My name is Victoria Winters.
Victoria chewed the end of her pen, staring at the blank expanse of page. It was kind of a dumb line to start with. After all, she was writing this for herself, not for anyone else; she didn't need to be reminded of her own name. But for some reason every time she started a journal, every time she sat down with pen and paper and tried in earnest to make some sense of her life, that was where she started . . . and stopped. She couldn't get past that first line.
Sighing, she closed her notebook and stared out the train window at the landscape whizzing by. New England in the fall: it should have been lovely, but the trees mostly had a sodden brown look under the rain-heavy sky. Occasionally one would rise up vivid gold or crimson, like a flame; it gave her a weird feeling of traveling down a long, gloomy corridor lit by torches.
She was on her way to Collinsport, a seaside town she'd only recently heard of, to live with the Collinses, a family she had never met. They needed a tutor for their nine-year-old boy, David, who was unable to attend school. "Behavioral problems," that was all she'd been told—"he's been emotionally unbalanced ever since his mother left." He lived with his father Roger, his aunt Elizabeth, his cousin Carolyn, and a housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson—just the five of them at Collinwood, a vast and lonely mansion by the sea.
It was an unusual offer and why they had contacted her was a mystery. But Victoria had accepted the job without hesitation. Of course it would be a challenge, but she felt sure she was up to it. And she loved working with kids.
Victoria was good with kids, probably in part because of her youthful appearance. At twenty-two she was small and slender, with wide hazel eyes and long, unruly dark hair. She'd been told she had a pretty face, but she wore no makeup and dressed indifferently ("grad-student chic" was how she wryly referred to her style). She looked—and was—innocent, good-natured and uncomplicated; but she also had a certain gravity and reserve that didn't seem to belong to her age. "An old soul," someone had called her when she was a little girl.
An orphan herself, she had a deep affinity for children who had lost one or both parents or who lacked a stable home life. But that wasn't her only reason, or even her main one, for taking this job. There was something else, away in the back of her mind—something so abstract and strange that she tried not to think about it much—that had made the decision for her.
At certain times of her life Victoria had had a vague sense of being . . . not controlled exactly, but drawn in one direction or another, by something outside of herself. She had no concept of what it might be. She wasn't religious—it was nothing as clear-cut as God or the devil—and she wasn't crazy. She never heard voices in her head telling her to do things. But once in awhile she would know irrefutably, "This is right," or "This is the way I should go," in a way that had nothing to do with reason. Or an idea would pop into her head that she knew she couldn't have thought up on her own. At any rate, when she heard about the Collinsport offer, that intuition or whatever it was had made itself felt.
This is right, she had felt, inchoately, insistently. This will bring me closer to—
She frowned at her reflection in the window, thinly superimposed on the bleak twilit world outside, and tried to dismiss the feeling. She wasn't acting on impulse, she reminded herself. She had plenty of good, sensible reasons for coming here. The salary, the work experience, the networking opportunities that a wealthy family might provide. . . . Her mind went down the list automatically, and she turned her gaze away from the window.
It was dark and beginning to rain when the train reached Collinsport. Victoria went outside on shaky legs and tried to assume her habitual serene, can-do expression. She wanted to look mature and professional, but she felt small and nervous and horribly young.
She drew her sweater a little tighter about her and looked around. Just across from the station, a sagging wooden sign proclaimed Welcome to Collinsport. Down the road, a neon light blinked the words "The Blue Whale." A streetlamp glimmered overhead, wrapped in a hazy nimbus. In the daylight it was probably a nice enough town, but in the dark it seemed lethargic and distinctly unwelcoming.
Why wasn't anyone there to meet her? She wondered if they had forgotten she was coming. For awhile she stood there, shivering and dejected; then a fresh salt wind blew against her face, cool and bracing, and revived her somewhat. She could taste the sea.
Home, she thought suddenly.
She arranged her luggage next to her and settled down to wait.
