/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Vampire Lodge

Edward Lee

When Kevin and his family visit his Aunt Carolyn, unusual things begin to happen. His aunt is just creepy. When he learns more about his aunt and her gloomy mansion in the woods, Kevin is finally left with no choice but to admit the truth: Vampires do exist, and his Aunt isn’t the only bloodsucker in the house! Join Kevin and creepy Aunt as the secret in the basement is finally revealed.

Vampire Lodge

by Edward Lee

This book is for readers ages 8-12.

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VAMPIRE LODGE © 2011 by Edward Lee

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CHAPTER ONE

The hammer rose and fell—

clink-clink-clink!—

until the old, rusted lock broke in half, and its pieces clattered loudly to the stone floor.

The heavy, wooden vault door creaked open…

Dim firelight flickered inside, from torches attached to the walls by crusty iron brackets. A long stone hallway led deep into darkness…

The torches crackled. The men followed the flickering yellow light as the damp hallway twisted and turned. From up ahead, a squeaking noise seemed to flutter, and then they could see the massive stone archway standing before them.

The men paused a moment. Fear glittered in their eyes.

Then they stepped into the vault.

Large stone blocks formed the vault’s four walls. More torches sputtered and crackled. The squeaking sound grew louder now, and faster, and set high in the walls were tiny holes for windows.

The dark ceiling seemed to move, and then the men understood why, and they knew now what that awful squeaking sound was. Hanging on the ceiling were hundreds of bats…

Then the men noticed something else—

In the high, tiny windows, the sun was going down…

Hurry!” one of them said as the others opened dusty leather bags. From the bags they quickly withdrew hammers and wooden stakes. But—

Heaven help us,” one of the men gasped.

Sitting in the middle of the vault was an old wood-plank coffin.

And as the men stood trembling with fear, the coffin’s lid began to creak open…

We’re too late!” the first man exclaimed.

And then, from the coffin, the vampire began to rise.

Its eyes were black as chunks of coal, but its face was deathly white. His head was completely bald, and he had fingernails an inch long at least. The pale lips pulled back into a twisted snarl, showing two long white fangs.

Yes,” the vampire croaked. “You’re all too late…”

The television clicked off. Their father’s shadow loomed. “Okay, kids, that’s it. Time for bed.”

“Aw, come on, Dad,” Kevin griped. “It was just getting good. The vampire was just getting out of his coffin.”

“The vampire, huh?” Mr. Bennell smirked. “Well, it’s late, and you kids shouldn’t be watching junk like that anyway.”

“But, Dad, can’t we just watch a few more minutes?” Kevin asked from the floor of the family room. “It’s a pretty cool movie.”

“No it’s not, Dad,” Becky, Kevin’s fifteen-year-old sister, butted in. “It’s stupid. Some creepy bald guy with fangs gets out of a coffin, and Kevin thinks it’s cool.”

She never fails, Kevin thought. My good old turncoat sister does it again. “It’s not just some creepy bald guy with fangs, Becky,” he corrected her. “It’s Count Dracula, the Prince of the Undead, the King of the Vampires.”

“Yeah, then how come he wasn’t bald in the stupid vampire movie you watched last night? He didn’t even have the same kind of coffin,” Becky told him.

“Well, so what?” Kevin objected. “They get different actors to play the vampires.”

“To play the stupid vampires, you mean.”

“Vampires aren’t stupid!” Kevin objected.

“All right, that’s enough,” their father cut in, still frowning. “You two get to bed. I would’ve thought that you’d both be sleepy already after that huge Thanksgiving meal we just had. And, anyway, we’ve got a big day tomorrow, and we’ve got to get an early start. And Kevin? I don’t want to hear anymore of this foolishness about vampires. If you watch enough of that junk on TV, it’ll turn your brain to muck.”

“Kevin’s brain already is muck,” Becky laughed.

“Hey, what did I just say? It’s bed time.”

Kevin and Becky went off to their rooms, Kevin grumbling under his breath. It figures, he thought. Becky always gets the last word because she’s older. Of course, Kevin knew that vampires didn’t really exist, but that didn’t mean they weren’t cool to watch on television.

“Lock your door, Kevvie,” Becky chided. “Don’t let the vampires get you.”

Kevin ignored her. That’s what older sisters are for, he decided. They’re for ignoring. And, boy, do I hate it when she calls me Kevvie…

He closed his bedroom door behind him, got ready for bed, and turned off the light. Darkness seemed to leap into the room; for a second, Kevin felt a little uneasy. The images of the vampire movie returned to his mind: the dark vault, the torch-lit hallway, the coffin…

Vampire, Kevin thought, wide-eyed beneath the bed covers. He could still see the long white face, the bald head and black cape, and—

The fangs, he thought.

But he shrugged it off. He was being silly. It was just a movie, he reminded himself, and besides, he’d seen lots of vampire movies in the past. Only babies were afraid of things like vampires, and Kevin Bennell was no baby. He was thirteen years old now, a full-fledged teenager, and he was already well into his first year of junior high school. Teenagers aren’t afraid of things that don’t exist, he told himself, and that was one thing he was sure of: Vampires didn’t really exist.

He turned his mind to other things, like the trip tomorrow. To their Aunt Carolyn’s. It was a trip they made every year the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Kevin always looked forward to it. Aunt Carolyn owned a campsite and old fishing lodge up north on the coast. The lodge was a little run-down, but it was always great fun to go there; they’d go fishing, camping, kite flying near the bluff where they could hear the waves crash. Becky, naturally, didn’t like to go—she thought it was stupid. All she cares about these days are boys and nail polish, Kevin thought.

This year would be a little different. Kevin’s mother wasn’t going; she sold houses for a real estate company in town, so she had to go to Chicago for some kind of convention with her friend Mrs. Grimaldi, who also worked for the real estate company. But Mr. Grimaldi, and their son, Jimmy, would be going up to Aunt Carolyn’s with them, and that would be cool because Kevin and Jimmy were best friends, and they had four days in a row off from school because of Thanksgiving break. Last week, Kevin and Jimmy had bought their new kite kits to take up, and they couldn’t wait to assemble them and get them out onto the high, windy bluffs next to his aunt’s lodge.

So I better get some sleep, Kevin thought now, and he’d probably fall asleep easily because he was still stuffed from the Thanksgiving dinner they’d had a few hours ago. It was a pretty long drive up to Aunt Carolyn’s lodge, and they’d have to leave real early.

Yeah, get some sleep, he told himself…

But every time he closed his eyes, they’d snap right back open for some reason. On one of his shelves, his monster models all stood in a line: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, Wolfman, and, of course, Dracula, the caped and sinister vampire…

Then Kevin found himself glancing uneasily at his bedroom window.

It was late now, and very dark outside.

And vampires only come out when it’s dark, he remembered just as he finally drifted off to sleep.

CHAPTER TWO

“You guys got everything loaded up and ready?” Mr. Grimaldi asked.

“Yep,” Kevin said.

“Sure do,” Jimmy said. “Everything except our kites.”

Kevin’s father closed up the tailgate on the station wagon, then looked curiously at the two boys. “You guys aren’t taking your kites?”

“We’re taking them, Dad,” Kevin said, “but we’d rather carry the kits with us than put them in the back with all the other stuff. The wooden rods could break back there with the luggage.”

Kevin and Jimmy had bought the kite kits with their allowances last week, but they realized the smartest thing to do would be to wait till they got to the lodge before they put them together. The back of the station wagon was loaded up with their suitcases—Becky’s suitcases were round and pink! Girl Luggage, Kevin thought of it as—plus a lot of fishing rods and tackle boxes that Kevin’s father and Mr. Grimaldi would be using.

“What are you wearing a dress for?” Kevin asked of his sister when she came out of the house. “We’re going to a camping lodge, not the junior prom!”

Becky’s blonde hair shined in the early morning sun; she was wearing a pink and white frilly dress, and, as usual, she smirked at Kevin’s comment. “Just because you want to dress like a bum doesn’t mean I have to,” she said of Kevin and Jimmy’s blue jeans, camping boots, and flannel shirts. “Besides, I might meet some boys, and I want to look my best.”

Boys, as in boys her own age. That’s all she ever thinks about these days are boys, Kevin thought. Kevin knew she couldn’t wait to get into high school and start dating. But he doubted that there would be any boys for her to meet up at Aunt Carolyn’s. The lodge and campsites were way out in the woods, and there wasn’t a town around for miles.

Both Kevin and Jimmy’s father were dressed in boots, jeans, khaki fishing vests, and these kind of dumb looking hats with fishing lures on them. Mr. Grimaldi glanced at his watch. “I guess we better get going. The sooner we get on the road, the sooner we’ll get there.”

“Everybody ready?” Kevin’s father asked.

The kids all agreed, then piled into the backseat of the station wagon, while the fathers got up in front. Both Kevin and Jimmy’s mothers had already left for their real estate convention in Chicago—their fathers had taken them to the airport earlier.

The car doors chunked closed, and Kevin’s father backed out of the driveway.

“Why don’t you put those stupid kite kits in the back,” Becky complained, frowning.

“Because they’ll get busted up from all your stupid junky pink Girl Luggage, that’s why,” Kevin contested. “Who on earth would want round suitcases?”

“Dad!” Becky whined. “Kevin’s making fun of my luggage again!”

“Oh, I am not!” Kevin said. “Jeeze!”

“Kevin, stop making fun of your sister’s luggage,” Kevin’s father ordered from behind the steering wheel. “We’re not even out of the driveway yet, and you two are already at it. At this rate we’ll all be having nervous breakdowns by the time we get to your Aunt Carolyn’s lodge.”

“I don’t even want to go,” Becky complained. “Aunt Carolyn’s weird.”

“She is not,” Kevin said.

“What’s weird about her?” Jimmy asked curiously.

Becky chuckled. “Well, for starters, she always wears these ridiculous spooky black dresses, and she has this real long black hair hanging down all the way to the middle of her back, and she’s real old.”

“Becky,” Mr. Bennell said, “your Aunt Carolyn is not old. She’s only in her forties.”

“Wow, that’s pretty old,” Jimmy whispered aside to Kevin.

“I know,” Kevin replied. “But don’t listen to any of that junk my sister’s saying. Becky never has anything good to say about anyone. Aunt Carolyn’s really cool.”

“You just think she’s cool,” Becky added, “because she wears all those creepy black clothes all the time, like the people in your stupid vampires movies.”

“What’s a vampire?” Jimmy asked.

“You don’t know what a vampire is?” Kevin asked. He was astonished. “Like Dracula and Vampirella?”

“Nope,” Jimmy said.

“Vampires are the living dead,” Kevin answered with enthusiasm. “They come out at night from their coffins and drink people’s blood so that they can live forever. And they can change into bats.”

“Wow!” Jimmy said.

“And they’re—”

“They’re stupid, is what they are,” Becky rudely interrupted Kevin’s explanation. “Some silly old bald guy with fangs climbing out of a coffin. I’ve never seen anything so stupid in my life.”

“Oh, yeah? Well if it was so stupid, how come you were watching it?”

“Because you hogged the remote control, that’s why,” Becky replied. “I had no choice. You think I wanted to watch that dumb junk. Vampire movies are stupid, and only stupid kids watch them.”

“Becky, stop calling your brother stupid,” Mr. Bennell said from the front seat.

“But, Dad, Kevin won’t shut up about vampires,” she said back. “Vampires, vampires, vampires. I’m so sick of hearing about vampires.”

“Kevin, stop talking about vampires,” Mr. Bennell said.

“Okay, Dad,” Kevin replied, but then he thought, Boy, is this going to be a long ride.

CHAPTER THREE

But actually, as it turned out, the drive wasn’t that bad. Once they got off the interstate, heading up toward the country, it seemed like they were entering another world. The long, wide stretches of car-crowded highway soon changed to narrow, twisted roads which ran through heavy woodlands and past huge, open fields of cut cornstalks and still more fields of waving, shimmering grass. They even passed a lake and several swamps. Kevin loved getting out of town and up into the country like this, especially when it was the middle of autumn. The air was clean and fresh and cool, and the sun seemed to make everything brighter.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my whole life,” Jimmy said, gazing out the window in complete astonishment. “This is great.”

“Yeah, I know,” Kevin agreed. “I love coming up here.”

“What’s the big deal?” Becky objected. “Just a bunch of chopped-down cornfields and ugly swamps, and a lot of trees with hardly any leaves left on them. So what.” Then she went back to reading one of her dumb romance novels.

“We’re almost there, kids,” Mr. Bennell announced.

“So you say there’s some good fishing up this way?” Mr. Grimaldi asked.

“Not good fishing, great fishing,” Kevin’s father answered his friend. “Striped bass, lake trout, and perch like you wouldn’t believe.”

“How long has your sister owned the place?”

“Oh, years and years. She’s always loved it up here. And it’s a shame too.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Grimaldi asked.

“Well, business has dropped over the years,” Kevin’s father said. “Things are getting pretty run down, Carolyn can’t afford to have the property properly maintained anymore. Each year, somehow, she manages to hang on, but it looks like she’ll probably go bust soon.”

Kevin’s ears perked up. He wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, but it didn’t sound good. “Hey, Dad, what’s that mean?” he asked. “Going bust?

Mr. Bennell seemed to duck the question. “Never you mind about that, Kevin,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later when I’ve got more time.”

Figures, Kevin thought. That’s what adults said whenever they didn’t want to talk about something.

“It means she’s going broke,” Becky said. “It means she doesn’t have enough money to run the lodge anymore, and she’ll have to close it down, stupid.”

“Becky, stop calling you brother stupid,” Mr. Bennell ordered.

Kevin discreetly stuck his tongue out at his sister. Then he turned to Jimmy. “And just wait till you see the bluffs.”

“Bluffs? What’s that?” Jimmy asked.

“They’re like cliffs. At the end of my aunt’s land, they’re these great bluffs overlooking the ocean. You can see the waves and everything. And the bluffs catch all the great wind, so we’ll have some really super kite flying.”

“Yeah,” Becky cut in, grimacing, “and while you guys are flying kites, all I get to do is sit around the lodge with weird old Aunt Carolyn.”

Before Kevin could comment, though, his father said, “Hey, kids. We’re here.”

“All right!” Kevin exclaimed.

They pulled into the entrance of the lodge, which was at the end of a long, gravel road that cut through the woods.

“This is something!” Jimmy remarked, staring through the side window. “What a place!”

“I told you it was cool,” Kevin said.

The lodge was a great, three-story, cedar-shingled building with a high, peaked roof. Sheets of sprawling, green ivy could be seen crawling up the sides of several old, brick chimneys and fallen leaves of every color lay all around the lot. The building itself sat back in a small dell, surrounded by the dense forest.

“It looks like a haunted house, doesn’t it?” Kevin commented, enthused.

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. “It’s creepy.”

“It looks like a dump, is what it looks like,” Becky threw in her own opinion, smirking.

“Becky, don’t call your aunt’s house a dump,” Mr. Bennell said, turning the steering wheel around. A small gravel court wound around the front of the lodge, and that’s where Kevin’s father parked the station wagon. They all got out of the car, while the two adults opened the tailgate and began taking out their pieces of luggage.

Kevin stood in the middle of the court, looking up. Despite the bright morning sun, the lodge sat in darkness, shaded by all the high, heavily branched trees. Bright red and yellow leaves were falling right this minute, like giant, slow snowflakes. The windows of the lodge seemed small and odd.

And very dark.

“You’re right, Jimmy whispered. “It looks just like a haunted house. I’ll bet it’s got ghosts and everything.”

Then, very slowly, a long, high creaking sound could be heard that sent a prickly chill up Kevin’s back, and that’s when he noticed the large wooden front door opening very, very slowly.

creeeeeeeeeeeeak—

Kevin knew it was his imagination, but for a moment it almost seemed as if the door were opening all by itself.

CHAPTER FOUR

“Hey, everybody! It’s so great to see you!” announced the thin, slinky figure that, moments later, stepped out of the lodge’s front entrance. The entrance, framed by big blocks of rock, looked like an oblong black hole, and it made Kevin think of the coffin he’d seen in the vampire movie last night—it was the same shape, an odd oblong shape.

“Is that your Aunt Carolyn?” Jimmy whispered.

“Yeah, that’s her,” Kevin answered. “She is a little weird looking, but you’ll like her.”

Weird looking, that was a fact! Aunt Carolyn reminded Kevin of some sleek kind of vine. She was curvy and very thin, with long, shiny black hair hanging nearly to her waist. She was wearing—as she always did—a long black dress like an evening gown, that was very tight. And her face—

“Jeeze,” Jimmy commented. “Look at her face.”

—her face was almost snow-white, with dark, penetrating eyes, and thin, pale lips.

Almost like a woman vampire, Kevin couldn’t help but think. Instead, he said, “Yeah, well, Aunt Carolyn doesn’t get much of a chance to be out in the sun. The trees here block out all the sunlight, and she spends most of her time inside the lodge, taking care of guests and stuff.”

“Oh,” Jimmy said, but he didn’t seemed terribly convinced of this. Instead, he just looked at Kevin’s aunt like she was some sort of strange piece of furniture.

“Hi, Carolyn,” Kevin’s father greeted, and walked up the front stone steps to kiss his sister on the cheek. After that, all the proper introductions were made. “Oh, you’re just getting so big!” Carolyn exclaimed of Kevin, and then pinched him on the cheek. Kevin liked his Aunt Carolyn a lot, but if there was one thing he didn’t like, it was the way she always pinched him on the cheek and told him how big he was getting. This constant comment always made him feel like a little kid.

“Well, come in, come in!” Aunt Carolyn said. “I’m so glad you could come.”

“Come on, guys,” Kevin’s father instructed. “Let’s grab our suitcases and bring them into the lodge.”

“Oh, don’t worry about your luggage,” Aunt Carolyn gushed. “Bill and Wally will bring them in.”

Bill and Wally? Kevin thought. He’d been to his aunt’s lodge a bunch of times, and he’d never heard of anyone with those names.

“Aunt Carolyn?” he asked. “Who are Bill and Wally?”

“Oh, of course, you’ve never met them,” she said. “They’re my new assistants. They take care of the lodge and the grounds.” Then, oddly, Aunt Carolyn turned to Kevin’s father and said in a much lower voice, “I had to let my regular maintenance people go, unfortunately. They charged too much, and with the decline in guests over the past few years… well, you know. But Bill and Wally work for a lot cheaper.”

And then Kevin’s father nodded silently, like he understood exactly what Aunt Carolyn meant. Kevin felt sure they were referring to what he’d heard earlier, about his aunt not having enough money to keep up the lodge.

They all followed her into the lodge then, which was dark and a little dusty. Their footsteps on the wood-tile floor echoed up through the high foyer and reception area.

“Kind of messy,” Kevin whispered to Jimmy when they walked in. He could swear that dust actually drifted up from the floor as they walked in.

“It’s a dump, like I told you,” Becky said. Her frown now seemed to be a permanent part of her face, and she fussily held her hands up as though touching anything in the lodge would get her dirty. “My nice new dress is going to get all dusty and gross.”

“You’re the one who’s gross,” Kevin muttered under his breath.

“What!” she said and glared. “What did you say to me?”

“Nothing,” Kevin muttered.

“Hey, Dad,” Becky complained. “Kevin just said that I was gross!”

“Kevin,” Mr. Bennell scowled. “Don’t call your sister gross.”

Kevin sighed.

CHAPTER FIVE

“I’ve reserved the best rooms for you,” Aunt Carolyn said.

“How many guests do you have staying right now?” Mr. Grimaldi asked.

“Well,” Aunt Carolyn said, and then she paused as if she were embarrassed. “None at the moment. Thanksgiving weekend is never a good time for business.”

Again Kevin sensed that Aunt Carolyn was making excuses. He knew that fishing and camping was big business in most places except for the coldest months of winter, and, again, this only reminded him of what his father had hinted at early, that Aunt Carolyn wasn’t making enough money. Going bust, he thought.

“So I guess you and your friend Mr. Grimaldi will want to be hiking out to the lake, is that right?”

“Yes, we’re looking forward to it,” Kevin’s father said.

“Well let me tell you, it’s still some of the best fishing you’ll ever find in these parts.”

“Sounds great,” Mr. Grimaldi said. “I haven’t been to a good fishing spot in years.”

“Hey, Dad?” Jimmy asked. “How come we can’t go fishing with you and Mr. Bennell?”

“Well, son, because the lake is a good ten-mile hike through the woods, and Mr. Bennell and I will have to camp out for several days.”

“But you kids will have a great time here at the lodge,” Mr. Bennell added. “With Aunt Carolyn.”

“Oh, yes!” Aunt Carolyn agreed. “The kids and I will have a wonderful time together. There’s plenty to do around the lodge. And I hope you boys brought your kites.”

“Yes, Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin told her. “We got brand-new ones last week.”

“Oh, wow, neat!” Jimmy interrupted when they stepped into the hearth room. The hearth room had lots of big soft couches arranged around the giant brick fireplace which was full of burning logs that crackled and popped. “Look at all the animal heads!” Jimmy said.

Mounted above the fireplace mantle were the heads of deer and bears and foxes, and even one moose head.

Aunt Carolyn explained, “When I bought the lodge years ago—twenty years ago, to be exact—it was mainly a hunting lodge that had sat vacant for a long time, but I don’t really like the idea of hunting. So I changed it to a fishing and camping lodge.” Then she pointed to the next wood-paneled wall, and hanging there in frames were lots of stuffed fish, and some of them were over three feet long.

