Rating: R, Slash
Word Count: 10,205
Summary: Willie's tasked with unpacking antique books that his vampire master, Barnabas Collins, ordered. Alas, in his hurry, he screws up and drops an entire crate of very valuable books. Barnabas determines that he will take the cost of the books out of Willie's hide, and then slashiness ensues.A/N: Dark Shadows gives lots of hints as to the relationship between Barnabas Collins and Willie Loomis; at the very least, it is a co-dependant one. This story pushes that idea to the slashy end of the spectrum. This was also the story that started off a series I never thought I would be able to write because I never felt there was a logical way to slash this pair. But, by golly, I found a way!
Moving boxes was easy, at least mentally.
This was the easy part, though the ragged edges of the crates bit into his hands, and he was leaving a trail of dust and leaves through the house that he'd have to clean up later, not to mention that his shoulders and back were killing him. The hard part would come later, when Barnabas would want a catalog made of every book he'd bought, sight unseen, at an estate auction. The vampire'd been quite pleased when the letter had come confirming that his bid had been the highest. What amount of money had actually been spent on all these books, Willie did not want to know, but Barnabas was sure that a number of the volumes had originally been on the shelves in the Old House before they had been either stolen or sold at various points in the house's history. Willie would hate to be the man (or woman) who Barnabas actually discovered to have done this, but for now the vampire was content.
And to keep him that way, Willie intended to have every single box and crate in the library opened and ready for inspection by sunset. To that end, he hustled, shifting boxes, wishing he had a dolly to move them with, nearly slamming his toes, constantly jamming his fingers, and sweating. The Old House was always cool, even in the depths of summer, but by mid-afternoon he had large patches of sweat under each arm, and along his back his shirt stuck to him in three round places. Sweat rode along his scalp, dripping down the side of his face.
He was carrying the last crate, the smallest one, just as sunset was becoming a solid threat, and hurrying. Through the kitchen, through the back parlor, and into the library.
That was when he tripped. Over something, he didn't know, a snag in the carpet, or air, maybe.
The box flew out of his hands as he careened to the floor, landing at the same time he did. Twilight had snuck into the room but there was enough light to see the box land on its corner, shattering into slats, and the books, splitting their pages into the air as his hands and knees smacked into the floor.
No, Christ, no.
He scrambled to his feet, hands reaching out to the pages fluttering in the air and the slats that still spun on shards of themselves. And stuck his hand in the midst of it. Part of his mind began praying that nothing in this particular box was a first edition, or whatever it was prized so highly by those who loved books, Barnabas in particular. The other part thought something was biting him with a row of uneven teeth. He reached down toward the spot on his left hand, but instead of skin, his fingers encountered wood. A large, dirty, jagged splinter embedded in the soft heel of his palm. Instantly, he grabbed the end of it and jerked. Part of it came out and broke off in his hand. Leaving the other half deeply embedded, beyond his reach, a pool of blood welling up and obscuring it. His hand hurt like something was alive in there, moving around, trying to get out, and every shift he made with his hand made it vibrate even more. And the blood, welling up in pools and slipping down his arm. Dark blobs fell on the wooden slats at his feet and Willie clasped his hand to his chest and stepped back before any could land on the crisp, white pages.
Blood began to soak into his shirt, but that was okay, shirts could be replaced easier than first editions. The trick now would be to clean up the mess and the blood and dig out the elephant-sized splinter before Barnabas woke up.
"What is going on here?"
He kept his back to the library door where he knew Barnabas was standing and clasped his hand tighter to his chest.
"N-nothin'," he replied, realizing that a question had been asked of him. "Just finishing up here, just—"
Still holding the broken half of the splinter, he suddenly did not know what to do with it, wanting desperately to keep the situation from Barnabas.
He shoved it in his pocket, but as he did, another large circle of blood appeared on the tip of his shoe, a neat, perfectly round circle.
Footsteps, muffled by the carpet, came up alongside of him, and Barnabas made a sound of dismay as he surveyed the shambles of wooden crate and busted books. He bent over and picked up part of a broken volume and fingered the ripped edges along the spine, making tsk tsk noises under his breath.
