

And then his voice broke, as if snagging on the fear exploding inside him, and he circled his arms around his head and pressed his face into the cheap, rough counterpane, dark-patterned beneath his eyes as he shut them. Knowing it was too late for protests or explanations as he heard the swoop of leather in the air, tensing against the first blow across his bare, damp back. Then the blows fell with force, regular and timed, as if Barnabas were clocking each one to the second. And hard, like a hammerfalls, the lip of the belt curving around his ribs to nick the soft flesh there and leave small, purple, lover's marks.

Willie pushed into the mattress, burrowing down in spite of the lack of give, trying to

squirm away from the heat of the belt. Then felt Barnabas' cool fingers lay across the back of his neck, sliding down to the top of his spine.

Be still, the hand said.

He froze. Dying beneath the acid hot lines building across the pull of his shoulders, the blows falling harder now, and he reached up to clasp the hand. To lay his own on top of it, clutching at it.

I'm sorry, so sorry, I didn't mean to, please believe me…

He hadn't realized he'd said it aloud.

The hand, warmed by the pulse of blood beneath Willie's skin, shook him off, and the beating stopped. Sudden, like the clock had stopped, and time was over.

Willie panted into the counterpane, breathing in small fibers, exhaling his tears, both hands rising to grab at his head, forearms moving to block out the sound of his own gasps.

"Your carelessness was wasteful, and your lying about it, inexcusable, I will not have it, do you hear?"

The vampire's voice cut through the barrier of Willie's flesh like a sharp blade, and he could hear Barnabas loud and clear. He nodded into the mattress, and Barnabas slammed him again with the belt. Feeling like bricks had cut through him, Willie cried aloud, stuffing his fist in his mouth to stop it. Too late. The sound echoed against the walls, shimmying against the tile in the bathroom.

"You will answer me when spoken to." Cool. Ice forming around each word so that Willie could almost hear the crystal cracking in the warmth of the summer's night.

"Y-yes," he said, gulping. "Yes, Barnabas." The blood thundered under his left shoulderblade and he wondered vaguely if the skin was broken there.

"You will take the contract and have it signed by the most capable member of that office, you will place the bid, and then you will wait to hear of the results. Then you will return home. Is that clear?"

Not a question he was willing to say no to. Not with his safe harbor shattered and the vampire standing over him with a belt in his hand.

"Yes, Barnabas." Meek and mild, like a Sunday school devotee waiting for praise from the preacher.

Go away, please go away.

"Very well then," said Barnabas, and for a moment, the panic cut through Willie that he'd actually said it aloud, but as he heard the belt land on the bed and the door to the motel room open and shut, he realized that the vampire was only responding to his subservient answer, and was leaving. Heart pounding, banging against his breastbone, Willie waited. Waited till his breath slowed, and the surge of heat beneath his skin trammeled down to a regular pattern. Blossoms of pain formed and pulsed and faded and formed again with each heartbeat. Slowing and slower as his heart slowed. Blood thickening beneath his skin as the welts formed and pressed against his muscles. He was one big ache as he pushed up with his elbows, stomach cut into by the edge of the bed and looked at his hands. They were shaking. And damp, even before he wiped away the tears from his cheeks and pushed his wet hair away from his face.

Barnabas had lied this time, that much Willie knew. The pile of papers he'd brought with him were the only ones the vampire had given him the night before. No mention of any contract had been made before this moment. But rather than admit the oversight as his own, or take care of the contract another time, Barnabas had determined that his servant would bear the blame.

Typical. Fucking typical.

He tipped his head down, letting his hair fall back over his face. Let the cool, spired ends of his hair distract him with their pinpoint touches, stippling his forehead like tiny darts.

And you broke. Didn't you.

Yes, he had. And quickly too, like a brittle stick bent in someone's hands. Only a few words from Barnabas, and he, Willie, had been all-aquiver, on his knees, head bowed, waiting. Just waiting. Whatever Barnabas wanted, or thought, and it was. And in response, Willie's every move had met the vampire's every command. But somehow, that didn't compare to the fact that the obedience had taken place in his own lair, the Paradise Street Motel. Where Barnabas had never before come, had never been invited. Marching across the threshold of the door, or had it been over the sill of the window, all without a by your leave. Shattering the illusion of a hidden place. Willie had never given him the address, or even mentioned, not even in vague passing, the location. Barnabas had found it all the same. Lead there by the beat of Willie's heart, perhaps. Or the quivering of his soul. Did it matter? The vampire had just proven, even if only across a limited distance that indeed, Willie would never be far from his reach.

He stood, feeling his legs quiver beneath him, the night air smelling of dirt and a distant rain, and through the window heard the rattle of trees shaken by a sudden, dense breeze. He was alone, and calamity had gone, but peace was nowhere to be found.

