I HAD TO WAIT UNTIL ALMOST eleven o'clock. I would have gone earlier, while Mom was at the hospital, but a couple of Dad's pals came around with kids of their own and I had to play host.

Mom returned home at about ten. She was tired, so Dad quickly cleared the house of visitors. They had a cup of tea and a chat in the kitchen, then went up to bed. I let them drift off to sleep, then snuck downstairs and let myself out the back door.

I sped through the dark like a comet. Nobody saw or heard me, I moved so fast. I had a cross in one pocket, which I'd found in Mom's jewelry box, and a bottle of holy water in the other, which one of Dad's pen pals had sent to us years ago. I wasn't able to find a stake. I'd thought about bringing a sharp knife instead, but probably would only have cut myself. I'm clumsy with knives.

The old theater was pitch black and deserted. I used the front door this time.

I didn't know what I'd do if the vampire wasn't there, but somehow I sensed he would be. It was like the day Steve threw the scraps of paper up in the air with the winning ticket hidden amongst them, and I shut my eyes and reached out blindly. It was destiny.

It took a while to find the cellar. I'd brought a flashlight but the battery was almost dead and it flickered out after a couple of minutes, leaving me to grope through the dark like a mole. When I did find the steps, I started straight down, not giving fear time to catch up.

The farther down I went, the brighter it got, until I reached the bottom and saw five tall flickering candles. I was surprised weren't vampires supposed to be afraid of fire? but glad.

Mr. Crepsley was waiting for me at the other end of the cellar. He was sitting at a small table, playing a game of cards with himself.

"Good morning, Master Shan," he said, without looking up.

I cleared my throat before replying. "It's not morning," I said. "It's the middle of the night."

"To me, that is morning," he said, then looked up and grinned. His teeth were long and sharp. This was the closest to him I'd been and I expected to spot all sorts of details red teeth, long ears, narrow eyes but he looked like a normal human, albeit a tremendously ugly one.

"You've been waiting for me, haven't you?" I asked.

"Yes. "He nodded.

"How long have you known where Madam Octa was?"

"I found her the night you stole her," he said.

"Why didn't you take her then?"

He shrugged. "I was going to, but I got to thinking about the sort of boy who would dare steal from a vampire, and I decided you might be worth further study."

"Why?" I asked, trying to stop my knees from knocking together.

"Why indeed?" he replied mockingly. He snapped his fingers and the cards on the table jumped together and slid back into the pack by themselves. He put it away and cracked his knuckles. "Tell me, Darren Shan, why have you come? Is it to steal from me again? Do you still desire Madam Octa?"

I shook my head. "I never want to see that monster again!" I snarled.

He laughed. "She will be so sad to hear that."

"Don't make fun of me," I warned him. "I don't like being teased."

"No?" he asked. "And what will you do if I continue?"

I pulled out the cross and bottle of holy water and held them up. "I'll strike you with these!" I roared, expecting him to fall back, frozen with fear. But he didn't. Instead he smiled, snapped his fingers again, and suddenly the cross and plastic bottle were no longer in my hands. They were in his.

He studied the cross, chuckled and squeezed it into a little ball, as though it were made of tinfoil. Next he uncorked the holy water and drank it.

"You know what I love?" he asked. "I love people who watch lots of horror movies and read horror books. Because they believe what they read and hear, and come packing silly things like crosses and holy water, instead of weapons that could do real damage, like guns and hand grenades."

"You mean...crosses don't...hurt you?" I stammered.

"Why should they?" he asked.

"Because you're...evil," I said.

"Am I?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "You must be. You're a vampire. Vampires are evil."

"You should not believe everything you are told," he said. "It is true that our appetites are rather exotic. But just because we drink blood does not mean that we are evil. Are vampire bats evil when they drink the blood of cows and horses?"

"No," I said. "But that's different. They're animals."

"Humans are animals, too," he told me. "If a vampire kills a human, then yes, he is evil. But one who just takes a little blood to fill his rumbling belly...where is the harm in that?"

I couldn't answer. I was numb and no longer knew what to believe. I was at his mercy, alone and defenseless.

"I see you are not in the mood for a debate," he said. "Very well. I will save the speeches for another time. So tell me, Darren Shan: what is it you want if not my spider?"

"She bit Steve Leonard," I told him.

"The one known as Steve Leopard," he said, nodding. "A nasty business. Still, little boys who play with things they do not understand can hardly complain if..."

"I want you to make him better!" I yelled, interrupting.

"Me?" he asked, acting surprised. "But I am not a doctor. I am not a specialist. I am just a circus performer. A freak. Remember?"

"No," I said. "You're more. I know you can save him. I know you have the power."

"Maybe," he said. "Madam Octa's bite is deadly, but for every poison there exists an antidote. Maybe I do have the cure. Maybe I have a bottle of serum that will restore your friend's natural physical functions."

"Yes!" I shouted gleefully. "I knew it! I knew it! I..."

"But maybe," Mr. Crepsley said, raising a long bony finger to silence me, "it is a small bottle. Maybe there is only a tiny amount of serum. Maybe it is very precious. Maybe I want to save it for a real emergency, in case Madam Octa ever bites me. Maybe I do not want to waste it on an evil little brat."

"No," I said softly. "You have to give it to me. You have to use it on Steve. He's dying. You can't let him die."

"I most certainly can." Mr. Crepsley laughed. "What is your friend to me? You heard him the night he was here: he said he would become a vampire hunter when he grew up!"

"He didn't mean it," I gasped. "He only said that because he was angry."

"Perhaps," Mr. Crepsley mused, tugging at his chin and stroking his scar. "But again, I ask: why should I save Steve Leopard? The serum was expensive and cannot be replaced."

"I can pay for it," I cried, and that was what he had been waiting for. I saw it in his eyes, the way they narrowed, the way he hunched forward, smiling. This was why he hadn't taken Madam Octa that first night. This was why he hadn't left town.

"Pay for it?" he asked slyly. "But you are only a boy. You cannot possibly have enough money to buy the cure."

"I'll pay in small amounts," I promised. "Every week for fifty years, or as long as you want. I'll get a job when I grow up and give you all my money. I swear."

He shook his head. "No," he said softly. "Your money does not interest me."

"What does interest you?" I asked in a low voice. "I'm sure you have a price. That's why you waited for me, isn't it?"

"You are a clever young man," he said. "I knew that when I woke up to find my spider gone and your note in her place. I said to myself, 'Larten, there goes a most remarkable child, a true prodigy. There goes a boy who is going places.?

"Quit with the bull and tell me what you want," I snarled.

He laughed nastily, then grew serious. "You remember what Steve Leopard and I talked about?" he asked.

"Of course," I replied. "He wanted to become a vampire. You said he was too young, so he said he'd become your assistant. That was all right by you, but then you found out he was evil, so you said no."

"That about sums it up," he agreed. "Except, if you recall, I was not too keen on the idea of an assistant. They can be useful but also a burden."

"Where's all this leading?" I asked.

"I have had a rethink since then," he said. "I decided it might not be such a bad thing after all, especially now that I have been separated from the Cirque Du Freak and will have to fend for myself. An assistant could be just what the witch doctor ordered." He smiled at his little joke.

I frowned. "You mean you'll let Steve become your assistant now?"

"Heavens, no!" he yelped. "That monster? There is no telling what he will do as he matures. No, Darren Shan, I do not want Steve Leopard to be my assistant." He pointed at me with his long bony finger again, and I knew what he was going to say seconds before he said it.

"You want me!" I sighed, beating him to the punch, and his dark, sinister smile told me I was right.