SET ME AS A SEAL UPON YOUR HEART PART 10

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SET ME AS A SEAL UPON YOUR HEART PART 10
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Treasure Hunting! Music! A New Language!

"Between tracking down silver coins and playing the keyboard or learning Spanish," Professor Grigore says, "the children's plate is full again."

"Yes," Mr. Ávila says as he sets two cups of coffee on the dining room table. "It's an exciting time for them, and their enthusiasm keeps them going at high rev. I have every reason to think they'll be ready when we leave for Barcelona."

"I should imagine that Spanish will play an essential role in your journey."

"Exactly. It will necessarily be after sunset when we cross into Germany and, later, into France. While their Spanish passports and the visas should be enough to let us slide through, the children are sure to draw attention."

"Because of their appearance."

"And because they are children crossing borders at night. If they are questioned in Spanish, their accents will pass muster. And I'm teaching them to act shy to forestall any extended questioning."

Since early February when Mr. Ávila enrolled Oskar and Eli in Quimet Garcia's conversational Spanish class at the Limhamn Community Center, they have found opportunities to play soccer in the backyard, learning words that are inevitably part of the former soccer player's lessons. Mr. Ávila teaches Eli the moves that bring her play up to Oskar's level, and they learn to move in ways that don't seem too fast for normal 12-year-olds.

And Mr. Ávila promises to stop cheating when he's in goal!

It doesn't occur to Oskar and Eli to cheat. For all of their opportunities for handling difficult situations during their two years together, the children continue to approach life as guileless preteens – that is, without complicated agendas.
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An Embarrassment of Riches

Since Christmas, Mr. Ávila and the children have taken every opportunity to tear around the back roads and country lanes tracking down Eli's abandoned hideouts. On nights when southern Sweden was enjoying its gloomy winter overcast, the children happily filled in with backyard soccer or with keyboard lessons at Sassa's studio.

They extended the round-trip range of their search area beyond the remaining broadleaf forests and into the zone of mostly spruce and pine, still far short of Norrköping. Yet as they ventured farther north, the number of old hideouts had increased, no doubt because Eli spent so much of her life in that area.

But on the last day of February, Mr. Ávila declares an end to the treasure hunting. That's two weeks earlier than he had planned, but he has fallen behind in identifying, sorting, and grading the coins they already have. Anyway, it was clear by then that the coins represented a substantial fortune.
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Music

Although Sassa had selected works from the classical repertoire, chosen for their simple melodies and few notes, such as Clair de Lune and Für Elise, it was from this modest beginning that the children began to learn Italian terms for tempo, musical forms, and so on, and they learned to identify themes and the way themes are developed.

Almost from the start, Oskar and Eli's keyboard abilities diverged. For Oskar, it has been practice, practice, practice. He keeps up with Eli by moving the keyboard and amp back and forth between Sassa's studio and their big house on Järavallsgatan. He has the ear and good musical memory, and his spirit of competition with Eli spurs him on. Eli, on the other hand, has great imitative ability. As Sassa plays, Eli watches her hands and then barely glances at the music as she repeats the passage.

Señor Ávila and Professor Grigore view music education as a way for the children to become cosmopolitan, another way of fitting into the increasingly urban – and urbane – world of educated Europeans. But for the kids, it's about the joy of making music. When they are ready, Sassa replaces the simplified versions with full scores of the same pieces, which add more notes and more harmony. The children learn to play music that enchants them, that takes them to new levels of joy.
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A New Adventure

With the adventure of searching for Eli's old hideouts now over, another adventure begins – selling the coins. Professor Grigore gets busy making hard-to-trace calls using public telephones. He first contacts the Kuwait buyer of the old 19th century banknotes, who tells him, "Silver bullion will never make it to Kuwait, not overland from Beirut across Syria and Iraq, and not even by sea through the Suez Canal. The region is unstable, so the networks have become increasingly unreliable."

"That cannot be good even for regular commerce."

"It isn't, professor. On land you have brigands using war as a cover, and by sea you have a resurgence of piracy. Plus ça change…"

"…plus c'est la même chose," Professor Grigore concludes.

He thanks his acquaintance and begins the scramble to find other possible buyers. After a day of phoning from different locations, he connects with a former high ranking member of the Romanian National Police who in turn puts him onto an official of the Ukrainian SSR in Kiev. Professor Grigore phones him and they strike a deal.

Using a different public phone, he dials Axel in Freetown.

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Sassa Has Another Idea

Sassa anticipated that learning to play a musical instrument would enhance the children's appreciation as listeners, and now she wants to add other dimensions to their listening experience. For that to happen, she knows she needs to keep an eye on the calendar. Daylight is eating into the hours of darkness, and she'll run out of time to take them to a live symphony or choral performance if she doesn't do it soon.

Then, while scanning the entertainment section of the newspaper, Sassa sees that The Sound of Music is playing at Camera Cinema on Stortorget, which she still fondly remembers as the old Alcazar Cinema, the first theater in Malmö to show films in Cinemascope. Recalling how much she loved the Julie Andrews film when she was closer to the children's age, Sassa rings Mr. Ávila.

"Hi, Fernando. The Sound of Music is playing on the big screen."

"How big is big?" he asks.

"As big as it gets. Cinemascope. Show times would allow the kids to see it. What do you think of that as way of expanding their music appreciation?"

"I haven't seen it," Mr. Ávila confesses, "but if you think it's a good idea, I have no problem with it."

"Wait a minute, Fernando. You haven't seen it?"

"Why no."

"Oh my! I thought just about everybody had seen it. Maybe you would like to watch it with us."

"Probably not, Sassa. I'm crazy busy trying to get everything done before we leave. Um, I should just mention that the only movies Eli has seen are educational videos on the TV in their classrooms. Very small-screen stuff. Cinemascope could be an unsettling experience for her."

"Hm. As unsettling as the roller coaster in Copenhagen?"

"Maybe not, but just so you know."

Sassa adds movies to her mental list of surprising things that Eli is encountering for the first time, such as amusement parks and music boxes.

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Moving the Coins

"Hello professor," Axel responds in his laconic way after Professor Grigore identifies himself.

"Axel, I need to move something out of Sweden. Is there a limit on what you can handle?" He describes the number of bags and their weight.

"We can do that. We'll need to pack the cargo into – let's see – three crates so the weight of the coins won't draw attention. Where's it going?"

"Kiev."

"There's added costs getting stuff into the Soviet Union."

"If we can get the coins close, we can probably hand the shipment off before that. Allow me make another call to the buyer. I shall ring you tomorrow."
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Two days later, Axel meets Professor Grigore at a location in Malmö where they oversee the packing of the coins. Axel directs the packer to fill the rest of each crate with stuffing to offset the weight.

Professor Grigore pays Axel the substantial amount of cash that agents and bribed officials will require and then bows out of the process. Axel takes the crates to a different location, directs the first agent in the chain by phone where to pick up the crates, and then he bows out too. The shipment's fate now depends on one of Europe's unseen and unregulated networks.

As the coins' journey begins, so does the waiting.

The first agent reports to the designated location in Malmö and oversees the loading of the crates onto a truck with Danish registration, seemingly just one among the usual deliveries to Copenhagen businesses. When the only delivery left on the truck is the coins, the truck continues on to the German border, where a delivery van takes the crates on to Hamburg to be loaded onto a freighter bound for Marseille.

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The Big, Big Screen

A few days after her conversation with Mr. Ávila, Sassa parks near Stortorget and the group walks to the theater. Sassa buys tickets and they go in to look for four seats together. Oskar gets to sit between Ingrid and Eli, with Sassa on Eli's other side. The film begins and Eli's mind soars along with the camera as it glides over the majestic, snowy Alps and zooms toward a bright meadow sprinkled with yellow and white flowers.

Eli thinks, It's just like when Oskar and I fly, but, but…it's in daylight!

As the camera zooms in, a small figure in the meadow grows to become a larger than life Julie Andrews, who launches into the title song.

"Oskar," Eli whispers, "that's how things look during the day! We can see in the daylight and it can't hurt us!"

Sassa sees that Eli's big dark eyes seem to grow even larger and her pale face even more luminous as she watches enchanted, spellbound, throughout the film. As the credits roll nearly three hours later, Eli is almost as transfigured as she was after the demon roller coaster ride in Copenhagen before Christmas. She is silent, her eyes glisten, and she can't stop grinning.

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When Sassa drops Oskar and Eli at the house, they run to Mr. Ávila's room and tell him all about the wonderful film. "You should have seen it with us," Oskar chides, and they sing snatches of songs they remember.

