Moving boxes was easy, at least mentally.
Yeah, they were heavy, but Willie took that in stride, enjoying the change of pace the simple task gave him. It had taken two men an hour and a half and then some to unload the wooden crates on the side porch, but it would take Willie the rest of the day to shift the entire lot into the library.
This was the easy part, though the ragged edges of the crates bit into his hands, and he was leaving a trail of dust and leaves through the house that he'd have to clean up later, not to mention that his shoulders and back were killing him. The hard part would come later, when Barnabas would want a catalog made of every book he'd bought, sight unseen, at an estate auction. The vampire'd been quite pleased when the letter had come confirming that his bid had been the highest. What amount of money had actually been spent on all these books, Willie did not want to know, but Barnabas was sure that a number of the volumes had originally been on the shelves in the Old House before they had been either stolen or sold at various points in the house's history. Willie would hate to be the man (or woman) who Barnabas actually discovered to have done this, but for now the vampire was content.
And to keep him that way, Willie intended to have every single box and crate in the library opened and ready for inspection by sunset. To that end, he hustled, shifting boxes, wishing he had a dolly to move them with, nearly slamming his toes, constantly jamming his fingers, and sweating. The Old House was always cool, even in the depths of summer, but by mid-afternoon he had large patches of sweat under each arm, and along his back his shirt stuck to him in three round places. Sweat rode along his scalp, dripping down the side of his face.
He was carrying the last crate, the smallest one, just as sunset was becoming a solid threat, and hurrying. Through the kitchen, through the back parlor, and into the library.
That was when he tripped. Over something, he didn't know, a snag in the carpet, or air, maybe.
The box flew out of his hands as he careened to the floor, landing at the same time he did. Twilight had snuck into the room but there was enough light to see the box land on its corner, shattering into slats, and the books, splitting their pages into the air as his hands and knees smacked into the floor.
No, Christ, no.
He scrambled to his feet, hands reaching out to the pages fluttering in the air and the slats that still spun on shards of themselves. And stuck his hand in the midst of it. Part of his mind began praying that nothing in this particular box was a first edition, or whatever it was prized so highly by those who loved books, Barnabas in particular. The other part thought something was biting him with a row of uneven teeth. He reached down toward the spot on his left hand, but instead of skin, his fingers encountered wood. A large, dirty, jagged splinter embedded in the soft heel of his palm. Instantly, he grabbed the end of it and jerked. Part of it came out and broke off in his hand. Leaving the other half deeply embedded, beyond his reach, a pool of blood welling up and obscuring it. His hand hurt like something was alive in there, moving around, trying to get out, and every shift he made with his hand made it vibrate even more. And the blood, welling up in pools and slipping down his arm. Dark blobs fell on the wooden slats at his feet and Willie clasped his hand to his chest and stepped back before any could land on the crisp, white pages.
Blood began to soak into his shirt, but that was okay, shirts could be replaced easier than first editions. The trick now would be to clean up the mess and the blood and dig out the elephant-sized splinter before Barnabas woke up.
"What is going on here?"
He kept his back to the library door where he knew Barnabas was standing and clasped his hand tighter to his chest.
"N-nothin'," he replied, realizing that a question had been asked of him. "Just finishing up here, just--"
Still holding the broken half of the splinter, he suddenly did not know what to do with it, wanting desperately to keep the situation from Barnabas.
He shoved it in his pocket, but as he did, another large circle of blood appeared on the tip of his shoe, a neat, perfectly round circle.
Footsteps, muffled by the carpet, came up alongside of him, and Barnabas made a sound of dismay as he surveyed the shambles of wooden crate and busted books. He bent over and picked up part of a broken volume and fingered the ripped edges along the spine, making tsk tsk noises under his breath.
Dark eyes turned to look at him, and Willie moved back, clutching his hand even tighter, hoping against hope that the blood making its way down his elbow would be mistaken for shadows. Or sweat on his shirt front.
"Byron," came that voice, disapproval dripping from it, vestiges of last night's good mood falling away. "Really, Willie, I simply can't understand your carelessness. This was a first edition on Byron. Quite valuable."
Willie had no idea who Byron was so he'd have to take Barnabas' word for that. And of course he would have to drop that particular box, with something valuable in it. Probably all of them were valuable in one way or another, so it couldn't have been any worse no matter which one he dropped. His hand was throbbing like wasps were inside of it, angry ones that wanted out and were willing to gnaw their way through flesh if necessary.
"What, no excuses?" Barnabas asked with mock surprise.
"I-I--" started Willie, but he had to stop and grit his teeth against the pains that were shooting up his arm and start again. "Tripped," he said finally.
"Tripped?" asked Barnabas, his voice rising to a bellow. "And what were you doing being so careless when you know how important these books are?"
Willie opened his mouth to apologize when Barnabas waved him away.
"Don't even bother, Willie."
"B-but," he tried, "but--"
Sternly, Barnabas advanced, his broad, wool dark shoulders rising to block the light, and reached for him. For his wounded hand.
This time Willie jumped backwards, out of reach, even as he knew he deserved to be punished for his stupidity, even as he knew this would erase any of what was left of Barnabas' good mood completely.
"You know what you deserve, don't you," said Barnabas. It was not a question.
"Y-yeah, but--" he stopped as his stomach gave a sudden churn as another layer of blood coyly slipped past his white-knuckled fingers.
Stopping, his outstretched arm frozen in place, Barnabas tipped his head slightly. "What did you do, is that blood?"
Willie almost snorted at this, as if Barnabas didn't know the scent of blood like he knew his own name. Biting this back, his teeth clenched, he managed an answer. "Just cut myself a little."
"A little?" This said dubiously. "Willie, your entire shirtfront is darkened with it."