Dark eyes turned to look at him, and Willie moved back, clutching his hand even tighter, hoping against hope that the blood making its way down his elbow would be mistaken for shadows. Or sweat on his shirt front.
"Byron," came that voice, disapproval dripping from it, vestiges of last night's good mood falling away. "Really, Willie, I simply can't understand your carelessness. This was a first edition on Byron. Quite valuable."
Willie had no idea who Byron was so he'd have to take Barnabas' word for that. And of course he would have to drop that particular box, with something valuable in it. Probably all of them were valuable in one way or another, so it couldn't have been any worse no matter which one he dropped. His hand was throbbing like wasps were inside of it, angry ones that wanted out and were willing to gnaw their way through flesh if necessary.
"What, no excuses?" Barnabas asked with mock surprise.
"I-I—" started Willie, but he had to stop and grit his teeth against the pains that were shooting up his arm and start again. "Tripped," he said finally.
"Tripped?" asked Barnabas, his voice rising to a bellow. "And what were you doing being so careless when you know how important these books are?"
Willie opened his mouth to apologize when Barnabas waved him away.
"Don't even bother, Willie."
"B-but," he tried, "but—"
Sternly, Barnabas advanced, his broad, wool dark shoulders rising to block the light, and reached for him. For his wounded hand.
This time Willie jumped backwards, out of reach, even as he knew he deserved to be punished for his stupidity, even as he knew this would erase any of what was left of Barnabas' good mood completely.
"You know what you deserve, don't you," said Barnabas. It was not a question.
"Y-yeah, but—" he stopped as his stomach gave a sudden churn as another layer of blood coyly slipped past his white-knuckled fingers.
Stopping, his outstretched arm frozen in place, Barnabas tipped his head slightly. "What did you do, is that blood?"
Willie almost snorted at this, as if Barnabas didn't know the scent of blood like he knew his own name. Biting this back, his teeth clenched, he managed an answer. "Just cut myself a little."
"A little?" This said dubiously. "Willie, your entire shirtfront is darkened with it."
Yes, this was true, as Willie looked down in the waning light, he could see the truth of this. His head was feeling a little woozy now that he thought of it, his heart pumping out hot blood to be soaked up by dry cloth until there was no more left and he was just an empty carcass on the floor.
Barnabas strode past him.
"Come out of here, before you bleed over every single book."
Willie hesitated, his feet tangling themselves as he slowly turned. Large black spots danced in front of his eyes, and then a cool hand came and clasped itself firmly on the back of his damp neck. By the time the hand guided him, stumbling, to the kitchen, the black spots had turned into black curtains.
"Sit down before you fall down," he heard Barnabas say, as though from a distance.
And he would do it too, if he could actually see a chair anywhere. The hand, cold and solid, led him to a spot in the room and then pushed briefly down on his neck. The back of his legs felt the edge of the chair and he sat. Then the hand pushed him forward until his head was almost between his knees and his sense of light and direction and sensation came back to him in a rush. Blood pounded in his temples and the hand left him at last as Barnabas walked over to the counter and began opening drawers and lifting the pump. He heard the sounds of candles being lit, the scent of burning wax reviving him a bit, and the clatter of things being placed on the table.
Willie lifted his head. Barnabas sat down in the chair on his right, two candles on the table ending overlapping circles of shadow and light over the table.
"Let me see," the vampire said.
Barnabas waited, and Willie wanted to edge away but the look on the vampire's face told Willie that Barnabas had other plans for this evening and if Willie didn't get a move on, he'd be in a hell of a lot more trouble than he was right now.
As he lifted his hand away from his chest, one ragged flap of skin caught on a button, sending the shard further into his palm and sending lightning dark pain up his arm. Gasping, he sunk his teeth into his lower lip.
Barnabas ignored him and gathered Willie's shaking hand in his larger one, letting the blood that made Willie look like he had stirred red paint with his bare hand drip through his fingers.
"S-splinter," Willie managed.
"Yes, I see."
With one hand he held Willie's wrist, causing Willie to turn toward him, his chest rubbing up against Barnabas' elbow. With the other, he traced the length of the shard deep beneath the skin.