"So your name's Barnabas, huh?" The cab lurched over a pothole in the muddy road. "People ever call you Barney?"
"Not twice," Barnabas replied, staring fixedly out the window. He was in no mood for conversation, but the driver was a garrulous sort and didn't notice. While he prattled on, Barnabas strained for a glimpse of his old home in the distance.
Why he felt compelled to return now, he did not know. He dared not examine his own motives too closely; there were too many memories, buried but unquiet, that should never be evoked. Really, it was insane even to think of coming back. He had left nothing behind but terror and death, and a family nearly destroyed by a series of crushing losses. What did he hope to come back to?
He ignored that question, concentrating instead on the world outside. It was a wet and moonless night, but his eyes, keen as a cat's in the dark, missed nothing. The landscape was so different from what he remembered, it might have been a foreign country. Even the trees! . . . Well, people often claimed that New England autumns weren't what they used to be. Only Barnabas knew it for a fact.
He wondered how much the estate had changed in his absence. The "Old House"—his house—had to be empty, if it was still standing; the very idea of people living in it was obscene. The newer, "Great House," closer to the port, was where the Collins family lived now. His family. His knuckles whitened around his cane.
The word "vampire" made his head swing round in alarm. "I beg your pardon?"
"The Collinsport vampire. It's famous. A couple times, back in the 17- and 1800s, there were a bunch of unsolved murders around Collinsport. People had the blood drained out of 'em. I saw this thing about it on the History Channel . . ."
Barnabas looked down at the silver wolf's head that topped his cane, stroking it with his thumb, fighting back a wave of sickening memories. The thirst—the mindless urge to kill. The churning excitement of the hunt. The smell of his victim's fear. And the blood—being surfeited, saturated with it—vital, ecstatic, horrible.
And then waking, as if from a dream, and realizing what he'd done.
"They say there's an underground chamber somewhere in the cemetery," the driver went on. "That's where the vampire's coffin is supposed to be."
"Chained shut," Barnabas heard himself say.
"Yeah. You know the story."
The story! How much of "the story" was known? Was it possible he might be recognized, even after all this time? For an agonizing moment he was back in that chained coffin, locked away from the world, alone in the suffocating darkness.
Buried alive. . . .
He sat rigid and still, controlling his panic with difficulty. It would not happen again. Let fools talk of the Collinsport vampire all they wanted; he would not give himself away. No matter what, they would never, ever put him in the ground again.
When they passed the forlorn Welcome to Collinsport sign, Barnabas thumped his cane against the car floor. "Let me out here."
He stepped out and immediately left the main road, heading into the woods. The path to the Old House was long gone, of course, but he could still sense where it lay beneath the dead leaves and undergrowth. Odd, that the unfamiliar scenery had not confounded his sense of direction. The strangeness that met his eyes, he realized, was all on the surface; underneath, this place was as it had always been.
When the Old House came into view, Barnabas stopped abruptly, overcome by several emotions at once. A fleeting gladness that the house was still intact, though deserted. Dismay at the state of the grounds—the patriarchal old trees grown ragged and twisted, the garden overrun with brambles and weeds. A fierce sadness to see the windows boarded up, except for a few that some vandal had pried open, reminding him horribly of empty, staring eyes. Barnabas clenched his fists. How he had loved this house!—and how he had grown to hate it! It should have been burned to the ground. It shouldn't have been left like this: a blinded, gutted, soulless thing.
Then a light flashed from within the house, and every other emotion was instantly swallowed up in dread.
He approached cautiously, resisting the urge to turn and run. Whatever this presence was, be it man or devil (and Barnabas had had plenty of experience with both), it would not take possession of his house without a fight.
But when he looked in the window, he saw only a man poking around with a flashlight. A thief or a drifter, he guessed. Would he leave quietly? If not . . .
Barnabas entered the room silently. In a calm, low voice he asked, "What are you doing here?"