Yes, this was true, as Willie looked down in the waning light, he could see the truth of this. His head was feeling a little woozy now that he thought of it, his heart pumping out hot blood to be soaked up by dry cloth until there was no more left and he was just an empty carcass on the floor.
Barnabas strode past him.
"Come out of here, before you bleed over every single book."
Willie hesitated, his feet tangling themselves as he slowly turned. Large black spots danced in front of his eyes, and then a cool hand came and clasped itself firmly on the back of his damp neck. By the time the hand guided him, stumbling, to the kitchen, the black spots had turned into black curtains.
"Sit down before you fall down," he heard Barnabas say, as though from a distance.
And he would do it too, if he could actually see a chair anywhere. The hand, cold and solid, led him to a spot in the room and then pushed briefly down on his neck. The back of his legs felt the edge of the chair and he sat. Then the hand pushed him forward until his head was almost between his knees and his sense of light and direction and sensation came back to him in a rush. Blood pounded in his temples and the hand left him at last as Barnabas walked over to the counter and began opening drawers and lifting the pump. He heard the sounds of candles being lit, the scent of burning wax reviving him a bit, and the clatter of things being placed on the table.
Willie lifted his head. Barnabas sat down in the chair on his right, two candles on the table ending overlapping circles of shadow and light over the table.
"Let me see," the vampire said.
Barnabas waited, and Willie wanted to edge away but the look on the vampire's face told Willie that Barnabas had other plans for this evening and if Willie didn't get a move on, he'd be in a hell of a lot more trouble than he was right now.
As he lifted his hand away from his chest, one ragged flap of skin caught on a button, sending the shard further into his palm and sending lightning dark pain up his arm. Gasping, he sunk his teeth into his lower lip.
Barnabas ignored him and gathered Willie's shaking hand in his larger one, letting the blood that made Willie look like he had stirred red paint with his bare hand drip through his fingers.
"S-splinter," Willie managed.
"Yes, I see."
With one hand he held Willie's wrist, causing Willie to turn toward him, his chest rubbing up against Barnabas' elbow. With the other, he traced the length of the shard deep beneath the skin.
"It's gone deep," remarked Barnabas as Willie winced and tried to draw his arm away, his eyes watering madly. "From the crate, I assume."
Willie could only manage a nod as Barnabas' fingers pushed down against his palm.
"This will have to come out," the vampire said, and Willie nodded again, knowing this as well.
He'd seen men working on ships who had splinters so deep they were constant, festering sores. The only way to treat them was to cut them out.
"Maybe a hospital," ventured Willie, not looking at Barnabas.
"There is no need for hospitals," Barnabas replied. Then he picked up the small paring knife from the table and held it in the candle's flame.
"D-don't." The word came out of Willie in a sharp rush, his eyes on the edge of the blade as it darkened in the heat.
"Don't!" His voice rose and Barnabas pulled on his wrist with a jerk.
"I said, hold still."
But he was squirming to get away, rising from the chair even as Barnabas clamped down harder on his wrist. It was really no use, his human strength was not in the same arena as the vampire's.
Besides which, Barnabas had obviously decided that this was the way it needed to be done, and Willie knew that he was very hard to dissuade.
"Sit down, or I will be forced to break your arm," warned Barnabas, and Willie froze, not wanting to even imagine Barnabas insisting on setting broken bones on top of everything else.
Barnabas pressed the back of Willie's wrist firmly against the table, and Willie found himself sitting again, pulled snugly against the vampire's shoulder. It was an odd sensation, hard cold muscle beneath fine dark wool, and the scent of the man, the faintness of cologne, hair oil, and beyond that, lingering like a wild thing in the darkness, the deep scent of night.
The knife blade flashed as Barnabas brought it down without warning, hot against his skin for only a second before Willie's world became nothing but pain. Everything else vanished. There was no fog of candlelight, no table, no Barnabas. Only sharp heat, agony that went on forever, a line of pain that went all the way to the center of his brain as something dug into his hand.
His throat ached with the scream he wanted to make but his body seemed to have forgotten how, and the next thing he realized was the roughness of Barnabas' jacket beneath his cheek, as his arm curved around in tandem with Barnabas'. His undamaged hand was caught in a death-grip, digging into the hard corded muscles of Barnabas shoulder, looping through to grab at the front of his jacket. Then he felt the bump of Barnabas' chin against the top of his head.
"Sit up, Willie," he heard. "Sit up and let go of me."
Bits of fiber seemed to have embedded themselves beneath his fingernails as he un-clenched his hand slowly and let go. Tried to raise his head but that was somewhat harder. His other hand he couldn't feel at all, unless he could count the sensation of the end of his arm being slammed over and over again. Darkness turned to light as he opened his eyes and looked at the candles. Something had darkened the stem of one of them with a spray, and it was dripping down to the bottom of the candle even as he watched. Barnabas brought the knife into the light, turning it so Willie could see the longish shaft of wood, darkened with blood along its jagged edges, speared on the tip of the knife. Then he put the knife down and turned toward Willie.
"Sit back and let me finish."
Willie looked at Barnabas, at those unreadable dark eyes that reflected rather than absorbed the candlelight. His hand was throbbing and his gaze turned to it, but Barnabas covered it with his hands.
"I said, sit back."
The vampire pushed him, almost gently, until his head was resting on the top rung of the chair.
"Now," said Barnabas, reaching for a damp cloth, "hold still."
Feeling the room sway a bit beyond the candles' light, Willie nodded. And watched as the vampire raised Willie's hand and wiped the blood away from his arm. Willie caught a glimpse of the heel of his palm, cut so cleanly and so deep he imagined he could see a flash of bone beneath dark red muscle and tendon. Fresh pain caught up with him at that moment, his hand hurting so badly that the tears started slipping from his eyes. His arm was shaking, and new blood jigged from the opened flesh to fall on the cloth of Barnabas' knee.
