I DIDN'T CALL STEVE THAT Sunday. I told Mom and Dad we'd had a small argument and that was why I'd come home early. They weren't happy about it, especially my having walked home so late at night by myself. Dad said he was going to dock my allowance and was grounding me for a month. I didn't argue. The way I saw it, I was getting off lightly. Imagine what they'd have done to me if they knew about the Cirque Du Freak!

Annie loved her presents. She gobbled the candy down quickly and played with the spider for hours. She made me tell her all about the show. She wanted to know what every freak looked like and what they'd done. Her eyes went wide when I told her about the wolf-man and how he bit off a woman's hand.

"You're joking," she said. "That can't be true."

"It is," I vowed.

"Cross your heart?" she asked.

"Cross my heart."

"Swear on your eyes?"

"I swear on my eyes," I promised. "May rats gnaw them out if I'm telling a lie."

"Wow!" she gasped. "I wish I'd been there. If you ever go again, will you take me?"

"Sure," I said, "but I don't think the freak show comes here that often. They move around a lot."

I didn't tell Annie about Mr. Crepsley being a vampire or Steve wanting to become one, but I thought about the two of them all day long. I wanted to call Steve but didn't know what to say. He would be bound to ask why I didn't go back to his place, and I didn't want to tell him that I'd stayed in the theater and spied on him.

Imagine: a real-life vampire! I used to believe they were real but then my parents and teachers convinced me they weren't. So much for the wisdom of grownups!

I wondered what vampires were really like, whether they could do everything the books and movies said they could. I had seen Mr. Crepsley make a chair fly, and I'd seen him swoop down from the roof of the theater, and I'd seen him drink some of Steve's blood. What else could he do? Could he turn into a bat, into smoke, into a rat? Could you see him in a mirror? Would sunlight kill him?

As much as I thought about Mr. Crepsley, I thought just as much about Madam Octa. I wished once again that I could buy one like her, one I could control. I could join a freak show if I had a spider like that, and travel the world, having marvelous adventures.

Sunday came and went. I watched TV, helped Dad in the garden and Mom in the kitchen (part of my punishment for coming home late by myself), went for a long walk in the afternoon, and daydreamed about vampires and spiders.

Then it was Monday and time for school. I was nervous going in, not sure what I was going to say to Steve, or what he might say to me. Also, I hadn't slept much over the weekend (it's hard to sleep when you've seen a real vampire), so I was tired and groggy.

Steve was in the yard when I arrived, which was unusual. I normally got to school before him. He was standing apart from the rest of the kids, waiting for me. I took a deep breath, then walked over and leaned against the wall beside him.

"Morning," I said.

"Morning," he replied. There were dark circles under his eyes and I bet he'd slept even less than me the last couple of nights. "Where did you go after the show?" he asked.

"I went home," I told him.

"Why?" he asked, watching me carefully.

"It was dark outside and I wasn't looking where I was going. I took a few wrong turns and got lost. By the time I found myself somewhere familiar, I was closer to home than to your house."

I made the lie sound as convincing as possible, and I could see him trying to figure out if it was the truth or not.

"You must have gotten into a lot of trouble," he said.

"Tell me about it!" I groaned. "No allowance, grounded for a month, and Dad said I'm going to have to do a bunch of chores. Still," I said with a grin, "it was worth it, right? I mean, was the Cirque Du Freak superb or what!"

Steve studied me for one more moment, then decided I was telling the truth. "Yeah," he said, returning my smile. "It was great."

Tommy and Alan arrived and we had to tell them everything. We were pretty good actors, Steve and I. You'd never have guessed that he had spoken to a vampire on Saturday, or that I had seen him.

I could tell, as the day wore on, that things would never be quite the same between me and Steve. Even though he believed what I'd told him, part of him still doubted me. I caught him looking at me oddly from time to time, as though I was someone who had hurt him.

For my part, I didn't want to get too close to him any longer. It scared me, what he'd said to Mr. Crepsley, and what the vampire had said to him. Steve was evil, according to Crepsley. It worried me. After all, Steve was prepared to become a vampire and kill people for their blood. How could I go on being friends with someone like that?

We were chatting about Madam Octa later that afternoon. Steve and I hadn't said much about Mr. Crepsley and his spider. We were afraid to talk about him, in case we let something slip. But Tommy and Alan kept pestering us and eventually we filled them in on the act.

"How do you think he controlled the spider?" Tommy asked.

"Maybe it was a fake spider," Alan said.

"It wasn't a fake," I snorted. "None of the freaks were fake. That was why it was so brilliant. You could tell everything was real."

"So how did he control it?" Tommy asked again.

"Maybe the flute is magic," I said, "or else Mr. Crepsley knows how to charm spiders, the way Indians can charm snakes."

"But you said Mr. Tall controlled the spider, too," Alan said, "when Mr. Crepsley had Madam Octa in his mouth."

"Oh. Yeah. I forgot," I said. "Well, I guess that means they must have used magic flutes."

"They didn't use magic flutes," Steve said. He had been quiet most of the day, saying less than me about the show, but Steve never could resist hammering someone with facts.

"So what did they use?" I asked.

"Telepathy," Steve answered.

"Is that something to do with telephones?" Alan asked.

Steve smiled, and Tommy and I laughed (although I wasn't entirely sure what ?telepathy? meant, and I bet Tommy wasn't either). "Moron!" Tommy chuckled, and punched Alan playfully.

"Go on, Steve," I said, "tell him what it means."

"Telepathy is when you can read somebody else's mind," Steve explained, "or send them thoughts without speaking. That's how they controlled the spider, with their minds."

"So what's with the flutes?" I asked.

"Either they're just for show," Steve said, "or, more likely, you need them to attract her attention."

"You mean anyone could control her?" Tommy asked.

"Anyone with a brain, yes," Steve said. "Which counts you out, Alan," he added, but smiled to show he didn't mean it.

"You wouldn't need magic flutes or special training or anything?" Tommy asked.

"I don't think so," Steve answered.

The talk moved on to something else after that soccer, I think but I wasn't listening. Because all of a sudden there was a new thought running through my mind, setting my brain on fire with ideas. I forgot about Steve and vampires and everything.

"You mean anyone could control her?"

"Anyone with a brain, yes."

"You wouldn't need magic flutes or special training or anything?"

"I don't think so."

Tommy's and Steve's words kept bouncing through my mind, over and over, like a stuck CD.

Anyone could control her. That anyone could be me. If I could get my hands on Madam Octa and communicate with her, she could be my pet and I could control her and...

No. It was foolish. Maybe I could control her, but I would never own her. She was Mr. Crepsley's and there was no way in the world that he would part with her, not for money or jewels or...

The answer hit me in a flash. A way to get her from him. A way to make her mine. Blackmail! If I threatened the vampire I could say I'd get the police after him he'd have to let me keep her.

But the thought of going face to face with Mr. Crepsley terrified me. I knew I couldn't do it. That left just one other option: I'd have to steal her!