“That’s really cool!” Jimmy said. “Man, this lodge is terrific. We’re going to have a blast!”

“We sure are,” Kevin said. “And wait till we get out onto the bluffs with our new kites.”

They all sat down around the crackling fireplace, and Aunt Carolyn brought out glasses of spiced, hot apple cider for everyone. “So when will you two want to be heading out on your fishing expedition?” she asked the fathers.

Mr. Grimaldi rubbed his hands together eagerly. “The sooner the better. Packed in an office five days a week and nine hours a day, there’s no better way to relax than to get right out into the great outdoors.”

Mr. Bennell nodded in agreement. “I’ve been looking forward to this since… well, since last year!”

The hot cider tasted sharp and tangy; it was just one more thing that Kevin loved about coming to his aunt’s. He never understood why his aunt never drank any herself, though; it was really good. Maybe she just doesn’t like apples, he considered. Then he asked, “Hey, Dad, how long will you and Mr. Grimaldi be camping and fishing?”

“We’ll be back Sunday morning,” Kevin’s father replied.

“Great,” Becky whispered to Kevin. “Two whole days I’ll be cooped up with you two nitwits. I’ll go absolutely nuts.”

“You’ve been absolutely nuts for your whole life,” Kevin couldn’t resist.

“But I want you kids to mind Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin’s father went on. “No monkeying around and no arguing. And no staying out after dark.”

“That goes for you too, sport,” Mr. Grimaldi added aside to Jimmy.

“Right, Dad,” Jimmy said. “I won’t get into any trouble.”

“Make sure you don’t.”

“Oh, I’m sure the kids will be just fine,” Aunt Carolyn said. “Don’t worry about a thing. Just go out and have a good time, and enjoy the fishing.”

They sat around and talked for a few minutes more, Mr. Grimaldi chatting about his job at some computer place, and Mr. Bennell telling Carolyn about the real estate convention, and other things like that. Then they all went back outside. Kevin and Jimmy helped their fathers strap on their big back-packs which were full of supplies, tents, and, of course, lots of coffee.

“Have fun, Dad,” Kevin said. “Bring back lots of fish.”

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Bennell said. “We will.” Then he leaned over and whispered, “And give your Aunt Carolyn a break, will ya? Try to get along with Becky.”

“I will, Dad,” Kevin said, but then he thought, At least I’ll try. Sometimes getting along with his sister was about as easy as building a snowman in July.

Then, Mr. Bennell and Mr. Grimaldi checked their pack straps one last time and walked off into the main trail in the woods, waving.

Kevin glanced after them. A strange notion occurred to him then, and he couldn’t imagine the reason. But as his father disappeared into the trail with Mr. Grimaldi, Kevin couldn’t escape the feeling that they were in danger…

CHAPTER SIX

“You think they’ll really catch a lot of fish?” Jimmy asked skeptically, as autumn leaves floated down from the trees.

“Sure,” Kevin said. “They’ll catch tons of fish.”

“If you ask me,” Becky said, “the only thing they’re going to catch are colds.”

“Yeah, well nobody asked you,” Kevin told her. But one thing he had to admit, it was getting chilly out, and the wind was stirring up.

Aunt Carolyn waited for them back at the huge front door. “Come on, kids,” she said. “It’s getting very cold. It’ll be winter in less than a month.”

They all came back across the court, passing the parked station wagon.

“Hey, what happened to our suitcases?” Becky asked.

The suitcases, which they’d left beside car, weren’t there any more.

“Wally and Bill must’ve taken them up to your rooms while we were talking by the fireplace,” Aunt Carolyn told them.

Bill and Wally, Kevin thought again. Just who were these guys?

They all filed back into the lodge and at once felt the shimmering warmth given off by the huge fire in the fireplace. Aunt Carolyn closed the big door behind her. “Why don’t you kids go on up now. The second floor. Bill and Wally will show you your rooms.”

“Okay,” Kevin said. “We’ll be back down in a little while, Aunt Carolyn.”

The wide, heavily banistered staircase curved upward from the dark foyer. The thick carpet swallowed the sound of their footsteps as Kevin, Jimmy, and Becky clattered up the stairs. But before they could even get to the top, Kevin noticed two tall shadows on the landing.

“You two must be Jimmy and Kevin, huh?” one shadow asked in kind of a rude, unfriendly voice.

“That’s us,” Kevin said when they got to the top. “Who are you?”

“I’m Bill Bitner,” the voice replied, and then the first shadow stepped forward. It was an older guy, in a faded flannel shirt and overalls. He had short, grayish hair, a thin, gangly body, and lots of wrinkles in his face. “You two just come with me,” he said, “so’s I can show you to your room.”

“Are you Becky?” asked the second figure.

“Yeah,” Becky said.

“I’m Wally. Wally Eberhart. Nice to meet you,” the second figure at the top of the stairs said. Kevin noticed a much younger guy, like someone in his late teens, with long brown hair and broad across the shoulders. Oh, no, Kevin thought. A young guy. Becky will go nuts!

“Follow me, Becky,” this Wally character said. “Your room’s right down at the end of the hall. You’ll like it.”

Becky didn’t say anything, which came as not much of a surprise to Kevin. All she did instead was gawp at the guy.

“You kids coming, or are you gonna dawdle all day?” Bill Bitner asked impatiently. “Kids these days, I’ll tell ya. They putz around like a bunch of old ladies.”

Kevin and Jimmy followed him down the dark, carpeted hall to the last room on the left. “That there’s your room,” he said, and pointed to a half-opened door. “I stuck your suitcases inside.”

“Thanks, Mr. Bitner,” Kevin said, trying to be courteous.

“Yeah, thanks,” Jimmy added.

Bill Bitner walked away grumbling, and he didn’t say another word.

“What a creep,” Jimmy said aside to Kevin.

“Tell me about it,” Kevin said. “He must’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

At least the room was decent. Kevin and Jimmy walked in to find a nice, large, wood-paneled room with a huge curtained window overlooking the woods in back of the lodge. There was a big wooden dresser, two closets, and two big, high beds on dark-wood frames and oak posters. And when Kevin looked closer he noticed that the big window wasn’t really a window; instead, there were two glass-paned French doors that opened up. “Hey, Jimmy, this is pretty cool!” Kevin enthused. “These doors open up to a balcony!”

“Let me see,” Jimmy said.

Kevin opened the pair of doors, and at once, a brisk breeze gusted into the room. They walked out onto a railed balcony.

“You’re right, this is cool,” Jimmy commented, leaning against the rail and looking out. All the trees in back of the lodge looked like a great, shivering wall of various colors from the autumn leaves. “What’s that path there?” Jimmy asked.

“It cuts through the woods,” Kevin remembered. “It’s kind of like a nature trail that leads to some of the campsites. We’ll check it out later.”

Jimmy’s brown hair blew in the breeze. “I guess we better get back in the room and put our stuff away.”

“Yeah,” Kevin agreed. “Come on.”

They went back in the big bedroom; Kevin closed the French doors.

“Looks like that creepy guy just tossed our suitcases on the floor,” Jimmy observed. The suitcases lay on top of each other near the closet. “I don’t think I like him much,” Jimmy added.

“Me either,” Kevin said. “And I don’t think he likes us too much either.”

“Why did your Aunt Carolyn hire him?”

“I don’t know, but I think I overheard her saying something like he didn’t charge a whole of money to keep up the lodge and the campsites.”

Jimmy ran his hand over the dresser, brushing off a pile of dust. “Well, it doesn’t look like he does much of a job. This room isn’t very clean.”

Kevin couldn’t disagree. There was a good deal of dust on the furniture, and he even noticed cobwebs in the corner of the room. “Yeah, you’re right. No wonder he doesn’t charge much to work here.”

“What was that your dad was saying, about your Aunt Carolyn going bust?”

“I’m not sure,” Kevin said, wondering himself. “I guess she’s not making a whole lot of money renting out rooms and campsites. Means she’s having money problems, I guess.”

Kevin stopped a moment, as he was putting some of his clothes on wire hangers. Immediately, he noticed two dark oil paintings hanging on the walls, set into what looked like old, expensive carved frames. Kevin had noticed a lot of paintings downstairs too. These two here, though, looked pretty dull. One showed a winter landscape, mostly trees topped with snow, and the other painting showed a fall forest scene. But the paintings were the only decorations in the room.

Kevin got his clothes hung up and put away faster than Jimmy. “I’m going downstairs to look around. Come on down when you’re done putting your stuff away.”

“Okay,” Jimmy said, placing folded pairs of pants into the dresser.

Kevin walked back out into the dark hallway. Suddenly everything was so quiet. And, yes, there were lots of framed paintings that hung on the walls but it was so dark he couldn’t really see what they were paintings of. Some of them looked like people but all he could make out were dark streaks.

He went back down the stairs, to the sitting area in front of the giant fireplace. But—

Where’s Aunt Carolyn? he wondered. She didn’t seem to be around. The room crackled from the big fire, but when he went back out into the foyer, it got so quiet he could hear his own heart beat. In the foyer there were still more odd, dark paintings, most of which he couldn’t make much out of, like the ones upstairs. One painting, though, sat in a slant of daylight that came through the windows of the dining room.

What is… this? Kevin thought.

The painting showed what looked like a large rowboat coming ashore. There were several men in the rowboat but their faces all looked blank, as if they were in a trance. And sitting right in the middle of the rowboat were two things:

The first thing was a big open wooden box piled high with gold bricks.

And the second thing was—

Kevin’s eyes widened. It’s a— It’s a—

It was a coffin.

A creepy, wood-plank coffin.

Just like the one in the vampire movie he’d been watching with Becky last night.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Well, it was great meeting you, Becky,” that young guy, Wally, was saying just inside the front door. Then he pushed the door open with a long creak. “If you need anything, just let me know.”

“Uh, uh,” Becky brilliantly replied, her face all lit up with a big, dopey grin. “I, uh, I will.”

“See ya.”

Wally left the lodge, shutting the door behind him.

Becky turned dreamily. “He’s just so, just so—”

Kevin smirked. “Just so what?

“He’s just so… wonderful…”

“Who?” Kevin said. “That Wally guy? What’s so wonderful about him?”

“Oh,” Becky gushed on, “he’s just so handsome and strong and rugged and smart and nice and—”

And,” Kevin cut in, “he’s probably twenty years old! You’re only fifteen, Becky! Mom and Dad would go crazy! What is wrong with you? I can’t believe you have a crush on a twenty-year-old guy!”

“He’s not twenty!” Becky objected. “He’s seventeen. He just seems older because he’s so mature…”

So mature, Kevin thought, rolling his eyes. Yeah, right. He decided to let the topic drop—trying to convince Becky that older boys weren’t for her was always a lost cause. “Come here a minute,” he said instead, remembering what he wanted to show her. “Look at this picture over here—”

“I don’t have time to look at some stupid picture,” Becky snapped back. “I’ve got important things to do.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?”

“Like deciding what I’m going to wear later on. Wally said he’d be back in this evening to do some work. I want to look my best.”

Kevin frowned hard. “Okay, fine, but just come here for one second and look at this picture on the wall. It’s a painting of a boat—”

“Big deal,” Becky said.

“It’s like a rowboat, with a bunch of guys in it, only the guys have these really weird blank looks on their faces, and right in the middle of the boat there’s a big crate full of gold bricks—”

“Big deal.”

“But there’s also a coffin in the boat!” Kevin excitedly went on. “And the coffin looks just like the one in the vampire movie we saw last night!”

“You have vampires on the brain,” Becky sniped. “I’m going back upstairs. Oh, but you know what?”

“What?” Kevin said, frowning.

“Wally even drives. He even has his own car!

Great, Kevin thought. He can have his own bus for all I care.

Becky stomped back up the steps, leaving Kevin alone in the dark, dusty foyer. He looked at the painting some more, squinting, and then he noticed that the painting had a title, written in tiny cursive letters along the bottom.

The Count Arrives with his Servants and Treasure.

Kevin’s scalp tingled. He’d been right…

“The Count,” he whispered to himself. “As in Count Dracula, the king of the vampires…”

CHAPTER EIGHT

“Drac–who?” Jimmy asked, peering at the dark painting on the foyer wall. Kevin had made sure to point out the strange picture the minute Jimmy had come back downstairs.

“Drac-u-la,” Kevin slowly pronounced for his friend. “Like what I was telling you about on our way down in the car. Count Dracula. He’s from some place called Transylvania, and he’s, like, hundreds of years old.”

“Aw,” Jimmy scoffed, “no one lives that long. How can he be hundreds of years old?”

“Like I told you, Jimmy. He’s a vampire.”

“Oh, yeah, someone who comes out of his coffin at night and drinks people’s blood so he can live forever.”

“They have fangs,” Kevin added. “And they bite people on the neck, and they can never go in sunlight. And if they want to, they can turn into bats, and sometimes they can even change into wolves.”

“You mean like werewolves, the things people change into whenever there’s a full moon?”

“No,” Kevin said. “I don’t think they can turn into werewolves, just the regular kind of wolves.”

Jimmy seemed impressed at first, but he hesitated a little. “That’s pretty cool but… vampires can’t be for real. I mean, you don’t believe that this Count Dracula really exists, do you?”

“Well, no,” Kevin answered. “Of course not. Vampires are just make-believe, and so are werewolves and zombies and the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy, all that kind of monster stuff. Somebody in Hollywood invented them so they could make movies about ’em.”

Jimmy looked back at the painting. “I wonder who painted this?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.

“And why would your Aunt want a painting of a vampire’s coffin in her lodge?”

Hmm, Kevin thought. That’s a good question. As a matter of fact, that’s a real good question. “You’re right. It seems like a pretty weird thing for an adult to have hanging in a place like this.”

Jimmy nodded. “And adults can be pretty weird sometimes.”

“You’re right about that,” Kevin agreed. “We can ask her about it later.”

“Good idea.”

They wandered around downstairs for a little while, looking at all the other paintings. But most of them were just landscapes and beaches and paintings of bowls of fruit, stuff like that. They didn’t see any more vampire paintings.

And they didn’t see Aunt Carolyn anywhere. I wonder where she went, Kevin thought. It wasn’t like she could be busy with other guests because there weren’t any guests. And she wasn’t fixing lunch either—the big country kitchen was empty.

“This place sure is big,” Jimmy observed.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And dark.”

This too was true. All of the windows in the lodge seemed to be oddly narrow, and they were all covered over by heavy curtains. It’s almost as if Aunt Carolyn likes it to be dark in here, Kevin considered. Like she’s keeping all the curtains closed on purpose.

“I think your sister’s got a crush on that Wally guy,” Jimmy remarked as they wandered down another hall off from the kitchen.

“You can say that again,” Kevin said, and smirked. “She’s got a crush on a new guy every week.”

“But what do you think of this Wally guy?”

“I don’t know. He’s nicer than Bill Bitner, that’s for sure,” Kevin commented.

Anybody’s nicer than Bill Bitner.”

“Yeah, but Wally… I don’t know. I don’t trust him,” Kevin remarked. “He looks like bad news to me, like a hood or something.”

“Then you better tell your sister to stay away from him.”

Kevin laughed sharply. “Becky? Are you kidding? She never listens to me. You know Becky—she knows more about anything than anybody, and everybody else is stupid.”

Then—

click!

Both stopped and turned. They’d definitely heard a sound—a loud and sharp click! Like a—

Like a door opening, Kevin realized.

But… where was the door?

They peered down the dark corridor that came off the pantry from the kitchen. The low, wood-paneled walls made the corridor look even darker, but Kevin couldn’t see any doors. It’s just a hallway with a bunch of shelves, he saw. The only door was at the very end, and that couldn’t have been the one that opened because if it had, Kevin and Jimmy would have seen it.

And then—

Light, Kevin saw. An eerie, wavering swell of light was slowly moving into the hall. And then—

A figure appeared.

Both Kevin and Jimmy stiffened up in a quick fear. Kevin recognized the figure at once at once.

Bill, he thought. Bill Bitner, the handyman…

And what was scariest of all was this:

It didn’t look like Bill had come out of any door—

A chill traced up Kevin’s back.

This is impossible, he thought.

It looked instead like Bill Bitner had walked right out of a solid wall…

CHAPTER NINE

“Hey, you boys!”

Bill Bitner’s shout made Kevin and Jimmy’s feet jump an inch off the floor. Bill looked at them with an angry glare. He raised an old, glowing lantern—the light they’d seen—up higher so he could see them. “You got no business back here! What’re you two up to?”

“We’re, uh, we’re just looking around, Mr. Bitner,” Kevin said with a hitch in his voice.

“Well go look around somewhere else,” Bill shot back. And it was then that Kevin noticed something else.

Bill had something long and thin in his hand, and he was sort of holding it behind him, almost as if he didn’t want the boys to see what it was.

But the glimpse Kevin had caught was enough.

It’s a shovel, Kevin realized. He’s holding a shovel…

“Now go on and get out of here, the both of you,” Bill ordered them. “Neither of you got any business snooping around back here.”

“We weren’t snooping, Mr. Bitner,” Jimmy said. “We—”

“Just go on and get out here!” Bill Bitner repeated. Then he went to the door at the very end of the hall, opened it, went in, then—

Slam!

—slammed the door shut behind him.

“Did you see that?” Kevin asked, his eyes wide as coins.

“Yeah, before he went into that room, it looked like he walked right out of the wall.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

“No way!” Jimmy objected. “You heard him. He told us to get out of here.”

“So what? He’s gone; he went into that other room.”

“Yeah, and he’s probably standing on the other side of the door listening, figuring we’ll snoop around some more. Let’s get out of here.”

“What? I can’t believe this.” Kevin challenged. “You’re chicken?”

“I’m not chicken,” Jimmy came right back, “and I’m not stupid either. That guy gives me the creeps. And what if he tells our dads that we were snooping around?”

Kevin opened his mouth to say something more, but then he thought about it and decided not to.

Jimmy had a good point.

Dad’s a cool guy, he reminded himself. But he wouldn’t be too happy if he got back from his fishing trip and heard that Jimmy and I were causing trouble.

“Look,” Jimmy said. “You can do what you want, but I’m getting out of here.”

“Me too,” Kevin agreed.

They walked back out the way they came, down the dark hallway, through the kitchen, then back out into the foyer. And in their journey, they again didn’t catch a glimpse of Aunt Carolyn anywhere.

“I know what we can do,” Jimmy suggested.

“What’s that?”

“We can put together our kites!”

“Good idea,” Kevin agreed. “Let’s do it.” He had to admit, there was nothing better to do, and things were getting pretty boring around here real fast. Aunt Carolyn didn’t even have a television in the lodge. No shows, no movies, no nothing. The pits, Kevin thought. At least if they assembled their kites now, they might be able to get out onto the bluffs today.

They tracked back through the foyer toward the stairwell. Kevin was looking forward to getting his kite together—it was a vampire bat kite—but just as he approached the bottom of the big stairwell, something made him come to a halt and pause for a moment.

His head turned.

His eyes glided across the paneled wall—

—back to the creepy painting.

The painting hung there right in front of his face.

It seemed to stare back at him just as much as he stared at it…

The rowboat, the box of gold bricks, and—

The Count Arrives with his Servants and Treasure.

—and the coffin…

CHAPTER TEN

Jimmy had bought the “Wind-Box Deluxe”, a box kite, which was a box-shape made out of thin wooden poles with red plastic sheets wrapped around the box. Kevin’s was a standard wing-type kite: “The Vampire Bat.” It had a simple t-shaped wooden frame onto which a black plastic sheet was attached. It took them both about a half hour to get the kites fully assembled and ready to go. Kevin was proud of his finished kite; once he had attached the plastic to the frame, the kite looked just like a giant black bat, complete with big red eyes and a mouth with fangs.

“You ready?” Jimmy asked.

“Sure am,” Kevin said. “Let’s go.”

They put on their fall coats and headed downstairs. Kevin thought it best to let his Aunt Carolyn know that they’d be on the bluffs for a few hours, but once they got back downstairs, they still couldn’t find her anywhere.

“Where is she?” Kevin questioned aloud. “I haven’t seen her since our dads left.”

“Look,” Jimmy suggested, “we don’t want to waste any more time trying to find her. Let’s just go.”

“Well,” Kevin hesitated. “We really should let her know where we’re going first.”

“She already knows where we’re going, Kevin. She knows we brought our kites, and she knows we’ll be flying them. It’s no big deal. We’re not babies. We’ll be careful, we know what we’re doing.”

Kevin thought about it. “Yeah, I guess it’s all right.” And, anyway, how could they tell Aunt Carolyn where they were going? She wasn’t anywhere to be found.

By now it was mid-afternoon. Fallen leaves blew in swirls out in front of the lodge. “This is going to be great,” Kevin observed. “The wind’s really picking up.”

“So where are these bluffs?” Jimmy asked.

“Not far. Right through this trail.”

Toting their new kites, then, Kevin and Jimmy set out down the narrow, tree-lined trail. Autumn leaves continued to fall as they made their way. Acorns and branches crunched under their feet. “Look!” Jimmy shouted, pointing. “What’s that?”

Kevin peered into the dense trees to his left. Two eyes glittered at him, inside of a red face.