"It's gone deep," remarked Barnabas as Willie winced and tried to draw his arm away, his eyes watering madly. "From the crate, I assume."
Willie could only manage a nod as Barnabas' fingers pushed down against his palm.
"This will have to come out," the vampire said, and Willie nodded again, knowing this as well.
He'd seen men working on ships who had splinters so deep they were constant, festering sores. The only way to treat them was to cut them out.
"Maybe a hospital," ventured Willie, not looking at Barnabas.
"There is no need for hospitals," Barnabas replied. Then he picked up the small paring knife from the table and held it in the candle's flame.
"D-don't." The word came out of Willie in a sharp rush, his eyes on the edge of the blade as it darkened in the heat.
"Don't!" His voice rose and Barnabas pulled on his wrist with a jerk.
"I said, hold still."
But he was squirming to get away, rising from the chair even as Barnabas clamped down harder on his wrist. It was really no use, his human strength was not in the same arena as the vampire's. Besides which, Barnabas had obviously decided that this was the way it needed to be done, and Willie knew that he was very hard to dissuade.
"Sit down, or I will be forced to break your arm," warned Barnabas, and Willie froze, not wanting to even imagine Barnabas insisting on setting broken bones on top of everything else.
Barnabas pressed the back of Willie's wrist firmly against the table, and Willie found himself sitting again, pulled snugly against the vampire's shoulder. It was an odd sensation, hard cold muscle beneath fine dark wool, and the scent of the man, the faintness of cologne, hair oil, and beyond that, lingering like a wild thing in the darkness, the deep scent of night.
The knife blade flashed as Barnabas brought it down without warning, hot against his skin for only a second before Willie's world became nothing but pain. Everything else vanished. There was no fog of candlelight, no table, no Barnabas. Only sharp heat, agony that went on forever, a line of pain that went all the way to the center of his brain as something dug into his hand.
His throat ached with the scream he wanted to make but his body seemed to have forgotten how, and the next thing he realized was the roughness of Barnabas' jacket beneath his cheek, as his arm curved around in tandem with Barnabas'. His undamaged hand was caught in a death-grip, digging into the hard corded muscles of Barnabas shoulder, looping through to grab at the front of his jacket. Then he felt the bump of Barnabas' chin against the top of his head.
"Sit up, Willie," he heard. "Sit up and let go of me."
Bits of fiber seemed to have embedded themselves beneath his fingernails as he un-clenched his hand slowly and let go. Tried to raise his head but that was somewhat harder. His other hand he couldn't feel at all, unless he could count the sensation of the end of his arm being slammed over and over again. Darkness turned to light as he opened his eyes and looked at the candles. Something had darkened the stem of one of them with a spray, and it was dripping down to the bottom of the candle even as he watched. Barnabas brought the knife into the light, turning it so Willie could see the longish shaft of wood, darkened with blood along its jagged edges, speared on the tip of the knife. Then he put the knife down and turned toward Willie.
"Sit back and let me finish."
Willie looked at Barnabas, at those unreadable dark eyes that reflected rather than absorbed the candlelight. His hand was throbbing and his gaze turned to it, but Barnabas covered it with his hands.
"I said, sit back."
The vampire pushed him, almost gently, until his head was resting on the top rung of the chair.
"Now," said Barnabas, reaching for a damp cloth, "hold still."
Feeling the room sway a bit beyond the candles' light, Willie nodded. And watched as the vampire raised Willie's hand and wiped the blood away from his arm. Willie caught a glimpse of the heel of his palm, cut so cleanly and so deep he imagined he could see a flash of bone beneath dark red muscle and tendon. Fresh pain caught up with him at that moment, his hand hurting so badly that the tears started slipping from his eyes. His arm was shaking, and new blood jigged from the opened flesh to fall on the cloth of Barnabas' knee.
Bleeding. He was bleeding all over a vampire who had not yet fed. A vampire who considered him a clumsy idiot deserving punishment. And who considered Willie his servant, to do with as he pleased.