*

In the morning, the rocket hard and unexpected sounds of a truck beneath his window woke him, and he raised his face from the pillow, which was mashed from being cradled in his arms the entire night. Had he cried all night? He lifted himself on one elbow to swipe the pillow with his hands. No, too dry for tears, he must have stopped early on, sped into sleep by exhaustion and the leavings of the vampire's fury. His back arched with stiffness as he tried to get up all the way, and then he tried to roll to his side, only to find the pinpricks of the marks from the belt's edge digging into him there as well. There was nothing for it but to sit up. To grit his teeth and get up and get dressed.

He did so, smelling the rank undertone of his sweat from the night before. He got heated whenever Barnabas whipped him, and he'd been too worn to wash up before he'd thrown his body on the bed. The beating was still with him in more ways than one. Maybe he'd have time for a shower before he left. If he could stand the water pummeling his back.

As his feet hit the floor, there was a knock at the door, loud and rude, and the shouted question, "You up, Mr. Loomis?"

Waving at the door even though he knew that the clerk couldn't see him, he replied, "Yeah, I'm up. Thanks."

Footsteps sounded against the walk outside his door as the clerk walked away. Seven o'clock then. Plenty of time to wash up, as much as he could manage it, get something to eat at the clean-looking diner he'd spotted on his way in the day before, and make it to Northbrook's. But only if he kept moving.

He stood up, and took a careful breath.

Just don't look at it.

Kind of hard not to, when his hand was already moving to his ribs, moving down to the hollow of his hips to the point where his jeans began. His skin was touchy and sore, especially along his right side. He looked down. He was spotted with flecks of purple and blue, and hated like hell to think what his back looked like.

Worse, probably.

Don't think about it. Just take a shower. Shave. Get dressed. Act normal.

Barnabas would be even more infuriated to find out that Willie'd caused a scene at Northbrook's by acting out of sorts.

He moved to the small mirror in the bathroom, reaching for his shaving kit by habit, and caught his reflection almost unwillingly. As always, when confronted by a well-lit, modern mirror, he stopped with some shock. Oh, it was him alright. Same nose, same morning flyaway hair, same sunrise stubble. But his eyes were like dim, dusty blue stones. The circles under them looked like someone had painted them there.

There's a reason there's no mirrors in the Old House, I guess.

His expression was that of a taken man's. A man who did not belong to himself, where pressure had left its mark of care in lines of worry along his brow. Making his heart twist in an inexplicable jerk of pain.

Just shave.

He dropped his eyes and concentrated on lathering up with the warm water and shaving cream, and on moving the razor down his face in straight, even lines. When he was done with that, he wiped his face down and turned on the shower. He felt almost normal by the time he took off his jeans and underwear and stepped into the spray. Doing normal things sometimes helped him feel normal. Until, of course, the good, warm water hit his back and the torn flesh under his left shoulderblade, and he could feel the stinging spines his welts all the way down to his toes. Not even a bad beating, by Barnabas standards, but unexpected as it had been, his soul was somehow still casting around for a grip, something to hold onto to anchor him to the day. To the moment that he was in, rather than reliving the final blows of the night before.

Shoving his head under the spray, he let the water flow as it would, slipping into his nose and down his throat so he could concentrate on that, on breathing. Focus on the burning of his throat as he pulled his head back and reached for the soap and lathered up his hair. Scrubbed at his skin with the soap and the washcloth, drawing it rough even over the welted spots that he could reach. No sense pretending they weren't there. No point in thinking he would ever be safe ever again.

He rinsed off, telling himself he was shaking because the hot water was running out, even though it wasn't, never had in this particular motel. Turned off the taps and reached for the rough motel towel, shivering because it was cold, of course, because his skin was turning into goose bumps with the breeze through the open window. Cool, even on this warm, summer morning.

Get hold of yourself, Loomis. How is this beating different than any other?

Getting dressed, he knew the answer to that question. It was different because of the way it had come. Barnabas had lied, and had tracked his servant down to give proof to the lie.

You did this and I will punish you for it.

His protests had not mattered, even the truth had gone unnoticed.

Willie put on his shoes and socks, buttoned his shirt, and combed back his hair. Wet, it would dry by the time Northbrook's opened. Then he put on his belt, shoved the motel room key in his pocket. Gathered up the papers and strode out the door.

It's not the first time he's lied to you, is it.

No. And it wouldn't be the last. Barnabas was the king of liars.

*

Northbrook's opened promptly at nine, and Willie was the first customer through the door. The wood-paneled room struck him as stuffy and stale, all the windows closed, even with the slow fan stirring up the air from the ceiling. It was a dark room, too, even with all the lights blazing, and one lamp on each of the wooden desks where the clerks sat. The first person he laid his eyes on was Walter Thompson. He was about to walk forward and give over the paperwork and let Thompson handle it, when he felt someone rush by him.

His first impulse was to lay the guy low, obviously someone trying to beat him to the punch on having the first bid of the day. Barnabas wouldn't like that. But it was a girl, wearing a pale blue sundress and white sneakers, her blonde hair tumbling down her back like an unbound animal, and she was carrying a tray of something that smelled fresh and hot and sugary. Right up to Thompson's desk she walked, cotton skirt panels sashaying against her legs. Summerwarm skin glowing in the false light of the office.