“It’s a fox,” Kevin said, as the animal scampered away. “There’re lots of squirrels around too, collecting acorns and nuts for the winter.”

They both glanced upward then, and above them, racing back and forth over the high branches, were dozens of squirrels, mostly brown, but several black ones, and they even saw one rare white squirrel. Starlings and other birds also roosted high in the trees, preparing to fly south for the winter.

“This place sure is a lot different from the city,” Jimmy commented. “The woods and the animals and the birds. It’s incredible.”

“I know,” Kevin agreed. “Why do you think I like coming here? The only thing I’m worried about is what my dad was saying on the way up, about Aunt Carolyn going ‘bust.’“

“That means she might have to close the lodge down, huh?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Well, what happens then?”

Kevin thought about this. It only made sense. “I guess if she doesn’t have enough money to run the lodge and the campgrounds, she’ll have to sell the place, something like that.”

“That’d be a bummer.”

“Yeah, but maybe it won’t happen,” Kevin said. Then he wanted to change the subject because he didn’t like to think about the idea that Aunt Carolyn might have to close down the lodge or sell it to someone else. “Just wait till we get out onto the bluffs,” he said. “This is absolutely the best kite-flying weather I’ve ever seen. A whole lot of wind but not too

hard. If it’s too hard, our strings could snap, or we might not be able to control the kites, and we’ll lose them in the trees or crash them.”

Eventually, the trail opened up into a huge, flat grassy field. Suddenly Kevin and Jimmy were standing right out in the open. There was a mild salty smell in the air, from the ocean, and they could hear the waves breaking time and time again just over the cliff.

“Wow!” was all Jimmy could say.

The view over the horizon was spectacular. Clouds, some white, some dark-gray, churned above them. And beyond that, they could see the deep-green ocean rising and falling, every so often topped by swirling squiggles of white foam that grew and then disappeared, only to be replaced by more of the same white, foamy squiggles. The great, churning ocean seemed like it went on forever. And a steady salt-scented wind rushed against their faces.

“And it’s a safe place, too,” Kevin commented, pointing a finger across the bluff.

Along the edge of the cliff, there was a long, high fence which led all the way down the coast for well over a mile, or maybe more. The fence was made of metal wire attached to steel posts.

“So there’s no way we can accidentally fall off the cliff while we’re flying our kites,” Kevin pointed out. “That fence would catch us.”

“Did your aunt put the fence up?” Jimmy asked, dropping his big spool of string and tying one end to the tail end of his shiny-red box kite.

“Yeah, a long time ago when she first bought the lodge,” Kevin told him. “It probably cost a lot of money to put up, but she wants to make sure no one has any accidents while they’re staying here. Take a look.”

Jimmy followed Kevin out to the edge of the bluff. They put their hands on the sturdy metal fence rail, leaned over, and looked down.

“Gosh,” Jimmy said. “That makes me really dizzy just looking down.”

“I know,” Kevin said. “It’s pretty scary. But it’s a good thing my aunt had this fence put up.”

They looked down. The rocky cliff descended over huge, chunky rocks and led straight down to the sea. Waves crashed against the stone cliff, shooting giant puffs of white foamy water.

“You know,” Jimmy said. “If a person fell all the way down there—”

“They’d get killed,” Kevin finished.

“Wow.”

They went back to where they’d left their kites in the clearing. Kevin looked up at the sky, which was growing darker by the second. “Guess what?,” he said. “Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Look at the sky. It looks like it’s going to start raining any second.”

“I think you’re right,” Jimmy said, also glancing upward. The wind jerked his box kite in his hand.

And sure enough—

“Run!” Kevin yelled.

The darkening sky opened up, thunder rumbling overhead, and a second later, it started raining harder than either of them had ever seen.

They dashed back toward the woodline with their kites. The rain made the air look like it was full of tiny, moving slits. More thunder rumbled, the sky got even darker, and then several whip-like streaks of lightning cracked overhead. Kevin and Jimmy made it back to the woods just in time, otherwise they would’ve been drenched right through their clothes.

“What a storm!” Jimmy exclaimed.

““Yeah, and look at the lightning!”

More whips of lightning cracked across the sky, and then the rain was falling so hard they could hear it beating against the ground. “We better get back to the lodge,” Kevin suggested, “and fast.”

They both ran back down the trail in the teeming rain. At least the heavily branched trees overhead blocked out a lot of the rainfall. They trotted on for several minutes, over a carpet of wet leaves, without really paying attention to where they were going. Then Kevin stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Jimmy asked.

Kevin looked around, unsure of himself. “This doesn’t look right,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

Kevin looked around some more, rubbed his chin. Then his eyes went wide with apprehension, and he said, “I think we’re on the wrong trail.”

“What!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Kevin said. “I think we’re lost.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Lost, Kevin thought. The word sounded dreadful in his head. And he was sure now: this wasn’t the right trail—it was straighter and wider and took fewer turns, and Kevin could easily tell that it led in a direction that was opposite from the way they’d come. They could hear the rain pelting the trees limbs overhead, and still more thunder and lightning. Even this deep in the woods, they were getting drenched.

“What are we going to do?” Jimmy asked fretfully.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said. “But we’ve definitely got to get back to the lodge. I guess we better just start walking, and hope we get back going the right direction.”

“But what if we can’t?” Now there was a hint of panic in Jimmy’s voice. “What if this path just leads deeper into the woods? We could wind up walking for miles and never find our way back to the lodge.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kevin tried to assure him, but he wasn’t even certain himself. Sometimes he’d hear stories on the news about kids who’d get lost in the woods, and the police would have to send out search parties, and sometimes it would take days or even weeks before they could find the kids. But Kevin decided not to mention this to Jimmy, who was close to panicking already. Why make things worse? If we got lost, Kevin very grimly realized, and they had to send out search parties, Dad would be so mad I’d get grounded for a month! And that wasn’t even the worst fear.

What if we got lost, he thought next…and never got found?

Now Kevin was beginning to feel a little bit of panic himself. “We’ll just keep walking,” he said. “Don’t worry. We’ll find our way back.”

“I hope so,” Jimmy muttered

They followed the path. Instead of crunching over the leaves, their feet now squished over them. The rain poured down. At least their kites were made of plastic and not paper—otherwise, they’d be ruined by now. It was hard to concentrate: the rain was pouring down so hard, Kevin couldn’t hear himself think from the steady, driving noise of it, and the rain clouds had darkened the sky very quickly, which made the woods even darker, almost like nighttime.

More thunder, then.

And more lightning…

Kevin flinched. He was trying real hard not to show it, but it seemed that with each additional step he took along the soggy path, the more afraid he got. Each crack of lightning was so loud and abrupt, it sounded like the sky was exploding and falling apart into giant, jagged pieces that he could almost visualize falling down on them.

Kevin had been through these woods many times in the past, but never during a thunder storm. Nothing about this path looked familiar, and they just seemed to be getting more and more lost as they trudged on through the puddles, the dripping branches and wet leaves, and the rain. What if we don’t find our way back before dark? Kevin wondered. What if we wind up having to sleep out here all night?

It was just one more thing Kevin didn’t want to think about. Sleeping in the cold woods all night, in the rain. And—

He remembered the animal heads he’d seen hanging on the wall back at the lodge. One of the heads was a bear…

Bears, he thought, his fear swelling up more and more till he could feel his heart racing in his chest. The path curved around, and then—

Wait a minute, Kevin thought. He stopped, the rain pelting his shoulders and the top of his head.

“What is it?” Jimmy asked, shivering.

Kevin squinted forward. Then he suddenly shouted with glee when he realized what he was seeing. “Look! A sign!”

Jimmy squinted forward too, till he could see it. “All right!” he shouted.

Nailed to a tree just a few yards ahead of them was a wooden sign with black, painted letters that read: LODGE, and then an arrow pointing down the path.

“Boy, are we dopes,” Jimmy said. “All this time we thought we were lost.”

“Yeah, but this path really just took us in a big circle right back toward the lodge,” Kevin realized now, “and we didn’t even know it. Come on. And when we get back to the lodge,” Kevin added, “whatever you do, don’t tell Becky about us thinking we were lost.”

“Of course I won’t tell her!” Jimmy said. “She’d think we were idiots!”

That was for sure, and so would their dads. But Kevin felt an incredible wave of relief. We’re not lost after all, he thought. We’ll be back at the lodge in just a few minutes. And to make matters even better, just as they started out in the direction of the wooden sign, the rain began to let up, and the thunder and lightning stopped. “We’ll try flying our kites again tomorrow,” he told Jimmy. “With any luck, the weather will be better.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “And at least I got to see the bluffs today. They’re really cool. And—”

thunk

Kevin and Jimmy stopped in their tracks. They both stood with their heads tilted, their kites dripping as they listened.

“That sounded like a car door closing,” Kevin noted.

“Yeah, but—”

Jimmy didn’t even need to finish. We’re in the middle of the woods right now, Kevin thought. What would a car be doing in the middle of the woods, especially right after a rain storm?

Maybe it was their imaginations, but then Kevin walked toward a stand of trees at the edge of the path. Through the trees, maybe twenty yards away, he could see—

Another path, he realized.

“Look!” Jimmy whispered.

An old, faded blue car was parked on the other path. A figure had gotten out of the car and was now—

shick, shick, shick

The very first thing Kevin noticed was the big forked tree; in other words, a tree that had grown out from a single stump but had split into two trunks. The forked tree looked like a craggy V pointing upward toward the dark sky.

And the figure was—

Digging a hole in the ground with a shovel!

Kevin remembered earlier in the day, when he’d seen Bill Bitner in the back hallway at the lodge. Holding a shovel, he recalled. Kevin squinted; it was hard to see. The woods were dark, and it was still raining a little, but a minute later he recognized the figure.

And it wasn’t that old crab Bill Bitner at all.

It’s Wally, Kevin saw.

Wally Eberhart, the young groundskeeper who worked for Bill. The guy my sister’s got a crush on, Kevin added in thought.

And right now Kevin could see Wally digging a big hole in the ground.

Or maybe he wasn’t digging just a hole…

Maybe he’s digging a grave, Kevin thought.

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Did you see that?” Jimmy asked, trotting down the path past the sign.

Kevin trotted right along with him. “Are you kidding? Of course I saw it. That guy Wally was digging a hole right by that forked tree.”

“But why?” Jimmy questioned. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would the guy be digging a hole in the middle of the woods while it’s raining?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said, huffing and puffing as he continued to trot back down the path.

I don’t know, he thought to himself. But I’m going to find out…

It was just another few minutes before they got back to the big gravel courtway in front of the lodge. Kevin and Jimmy stopped for a few moments at the front steps, leaning over with their hands on their knees, to catch their breath.

“What are we going to do now?” Jimmy asked. “Should we tell your Aunt Carolyn that we saw Wally digging that hole?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said. “Maybe we should wait awhile on that.”

“Why?”

“Because what would we say?” Kevin posed. “We’d sound stupid. Let’s wait awhile, give ourselves some more time to find out what’s going on.”

Jimmy paused as he was shaking the rainwater off his kite. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Now that you mention it, maybe that’s a better idea.”

“Let’s stow our kites and get back inside,” Kevin said, happy that his friend agreed with him. He didn’t want to say the rest, the strange, eerie feeling that Wally wasn’t just digging a hole.

The hole that Wally was digging, after all, looked pretty big, and wide.

And maybe it was oblong shaped, though Kevin couldn’t be quite sure.

But there was one thing he was sure of—

It looked like Wally was digging a grave, Kevin thought again.

The idea made a shiver crawl up his back, and he shuddered a moment, standing there at the base of the big stone steps.

“Hi, boys,” Aunt Carolyn greeted when they entered the dark foyer.

“Hi, Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin returned. He kept his fingers crossed that she wouldn’t realize they’d been out to the bluffs during the storm.

“You boys are drenched!” she exclaimed, noticing their wet clothes. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, we were just walking around outside, and it started raining,” Kevin said. One thing Kevin didn’t like to do was lie, but what he’d said wasn’t really a lie, was it? After all, they had been walking around outside, and it had started raining. So it wasn’t really a lie at all.

And where had Aunt Carolyn been anyway, for all the time that had passed after their fathers had left the lodge to go on their fishing hike?

All of a sudden, it seemed to Kevin that there were several really strange things going on around here.

“Well, it’s too bad about the rain,” Aunt Carolyn said. “But it does seem to rain a lot around here this time of year. You could have gone out to the bluffs for some kite-flying.”

Kevin didn’t say anything.

“But I think,” Aunt Carolyn went on, “it might be a good idea for the two of you to go back up to your room and get changed into some dry clothes. Dinner will be ready in less than an hour.”

“Okay, Aunt Carolyn.”

“And tell your sister, too.”

Kevin nodded, then he and Jimmy headed up the wide, winding stairs to their room.

“I still want to know what that Wally guy was doing digging holes in the woods,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah,” Kevin agreed. “Right in front of that forked tree, and while it was still raining!” What could he possibly have been digging for? What could be so important that he’d be digging holes in the rain?

They changed into dry jeans and flannel shirts, then combed out their wet hair. By then, the storm had started up again; Kevin could hear the thunder slowly rumbling outside, and then heavy rain began to patter against the roof. It wasn’t the thunder or the rain that bothered Kevin the most—it was the lightning, and the way it would crack and boom in the sky without any notice.

Kevin knocked on his sister’s closed bedroom door. “Hey, Becky!”

“Yes, Kevvie?” she asked from the other side.

I HATE it when she calls me that! “Dinner will be ready soon.”

“I’ll be down in a little while,” her snide voice replied. “I still need a little more time to get ready.”

“Get ready?” Kevin questioned. “What do you mean?”

“Just mind your own business, you little twerp!”

Kevin and Jimmy headed for the stairs. “What does she have to get ready for?” Jimmy asked.

But Kevin thought he already knew. “I’ll bet she’s in there putting on her best clothes, in case that Wally guy comes back around.”

“Jeeze, girls are weird.”

“Tell me about it,” Kevin said. “You ought to have one for a sister.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Aunt Carolyn, holding the curtains open a few inches, was glancing out one of the front bay windows when they boys came downstairs. “My,” she said, “your fathers certainly picked a terrible day to go camping and fishing. I hope they decide to come back to the lodge.”

“They probably won’t, Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin said. “They’re die-hard campers. And, besides, they brought ponchos and rubber boots and lots of other kinds of rain gear.”

“Well, it doesn’t make much sense to me,” Carolyn went on. Her white hand released the heavy drapes, which fell back into place just as another spike of lightning crackled across the sky. “They could catch terrible colds in weather like this.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Kevin said.

She turned then, with a strange look on her face. Kevin couldn’t believe how pale she was, and her black clothes and long black hair made her look even more pale. “Is your sister coming down?” she asked.

“She’ll be down soon,” Kevin said. “I think she’s up there getting all dressed up.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“She’s got a crush on that Wally guy,” Jimmy said.

“Oh, I see,” Aunt Carolyn coyly remarked. “Well, he seems to be a nice enough young man.”

A nice enough young man? Kevin thought in objection. He’s creepy, just like Bill.

A few minutes later, they were all seated in the big, gloomy dining room. In the high windows, they could see the lightning flashing. Eventually, Becky came down, dressed ridiculously in one of her very best dresses, and her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail with a bow on it. Kevin and Jimmy smiled at each other.

“He’s not here,” Kevin said.

“Who?” Becky smirked her reply.

“Wally, your Prince Charming.”

“Oh, you’re so stupid,” Becky moaned, and sat down.

“And he won’t be here any time soon, either,” Jimmy said. “He’ll probably get washed away in the rain. We just saw him in the woods, digging holes.”

“Digging holes?” Becky said.

“That’s right,” Kevin added on. “In the middle of the woods, in the rain.”

“Why would Wally be digging holes in the woods?” Becky countered from her place at the table. “I’ve never heard anything so stupid in my life. You two are just making it up, like you do everything else.”

“It’s true,” Jimmy said. “We saw him out there about an hour ago.”

“You did not!” Becky exclaimed.

“We did too,” Kevin said.

“What’s this about digging holes?” Aunt Carolyn suddenly remarked, appearing from the kitchen. She set down steaming dinner plates before each other them: t-bone steaks, baked potatoes, buttered lima beans.

Becky smirked. “Kevin and Jimmy said they saw Wally digging in the woods a little while ago.”

“Not just digging,” Kevin corrected. “He was digging a big oblong hole. Coffin shaped.”

“There you go with your stupid vampires again,” Becky scoffed.

“Hey, I didn’t say anything about vampires,” Kevin came right back. “All I said was that the hole was shaped like a coffin, and it was your big lover boy Wally who was digging the hole.”

“Kevin, shut up!”

“Now, kids,” Aunt Carolyn interrupted. “The dinner table is no place to argue.”

But Becky grumbled on, “All Kevin ever talks about is stupid vampires, I’m sick of listening to him.”

Aunt Carolyn looked up very slowly and smiled. “So Kevin’s interested in vampires?”

“Well, sort of,” Kevin admitted. “I think they’re pretty cool.”

Aunt Carolyn’s smile seemed to hover before her face. “Well, then, tonight, before you go to bed, remind me to tell you about the local legend.”

“What local legend?” Kevin asked over his steak.

“The local vampire legend,” Aunt Carolyn said.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Kevin could scarcely think of anything else all throughout dinner. A vampire legend? Here? What could it be? And could it have anything to do with the strange painting he’d seen in the foyer? The painting of the men in the rowboat, with the box of gold bricks and—

And the coffin? he wondered.

Kevin felt charged up with excitement. He couldn’t wait to hear about it.

“That was a great dinner, Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin said when they were all finished eating.

“Yeah, thanks,” Jimmy said.

“Well, I’m glad you liked it,” Aunt Carolyn said.

But just then, something occurred to Kevin. The big meal they’d had was very good, but—

Aunt Carolyn didn’t eat anything at all, he thought now as they were taking their plates out to the kitchen.

And she hadn’t drunk anything. And this morning, when she served everybody the spiced cider, she didn’t drink any of that either.

“I have some things to do around the lodge,” Aunt Carolyn said then. “Would you kids mind doing the dishes?”

“We’d be happy to,” Kevin said. “But—”

Aunt Carolyn stopped. “But what, Kevin?”

Kevin knew he shouldn’t bug her about it, but he couldn’t help asking. “When are you going to tell us about the local vampire legend?”

Aunt Carolyn smiled to herself. “Later on. Tonight.”

Then she disappeared down the hall, leaving the three of them in the large country kitchen.

“I shouldn’t have to wash dishes,” Becky complained. “I’ll get my brand-new dress all messed up.”

“Fine,” Kevin said, turning on the hot water. “Go find something else to do then. Go haunt a house.”

“I’d need your ugly face to do it,” Becky came back.

“Go look for your lover boy Wally,” Jimmy chuckled. “You can help him dig holes in the woods, in your brand-new dress!”

Becky glared at them both. “I just can’t believe how stupid you two guys are.”

“You’re still here?” Kevin asked sarcastically.

Becky stomped off, frowning, as Kevin and Jimmy laughed out loud.

“Boy,” Jimmy said. “You sure got rid of her in a hurry.”

But that’s exactly what Kevin had intended to do. “I can’t talk around her,” he said. “Wasn’t that kind of weird?”

“What? Your sister?”

“No, no, she’s always weird,” Kevin said. “I mean Aunt Carolyn.”

Jimmy dried each plate that Kevin passed to him from the sink. “Well, she does dress weird,” Jimmy admitted. “Those long, black dresses and all.”

Kevin lowered his voice to a sharp whisper. “That’s not what I mean. Don’t you think it was weird that she didn’t eat anything during dinner?”

Jimmy paused, drying a plate. “You know, you’re right. She didn’t eat. It was just us.”

“And did you see the weird way she looked up when Becky told her I was interested in vampires?”

Jimmy paused yet again, thinking. “Well, yeah, I guess you’re right. I guess she did look pretty weird now that you mention it.”

But before Kevin could say anything more, a gust of wind blew in, and then the back door to the kitchen slammed.

And Wally walked in.

“Hey, guys,” he said. His long hair was wet from the rain, and he had a bunch of firewood in his arms. “Carolyn told me to bring in some firewood, said she was running low.”

“Oh,” Kevin said, and he couldn’t think of much else to say. All he could remember was how they’d seen Wally in the woods earlier…

“Uh, uh,” Kevin said, “I think Becky was looking for you. She’s around here someplace.”

“Any idea where?”

“Probably out in the hearth room, near the fireplace,” Kevin told him.

“Okay, thanks,” Wally said. Then he walked off toward the hearth room with his armload of fire wood.

“Maybe we should’ve asked him,” Jimmy speculated. “Asked him what he was doing digging in the woods today.”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said, rinsing off the last plate under the running faucet. “That would just tip him off that we saw him. Then he might tell Bill and get us in trouble.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. The last thing either of us need is that old creep giving us a hard time.”

But that gave Kevin an idea. He quickly peeked out into the hearth room and saw Becky talking to Wally as he loaded the wood into the holder next to the fireplace. Then Kevin peeked around the corner into the dining room and foyer.

No one was there.

“Look, you stay here,” he told Jimmy, “and put the dishes away. I’m going back down that hallway we were in this morning. If anyone comes, slam one of the cabinets real hard so I’ll hear it and know to come back.”

“Well, okay,” Jimmy said. “But do you think it’s a good idea to go back there. Bill already caught you there once.”