"N-no, please, Barnabas, don't, don—"
The eyes stopped him, the Thing springing to the surface there, and any thoughts Willie'd had of pulling away and running vanished. He stayed where he was, obedient, but it didn't stop his body from shaking or his arm from twitching in the vampire's grasp as Barnabas brought Willie's hand to his mouth. Cold lips settled on the open flesh along the heel of his palm. Tears spilled down Willie's cheeks as both of the vampire's hands held him there, and the vampire looked back at him, eyes flat and unblinking in the candlelight. The pressure of lips against his skin built as the vampire sucked, the points of teeth almost appearing from inside that mouth.
More pressure, as Barnabas' tongue batted against opened flesh so sensitive that Willie found himself jerking at each movement. The vampire settled in his chair, moving back slightly, both hands still clasping his, but warmer now, less like ice and more like sunbaked marble, and Willie watched as the vampire's throat moved over the swallows of blood. Barnabas' eyes flickered closed for just a moment as the tongue swept along the inside of the wound, and Willie thought he would scream. But then the tongue stilled and the eyes opened, looking at him, darkened by shadows, and behind that, laced with heat, flickered something so unfamiliar that Willie felt his mouth falling open. A blink of those eyes and the heat vanished, and Willie's mind was once more taken with the circle of mouth on his palm, breath from the vampire's nostrils spreading gently across his fingers.
Willie's head dropped back against the chair, barely noticing when Barnabas took his mouth away, or that he wiped the corner of his mouth with the edge of his thumb. Only that his hand didn't hurt quite so much any more, that the pain had dropped to a manageable level, and that he thought he might, at long last, pass out. Instead he watched as Barnabas took a strip of cloth and bound up his hand, hiding the new, pink scar there, and tying the edges firmly with a small, neat knot.
"Now," said the vampire so gently that Willie was alarmed, "try not to use that hand for a day or two until the flesh is set."
Willie nodded, holding his hand slightly out in front of him.
"And go into the library and clean up all traces of that mess in there. I want no blood on the carpet or the floorboards, and when you're finished with that, stack all the broken books so I can assess the damage."
Again Willie nodded.
Barnabas rose, shoving the things on the table away from him as he did so. "And clean this up."
As the vampire walked behind him and circled round to the kitchen door, Willie made a questioning sound in his throat before he knew he was going to do it.
Barnabas paused. "Yes? What is it, Willie?"
Barnabas, it appeared, was going out, his evening's plans already established and Willie just an inconvenience he was unable to avoid. At no point during any of this, except perhaps at the very beginning, had he spoke of any dire consequences. If Willie asked about it, it might bring the matter to Barnabas' attention, when at the moment it appeared the vampire wasn't considering any punishment whatsoever. Perhaps he thought his servant had suffered enough for one evening. Hope warred with uncertainty, racing around in his stomach like two rats chasing each other's tail.
"Well, what is it?"
Should he ask, or should he just keep quiet?
Shut up, shut the hell up, said one voice.
Better ask, be safer that way, said the other.
Uncertainty won out.
"Aren't ya, aren't you gonna p-p—" the words choked themselves off in his throat as Barnabas' eyebrows rose.
"I haven't forgotten about your clumsiness, Willie. I will punish you when your hand is better," he replied, his voice rising with his own magnanimity. "After all, I am not a monster."
With that he left, shutting the door behind him. Leaving Willie to listen to the echo of his master's footsteps, rubbing his thumb idly against the edge of the bandage around the hand in his lap. And think about the healing powers of a vampire's kiss.
It was beyond Willie to understand why a book written by an unknown author would be worth so much money, but there it was in black and white. Some book about insects with a title about three pages long, written by God knows who, and Barnabas had paid $124.40 for it. There were books worth less, a lot were worth more, and every single one of them had to be checked off against the lists in Willie's hand. Of course, there was no correspondence between the order of the lists of books and the order of the crates, but Willie had hit on a system early on of going to one crate at a time and checking through the lists to make sure the book was there. It was still taking a while. Beside the title of each book was listed an estimated price, and Barnabas was eager to find out if the value of the books was less or more than he'd paid for them. Willie hoped the latter was true, because it would put Barnabas back in a good mood.
A good mood was what Willie needed these days, and badly.