Bleeding. He was bleeding all over a vampire who had not yet fed. A vampire who considered him a clumsy idiot deserving punishment. And who considered Willie his servant, to do with as he pleased.
"N-no, please, Barnabas, don't, don--"
The eyes stopped him, the Thing springing to the surface there, and any thoughts Willie'd had of pulling away and running vanished. He stayed where he was, obedient, but it didn't stop his body from shaking or his arm from twitching in the vampire's grasp as Barnabas brought Willie's hand to his mouth. Cold lips settled on the open flesh along the heel of his palm. Tears spilled down Willie's cheeks as both of the vampire's hands held him there, and the vampire looked back at him, eyes flat and unblinking in the candlelight. The pressure of lips against his skin built as the vampire sucked, the points of teeth almost appearing from inside that mouth.
More pressure, as Barnabas' tongue batted against opened flesh so sensitive that Willie found himself jerking at each movement. The vampire settled in his chair, moving back slightly, both hands still clasping his, but warmer now, less like ice and more like sunbaked marble, and Willie watched as the vampire's throat moved over the swallows of blood. Barnabas' eyes flickered closed for just a moment as the tongue swept along the inside of the wound, and
Willie thought he would scream. But then the tongue stilled and the eyes opened, looking at him, darkened by shadows, and behind that, laced with heat, flickered something so unfamiliar that Willie felt his mouth falling open. A blink of those eyes and the heat vanished, and Willie's mind was once more taken with the circle of mouth on his palm, breath from the vampire's nostrils spreading gently across his fingers.
Willie's head dropped back against the chair, barely noticing when Barnabas took his mouth away, or that he wiped the corner of his mouth with the edge of his thumb. Only that his hand didn't hurt quite so much any more, that the pain had dropped to a manageable level, and that he thought he might, at long last, pass out. Instead he watched as Barnabas took a strip of cloth and bound up his hand, hiding the new, pink scar there, and tying the edges firmly with a small, neat knot.
"Now," said the vampire so gently that Willie was alarmed, "try not to use that hand for a day or two until the flesh is set."
Willie nodded, holding his hand slightly out in front of him.
"And go into the library and clean up all traces of that mess in there. I want no blood on the carpet or the floorboards, and when you're finished with that, stack all the broken books so I can assess the damage."
Again Willie nodded.
Barnabas rose, shoving the things on the table away from him as he did so. "And clean this up."
As the vampire walked behind him and circled round to the kitchen door, Willie made a questioning sound in his throat before he knew he was going to do it.
Barnabas paused. "Yes? What is it, Willie?"
Barnabas, it appeared, was going out, his evening's plans already established and Willie just an inconvenience he was unable to avoid. At no point during any of this, except perhaps at the very beginning, had he spoke of any dire consequences. If Willie asked about it, it might bring the matter to Barnabas' attention, when at the moment it appeared the vampire wasn't considering any punishment whatsoever. Perhaps he thought his servant had suffered enough for one evening. Hope warred with uncertainty, racing around in his stomach like two rats chasing each other's tail.
"Well, what is it?"
Should he ask, or should he just keep quiet?
Shut up, shut the hell up, said one voice.
Better ask, be safer that way, said the other.
Uncertainty won out.
"Aren't ya, aren't you gonna p-p--" the words choked themselves off in his throat as Barnabas' eyebrows rose.
"I haven't forgotten about your clumsiness, Willie. I will punish you when your hand is better," he replied, his voice rising with his own magnanimity. "After all, I am not a monster."
With that he left, shutting the door behind him. Leaving Willie to listen to the echo of his master's footsteps, rubbing his thumb idly against the edge of the bandage around the hand in his lap. And think about the healing powers of a vampire's kiss.
It was beyond Willie to understand why a book written by an unknown author would be worth so much money, but there it was in black and white. Some book about insects with a title about three pages long, written by God knows who, and Barnabas had paid $124.40 for it. There were books worth less, a lot were worth more, and every single one of them had to be checked off against the lists in Willie's hand. Of course, there was no correspondence between the order of the lists of books and the order of the crates, but Willie had hit on a system early on of going to one crate at a time and checking through the lists to make sure the book was there. It was still taking a while. Beside the title of each book was listed an estimated price, and Barnabas was eager to find out if the value of the books was less or more than he'd paid for them. Willie hoped the latter was true, because it would put Barnabas back in a good mood.
A good mood was what Willie needed these days, and badly.
The stack of ruined books had been taken to the nearest rare book dealer. The books were there now, and the answer had come back as expected. Not only would it cost a great deal to have the books restored to close their original state, but even repairing them would not bring their previous value. Most of the books that had been in the crate Willie'd inadvertently launched across the library were a write-off, and Willie had the slip of paper in his pocket as to how much that write-off was going to be. It wasn't just the money, he knew, though that was important too, it was the principal of his carelessness in the matter. He'd been running, he'd been hurrying, and he'd tripped.
And, what was worse, Willie's hand had been better for some days now. The scar on his palm from the huge splinter that Barnabas had removed was only a thin, white line. Barnabas had promised him some sort of punishment for his misdeed when his hand was better, saying that he'd be willing to wait till then, because, after all, he wasn't a monster. Willie snorted at the thought of this, bending over the clipboard once more, and digging out yet another volume. This one was covered in leather, as they mostly were, but the cover was absolutely plain, no gold gilt lettering, no fancy scrolls, entitled The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage. Willie checked it off the list, and then glanced at the price, almost dropping the book as he saw it was estimated at $16,000. He put his pencil between his teeth and balanced the largish volume on his lap, and flipped through it. Mostly faded, color pictures of odd looking birds and fish. The maps were interesting, though inaccurate, and the printing was very small. Dull stuff, and the book smelled bad. Barnabas had strange hobbies.