“I know, but he’s probably not there now. What would he be doing at the lodge this late? I want to check some things out real fast.”

“All right,” Jimmy agreed. “But be careful.”

Kevin quickly turned the corner at the back of the kitchen and was at once standing in the long dim rear hallway. Only a single, small light fixture glowed from high on the back wall; Kevin could barely see. But he did notice more paintings hanging on the paneling, dark, swirly paintings set into heavy, ornate frames, just like the paintings in the den and foyer and upstairs hallways. He stopped a moment to look at one…

It was a large sailing ship, crashing through waves on the high seas, its many huge white sails puffed out from the wind. And like the painting in the foyer, this one had a title. In tiny letters along the bottom, the artist had painted the words:

The Count’s Mighty Sailing Ship, the Scrimm, on its Way to the Coast.

The Count, Kevin thought, staring long-faced at the painting. This was the second painting he’d seen that referred to “The Count.”

The Count, he thought again, with the faintest of shivers. The word rang in his head like a bell.

Count Dracula? he wondered. The most powerful of all the vampires?

It had to be. What other Count could the painting be referring to? This really is weird, Kevin thought, taking one last glance at the dark painting.

But he’d come back here for a reason, and looking at paintings wasn’t it. This was the same hallway where they’d heard that click earlier this morning, and then they’d seen Bill Bitner holding a shovel, and—

It looked like he’d walked right through the wall, Kevin reminded himself.

Nervously, he proceeded deeper into the hallway, taking slow, quiet steps. When he got toward the end, he stopped, scanning the dark walls with his eyes. Another strange painting hung right before him, at the same place he and Jimmy thought they’d seen Bill Bitner come out of the wall.

Kevin stared at the painting…

Things just keep getting weirder and weirder, he told himself.

The painting showed a band of blank-faced men carrying two large boxes across a beach. Behind the men, just at the shoreline, was a rowboat—The same rowboat in the foyer painting? he wondered—and beyond that, the same large sailing ship, The Scrimm, could be seen burning in the distance. That was weird enough, but the weirdest part was what the blank-faced men were carrying. Two boxes. One box was the same large wooden crate full of gold bricks, and the other box was—

The coffin, Kevin instantly recognized.

Then Kevin’s eyes flicked down to the bottom of the painting, to see if this one had a title too. Sure enough, there it was, in the same tiny painted letters.

The Count Comes Ashore.

So now he’d discovered a third painting that referred to The Count, and Kevin knew it had to be a vampire because there was a coffin in this picture too.

What is going on here? he thought.

This was all just too bizarre. Kevin leaned against the wall, to think, but in the same moment that he did so, he heard a tiny but very sharp sound:

click

And he thought for sure that he’d felt the wall behind him

… move.

Wh—what?

He turned around immediately, looked hard at the wall he’d just been leaning against. The painting stared back at him. Then, very slowly, Kevin reached forward with his hand, pressed his fingers gently against the paneled wall—

The wall moved.

Or, rather, a section of the wall moved, and when Kevin pushed on it a second time, he realized exactly what it was he had discovered.

A secret passageway…

Just like in the old vampire movies. A secret passageway right here in the lodge! Kevin pushed it open and noticed several tiny roller-mounts along the edge, like the kind that keep the doors on kitchen cabinets in place. That’s what had caused the clicking sound.

This explains it, he realized. Bill Bitner came out of this same passageway this morning, and that’s why it looked like he’d walked out of the wall.

Next, Kevin pressed his palm against the hidden door’s dark-wood panel, then he pushed the door open all the way—-

creeeeeak

Total darkness faced him; he had no way of telling how deep the passageway went, not without a flashlight or something he could see by.

Where does it lead to? he couldn’t help but wonder. How far back does it go? And what was Bill Bitner doing back here this morning when we saw him with the shovel?

All of a sudden, there were so many questions spinning around in Kevin’s mind—he couldn’t keep them sorted out.

He pulled the door to, heard it click shut.

I’ve got to find out what’s back there, he thought.

And he knew there was only one way to do that.

I’ll have to get a flashlight, he realized, and come back here.

Tonight…

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Kevin decided not to tell Jimmy about the secret door and passageway—Jimmy sometimes had a big mouth, and Kevin thought it best to keep things to himself, at least until he could find out more about what was going on. So instead he came right back to the kitchen and helped Jimmy put away the rest of the dishes.

“Did you find anything back in that hallway?” Jimmy asked him, hanging up the dish towel.

“A couple more weird paintings,” Kevin said, and that was where he would leave it for now. “It sounds like the rain has finally stopped. Let’s go walk around outside.”

“Okay,” Jimmy agreed. “Not much else to do right now.”

They pulled on their coats and headed for the front door, but as they passed the big hearth room and the crackling fireplace, they noticed Becky sitting on the couch, talking to Wally, who was stoking up the fire with an iron rod. Becky had a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes as she listened to Wally.

“Looks like your sister is in love,” Jimmy said when they stepped out onto the front porch.

“She falls in love every week,” Kevin complained. “Thinks she’s the greatest girl in town. But I’m sure Wally the Lover Boy will find out what a nag she is real soon.”

Outside, a chill wind gripped them, brushing across their faces and blowing down their collars. The night sky was full of cloudy black murk; not a single star could be seen, and of course there was no sign of the moon either. Leaves fell steadily from the high trees around the lodge.

“How come your aunt seems to disappear all the time?” Jimmy asked as they rounded a stand of floodlit hedges.

That’s a good question, Kevin thought, but he kept it to himself. “I guess, like she said, she’s got a lot of stuff to do around the lodge, you know, upkeep and stuff like that.”

“But there aren’t even any guests,” Jimmy observed, “except for us.”

“Yeah, I know. But there’s still lots of stuff to do, I guess, probably a lot of paperwork and taxes, things like that.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

More bright floodlights lit the side of the lodge as they walked around. When they looked up they could see smoke pouring slowly out of the tall brick chimney. They continued to walk around, their hands jammed down in their coat pockets. Kevin expected the back of the lodge to be lit up by floodlights too but he found he was wrong the minute they turned the corner.

The back was pitch-dark.

Wind rustled the leaves in the trees. They glanced up at the back of the building, noticing only a few windows lit up.

“Look,” Kevin said. He pointed up the great dark face of the back of the lodge, to the far corner of the second floor. There, they could see the lit french doors and balcony. “There’s our room.”

Jimmy peered up, squinting. “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I guess they only have the balconies on the corners.”

Just then, though, both Kevin and Jimmy flinched. Several small, barely seen shapes seemed to flutter past their faces.

“What was—”

`”—that?” Kevin finished.

A chittery sound could be heard very faintly above them, like a rapid squeaking noise. Then the shapes fluttered past a second time.

“Are those… birds?” Jimmy asked.

“No,” Kevin finally realized. “They’re bats!

“Run!” Jimmy shouted.

And they ran, all right. They ran as fast as they could back toward the side of the lodge where the bright floodlights glowed. But before they could make it completely out of the darkness, and with the circles of bats still squeaking above their heads—

A tall, dark figure quickly stepped out in front of them, blocking their way…

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Kevin thought his heart would stop when he looked up fearfully at the figure. And beside him, Jimmy’s teeth were chattering.

Then, the figure stepped forward.

“What’s with you guys anyway? I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Kevin and Jimmy both sighed in relief when they recognized Wally’s voice.

“We were just walking around,” Kevin said.

“Walking around where?” Wally questioned.

“Just around back—”

“And we saw bats!” Jimmy added.

Wally frowned, his long hair blowing in the wind. “Bats can’t hurt you, but you kids shouldn’t be wandering around out here in the dark. Besides, it looks like it’s going to start raining again any minute. We get a lot of storms around here this time of year.” Wally paused to brush some of his hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, your aunt sent me out to look for you, says she wants you to come inside now.”

“Okay,” Kevin said.

They followed Wally back into the lodge through the big front door, back into the warmth of the foyer. Kevin hoped Wally didn’t notice that they were scared. He’d tell Becky and she’d laugh her head off! he felt certain. But he had to admit, it was kind of scary back there behind the dark building, with the bats squeaking above their heads.

Kevin took off his jacket and was about to hang it up in the foyer closet when he took notice of the painting hanging there, the first one he’d seen this morning.

The Count Arrives with his Servants and Treasure, he reread the title along the bottom. For some reason the painting looked even spookier now. The coffin and box of gold in the rowboat, and the glassy-eyed, blank-faced men working the oars and guiding the boat through foamy waves. Then Kevin saw something he hadn’t noticed when he’d first seen the painting. Way in the background was the same sailing ship, on fire.

The Scrimm, Kevin remembered from the other paintings. That’s the name of the ship that The Count came in on. The Scrimm…

“In here, kids,” Aunt Carolyn called out from the hearth room. “The popcorn’s almost ready.”

“Popcorn!” Jimmy exclaimed. “That sounds good to me.”

It sounded good to Kevin too, but he wondered what the occasion could be. Ah, I know, he realized then. Aunt Carolyn’s going to tell us about the local vampire legend!

This was just what Kevin had been waiting for. They went into the hearth room and sat down on the big, plush couches surrounding the fireplace. “Be careful,” Aunt Carolyn warned, placing several large bowls of popcorn in front of them. “It’s very hot.”

“This is great,” Jimmy said.

Yeah, Kevin thought, but let’s get on with the story.

“Where’s Wally?” Becky complained from the opposite couch. Naturally she chose to sit as far away from the boys as she could. “Isn’t he staying?”

“No, I’m afraid not, dear,” Aunt Carolyn informed her. “Wally’s still got a lot of work to do now.”

Kevin raised a brow. A lot of work? This late? It sounded funny. He saw on the mantle clock that it was almost ten p.m. now. What kind of work would Wally have to do this late at night? he wondered suspiciously.

Aunt Carolyn sat down in the big leather armchair to the side of the fireplace. The light behind her left her almost completely in shadow; Kevin could barely see her, just vague features.

The mantle-clock ticked steadily, and the rain started again, pelting the windows. The fire crackled, its moving lances of flame shifting like bright-yellow tails, turning the entire hearth room into a dark, creepy chamber of jumping shadows.

Jimmy and Becky munched popcorn as they waited, but Kevin completely forgot about it, and about everything else that had happened today—he was too excited about hearing the legend. I wonder if the legend has anything to do with all those weird paintings I found, he asked himself. The Count, The Scrimm, those blank-faced men…

“All right,” Aunt Carolyn announced from her shadowed chair. “I guess it’s time now—”

And at that very instant, the three kids jumped in their seats, as a loud belt of lightning cracked in the sky.

“It’s time,” Aunt Carolyn went on, “for me to tell you about The Count…”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

“You mean Count Dracula?” Kevin immediately asked, his excitement causing him to lean forward in his seat. “The most powerful of all the vampires?”

Becky winced. “Shut up and let her tell the story, Kevin. Aunt Carolyn hasn’t even started yet, and you’re already interrupting her and asking dumb questions.”

“Let’s try to get along now, kids,” Aunt Carolyn said. “And to answer your question, Kevin, no, the local vampire legend isn’t about Count Dracula. It’s about another vampire, who came from the same part of the world—”

“Transylvania?” Kevin asked.

“That’s right, Transylvania, in what is now Romania, in Europe. And this vampire’s name was Count Volkov…”

Count Volkov, Kevin thought, testing the sound of the name in his mind. It sounded creepy enough, a perfect name for a vampire, in fact. “Was Count Volkov immortal too, like Count Dracula?” he asked next.

“Of course,” Aunt Carolyn explained. “All vampires are immortal.”

“What’s immortal mean?” Jimmy asked, crunching handfuls of popcorn into his mouth.

“It’s someone who never dies,” Becky hissed. “Don’t you know anything, or do you just have rocks in your head?”

“But vampires aren’t just immortal,” Aunt Carolyn continued with her tale. “They’re also… evil.”

More lightning cracked from outside, the tall narrow windows across the room lit up with white light for a moment, then went dark again, and the rain seemed to be falling harder now.

“Vampires, according to the legends,” Aunt Carolyn began, “only come out at night, because they can’t stand to be in sunlight. They sleep during the day, in their coffins.”

“Wow,” Jimmy mumbled, his cheeks stuffed with popcorn.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Becky griped. “It’s so impolite.”

Aunt Carolyn rolled her eyes, smiling.

Kevin jumped in, “And vampires can’t be in water, either, right?”

Aunt Carolyn nodded. “That’s right. They can’t cross running water, for the same reason they can’t be in sunlight. Because running water and sunlight are pure things of the earth, and vampires are just the opposite. They’re impure. They’re cursed to live forever in evil, and do evil things. And sometimes, as I’m sure you’ve heard, they can change themselves into bats and fly around wherever they like at night.”

Jimmy gulped and looked over at Kevin.

Bats, Kevin thought with a slow dread spreading. We just saw several bats right outside…

Then he asked, “Isn’t it true that, even though vampires are immortal, there are ways to stop them? In the movies, the good guys always hammer a wooden stake into the vampire’s heart, and that kills them.”

Again, Aunt Carolyn nodded. “That’s quite right. A wooden stake driven through the heart will do it. And the only other way to kill a vampire is to keep him out in bright sunlight for a while or in running water. Plus, a vampire can’t look at the sign of the cross, so that’s how people would protect themselves. Vampires are, like, allergic, to crosses. In fact, in Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe, townspeople would often paint crosses on their doors to keep vampires away. And they’d paint the crosses… in blood.”

In blood! Kevin thought. Gross!

The fire continued to pop and crackle, and thunder rumbled from outside—Kevin could actually feel the floor shudder. He leaned further over in his seat on the couch and said, “Tell us about Count Volkov.”

Aunt Carolyn’s long black dress and black hair almost made her look like part of the shadows around her armchair. At times, all Kevin could really see was her thin, pale face smiling in the firelight. She waited a moment for the thunder to pass, then went on, “Count Volkov was a vampire, just like Dracula. He was born in the 1600’s as a prince. No one knows how he became a vampire, he may even have been born that way. He lived for hundreds of years in a big castle, ruling over his kingdom. But one day—”

“What?” Kevin asked, his eyes wide in fascination. “What happened?”

“Let her tell the story, stupe!” Becky complained again.

“It was hundreds of years later, in the late 1800’s. By then the people in The Count’s kingom realized that he was a vampire. So they all banded together and revolted against him. Unfortunately, many of them died in the fight, but eventually they were able to drive The Count out of his kingdom. And can you guess what happened then?”

“He changed into a bat and flew away?” Jimmy suggested.

“No, but you’re close,” Aunt Carolyn informed him. “The Count still had many servants under his vampire’s spell, and he was also very rich. He collected all the gold in the kingdom and had it melted down into gold bricks, then he had his servants build him a big sailing ship—”

“The Scrimm,” Kevin said, more under his breath than to anyone, remembering the bizarre paintings he’d seen in the foyer and the back hallway. “The name of his ship was The Scrimm.”

Aunt Carolyn looked amazed. “Why, that’s quite correct

Kevin. How… how did you know that?”

Kevin then explained about the paintings he’d seen in the lodge, the blank-faced servants, the crate full of gold bricks, and, of course, the coffin.

Aunt Carolyn continued, impressed by Kevin’s sense of observation. “And anyway, Count Volkov, now banished from his kingdom, loaded up his gold and his servants onto The Scrimm, and then he set sail… for America.”

“And when he got to America,” Kevin concluded, “his servants brought him ashore in his coffin, along with his gold. And they burned the Scrimm…”

“Exactly,” Aunt Carolyn verified. “The Count ordered that The Scrimm be burned in the water so that none of his servants could sail back to Europe and tell anyone where The Count was. He didn’t want any of his enemies coming after him to try to kill him.”

Kevin was astonished. He’d been right! The paintings he’d seen were depictions of the very story Aunt Carolyn was telling right now, the local legend. But when Kevin fully realized that, another question came immediately to mind.

“Who painted the paintings, Aunt Carolyn?” he asked.

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes!”

Aunt Carolyn smiled that creepy smile of hers again. From the shadows in which she sat, she pointed across to the room into the foyer, at the first painting Kevin had seen this morning.

“Go look,” she instructed him. “Look for the artist’s name on the canvas. It’s written in the lower right corner, in very small letters.”

Confused, Kevin got up from the couch and walked over to the painting. The Count Arrives with his Servants and Treasure, he read the title again. Then his eyes moved down, to the lower right-hand corner of the fancy, carved picture frame.

It was so dark he could barely see at all; he had to squint as hard as he could, and even then, it took a momentary flash of lightning for him to actually be able to read the artist’s signature.

My… gosh, Kevin thought, bug-eyed.

The signature, in fine, curvy letters, was this:

Count Volkov

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Kevin rushed back to the hearth room, and, nearly stuttering, said, “You mean he painted these pictures? Count Volkov himself?

“He certainly did, Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn replied. “There’s no way you could have seen them all yet, but Count Volkov painted a lot of the paintings in the lodge. There are actually several dozen of them, hanging in various places.”

Kevin felt intrigued by this information, that The Count himself had painted the very pictures Kevin had looked at and even touched. But then, Kevin’s thoughts came to a screeching halt.

Why, he wondered, are Count Volkov’s paintings here? In my aunt’s lodge?

It didn’t make sense!

“And let me guess your next question, Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn said, still cloaked by the shadows. “You want to know why The Count’s paintings are here, in my lodge, right?”

“Well, yes,” Kevin admitted. “I was just thinking that, just this second.”

Aunt Carolyn’s voice lowered to a strange whisper. “So I’ll tell you why,” she said. “Because this lodge, this very same building that you’re sitting in right this moment, used to be owned by Count Volkov.”

“No!” Kevin exclaimed.

“Wow!” Jimmy said, his mouth still stuffed with popcorn.

“Kevin’s getting scared,” Becky rudely interrupted.

“I am not!” Kevin retorted.

“Watch out for the big bad vampire… Calve.

“Shut up! And don’t call me Kevvie!”

“That’s enough of that, kids,” Aunt Carolyn went on. “But what I just told you is true. When The Count arrived in America, it was the beach right off my bluffs where he landed. And since he had the equivalent of many millions of dollars in gold bricks, the first thing he needed was a home. So he paid the local villagers to build the lodge. According to the legend, the lodge was built over a hundred years ago for the price of one single gold brick that weighed over twenty pounds.”

“That’s a lot of gold,” Jimmy said, munching more popcorn.

“It certainly is,” Aunt Carolyn responded. “Today, a standard gold brick is worth almost $200,000. And it was worth a lot more back in those days.”

Kevin’s mind reeled; he was fascinated, but his fascination had nothing to do with the amount of money it cost to build the lodge. What fascinated him was this: This is Count Volkov’s house, he thought. I’m sitting in The Count’s house right this minute!

“About twenty years ago,” Aunt Carolyn went on, “I found out that the lodge was for sale. It had been vacant for years and years, and it was in very bad condition at the time. So I was able to buy it for a small amount of money, then I had it refurbished, and opened it up to campers and fishermen.”

“If it was vacant for all those years,” Jimmy asked, grabbing yet another fistful of popcorn, “how come nobody else bought it?”

“No one wanted it,” Aunt Carolyn told him.

“But it’s a great place,” Kevin said. “How come no one wanted to buy it?”

“Well, because of it’s history. Who would want to buy a lodge that was once owned by a man rumored to be a vampire? The lodge was considered bad luck, like a haunted house, so it sat for all those years without any buyers. Fortunately, I was able to fix it up pretty well, and until very recently, the lodge and the surrounding fishing dells and campgrounds attracted quite a lot of people.”

Kevin’s astonishment held him fast into his seat. There was still one more question burning in his mind…

“What is it, Kevin?” Aunt Carolyn asked. “You look like you have another question. Am I right?”

“Well, uh, yes, Aunt Carolyn,” Kevin admitted. “I do have another question.”

Aunt Carolyn smiled again, as though she already knew what Kevin wanted to ask. “Go ahead.”

“Well, uh, whatever happened to Count Volkov?”

“Nobody knows,” Aunt Carolyn said. “He disappeared, was never seen again. But of course, there are rumors about what actually happened.”

“What are they?” Kevin asked, still brimming with excitement. “What are the rumors?”

Aunt Carolyn relaxed back in her armchair. “The rumors are that the townspeople eventually found out that Count Volkov was a vampire, just like the people back in his kingdom had, and one day, when The Count was asleep in his coffin, they all banded together and overpowered Count Volkov’s servants. Then, still in the safety of daylight, they chained The Count’s coffin up… and buried it.”

“Where?” Kevin asked.

“They buried it somewhere on the grounds, Kevin, but no one knows exactly where. And they never told anyone else where The Count’s grave was, so nobody could dig him up and unleash him again.”

“Wow,” Jimmy said, digging out the last kernels of popcorn out of the bowl. “But what about all that gold?” Jimmy asked. He looked dejectedly down at the empty bowl of popcorn. “What happened to all those millions of dollars?”

“Nobody knows that either, Jimmy,” Aunt Carolyn said. “The way the rumor goes is that The Count had it buried somewhere on his own, and he wrote down the location of where it was buried in his secret diary. But no one ever found out where the diary was because The Count never told anyone. All that money is probably buried somewhere on the property too, just like The Count’s coffin, but with all these hundreds of acres of forest, it’s not likely that it will ever be found.”

