All Poppy could think of was the pretty bald girl inthe gift shop.

Cancer.

"But-but they can do something about it, can'tthey?" she said, and even to her own ears her voice sounded very young. "I mean-if they had to, theycould take my pancreasout...."

"Oh, sweetheart, of course. "Poppy's mother took Poppy in her arms. "I promise you; if there's some thing wrong, we'll do anything and everything to fix it. I'd go to the ends of the earth to make you well. You knowthat. And at this point we aren't even sure that there issomething wrong. Dr. Franklin said that it's extremely rare for teenagers to get a tumor in the pancreas. Extremely rare. So let's not worry about things until we have to."

Poppy felt herself relax; the pit was covered again. But somewhere near her core she still felt cold.

"I haveto call James."

Her mother nodded. "Just make it quick."

Poppy kept her fingers crossed as she dialedJames's apartment. Please be there, please be there, she thought. And for once, he was. He answered laconically, but as soon as he heard her voice, he said, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing-well, everything. Maybe." Poppy heardherself give a wild sort of laugh. It wasn't exactly alaugh.

"What happened?" James said sharply. "Did youhave a fight with Cliff?"

"No. Cliff's at the office. And I'm going into thehospital."

"Why?"

"They think I might have cancer."

It was a tremendous relief to say it, a sort of emo

tional release. Poppy laughed again. Silence on the other end of the line. "Hello?"

"I'm here," James said. Then he said, "I'm coming over."

"No, there's no point. I've got to leave in a minute." She waited for him to say that he'd come and see her in the hospital, but he didn't.

"James, would you do something for me? Wouldyou find out whatever you can about cancer in the pancreas? Just in case."

"Is that what they think you have?"

"They don't know for sure. They're giving me some tests. I just hope they don't have to use any needles."

Another laugh, but inside she was reeling.

She wished James would say something comforting."I'll see what I can find on the Net." His voice was unemotional, almost expressionless.

"And then you can tell me later-they'll probablylet you call me at the hospital."

"Yeah."

"Okay, I have to go. My mom's waitin""Take care of yourself."

Poppy hung up, feeling empty. Her mother wasstanding in the doorway."Come on, Poppet. Let's go." James sat very still, looking at the phone withoutseeing it.

She was scared, and he couldn't help her. He'dnever been very good at inspirational small talk. It wasn't, he thought grimly, in his nature.

To give comfort you had to have a comfortableview of the world. And James had seen too much of the world to have any illusions.

He could deal with cold facts, though. Pushingaside a pile of assorted clutter, he turned on his lap top and dialed up the Internet.

Within minutes he was using Gopher to search theNational Cancer Institute's CancerNet. The first file he found was listed as "Pancreatic cancer-Patient."He scanned it. Stuff about what the pancreas did,stages of thedisease, treatments.Nothingtoo gruesome.

Thenhewentinto "PancreaticcancerPhysician--a file meant for doctors. The first lineheld him paralyzed. Cancer of the exocrine pancreas is rarely curable.

His eyes skimmed down the lines. Overall survival rate ... metastasis ... poor response to chemotherapy, ra diation therapy and surgery ... pain ...

Pain. Poppy was brave, but facing constant painwould crush anyone. Especially when the outlook for the future was so bleak.

He looked at the top of the article again. Overallsurvival rate less than three percent. If the cancer had spread, less than one percent.

There must be more information. James wentsearching again and came up with several articles from newspapers and medical journals. They wereeven worse than the NCI file.

The overwhelming majority of patients will die, and dieswiftly, experts say.... Pancreatic cancer is usually inoperable, rapid, and debilitatingly painful.... The averagesurvival if the cancer has spread can be three weeks tothree months....

Three weeks to three months.

James stared at the laptop's screen. His chest andthroat felt tight; his vision was blurry. He tried to control it, telling himself that nothing was certain yet. Poppy was being tested, that didn't mean she had cancer.

But the words rang hollow in his mind. He had known for some time that something was wrong with Poppy. Something was-disturbed-inside her.He'd sensed that the rhythms of her body wereslightly off; he could tell she was losing sleep. Andthe pain-he always knew when the pain was there.He just hadn't realized how serious it was.

Poppy knows, too, he thought. Deep down, she knows that something very bad is going on, or she wouldn't have asked me to find this out. But whatdoes she expect me to do, walk in and tell her she's going to die in a few months?

And am I supposed to stand around and watch it?