He put the book back and drew the next one out of the crate, checked it off and put it back, and did this until his fingers ached from holding the pencil and his eyes ached from reading the fine print. Sighing, he stretched his arms over his head, realizing that he would either have to get some candles in here, surely a disaster waiting to happen with all these books and packing material, or stop for the night. The sound of footsteps in the hallway made him realize that the decision was out of his hands. If Barnabas said continue, he'd keep working until the job was finished and he knew it.
Broad, dark shoulders filled the doorway, and Barnabas appeared, carrying a candle in his hand. It sent a circle of light around his face, though it wasn't bright enough for Willie to be able to figure out what kind of mood the vampire was in.
"How is the catalog job coming, Willie?" he asked, moving all the way into the room.
Willie took the pencil out of his mouth and stuck it through the space at the top of the clipboard, thinking that maybe it would be a hint that he was ready to quit for the day.
"About halfway, Barnabas," he said, trying to make his tone upbeat. He tucked his left hand down low, under the clipboard. The bandage was still on his hand, and he knew in his heart of hearts it was because he wanted Barnabas to think his hand was still on the mend. But it had been days, surely Barnabas knew what state it would be in by this time? That was what was killing Willie, when the moment would come when Barnabas would decide to mete out the punishment he thought Willie deserved.
"How many more crates to go through, then?"
Looking around the room, Willie let his eyes avoid the spot where the remains of the broken crate still clung to the fibers of the carpet. "Maybe 15," he said, and then pointed to the crate at his feet, "and what's left of this one."
"And the bookseller, did you check with him about the damaged books?"
The question was not unexpected, but it startled Willie, coming, as it did, on the heels of more or less benign questions. "Uh-uh, y-yeah, I stopped in to see him today and he told me to give you this."
He had to reach into his left pocket with his left hand; reaching into it with his right would have been too obvious, even though the bandage was pretty obvious itself. Holding out the folded paper to Barnabas, he tried to make his hand not shake, but it did. It wouldn't be long now then, would it. Days of wondering if he shouldn't, perhaps, remind Barnabas about the punishment, countered by the same days sweating it out with gratitude that the vampire did not seem to remember his promise, were driving Willie mad.
"He said you should call him about what you want him to do." Which meant that Willie would end up calling him, as this particular bookshop closed at five o'clock Monday through Friday. The sunset in autumn in Maine came at about the same time as the shop closed, and Willie could not see Barnabas hustling to the phone simply to talk to a common bookseller.
Barnabas held out the candle, his eyes flicking to the particular spot on the carpet, and Willie took the candle from him. His stomach lurched, maybe Barnabas hadn't forgotten. Unfolding the paper, the vampire held it up to the candlelight and Willie watched as his eyes went down the list. All the small crates held about 15 books, so there were fifteen books on that list. Fifteen books that were, as the vampire was now finding out, beyond any repair worth doing.
There was the Bryon, of course, worth about $570 or so; Willie had checked that out first thing. Other names that he did not recognize came to him as he watched Barnabas reading, and adding, and thinking: Goethe at $319, Hentzler at $406.50, Jackson at $174.22, some French guy at $36, Nettleton at $261.32, Tobias Smollet at a whopping $464.58 for some travel book about Italy, Tuke at $50.81, and another French guy by the name of Voltaire at $65.33. . . .
Willie stopped as Barnabas looked up at him, mentally estimating the amount in his head. There had probably been about $25,000 worth of books in that crate alone.
"There's more than $20,000 worth of books here, Willie, damaged beyond repair, were you aware of that?"
Not looking at Barnabas, Willie nodded, not surprised that Barnabas could add in his head like that.
"What a waste."
There was no answer to this remark, so Willie didn't even attempt one. He kept his head ducked down and his left hand beneath in the shadows at his side. Lowering the candle, he balanced it against his knee. The flickering light was almost blinding, and he could smell the beeswax burning sweetly, a testament to Barnabas' own consideration as to how important this shipment of books was. Ordinary deliveries warranted only ordinary candles. Barnabas folded the paper and put it in his pocket, the action drawing Willie's gaze to his hands. Large, they still handled the paper deftly, and they were white against the darkness of Barnabas' suit jacket.
"Tell Mr. Bauman that he is to burn the remains of those books," said Barnabas, taking the candle and turning away. "They are of no use to anyone anymore."
Just like that. Pow. All that money, up in flames.
But they were only books after all, and the Collins family had money pockets that went very deep. What was that amount to them? If each crate averaged a price of $25,000, then the value of 30 crates would be more than 3/4 of a million dollars. And yet Barnabas had treated the whole transaction as if it were nothing more than ordinary. He had to have paid less than the value, he had to have. Wasn't he now walking out of the room with the candle in his hand, totally calm, leaving Willie in darkness?
Willie opened his mouth.
No. He snapped his mouth shut and didn't say it. It might have been preordained, the punishment
Barnabas had promised, but it wasn't inevitable. Not if the vampire forgot. Not if Willie could avoid the temptation to remind him.
He avoided it studiously for the next two days, cataloging the books until he thought his eyes were going to dry up and fall out of his head. Books had never been a part of his life, his previous life. They were to throw, or steal for fun, or to burn for heat in an empty barrel. They were dusty, cumbersome, and above all, dull. But dull though they were, Willie kept his mind focused on them. And handled them with extreme care, from the less expensive volume of Longfellow's poems to the staggeringly expensive two volume set by Captain James Cook about his travels around the world.
I've been around the world. Just don't need to tell everyone I did.