Okay, Kevin thought, that crate of gold bricks is buried somewhere around here. This part he easily understood: buried treasure. There were lots of stories about buried treasure. What bothered him, however, was not the part about the buried gold bricks…

The Count’s coffin is buried somewhere around here too… with him still in it!

And since vampires were immortal, that could only mean one thing:

Count Volkov is still alive…

Kevin felt captivated. What a great, scary story! It was the best vampire story he’d ever heard, and much better than the movies he’d seen so many times on tv. And he wanted to know more about The Count, he wanted to hear more of the story, but—

“Well, kids,” Aunt Carolyn said, and stood up from her armchair. “That’s the local vampire legend. And I’m afraid it’s time for you all to get to bed. It’s past eleven now.”

“That was a great story,” Jimmy said. “And thanks for the popcorn.”

“You’re quite welcome, Jimmy,” Aunt Carolyn replied.

“I thought it was silly,” Becky complained and smirked. “You don’t really believe in vampires, do you?”

Aunt Carolyn chuckled. “Of course not. The story of Count Volkov is just old local folklore, just a legend.” She rubbed her hands together. “Okay, off to bed now, all of you. It’s late and you must be very tired.”

Kevin got up from the couch. He felt strange, but he didn’t feel tired. He guessed it was just the creepy story about The Count, but there was no real reason for him to be bothered about that because, just as Aunt Carolyn had said, the story was just folklore, a legend. And vampires weren’t real…

“Goodnight, kids,” Aunt Carolyn said. “See you all in the morning.”

The rest of them said goodnight and headed up the wide, carpeted stairs. But Kevin was last in line, and before he could even make it to the first step, Aunt Carolyn stopped him and said, “Oh, and Kevin?”

Kevin turned at the bottom of the steps. “Yes?”

“It’s true, the story about Count Volkov is only a legend, but there’s one thing you should think about.”

“What’s that, Aunt Carolyn?” Kevin asked.

Aunt Carolyn’s long black dress made her look like a shadow in the foyer. Her white face seemed to grin at him in the dark, and then she said:

“All legends, in some way, are based on truth.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

More thunder faintly shook the house as Kevin walked up the staircase, his hand sliding along the polished wood banister. The narrow window at the end of the second-floor hallway filled with brief wires of bright-white light each time the lightning cracked outside. Jimmy was already asleep by the time Kevin himself got into bed. It was a high bed with pointed oak posters. More lightning filled the curtain gap over the French doors, momentarily lighting up the room like quick flashbulbs on a camera, and sheets of rain could be heard blowing against the glass. Each time the lightning flashed again, Kevin could see the two paintings on the bedroom walls. But he’d already looked at these paintings this morning; they were just paintings of a forest, one winter scene and one fall scene—nothing like the strange and eerie paintings he’d seen downstairs of Count Volkov’s arrival to America. He made a mental note to himself, to look all around the lodge tomorrow and check all the other paintings. Find out how many more paintings were done by Count Volkov himself, he thought. Of course, he understood that Count Volkov wasn’t really a vampire—that was just a legend—but who was he really?

Probably just some rich guy who came to America in the late 1800’s, he deduced. He probably just looked weird, so people started the legend about him being a vampire.

More lightning cracked. Kevin flinched.

No, The Count wasn’t really a vampire, he told himself again. Vampires don’t exist. They’re just part of a legend. Aunt Carolyn said so…

Still one more louder bolt of lightning cracked outside.

But Aunt Carolyn had something else too, hadn’t she?

All legends, in some way, are based on truth…

Suddenly, his aunt’s final words of the night seemed very haunting. And how could anybody really know for sure?

Maybe there really are vampires, Kevin considered. Of course, this was an easy thing to consider in the middle of the night during a rain storm with thunder and lightning booming outside, and in a lodge that was once owned by a guy named Count Volkov!

Just go to sleep, he told himself. He wanted to get his mind off the topic. He had to admit—

He was a little bit afraid.

But the harder he tried to fall asleep, the more awake he felt. It was almost as if part of his mind didn’t want him to go to sleep. It was almost as if…

There was something he’d forgotten to do.

But what?

When the next crack of lightning lit up the room, he noticed the paintings again. And that reminded him of the paintings downstairs, the ones supposedly painted by The Count…

Then he remembered the sinister title, in small, painted letters along the bottom:

The Count Comes Ashore.

The painting of The Count’s treasure and coffin being carried across the beach by his servants. The painting he’d seen in the dark hall behind the kitchen…

Hanging on the door to Bill Bitner’s secret passageway! Kevin remembered all at once.

Yes, the secret place he’d found tonight after dinner. He’d been so caught up in Aunt Carolyn’s story that he’d forgotten all about it!

The secret door that Bill came out of this morning…

When Kevin had first discovered it, he’d planned to hunt for a flashlight and check out it late tonight…

Yeah, he recalled.

And it was late tonight… now.

The idea of getting up and investigating the passageway right now was pretty scary. Everyone was asleep. And the big lodge was dark and vacant downstairs. And—

Thunder boomed, more lightning crackled in the window

—and the raging storm outside didn’t help.

But—

I’ve got to do it, he realized. Now is the only time.

He’d be crazy to try and check out the passage during the day. I’d get caught! he thought.

And if he got caught, what could he possibly say? His father would be so mad…

So now is the time, he instructed himself.

He glanced over to Jimmy’s bed. Jimmy lay fast asleep.

Then Kevin, dressed in his flannel pajamas, climbed out of his own bed. He tiptoed across the bedroom, the rain beating against the french doors to the balcony behind him, and he crept out of the room, quietly clicking the door behind him.

Then, determined to summon all of his courage and see this thing out, he began to walk down the hall, toward the wide, dark stairwell…

CHAPTER TWENTY

The second-floor hallway stretched silent before him. This late at night, and so dark, it seemed ten times longer than he knew it actually was. His first task was to find a flashlight. Without a flashlight, he wouldn’t be able to see anything, and he’d be wasting his time. There was no way he was going to sneak back down to the passageway without some kind of light. Downstairs, he thought. Aunt Carolyn must have some flashlights downstairs for power failures and stuff like that.

The carpet felt warm against the bottoms of his bare feet. He walked cautiously down the hall—he didn’t want to make any noise and risk waking someone up—then turned at the landing and began to descend the twisting stairwell. Now, he found he was grateful for the occasional flashes of lightning, for they provided enough light for him to safely make his way down the stairs.

On the bottom landing, he immediately felt the sudden gust of warmth from the huge fireplace. The fire had burned down now, to not much more than a pile of glowing-orange embers with a few short fingers of flame, but it was still putting out a lot of heat. And by the soft orange light, he was able to find his way to the kitchen without stumbling over anything. But once he was in the kitchen, he had no choice but to flick on the light; otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to see. Everybody’s upstairs asleep, he reasoned. No one will be able to see the light.

Kevin used his time wisely. He searched all the kitchen cabinets and counter drawers quickly and efficiently. There were quite a few of them, and this took several minutes. But unfortunately—

A, darn it!

He didn’t find a single flashlight anywhere.

Without a flashlight, there was no way he could expect to investigate Bill’s secret passageway. I’ll never find out what’s going on around here! he exclaimed to himself, frustrated. He looked through a few more drawers and cabinets, found nothing, but then—

All right!

It wasn’t a flashlight he’d found, but it was the next best thing. There, lying in the last drawer, was a box of long, white candles, and right next to the candles was a large box of blue-tip safety matches.

He took up one candle and removed the box of matches. Then, very carefully, he struck one of the matches across the flint striker on the box, cautious to make sure the box was closed when he did so, and then he lit the candle.

Now he was ready to get on with it!

He walked to the end of the kitchen, past the long butcher-block counter, and stepped into the back hallway.

It was like stepping from a world of light into a world of grim, silent, eerie darkness. Suddenly Kevin found himself standing in the middle of what seemed a corridor of faint, shifting shadows, the shadows of course being thrown by the single candle in his hand. Again, the darkness made the hallway seem a lot longer; it seemed to stretch on for a hundred yards, but he knew this was only his imagination working on him. Get on with it! he ordered himself. What are you? A chicken?

And if there was one thing Kevin swore he would never be, it was a chicken. So he walked on down the dark hallway, with bizarre, ghostly shadows roving about him from the candle. The shadows, above him and on both sides, looked like weird butterflies flittering about…

Butterflies—

Or bats! he thought.

But that was silly. He was just getting scared.

Instead, he let his imagination get behind him, and he proceeded down the corridor. Each wooden panel on the wall had one of the dark paintings hanging on it, and Kevin inspected each one as he passed, holding the candle close to the canvas.

His eyes widened, and a breath caught in his chest.

Each painting showed a different depiction of The Count’s arrival to the shores of America. His coffin and crate of gold bricks being carried across the beach, through the woods, up hills and dales. Then another painting showed the lodge being built. And another painting showed the lodge fully erected, and it looked just like the lodge today.

And one more thing:

All of these paintings bore the same artist’s signature in the lower right-hand corner:

Count Volkov, Kevin read.

The Count had painted all of these pictures. So Kevin was right:

The Count is more than just a legend, he realized. He was a real person, who really came here over a hundred years ago, and he really had this lodge built, and it must have cost a lot of money, so maybe The Count really did have a crate full of gold bricks that he’d brought with him from Europe…

And if all of that was true, then maybe the rest was also true.

Maybe it was true what Aunt Carolyn said earlier, he considered. About how all legends are based in truth. Maybe Count Volkov really was a vampire too. And maybe his crate of gold bricks really is buried somewhere around here, and maybe his coffin is too. With The Count still in it, just like Aunt Carolyn said!

Eventually Kevin came to the end of the hallway, to the wall-panel on which hung the painting entitled The Count Comes Ashore.

This is it, Kevin thought to himself. He knew there was no way he could be mistaken. This was the exact same place he’d discovered earlier.

He steeled himself. His hand, very slowly, raised up in the candle-lit dark, and then he pushed against the panel.

And, just as he’d remembered, the panel moved, and—

click!

The panel nudged forward, then began to move inward, with a slow and steady creeeeeeak…

A moment later, Kevin found himself standing before a pitch-black, open doorway.

The secret passage, he thought.

Here it was, right in front of him.

The candle shadows seemed to move faster, like a flurry of birds. Kevin felt his heart suddenly begin to beat more quickly, like an impatient fist pounding on the inside of his chest. Total silence wrapped around him—he didn’t even hear the thunder and lightning anymore. All he could hear now were his own thoughts:

Here’s the secret passage…

And he knew there was only one thing left to do.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

When Kevin entered the great, black mouth of the passageway, he immediately felt the drop in temperature. Outside in the hallway, it was cozy and warm. In here, though, it was cold enough to make him shiver. And the floor of the passage wasn’t carpeted, it was flat, smooth cement which felt cold as ice against the bottom of his feet.

Second thoughts began to occur to him:

Maybe this is stupid, he thought. Maybe there’s nothing back here. Maybe I’m being an idiot and I shouldn’t be fooling around back here at all…

But Kevin somehow knew that none of this was true. There was something very wrong about the things going on around his aunt’s lodge, and he was determined to find out what those things were. And he knew something else, too:

This passageway is the perfect place to start.

And with that thought, he continued down the chilly passageway. The air felt damp; when he coughed once, the sound echoed. After about ten more yards, he came to a large, wooden door.

There must be another room behind it, he considered. The room that Bill Bitner was in…

Kevin knew it wasn’t locked—he could see it standing open an inch. His teeth ground together when he pulled back on the rusted, iron handle; the door’s hinges suddenly sounded like a cat with its tail stepped on.

What faced him now was a pitch-black chamber.

Kevin cautiously moved into the room, holding the candle out in front of him. The walls were made of old, red bricks with yellowed cement oozing out from the gaps. What kind of a room is this? he asked himself, moving forward a few steps. He didn’t see any lamps or light fixtures, nor did he notice any electrical switches on the walls, and suddenly this made sense because then he remembered that when he and Jimmy had seen Bill Bitner coming out of the passage this morning, Bill had not only been holding a shovel, he’d also been holding a lantern. The darkness here seemed so thick it was like wading through a cold, black pond. The candle threw a fluttering shape of light before him, and eventually, he could see things. A rickety wooden table, several chairs, a dented coffee pot, and—

Kevin stopped when he turned.

Shovels, he realized.

There, propped up in the corner, were two long-handled shovels with large blades, almost like—

Almost like gravedigging shovels, he pondered, like the ones he’d seen in so many vampire movies…

He and Jimmy had seen Bill Bitner with a shovel just out in the hall, hadn’t they? And they’d also seen Wally digging in the wood earlier. With a big shovel like one of these, Kevin recalled.

And, again, he wondered about something else:

What were they digging for?

In another corner, he noticed a bunch of old rolled up tents, sleeping bags, and lanterns, and on the wall opposite, hanging on a large piece of pegboard, was an assortment of regular tools, like the kind his dad had int their garage. None of this was any big deal.

Kevin, next, approached the wooden table in the middle. There was a coffee cup on it, and a newspaper. But then he noticed something else.

Kevin stopped again when he turned to face the last corner of the room. His eyes bloomed in the dim light. On the floor, shoved all the way into the corner, lay an old, oil-stained cardboard box full of…

Kevin leaned over, peering down. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t mistaken, and when he realized that he wasn’t mistaken, a nervous sweat broke out on his brow in spite of the room’s damp chill.

The box was full of wooden stakes.

Kevin picked one up, examining it in the candlelight. It was crudely made, a two-inch by two-inch stick with a sharpened point. Just like—

Just like the wooden stakes in the vampire movies, Kevin thought, and with that thought came a wave of scary images in his head, all the movie scenes he’d seen: the good guys, at the very last minute before sundown, finding the vampire’s coffin, forcing it open, and hammering a wooden stake into the vampire’s heart. And Aunt Carolyn, when she’d been telling her story, had verified it herself: a wooden stake hammered through the heart was about the only way to kill a vampire.

And there was something else he noticed then:

Two hammers lying next to the box of wooden stakes.

This is just getting too wild, Kevin thought, and too scary. All this stuff—it all points to one thing…

Vampires.

But he needed to get out of here; he’d been down here too long, and if he didn’t get back upstairs to his room soon, someone might find out that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be—in bed. He knew he had a lot of thinking to do, and a lot of things to figure out.

There were some other things in the room, too. More cardboard boxes, a file cabinet, an antique rolltop desk. Kevin wanted to examine all of these things but he knew there wasn’t time now, and the candle was burning down. He turned away from the box of stakes, was about to step out of the hidden room, but before he could actually leave and go back upstairs, he—

Wait a minute…

There was something else, lying under the table that the coffee cup and newspaper were on. Something small, shapeless, and white. But what was it?

Kevin got down on one knee, lowered the candle, and stared under the table.

There, in the flickering light, he finally realized what the thing was:

A white rag with blood all over it…

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Terror and dread made Kevin feel light-headed as he stumbled out of the secret room, closed the door behind him, and raced back down the dark corridor. All at once he felt more confused—and more scared—than he probably ever had in his whole life. Nothing made sense now. According to Aunt Carolyn, and according to everything else he understood, vampires didn’t exist. They were just part of a myth.

But…

If vampires don’t exist, he thought, moving down the hall, then what else can explain all the things I’ve found so far?

It was a terrifying question.

Secret panels, secret rooms. Creepy paintings all over the place, paintings of a vampire. Strange people digging in the woods. Shovels and hammers and—

And a box of wooden stakes, he added in thought, and a rag with blood on it…

And on top of all those things, there was always Aunt Carolyn’s story itself, about Count Volkov, a vampire story.

Could it all be just a strange coincidence? No, he felt sure. No way. There are just too many things that all add up to vampires. A coincidence would be impossible.

And all the things he’d discovered so far? They all pointed to one person, didn’t they?

Aunt Carolyn, Kevin realized.

He got to the end of the hidden corridor, rushed out, then carefully pushed the panel closed. He didn’t want to leave any evidence that he’d been down here. What would he do then? What would he say? How could he possibly explain it without being forced to reveal what he’d found?

No, he couldn’t do that—he knew it. He couldn’t tell anybody about any of this. At least not yet, he thought. At least not till Dad gets back from his fishing trip.

And the reason for this was simple.

Kevin was scared.

Very scared.

He double-checked to make sure the secret panel was properly closed, then he headed back to the kitchen. The candle, by now, had burned down most of the way. Kevin blew it out and turned on the kitchen faucet. Then he ran the candle’s wick thoroughly under the water, to be absolutely sure that it was out. The task finished, he hid the stub of the candle in the garbage can beneath the sink.

But for the entire time that he was doing this, his thoughts kept running away with his fears, and then he noticed that his hands were shaking. Yes, Kevin was scared, all right. And he knew why.

Suddenly the pieces started to fit together. They fit together so well, in fact, that Kevin was surprised he hadn’t figured it out sooner.

He turned off the overhead kitchen light, then wandered out to the hearth room. By now, the fire had all but died; only a tiny pile of glowing embers remained, and traces of heat. Outside, the storm still raged, the rain splashing against the windows, and the lightning crackling. But it wasn’t the storm that made Kevin so nervous…

He sat down in the dark, on one of the couches surrounding the fireplace. This whole creepy lodge is just like something out of a vampire movie, he realized, and everything else fits, too.

Bill Bitner’s secret room, the wooden stakes, and all that were bad enough. Not to mention the bloody rag, the shovels, and the weird paintings. It was Aunt Carolyn herself that bothered Kevin the most.

He formed a list in his mind, of all the things that suddenly bothered him about his aunt.

She’s kind of creepy looking to begin with, he thought. Her pale skin, her long black hair, and those long black dresses she always wears. She knows all about the Count Volkov legend, every detail, plus she bought the very same lodge that The Count had built and used to live in, and she has all of The Count’s paintings hanging all over the place…

But there was more, wasn’t there?

She never eats anything. She didn’t eat a thing at dinner, even though she set herself a place at the table, and she didn’t eat any of the popcorn she’d made when she was telling her story about The Count…

And if there was one thing Kevin knew full well:

Vampires don’t eat.

And one more thing, too, the most important hint of all.

She never goes outside, he realized. She never goes out in the daylight. In fact, I’ve never seen her outside, ever in my life. She’s always inside, in the dark. Sure, this morning she stood out on the porch when we pulled up in the station wagon, but the porch is covered, and the sky was so cloudy, there wasn’t much sunlight anywhere. And for most of the day she was…

Kevin’s hands began shaking again.

All day long, we didn’t see her anywhere, he recalled. She disappeared, and that’s when vampires sleep in their coffins—during the day, so they can be awake at night.

Kevin’s eyes went wide with dread as the lightning crackled in the window.

And it was then that he finally admitted to himself what had to be true…

Aunt Carolyn, he realized, is… a vampire…

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

He couldn’t believe it, but he knew there could be no other explanation. Aunt Carolyn is a vampire, living here in Count Volkov’s lodge, he thought. Where else would a vampire live, but in another vampire’s house?

And everything else made sense, too.

Like Bill Bitner and Wally. In all the vampire movies Kevin had seen, the vampires always had helpers, people who weren’t vampires themselves, so that they could follow the vampire’s orders during the day. Servants, Kevin thought. Like those blank-faced men in the paintings. Those men were Count Volkov’s servants.

So what did that make Bill Bitner and Wally?

They’re… Aunt Carolyn’s servants, Kevin figured. No wonder they work for her so cheap. They’re probably under her spell. They protect her during the day when she’s asleep in her coffin, and they do her work for her. But—

But what work?

Digging, he answered himself at once. He’d found the shovels in the secret room, and not only had he seen Bill holding a shovel in the hallway, he’d also seen Wally out in the woods today, during the rainstorm. And what had Wally been doing?

Digging, Kevin though. Digging a hole in the ground. Digging… for something.

But what?

Count Volkov’s coffin? he wondered. Or the treasure?

It was just one more thing he’d have to find out. He knew there had to be more clues in the secret room, and tomorrow he would go back, with a bright flashlight, so he could see better and investigate some more.

But there was something he had to investigate now.

I have to make absolutely sure, he thought, that Aunt Carolyn really is a vampire…

And he knew there was only one way to do that.

Kevin knew where Aunt Carolyn’s bedroom was. It was upstairs, on the second floor, at the other end of the hall from where he and Jimmy’s room was…

I’ll have to go there now, he realized. I’ll have to look into Aunt Carolyn’s bedroom. If she’s sleeping in her bed, then I’ll know she’s not really a vampire, because vampires never sleep at night, and they only sleep in coffins. And if she isn’t there…

The rest of the thought trailed off for a moment, replaced by fear.

If she isn’t there, his thoughts continued nervously, then I’ll know I’m right. I’ll know for a fact that Aunt Carolyn really is a vampire…

Kevin stood up then, in the dark hearth room, with the rain still pounding the windows and the lightning still flashing. He doubted that he’d ever been this scared, but he knew what he must do.

He had no choice.

I’ve got to go up there now, he thought. To Aunt Carolyn’s bedroom, and I’ve got to see if she’s there. That’s the only way I’ll know for sure.

The clock on the mantle over the fireplace ticked loudly. Kevin looked up and saw that it was almost three o’clock in the morning. He walked cautiously into the foyer, set foot on the landing, and began to quietly climb the stairs. Each step felt higher than he remembered, and took more effort to climb, but maybe that was because he was afraid about all the things he’d discovered tonight. Each step creaked too, not loud, but still he fretted that the sound might wake someone up. Eventually he got to the top of the second-floor landing. It was very dark, he could barely see anything, but at least the lightning in the window at the ends of the hall offered enough light that he could make his way. As he stepped down the hall over the carpet, even the floor creaked a little, and, more eerie paintings passed on either side of him. Kevin felt grateful that it was too dark to see any of their details.