"Well, kids, I'm sure the movie will come to Barcelona. I promise I'll watch it with you there. But the movie didn't leave much time for Spanish. Let's do a half-hour before I start getting ready for bed."

After they practice their new language, the children say goodnight to Mr. Ávila and go up to their pallet in the attic. They strip off their clothes and continue to talk about the film. Eli has lots of questions, like why the von Trapps had to leave Austria, but Oskar isn't much help. His grasp of European history is still as shaky as Eli's.

Oskar has a question of his own. "Eli, the daylight in the film really got to you, didn't it? But you've seen pictures of daylight scenes, like in books and magazines. What's the difference?"

"But pictures aren't real, Oskar. I mean, the movie was like we were really there."

"Okay, I guess I sort of get that. I have to think about it."

"Maybe it's because I haven't seen real daylight for more than 200 years? Anyway, I think that's why."

"Oh yeah, that sort of makes sense."

They talk about the film late into the night, until the sun is about to break the horizon. They snuggle together as dreamless sleep overtakes them.

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The Dream

Dreamless? Not this time. Oskar is startled awake by an inhuman shriek. As the scream rings through the house, he leaps to his feet and, in the pitch black of the darkroom, he finds the switch for the overhead light. He sees Eli crouched in a corner, her eyes mad with terror, her face disfigured by fear and her rows of razor sharp teeth. The claws of her hands and feet are extended and she is shaking violently.

"Eli! Stop! You're okay! You're safe!"

He thinks he sees the light of reason in her eyes before she buries her face in her hands, but he's afraid to approach her. When she looks up, her face is returning to normal and she is retracting her claws, but she is still shaking violently. He goes to her and carefully puts his arms around her.

Right then Mr. Ávila taps on their door and Oskar jumps up and runs to open it.

"Miss Eli, what happened?"

"We were watching the movie, Mr. Ávila. We were in sunlight…and then it wasn't a movie anymore and I was burning!"

"Oh my God, Miss Eli! That must have been horrible. But little one, it was just a dream, right?"

"But I've never…I mean…that's what dreams are like? I don't ever want to dream again. Or see any more movies!"

"But Eli," Oskar says, "That wasn't a regular dream. It was a nightmare. They're scary like that. Dreams are usually just silly stuff you forget when you wake up."

"You have dreams? "

"Well, um, not that I remember. Not since…"

"Oskar, I don't want to see any more movies!"

"Eli, it's a good movie, remember?" and he sings, "Doe, a deer…come on."

Eli repeats, "Doe, a deer…" and they finish in unison, "a female deer…"

Oskar prompts her with, "Ray, a drop of golden sun…" and Eli sings, "Me, a name I call myself, " and she giggles. "That sounds silly."

Mr. Ávila and Oskar laugh with relief, and Eli says, "I'm okay. Now I'm just sleepy." Mr. Ávila hugs her and goes downstairs. Oskar turns out the light and holds Eli in his arms on the pallet. "Ir a dormir, Elena." "Tu también, Óscar." And just like that, the two children are asleep.

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Patience

After their accustomed formal greetings, Mr. Ávila serves Professor Grigore coffee at the dining room table.

"Sassa said the movie went over very well with the children."

"Apparently so. They kept me up rather late talking about it and singing the songs. There is one thing, though. I had a feeling that seeing her first movie at a theater might have unexpected effects. She dreamed she was in a sunlit scene, that she was actually in the movie. Then she said it wasn't a movie anymore and the sun was burning her."

"Oh mercy!"

"Yes, she screamed louder than anything I've ever heard. Heartbreaking. By the time I got to the attic, Oskar had calmed her down."

"He is good at that."

"Yes, and she was soon back to her ebullient self and making jokes. By the way, how is our own nightmare going?"

Professor Grigore chuckles and says, "I know the outline of the crates' route, but I have no way of monitoring the progress other than by checking my bank account in Nicosia. But as I understand it, once the shipment gets to Marseilles, the crates will be transferred to a small freighter that makes a stop in Cyprus."

"I hope this goes as smoothly as the deal with Eli's old banknotes," Mr. Ávila says.

"You never know, my dear friend. The coins will pass through several hands. As with any business venture, there is room for disappointment."

"Such as...?"

"Interpol. Or a national police agency. They may receive a tip, or somebody may say the wrong thing to someone. The police can then set up surveillance, try to turn an agent, or even get an undercover investigator recruited into the network.

"Then there is always the possibility that an agent will go rogue."

"How does that happen?"

"For reward money, or for revenge over a slight. There could be one of any number of reasons."

"It's a lot chancier than when you moved the old banknotes, isn't it?"

"All commerce has an element of risk, Señor Ávila. But when things go wrong in black market dealings, the damage is usually limited."

"Limited how?"

"There are firewalls in place. For example, agents never meet. At the right time, they ring the next agent and say where and when the goods will arrive, usually at a pickup location that changes often to confound surveillance efforts."

Mr. Ávila nods and wishes he felt more reassured.

"And shrinkage is rare," Professor Grigore adds. "Goods remain intact and move with regularity. Everyone gets paid. It is a job." And he thinks – 'Twas ever thus. Government, business, and the black market all depend on each other.

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Do-Re-Mi

For days after seeing the movie, Eli drives everybody crazy singing the Do-Re-Mi song, although she doesn't understand all of the words, such as how dough can be a female dear and what jammin' bread is. After Sassa stops laughing, she decides to buy a cassette of the soundtrack so she can work with Eli on the lyrics.

Soon the three of them are singing a few of their favorite songs, giving Sassa another idea for enhancing their musical ability as well as broadening their musical world.

Their voices were so lovely singing with Ingrid as the Fairy Chorus last fall, she thinks. I wonder

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Good News

All things come to he who waits, although Professor Grigore and Mr. Ávila's wait was not by choice. But at last the Ukrainian buyer's agent in Cyprus takes delivery, affixes diplomatic seals to the crates, and sends them on to Kiev. Once Professor Grigore's bank in Nicosia confirms that the agreed upon amount is in his account, he transfers it by wire to the children's account in Zürich. Considering the value of the coins, the payoff to Axel and to the European agents is relatively modest. Everybody wins.

With the financial transfers concluded, Professor Grigore drives to the house, where he and Mr. Ávila enjoy coffee at the dining room table.

Professor Grigore says, "The children do not know it yet, but they were already moderately well off from the sale of Eli's rare old banknotes to my acquaintance in Kuwait."

"Yep. You sold the lot for a tidy sum."

"Yes, and with this latest venture, the children now command resources that will serve them well for – who knows? – far into the future and, with good management, effectively forever."

He writes down a figure. "Señor Ávila, this was the balance in Zürich before the latest transaction."

"Yes, we knew what the old banknotes would bring before you moved them to Kuwait. Nice."

The professor writes down another figure. "This is the account balance now."

"Ay Déu meu! " Mr. Ávila declares in his native Catalan. "That's more money than I can think of!"

"Well, Señor Ávila, you knew it would be a lot."

"But what I didn't know is that you'd get anywhere close to the suggested catalogue value."

"It was a pleasant surprise for me, too. I expected the buyer to bargain with me. But I suppose the Ukrainian SSR is such a kleptocracy that highly placed officials can easily divert funds to personal accounts, such as to the buyer's account in Cyprus.

"The next step," he continues, "is to invest the cash. We need to set aside a morning to go over the children's portfolio, although they do not need to be involved yet. But sometime during the next few years they will learn finances. When they come of age – on paper, of course – they will be able to take over the account management, but until that time, we can continue to serve as their trustees."

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Troupers

Denise had begun the children's voice training for their roles in the play last fall. They had shown an aptitude for singing at that time, but of course they would have. Their range of vocalizations, from subliminal to ear splitting, is part of their condition. And just as they learned playing racquetball, singing is all about control. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

Now Sassa picks up their training where Denise left off.

Ingrid is busy with high school and with her role as Celia in As You Like It, which is currently running at the Limhamn Players Theater, but she buys into the idea of singing with the children and helping Sassa coach them.

Sassa has to adjust her busy schedule. She usually needs a few days each week at home, designing and sewing costumes for the Limhamn Players, but she breaks precedent by using a sewing machine at Creations during normal work hours so she has more free time for the children.

Before long, Ingrid gets a brainstorm, and she and her Aunt Sassa broach the idea to Denise of putting on a short musical revue at the theater.

Denise presents the idea to John. It's a go, and Denise asks if she can join the ensemble.

With Denise all in, she and Sassa work with John on how they can make the magic happen – a half-hour revue to take place before one of the performances of the play that's currently in production. For Denise and Ingrid, it's an opportunity to showcase their marvelous voices, and for Sassa, a chance to polish her keyboard skills so she can accompany the singers.