Thompson's face lit up like a sunbeam. He was glad to see her, alright, and Willie settled back. Girlfriend and not customer, and not at all likely to beat Willie out on a bid.

"Oh, honey, thank you," Thompson said, as she laid the tray in front of him.

"Crumb cake," she said, taking off the lid. "Just the way you like it. You can share it with your friends."

Thompson looked around the office, at the line of desks along one wall, the stodgy looking, suit wearing types not even raising their heads to nod hello to the sweet young thing that had wandered into their midst. Yeah, sure, his expression seemed to say, and Willie didn't quite know what to make of it. Thompson had seemed quite the devoted employee last time Willie had met up with him. Now his attitude seemed one of derision.

Then Thompson spotted him, eyebrows going up to his hairline, and his girlfriend turned to see what her man was looking at.

"Oh, hi there," she said, her smile pleasant and open. She sounded like she smelled sweet. "You must be a client; I'll be out of here in a minute. It's just that Wally loves his crumb cake, and don't you know it, I just love to make it for him."

"I reckon so," Willie said, to be polite, though Thompson was making a face at him.

Wally? He must love that.

She turned back to Thompson, pushing the tray a little closer to him. Thompson didn't seem to mind until she bent forward, placed her hands on the desk, and leaned over far enough to kiss him on the forehead. Then Thompson blushed, again to his hairline. But his look at her was one of pure adoration.

"Okay, honey," he said, trying to sound stern and failing. "I'll see you at lunchtime, okay?"

"Twelve o'clock," she said, dimpling, and Willie could feel the sweetness rolling off her. A nice girl, of course. What other kind of girl would a guy like Thompson have? As she waltzed past him on her way out the door, delivering a brilliant smile his way, Willie found out he was right. She smelled like orange blossoms, just blooming in the morning dew.

The door shut behind her, and the office sounds rose around him.

"Good morning, Mr. Loomis," said Thompson, waving him over. "Sorry about that interruption, my, my girlfriend, Lucy, you know--"

Willie waved the apology away as he walked up to the desk and sat down. Gingerly, resting forward on his thighs, feeling the hot press of his shirt against his welts. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Long as mine's the first bid of the day, that's all my boss cares about." He pulled the papers from out of his pocket. "Can we time stamp it now and then discuss the list of what else he wants?"

"Yes, Mr. Loomis," said Thompson, adopting the formality that Willie remembered from his last visit.

He took the papers from Willie's hand and, freshening his date stamp on the pad of blue ink, stamped each of the papers for the bid. There was a solid, satisfying thump as he did it and filed the paper in his out basket, and Willie found himself taking the first full breath of the morning.

"Good, thanks," he said, then handed Thompson the folded list in his hand, just as the man was reaching for a piece of crumb cake. Willie could hardly blame him for his haste, the sugar-cinnamon smell was thick, and the cut hunks were still warm, with the crumble top tumbling to the plate. His stomach responded, even though he'd had a very good breakfast at the diner.

Thompson stopped, remembering his good manners. "Crumb cake, Mr. Loomis? There's plenty here, and no one else will eat it but me."

Willie didn't hesitate and pulled at the biggest piece in the corner, stuffing a huge chunk into his mouth before he remembered that gentlemen and menservants were supposed to take small bites in public. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand as he chewed, trying not to be embarrassed as Thompson looked at him and chuckled.

"Good stuff, huh?"

Willie nodded, his mouth still full. He chewed and swallowed and then asked, "Don't these guys like crumb cake?"

"Don't care if they do, I wouldn't offer it to them anyway," said Thompson, and then he blushed. "Oh, shit. Shouldn't have said that."

Willie took a smaller bite, chewing slowly and looking at Thompson. Obviously something was eating at him, and what surprised Willie was that now Thompson seemed like a nice guy, instead of the stiff-assed jerk he'd been months earlier. Maybe the girlfriend had changed him.

"She seems nice," he said, slowly, almost under his breath. No sense getting the man riled up further.

"Oh, she is," said Thompson, pushing the paperwork aside to count on the fingers of his hand. "She's smart, she's funny, she's read every book in the library, and she paints. Did I tell you she paints?"

Willie shook his head, trying not to laugh. "No," he said. "Is she any good?"

As he cringed at this question, Thompson was nodding. "Yeah, she is. Funny, though, she doesn't seem to realize just how good. She could make a living, if she wanted to."

"You'll just have to keep telling her, I guess," Willie said, somewhat at a loss. Thompson was beaming now, his thoughts not on Willie, or the pile of papers between them on his desktop, but instead on a blue-skirted and blue-eyed girl. Willie could almost see the hearts and flowers coming out of the other man's eyes.

Then Thompson focused on him, a contented look on his face. He smiled at Willie. "Well," he said, "I guess I will."