The man whirled to face him, and the beam from the flashlight swung into Barnabas's eyes, momentarily blinding him. Instinctively he hissed and took a step back.
"What the . . . !" The man dropped the flashlight and pressed his fist against his mouth, smothering a hoarse scream. "What are you?"
Barnabas hadn't meant to, but he knew he'd shown his teeth. Damn! Another moment and this fool would be running back to Collinsport screaming bloody murder.
"I'm not going to—" He almost said "hurt you," but thought better of it. "Don't move. Look at me."
The man was shaking like a frightened rabbit. With an effort Barnabas caught and held those blank, wild eyes with his own, staring him into stillness. This fellow was perhaps thirty years old—sturdily built, bigger than Barnabas, with pale stubble on his jaw—but it was clear he was still no more than a child.
"What's your name, son?" Barnabas asked more gently.
Loomis. Barnabas closed his eyes briefly. He remembered a young Ben Loomis, a servant, from long ago. A good, loyal soul. When the Collinses' other servants had deserted them, swearing that Collinwood was cursed, Ben had stood by the family. And later—much, much later, after an eternity in that chained coffin underground—an old, old man had set him free.
Of course, Barnabas, crazed with thirst, had killed the poor devil immediately and fled, not even looking back. Old Ben Loomis was only the first of many that night. But Barnabas remembered him; and that face in his memory, twisted in terror, was eerily similar to the one he was looking at now.
"Listen carefully, Willie Loomis." He resumed his steady, piercing gaze. "You work for me now. You'll do whatever I may require you to do, and you'll speak of me to no one. In return, I will let you stay here and I will . . . try not to harm you. But if you fail me—if you betray me—I will kill you."
Willie's eyes wavered slightly, but he did not flinch. He gave a barely perceptible nod.
Barnabas walked past him into the corridor, heedless of the rats that scurried across his path. The air smelled of mold and rot, and dust lay thick over every surface. Rain trickled down from several places where the roof needed repairs. But Barnabas, looking around him, felt his sense of gloom beginning to lift. He sensed nothing here—no trace of the evil he had dreaded to confront. It was as if the dead, like the living, had forsaken this place . . . as if the horrors of the past had never been.
He wandered from room to room, hardly daring to hope. Again, nothing. No ghosts. No bloodstains. Nothing dire or vengeful awaited him here. Only a very old, neglected house crying out for someone to take care of it.
His mind rapidly assessed the damage as he made his way back to Willie. He might be able to restore this house within a year; with a team of laborers, it might be a matter of months. And funding . . . yes, he knew where he could get that. All at once the plan became splendidly clear.
"The first thing you'll do," he announced to a startled Willie, "is help me restore my house."
He went swiftly up the staircase, which groaned at every step, to a door at the far end of the corridor. When he entered, he shut the door behind him. No other eyes should see this room; it would be a sacrilege. He would let others help him work on the rest of the house, but this room would be his alone.
On the wall was a portrait of a girl, as clear and vivid as if it had been painted yesterday. Barnabas marveled at its condition. Surely, after so many years in this moldering old house, the painting should have suffered some damage. But it would have hurt him to see that beautiful face marred. Such a bright, living face on the canvas . . . just the way he wanted to remember her.
From the dressing-table he picked up a silver music box, so tarnished and dusty it was virtually unrecognizable, and opened the lid with trembling fingers. At the slow stirring of those familiar notes—a tune he had thought he'd never hear again—he looked up at the girl's painted eyes and realized that all he had come back for, all that had kept him from going entirely to pieces during his long exile, was the hope of seeing that face once more.
My love . . .
For her he would drive the shadows from this house and fill it with light, with all of its remembered grace and beauty. For all the Collinses, the living and the dead, but especially for her: a girl whose name no one else remembered, who had been dust for over two centuries, and whose family had long since vanished. He had given up searching for her likeness in the outside world. Here was the end of the road; here, with her image and her music box, was as near to her as he would ever be.