When the last book had been removed from its place in a crate, checked off, and then returned, Willie gathered the clipboard with its lists and stood up. Stretched his arms to the ceiling, letting his head tip back and pull on the muscles of his shoulders. If he never saw another book, it would be too soon, but of course, Barnabas would want the books put in the shelves, only he hadn't decided how yet.
Just leave them in the crates for now, he'd said.
Willie obliged him.
Leaving the cavern of a library, Willie walked into the kitchen, noting the shadows cast on the lawn by the setting sun only vaguely as he hunted the cupboard for something easy to fix. One last can of chicken soup and stars was hidden behind its blander cousin, bean with bacon. As he poked up the ashes and added some more wood in the stove and heated up the can of soup in a small pot, he thought of the endless other chores and projects he would rather have been working on than checking books off a list. There was the newly delivered antique console, whose slender grace screamed to be refinished, or the roll of hall carpeting that only wanted to be tacked into place before it could properly set off the newly finished upper hallway. Or even the less glamorous job of washing walls in one of the front bedrooms. When a fellow got done counting a pile of books, the result was a pile of counted books. Which looked exactly like a pile of uncounted books. The result which was it didn't look like anything had gotten done, even though he'd worked for days on it.
A slight creak told him that the basement door into the hallway was being opened on a pair of hinges that Willie never planned to get around to oiling. True to the alarm, a series of footsteps now echoed in the hallway, and Willie moved almost against the stove until he could see the kitchen door and watch his soup come to the boil at the same time. But the footsteps faded in the direction of the drawing room, and Willie stirred the soup absently with a metal soup spoon, feeling the heat build up in the handle in his fingertips.
And then Barnabas appeared as the door to the kitchen opened, soundless and standing there, dark against the darkness of the hall. In his hand he held a piece of paper, the folded one from Bauman's bookstore. He carried it to the kitchen table and set it down, and Willie had the strange premonition that he wasn't going to be eating his dinner any time soon.
The vampire's face was set, the dark brows lowered, the frown curving down.
"Come look at this," he said.
Willie moved the pot from the hotter part of the stove to the cooler one, using his bandaged hand automatically, and walked over to the table, wishing he weren't already nervous. He looked down at the piece of paper and read the final figure that Barnabas had written there in his slanted hand: $23,329.
"Do you know what this means?" the vampire asked.
"Um," began Willie, "it means that the books were worth $23,329?"
"Correct. And do you know what it represents?"
The only answer Willie could think of was the one he already said, but Barnabas was hardly likely to appreciate him repeating himself, so he just shook his head.
"It represents what your punishment will be worth."
It was rather like being shoved into a deep freeze, where the cold swallows heat from all around, and Willie fought the urge to warm himself by rubbing his arms with his hands. But Barnabas must have caught the stilled movement anyway, for his dark eyes went to Willie's side, where his left hand was making an unconscious fist.
"Give me your hand," said Barnabas, holding out his own.
Willie's whole body jerked, his stomach clenching, recalling the last time Barnabas had wanted to see his hand, and how the vampire's eyes had looked at Willie over the palm of it, a flat-eyed creature that did not know the sun, and how the vampire had tasted him and swallowed him, and his heart lurched in his throat.
"Willie," said the vampire, tones of warning sharp in his voice.
Willie held up his hand, the tremors visible, and Barnabas took it and began unwrapping the bandage. As his hand came into view, Willie knew that even in the growing twilight, the newly healed and healthy scar was quite apparent. Barnabas ran his thumb along the scar, pushing very slightly into the flesh of the heel of Willie's palm.
"I would have hoped," he said, slowly, not looking up, "that you would have had enough honor, as a manservant, to come to me when this was healed so that I, as your master, could administer the punishment that was due you."
Willie opened his mouth to speak, to tell Barnabas that the thought had crossed his mind. At which point Barnabas would want to know that, if it had, why he had not spoken of it. At which point Willie would be forced to reveal that he'd hoped Barnabas would forget. Which would take Barnabas even angrier, and the punishment more severe. Though how it could be more severe than it probably already was, he had no idea.
"Well," asked Barnabas, "do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Barnabas let his hand go, and Willie clasped his unscarred hand to his heart. "I-I'm sorry about the books, I was just tryin' to get 'em done, like you wanted, you know, get 'em all ready an' everything?"
"Your haste has cost me money, Willie, and that is wasteful, and waste is something I cannot abide. Go and cut a switch from the yard."
Willie's heart sank, and he dropped his head forward, looking at the floor just in front of Barnabas' feet. "Please, Barnabas, not the sw--"
"Willie," said Barnabas, sharply, cutting him off.
Willie jerked his head up, catching the growing darkness of the Thing in Barnabas eyes, making his breath race in his throat.
"Go and cut the switch now."
Now meant now, especially when it was said like that, and Willie hurriedly grabbed a cutting knife from the drawer and stepped out into the darkening yard. At least it wasn't raining this time, at least he wouldn't be sodden with rain when Barnabas beat him, maybe it would hurt less this time, maybe he wouldn't pass out after. But these thoughts were small comfort as he cut the branch and stepped back into the kitchen to hand it to Barnabas, who gripped it in his big fist and waved over the top of the table with it.
When Willie hesitated, the vampire moved the piece of paper out of the way and then tapped on the tabletop with the switch.
"I want you to keep an eye on this piece of paper," he said, "and remind yourself that you are being punished for ruining a great many valuable books."
Willie was shaking now, and his eyes felt like they were too large for his face, and his hands reached out to grab the edge of the table when Barnabas stopped him.
"Take down your trousers."
"Wh-what?" He looked at the vampire, tipping his head up to do so, and caught the expression in Barnabas' face, angry and pale, the skin stretched tight. "B-but why, Barnabas?"