The stack of ruined books had been taken to the nearest rare book dealer. The books were there now, and the answer had come back as expected. Not only would it cost a great deal to have the books restored to close their original state, but even repairing them would not bring their previous value. Most of the books that had been in the crate Willie'd inadvertently launched across the library were a write-off, and Willie had the slip of paper in his pocket as to how much that write-off was going to be. It wasn't just the money, he knew, though that was important too, it was the principal of his carelessness in the matter. He'd been running, he'd been hurrying, and he'd tripped.
And, what was worse, Willie's hand had been better for some days now. The scar on his palm from the huge splinter that Barnabas had removed was only a thin, white line. Barnabas had promised him some sort of punishment for his misdeed when his hand was better, saying that he'd be willing to wait till then, because, after all, he wasn't a monster. Willie snorted at the thought of this, bending over the clipboard once more, and digging out yet another volume. This one was covered in leather, as they mostly were, but the cover was absolutely plain, no gold gilt lettering, no fancy scrolls, entitled The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage. Willie checked it off the list, and then glanced at the price, almost dropping the book as he saw it was estimated at $16,000. He put his pencil between his teeth and balanced the largish volume on his lap, and flipped through it. Mostly faded, color pictures of odd looking birds and fish. The maps were interesting, though inaccurate, and the printing was very small. Dull stuff, and the book smelled bad. Barnabas had strange hobbies.
He put the book back and drew the next one out of the crate, checked it off and put it back, and did this until his fingers ached from holding the pencil and his eyes ached from reading the fine print. Sighing, he stretched his arms over his head, realizing that he would either have to get some candles in here, surely a disaster waiting to happen with all these books and packing material, or stop for the night. The sound of footsteps in the hallway made him realize that the decision was out of his hands. If Barnabas said continue, he'd keep working until the job was finished and he knew it.
Broad, dark shoulders filled the doorway, and Barnabas appeared, carrying a candle in his hand. It sent a circle of light around his face, though it wasn't bright enough for Willie to be able to figure out what kind of mood the vampire was in.
"How is the catalog job coming, Willie?" he asked, moving all the way into the room.
Willie took the pencil out of his mouth and stuck it through the space at the top of the clipboard, thinking that maybe it would be a hint that he was ready to quit for the day.
"About halfway, Barnabas," he said, trying to make his tone upbeat. He tucked his left hand down low, under the clipboard. The bandage was still on his hand, and he knew in his heart of hearts it was because he wanted Barnabas to think his hand was still on the mend. But it had been days, surely Barnabas knew what state it would be in by this time? That was what was killing Willie, when the moment would come when Barnabas would decide to mete out the punishment he thought Willie deserved.
"How many more crates to go through, then?"
Looking around the room, Willie let his eyes avoid the spot where the remains of the broken crate still clung to the fibers of the carpet. "Maybe 15," he said, and then pointed to the crate at his feet, "and what's left of this one."
"And the bookseller, did you check with him about the damaged books?"
The question was not unexpected, but it startled Willie, coming, as it did, on the heels of more or less benign questions. "Uh-uh, y-yeah, I stopped in to see him today and he told me to give you this."
He had to reach into his left pocket with his left hand; reaching into it with his right would have been too obvious, even though the bandage was pretty obvious itself. Holding out the folded paper to Barnabas, he tried to make his hand not shake, but it did. It wouldn't be long now then, would it. Days of wondering if he shouldn't, perhaps, remind Barnabas about the punishment, countered by the same days sweating it out with gratitude that the vampire did not seem to remember his promise, were driving Willie mad.
"He said you should call him about what you want him to do." Which meant that Willie would end up calling him, as this particular bookshop closed at five o'clock Monday through Friday. The sunset in autumn in Maine came at about the same time as the shop closed, and Willie could not see Barnabas hustling to the phone simply to talk to a common bookseller.
Barnabas held out the candle, his eyes flicking to the particular spot on the carpet, and Willie took the candle from him. His stomach lurched, maybe Barnabas hadn't forgotten. Unfolding the paper, the vampire held it up to the candlelight and Willie watched as his eyes went down the list. All the small crates held about 15 books, so there were fifteen books on that list. Fifteen books that were, as the vampire was now finding out, beyond any repair worth doing.