During their first practice session at the theater, Eli says, "Denise, when we sang with Ingrid last fall, it seemed like we filled up the whole theater with sound. But by ourselves, we don't sound very loud."

"Don't let that distract you, Eli. Focus on your form. You'll be singing with mikes and a bigger amp, so just work on the mechanics."

Sassa has already contacted her old acquaintance at the music store where she and Mr. Ávila bought the keyboard and the small amp. He helps them figure out what equipment they'll need to fill the hall with sound, and the music store "rents" Sassa the equipment, although no money changes hands. Instead, Denise gets flyers printed for the neighborhood announcing the show and thanking the music store for its support.

As the children blitz the nearby neighborhoods with the flyers, Eli says, "It feels good to be part of the theater again! Too bad we didn't have time to help out with As You Like It."

"Yeah, Eli. There were no kid parts, but just hanging out at the theater feels great."

Only the few actors who regularly come early to the theater get to hear the ensemble do short run-throughs and the dress rehearsal, but some of those actors are excited to see Oskar and Eli again, and they remember what a delight the enthusiastic children were during the fall production.

"You guys were born for the stage!" one of the actors says. "You were such troupers in A Midsummer Night's Dream! "

An older actor, the one who got tipsy and had to leave the cast party early, casually drapes his arm over Oskar's shoulders – again. "Oskar!" he says, "I have to make a point of coming to rehearsals early. Your voice is golden!"

This time it's Eli who comes to Oskar's rescue. She thinks, Hands off the merchandise! She takes Oskar's hand and leads him back to the stage.

John and Denise put the word out to the other Limhamn Players that something special would be coming down on a certain late afternoon, ending early enough so they would all have time to get into costume for the evening performance of the play.

On the day of the dress rehearsal, Sassa and Professor Grigore get the keyboard, mikes, and larger amp to the theater. Denise and John move scenery back just enough to make room so John and the professor can stow the equipment behind the curtain. Mr. Ávila shows up with Ingrid and the children.

After the dress rehearsal, Oskar asks Eli, "How are you feeling now?"

"Sassa and Denise said it went okay, but I know I barely got through it without screwing up."

"I goofed up a couple of times," Oskar says, "but it's like our voices all cover for each other."

"Oh yeah. I never thought about that," Eli says. "Good thing we had the equipment in time for the rehearsal. The bigger sound freaked me out."

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Show Time!

Between the locals and the actors who show up early, the audience grows to a respectable size.

Right on time, John steps onto the stage and announces the program. The children open the curtain, and they, Sassa, and Denise roll the keyboard and amp forward just as they rehearsed it. As the children run to close the curtain behind them, Sassa begins to play the Sound of Music theme, rocking it a little with a few improvised notes. Denise steps forward and rivets the audience's attention with the title song, note perfect – a spot-on rendition of Julie Andrews' performance in the film.

The audience responds enthusiastically, but the energy rises to its highest level when all five of them perform the Do-Re-Mi song, and of course Denise gestures to the audience to encourage them to sing along. Now the applause is really loud and long.

When Ingrid does a star turn with "Edelweiss," her pure, clear voice – a young voice with no vibrato – sends chills of delight through the audience.

The ensemble performs "My Favorite Things," and after the applause, they perform "So Long, Farewell," disappearing one by one behind the curtain, much as the von Trapps did in the film.

The enthusiastic audience brings them back for bow after bow, with no idea that few of them will ever see Oskar and Eli again.

As the ensemble leaves the stage for the last time, some in the audience might imagine that little Eli is just crying from a child's excess of excitement.

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Scando Portrait Studio

"I imagine the children are still high from how well the musical revue went," Professor Grigore says as he and Mr. Ávila enjoy their morning coffee.

"I'm still high from it too!" Mr. Ávila says with a big smile.

"Include Sassa in that. She pulled the show together so quickly and it went off so well."

"Yes, and who knew that Sassa's suggestion of listening to classical music would lead to the children learning to play a keyboard. And then lead further to picking up their singing lessons again."

After Mr. Ávila refills their cups and sits down, Professor Grigore says, "So, you have your airline ticket and are ready to dash off to Barcelona for a few days."

"Yep. I'll take an early flight tomorrow. I expect to sign the lease on the space for the portrait studio and then execute a contract with the day manager, who'll also serve as the children's mentor. I'll wrap up those tasks the first day and go over the blueprints with the architect the day after. It's all scheduled."

"Busy, busy, busy," Professor Grigore says as he studies the Barcelona real estate brochures spread out on the table.

"Busy, yes, but I'll spend at least one day with my parents. I haven't seen them for four years, not since I went back to get my passport renewed."

"I remember you told me you did that after Spain voted to end the fascist regime."

"Yes. I wanted my passport to reflect the change to a republic. Anyway, seeing my mother and father means the trip won't be all business. Plus I need to prepare them for the two children in my life."

"Well, Señor Ávila, I commend you for your decision to have the kids live separately – on the floor above the studio."

"Thank you. Yes, the blueprints call for a darkroom and a second room with Pullman beds, a shower, and closets. Room for desks and tables so they can study. Oh, and here's an innovation I didn't think of when we came to Malmö – a dumbwaiter whose shaft goes from the second floor to the basement. From there they can walk up a few steps to the alley, which is shaded by buildings except for an hour at midday."

"But you do not plan to hire tutors…"

"No need. They'll enroll in night classes for their regular school work. Spain isn't as uptight as Sweden is about when children are in class, as long as the school is IBO accredited. As owners of the Scando Portrait Studio and as students of the portrait photographer I hire, they are going to be set up for a good run. A long run, if things work out the way we've planned."

"With so much going on, Señor Ávila, it is good that we dropped the idea of the kids learning portrait photography before they left Malmö. Although they could have learned the technical aspects of lighting, lenses, and film format, my contacts in the business left no doubt that becoming professional portrait photographers will entail a long apprenticeship."

"Yes, Professor Grigore. Plenty of time to start the training after their day manager gets the studio up and running."

"I have a good feeling about this, Señor Ávila. Setting up shop near the harbor seems like a smart business move."

"We'll see. The Gothic Quarter is one of Barcelona's busiest shopping areas. The lease was expensive, but the area gets good traffic from tourists arriving on cruise ships. Plus I hope the location will remind the children of Malmö."

"From the brochures, it seems to be an interesting location regardless."

Mr. Ávila laughs and says, "Everything in Barcelona is interesting!"

"Spoken like a native son," Professor Grigore replies. "And speaking of that, I look forward to learning what you work out by way of getting blood for the children."

"Yes. Somehow, Professor Grigore, but I won't be able to do anything about that until after the move."

"I imagine the money in their account in Zürich will help."

"I'm counting on it. Money speaks with more authority in Spain than in ethically antiseptic Sweden, and so do family ties."

Professor Grigore's visit continues into the late afternoon when, scrubbed and dressed in fresh clothes, the kids run to the dining room to greet the grownups with hugs.

"Well, children, it's just going to be the three of us until Señor Ávila gets back."

"Piece of cake," Oskar says. "We don't have any homework."

Mr. Ávila rolls his eyes, and Professor Grigore says, "Then you're ready for a quiz."

"On what?" Oskar asks.

"Oskar!" Eli says, "On Spain. Mr. Ávila gave us assignments for the atlas."

"Oh yeah. Better give us a couple of days."

"Surely. And I shall go over the assignments with you before the quiz."

"Okay," Eli says. "What time will you pick us up for our Spanish lesson tomorrow?"

"They'll be ready before 6:00, right kids?" Mr. Ávila says.

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Time

A few days later, with the trip to Barcelona concluded and the end of March almost upon them, the sand seems to be running faster through the hourglass. Mr. Ávila hopes the tempo of their activities will also pick up and carry the little family smoothly to their departure date of mid-April.

As they enjoy late afternoon coffee at the dining room table, Mr. Ávila fills Professor Grigore in on how the trip to Barcelona went. The children, already showered and dressed, are mostly content to listen to the grownups talk.

"Looking back, Professor Grigore, it seems likely that complications will slow our progress and then require bursts of activity to stay on schedule."

"Yes, Señor Ávila, such as the incident that occurred the first week of February. Let us hope that no more bodies show up in the park."

The children know he's making a joke at their expense, and they make a face to show that it registers.

Mr. Ávila says, "That loss of time didn't seem like such a big deal because it left nine weeks to get everything done. But how quickly the time passed!" and he thinks, Time, it's all about time.

"I really feel the pressure to get everything wrapped up," Mr. Ávila continues. "I've toyed with the idea of putting off our departure until the middle of May, but…"

"Oh, could we?" Eli asks. "We're having so much fun!"