This thought seemed to please him as he bent his head down and pulled the folded papers toward him, and taking a breath and gathering his thoughts, concentrated on the list that Barnabas had written down of pieces of furniture that he wanted. Willie leaned forward, wincing, and tapped the first page with his finger. Barnabas' curly handwriting was sloped and hard to read, but Willie knew what was there. The vampire had gone over the list with him slowly and carefully, as if he suspected that Willie was an idiot and was prepared to go to great lengths to prevent failure even if he had to beat the information into Willie's head. It had only been through supreme force of will that he'd stopped himself from snapping I've GOT it, Barnabas at several points during the explanations. No sense courting death for no reason. But he knew a hatstand from a highboy and could differentiate between a 17th century hung drawer and an 18th century veneer drawer with cock-bead molding. Without looking. With only his hands sliding over the wood. Even if Barnabas would never admit it, Willie was growing to know almost as much as his master did about antique furniture.

"The closer the making date is to 1795," Willie said, "the better he'll like it. The more he'll pay, you get me?"

"Yes, I understand," said Thompson. "And what does this say here?" He turned the page so Willie could see better. "I can't quite make it out."

Willie looked at the letters, squinting, hearing Barnabas' voice in his head. Cogswell, out of Boston, with original brass. Do you understand that, Willie? No replacement parts. Not on a Cogswell. Never on a Cogswell.

"He wants all the fittings to be original," Willie replied. "Something about maintaining the original feel of the piece."

"Cogswell, eh? Doesn't want much, does he," remarked Thompson, his voice dry. "Does he have any idea how much this will all cost? Even if we could track it all down, which would take some time, it will cost a fortune."

"He doesn't care." Willie shrugged. "He wants what he wants."

"Well," said Thompson, licking the back of his thumb in an idle way, as if still tasting the sugar there. "He's the boss."

Nodding, Willie reached out to flip to the next page. "And here," he said, pointing, "he wants carver pieces. Not the rough stuff, but the fine work. Console tables, candle stands, you know the stuff. Decorative but useless."

Now Thompson was nodding in return, his oiled hair slipping forward as he concentrated. "Benchly's has an auction every month," he said, almost to himself. "They're down in Boston. I wish I could go. Then I could hit New York and take the circuit route back up…" His voice trailed off. "That is, if they would sign me up and let me go. I'd have to convince them." He looked up at Willie, a little frown pulling at his narrow features.

"Keep in mind," said Willie, "that he doesn't care about the cost. Okay?"

"Okay." But Thompson didn't seem sure.

Then both of them looked up as a dark-suited man, grey-haired and stern, suddenly stopped at Thompson's desk.

"Are you Mr. Loomis?" asked the man.

"Yeah," said Willie, wary, looking up, the back of his neck twitching as he moved. He didn't like the man's tone. Too much like Barnabas' by half.

The man held out his hand to shake and Willie took it. "I'm Mr. Merrill, office manager. We were told to expect you, and I had assumed that you would--"

"You were told to expect me?" asked Willie, letting Merrill's hand go.

"Yes, we received word from your boss, Mr. Collins of Collinsport."

"Oh." He didn't quite know what to say to that. Trust Barnabas to have taken care of all the details.

Merrill leaned in close as if he were about to deliver a secret. "We had expected that you would meet with one of our senior staff members. Mr. Thompson is well-trained, but certainly not up to the task of handling an account as…as important as this one is."

"Ah," said Willie now, casting a look at Thompson out of the corner of his eye. He'd rather work with Thompson, who he knew, than some other stiff shirt who didn't have a plate of crumb cake so handy. "Well, we're doin' okay, Thompson and me."

Shaking his head, Merrill clasped his hands in front of him, as if by doing so he would soften his expression. It was hard as iron. "But Mr. Thompson was responsible for the fiasco of the triangle table some months ago. Surely you haven't forgotten that so soon?"

"Triangle table?" Willie asked, not really needing an answer, but it surprised him. All this time, and they were blaming Thompson for that? Probably worried that Mr. Collins of Collinsport would never darken their door again and were punishing Thompson for the loss of revenue.

"Yes, the triangle table," said Merrill, as if he felt hurt that Willie wasn't more upset by the memory of it. "We so hate to see our customers disappointed, especially ones as…as discerning as Mr. Collins. So, surely, we would prefer it if you dealt with one of our senior staff."

Thompson was being given an off-handed scolding, and by the looks of his hangdog expression, it wasn't the first time. The other man looked like Willie sometimes felt when Barnabas was taking him to task for some oversight or other, some small thing that had gotten brilliantly out of hand. Something beyond his ability to control that Barnabas felt should have been handled better. Thompson's shoulders were sloped down, and he was only looking at the desk in front of him. Eyes blind, not seeing the paperwork at all, or the unwavering light of the bulb inside the lamp. It had been several months since Willie had managed to bring the triangle table home to the Old House and it rested in Naomi's room now, permanently set with a brandy decanter and two glasses. Willie stayed as far away from it as he possibly could. In the meantime, while Willie himself had been doing his best not to remind Barnabas of the debacle of the table, it appeared that Thompson had been getting these verbal thumpings. On a regular basis.

