I dropped to my knees and peered through the bars of the vent. It was dark down there, but after a few seconds I was able to make out the rough figure of the fat vampaneze.

"What's your girlfriend's name, hmmm?" Murlough asked. "Anne? Beatrice? Catherine? Diane? Elsa? Franny? Geraldine? Henrietta? Eileen? Josie - " He stopped and I could sense him frowning. "No. Wait. Eileen begins with an 'E, not an 'I. Are there any women's names beginning with T? I can't think of any offhand. How about you, Darren Shan? Any ideas, hmmm? Any notions?" He pronounced my first name weirdly, so that it rhymed with Jarwren.

"How did you find me?" I gasped.

"That was easy." He leaned forward, carefully avoiding the rays of sunlight, and tapped the side of his head. "Used my brains," he said. "Young Murlough's got plenty of brains, yes he does. I played a tune on your friend - Snakey Von. He told me where the hotel was. I set up camp outside. Watched carefully. Saw you passing with your girlfriend, so I followed."

"What do you mean, 'Played a tune'?" I asked.

The vampaneze laughed out loud. "With my knife," he explained. "My knife and a few sets of scales. Get it? Scales. Scales on Snakey, scales on a piano. Ha! Brains, I told you, brains! A stupid man couldn't make jokes so cunning, jokes so shrewd. Young Murlough has brains the size of -?

"Where's Evra?" I interrupted, pounding the bars of the vent to shut him up. I gave them a yank, to see if I could get down to him, but they were sealed firmly in the ground.

"Evra? Evra Von?" Murlough did a strange little half-dance in the darkness underneath the vent. "Evra's strapped up," he told me. "Hanging by his ankles. Blood rushing to his head. Squealing like a piggie. Begging to be let free."

"Where is he?" I asked desperately. "Is he alive?"

"Tell me," he said, ignoring my questions, "where are you and the vampire staying? You've moved hotels, haven't you? That's why I didn't see you coming out. What were you doing in the square, anyway? No!" he shouted as I opened my mouth to speak. "Don't tell me, don't tell me! Give the brains a chance to work. Young Murlough's got plenty of brains. Brains oozing out his ears, some would say."

He paused, his little eyes darting back and forth, then snapped his fingers and squealed. "The girl! Darren Shan's little friend! She lives in the square, hmmm? You wanted to see her. Which house is hers? Don't tell me, don't tell me! I'll figure it out. I'll track her down. Juicy-looking girl. Plenty of blood, hmmm? Lovely salty blood. I can taste her already."

"Stay away from her!" I screamed. "If you go near her, I'll -?

"Shut up!" the vampaneze barked. "Don't threaten me! I won't take lip from a runtish half-vampire like you. Any more like that and I'm off, and that'll be the end of Snakey."

I brought myself under control. "Does that mean he's still alive?" I asked shakily.

Murlough grinned and tapped his nose. "Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. No way for you to know for sure, is there?"

"Mr. Crepsley said vampaneze have to keep their word," I said. "If you give me your word that he's alive, then I'll know."

Murlough nodded slowly. "He's alive."

"You give me your word?"

"I give you my word," he said. "Snakey's alive. Tied up and strung up. Squealing like a piggie. I'm keeping him for Christmas. He'll be my Christmas dinner. Snakey instead of turkey. Do you think that's foul of me, hmmm?" He laughed. "Get it? Foul. Not one of my subtler jokes, but it'll do. Snakey laughed. Snakey does everything I tell him to. You would, too, in his position. Dangling by his ankles. Squealing like a piggie."

Murlough had an irritating way of repeating himself.

"Look," I said, "let Evra go. Please, he's never hurt you."

"He interfered with my schedule!" the vampaneze shrieked. "I was ready to feed. It was going to be glorious. I would have drained the fat man, then skinned him alive and stuck his corpse up with the rest in the cold room. Made cannibals of some poor unsuspecting humans. It would have been great sport, hmmm?"

"Evra didn't get in your way," I said. "That was me and Mr. Crepsley. Evra was outside."

"Inside, outside - he wasn't on my side. But he soon will be." Murlough licked his blood-red lips.

"On my side and in my tummy. I never had snake-boy before. I'm looking forward to it. Maybe I'll stuff him before feeding. Make it more Christmasy."

"I'll kill you!" I screamed, tugging at the vent again, losing my self-control. "I'll track you down and tear you apart, limb from limb!"

"Oh, my!" Murlough laughed, pretending to be scared. "Oh, heavens! Please don't hurt me, nasty little half-vampire. Young Murlough's a good guy. Say you'll leave me be."

"Where's Evra?" I roared. "Bring him up here now, or I'll -?

"All right," Murlough snapped, "that's enough! I didn't come here to be shouted at, no I didn't. There's plenty of other places I can go if I want people shouting at me, hmmm? Now shut up and listen."

It took a lot of effort, but I finally managed to calm down.