After all, he knew who had painted them.

It seemed to take forever to get all the way down to the end of the hallway. Aunt Carolyn’s bedroom, he knew, was the last door on the left. In another few moments, he was there, standing before the door. And all at once, his entire body felt as thought it were made of stone…

He tried to raise his hand, to grasp the doorknob and open the door. But—

He couldn’t.

His hand was shaking too much.

Get a grip on yourself! he thought. You can’t be a chicken all your life!

He took a deep breath, let himself calm down. then—

Do it! he ordered himself. Just go on and do it!

Very slowly, his hand raised, and then, even more slowly, his fingers closed over the doorknob. They tightened, turned. Then—

He began to turn the old brass doorknob.

Please don’t creak, he thought fearfully to himself. Every door and stair and section of flooring in the entire lodge seemed to creak. But, to Kevin’s relief, when he began to carefully push the door open, he found that the hinges didn’t make any sound. Soon the door was opened wide enough that he could stick his head in and look.

Drat! he thought.

Darkness.

The room was so dark he couldn’t see anything at all inside. The only thing that faced him now was an utter and complete wall of black.

What am I going to do now! he wondered.

But it was just his luck. At that very instant, a long peal of lightning cracked across the sky, and its brief white light flashed into Aunt Carolyn’s bedroom through the high, narrow window. And—

Kevin’s heart felt like it might actually stop beating right there in his chest.

Because when the lightning flashed and lit up the room, he saw no sign at all of Aunt Carolyn.

He saw an antique dresser, a table, a few chairs. He saw some paintings on the wall, too, but—

That was all.

Aunt Carolyn’s not here,he realized. And he realized something else, too.

There wasn’t even a bed in the room.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

No Aunt Carolyn, Kevin thought. And not even a bed in her own bedroom.

And that could only mean one thing.

She doesn’t have a bed. She doesn’t need one, because she’s a vampire. Vampire’s don’t sleep in beds, they never do. They sleep in coffins…

Which supported what he had suspected all along.

Aunt Carolyn really is a vampire. There’s no doubt…

But something else came to his mind just then, something just as frightening:

If Aunt Carolyn isn’t here, he wondered, trembling, then where is she?

The first impulse told him to scoot back to his own bedroom right now, pretend he hadn’t seen anything. He’d play dumb till Sunday morning when his father got back, and then could just get in the car and go home, and Kevin could forget all about this evil place.

But that wasn’t like him, was it? Kevin’s curiosity was just too strong; it wouldn’t let go. Like right now, for instance. He knew Aunt Carolyn was up and about somewhere—as most vampires would be at this hour—and he knew that the safest thing to do would be to go back to bed. But one thing he’d noticed while peeking into his aunt’s bedroom, during that last flash of lightning, were the two paintings on the wall, and next thing he knew—

I really shouldn’t be doing this, he warned himself.

—he was tiptoeing into the room!

Because he had to see those two paintings. He’d seen most of the others in the lodge, the scenes painted by Count Volkov himself, and it only stood to reason that the best of the paintings would be here, in his aunt’s room.

But, again, the biggest problem was light. The room was so dark that once he entered he found that he’d have to wait for another flash of lightning to light his way. It took him several minutes this way to get across the room to where the paintings hung. The first thing he noticed was that one of the paintings was larger than any of the other paintings he’d seen in the lodge, maybe even twice as large, with a thick fancy-carved frame. When the lightning cracked, Kevin’s eyes darted immediately to the bottom of the painting, to see what the title was:

Count Volkov, it read. A Self-Portrait.

And painted in the corner, sure enough, was The Count’s signature, proving that he was the artist.

Then the lightning cracked again, and Kevin’s eyes flicked quickly upward to look at the painting itself, and—

His jaw dropped.

—and in the brief flash of lightning, the painting of The Count looked right back at him…

It was the scariest painting he’d ever seen in his life. In dark, creepy colors, there he was—The Count. The painting looked so real, it almost seemed as though Count Volkov were standing before him in the flesh.

The Count’s face was long and thin—and so pale it was white. He was bald, and the collar of his great black cape was turned up, connected by a big brass button with a fancy V embossed on it. V, Kevin thought. For Volkov. And hanging just under the button, from a chain about The Count’s neck, was a pendant of gold, a pendant of a hideous vampire bat with outstretched wings…

Kevin’s stomach quivered as he examined the painting more thoroughly, and when the lightning flashed again, he took closer note of The Count’s face:

The whites of Count Volkov’s eyes were bloodshot, with pupils so black they looked like holes. The mouth, turned up into a sinister smile, was opened just enough that Kevin could see the two long needlelike fangs…

Kevin turned away. Count Volkov’s self-portrait was more frightening than any of the vampires he’d seen in the movies. It was so chilling, in fact, that he forced himself to turn away, because he knew that if he looked at it any longer, he’d have nightmares of The Count’s fangs and terrible white face for a long time to come.

Get out of here, he told himself, shivering.

But he couldn’t leave yet, could he? There was still one more painting he needed to look at…

The second painting was smaller, more like the others that hung in the lodge, and with a similarly carved, antique frame. Kevin waited for another lightning flash, and when it came, he read the second painting’s title:

The Count, Standing on the Balcony of his Room.

And another lightning flash—

All the breath seemed to seize in Kevin’s chest once he got a full glimpse of the second painting. It was a painting of the back of the lodge, at night, with a full, yellow moon hanging just over the peak of the lodge’s roof, and there, on a second-floor balcony, at the far corner of the lodge, Count Volkov stood in his great black cape, looking out into the night…

Suddenly, all Kevin could do was stare at the picture. The depiction of The Count was frightening enough—yes—but that wasn’t what scared Kevin the most—

In his mind, he recited the painting’s chilling title: The Count, Standing on the Balcony of his Room.

And then he thought further: His room. The Count’s room. The second-floor balcony at the far end of the lodge…

Then he realized:

Count Volkov’s room, and Kevin’s room, were the same.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

The lightning, now, flashed along with Kevin’s terror. Bug-eyed, and still staring at the ghastly painting, he backed away. His heart raced, his breath grew thin, and now his hands were shaking uncontrollably. I’m staying in the same room that used to be Count Volkov’s, his thoughts pounded in dread. The very same room!

Kevin knew he had to get out of his aunt’s bedroom now—he’d been here too long already, and staying another minute would just be too risky. But in leaving, that left him with a big problem:

Where do I go now?

Eventually, he knew he’d have to go back to bed, but now that he knew that his bedroom was once Count Volkov’s room—he didn’t know if he could do it. How could he sleep, knowing that he was sleeping in the same room that was once inhabited by a vampire?

But he knew he had no choice…

He finally backed out of Aunt Carolyn’s room, the storm still pounding, the lightning still flashing along with its crackling, thunderous sound. Back out in the hallway then, he began to close the door but before he could push it shut completely—

—a hand landed on his shoulder.

“Kevin!” a voice caught him from behind. “What on earth are you doing?”

Kevin’s heart suddenly felt like a bomb that had just exploded in his chest. He turned, in newfound terror, at the sharp, angry voice and the touch of the hand that suddenly had landed on his shoulder—

To face Aunt Carolyn!

At once a softly glowing light was on his face. Aunt Carolyn was holding up a lantern—the same kind of lantern, Kevin noted, that Bill Bitner had been holding in the back hallway this morning—and what Kevin immediately noticed was that Aunt Carolyn wasn’t dressed in a nightgown but was wearing one of the same long, tight black dresses that she always wore. She looked scoldingly at him, her dark eyes narrowed, and the look on her face was clearly one of irritation.

“Young man,” she said. “It’s not nice to go into people’s bedrooms without their permission. I’m surprised that you would do such a thing. Now I want to know what you were doing in there, and I want to know right now.”

Kevin, all trembles now, could only stutter in reply, “I, I, I, uh, was looking for you.”

“Looking for me? What for?”

“I, I—” and suddenly Kevin could think of nothing to say in the way of an answer.

Aunt Carolyn’s angry face glared down in the lantern light—a long, thin, pale face, Kevin noticed. Like Count Volkov’s face, like a vampire’s face! But then, just as suddenly, that same anger drifted off, and at once, Aunt Carolyn’s voice softened. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said consolingly. “You poor thing. Of course, you must’ve been frightened by the storm, is that it?”

“Uh, yes,” Kevin stammered back. “The storm, it woke me up and, uh, I got scared.”

“Well, you needn’t worry, because I was just downstairs listening to the weather report on the radio, and they said the storm will be over soon. So there’s nothing to worry about, see?”

“Uh, yes,” Kevin bumbled.

“It’s very late,” Aunt Carolyn went on. “You get back to bed now. Hopefully, the weather will be good enough tomorrow for you and Jimmy to fly your kites.”

“Uh, yeah, Aunt Carolyn, that would be great,” Kevin managed to say. “Well, I’m going back to bed now. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Kevin.”

Boy, did I luck out there, Kevin thought, walking down the darkened hall toward his bedroom. She thought I was scared of the storm. What a joke! After all the things he’d seen tonight, and all the things he’d discovered, a lightning storm was the last thing he’d be scared of!

When he got back to his bedroom, Jimmy was still fast sleep. Kevin got into his own bed and lay back under the heavy covers, his mind still spinning with thoughts…

Yes, Aunt Carolyn was definitely a vampire, she had to be. Up at this hour, still in her long black dress. Never eating anything and never going out into the sun. And no bed in her bedroom. There could be no doubt—

She’s a vampire, all right, he realized. But what am I going to do about it?

What could he do?

Well… nothing, he concluded, at least not until their fathers got back from fishing. And what had her excuse been, for being up so late herself?

Listening to the weather report on the radio, he remembered. What a bunch of malarkey!

Kevin felt exhausted and he tried to fall asleep but again the fact returned to his mind, and so did his fearful recollection of the second painting he’d seen in his aunt’s room. Count Volkov used to live in this same room, he thought. This used to be a vampire’s room. How can I expect to fall asleep, knowing that Count Volkov himself used to think and walk and breathe in this same room?

He lay there in bed, staring at the ceiling. But then he noticed something. I guess Aunt Carolyn was right after all. The lightning and thunder has stopped. Sure enough, it had, and it seemed like the rain was letting up too.

And this sudden absence of the storm’s steady sounds left the bedroom suddenly, and eerily, silent—

clink! he heard.

Then—

crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch…

Kevin leaned up in bed. What were those sounds? The clink had sounded somehow like metal, and the steady crunching noise sounded just like—

People walking, he realized.

And something else: The sounds seemed to be coming from the french doors which led to the balcony, which could only mean:

The sounds are coming from… outside, he thought.

But who on earth would be walking around outside this late at night?

He listened some more. Maybe it was just my imagination, he considered when the sounds disappeared. But just when he was about to forget about them—

clink!

crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch…

—he heard them again!

Quietly, he climbed out of bed and approached the two closed french doors. Then he quickly opened them and slipped out onto the wet balcony. The rain was only trickling now, and the wind had vanished. He glanced down at the grassy area between the forest and the back of the lodge, and was astounded at the heavy silence. And, once more, that creepy feeling returned to his belly, the idea that he was now standing on the same balcony that Count Volkov had once stood upon.

Count Volkov… the vampire…

clink!

There it was again! And then, again—

crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch…

Kevin leaned out over the balcony’s heavy wooden railing, and then looked down.

And he… saw something, didn’t he?

Yes, indeed he did. There, at the edge of the woods behind the lodge, he noticed two faintly glowing lights…

Lanterns! he recognized. Lantern lights!

And once his eyes had adjusted, he recognized something else too.

Two figures!

He was sure of it. So late at night, and in the trickling rain, two men were walking along the edge of the woods behind the lodge, their lanterns pitching slowly back and forth as their feet—crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch—crunched on over fallen leaves and branches, and every so often—clink!—that same metallic sound could be heard. Each man seemed to be carrying something long and thin, which Kevin, in the dim lantern light, was then able to identify.

Shovels, he thought, peering down. They’re carrying shovels. And every few steps, the big blades of their shovels clinked together as they walked on towards the forest.

And Kevin was able to recognize something else too, as the trickle of rain continued to fall. In their bobbing lantern lights, he could make out their faces beyond a doubt—

It’s Bill Bitner! he recognized. And Wally!

And just one second later, both figures turned into one of the paths which led into the woods, and disappeared.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The next morning, Kevin awoke to see Jimmy, already fully dressed, looking out the french doors. “Wake up, Kevin,” he said. “The rain stopped. We can go out to the bluff and fly our kites.”

Kevin groaned groggily. He hadn’t slept well at all, which was no wonder. It had been well past three a.m. before he’d fallen asleep, and all through the night he kept waking up from nightmares of Count Volkov: the long thin face, pale as milk, emerging from the dark. The bald head, the black hole-punch eyes, and the sharp-pointed fangs showing through The Count’s twisted vampire grin…

Kevin would wake up each time in a shivering sweat, leaning up wide-eyed in bed, his heart pattering.

“Come on,” Jimmy exclaimed. “Up and at ’em. Let’s get out there and get our kites flying while we still can. It could start raining again any time.”

Kevin nodded sleepily. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes,” he said.

“Great, I’ll meet you downstairs.”

Kevin dragged himself out of bed, then showered and dressed. He was so tired he didn’t even feel like flying kites today, but then he realized if he didn’t, he’d have to sit around the lodge all day, and that was one thing he definitely didn’t want to do. The lodge terrified him now, and why shouldn’t it? With all the things he’d found out last night? And finding out that my aunt is a vampire? he added in thought. Hanging around the lodge was the last thing he wanted to do.

Dressed and ready, he grabbed his bat kite and trudged downstairs. The lodge was dead quiet. Jimmy was waiting for him in the foyer with his own kite. “Let’s go.”

“Jimmy, Kevin,” Becky’s voice called out from the dining room. “Where are you guys going?”

“To the bluffs,” Kevin said, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

“To fly our kites,” Jimmy added.

Becky smirked from her place at the table, over a bowl of cereal. “You and your stupid kites. Aren’t you even going to eat breakfast?”

“Naw,” Jimmy answered. “We want to get going now, before it starts to rain again.”

“Oh, and let me tell you two nitwits something,” Becky chided. “I asked Wally about what you guys said yesterday.”

“What’s that?” Jimmy asked.

“About how you two doughheads said you saw him mysteriously digging around in the woods.” Becky frowned at them. “All he was doing was digging for a broken water pipe. Real mysterious, guys.”

Water pipe, my eye, Kevin thought. And I guess Bill Bitner and your lover boy Wally were digging for broken water pipes last night, too. At three a.m.! But Kevin didn’t voice this thought, and he remained convinced that not telling anyone about the things he’d discovered so far was the best idea. But before he and Jimmy left, he stopped and said, “Hey, Becky?”

“Hay is for horses!” Becky complained back.

“Which is what you look like,” Kevin couldn’t resist, and groaned. But then he asked his sister the question he was sure he already knew the answer to. “Where’s Aunt Carolyn?”

“How would I know?” Becky griped. “I’m not her keeper.”

“Well, have you seen her at all this morning?”

“No. I haven’t seen her anywhere. Oysterbrains!”

“Neither have I,” Jimmy volunteered. “But who cares? Let’s get going.”

Kevin followed Jimmy out the front door, but before he could close it behind him, Becky harassed him a final time from the breakfast table. “Oh, and have fun flying your stupid kite… Kevvie.

Kevin groaned to himself, then closed the front door. Sisters sure are a pain, he thought. I should’ve dumped that bowl of cereal right on her smart head.

Outside, they immediately buttoned up their jackets. The air was brisk—they could see their breath condense in front of their faces—and there was a steady wind, ideal for kite flying. Fallen autumn leaves blew around their feet as they headed for the path that would lead them to the bluffs. Jimmy looked worriedly up at the sky. “Yeah, it looks like it might start raining again. We may never get a chance to fly these kites.”

Kevin, trudging along, nodded noncommittally. Right now, kite flying was the furthest thing from his mind. All he could think about instead was The Count, the lodge and all the weird business he’d uncovered, and, of course, Aunt Carolyn.

“Don’t you think that’s kind of odd?” Jimmy asked.

“What?”

“Well, you know. Your Aunt Carolyn. Your sister said she hadn’t seen her all morning, and we didn’t see much of her yesterday either, except after it got dark.”

“Yeah,” Kevin replied, but that’s all he said. If he got to talking about it, he might wind up telling Jimmy everything, and he still didn’t think that would be too smart.

“Hey, look at this!” Jimmy exclaimed and rushed forward. Just off the path stood an old rickety wooden shed, with its front door hanging open. “I wonder what it is.”

“Just some old tool shed probably,” Kevin wearily guessed.

“Let’s go in.”

“Naw, we probably shouldn’t. That old thing looks like it’s going to fall down any second.”

Jimmy smirked. “What are you? Chicken all of a sudden? Let’s go inside, check it out.”

Before Kevin could object further, Jimmy was entering the shed, and Kevin, having no choice, followed him. The inside of the shed smelled musty, and it was very damp. “See?” Kevin said. “Big deal. It’s just some old shed.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Jimmy concurred. “But—”

“But what?”

Jimmy’s head tilted. “What’s that sound?”

“I don’t hear any—” But before Kevin could finish the sentence, he stopped, listened. And, yes, he did hear something. Something like a tiny squeaking sound?

“Sounds like baby birds chirping,” Jimmy observed. He looked up at the ceiling of the shed. “Bet there’s a bird nest up there somewhere.”

“Naw, there wouldn’t be a bird nest here, not this late in the season,” Kevin informed him. “It’s too cold, it’s almost winter. Birds don’t nest this time of year, they fly south.”

“Oh,” Jimmy said. He scratched his head. “Then what is it?” And, next, from his jacket pocket, he withdrew a small flashlight.

“Cool,” Kevin said. “Where’d you get that?”

“This flashlight? I don’t know. But I always carry it around in case I need a light.” And as the strange chirping sound persisted, he turned on the flashlight’s bright beam, aimed it up at the shed’s ceiling, and—

“Oh, man, gross!” Kevin exclaimed.

“Let’s get out of here!” Jimmy yelled, and with that, they both pounded out of the shed. Because what they’d seen up there on the old ceiling was at least a dozen bats, hanging upside-down by their feet. And in the brief flashlight beam, Kevin had been able to notice their faces looking down at them: tiny squashed, brown faces that twitched, their little mouths stretched open, showing rows of needle-sharp teeth.

“Wow,” Jimmy said, winded, once they got back outside. “Did you see all those bats?”

“Yeah,” Kevin said. “They sure are ugly.”

“You’re not kidding. But what were they doing there, all huddled together upside-down?”

“They were sleeping,” Kevin explained. “They sleep upside-down, in dark places, hanging by their feet.”

“They sleep in the morning?” Jimmy asked, astonished.

“Yeah, that’s what bats do. They’re nocturnal. That means they sleep during the day so they can be awake all night.”

“Wow,” Jimmy muttered again, the shock now worn off. “Just like vampires.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Yeah, Kevin thought, trudging on back down the path with Jimmy. Just like vampires.

And then came another thought:

Just like Count Volkov and… Aunt Carolyn…

The bats were just another reminder of all the weird things he’d found out, and this only reminded him of the dilemma he was in. If he told anybody, no one would probably believe him, and Aunt Carolyn, along with her servants Bill and Wally, would know he was onto them.

And who knew what would happen then?

What would they do? he wondered. What would Aunt Carolyn do if she knew I’d found out that she’s a vampire?

Maybe nothing. Or maybe—

Or maybe she’d turn me into a vampire too, he considered.

“Here we are,” Jimmy announced as the path finally opened up into the flat field overlooking the ocean. “The bluffs!”

“Yeah,” Kevin said without much enthusiasm.

“We beat the rain. With any luck we should be able to fly our kites for a while before it starts again.”

“Yeah,” Kevin said.

Jimmy set his box kite down, took out his spool of string, and connected it to the corner of his kite. Kevin feebly began to do the same.

“Hey, man?” Jimmy said, looking over. “What’s eating you?”

“Huh?”

“You’ve been acting weird all morning, and you’ve barely said a thing.”

“Oh, well, I’m just tired, that’s all,” Kevin made the excuse. That was about all he could think to say. He couldn’t very well tell Jimmy the rest, now could he?

“Well, I’m ready,” Jimmy said. “Here goes!” And then Jimmy, holding his spool tightly, took off running across the bluff. Instantly, his box kite launched off the ground and, seconds later, it was climbing high into the air. “Come on, slow-poke!” Jimmy called out. “Get yours up! This is great!”

Yeah, great, Kevin thought. My aunt’s a vampire, and here I am flying kites like I don’t have a worry in the world. He took off running himself then, and in a few seconds his kite, too, was airborne. The black plastic wings of his bat kite flapped violently, but once the wind took a solid hold, Kevin was able to stop, looking up at the cloudy sky. He slowly unreeled more string from his spool, and his kite climbed higher. To his left, the fence at the edge of the bluff stretched on, and he could hear the waves crashing against the rocks down below on the beach. Higher and higher, his kite sailed, its bat-shape looking down at him with its two evil red eyes and fanged mouth.