There was the Bryon, of course, worth about $570 or so; Willie had checked that out first thing. Other names that he did not recognize came to him as he watched Barnabas reading, and adding, and thinking: Goethe at $319, Hentzler at $406.50, Jackson at $174.22, some French guy at $36, Nettleton at $261.32, Tobias Smollet at a whopping $464.58 for some travel book about Italy, Tuke at $50.81, and another French guy by the name of Voltaire at $65.33. . . .
Willie stopped as Barnabas looked up at him, mentally estimating the amount in his head. There had probably been about $25,000 worth of books in that crate alone.
"There's more than $20,000 worth of books here, Willie, damaged beyond repair, were you aware of that?"
Not looking at Barnabas, Willie nodded, not surprised that Barnabas could add in his head like that.
"What a waste."
There was no answer to this remark, so Willie didn't even attempt one. He kept his head ducked down and his left hand beneath in the shadows at his side. Lowering the candle, he balanced it against his knee. The flickering light was almost blinding, and he could smell the beeswax burning sweetly, a testament to Barnabas' own consideration as to how important this shipment of books was. Ordinary deliveries warranted only ordinary candles. Barnabas folded the paper and put it in his pocket, the action drawing Willie's gaze to his hands. Large, they still handled the paper deftly, and they were white against the darkness of Barnabas' suit jacket.
"Tell Mr. Bauman that he is to burn the remains of those books," said Barnabas, taking the candle and turning away. "They are of no use to anyone anymore."
Just like that. Pow. All that money, up in flames.
But they were only books after all, and the Collins family had money pockets that went very deep. What was that amount to them? If each crate averaged a price of $25,000, then the value of 30 crates would be more than 3/4 of a million dollars. And yet Barnabas had treated the whole transaction as if it were nothing more than ordinary. He had to have paid less than the value, he had to have. Wasn't he now walking out of the room with the candle in his hand, totally calm, leaving Willie in darkness?
Willie opened his mouth.
No. He snapped his mouth shut and didn't say it. It might have been preordained, the punishment Barnabas had promised, but it wasn't inevitable. Not if the vampire forgot. Not if Willie could avoid the temptation to remind him.
He avoided it studiously for the next two days, cataloging the books until he thought his eyes were going to dry up and fall out of his head. Books had never been a part of his life, his previous life. They were to throw, or steal for fun, or to burn for heat in an empty barrel. They were dusty, cumbersome, and above all, dull. But dull though they were, Willie kept his mind focused on them. And handled them with extreme care, from the less expensive volume of Longfellow's poems to the staggeringly expensive two volume set by Captain James Cook about his travels around the world.
I've been around the world. Just don't need to tell everyone I did.
When the last book had been removed from its place in a crate, checked off, and then returned, Willie gathered the clipboard with its lists and stood up. Stretched his arms to the ceiling, letting his head tip back and pull on the muscles of his shoulders. If he never saw another book, it would be too soon, but of course, Barnabas would want the books put in the shelves, only he hadn't decided how yet.
Just leave them in the crates for now, he'd said.
Willie obliged him.
Leaving the cavern of a library, Willie walked into the kitchen, noting the shadows cast on the lawn by the setting sun only vaguely as he hunted the cupboard for something easy to fix. One last can of chicken soup and stars was hidden behind its blander cousin, bean with bacon. As he poked up the ashes and added some more wood in the stove and heated up the can of soup in a small pot, he thought of the endless other chores and projects he would rather have been working on than checking books off a list. There was the newly delivered antique console, whose slender grace screamed to be refinished, or the roll of hall carpeting that only wanted to be tacked into place before it could properly set off the newly finished upper hallway. Or even the less glamorous job of washing walls in one of the front bedrooms. When a fellow got done counting a pile of books, the result was a pile of counted books. Which looked exactly like a pile of uncounted books. The result which was it didn't look like anything had gotten done, even though he'd worked for days on it.
A slight creak told him that the basement door into the hallway was being opened on a pair of hinges that Willie never planned to get around to oiling. True to the alarm, a series of footsteps now echoed in the hallway, and Willie moved almost against the stove until he could see the kitchen door and watch his soup come to the boil at the same time. But the footsteps faded in the direction of the drawing room, and Willie stirred the soup absently with a metal soup spoon, feeling the heat build up in the handle in his fingertips.