"In my day," the vampire began in that tone he liked to use when explaining about days long ago, "a servant who had cost his master as much as you have done would have been sold in bonded servitude for as many years as it would have taken him to work off what had been lost. In your case, that would have been the rest of your life. But since I cannot sell you," here Barnabas shrugged as if to express his opinion about the bizarre attitudes of modern day man, "I must keep you. And if I must keep you, I will punish you, a punishment that will roughly equal the amount of those books."
I'm not gonna make it.
"P-please, Barnabas, can't I work off the amount another way?"
"No." The vampire's mouth moved into a thin line. "Your trousers, Willie."
Willie's hands moved to his belt buckle, his fingers trembling as he tried to undo the fastening.
The metal was cool to the touch, the leather warm, and he thought how he'd much rather it be the belt than anything else, and he stopped and looked up at Barnabas, hair falling over one eye as he did so. He shook his head to move the hair out of the way and Barnabas' eyes shot up.
"I warn you, Willie," said Barnabas, his voice lowering to a growl, "not to test me, not with a pile of valuable books burning in the bookkeeper's fireplace as we speak."
"No," started Willie, his mouth going dry, "I wasn't, I mean, I was just--"
"Your punishment can only get more severe the more you delay."
There was nowhere to move, now, not with him looking like that, stating his warning like that, not with his eyes looking like flat iron, his fist tightening around the base of the switch. Willie undid his belt buckle, and then the top button and zipper of his pants. Hesitating only a second, he heard rather than saw the switch as Barnabas lashed the air with it.
If he'd been running he would have stumbled, his hands were shaking so badly that pulling his pants down over his hips became a major ordeal, almost refusing to budge. But he pushed at them until they were down by his knees, and then straightened up again.
"Lower," said Barnabas, tipping the end of the switch at Willie's ankles. "And these, as well."
He tapped the edge of Willie's laundry-greyed briefs. With an ache in his throat so big it almost
choked him, he didn't dare hesitate in slipping his hands beneath the wide elastic band and pushing the briefs down his legs, all the way to his calves. The tails of his button-down shirt dappled the tops of his thighs, and a cool breeze that threatened to raise goosebumps swirled between them. He couldn't even look at Barnabas now, but only kept his eyes on the table top, on the piece of paper that lay there, crème colored against the time-darkened wood.
Don't make me, please don't make me.
"Now," said Barnabas, his tone dark and dire enough to dissuade any last protest Willie wanted to make, "bend over."
Barnabas, it seemed, was going to make him make himself.
And Willie did it, but it was almost a weightless falling as he bent himself at the waist, feeling the stretch in the back of his bare legs, and the pressure on his arms as he propped his chest on them. Feeling like lead, his head fell forward, resting on the bunched, clasped circles of his hands as if he were about to pray. He only half noticed that as his legs shifted beneath him, his garments slipped further down his calves, letting even more damp air gather on his skin. And then he waited, hysteria rising like a tide in his chest.
He's not going to kill you.
No, of course not. He's going to save that for a special occasion.
He felt something brush against the side of his hip, and then he felt Barnabas moving the tails of his shirt high up on his back. Now the cold air really moved over him, over bare skin, stirring the hair on the back of his thighs. All of his muscles tightened as he heard Barnabas step back, as if to give himself enough room. And then, with a hiss, the switch came down. It landed on the highest part of his backside, where the flesh thinned, just below his hips. And bit into him so hard, and so hot, he thought he was burning.
"You may count them, if you like," Barnabas said. "Twenty-two more to go. I thought I would round down."
Another hiss, and like snake's teeth, the switch bit into him again, just below the first. Willie let out a small yelp, trying to swallow it back, and failing.
"After all. . . ."
The sound had become shriller now, more like a scream, and the switch came down again on the full edge of his backside, going into him like a drill, and vibrating there like it was like twisting lava. ". . . I am not a monster."
Willie choked back a reply, but as the switch bit into him again and his whole back broke out in a sweat, the reply came out anyway, garbled and unintelligible. He was terrified. He knew he could make it to six strokes, and that, only barely. Beyond that loomed a darkened void of unchartered pain that his body already knew he could not take. The puff of his breath moved the piece of paper away from him, across the table, and he slammed his eyes closed as Barnabas hit him again.
With the sixth stroke, his body began screaming at him to make it stop, as the heat built up in his spine, and the jagged edge of pain shot its way into his head. Nowhere to go, the pain and heat had nowhere to go but deeper inside of him, deep into each last recess of his body, until the tears were spilling down his cheeks and onto his clenched hands.
Fuck them all, I'm never reading again.
His world became the switch, and he quickly lost count, knowing only that he must have lurched up off the table at one point when Barnabas' hand came down in the small of his back, fingers spread wide to keep him still. Everything was black and red and vibrating. Long, thin lines of something horrible ate its way into his flesh, and as they began to accumulate, he began to feel so heavy, and it pressed down on him so hard, he feared his lungs would burst. Burst with the heat, and the pressure, and the scream that wanted only enough air to give it voice.
And then the blackness came, waves of it, crashing over what there was of light and air and sound, and he sank into it gratefully. But the pain followed him even there, making him feel like he was being torn apart from the inside. And in his mind, a frail whimper was the only thing he could realize, a whimper that echoed after each stroke of heated teeth.
At some moment, he began to realize that his teeth were biting into own his hand, and that his hands were wet with tears, and that he was sobbing. Everything else was perfectly still.
"Twenty-three," said Barnabas.
No, there's no way. No way I made it.
His sobbing grew, and he could not seem to stop it, not by holding his breath, not by unclenching his teeth from his fists, not by burying his head in his arms. It seemed impossible that he'd made it, and yet he had, though his body still vibrated at such an intensity that he began to grow sick to his stomach. The heat in his body was making him break into sweat all over, and with the coolness of the Old House, this quickly turned into chills. Then his legs were shaking, and he gulped back the sobs as hard as he could.