"Alright, Walter," said Merrill, "hand over the paperwork and let someone else take care of Mr. Collins' assistant."

It didn't seem fair. Willie took a breath. "Actually," he said, placing his hand over the stack of papers. "Actually, it was Thompson who saved the triangle table for us. Mr. Collins gave me a contract to sign, and he told me to have--"

"A contract?" asked Merrill. His eyes lit up. A contract meant a great deal of money and exclusive rights to the estate fees on found furniture. Not to mention a higher commission. "Well, surely you'd want a more experienced--"

"Nope," said Willie, giving the papers a little shove in Thompson's direction. "Mr. Collins specifically told me to give the contract to Mr. Walter Thompson and no one else." He smiled up at Merrill and the shocked look there. "Thompson is the one he wants."

There was a moment of silence, and the constant chatter and movement in the office seemed to have stopped. Everyone must have heard what Willie had just said, because Willie could feel their eyes on him. He felt brave and bold, even if only for a moment. Barnabas wanted a senior staff member, or at least he would if he were present. But he wasn't and Willie was. And Thompson deserved a break.

Willie looked at Thompson, wondering where the impulse had come from. Maybe from the crumb cake, or from Thompson's taste in women. Or maybe it was from his expression, the little light now in his eyes that hadn't been there before. Like he'd been rescued. Willie'd never rescued anyone before. Not like this anyway.

"Yep, that's the way it is." He pulled out the contract and slapped it on the desk. "Better sign. Might as well. I've got my orders and I'd hate to call my boss to tell him that you wouldn't let Thompson sign." This last was directed at Merrill, standing straight as an arrow next to the desk. No need to tell them that Barnabas was currently out of reach, either by phone or carrier pigeon or any other method that Merrill might care to dream up.

With a blink, Merrill seemed to pull himself together. "Well," he said slowly, apparently not liking the taste of defeat. "If that's what Mr. Collins wants, then we are happy to oblige him." He leaned down to push a pen at Thompson. "Sign, Walter, sign this right away, and I'll have Mrs. Sidney file it for you."

Willie smiled, his expression mostly for Thompson's benefit. "Travel expenses too, don't forget that. Mr. Collins said he'd cover everything."

Walter Thompson signed the contract with his mouth open as if he'd forgotten to breathe, but expected to begin again at any second. By the high color in his face, though, he seemed quite pleased. Merrill was another matter. He paused before signing his name to the contract too, as if, pen poised above the line, he expected someone to walk in and stop the whole matter. But no one came, and he signed and flipped the paper up in his hand.

"Now you, Mr. Loomis."

"Me?"

Willie hadn't thought about that, about the permanency of his name on papers of Barnabas', but Barnabas would probably only care about the results. Taking the paper from Merrill, he placed it on the desk and signed his name in a scrawl, and handed the paper back. "Travel expenses, too," he said again, mostly to cover his own sudden case of nerves. He'd only ever signed at Barnabas' behest before, but then realized that Barnabas knew about the contract, knew that Willie would have to sign.

With one last annoyed nod, Merrill took the paper and left, walking over to a desk where a girl sat, organizing papers. Willie couldn't hear what was being said, only the low murmurs and a shocked look from Mrs. Sidney, who seemed somewhat appalled at the work she was being asked to do.

"Thank you, Loomis," he heard.

Willie turned back to Thompson, feeling at a loss. He shrugged, the muscles of his back pulling in a nasty way as he did so.

"You okay, Loomis?" asked Thompson, leaning forward, pushing his hand out as if to catch Willie if he fell.

Willie shook his head. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just tired."

Thompson nodded, looking at the tips of his fingers for a moment. "Really, thank you, you don't know what this is going to mean--"

Waving the other man off, Willie shook his head. "Yeah, I do know what it will mean. Barnabas will run you ragged, and you're gonna make a fortune and then you can buy that Lucy the biggest rock ever."

As if it were a new idea, Thompson stared at him. "You mean--that is, I could…well, I could, couldn't I." He smiled. "Yeah," he said, nodding, and Willie could see him looking inward at a very pleasant picture. "The biggest rock ever."

He pushed the plate towards Willie now, tipping his head back in a benevolent way, as if the world were now his to give. "Have some more crumb cake, Mr. Loomis."

Willie took some with his fingers, shoving the meltingly sweet cake into his mouth. Smiled back, knowing that good moments like this were too rare to object to. Even if in the back of his mind he had a small, quirky bad feeling. He told it to go away. He'd done everything Barnabas had said. Everything. It was going to be fine, it really was.

All he had to do now was wait for the bid to come in.

"When's that bid going to be announced?" he asked.

"Three o'clock," said Thompson still smiling. "You come back at three, and I'll let you know."

Willie got up, pushing his chair back with both hands. He'd come back at three then. And he had a sneaking suspicion that the bid was Barnabas'. No matter what other money was offered. No one was going to outbid Mr. Collins of Collinsport. Not today. Not in this office.