"…but as I started to say, Miss Eli, just check the astronomical calendar on the fridge. Sunset at mid-April is at 8:15, and by mid-May it's an hour later."

"So?" Oskar says.

"So that would lead to awkward times for crossing international borders with two underage vampires. Professor Grigore, we have less than three weeks left, and I still have to visit consulates in Malmö to apply for visas for Germany and France. I have to buy a car and a caravan, and I also have to arrange for shippers to pack and move everything."

Mr. Ávila falls silent as he thinks of another chore. It saddens him that he will see Edina for the last time when he asks her to transfer his accounts to Banco Sabadell, the bank in Barcelona that his family has used for generations. He knows Edina was attracted to him, too, but he could never see a way to ask her out because of his responsibilities for the children, not the least of which was keeping their secret safe.

Intruding on Mr. Ávila's reverie, Professor Grigore says, "Since you still have so much to do before you leave, may I suggest that we do the hand-off to Bengt early? He seems to enjoy playing racquetball with me, and I can of course continue the weight training and treadmill work on my own."

"You've come along nicely, Professor Grigore. It's been a pleasure coaching you. I'll take your gracious offer, but I may only skip a couple of sessions. I need to stay in shape, too."

"Well, Señor Ávila, playing racquetball with you has had a big payoff for me! I am stronger and more agile now. And I no longer get out of breath so quickly. Although I have not trimmed down appreciably, at least I am not getting any heavier."

Oskar pipes up, "You look pretty strong. Do you want to arm wrestle?"

"No Oskar. I do not arm wrestle, and especially not with someone who is as strong as an elephant."

"Ah come on. Then how about arm wrestle Eli? I bet you could beat a little girl like her!"

"Oskar!" Eli says.

"Well then, why do you not arm wrestle her in my place?"

"Because I might lose! And then she would never let me forget it!"

"You big baby. I'm not going to let you forget it anyway."

Oskar makes a face at her, and the grownups turn back to their conversation.

"Trimming your waist will be part of the payoff for you. You'll be fine in Bengt's hands, and I can use the extra time. As our departure looms, all I can do is keep checking things off the list."

"Looms sounds about right," Professor Grigore says with a laugh. "It looks as though there is nothing for it but to stay the course and respond as things arise."

.
Things Arise

"Big day today," Sassa says as she clears away the remains of their light breakfast. "Acme Shippers will be packing up a couple of my older machines and taking them away."

Constantin raises an eyebrow. "You do not expect to need the extra machines now?"

"Yes and no," she answers as she pours coffee for them. "Spring and summer orders are following the same pattern as the Christmas orders. We just don't have the manufacturing capacity."

"You are not thinking of moving Creations…"

"No. Old Town's a great location for the showroom, but the two extra machines and extra cutting table make the sewing floor too crowded. Anyway, it still took me, Elise, and Ingrid working as volunteers alongside my seamstresses to get the dresses to the department stores and on the racks in time for Christmas."

"So…" Constantin prompts.

"So no way I put my staff and family through that again. The day I spent in Copenhagen last week bore fruit. I signed an agreement with another garment manufacturer to handle the overflow."

.

After Constantin drops her at the studio, Sassa and Freja walk upstairs to determine how to reconfigure the manufacturing area. Professional movers from Acme Shipping show up an hour later to begin crating two older machines for shipment to a new owner. By early afternoon the packers are through. They position the crates at the top of the stairs on pallets fitted with large heavy casters. Each massive crate – holding the lockstitcher, motor, table, and head – weighs close to 200 pounds. The shipper's agent tells Sassa and Freja that Acme will pick up the crates tomorrow morning using special equipment.

.

It's a little after dusk when Sassa hears the street door open. Seconds later, a rush of cold air ushers Oskar and Eli into her office, and Sassa comes from behind her desk to hug them. "The upstairs looks different," she says as she hangs up their coats. "Want to check it out before we start your keyboard lesson?"

The children dash up to the production area while Sassa waits at the foot of the stairs.

Oskar isn't into dresses and stuff, but he's fascinated by the look and smell of the industrial sewing machines. Eli comes down before he does and waits with Sassa.

After a minute, Eli calls up to him, "Come on Oskar. We're going to start the lesson without you!"

When she hears the quick patter of his feet, she turns and walks toward Sassa's office. But she also hears Oskar bump against one of the large crates followed by an ominous creak and then a thump as the crate starts down the stairs. Eli spins around and leaps toward Sassa in time to shove her out of the way, but the crate hits Eli square in her chest. When it comes to rest, she lies pinned under it.

Sassa leaps to her feet and yells, "Oskar! Help me pick it up!"

"Move, Sassa."

Oskar lifts the crate and sets it aside. His impossible feat draws a look from Sassa as she kneels beside the still child.

"Oskar, she isn't breathing!"

"Sassa, she doesn't have to breathe."

"What? But…"

"Call the fitness center. Get Mr. Ávila or Professor Grigore on the phone. Tell them they have to come quickly."

"I'll call an ambulance!"

"No, Sassa!" Oskar barks in his most commanding voice. "Just call the fitness center."

He feels Eli's chest. There is no blood, but her chest is crushed into a lumpy mess. He feels heat radiating from it, and her chest ripples under his hand.

Oskar takes her limp hand between his and massages it vigorously.

"Eli, please!"

Eli lies as still as death, but in a minute, Oskar sees her eyelids flutter.

"Is…Sassa…okay?" she asks, each word preceded by a short gasp.

"Yes, you pushed her out of the way in time. She's calling the grownups."

Eli takes a shallow breath and Oskar hears something rattle in her chest. Eli winces and says, "I've made a big mess of everything."

He squeezes her hand and then hurries to Sassa's office where he stands fidgeting as Sassa holds the receiver to her ear. After a minute, she begins to describe what happened, stops, and hands the phone to Oskar.

"Is Eli okay?" Constantin asks.

"I'll let Eli tell you, Professor Grigore."

Sassa stares with her mouth open as Eli limps slowly into the office and takes the receiver. "Hi Professor Grigore. I'll be okay, but I messed things up. You and Mr. Ávila have to come and explain it to Sassa."

She hands the phone to Sassa, and Constantin says, "Sassa, please stay calm. Señor Ávila and I are on the way."

"How can I…" she starts to ask, but Constantin has already rung off and is headed with Fernando at a dead run toward the fitness center parking area.

"Eli, I don't understand. I mean, you weren't breathing. I thought you were…"

Eli puts her hand over Sassa's mouth, climbs painfully onto her lap, and puts her arms around her neck. "Sassa, we've all had to be so careful. I feel awful that this happened."

"But you're hurt!" Sassa blurts out.

"Yeah, I'm still in a lot of pain. I mean, I remember feeling all of the bones in my chest breaking before everything went dark, but they're already healing. I'm so glad you're okay, and I'm sorry I ruined everything."

"Eli, I messed up, too," Oskar says. "I picked up the crate like it was nothing. But I had to get it off you!"

"Yeah," she says, "it must have looked pretty bad. Um, could we listen to 'Pavane for a Dead Princess' while we wait?" She closes her eyes and draws the back of her hand across her forehead as though she might faint.

"Eli, you goof! That's not even funny!"

"Well why did you laugh?"

"I couldn't help it!"

Sassa looks from Oskar to Eli. "Please. I need to know what just happened."

Eli gently lays a finger across Sassa's lips and says, "Shh. Mr. Ávila doesn’t allow us to talk about some things. It's his job to answer questions like that."

.

When the men arrive, Eli slides off Sassa's lap and sits beside Oskar. After glancing at the crate, Constantin takes Sassa's hand and says, "Thank God you are okay."

Mr. Ávila hugs the children and then moves a chair from the receptionist's desk into Sassa's office. With Constantin sitting beside him, Mr. Ávila begins the awkward task of explaining the inexplicable.

"Sassa, you are keenly aware that I have asked Professor Grigore to keep certain knowledge from you, and I know you've surely had questions. Thank you for being patient with me. However, I believe you know that none of us has said anything to you that is untrue."

"Yes. I would know if Constantin were not being truthful with me. But keeping stuff from me wasn't being honest, either. It was misleading, at least."

"Sassa, I ask for your sympathy. Please. I've only been the children's guardian since May. I've had to feel my way along – bewildered at times, but always hopeful that I could somehow provide a normal life for them."

He pauses for a moment. "As you can imagine from what you saw tonight, I felt I've had no choice but to hide what the children are from everyone."

'What the children are…" she repeats.