And then Barnabas appeared as the door to the kitchen opened, soundless and standing there, dark against the darkness of the hall. In his hand he held a piece of paper, the folded one from Bauman's bookstore. He carried it to the kitchen table and set it down, and Willie had the strange premonition that he wasn't going to be eating his dinner any time soon.
The vampire's face was set, the dark brows lowered, the frown curving down.
"Come look at this," he said.
Willie moved the pot from the hotter part of the stove to the cooler one, using his bandaged hand automatically, and walked over to the table, wishing he weren't already nervous. He looked down at the piece of paper and read the final figure that Barnabas had written there in his slanted hand: $23,329.
"Do you know what this means?" the vampire asked.
"Um," began Willie, "it means that the books were worth $23,329?"
"Correct. And do you know what it represents?"
The only answer Willie could think of was the one he already said, but Barnabas was hardly likely to appreciate him repeating himself, so he just shook his head.
"It represents what your punishment will be worth."
It was rather like being shoved into a deep freeze, where the cold swallows heat from all around, and Willie fought the urge to warm himself by rubbing his arms with his hands. But Barnabas must have caught the stilled movement anyway, for his dark eyes went to Willie's side, where his left hand was making an unconscious fist.
"Give me your hand," said Barnabas, holding out his own.
Willie's whole body jerked, his stomach clenching, recalling the last time Barnabas had wanted to see his hand, and how the vampire's eyes had looked at Willie over the palm of it, a flat-eyed creature that did not know the sun, and how the vampire had tasted him and swallowed him, and his heart lurched in his throat.
"Willie," said the vampire, tones of warning sharp in his voice.
Willie held up his hand, the tremors visible, and Barnabas took it and began unwrapping the bandage. As his hand came into view, Willie knew that even in the growing twilight, the newly healed and healthy scar was quite apparent. Barnabas ran his thumb along the scar, pushing very slightly into the flesh of the heel of Willie's palm.
"I would have hoped," he said, slowly, not looking up, "that you would have had enough honor, as a manservant, to come to me when this was healed so that I, as your master, could administer the punishment that was due you."
Willie opened his mouth to speak, to tell Barnabas that the thought had crossed his mind. At which point Barnabas would want to know that, if it had, why he had not spoken of it. At which point Willie would be forced to reveal that he'd hoped Barnabas would forget. Which would take Barnabas even angrier, and the punishment more severe. Though how it could be more severe than it probably already was, he had no idea.
"Well," asked Barnabas, "do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Barnabas let his hand go, and Willie clasped his unscarred hand to his heart. "I-I'm sorry about the books, I was just tryin' to get 'em done, like you wanted, you know, get 'em all ready an' everything?"
"Your haste has cost me money, Willie, and that is wasteful, and waste is something I cannot abide. Go and cut a switch from the yard."
Willie's heart sank, and he dropped his head forward, looking at the floor just in front of Barnabas' feet. "Please, Barnabas, not the sw—"
"Willie," said Barnabas, sharply, cutting him off.
Willie jerked his head up, catching the growing darkness of the Thing in Barnabas eyes, making his breath race in his throat.
"Go and cut the switch now."
Now meant now, especially when it was said like that, and Willie hurriedly grabbed a cutting knife from the drawer and stepped out into the darkening yard. At least it wasn't raining this time, at least he wouldn't be sodden with rain when Barnabas beat him, maybe it would hurt less this time, maybe he wouldn't pass out after. But these thoughts were small comfort as he cut the branch and stepped back into the kitchen to hand it to Barnabas, who gripped it in his big fist and waved over the top of the table with it.
When Willie hesitated, the vampire moved the piece of paper out of the way and then tapped on the tabletop with the switch.
"I want you to keep an eye on this piece of paper," he said, "and remind yourself that you are being punished for ruining a great many valuable books."
Willie was shaking now, and his eyes felt like they were too large for his face, and his hands reached out to grab the edge of the table when Barnabas stopped him.