*

Willie patted the seat beside him again where the bid papers rested. He had them tucked under his hip in case they decided to fly out the open windows. It was too fine a summer's evening to keep them closed, and Willie had them rolled full open. Catching the breeze, the scent of pine, and of warm maple trees, and the undercurrent sweetness of wild blueberries growing in the dirt along the roadside. The sun was just setting and he'd get home after sunset, but that would be okay. The day had been as success. Barnabas would be pleased. The entire of his bid had won, and in one week's time, a shipment of French antiques would be trucking its way up to the Old House. In the meantime, all he had to do was get home.

He was about an hour out when it finally went dark, dusk turning to purple and the evening air cooling from balm to sharpness and the smell pouring in through the vents and the windows turning to rain. No clouds covering the stars yet, but he could smell it coming. A summer rain, one that would go all night. He'd go to bed early, and with that and the push-hush of the ocean, he'd sleep well enough to be rested for the morning's chores. That, unless Barnabas had some scheme he'd cooked up while Willie'd been away, something that required haste and urgency, some damn fool thing that had become of utmost importance in the vampire's mind. Sometimes when Willie was away from the Old House, Barnabas acted like he had nothing better to do than think up work for his servant. Nothing better to occupy his mind.

This bid'll take his mind off that sort of shit.

He hoped.

The sky was beginning to blacken when he pulled the truck up and parked it next to the Old House. Full dark now, clouds covering the rim of sky above the trees were scraping their branches in the growing air. Willie turned off the engine, and gathered his wallet, stuffing it in his back pocket. Pulled the bid papers together and held them against his chest. If they got wet, Barnabas would be peeved, even with the good news, and Willie wanted to keep him contented.

He walked to the house, skittering as lightning flickered beyond the trees, realizing there would be no summer rain after all but an all out storm. Barnabas would want the candles lit and the fire in the front room going, and Willie would have to do it. That is, unless the vampire, out of boredom, had settled to doing that himself. Which he might have done. Especially with the storm coming. Barnabas loved storms.

But when Willie opened the door, the house was quiet. No candles had been lit in the kitchen, nor in the hallway. He walked down it in the darkness, and when he reached the front room, he saw that no candles had been lit there either, nor the fire built. Barnabas' coat and cane were gone, as well.

Willie laid the papers on the desk in the front room, where Barnabas was sure to see them when he came in. Then he turned his attention to getting the room lit, taking the matches and tending to the candles one by one. Then the fire, which seemed hesitant beneath his hands. Only by kneeling down on the hearth and blowing gently on the lit tinder did he get it going. It smoked a bit, then caught, and as he straightened up, it began to pop and flicker.

The room was bright and warm against the coming storm's dampness as he got to his feet and stood by the hearth, feeding small sticks of wood into the growing flames. It was a good fire. Not that Barnabas would ever say anything about it. The vampire would only care if a fire had not been lit, or if the candles were not burning.

He brushed his hands on his pants.

Well, that's done.

By the time he reached the kitchen and started to feed the stove with coal to cook his supper, Barnabas had still not returned. That is, presuming he'd gone somewhere. But surely he was not still in his coffin, not this far after sunset? No, the coat and cane had been gone when he'd come in. Willie made himself shake it off, concentrating on frying a slice of ham in the cast-iron pan and slicing some potatoes he'd boiled the day before, letting them fall into the fat. The smell of the potatoes frying hit him very quickly. And by the time everything in the pan was sizzling, his stomach had woken up to agree that yes, it was time to eat.

Then the front door opened and shut. His hand froze as it was reaching for the salt and pepper, his body listening, waiting. He sucked on the back of his teeth for a moment, and then, hearing nothing out of the ordinary, began to season his food. Then, after a moment, the kitchen door opened behind him, and he nodded without turning around.

"Did ya see the paperwork on the desk there?" he asked, poking at the ham with a fork. "You got the bid, straight out. No contest, just like you wanted. The delivery should be here next week--"

Utter silence met the back of his neck like a full-force blow and he snapped his mouth shut and turned around. Barnabas was there, in the doorway, divested of his coat and cane, and carrying a new switch in his hands. Eyes blazing, not the cool anger of the night before, but a full out fury that pulsed off him like heat from a well-banked flame.

"What-what's the matter Barnabas?" he asked, even though it was a stupid question. By the look on the vampire's face, he was about to find out what was the matter whether he wanted to or not. And the news wasn't going to be good. But how could that be? Everything down at Northbrook's had gone by the guidelines Barnabas had set. Maybe it wasn't that. Maybe it was something else.

"I did everythin' you asked me, why're you--"

Why are you carrying that switch?

He couldn't ask it aloud.

"I see by your insouciance that you feel that your complicity of today is of no importance." Barnabas strode forward, switch gripped in his fist, and grabbing Willie without ceremony, shoved him at the table.

Willie's brain stumbled over the words even as he stumbled against the rough edge of the table, thunking it against the wall. And noted with an idle part of his brain that the more Barnabas was mad, the bigger the words he used.