"Yes, until Oskar telephoned my apartment in Vällingby, I had not seen him since I was his gym teacher in Blackeberg. At that time, Oskar was being viciously bullied, and I didn't pay enough attention to it."

Mr. Ávila pauses to let his words sink in.

"One night the bullies lured me away from the pool, leaving Oskar alone so they could take the bullying to another level. It got out of hand. They forced his head under the water, and Oskar would have drowned if Miss Eli had not intervened… decisively."

Sassa's mind races to make sense of what he's telling her. Blackeberg. A swimming pool. After a moment she remembers captions and lurid photos in The Day's News showing gouts of blood beside the pool. She looks at Eli and her eyes grow wide.

"Please, Fernando, you can't mean the 'Blackeberg Massacre.' Not that. Not Eli."

Professor Grigore interjects, "Sassa, the Oskar and Eli you know and love are exactly as you see them. Their tragedy is that they are infected with a kind of virus – one for which there is no cure."

"I'm not stupid, Constantin!"

His head jerks as though she had slapped him, and he winces, knowing how disrespected she must feel.

"I've kept my eyes open. I see they are only active at night. I see they don't eat, and I see how pale they are."

She turns to Mr. Ávila and says, "I suppose you're going to say next that the children are vampires or something."

Mr. Ávila looks at Sassa tenderly. When she realizes he isn't going to deny it, her voice rises to a higher pitch as anger and fear emerge from the welter of her emotions. "You're saying you put Ingrid, me, all of our lives in danger?"

Oskar's face scrunches up and he hangs his head. Eli starts crying like a much younger child. Heartbroken. "I'm sorry," she sobs, "I'm so sorry."

Sassa looks at the tears streaming down Eli's cheeks and thinks, No! She's just the little girl that I love so much! She stands and walks from behind her desk. Kneeling, she gently gathers the children to her. "Hush," she says. "Hush. It will be okay. It's not your fault."

Sassa turns to the men. Fury arising from her sense of betrayal drains the color from her face so that she's almost as pale as the children. In a barely controlled voice, she says, "Fernando, please take the children home. Constantin, I'll ring you at your apartment. I don't know when."

Sassa's anger speaks louder to little Eli than her reassuring words did. Constantin looks miserable as the family forms a solemn procession. The only sounds are Eli's sobs and the door closing behind them.

Now Sassa thinks about how happy she and Constantin have been. She folds her arms on her desk, lays her head on her arms, and cries hard.

.

When Sassa can't cry any longer, she raises her head and finds she's no longer angry, just hurt and very, very sad. She's afraid of how her life with Constantin will change now that she has heard the dreadful truth – Oskar and dear little Eli kill people for their blood.

She rings Freja and tells her about the crate and what to expect when she opens tomorrow. "Would you work with the shippers? I don't think I can face it. I'll be in later, okay?"

She takes her purse from a drawer in her desk, locks up, and walks to where she knows she'll find a taxi that will take her home – to what had been her and Constantin's home until now.

.

When Sassa unlocks the door and enters, she thinks the apartment has never seemed darker or emptier. She sets her purse and keys on the dresser and lies down on their bed.

Memories come unbidden – falling in love with Constantin the night he and Fernando came to the little theater in Limhamn to check on the children. She remembers details from their one and only date nearly three months later at the coffee shop.

The dear man said he didn't know how to proceed. Now I'm the one who doesn't know what to do.

From the coffee shop they had walked arm-in-arm to the park where she told him there was no room in her heart for doubt, that he was the one she would spend the rest of her life with.

But now she has to reexamine her certainty. What would have to change if we were to marry? He said the children have a kind of virus, but does it have to involve Constantin?

She recalls Constantin saying that Fernando is his only close friend, ever. How could I ask this dear, shy man to make such a choice?

This is just so utterly dark and strange! I saw Eli recover from an accident that would have killed or crippled anyone else.

She remembers Eli's lament – "We've all been so careful!" Sassa wonders what kind of strain it must have been for Eli and everyone, how careful they had to be to keep her in the dark.

Maybe Constantin planned to tell me after Fernando and the children move to Barcelona. Then we would have been able to go on with our happy life.

Oh, that's wrong. Keeping such a secret must have been an intolerable burden for the dear man. Sooner or later I would have to know.

But why not later!

Yet she knows the dramatic disclosure wasn't in anyone's hands. And she thinks of how Eli put herself in danger with no thought for her own safety. Eli survived, but the look of distress on Oskar's face and his pitiful plea – "Eli, please!" – made it clear that Eli's survival was a matter of chance, not just because of her extraordinary resilience.

.
Into the Valley of Decision

When the morning light wakes Sassa, she is lying on her bed still fully dressed. She remembers her dream. Something terrifying was trying to enter her apartment, straining at the door, but Constantin held the door closed with main force. After a moment, Sassa gets it that Constantin was protecting her from the knowledge of what the children are.

She swings her legs around and sits on the edge of her bed. Is it odd, she wonders, that no one showed any fear that I would expose the children's secret? They seemed to only be concerned about how the knowledge would affect me.

She gets up and walks to the telephone in the kitchen.

Without more information, my imagination will lead me down darker and darker paths.

She dials Constantin's number.

He picks up on the first ring. "Have you…" he starts to say.

"Constantin, it's Sassa."

"Oh, I…I just got off the phone with Señor Ávila. They are gone, Sassa."

"What!"

"The children are gone."

"Where?"

"We do not know. And since we are the only family they have, we can only guess where they might be."

"But why? Surely Eli wasn't afraid I would betray them."

"No. It was your rejection. It shattered her."

"Oh my God! No! I didn't mean for her to…I mean, how could she take it that way?"

"I imagine that was her response to your anger. Children are frightened by anger, and Eli is an emotionally fragile child."

"How long have they been gone?"

"Señor Ávila is not certain. He checked their pallet a few minutes ago. It is missing and so are their backpacks."

"I'm coming. Meet me at the house," she says and hangs up.

As she quickly freshens up and prepares to leave the apartment, she realizes that her doubts and confusion are gone, too. The only thing that matters to her now is finding the children.

She grabs her purse and keys and heads for her car in the apartment garage.
.

When she gets to the big house on Järavallsgatan, she sees that Constantin has parked on the street and is waiting for her. He directs her to pull into the garage next to Mr. Ávila's old Fiat, opens the car door for her, and the two walk to the front of the house to let themselves in.

Constantin helps Sassa take off her coat and hangs it up. A small gesture, but Sassa takes comfort in this ordinary display of his Old World courtesy.

Mr. Ávila gets up from the dining room table and greets them. His face is ashen.

Sassa goes to him and says, "I'm sorry. I was…I mean…" she starts to say, but can't find the words.

"Hush," Mr. Ávila says. "Your reaction was normal. It's on me. Knowing how upset Miss Eli was, I should have sat up with her and Oskar."

Constantin pulls out a chair for Sassa and says, "Let us just put our heads together. What time was it when you last saw them, Señor Ávila?"

"They went upstairs around 11:00. I didn't hear them after that. I think I finally dozed off around 3:00, but they move as quietly as shadows when they don't want to be heard."

Constantin observes, "This close to the equinox, if they left at 11:00 they would have less than seven hours to find a safe place."

"Yes," Mr. Ávila says, "And I know from our trip from Vällingby last year that there are no buses or trains scheduled for those hours. They would be traveling on foot or possibly by car or taxi. Either way, they can't have gone far before they would need to find shelter from the sun."

"What about their old hideouts?" Constantin asks.

"The children move very fast, but they would have a long run to get to one by sunup."

"And for that matter," Constantin muses, "they could dig a new den."

"They lived in dens?" Sassa asks, "Like animals?"

"Eli did. In dens or, after she and Oskar left Blackeberg, abandoned houses or empty buildings."

"So they could still be in town," Sassa says. "But okay, no trains or buses. Boats? If they left before midnight, they would have time to take the last ferry to Copenhagen."

The men look at each other. Without a word, Constantin gets up, goes into the kitchen, and dials a number. It rings for a while until at last he hears Bertie's sleepy voice.

"Hello."

"Bertie, this is Professor Grigore. Sorry to ring you so early. I am looking for a couple of missing knuckleheads."

"No knuckleheads here, professor, except for me and Axel."

"Okay, do me a favor. Check to see if the door of their room is locked."

"Oh, those knuckleheads. Hang on." A minute later Bertie says, "Yep, it's locked okay. Oh, but don't that mean they're in there? Like you told us, we made it so it only locks from the inside."

"Bless your sweet soul, Bertie! That means Oskar and Eli slipped into your house while you were asleep."

