"YOU'RE CRAZY!" I YELLED, STUMBLING backward. "There's no way I'd become your assistant! You must be mad to even think such a thing!"
Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "Then Steve Leopard dies," he said simply.
I stopped retreating. "Please," I begged, "there must be another way."
"The issue is not open to debate," he said. "If you wish to save your friend, you must join me. If you refuse, we have nothing further to discuss."
"What if I..."
"Do not waste my time!" he snapped, pounding on the table. "I have lived in this dirty hole for two weeks, putting up with fleas and cockroaches and lice. If you are not interested in my offer, say so and I will leave. But do not waste my time with other options, because there are none."
I nodded slowly and took a few-steps forward. "Tell me more about being a vampire's assistant," I said.
He smiled. "You will be my traveling companion," he explained. "You will travel with me across the world. You will be my eyes and hands during the day. You will guard me while I sleep. You will find food for me if it is scarce. You will take my clothes to the laundry. You will polish my shoes. You will look after Madam Octa. In short, you will see to my every need. In return, I will teach you the ways of the vampires."
"Do I have to become a vampire?" I asked.
"Eventually," he said. "At first you will only have some vampire powers. I will make you a half-vampire. That means you will be able to move about during the day. You will not need much blood to keep you satisfied. You will have certain powers but not all. And you will only age at a fifth the regular rate, instead of the full vampire's tenth."
"What does that mean?" I asked, confused.
"Vampires do not live forever," he explained, "but we do live far longer than humans. We age at about one-tenth the regular rate. Which means, for every ten years that pass, we age one. As a half-vampire, you will age one year for every five."
"You mean, for every five years that pass, I'll only be one year older?" I asked.
"That is right."
"I dunno," I muttered. "It sounds sketchy to me."
"It is your choice," he said. "I cannot force you to become my assistant. If you decide it is not to your liking, you are free to leave."
"But Steve will die if I do that!" I cried.
"Yes," he agreed. "It is your assistance or his life."
"That's not much of a choice," I grumbled.
"No," he admitted, "it is not. But it is the only one I offer. Do you accept?"
I thought it over. I wanted to say no, run away, and never return. But if I did, Steve would die. Was he worth such a deal? Did I feel guilty enough to offer my life for his? The answer was:
"Okay," I sighed. "I don't like it, but my hands are tied. I just want you to know this: if I ever get the chance to betray you, I will. If the opportunity arises to pay you back, I'll take it. You'll never be able to trust me."
"Fair enough," he said.
"I mean it," I warned him.
"I know you do," he said. "That is why I want you. A vampire's assistant must have spirit. Your fighting quality is exactly what drew me to you. You will be a dangerous lad to have around, I am sure, but in a fight, when the chips are down, I am just as sure you will be a worthy ally."
I took a deep breath. "How do we do it?" I asked.
He stood and pushed the table aside. Stepped forward until he was about a foot away. He seemed tall as a building. There was a foul smell to him that I hadn't noticed before, the smell of blood.
He raised his right hand and showed me the back of it. His nails weren't especially long but they looked sharp. He raised his left hand and pressed the nails of the right into the fleshy tips of his left-hand fingers. Then he used his other set of nails to mark the right-hand fingers in the same way. He winced as he did it.
"Lift your hands," he grunted. I was watching the blood drip from his fingers and didn't obey the command. "Now!" he yelled, grabbing my hands and jerking them up.
He dug his nails into the soft tips of my fingers, all ten of them at once. I cried out with pain and fell back, tucking my hands in at my sides, rubbing them against my jacket.
"Do not be such a baby," he jeered, tugging my hands free.
"It hurts! "I howled.
"Of course it does." He laughed. "It hurt me too. Did you think becoming a vampire was easy? Get used to the pain. Much of it lies ahead."
He put a couple of my fingers in his mouth and sucked some blood out. I watched as he rolled it around his mouth, testing it. Finally he nodded and swallowed. "It is good blood," he said. "We can proceed."
He pressed his fingers against mine, wound to wound. For a few seconds there was a numb feeling at the ends of my arms. Then I felt a gushing sensation and realized my blood was moving from my body to his through my left hand, while his blood was entering mine through my right.
It was a strange, tingling feeling. I felt his blood travel up my right arm, then down the side of my body and over to the left. When it reached my heart there was a stabbing pain and I almost collapsed. The same thing was happening to Mr. Crepsley and I could see him grinding his teeth and sweating.
The pain lasted until Mr. Crepsley's blood crept down my left arm and started flowing back into his body. We remained joined for a couple more seconds, until he broke free with a shout. I fell backward to the floor. I was dizzy and felt sick.
"Give me your fingers," Mr. Crepsley said. I looked across and saw him licking his. "My spit will heal the wounds. You will lose all your blood and die otherwise."
I glanced down at my hands and saw blood leaking out. Stretching them forth, I let the vampire put them in his mouth and run his rough tongue over the tips.
When he released them, the flow had stopped. I wiped the leftover blood off on a rag. I studied my fingers and noted they now had ten tiny scars running across them.
"That is how you recognize a vampire," Mr. Crepsley told me. "There are other ways to change a human but the fingers are the simplest and least painful method."
"Is that it?" I asked. "Am I a half-vampire now?"
"Yes," he said.
"I don't feel any different," I told him.
"It will take a few days for the effects to become apparent," he said. "There is always a period of adjustment. The shock would be too great otherwise."
"How do you become a full vampire?" I asked.
"The same way," he said, "only you stay joined longer, so more of the vampire's blood enters your body."
"What will I be able to do with my new powers?" I asked. "Will I be able to change into a bat?"
His laughter rocked the room. "A bat!" he shrieked. "You do not believe those silly stories, do you? How on Earth could somebody the size of you or I turn into a tiny flying rat? Use your brain, boy. We can no more turn into bats, rats, or fog than we can turn into ships, planes, or monkeys!"
"So what can we do?" I asked.
He scratched his chin. "There is too much to explain right now," he said. "We must tend to your friend. If he does not get the antidote before tomorrow morning, the serum will not work. Besides, we have plenty of time to discuss secret powers." He grinned. "You could say we have all the time in the world."