Not funny, Loomis.

No, it wasn't.

He leaned back, bending backwards as Barnabas leaned forward, and Willie could smell the faint remains of Mrs. Stoddard's ladylike perfume. Barnabas had been up at the Great House then. Talking with someone up at Collinwood and coming away angrier than a bear pushed out of its den too soon come spring.

"But I did everythin' you asked, Barnabas," he spoke, hurrying, almost panting. "The bid and the contract an' everythin'."

"And that, Willie," said Barnabas in reply, bending his head close to Willie's, his voice lowering to darkness, "is the problem."

"But what did I do?" It was almost a wail that escaped him, his heart bursting with it, the switch only inches away from his face.

"You cannot tell me you do not know." This said as Barnabas drew back a fraction of an inch, eyeing Willie as if he were an unwanted slug in a well-tended garden. "Well, then, I shall enlighten you. Does the name Walter Thompson bring up any recent memories?"

He was mocking Willie, of course he was. "Y-yes," said Willie, pulling away, pressing himself against the table. "I know him. He, well, he works at--"

"I know where he works. Tell me that you had him sign the contract, for I have just had a most interesting conversation with his employer just now."

"On the telephone?" Willie found he could remember only one other time that Barnabas had deigned to use the phone. To call Northbrook's. Of course. The place was cursed. Only bad phone calls came and went to there.

That was when Barnabas lost his temper, grabbing Willie by the neck, pressing against his windpipe with strong, hard fingers, and Willie felt the black dots forming almost immediately. Barely able to hear the stream of words being aimed at him, the torrent of anger that battered him. The vampire's face right in his, the dank moisture from the vampire's breath hitting him right in the face.

"You told Merrill that I wanted Thompson. Walter Thompson, specifically him, even though this was distinctly untrue and not at all to the terms that I had directed you. I had to lie, to lie to Merrill and agree. Otherwise he'd think that I could not keep control over my own manservant. Can you imagine? A Collins put in this position, being forced to deal with a no-account estate agent in such a manner?"

Oh, crap. Walter Thompson.

"And then Merrill told me that Thompson is not the most qualified staff member, and that he was grateful to me for giving him a second chance. There were about to send him packing, and you, through your bizarre sense of following my orders, have forced them to retain his services. Now, did you or did you not do this heinous thing?" Barnabas shook him.

Willie opened his mouth, gasping in as much air as he could manage, and tried to nod in reply. "Y-yes," he whispered.

Barnabas let him go but did not move back and Willie was pressed between Barnabas' body and the table, his side aching with cramp as he tried to lean out of harm's way. "You may have one opportunity to explain yourself. But I advise you to begin at once."

Taking a deep breath, Willie focused his gaze on the hard line of the vampire's jaw. "He's a good man, knows furniture. Knows about Cogswell and Dunlop and all, an' he helped out with the triangle table a coupla months back," he began, speaking as fast as he could. "Remember?"

Barnabas nodded, his expression not shifting.

"But they've been blaming him for that ever since an' I like workin' with him and I thought, well, he's a good man--"

"A good man," Barnabas spat out. "As if you even know the meaning of the term." The vampire stepped away as if totally disgusted by the whole matter.

"I know it as well as you," said Willie, raising his hand to his chest, where his heart was thumping so hard it hurt.

Instantly, the vampire was upon him, pushing Willie face down on the table, so hard that his head banged against the wood, and so fast that his hands had to skitter for purchase. "I tell you who you do and who you do not like working with. Remove your shirt and I will teach you to remember it," Barnabas said, growling, raising the hairs on the back of Willie's neck.

"But I didn't do anything," Willie said, in protest, trying to push up.

"You will remove your shirt this instant, or I will remove it for you. And I promise you, if that occurs, you will be unable to put your shirt back on. Ever."

His lungs were almost out of air and as hard as Barnabas was pressing on his back, he wasn't going to be able to get any more. It wasn't fair, of course it wasn't, but then, it never was. Sweating, he could feel himself start to sweat and the beating hadn't even begun yet. He nodded his compliance, and when Barnabas pulled back, tucked his elbows in close and began to unbutton his shirt. Pulled it off and let it slip to the table. Barnabas could do with it what he wanted, either throw it in the fire, or trample it underfoot.

As the cooler air swirling in the kitchen hit his bare skin, he shivered, twitching the welts along his back over muscle and bone. There was a pause from behind him, and a small silence. A cold touch below his left shoulder blade.

"Put your shirt back on," he heard.

He felt the garment land against his arm, and he put it on with haste, snagging his fingers in the cloth as he tried to push the buttons through their holes. Was the beating over before it had begun? Had the vampire relented in the face of the silent testimony of his servant's recent punishment? Hands shaking, mind whirling, Willie only got as far as the third button, when he felt a flicker of the switch against his hip.

"Remove those, instead."

Willie froze, his hands on his shirt, elbows braced against the table. He opened his mouth to speak, riveted on the piece of switch he could now see dancing out of the corner of his eye.