I gotta keep standing, oh, Christ, just keep standing.
"Pull yourself together, and look at me, Willie."
The voice came to him, cutting through the heat and the nauseating loops and jumps of his stomach. Willie managed to uncircle his arms and reach down slowly past the edges of the table, letting his head rest against the coolness of the wood as he grabbed the waist of his underwear and his trousers. Pulling them up together made them rub roughly against the criss-crossing welts on the backs of his legs, making them vibrate all on their own, wrenching another sob from his hard-gritted jaw. It took him forever, it seemed, and by the time he was just pulling his pants over his hips and about to give up, he felt Barnabas' hand grip his upper arm. The vampire pulled him upright, and Willie used the force of this motion to pull his pants up all the way, his hands shaking as they redid the zipper and button, but the belt was beyond him. He tried opening his eyes to look down at it, but this only pulled the skin along his backside up tight, sending a new, sharper bolt of pain into his head. Barnabas grabbed him with both hands now, those hands slipping up his arms to cup at the back of his neck. The vampire forced him to look up, to look into dark eyes through the curtain of tears still falling, as the hands, cold as circles of ice, cut through the dampness on his neck.
"How hot you become when I whip you," Barnabas remarked.
But Willie felt cold now, cold because the way those dark eyes appraised him, and the way they shuttered half closed, and how the hands on his neck tightened imperceptibly. It could not be happening, but it was. The vampire's mouth moved, and there was a glint of teeth, and Willie moaned, and his eyes closed, and he felt the stillness shatter as he was pulled close to rest against the wool-clad hardness of Barnabas' chest. Arms encircled him, holding him tight against solid muscle cold enough to steal his sweat from his skin. His own hands flew up as if to push away, but there was no room for leverage, no room at all, only a single moment where he could make a fist and thump it down, only to find the force of the blow muffled by the thick cloth of a wool lapel.
"P-please, don't, Barnabas, don't, please, please--"
But his words were absorbed by the wool of Barnabas' coat, by the arms that held him close, and then by the cold prick of silversharp teeth on his hot neck. He arched, clutching at Barnabas' coat, as the sharpness slid into him, and slid out again, all in one lightning quick movement. He could almost feel his own blood flowing out of him, as his heart, thumping hard, pumped it obligingly to the surface of his skin. And then a mouth, cold and hard, encircled a spot on his neck, and a tongue moved the blood and the mouth began to suck.
The vampire's mouth quickly went from ice cold to warm, and then the only evidence that it was still there was the pressure. Pressure of suction as Barnabas slowly drank from him, pulling back a bit and then moving forward, holding Willie in his arms, almost rocking him. Drinking and swallowing, his breath filtering through the stillness to stream down Willie's neck.
It began to hurt, too much friction building up, too much blood being pulled out of him, and
Willie began to struggle. But his struggling only made Barnabas clasp him tighter, until he was pressed right up against the vampire, his hips almost tangent with the vampire's hips, his legs parted by the vampire's thigh. And then, the vampire began to suck harder, tongue pressing against the open wound, and then the pain rose in his head, and burst into bright shards like falling stars, spreading down into layers of pleasure. The sudden hardness between his legs pressed against Barnabas' hip, and while the feeling of buildup shimmered down his spine, his eyes flew open, blind to everything except for the glow of the fire.
This was why. The mystery of why Maggie had never screamed when he did it to her, why there had never been any accounts in town of women screaming when the local "monster" had attacked them. The skin between his legs tightened in pleasant anticipation, and all the flesh nearby began to vibrate slowly, his cock, rockhard, sending signals up the muscles of his back. His heart, already racing, picked up to an even faster clip, and he knew. They liked it. They even welcomed it back. Once tasted, it was something they would fling open their windows, or even their French doors, for. The buzzing grew behind his eyes, and Barnabas tightened his hold around Willie's waist, arms pulling him close, until there was no way that Barnabas would not know what was happening to him.
No. For the love of God, no.
He could not let it happen, and yet it was, the slow, almost mild pulsing that began in his groin, and the twitch in his gut. And then Barnabas moaned low in his own throat, and it was like a trigger, moving that mouth against him, and sending the sound of the moan inside of him somehow, as if Barnabas had whispered in his ear. Whispered something that Willie had always wanted to hear and never had. All the sensations flurried together, like a flock of birds sweeping through the sky, and then they flew into him, and then peaked. His eyes slammed shut as the orgasm jolted through him, spilling from him in hot, jagged shards, rocking him back in Barnabas' arms. With a sigh, the vampire's mouth released him, but the arms held him, even as the soft cry of reaction escaped him and the aftershocks rippled down his legs. He was glad of the arms because he was so unsteady he would have fallen, but he immediately tried to pull away, stricken that Barnabas would cause this reaction in him. Stricken by the mere thought that he'd liked it, and that his body, even now settling down, would want more. And by the dampness of his briefs, which he could feel sticky against his skin as he tried to break free.
Shuddering, he pushed against the arms that still held him, pleasure melting, hands becoming fists against the wool. Pain settled in along the length of his legs, the curve of his butt, and the wound in his neck began to throb. As Barnabas suddenly released him, he stepped away, falling half against the table as his legs decided they'd had enough and couldn't support him anymore.
"I think it will be some time before you are again careless with my property," Barnabas said.
Willie looked up, though he didn't want to, and his eyes caught Barnabas'. They were shining and dark and alive. His skin was warm and flushed, and there was not even a trace of blood on his lips to explain why. The vampire smiled. "Then again, maybe it won't be."
Willie's hands clenched the edge of the table so hard his fingernails cut half-circles into the surface of the old wood. Something inside him twitched, as if in response, and the words of denial sprang to his lips, even as he bit them back. Barnabas chose that moment to move in close, and Willie moved his face until he could only see the hard line of Barnabas' shoulder in front of him. He let go of the table and clasped his arms to his chest. His legs were trembling beneath him.