"Well, I wouldn't put anything past the little rascals. They showed us a merry time while they were here – what is it? – a month ago? I mean they…"

Knowing that Bertie is as chatty as Axel is taciturn, Professor Grigore cuts her off with, "Yes, about a month ago. Here is what I need, Bertie. First make sure that you and Axel do not disturb them. Second, with your permission, I would like to introduce you to a friend. Her name is Sassa." He looks at Sassa and she nods. "She is very nice. She has been helping me look after the kids."

"The kids ain't in some kind of big trouble are they?"

"No Bertie, they are not in trouble. Eli just got her feelings hurt and took off. I shall bring Sassa with me so Eli can see that everything is okay."

Sassa thinks – "Just got her feelings hurt." I have to learn to talk that way about the children.

"If you say Sassa's alright, that's good enough for me and Axel. Do you know when you'll come?"

"I imagine that we shall take the ferry around 3:00."

"Okay then. We'll look for you when we see you."

Immensely relieved, although still keeping their fingers crossed that it will work out, the three can now review where things stand.

Sassa starts with the questions she had when she first woke up.

"Are the children really vampires? What does that mean?"

After a pause, Mr. Ávila asks, "May I?" and Constantin nods.

"Sassa, the worst of it is probably what you already believe. Vampires have to kill to get the blood they need to stay alive. Professor Grigore and I don't like it, the kids don't like it, and that will change when we get to Barcelona. But for now I have not interfered with the way they have to live."

"They couldn't buy blood or something?"

"Malmö is a small city. The more transactions, the more people involved, the greater the risk of exposure. And not just risk for Oskar and Miss Eli, but for you and Professor Grigore as well."

Mr. Ávila watches Sassa's face to see how his words are being taken and then continues.

"Until we get to a large metropolis – where I have deep connections – I feel it would be rash to change what Miss Eli has done successfully for so long."

"What do you mean 'for so long,' and why did Constantin say that we are Eli's only family?"

"The two facts go together. Her parents, simple peasants, put Eli under the care of a local lord whose estate was near Norrköping. Her family had no way of knowing he was a sadistic vampire. Before he infected Miss Eli, he tortured her for his amusement."

"Oh my God! But she got away?"

"Yes, and the evil lord is probably dead. Miss Eli doesn't understand all that happened, but one night a large body of mounted men attacked the compound. She remembers the shouts, the gunfire, and the flash of sabers. As buildings started to burn around her, Miss Eli escaped."

"But Fernando, the way you're talking about it, it sounds like something in a fairytale."

"Okay. You may want to take a breath and compose yourself."

She sits up straighter and takes a deep, slow breath.

"The events I'm describing occurred more than 200 years ago."

"But no! That can't be! She's just a little girl!"

"She's 12 years old, Sassa, and always will be. Neither her mind nor her body ages. As you saw after the crate hit her, the virus tries to restore her body to the state it was in when she was infected."

"She's immortal? She can't die?"

"She can die. It's a miracle the crate didn't kill her."

"I see. Yes, I was so sure it had. And I could see that Oskar was really worried. But Fernando, surely she remembers stuff that happened to her during all those years."

"True, in a way. But until the last few years, she lived alone in the forest. She can recall memories of a few people and of exceptional events, but otherwise, each day, each decade, was much like the previous one. It was a lonely, feral existence, a brutal life that left her intellectually, emotionally, and socially impoverished."

That explains so much, she thinks. Eli's reaction to riding a roller coaster and to seeing a music box for the first time. How her delight in everything makes it seem as though the world is bright and fresh for her.

"Fernando, was I, were any of us, in danger?"

"No Sassa. Being infected didn't change how Oskar and Miss Eli think of themselves. The virus changed them physically. It changed every cell in their body, but their personalities are intact."

"But that's not how everybody thinks of vampires!" Sassa says.

"No," Constantin interjects, "they are depicted in popular imagination as being inherently evil, cruel. With supernatural powers. But a biological model fits what we know about the children."

She gives Constantin a look. "When were you and Fernando going to let me in on this? I mean, you were, weren't you?"

"Yes. Señor Ávila knew I had to tell you, but I kept finding ways of putting it off. And how could I find the words? 'Sassa, will you marry me, and oh by the way…'"

"Yes!"

"What?"

"Yes! Yes, you wonderful idiot, I'll marry you!"

Sassa jumps up and covers his face with kisses.

"That's it? We're engaged? Sassa, I was so afraid that you would…"

Sassa stops the shy man's words with a long kiss and then says, "Constantin, we've been engaged since the night I first met you."

"This calls for a formal acknowledgement!" Mr. Ávila says.

He goes into the kitchen and returns with three snifters. He pours a measure of brandy into them and, raising his snifter, he says, "May your engagement be as delightful as your courtship, and may your marriage be long and fruitful."

After they drink, he charges their glasses again and says, "Let's make something else official. Welcome to the little family, Sassa."

They raise their glasses again and solemnly clink them together.

The brandy relaxes Mr. Ávila and a little color returns to his face. A few minutes later, he excuses himself and goes to his room to lie down.

Sassa turns to Constantin. "Do you remember me saying at the coffee shop that I knew we would be together?"

"I remember. So, you have been waiting for me to propose?"

"Yes, and everyone we know has been waiting."

"Even Señor Ávila?"

Sassa laughs. "Yes. At the Christmas party, Fernando offered to throw a feast for us when we visit Barcelona on our honeymoon."

"Okay. I get it. I see why you called me an idiot. Everybody knew but me."

"A wonderful idiot. I knew your shyness and lack of experience were keeping you in a state of uncertainty, and I had made up my mind to propose to you before the family left for Barcelona – just for the relief it would give you."

Constantin's eyes become misty and he gives her a long grateful hug.

"Now tell me how you got to be part of 'the little family,' as you and Fernando call it."

"I knew that Oskar and Eli were vampires the first night I met them, but I saw them as two lonely children forced to live an isolated existence, cut off from what should have been a normal childhood. It broke my heart to see them putting everything into just being normal 12-year-olds as they threw themselves into learning photography.

"The next day, Señor Ávila and I talked about it, and I asked to be allowed to help them."

"But Constantin, that had to be hard – you were working with the police but protecting two children who have to kill to live?"

"It was not hard. I saw that they were victims just as much as the people they killed. But you need to know this – Just after our big shopping trip to Gustav Adolfs torg, Eli asked for a family meeting. She challenged us to explain how we could justify our roles. Eli shot down all of our rationalizations – that vampires are part of nature, that the children are not really criminals. But one fact Eli was not able to overcome – She and Oskar would kill at the same rate year after year whether they lived like animals or here with Señor Ávila.

"During that meeting," he continues, "Señor Ávila revealed his idea about Barcelona, how they might be able to get the blood they require through medical channels."

"Okay, but why did Eli call the family meeting in the first place?"

"She said she was sick of blaming the bad things she and Oskar do on 'some stupid virus,' as she put it, sick of being two people in one body – a little girl and, when forced by hunger, a killer."

Now Sassa becomes aware of how exhausting the night and morning have been, and she's content to just sit and talk quietly with Constantin about all that has happened. They talk until midday, when Sassa calls the studio.

"Hi, Freja. I thought I'd check in."

"Everything's good. The shipper sent an insurance adjuster."

"Is Acme willing to do anything?"

"Whatever needs done. The adjuster figured out pretty quick that one of the packers didn't lock down the casters."

"Oh Jesus."

"Yep. Those were my very words. Accident waiting to happen. They'll pack the machine in a new crate and move it today. If anything's wrong with the machine, they'll fix it or replace it."

"Freja, it sounds like you've got it handled. Any reason I need to come in?"

"Sure not. Just take it easy. I imagine the accident shook you up."

"Well that and Constantin's proposal."

"What!"

"Constantin proposed to me a little while ago and I accepted."

"Oh my God! Wait!"

Sassa hears Freja running upstairs and yelling, "Girls! Finish up what you're doing! Lover boy finally proposed! Julia, run next door and ask Mr. Wu for that bottle of champagne he's keeping cold for us! Somebody get the plastic champagne glasses from that box in the storage cabinet!"

Freja comes back to her phone and says, "You're about to miss one heck of a party."

"Oh, we're celebrating here at Fernando's. Anyway, one celebration isn't going to be enough. By the way, who won the pool?"

"Oh, you know about the pool, do you?" Sassa hears a drawer open. Freja calls out, "Agnes, come here, dear. You won the pool!"

Constantin motions for the phone. "Freja, I hope you do not think your teasing had anything to do with this. Had I envisaged in my wildest imaginings that Sassa would say yes, I would have proposed to the darling woman the night we met!"

Sassa takes the phone back and says, "Have fun, but if anybody gets tipsy, don't let them cut fabric or sew, okay?"