"I will teach you the price for attempting to usurp my position."

"B-but I didn't, I only meant to--"

A pause. Then the vampire took a breath, and spoke, sounding as if he were holding on to his patience with some last, great effort. "Now, Willie."

Heart hammering, Willie swallowed. Ducked his head, seeing the flicker of the flames in the fireplace as Barnabas stepped back. Undid his belt and his pants and let them fall to the floor. Shucked his briefs down his thighs and past his knees, knowing without asking that Barnabas would have requested it with some force had Willie not obliged him. Cold air dappled his legs, cutting through the sweat that had filmed over him. And he was shaking already, burying his head in his hands, whimpering. Before the switch had even fallen.

I hate you. I fucking hate you.

The first blow sent him forward, his thighs cutting against the edge of the table with its force. His skin feeling like it had been sliced open with hot iron. And the muscles beneath, swelling against bone, bone pushing back. Meeting the next blow in a fevered embrace. He was gripping his head so hard that when the next blow fell, when his hands jerked away, he tore at his own skin with his nails. And then, with another hail of the switch, came the scream, as if his lungs were on fire, and then Barnabas' hand on the small of his back, pressing him down as he dug into the table with the heels of his hands. Shuddering uncontrollably as the switch cut across his hips, unable to scream now for breath, feeling the fire, the acid lines, and the push of the vampire's hand, like iced rock, against his spine. Then the numbness, the pain gone beyond a boundary where he felt only the echo of the three blows that followed, all lined up along the back of his thighs. Echoes that then rebounded and came back all over again like black, tumbled acid, even after the blows had stopped and the switch lay on the table next to him.

Barnabas did not release the pressure of his hand. Instead the vampire leaned forward, his mouth close to Willie's ear. Shaking, quivering, his hands clenching against each other uncontrollably, Willie tried to listen. Caught the words with the part of his brain that wasn't still sorting the levels of heat and sweat and the sharp blades of pain that weren't stopping.

"You will remember, in future, not to imagine that your thoughts or desires would ever be more important than mine. Otherwise," here Barnabas paused to grip the back of Willie's hot neck with a tight circle of cold fingers, "otherwise, I will have to repeat this lesson, and keep repeating it till it is fully learned. Or I may decide not to teach it and instead rid myself of this unwanted trouble altogether. Do I make myself clear, Willie?"

Yes. Christ, yes.

In his own mind, defeat. In his body, defeat. But bringing the two together to admit this to Barnabas, to own up to it out loud, was almost too much to manage. He struggled to say it, gulping as his mouth formed around it, shivering as his body resisted it. Felt the clutch of that hand, icier now against his hot, sweating skin, tighten. His stomach swirled, a taste of bile pushing up the back of his throat, and he nodded. The hand loosened, and he bit back the nasty taste in his mouth. "Y-yes, Barnabas," he gasped, managing it at last.

The hand was gone from his neck in an instant, cold air meeting his damp flesh, making him shiver, still bent over the table, legs quivering beneath him. Not wanting to move even a muscle till the vampire said so. The switch was still there. And by the stiff sparks he could feel in the air, the vampire was still angry. Even as Willie's heart and the dark tatters of his gut whirled and twisted with a desolated hurt, he remained as still as he could.

"Get dressed, Willie," he heard as the vampire took another step away. Toward the door. "And remember who is master here. It is I."

Just nod. And say it. Just say it, damnit.

"Yes, B-Barnabas," he said, nodding, hands feeling brittle as his forehead touched them where they rested on the table.

The vampire paused. Then he spoke, extreme slowness and gravity, so that Willie could hear every word. "Tomorrow, you will set up a meeting at the Blue Whale between this Walter Thompson and myself. Eight o'clock. At the Blue Whale."

"Who?" Willie felt his breath bounce back at him from the table's surface.

Barnabas paused only briefly as he put his hand on the handle of the door. "You heard me. Go in person. Be sure that he has proper directions. We wouldn't want him getting…lost."

"Yes, Barnabas," Willie replied as the door slammed behind the vampire.

It took him a full moment before he could coordinate his arms and hands enough to stand and pull his trousers up. Hissing as the cloth snagged on torn skin. To fasten the zipper and button and belt, and, shirttails hanging loose, stagger over to the stove. Where the ham and potatoes were sizzled to a well-done char, just shy of being totally burnt. The smell was bitter, and he picked up the frying pan with his hand and hurled it across the room. His hand seared on the handle and the pan landed with a clang, the slice of ham and of potatoes spinning in all directions across the floor.

It doesn't matter, okay?

But he knew that it did. It did matter. It always had, and never more apparent to him than at this moment, when, unable to stand, he leaned against the wall and buried his head in his arms.

I tell you whom you like.

I am master here.

And you, Willie, you are nothing.

Then it hit him, full square in his gut, like hammerheads, or like the pounding thud of a well-aimed fist.

Jesus. Walter Thompson and Barnabas Collins.

In the same room together, it was nothing short of disaster.

~The End~