EARLY MORNING WOULD BE THE best time to steal the spider. Having performed so late into the night, most members of the Cirque Du Freak would probably sleep in until eight or nine. I'd sneak into camp, find Madam Octa, grab her, and run. If that wasn't possible if the camp was awake I'd just return home and forget about it.

The difficult part was picking a day. Wednesday might be ideal: the last show would have played the night before, so the circus would in all likelihood have pulled out before midday and moved on to its next venue before the vampire could awake and discover the theft. But what if they left town directly after the show, in the middle of the night? Then I'd miss my big chance.

It had to be tomorrow Tuesday. That meant Mr. Crepsley would have all of Tuesday night to search for his spider for me but that was a risk I'd just have to take.

I went to bed earlier than usual. I was tired and ready to fall asleep, but was so excited, I thought I wouldn't be able to. I kissed Mom good night and hugged Dad. They thought I was trying to win my allowance back, but it was in case something happened to me at the theater and I never saw them again.

I have a radio that is also an alarm clock, and I set the alarm for five o'clock in the morning, then stuck my headphones on and plugged them into the radio. That way, I could wake up nice and early without waking anyone else.

I fell asleep quicker than I expected and slept straight through till morning. If I had any dreams, I can't remember them.

Next thing I knew, the alarm was sounding. I groaned, turned over, then sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes. I wasn't sure where I was for a few seconds, or why I was awake so early. Then I remembered the spider and the plan, and grinned happily.

The grin didn't last long, because I realized the alarm wasn't coming through my headphones. I must have rolled over in my sleep and pulled the cord out! I leaped across my bed and slammed the alarm off, then sat in the early morning darkness, heart pounding, listening for noises.

When I was sure my parents were still asleep, I slid out of bed and got dressed as quietly as I could. I went to the bathroom and was about to flush the toilet when I thought of the noise it would make. I yanked my hand away from the lever and wiped the sweat from my brow. They would surely have heard that! A narrow escape. I'd have to be more careful when I got to the theater.

I slipped downstairs and let myself out. The sun was coming up and it looked like it would be a bright day.

I walked quickly and sang songs to pep myself up. I was a bundle of nerves and almost turned back a dozen times. Once I actually did turn and start walking home, but then I remembered the way the spider had hung from Mr. Crepsley's jaw, and the tricks she had performed, and swung around again.

I can't explain why Madam Octa meant so much to me, or why I was placing my life in such danger to have her. Looking back, I'm no longer sure what drove me on. It was just this intense need I couldn't ignore.

The crumbling old building looked even creepier by day. I could see cracks running down the front, holes nibbled by rats and mice, spiderwebs in the windows. I shivered and hurried around to the rear. It was deserted. Empty old houses, junkyards, scrap heaps. There would be people moving around later in the day, but right then it looked like a ghost town. I didn't even see a cat or a dog.

As I'd thought, there were plenty of ways to get into the theater. There were two doors and tons of windows to choose from.

Several cars and vans were parked outside the building. I didn't spot any signs or pictures on them, but I was sure they belonged to the Cirque Du Freak. It suddenly struck me that the freaks probably slept in the vans. If Mr. Crepsley had a home in one of them, my plan was sunk.

I snuck into the theater, which felt even colder than it had on Saturday night, and tiptoed down a long corridor, then another, then another! It was like a maze back there and I started worrying about finding my way out. Maybe I should go back and bring a ball of string, so I could mark my way and...

No! It was too late for that. If I left, I'd never have the guts to return. I'd just have to remember my steps as best I could and say a little prayer when it came time to leave.

I saw no sign of any freaks, and began to think I was on a fool's errand, that they were all in the vans or in nearby hotels. I'd been searching for twenty minutes and my legs felt heavy after so much walking. Maybe I should quit and forget the crazy plan.

I was about to give up when I found a set of stairs leading down to a cellar. I paused at the top for a long time, biting my lips, wondering if I should go down. I'd seen enough horror movies to know this was the most likely spot for a vampire, but I'd also seen a bunch where the hero walked down to a similar cellar, only to be attacked, murdered, and chopped up into little pieces!

Finally I took a deep breath and started down. My shoes were making too much noise, so I eased them off and padded along in just my socks. I picked up a bunch of splinters, but was so nervous, I didn't feel the pain.

There was a huge cage near the bottom of the stairs. I edged over to it and looked through the bars. The wolf-man was inside, lying on his back, asleep and snoring. He twitched and moaned as I watched. I jumped back from the cage. If he woke, his howls would bring the whole freak show down on me in seconds flat!

As I was stumbling backward, my foot hit something soft and slimy. I turned my head slowly and saw I was standing over the snake-boy! He was stretched out on the floor, his snake wrapped around him, and his eyes were wide open!

I don't know how I managed not to scream or faint, but somehow I kept quiet and stayed on my feet, and that saved me. Because, even though the snake-boy's eyes were open, he was fast asleep. I knew by the way he was breathing: deeply, heavily, in and out.

I tried not to think about what would have happened if I'd fallen on him and the snake and woken them up.

Enough was enough. I gave one last look around the dark cellar, promising myself I'd leave if I didn't spot the vampire. For a few seconds I saw nothing and got ready to scram, but then I noticed what might have been a large box near one of the walls.

It might have been a large box. But it wasn't. I knew all too well what it really was. It was a coffin!

I gulped, then walked carefully over to the coffin. It was about six feet long and two and a half feet wide. The wood was dark and stained. Moss was growing in patches, and I could see a family of cockroaches in one of the corners.

I'd love to say I was brave enough to lift the lid and peek inside, but of course I wasn't and didn't. Even the thought of touching the coffin gave me the shivers!

I searched for Madam Octa's cage. I felt sure she wouldn't be far from her master, and sure enough, there was the cage, on the floor by the head of the coffin, covered by a big red cloth.

I glanced inside to make sure, and there she was, her belly pulsing, her eight legs twitching. She looked horrible and terrifying this close up, and for a second I thought about leaving her. All of a sudden it seemed like a stupid idea, and the thought of touching her hairy legs or letting her anywhere near my face filled me with dread.

But only a true coward would turn back now. So I picked up the cage and laid it in the middle of the cellar. The key was hanging from the lock and one of the flutes was tied to the bars at the side.

I took out the note I had written back home the night before. It was simple, but had taken me forever to write. I read it as I stuck it to the top of the coffin with a piece of gum.

Mr Crepsley,

I know who and what you are. I have taken Madam Octa and am keeping her. Do not come looking for her. Do not come back to this town If you do, I will tell everyone that you are a vampire and you will be hunted down and killed I am not Steve. Steve knows nothing about this I will take good care of the spider.

Of course, I didn't sign it!

Mentioning Steve probably wasn't a good idea, but I was sure the vampire would think of him anyway, so it was just as well to clear his name.

With the note stuck in place, it was time to go. I picked up the cage and hurried up the stairs as fast as I could (being as silent as possible). I slipped my shoes back on and found my way out. It was easier than I'd imagined: the halls looked brighter after the dark of the cellar. When I got outside I walked slowly around to the front of the theater, then ran for home, stopping for nothing, leaving the theater and the vampire and my fear far behind. Leaving everything behind except for Madam Octa!