“This is great, isn’t it!” Jimmy’s kite had climbed twice as high as Kevin’s.

I guess I’m just not into it today, Kevin realized.

In the next moment, though, his string jerked suddenly in his hand, and a big gust of wind blew into him hard from behind. At once, both kites began churning violently back and forth in the air. And above them, they could see the sky turning dark as rain clouds quickly moved in.

“The storm’s coming back!” Jimmy yelled.

“We have to reel our kites in quick or we’ll lose them!” Kevin yelled back in reply, his hair suddenly blowing every which way in the fierce wind of the oncoming storm.

His wrists moved frantically as he reeled in his bat kite which was now pitching so wide to either side he thought it might actually crash into the ground. But Jimmy struggled worse; his box kite was spinning uncontrollably. But then—

snap!

Kevin’s line broke.

“Aw, drat!” he exclaimed.

And his kite took off on its own, soaring unevenly toward the forest where it eventually disappeared into the treetops.

“I’ve got to go try to get it!” he yelled to Jimmy over the wind, and then he took off running just as giant raindrops began to splatter on his face. Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning began to crackle. Boy, are we morons, he thought, dashing into the path. I should’ve known this would happen. At that same instant, the sky broke open, pouring hard sheets of rain. Kevin had made it into the woods just in time. He trotted down the path, in the direction of where he guessed his kite had landed. With my luck, he thought, it’ll be hung up in the trees and I’ll never get it down. He trotted on, realizing that, this deep in the woods, he’d probably never find the kite, and even if he did, he’d never be able to reach it. But just then he noticed a road through the trees, more than likely the same road he and Jimmy had seen yesterday when they’d gotten lost. So he squeezed through the trees, stepped out onto the dirt road, and—

“What luck!” he exclaimed aloud to himself.

There was his black bat kite, lying right there in the middle of the road. When he picked it up, he noticed that the wooden crossbar was broken, but that was no big deal. I can fix that easy, he thought. And the rest of the kite looked in good shape, no tears or rips in the wings, no places where the material had detached. Great, he thought.

Then he looked up, noticed something… strange.

Right next to him was a tall forked tree, a tree with two trunks sprouting from one root. The same kind of tree we saw Wally digging near yesterday, he remembered. He also noticed that the dirt right in front of the tree was churned up, as though someone had dug a hole there and then covered it up. And he noticed something else:

Kevin dropped his kite as he stared in frightened amazement.

On one of the tree’s forked trunks, there was a sloppy red symbol. At once Kevin realized, Someone painted that symbol on the tree. But… what is it?

Then it dawned on him, and a shudder coursed up his spine.

It’s a cross, he thought. A cross painted… in blood!

Kevin slowly backed away from the forked tree, his hands shaking. What had Aunt Carolyn said last night during her story? That villagers in olden times had painted crosses on their doors, in blood—

To keep vampires away! he thought in alarm.

This was too much. He turned, leaving his kite on the dirt road, and ran. He wasn’t even sure where he was running to, as the rain pelted the forest and the lightning cracked. It was fear more than anything else that urged him to run, to get away, anywhere…

Then he slowed down, noticing a sound over the rain. He stopped, peering through the trees. Just around the corner he noticed an old faded blue car. Wally’s car, Kevin realized. He’d seen it yesterday. And sure enough, here was Wally again, digging a hole in the ground with a big shovel, the rain beating down on his shoulders, and—

Another forked tree! Kevin saw.

Yes, Wally was digging a hole in front of yet another forked tree, just like he’d been doing yesterday, and just like the tree Kevin had seen a minute ago, with the cross painted on it in blood. Kevin stepped away as quietly as he could; he didn’t want Wally to see him. So he squeezed through some more trees and only moments later—

What is this!

—found himself standing in the middle of still another dirt road.

And that’s when he saw the truck. An old, dented pickup truck. And—

Bill Bitner standing next to it, holding a shovel!

Kevin stepped behind a fat oak tree, so Bill wouldn’t see him. Bowed down in the rain then, Bill—clang!—tossed the shovel into the back of his pickup truck and then seemed to be approaching a specific tree, while carrying a bucket. Kevin immediately noticed that the dirt at the foot of the tree was all churned up, too—

As though someone had dug a hole there and then filled it right back up. And when Kevin peered more closely, he noticed something else.

Another forked tree…

And, next—

Bill Bitner, frowning as always, set the bucket down, and when he did so, Kevin could easily make out its scarlet contents:

Blood, he saw. A bucket full of… blood!

It came as no surprise when Bill Bitner next withdrew an old paint brush, dipped it in the bucket, and painted a big bloody cross on one of the forked tree’s trunks…

Then he put the bucket back in the truck and wiped his red hands off on a rag, which Kevin realized was probably the same bloody rag he’d seen in the secret room last night.

Kevin trembled, not from the cold and the rain, but from total fear. He didn’t know what to do! If he ran, Bill would see him. Back out slowly, quietly, Kevin logically thought. Then get away from this place.

But when he proceeded to do so, taking his first step backward—

snap!

—his heel came down on a branch, and the branch snapped very loudly.

Kevin froze.

Bill Bitner looked up at the sudden sound, then he looked straight at Kevin, and then—

Oh, nooooo, Kevin thought.

—Bill Bitner marched straight for the tree Kevin was standing behind…

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

I’m caught now! Kevin thought. I’m dead meat!

He did the only thing he could think to do: he ducked down very quickly, hunkered over to one side behind the tree, and kept his fingers crossed. Bill Bitner’s crunching footsteps soundly wetly over the leaves in the road. Kevin didn’t dare look up; all he could do was remain squatted down as much as possible. A second later, Bill’s vague shadow fell across the area just to Kevin’s left. The shadow stood still. Then Bill said, “Daggit. I could’ve sworn I heard something back here.”

A few seconds ticked by but they seemed like minutes. Kevin was so scared, he feared his teeth might start chattering, and his heart felt like it might burst right then and there.

But then, to his relief, Bill walked back to his truck, got in it, and drove away.

Holy smokes, am I lucky! Kevin thought, releasing. He didn’t see me after all!

He waited a good five minutes before he dared leave; he wanted to make sure that Bill was far away. The lightning was still flashing, and the rain was still coming down, but not quite as hard as before. The first thing I have to do, he told himself, is go back to the bluffs and find Jimmy.

He trotted back down the path, and in only a few minutes, he was back at the bluffs. He gazed out, his eyes roving back and forth across the long grassy field before the safety fence. But—

No Jimmy! There was no sign of him anywhere!

Where could he have gone?

But there was no point in standing here worrying about it. He probably went back to the lodge, Kevin deduced. And that’s just what I’m going to do.

He jogged back to the path, then followed its way back through the woods. Thunder rumbled in the sky as he made his way; by now, he was soaked, and his sneakers squished with each step. But it didn’t take long before he was back at the lodge.

He rushed through the big front door into the foyer.

“Jimmy?” he called out. “Are you here?”

Kevin’s voice echoed back, but there was no answer.

“Becky?”

No reply.

“Aunt Carolyn?” he called out even more loudly.

But, again, no reply.

Where is everybody?

He dashed up the stairs, quickly checked his room, then Becky’s. Both were empty. Then he stormed back downstairs and checked every room, the hearth room, the kitchen, the dining room and the den.

No one’s here, he realized with a strange, low feeling in his gut. The lodge is empty…

But of course Aunt Carolyn wouldn’t be around. She’s a vampire, he remembered. She’s probably sleeping in her coffin somewhere. But what of Jimmy and Becky? Where would they be, especially on a day like today? They can’t be outside. In this storm? They’d be crazy! They could get struck by lightning!

Kevin, having nothing else to do, wandered around a little. Eventually he came back to the hearth room and sat down on one of the couches. At least it was warm in here. A big, crackling fire was burning in the fireplace. He tried to collect his thoughts, and in a few minutes, his confusion began to pass.

I’ve got to figure out what’s going on around here, he determined himself.

Then, very simply, he thought the single word:

Vampires.

In his mind, he made up a list of everything he’d discovered. The paintings. The wooden stakes. The bloody crosses. In one way or another, they all referred to one thing.

Vampires, he thought again.

Aunt Carolyn was a vampire; he was sure of this now. Awake at night, never to be seen during the day, never outside in the sun. There could be no other answer. And vampires always had helpers or servants to do their work for them. Bill Bitner and Wally, Kevin thought. Digging in the woods with shovels.

But what were they digging for?

Becky had said something, hadn’t she? This morning? She’d said that they were searching for a broken underground water pipe. That was ridiculous! Water pipes would never have been put out in the middle of the woods! And all at once, Kevin finally realized what Bill and Wally must be digging for…

They’re looking for Count Volkov, he thought. They know he’s buried on the grounds somewhere.

But why? Why would they want to dig up a vampire?

Because Aunt Carolyn ordered them to, he concluded. Bill and Wally are her servants, and she must’ve ordered them to try to find Count Volkov’s coffin.

But, again, why?

Kevin thought about this. Why would Aunt Carolyn, a vampire, want to dig up Count Volkov, another vampire?

Then the answer came to him.

Because she wants The Count’s treasure!

It made perfect sense! Aunt Carolyn didn’t have enough money to keep the lodge open, so she wanted to find Count Volkov’s treasure of gold bricks. But, according to the legend, The Count wrote down the location of the gold bricks in his diary but then he hid the diary and never told anyone where it was. After that, the townspeople had chained up The Count’s coffin one day and then buried it. With Count Volkov still alive inside—

So that’s why Aunt Carolyn is having Bill and Wally dig holes all over the place, to find Count Volkov’s coffin, and that’s why they’re digging only when it’s raining, because vampires can’t cross running water—or rain! And when they find The Count’s coffin, they’ll bring it back to the lodge so Aunt Carolyn can open it and threaten to kill The Count with a wooden stake if he doesn’t tell her where the gold is buried! And after he does tell her, she’ll kill him anyway, to keep all the gold for herself, and she’ll probably kill Bill and Wally too, because vampires always eventually kill their servants, and she might also kill—

Kevin gulped as his flurry of thoughts stopped short.

She might also kill us, he thought in pure dread. Or worse, she might turn us into vampires too…

And with that terrifying idea came another thought:

Jimmy and Becky. They’re not here. So… where are they?

Now Kevin was so confused he couldn’t think straight at all now. But if he was sure of anything, he was sure of this:

We’re all in danger…

Then:

Call the police!

By now, there was no other choice. But would the police believe him? Are they going to believe a story like this from a kid my age? That my aunt’s a vampire?

Probably not, but what other choice did he have? Kevin got up then, went to the empty kitchen. His father had always taught him that in emergencies all he had to do was pick up the phone and dial 911. Then the police would come.

And that’s what I have to do now.

He picked up the phone, punched in 911, then put the phone to his ear… and winced.

Aw, no, I should’ve known.

The phone was dead. Aunt Carolyn must’ve anticipated this, and ordered Bill or Wally to cut the phone lines. There was no way to contact anyone…

Kevin supposed he could leave, just walk out of the lodge right now and keep on walking until a motorist passed. But his parents had always taught him to never take rides from strangers, and, besides, it would probably take him hours to get to a main road on foot. So he guessed the only thing he had left to do was continue with his investigation, get all the proof he could, so that when his father came back, he’d believe him.

The secret room, he thought. He planned to return, with better light. That’s what I can do now, go back there, check it out some more. There’s got to be more evidence back there.

He quickly rummaged around through the kitchen, found no flashlight. Then he went to the utility room, and there, hanging right in the wall was a big, foot-long flashlight.

Perfect! he thought.

And there was no chance of getting caught.

Bill and Wally are outside, looking for The Count’s coffin.

So at least he was safe for the time being.

Kevin flicked the flashlight on, to make sure it worked. It offered a big, bright beam of light, and that’s just what he needed. Then—

Is this really a good idea? he asked himself in a last moment of reluctance.

Then, with his heart suddenly increasing its beat, he stepped into the back hallway behind the kitchen, and approached the panel that led to the secret room…

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

It seemed colder this time, and darker even with the bright flashlight. He clicked open the wall panel on which hung the painting entitled The Count Comes Ashore. The panel creaked as it swung open, showing him the jet-black corridor. He didn’t waste time. Armed now with a bright flashlight instead of a feeble candle, he boldly strode to the door, pulled it open, and entered the secret room.

The first thing he noticed didn’t surprise him. The bloody rag he’d seen last night under the wooden table—

It’s not here now, he saw.

But of course it wasn’t. Less than an hour ago, he’d seen Bill Bitner out in the woods, using the rag to wipe off his hands after he painted the bloody cross on that forked tree.

But the rest of the room looked unchanged. Kevin swung the wide, bright flashlight beam over every corner. The room was the same as it had been last night. The box of wooden stakes was still here, and so were the two hammers, and there were a few other boxes full of cleaning supplies. But there was one thing he remembered:

The desk.

The desk was still here too, sitting against the back wall. It was a big antique rolltop desk, and the top was closed. This would definitely be worth checking out.

The desk’s top clattered as he rolled it open. Then he shined his flashlight down and saw—

A… book?

He leaned forward, tilting the flashlight. Yeah, it’s a book, he noticed, squinting down. The book lay open on the table. And it looked very old.

Kevin reached out and touched it. The pages felt thick but very brittle; he thought that if he picked the book up, it might actually crumble in his hands, and the cover, too, looked old and crumbly, like leather that was made a years and years ago. He knew he had to be careful with it, but he had no choice. He had to close the book so he could see its title on the cover.

Careful, careful, he instructed himself, slowly raising one edge of the book’s cover. The spine made a faint crackling noise, but after several long moments he was able to get the book partly closed, keeping his finger inside so he wouldn’t lose the page it was opened to. If he lost the page, he knew, Bill Bitner would know that Kevin had been in here.

Kevin squinted. The letters on the book’s covered appeared just slightly darker than the cover itself. Come on, Kevin thought. What does it say?

The first thing he recognized, right at the top of the book, was the date:

1899

So this book really was old. Over a hundred years, he thought. But below the date were letters, and these, he knew, must spell out the title.

Eventually, as Kevin focused his eyes more precisely, he was able to read the dark letters on the book cover—

—and when he did so, he sucked in a long, loud breath of astonishment.

My… gosh, he thought. He squinted harder, to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. I don’t believe it…

First there was a symbol, a fancy circle with the letter V in the middle. And Kevin remembered at once that this was the same symbol he’d seen imprinted on the collar button of The Count’s cape, on the painting he’d seen in his aunt’s room last night.

Then his eyes flicked lower, to the book’s title.

The title read:

The Diary of Count Volkov

Kevin’s skin prickled at the discovery, and then he realized what must’ve happened. Aunt Carolyn said that Count Volkov had kept a diary, but he’d hidden it somewhere, and he never told the townspeople where it was before they chained him up in his coffin and buried it. But—

Somehow, Aunt Carolyn found it, Kevin concluded. That’s probably why she bought the lodge in the first place, because she already knew about the legend, and she already knew that the diary was hidden somewhere around here. And she also knew that the location of The Count’s treasure was written down in the diary too.

Kevin’s hands trembled as he carefully reopened the book to the page it had been opened at. He held the flashlight close and made out the lines of tight, cursive handwriting.

Count Volkov’s handwriting, he thought in a grim and very creepy reminder.

But even with the flashlight, the letters were hard to read. The paper had yellowed over the last hundred years, and the ink itself had faded and turned brown. Kevin squinted so hard his eyes began to hurt, but after a short time he was able to read the last few lines in the diary:

And the curs’d townsfolk, I fear, are beginning to suspect what I truly am, just as my rebellious underlings did when I was forced to leave my homeland. My servants here are weak and so few in number. An uprising of the townsfolk would easily overpower them, and if such an uprising occurred during the hours of sunlight, when I must lay dead in my coffin till dusk, I would be at their mercy. They could destroy me with their crosses and wooden stakes, or worse, bury deep in the ground, where I would be powerless to escape…

Kevin’s eyes went wide. And that’s exactly what they did, Count, he thought. They chained your coffin shut and buried you, and you’re down there in the ground somewhere, right now… still alive…

Kevin let a chill pass, then read the last line:

Indeed, I feel in my evil heart that time is growing oh so short. I may be dead on the morrow, or buried alive. But at least these curs’d townsfolk will not be able to profit from my end, for my treasure of gold is safely hidden at the forked tree, and to insure that it will never be found I must hide this diary too, and hide it well.

And those were the last written words of Count Volkov. No doubt he’d hidden the diary then, and shortly afterwards, the townspeople had buried him in his coffin, during the day when he was powerless to stop them. The Count had predicted his own end. But—

‘—for my treasure of gold is safely hidden at the forked tree,’ Kevin recited The Count’s words in his mind.

The forked tree…

Now Kevin was really confused.

He understood the part about the forked trees; he’d seen Bill and Wally digging at several forked trees just in the last day. But—

Now I get it, he thought.

It wasn’t Count Volkov’s coffin that Aunt Carolyn had ordered Bill and Wally to find, it was the gold treasure itself!

But this realization, now, left him confused. If they’re not trying to find The Count’s coffin, why the wooden stakes, and why the red crosses in blood?

Confusion, it seemed, was quickly becoming a part of Kevin’s life. And figuring out what was really going on still didn’t solve any of his problems. He’d spent enough time back here. There were still other things he needed to do, like right now, and the first thing on the list was find Jimmy and Becky. His worst fear was beginning to turn solid. I’ll bet Aunt Carolyn ordered Bill and Wally to abduct them, so she can turn them into vampires…

And she probably wants to turn me into one too!

He left the secret room, closed the door behind him. When he made it back out to the hearth room, before the crackling fire, he stopped and tried to figure out what to do next. But at that same instant, he heard something—

What was it?

A rumble of some kind, like a—

Like a car engine! he realized, and the sound was coming from out front. He dashed to the window, peeked out, and saw—

No! he thought in terror.

He’d been right, but he wished he hadn’t.

A car was driving slowly through the court in front of the lodge. An old car. An old blue car—

Wally’s car! Kevin recognized.

Then it turned out and began to drive away.

But when it had driven by, Kevin noticed that not only was Wally in it, driving, but Becky and Jimmy were in the car with him—

I was right! He’s abducting them, taking them to Aunt Carolyn, to turn them into vampires!

CHAPTER THIRTY

Kevin bravely dashed outside. He knew the odds were against him, but he had to do something. He couldn’t just stand back and let Wally take Jimmy and his sister to Aunt Carolyn. He kept the flashlight with him; it was long and made of metal, and he could use it as a weapon. If I can make it to the car before they turn out of the court, then maybe I can knock Wally out with the flashlight and save Jimmy and Becky…

It was a longshot, but what else could he do, with his father and Mr. Grimaldi gone, and the phone lines dead?

It was chilly out, but the storm had stopped. The clouds had moved off, and even the sun was shining bright. Kevin dashed frantically across the court, shouting, “Hey, hey! Wait!”

And then the car stopped.

In the back window, Kevin could see Jimmy and Becky looking back. But the strange thing was, they didn’t look scared at all, and they sure didn’t look like they were being abducted.

Then the driver’s door opened… and Wally got out.

Kevin held the flashlight behind him. Get ready, he warned himself. You’ll only get one chance…

But Wally only frowned back, shielding his eyes from the sudden bright sunlight. And he didn’t look menacing at all. “Where have you been?” he asked.

Then Jimmy and Becky got out of the car too.

“You doughhead! We’ve been looking all over for you!” Becky griped, her usual self.

“Whuh—what?” Kevin replied in confusion.

“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “After your kite blew away in the storm, I went looking for you but I couldn’t find you. So I came back to the lodge and told your aunt.”

“Aunt Carolyn?” Kevin said. “You mean she was here, at the lodge? During the day?”

“Well of course she was, you stupe,” Becky said with her arms crossed. “Where did you think she’d be?”

“I—” Kevin said.

“We’ve been driving around for over an hour, trying to find you,” Jimmy added.

Well, so much for Kevin’s abduction plot. But still, there were plenty of things that weren’t right around here. Aunt Carolyn, he thought just then. She’s a vampire, and once I prove it to them then—

But before Kevin could even finish the thought, the passenger door on Wally’s car thunked open.

Kevin looked up, completely astonished.

It was Aunt Carolyn who’d gotten out of the car. And here she stood now, right in front of him.

“Kevin!” she exclaimed. “What on earth has gotten into you? We’ve been worried sick! We thought you fell off the bluff!”

“I—” Kevin said, but that was about it. What could he say now? Aunt Carolyn was standing right in front of him, right now, in broad daylight. Overhead, the clouds parted even further, and the sunlight beamed right down into her face, yet here she was, unaffected. Vampires can’t be in sunlight, Kevin realized. Then he realized something else.

I was wrong. She’s not a vampire. She can’t be…

“I-I thought you were a vampire,” he said next.

“Kevin!” Aunt Carolyn exclaimed.

“What a nitwit!” Becky laughed. “You’re like the Three Stooges all wrapped up in one! I can’t wait to tell dad about this!”

Then Jimmy said, “You know, Kevin, you really were getting carried away with all that vampire stuff.”

Kevin stood there before them all, feeling like a perfect fool. Boy, did I make an idiot out of myself! he realized, his face turning pink in embarrassment.

“I wish I knew what was going on here,” Wally said, brushing some of his long hair out of his eyes.