After she replaces the receiver, Sassa asks, "Do you think Fernando would mind if I rummage in his kitchen for something to eat?"

"Well, not that he would mind exactly. Let me check on him."

Fernando wakes easily from his long nap and volunteers to prepare something for them. After he splashes water on his face, he goes into the kitchen to put on a fresh pot of coffee and to start the meal. Knowing it will take about 45 minutes, he puts bread, fruit, and manchego cheese on the table for them to have with coffee while he dices the potatoes, slices onions and peppers, and chops the parsley. He won't beat the eggs and add salt and pepper until the potatoes have cooked in the olive oil for a while.

.

It's right at 4:00 when Sassa and Constantin tap on Bertie and Axel's door in Freetown, and Bertie quickly pulls them inside. The neighbors don't need to know their business. Constantin introduces Sassa, and Bertie leads them through drifting layers of sandalwood incense to the sitting room.

Yep, Sassa thinks – small world.

Constantin introduces Sassa to Axel, seats her on a cushion, and goes to the back of the house to confirm that the door to the children's special room is still locked. He returns and, even with his regimen of racquetball and pushaways from the table, he's still a big man. He carefully settles onto a cushion on the floor.

"We know the children will awaken at dusk, but I would like to rouse them before sundown," he says.

Bertie says, "How'd Eli get her little feelings hurt, if you don't mind me asking."

"Bertie," Axel warns.

"Oh sorry. Axel says I'm kind of a chatty Kathy."

After a minute of silence, Axel says, "Let's take a walk, Bertie. Our guests may have things they need to talk about."

Once Bertie and Axel are out of the house, Sassa says, "I couldn't help but notice – Your clothes smelled like incense the first night you were on that case. The kids' coats, too, when they came back from their photo shoot."

"Yes, of course you would have noticed that. I do not usually discuss police business, but what the department wanted from me involved the children. I had to let Señor Ávila in on it, and now you."

Constantin lays out the whole story for her.

"I get it," Sassa says. "It was lucky the department asked for your help. The detective figured out that the mystery girl in Vällingby was a vampire without having a lot of clues to help him."

"My darling, highly intuitive people do not need a lot of clues. I wonder how much longer it would have taken you to figure things out."

"You know, I think I had enough clues. I think in some way I was being willfully blind. Anyway, how could I ask questions without crossing the line that Fernando asked me not to cross? But how did you figure out the kids so quickly?"

"Intuition is not the only way to get to the truth. A mind trained over a lifetime of using deductive reasoning has its strengths, too. That is why the police ask me to sit in on a case from time to time."

They continue to talk, and soon it's after five. Constantin raises an eyebrow, Sassa nods, and they get up from their cushions and walk to the back of the house.

"Eli, it's Sassa. Will you talk to me?" she says through the door.

At first there is only silence, but soon she hears sounds of rustling, and the door opens a crack.

Sassa is shocked at Eli's changed appearance – her expressionless face and, particularly, her lusterless eyes. Not so much a wary look as "not open for business."

"What is there to talk about? We're monsters. We're demons from hell. Nobody can love us. Nobody can even feel safe around us," Eli intones in a voice devoid of feeling.

"You are not monsters. I love you. Your family loves you and wants you."

Oskar speaks up. "So why did you tell Mr. Ávila to take us away?"

Eli adds, "And why were you so mad at us?"

"Oh you poor dears" Sassa says. She looks at Oskar. "I told all of you to leave, not just you and Eli. I needed to be by myself."

"Why? I mean, Eli just almost got killed saving you."

"I needed time to think about what it all meant."

"Yeah," Eli says, "but I never saw anybody as mad as you."

"Not at you, Eli. And maybe not even mad so much as feeling shut out by all of you, shut out by the people I love so much. Feeling hurt. And Eli, I was scared. I didn't know what it is to be a vampire until Fernando and Constantin explained it to me."

Eli's eyes remain dead like a fish on ice in a seafood store. She closes the door.

Sassa has more to say. "Eli, I love you – both of you – as much as I've ever loved anyone. I can't stand to be apart from you!"

At first there is only silence, but soon she hears Eli's loud, wracking sobs.

The minutes drag by. Sassa's heart pounds and her breath is constricted. She fears that Eli is slipping farther away, so hurt that she is irretrievably lost to her.

But at last she hears Oskar say, "Eli, I want to go home."

Eli stops crying. The door opens and she throws her arms around Sassa's neck. Oskar patiently waits for the bear hug he knows is coming from Professor Grigore.

.
Denise

On an evening in April when Malmö is shaking off winter and the Scandinavian spring has become a little more than a promise, the children drop by the theater to say goodbye to Denise and John. They talk about how well the musical revue was received, and as they are leaving the theater, the children mention something about a caravan and traveling, but they're vague about their plans. They promise to write, and Denise and John wish them well.

.

A few days after the visit, Denise wakes up in a serene mood and thinks, Something about a dream, I shouldn't wonder and dismisses the feeling. After all, she isn't one to dream often or to dwell on her dreams when she does. But around midmorning she remembers the dream – the image of two pale children bathed in a soft light. They are holding hands and smiling, looking directly at her. Denise tries to hold onto the image, but she blinks and it's gone, leaving her with the calm, pleasant feeling she had when she first woke up.

.
That night as she lies in bed reading, with John already asleep beside her, she thinks of Oskar and Eli and wonders how they are doing. A series of images and thoughts come to mind – the "spooky Limhamn shutterbugs" taking her and John's picture in front of the Victoria Teatern. How they were able to hear what she and John were whispering from across the street. And Oskar commanding them to hold still and to stand where he wanted them.

She remembers the pale children holding hands and smiling as they visited the Limhamn Players Theater the first time, how they seemed to be so in tune with each other. She thinks about Eli's unshakeable certainty that things would come right about Oscar's dalliance with Ingrid.

And why did we only see them at night? I never saw them eat or drink. Why on so many cold nights did I not wonder why they were lightly dressed?

She pictures Eli at the cast party – her dress accentuating her narrow hips and her strong hands, looking as much like a beautiful boy as a girl, and that leads her to think of how slender and beautiful Oskar is. Why didn’t I wonder about their gender? After all, gender is so fluid in the theatrical world.

But do they even have a gender?

And of all the photos they took, why were there no images of them, not even in the cast photo? Is it possible their images can’t be captured?

That thought gives Denise gooseflesh, and as she rubs her bare arms to warm them, she notes that such thoughts are not like her. After all, her English upbringing hasn’t given her many guidelines for putting these strange ideas together into a coherent picture. Believing that the ghost of your great aunt appears in the parlor on certain stormy nights hasn’t prepared Denise for what is nagging her to understand about the children.

Were they visitors from another time and place? she wonders. A supernatural realm? Why do they have "teachers" rather than parents? Were they here to experience something? Or for some unfinished business, like ghosts? Are they angels or some other kind of benevolent spirit?

Wouldn't it be delicious if they were real fairies playing the role of fairies on our stage?

Denise closes her book, lays it on the nightstand, and switches off her reading lamp. As she lies in the dark and waits for sleep, light and shadows thrown by the headlights of a car on Västanväg move across the bedroom ceiling. She gets a strong feeling that Oskar and Eli are okay, that they have each other and will have forever. She wonders if the way they were looking right at her in the dream means it was a message just for her. The pleasant, serene feeling, their smile, the way they were holding hands – these all seem to confirm that whatever and wherever they are, they are together and happy.

A sense of sadness tinges her mood. She feels certain the children won’t write and that she and John will never see them again. But she also feels grateful that the children blessed the theater with their presence for a season.

Ever the practical one, Denise knows she won't discuss her dream with John. She locks the dream and her thoughts about the children in a special place in her heart. She smiles as she drifts off to sleep.

.
Constantin and Sassa

Professor Grigore and Sassa enjoy a final evening with the family. Mr. Ávila has prepared a light meal of tapas – fried Padrón peppers with prosciutto and mint served with coffee or sherry. But it is on this night that Eli shows the first signs of distress. She stubbornly insists that she can't understand why Professor Grigore and Sassa have to stay behind, why they can't leave Malmö and go with them to Barcelona.

"Dear little Eli," the professor says, "you and Oskar know why we shall not be traveling with you. I have work that I can only do here, and how could Creations manage without Sassa?"

"I know, but..." Eli says and runs to him. She climbs onto his lap and hugs his neck while she sobs. "I know, but..." she starts to say again.

"But you will just really miss us, won't you? Is that what you want to say?" Which makes Eli sob even harder as Professor Grigore holds her close. He thinks, I would be a poor forensics expert if I did not know that there is more to Eli's unhappiness than just missing me and Sassa.