"I'm going out," the vampire announced in a low voice that raised the hairs on the back of Willie's neck, "and by tomorrow evening, I want all of the books in the library on the shelves, alphabetically, by author."
Willie felt the tips of the vampire's fingers brush against the wounds in his neck, almost tickling them.
"These will heal fairly quickly," Barnabas said, almost whispering, "but I doubt that you will forget them quite so soon. Or the reason for them."
Willie shot his hand up to brush the vampire away, but he had already moved off, and was walking through the doorway to the hall. Willie listened to the footsteps as they paused in the front hallway, and then the faraway click of the knob being turned, and then, finally, the slam of the door and then the silence.
In the vampire's absence, he realized the pleasure was still moving inside of him like a slow liquid, even as his head reeled from the loss of blood, and the backside of him, from hips on down, felt like it had been put through the meat shredder. Spit built up in his mouth and he realized he was going to throw up. Racing outside, he made it to the edge of the flagstones just as his stomach heaved up whatever the acid had grabbed hold of and spilled it onto the earth.
Shaking, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It was pure dark in the back yard, not even the edges of tree branches stood out against the sky. Almost nothing stirred, except for a slight breeze from the sea.
Please tell me that didn't just happen to me.
But it had.
He managed to make it back into the kitchen, the scent of something overly hot strong in the air. It was the soup, on low heat over the edges of the stove, chicken with stars and dried to a hard crust in the bottom of the pan. Willie lifted it with disgust, pitching it in the bottom of the sink and sending a few pumps of water into it. The pan, with a nice long soak, would be fine by morning. He, on the other hand, would be two weeks walking with a firm reminder of how haste could make waste while the welts on his body faded into an unpleasant memory.
The wounds on his neck would be gone within days. His body would heal, he knew that, even as he fought against the lightheaded feeling that threatened to make him pitch to the floor. Sitting down was an impossibility, so he grabbed the edge of the table and leaned over it again, as if for a beating, letting the coolness of the wood soak into his face, letting the table, with its sturdy age, support half his weight.
I'll just stay like this.
It was almost comfortable, except for the very edge of the table cutting somewhat sharply into him, and he took one, long, deep breath. Arms outstretched. Sweat fading, pleasure fading, the dull throbbing pain a continual tempo with his heartbeat. The thing to do was to take himself upstairs to his bedroom, out of sight for when Barnabas came back, and get a good night's sleep. Or as good as could be got, anyway. And that's what he was going to do. In a minute. In another minute. The memory trickled into the back of his brain, Barnabas' mouth on his neck, lips pulling against his flesh, that tongue moving so slowly against him, exactly like--
Willie lurched up, slamming his hands against the table, pushing away, his whole body shaking. His hands went to his head, so hot it felt it would burst into living flame.
Never. Never ever.
But he wasn't so sure.
Stumbling down the hall, he grabbed the stair railing and pulled himself up the stairs with it.
I will go lay down. I will sleep. I will forget this.
He could do the first thing. He could try the second thing. But he could not get his mind around how to do the third thing. He was the vampire's slave, even now, but reluctantly. Obedient but rebellious, and the whole while his eyes on a horizon he knew would someday appear leading to escape. If this . . . if whatever had happened drew him in, seduced him into Barnabas' arms, he would be trapped forever.
He reached his room and tumbled face down onto the bed, covering his head with his arms. This was the seduction that Maggie had fought, it must have been, although he could not remember a single moment when she had seemed attracted to it. Yes, she must have liked it when it was happening to her, it was overwhelming enough, but afterwards, she'd never said a single word nor acted as though she wanted its return. She'd practically spat in the vampire's face as though she'd wanted to claw his eyes out, and now it occurred to Willie why her fury had been so fierce. Barnabas' . . . pleasuring of her may have taken her body, but her mind, her soul, had never been drawn to him. That was what Barnabas had wanted of her, and what he realized he could never have, and that was why he'd wanted to kill her. Willie made himself sit up, his body slow and stiff to respond, and light a candle and take off his shoes.
I will sleep.
Sleep was the most important thing, the only thing. Tomorrow loomed all the duties that the Old House and Barnabas required of him, and beyond that loomed even more tomorrows. He needed his rest, his body needed time to repair. And he would be good. He would be obedient and careful, and not drop anything, or break anything, or do any misdeed that might earn him any type of punishment whatsoever. Barnabas' whippings heated up his skin, and the scent of him, now that Barnabas knew what he tasted like, would make the vampire want him again. Make him take Willie in his arms and open Willie's flesh and take warm blood into the back of his mouth, and--
The candle lit, shoes in a clutter on the floor, Willie shucked off his pants and lay back on the bed. Cool air stroked his hot skin, and he sighed with one, long, slow, deep breath. He was slightly hard with excitement, but he ignored it, purposefully moving his leg so that the welts were rubbed against the rough woolen blanket.
You will not, Barnabas, and I will not let you.
The trick was, he realized as the length of the day sucked him toward sleep, never let Barnabas know how it affected him. Like Maggie must have done, spitting into the vampire's face, hating him and never saying why. The vampire could come to his own conclusions about it and never come close to the truth.
Willie closed his eyes, still seeing the glow of the candle behind his lids and pretended that it was okay. Pretended that he had the willpower to resist, and the skill to keep it from Barnabas, and the complete lack of desire for another slow dance in Barnabas' arms.
Right now it was a lie, an obscene lie. But he would make it the truth as Maggie must have done, and keep his eyes wide, on the far horizon, where beach grass moved beneath water-borne breezes, where the air tasted of clean salt, and the sky was open, and blue, and went on forever.