"Good," Murlough grunted. "That's better. You're not as stupid as most vampires. A little brains in Darren Shan, hmmm? Not as smart as me, of course, but who is? Young Murlough's got more brains than... "Enough." He dug his nails into the wall beneath the vent and climbed up a couple of feet. "Listen carefully." He sounded sane now. "I don't know how you found me - Snakey couldn't tell me, no matter how many scales I played - and I don't care. That's your secret. Keep it. We all need secrets, don't we, hmmm?

"And I don't care about the human," he went on. "He was just a meal. Plenty more where he came from. Plenty more blood in the fleshy human sea.

"I don't even care about you," he snorted. "Half-vampires don't interest me. You were only following your master. You don't worry me. I'm prepared to let you live. You and Snakey and the human.

"But the vampire - Larten Crepsley." The vampaneze's red eyes filled with hate. " HimI care about. He should have known better than to get in my way. Vampires and vampaneze don't mix!" he roared at the top of his voice. "Even the fools of the world know that! It's been agreed upon. We don't interfere with one another's ways. He broke the laws. He must be made to pay."

"He broke no law," I said defiantly. "You're crazy. You were killing people all over the city. You had to be stopped."

" Crazy?" I'd expected Murlough to react furiously to the insult, but he only chuckled. "Is that what he told you? Crazy? Young Murlough isn't crazy! I'm as sane a vampaneze as ever walked. Would I be here if I was crazy? Would I have had sense enough to keep Snakey alive? Do you see me foaming at the mouth? Do you hear me babbling like an idiot? Hmmm?"

I decided to humor him. "Maybe not," I said. "You seem pretty smart now that I think about it."

"Of course I'm smart! Young Murlough's got brains. Can't be crazy if you've got brains, not unless you get rabies. See any rabid animals?"

"No," I said.

"There you are!" he declared triumphantly. "No crazy animals, so no crazy Murlough. You follow, hmmm?"

"I follow," I said quietly.

"Why did he interfere?" Murlough asked. He sounded confused and annoyed. "I wasn't doing anything to him. I wouldn't have gotten in his way. Why did he have to go and mess things up?"

"This used to be his city," I explained. "He lived here when he was a human. He felt like it was his duty to protect the people."

Murlough stared at me in complete disbelief. "You mean he did it for them?" he screeched. "The blood-carriers?" He laughed crazily. "He must be a loony! I thought maybe he wanted them for himself. Or else I killed somebody close to him. I never for a second thought he did it because of... of..."

Murlough started laughing. "That clinches it," he said. "I can't let a lunatic like that run around. No telling what he'll be up to next. Listen to me, Darren Shan. You look like a smart boy. Let's you and me make a deal. Figure this mess out, hmmm?"

"What kind of a deal?" I asked suspiciously.

"A swap," Murlough said. "I know where Snakey is. You know where the vampire is. One for the other. What do you say?"

"Give up Mr. Crepsley for Evra?" I sneered. "What kind of a deal is that? Exchange one friend for another? You can't believe I'd -?

"Why not?" Murlough asked. "The snake-boy is innocent, hmmm? Your best friend, he told me. The vampire's the one who took you away from your family, from your home. Evra told me you hated him."

"That was a long time ago," I said.

"Even so," the vampaneze went on, "if you had to choose between the two, who would you pick? If their lives hung in the balance and you could only save one, who would it be?"

I didn't have to consider that very long. "Evra," I said evenly.

"There you are!" Murlough boomed.

"But Mr. Crepsley's life isn't in danger," I said. "You want me to use him to get Evra off the hook." I shook my head sadly. "I don't do that. I won't betray him or lead him into a trap."

"You don't have to," Murlough said. "Just tell me where he is. The name of the hotel and his room number. I'll do the rest. I'll sneak in while he's sleeping, do the business, then take you to get Evra. I give you my word that I'll let both of you go. Think about it, hmmm? Weigh the options. The vampire or Snakey. Your choice."

Again I shook my head. "No. There's nothing to think about. I'll swap places with Evra myself, if that -?

"I don't care about you!" Murlough screamed. "It's the vampire I want. What would I do with a stupid little half-vampire? Can't drink from you. Nothing to gain by killing you. It's Crepsley or no deal."

"Then it's no deal," I said, sobs rising in my throat as I considered what my words meant for Evra.

Murlough spat at me in disgust. His spit bounced back off the vent. "You're a fool," he snarled. "I thought you were smart, but you're not. So be it. I'll find the vampire myself. Your girlfriend, too. I'll kill them both. Then I'll kill you. Wait and see if I don't."

The vampaneze let go of the wall and dropped into the darkness. "Think of me, Darren Shan," he shouted as he slipped away down a tunnel. "Think of me when Christmas comes around, as you're biting into your turkey and ham. Do you know what I'll be biting into? Do you?" His laugh echoed eerily as he waltzed away down the tunnel.

"Yes," I said softly. I knew exactly what he'd be biting into.

Rising to my feet, I wiped the tears from my face, then took off to wake Mr. Crepsley and tell him about my meeting with Murlough. After a couple of minutes, I climbed up a fire escape and traveled over the rooftops, just in case the vampaneze had stuck around in hopes of following me back.


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