“Wait a minute!” Kevin said. Wally reminded him! “You’re in on it! You’re in on it with Bill Bitner! I know you are!”

“In on what?” Wally asked.

“I’ve seen you in the woods, digging for Count Volkov’s gold brick treasure!” Kevin exclaimed. “By the forked trees!”

Wally held his hands out, looking at Aunt Carolyn. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. True, Mr. Bitner’s sent me out to dig, which was kind of strange. But I wasn’t digging up any treasure. Bill told me to dig for a broken water pipe.”

“A broken water pipe?” Aunt Carolyn asked suspiciously.

“Yeah, that’s what Bill said.”

“Well, that’s funny because he never told me anything about any broken water pipe,” Aunt Carolyn said. “And all the water’s running fine at the lodge. There isn’t any broken water pipe.”

Wally shrugged. “I have to admit, it sounded pretty funny to me, digging for a water pipe in the woods. But that’s what he told me to do, and since he’s my boss, I had to do it. And one thing he did say, he told me that he wasn’t sure where the county water lines ran, but he knew the junction ran by a forked tree, just like the kid here said. And that’s what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks, digging holes at every forked tree we could find in the forest.”

“That’s baloney, Aunt Carolyn!” Kevin jumped right back in. “He’s lying! I know because I saw Bill Bitner painting crosses on some forked trees—in blood!”

“Kevin!” Becky said. “You’re an idiot! Listen to what you’re saying!”

Wally laughed, still addressing Aunt Carolyn. “Look, I don’t know what this kid’s talking about. Sure, Bill marked the forked trees in red, any tree that we dug at but didn’t find a water pipe. We’d mark the tree so we wouldn’t accidentally dig at the same tree twice. But it wasn’t blood, it was just red paint.”

Kevin stalled again. Red paint? Well, actually he had to admit it. He never examined the markings closely enough to be sure that it was blood. So far, Wally’s explanation was making sense. I guess it was just red paint, Kevin realized. I guess I’ve made a big mistake. But, then, he thought of something else. “What about the wooden stakes?” he remembered. “I found a box of wooden stakes, and everybody knows that’s what you need to kill vampires with.”

Aunt Carolyn rolled her eyes. “Kevin, there are boxes of wooden stakes all over the lodge. I’m running a campground here, remember? Those stakes you’ve seen are tent stakes. We have to have lots of them to loan to campers so they can pitch their tents.”

But then Kevin remembered something else that also went back to vampires. “Tell me this then,” he said to Wally. “Every time I saw you digging, it was during the rain. Everybody knows vampires can’t pass through running water, or rain either.”

Wally laughed. “We dug in the rain because the ground is softer when it’s wet. That’s all.”

Tent stakes, Kevin glumly thought. Soft ground. So he’d made yet another error in judgment. He felt absolutely stupid now. How could he have been so wrong about so many things?

But then—

He remembered one more thing.

“All right,” he challenged. “Maybe I was wrong about that other stuff, but what about the forked trees?”

“I told you,” Wally replied. “Bill Bitner instructed me to dig only at forked trees because he said that’s where the broken pipe would be.”

“Broken pipe my eye!” Kevin shouted back. “That’s where Count Volkov’s treasure is buried! At a forked tree! I know because I read it in his diary!”

“Count Volkov’s diary? “ Aunt Carolyn questioned.

“Yes! I read it!”

“Where?”

“In the secret room!”

“What secret room?” Aunt Carolyn asked.

“You mean you don’t know about the secret room behind the panel?” Kevin asked. “At the end of the hallway behind the kitchen?”

“Kevin,” his aunt responded. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Kevin looked at her. She’s telling the truth, he realized. If she was lying, he’d be able to tell by the sound of her voice and the look in her eye.

“Kevin?” Aunt Carolyn asked more slowly this time. “Are you telling me that you’ve seen Count Volkov’s diary?”

“Yes! I found it just a little while ago. And it said his treasure was buried at a forked tree! The diary is in the secret room behind the panel!”

“I don’t know anything about any secret room,” Aunt Carolyn said, tapping her foot. “Either Kevin has a wild imagination, or Bill Bitner has been keeping things from me.”

“That has to be it!” Kevin exclaimed. “Because I’m not lying—there really is a secret room.”

“All right, Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn agreed. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Show me this secret room.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

“Follow me!” Kevin wailed, and ran back across the court. Everyone else followed, and only a minute or two later, Kevin was guiding them down the hallway behind the kitchen.

“This sounds pretty silly,” Kevin,” Jimmy said. “You’re going to be in a lot of trouble if there’s no secret room.”

“There is!” Kevin insisted.

“Aunt Carolyn,” Becky whined. “My bother’s a dope. He’s making all this up because he wants attention.”

“No I’m not!” Kevin yelled at her. “Look!”

And with that, he pressed on the panel, and—click!—then it swung open.

“Well I’ll be,” Aunt Carolyn said. “I’ve owned the lodge all these years but I never knew this passageway existed.”

“Yeah, well Bill Bitner found out about it,” Kevin said, and then he turned on his flashlight. “Come on.”

Everybody filed behind Kevin as he led them down the damp, lightless passageway.

“Look,” Jimmy noticed. “A door.”

“The door to the secret room,” Kevin corrected, and then he opened the door and pointed his light all around.

“The kid’s right,” Wally said. “There really is a secret room. Bill never told me anything about it.”

“He never told me, either,” Aunt Carolyn said. “Kevin, lead the way.”

With pleasure, he thought. He took them into the dark room, shining the flashlight over the brick walls. Then he said, “The diary’s right here, on this desk.” And he pointed the flashlight right at it.

Aunt Carolyn slowly approached the desk, her eyes wide in amazement. She picked up the old diary, flipped through it, read some passages. “Kevin,” she said. “This is extraordinary! It’s been hidden for all these years, but you managed to find it.”

“Sounds to me,” Wally said, “that Bill Bitner found it first, and he didn’t tell you.”

And this suddenly made perfect sense to Kevin. Of course Bill Bitner didn’t tell anyone, he realized. Because he wants to keep The Count’s treasure all to himself. “Read right here, Aunt Carolyn,” he instructed, pointing the light on the last page. “That’s where The Count says where his treasure is buried.”

Aunt Carolyn’s face concentrated as she read the final few sentences in the diary. “You’re right, Kevin. It says here that the treasure is buried at… a forked tree.”

“See?” Kevin said triumphantly. “I told you.”

“And Bill had me digging out there for it and he never told me,” Wally said. “He had me believing I was looking for a broken water pipe. How do you like that?”

Aunt Carolyn nodded to herself. “No wonder he agreed to continue working for me so cheaply. He needed a reason to be on my property, so he could find the treasure. He never told me about any of this. I think we better go find Mr. Bitner right now. He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”

They all filed back out of the room and back down the hall to the kitchen.

“Let’s take my car,” Wally volunteered. “He’s probably out there right now, digging around another forked tree looking for the treasure.”

“Good idea,” Aunt Carolyn consented. “But, Kevin, it’s cold outside. Go get your coat on first.”

“Okay,” Kevin said, and then he dashed up the stairs to his room. All right, he admitted to himself. Aunt Carolyn’s not really a vampire, and I was wrong about all that other stuff too. But one thing I was right about was the treasure! It’s out there somewhere, and we’ve got to find it before Bill Bitner does!

Kevin pulled on his coat, but something snagged his vision before he could leave the room. What? he thought. Why had he stopped? He wasn’t sure why, but the next thing he knew he was looking at one of the forest paintings hung on the wall in his bedroom. He looked at it for a long time, stared hard…

It wasn’t anything like the other paintings which depicted Count Volkov’s arrival to America. It was instead just a dull landscape painting.

Just a bunch of trees in the woods, he saw.

But then he saw something else.

One of the trees in the painting was—

I don’t believe it! he thought. It’s… a forked tree!

Sure enough, there in the painting were a dozen or so trees, with autumn leaves. But one of the trees, one right out in front, was forked—two trunks growing out of a single trunk.

Wait a minute, Kevin thought. Maybe, just maybe—

He slowly put out his hand, and pressed on the wall panel where the painting hung. And—

click!

The wall panel moved!

A panel, he thought. Just like the panel downstairs. It’s another secret door. And secret doors lead to secret rooms…

The door’s hinge creaked as it swung open.

And all at once the image of what Kevin was now looking at hit him like a coconut falling on his head.

“Everybody! Up here!” he shrieked at the top of his lungs. “Come quick! I found it!”

And then Kevin took one slow step into the room. But it wasn’t the treasure he’d found…

Sitting there before him was a dusty coffin with chains locked around it.

Count Volkov’s coffin, Kevin realized in creeping terror.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

“It’s—it’s a coffin! Becky shrieked at the top of her lungs when she looked inside. Then she began to shiver, and she ran out of the bedroom and scurried away.

“Wow,” Jimmy murmured, shivering himself.

“This is pretty freaky,” Wally said. “The kid found another secret room, only this one has a coffin in it.”

Finally, astonished, Aunt Carolyn muttered under her breath, “I don’t believe it…”

But all Kevin could think was this: It was a trick, to hide The Count’s coffin. Not at a forked tree in the woods, a forked tree in a painting. And-and—

And… what?

He’s in there, Kevin thought. Count Volkov is in that coffin right now… and he’s still alive!

“We have to open it,” Aunt Carolyn said.

“No!” Kevin bellowed. “The Count is inside!”

Aunt Carolyn ignored him; instead, she turned to Wally. “Wally, do you think you can break that chain?”

“Not without boltcutters,” Wally replied, “or a good saw. But we probably won’t have to break the chain. We can break the lock. Look how old it is. It’s almost rusted through.”

Kevin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They wanted to open Count Volkov’s coffin! “You can’t open it!” he shouted. “If you do that, you’ll let him out!”

But Kevin’s warnings went ignored, and already—ping! ping! ping!—Wally was striking the lock on the coffin’s chains with a hammer from his toolbelt.

“No!” Kevin shouted.

ping!

“No!”

ping!

“You can’t!”

ping—CRACK!

And that’s when the old, rusted lock broke in half.

The chains slid off the top of the coffin and clanked to the floor. Then Wally put his hand on the lid and began to raise it.

Kevin shrieked till he was bug-eyed. “Don’t open it! You’ll let Count Volkov out, and he’ll kill us!”

Very, very slowly, then, the coffin lid raised, its decades-old hinges creaking like nails across slate.

Higher and higher, Wally lifted the lid.

Higher…

Higher—

Don’t do it!” Kevin screamed a final time.

But Aunt Carolyn leaned over, smiling at him. “Kevin, don’t be silly. There are no such things as vampires. Don’t you see? It was all a trick.”

“What are you talking about?” Kevin wailed.

Aunt Carolyn went on, “Count Volkov isn’t in that coffin.”

“Then what is!”

“It has to be the—” she started but didn’t finish.

“You got to be kidding me!” Wally exclaimed when he’d fully the coffin lid. His long hair hung in front of his face as he stared into the opened coffin.

Then Aunt Carolyn finished, “It has to be the treasure, The Count’s gold bricks…”

Kevin, terrified, expected to see a white, long-nailed hand snap out of the coffin and grab Wally’s throat. But that didn’t happen at all. Wally remained standing there, staring down. Then Aunt Carolyn walked up to the coffin too, and so did Jimmy.

“Wow!” Jimmy said. “Look at that!”

Only then did Kevin step toward the coffin himself. He looked down inside of it, and his jaw dropped.

She was right, he thought.

It wasn’t Count Volkov who lay in the coffin…

The coffin, instead, was full of solid gold bricks.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

“Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn began to explain. “Yes, there really was a Count Volkov, and he came to America a hundred years ago just like I said in the story. But he wasn’t really a vampire. He was a rich eccentric.”

“What’s eccentric?” Kevin asked.

“It means he was an oddball,” Wally answered.

Then Aunt Carolyn continued, “That’s why he had this lodge built, and that’s why he painted all those sinister vampire paintings. And as far as the story goes—well, he invented it himself. He wanted people to think he was a vampire.”

“Why?” Kevin asked, thoroughly confused.

“So people would stay away and not bother him,” Aunt Carolyn replied. “The whole vampire story was a decoy. The Count was afraid people would try to steal his gold, so he made up the story about him being a vampire so—”

“So people wouldn’t come anywhere near the place,” Kevin finished.

“Exactly,” Aunt Carolyn said. “But when he was old and knew that he was dying, being a man of intrigue, he had to leave some clue, so that’s why he wrote the passages in the diary about the forked tree. Count Volkov has been dead for decades.”

Only now did Kevin finally understand. The Count wasn’t really a vampire. He was just a rich weirdo, he realized now. He painted the pictures himself, so people would think he was an evil vampire and stay away.

But—

“Look at all this gold!” Kevin exclaimed, looking again into the coffin. It looked like there were at least a dozen gold bricks sitting in there, sparkling in the light. It must be worth a fortune!

“There’s a lot of money in there,” Aunt Carolyn said. “It’s been a local legend for a hundred years, but you found it—”

“That’s right,” a craggy voice interrupted. “This kid found it, but I’m going to take it.”

Everyone in the room turned then, to the figure that was now standing in the doorway.

It was Bill Bitner, holding a shovel up like a weapon.

“I’ve been searching for that gold for months,” he said, his face lined with hatred and greed. “This punk kid may have found it, but I’m taking it. It’s mine.”

“It’s not yours!” Wally shouted. “It’s Carolyn’s! It’s on her property, so it belongs to her! You have no legal right to it, and you can’t take it!”

“Yeah, I can, Wally,” Bill Bitner said with his greedy grin. He looked like a maniac standing there, his clothes drenched from the rain earlier, and a crazy gleam in his eyes. Then he raised the shovel up over his head. “I’m taking it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!”

“You’re not taking anything, old man,” another voice suddenly sounded from behind.

Another figure stepped into the room and immediately snatched the shovel out of Bill Bitner’s hands.

“Dad!” Kevin exclaimed.

Yes, it was Kevin’s father who walked into the room just then, his clothes, too, as well as his fishing hat, damp from the previous rain, and his cheeks pink from being in the cold weather for the last day. “I overheard everything,” he said. Then he turned to Bill. “And you’ve been working here under false pretenses the whole time, so why don’t you just get out of here unless you want some real trouble.”

Bill Bitner glared back at them, then grumbled under his breath and ran out of the room.

“Is everybody all right?” Kevin’s father asked, setting the shovel down.

Everyone nodded, relieved to see him.

“You came just in the nick of time, Dad!” Kevin exclaimed. “Bill was going to hit Wally with the shovel and steal the gold.

“Thanks, Mr. Bennell,” Wally said.

“No problem,” Kevin’s dad said, “And I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Bill Bitner anymore.”

But then Jimmy stepped up. “Where’s my dad, Mr. Bennell?”

“After we overheard what was going on in here, he went back downstairs to call the police, Jimmy. We tried calling earlier from a ranger’s station but the phone lines got knocked out from the storm, so we rushed back to make sure everyone was okay. But the phone lines have been fixed now.”

Kevin looked out the window, and saw Bill Bitner running across the front yard. “Shouldn’t we chase him, Dad?”

“No, that’s not necessary,” his father said. “It won’t take the police long to find him and pick him up.” Then he walked up to the coffin, looked in it, and smiled.

“Wow,” he said. “Look at all that gold!”

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Later, they all sat around the big, roaring fire in the fireplace. Everyone was there: the two fathers, Wally, Becky, Kevin, Jimmy, and, of course, Aunt Carolyn. Kevin’s dad was explaining why they turned back in the first place. “The weather was so bad, it rained almost the entire time we were out. We didn’t catch a single fish!”

“And it was just too cold,” Mr. Grimaldi added, “so this morning we packed up our gear and headed back, and that’s when we came across the ranger’s station, and he let us use his phone.”

Kevin’s father chuckled, grabbing a handful of hot popcorn. “Yeah, I guess we’re not exactly the greatest campers and fishermen in the world.”

“But it’s a good thing you came back when you did,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah,” Kevin added. “You really saved the day!”

“Don’t be modest, Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn said. “You’re the one who figured out the mystery, put all the pieces together, and found the hidden gold. That was clever of old Count Volkov. Stashing the gold in a coffin, and hiding it behind that painting of the forked tree.”

“And that’s really something, isn’t it?” Kevin’s father observed next. “The old local legend, in a way, turned out to be true. Count Volkov had the townspeople believing that he really was a vampire, so naturally they wouldn’t dream of coming near the lodge to try and steal his gold.”

“And since Bill Bitner grew up in this area,” Aunt Carolyn said, “he was obviously familiar with the legend too, so that’s why he offered to work for me. And no wonder this place got to looking so rundown. Bill was out in the woods every day looking for the treasure when he was supposed to be fixing up the lodge!”

“And he had me digging out there too,” Wally said, “lying to me about some broken water pipe. I knew there was something funny about that guy.”

“Well, now that Mr. Bitner’s gone,” Aunt Carolyn said, “I hope that you’ll stay and continue to work for me as my maintenance man.”

“Sure,” Wally said. “I’d be happy to.”

Becky, of course, wasn’t saying much of anything. She was sitting right next to Wally, all gussied up in one of her best dresses, and she looked like she was in dreamland.

“All right everyone,” Aunt Carolyn announced and stood up. “Come over here. I have something to show you.”

They all got up and followed Aunt Carolyn to the dining room. What’s this? Kevin thought when he looked. A sheet lay across the big, hardwood dining room table, and he could see lumps underneath the sheets.

Then Aunt Carolyn pulled the sheet off, to reveal six shining gold bricks sitting on the table. “Kevin, Jimmy, Becky, Wally,” Aunt Carolyn said next. “Here’s my gift. One gold brick for each of you.”

“Wow! Thanks!” the four of them said nearly at the same time.

“Really, Carolyn,” Kevin’s father said. “That’s not necessary.”

“Right,” Jimmy’s father agreed. “It’s your gold, free and legal. You’ll need it to get the lodge repaired properly and to fix up the grounds.”

But Aunt Carolyn wouldn’t hear of it. “No, no, I insist,” she said. “I want each of the kids to have one. You can exchange the bricks for money at any bank, then you can deposit the money in a savings account for them. Each brick will easily pay for their college educations and leave them each with a nice little nest-egg for the future. Plus, a brick for your fathers. I’ll still have more than enough left to pay the repairs and refurbishment of the lodge and the camp grounds.”

Carolyn,” Kevin’s father repeated. “You really shouldn’t.”

“I told you, I insist!”

And that was that.

The mystery was solved now, and it was Kevin who had solved it.

“But one thing, Kevin,” Aunt Carolyn added, smiling. “I hope by now you understand that there really are no such things as vampires.”

“You bet!” Kevin exclaimed as everyone around him laughed. Then he looked at the gold on the table again, and all at once it felt like the wind had been knocked out of him when he realized:

We’re all rich!

CHAPTER EPILOGUE

They drove back home the next morning. It was a crisp, clear autumn day without a raincloud in the sky. “It figures,” Kevin’s father said when they pulled up in the driveway to their house. “The day we leave is the day the weather turns perfect for fishing.”

“And kite flying,” Kevin added.

Oh, well. But going to Aunt Carolyn’s had turned out to be fun in spite of the lousy weather. Fun—and exciting, if not a little too exciting at times!

Becky pouted as they got out and began to remove their luggage. “Wally was just so cool,” she lamented. “I guess I won’t see him again till next year.”

“Boo-hoo,” Kevin mocked, hoisting his suitcase.

“Shut up, you stupe!” Becky yelled.

“Becky,” Kevin’s father ordered, “don’t call your brother a stupe.”

Kevin silently stuck his tongue out at her.

Later, Jimmy came back over, and he and Kevin took the opportunity to finally fly their kites in Kevin’s big back yard.

The day was perfect for it, a good wind and—for once!—no rain or lightning.

“This is great, isn’t it?” Jimmy celebrated, pulling on his string. Their kites must’ve gotten up to several hundred feet.

“It sure is,” Kevin said.

“But it’s too bad we can’t be out on the bluffs.”

“Yeah, but we’ll get to go next year.”

Their kites rose even higher in the clear sky. And just then, Becky came out the sliding door into the long back yard.

“Hey, Kevvie!” she called out.

Kevin fumed. “I told you not to call me that! What do you want?”

“I just wanted to let you know that there’s a vampire movie coming on right now.”

Oh, wow! Kevin thought. A vampire movie! I wouldn’t want to miss th—

And then the rest of the thought fell off. “Watch it yourself,” he told Becky. “I’m going to stay out here and fly my kite some more.”

Because, he thought to himself, if there’s one thing I don’t ever want to see again, it’s a vampire movie!

Edward Lee has had more than 40 books published in the horror and suspense field, including CITY INFERNAL, THE GOLEM, and BLACK TRAIN. His movie, HEADER was released on DVD by Synapse Films, in June, 2009. Recent releases include the stories, “You Are My Everything” and “The Cyesologniac,” the Lovecraftian novella “Trolley No. 1852,” and the hardcore novel HAUNTER OF THE THRESHOLD. Currently, Lee is working on HEADER 3.

Although primarily known for his adult horror, this is Edward Lee’s second young reader novel. If you enjoyed this book please check out his other young reader novel, Monster Lake, available in eBook form from Little Devil Books.

Edward Lee lives Tampa, FL. Visit him online at:

www.edwardleeonline.com