Professor Grigore doesn’t try to comfort her by saying he and Sassa will visit them in Barcelona during their honeymoon. That would seem to invalidate Eli's feelings or make it seem she isn't smart enough to figure that out. And anyway, he senses that missing him and Sassa does not account for how distressed she is. He is sure that Mr. Ávila will learn more about what's bothering her in the next few days.

Sassa feels closer than ever to Eli since she became part of the little family, but she knows to stay quiet, that trying to comfort Eli would be beside the point. She senses that it’s the move itself that has Eli upset, but she doesn’t know why.

And there the matter rests, with Eli's unease growing day by day and with Mr. Ávila no closer to understanding why.

.
Renault

A few days later, just after sundown, Oskar and Eli go into the big front room and stand looking at the professionally packed and labeled shipping boxes. Except for their cameras, changes of clothes, and toilet articles, the boxes contain just about everything in the house on Järavallsgatan, their home for nearly a year.

"No darkroom until we get there," Eli says.

“Right, but no classes, either,” Oskar adds. "It's good our stuff will be waiting for us in Barcelona. I bet we have a ton of film to develop by the time we get there."

Mr. Ávila is sitting at the dining room table going over the clipboard that holds the checklist of everything that he needs to do before they leave Malmö.

He looks up from his list and glances at the children talking among the boxes. He shakes his head. Oskar is so excited about the move, but Eli has been in a bad mood since Professor Grigore and Sassa had dinner with us. I hope she’ll talk to me about what’s bothering her.

Mr. Ávila gets up from the table and takes his clipboard with him to the garage. It's still a pleasant shock to see a shiny blue Renault sedan in place of the little Fiat. More than 20 years ago he had driven the Fiat from Barcelona to Blackeberg when he took up his teaching position. He didn't get much of a trade-in for the faithful old Fiat, but he got his money's worth by driving the clunky, noisy car all those years.

Now the four-door Renault will fill their needs – not overly powerful, but a car that will easily pull the second-hand caravan Mr. Avila bought. You might say the Renault is more comfortable than the Fiat, but that would imply that there was anything comfortable about the old car.

He checks inside the caravan, a small aluminum Airstream. The bench seats on each side of the table lift up to store things, such as two sleeping vampire children. There is a raised platform at the back of the caravan for Mr. Ávila's sleeping bag. The table between the two benches holds cameras, lenses, and film cans. And roadmaps marked with campgrounds for when Mr. Ávila needs to rest. He doesn't plan to stop before Paris, but he will after they leave his uncle's place to drive the long stretch of highway to Barcelona.

Mr. Ávila gets behind the wheel of the Fiat's replacement and breathes in the new-car smell. He smiles as he thinks about Oskar's reaction when he told the kids he had bought the Renault.

"Why not a Volvo or a Saab?" Oskar had asked.

"Because when we get to Barcelona, I don't want to be driving a forensic footprint."

"Okay. I kind of get that. So, a French car would be better?"

"Right, Oskar, especially since Renault builds some of its cars in Spain."

"Okay, but if you were going to blow that much money on a car, why not get a classic muscle car, like a Pontiac GTO or a Boss 302?"

"Well, I would say that having an Oskar GTO and an Eli 302 is about as supercharged as I can handle."

.
"Nope, not going."

Professor Grigore and Mr. Ávila enjoy their final morning coffee, the routine they've observed most days since the professor became a member of the little family eleven months earlier. Although watching the movers empty the big front room of boxes underscores that the Malmö adventure is over, it adds to Mr. Ávila's sense of anticipation, so his last coffee with the professor combines opposing feelings of melancholy and excitement.

After Professor Grigore takes his leave, there isn't really much that needs Mr. Ávila's attention. Since they can't go until the children wake up at sundown, he putters around the house and goes outside to the car and the caravan from time to time to double- and triple-check that everything will be ready when the children get up.

Although Mr. Ávila tried to prepare them for waking to an empty house before he crawled into his sleeping bag last night, he is concerned about Eli's continuing unhappy mood.

At last he hears the children showering, and in a little while Oskar walks through the empty front room and joins him at the dining room table.

“Where’s Miss Eli?”

“When she saw the boxes were gone, she went to her bedroom. She didn’t look very happy.”

“I know, Oskar. She hasn’t been happy about the move for a while. Um, do you know what it's about?”

"Nah. Whenever I start talking about the trip, telling her how excited I am, she just turns away from me and doesn't say anything."

"I guess I have to take a shot at it."

Mr. Ávila walks down the hallway to Eli's bedroom and sits on the floor next to her. Before he can say anything, Eli says, “I'm not going.”

“Miss Eli, we have to go.”

“I don’t. Oskar and I don't have to go.”

Mr. Ávila knows that’s incontestably true. No one can make Eli do anything.

They sit quietly for a minute until Mr. Ávila says, “Miss Eli, your friends must have already started to wonder why you and Oskar haven't changed. Ingrid will turn 15, but you and Oskar still look 12. Denise, John – especially Ingrid – will have questions about other stuff, too.”

“Like what?”

“You tell me, little one.”

“Like we can’t be in sunlight?”

“Like you don’t eat. Like you have a condition that makes you pale.”

“We can go somewhere else where people don’t know us!" she blurts. "Another part of Sweden!”

Mr. Ávila was under the impression they had laid that idea to rest. So it’s not about leaving Malmö; it’s about leaving Sweden. He admits to Eli that it's a consideration.

“But why Sweden? How is Sweden better than Spain?”

“Because I know I can take care of Oskar in Sweden!”

Of course! Bless her heart, survival is her main job – that and protecting Oskar.

“Yes, Miss Eli, and you do a great job of it.”

Eli doesn't respond. Mr. Ávila thinks for a minute and then says, "Miss Eli, do you member how you had to get out of Göteborg really quickly? And how quick the police came up with your description in Vällingby? There aren't any places in Sweden where you couldn't be recognized. Malmö isn’t safe. You were so public about your photography, and you even acted in a play. So much exposure only made sense because we knew we would be leaving."

Eli still doesn't respond, so Mr. Ávila continues.

“Miss Eli, you did a good job of keeping Oskar safe. But it meant a lot of running and hiding, didn’t it? To have a normal life, you have to let other people help you. You know that’s a big risk. Just staying in this house for almost a whole year was a risk. You see, Miss Eli, it’s not only your job to keep Oskar safe, it's..."

"It is my job! It's the one thing I have to get right!"

"Little one, it's all our job. It’s the family’s job to keep each other safe.”

Eli stubbornly shakes her head and looks away.

Oh boy, Mr. Ávila thinks.

"Okay Miss Eli, if you want to stay, I will give you my blessing. But you have to be clear that you understand the choice you're making. You're choosing between being a member of a family that loves you, or going back to a life on the run."

"But I don't want to go back to that either!"

Mr. Ávila waits.

"Mr. Ávila, I'm so scared!"

Now Eli is trembling and she begins to cry as Mr. Ávila takes her in his arms.

He holds her for a while and then says, "Miss Eli, I want you to think about something. Courage is not the absence of fear."

"It's not?" she sobs.

"No, it's keeping going even when you're afraid."

Eli stops crying and is quiet for a moment. They stand up without speaking. She takes Mr. Ávila's hand and they walk down the hallway to the front of the house.

.
Car Ferry

With the car and caravan on board the ferry, Mr. Ávila and the children find seats in a passenger area. Soon they hear the mighty engines start up, and as they slowly pull away from the berth, the three of them fall silent, immersed in their own thoughts and feelings.

Now that the journey has begun, Mr. Ávila is filled with an even greater sense of longing for his aging mother and father. And for his old friends. And for Barcelona itself, the city that he loves and has yearned to move back to for more than 20 years.

Oskar thinks of his mother. Although Eli is still fearful of leaving Sweden, a country she has survived in for more than two centuries, for Oskar it means giving up the dream that he might one day see his mother again.

Sometime during the next few years, I'll write to her, he thinks.

Oskar's lips start to tremble, but he forces his face into a stern mask. It's time I started acting my age. I'm not a child anymore.

Eli senses the depth of Oskar's sadness, and she puts her arm around his waist and snuggles close.

Mr. Ávila's mood brightens as he thinks about seeing his old uncle during their stopover. And Oskar's mood won't last even as far as the end of the ferry ride, but Eli's anxiety will stay with her until they get to Paris.

After all, what little vampire could be other than thrilled by the City of Light? Especially as seen from Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, or after she and Oskar launch themselves into the night sky and soar high above the huge metropolis.

.
END OF BOOK 2

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