His lips pulled back from his teeth slightly. Not anice smile, more of a savage grimace. He'd seen a lot of death in seventeen years. He knew the stages ofdying, knew the difference between the moment breathing stopped and the moment the brain turnedoff; knew the unmistakable ghostlike pallor of a freshcorpse.

The way the eyeballs flattened out about five minutes after expiration. Now, that was a detail most people weren't familiar with. Five minutes after you die, your eyes go flat and filmy gray. And then your body starts to shrink. You actually get smaller.

Poppy was so small already.

He'd always been afraid of hurting her. She lookedso fragile, and he could hurt somebody much stronger if he wasn't careful. That was one reason hekept a certain distance between them.

One reason. Not the main one.

The other was something he couldn't put intowords, not even to himself. It brought him right up to the edge of the forbidden. To face rules that had been ingrained in him since birth.

None of the Night People could fall in love with ahuman. The sentence for breaking the law was death. It didn't matter. He knew what he hadto do now.Where he had to go.

Cold and precise, James loggedoff the Net. Hestood, picked up his sunglasses, slid them into place. Went out into the merciless June sunlight, slamminghis apartment door behind him.

Poppy looked around the hospital room unhappily.There was nothing so awful about it, except that it was too cold, but ...it was a hospital. That was thetruth behind thepretty pink-and-blue curtains and the dosed-circuit TV and the dinner menu decoratedwith cartoon characters. It was a place you didn't come unless you were Pretty Darn Sick.

Oh, come on, she told herself. Cheerup a little.What happened to the power of Poppytive thinking? Where's Poppyanna when you need her? Where'sMary Poppy-ins?

God, I'm even making myself gag, she thought.

But she found herselfsmilingfaintly, with selfdeprecating humor if nothing else. And the nurses were nice here, and the bed wasextremely cool.Ithad a remote control on theside that bent it intoevery imaginable position.

Her mother came in while shewas playing with it.

"I got hold of Cliff; he'll be herelater. Meanwhile,I think you'd better change so you're ready for the tests."

Poppy looked at the blue-and-white striped seersucker hospital robe and felt a painful spasm that seemed to reach from her stomach to her back. And something in the deepest part of her said Please, not yet. I'll never be ready.

James pulled his Integra into a parking space on Ferry Street near Stoneham. It wasn't a nice part of town. Tourists visiting Los Angeles avoided this area.

The building was sagging and decrepit. Severalstores were vacant, with cardboard taped over broken windows. Graffiti covered the peeling paint on thecinder-block walls.

Even the smog seemed to hang thicker here. Theair itself seemed yellow and cloying. Like a poisonous miasma, it darkened the brightest day and made everything look unreal and ominous.

James walked around to the back of the building.There, among the freight entrances of the stores in front, was one door unmarked by graffiti. The signabove it had no words. Just a picture of a blackflower.

A black iris.

James knocked. The door opened two inches, anda skinny kid in a wrinkled T-shirt peered out with beady eyes.

"It's me, Ulf," James said, resisting the temptationto kick the door in. Werewolves, he thought. Why do they have to be so territorial?

World. I don't want to break any laws. I just wanther well."

The slanted blue eyes were searching his face. "Areyou sure you haven't broken the laws already?" And when James looked determined not to understand this, she added in a lowered voice, "Are you sure you're not in love with her?"

James made himself meet the probing gaze directly. He spoke softly and dangerously. "Don't say that unless you want a fight."

Gisele looked away. She played with her ring. Thecandle flame dwindled and died.

"James, I've known you for a long time," she saidwithout looking up. "I don't want to get you in trouble. I believe you when you say you haven't brokenany laws--but I think we'd both better forget this conversation. Just walk out now and I'll pretend itnever happened."

"And the spell?"

"There's no such thing. And if there was, Iwouldn't help you. Just go."

James went.There was one other possibility that he couldthink of. He drove to Brentwood, to an area thatwas as different from the last as a diamond is fromcoal. He parked in a covered carport by a quaint adobe building with a fountain. Red and purplebougainvillaea climbed up the walls to the Spanishtile on the roof.

Walking through an archway into a courtyard, hecame to an office with gold letters on the door. Jasper R. Rasmussen, Ph.D. His father was a psychologist.

Before he could reach for the handle, the dooropened and a woman came out. She was like mostof his father's clients, forty-something, obviously rich, wearing a designer jogging suit and high-heeled sandals. She looked a little dazed and dreamy, and therewere two small, rapidly healing puncture wounds on her neck.

James went into the office. There was a waitingroom, but no receptionist. Strains of Mozart came from the inner office. James knocked on the door.

"Dad?"

The door opened to reveal a handsome man withdark hair. He was wearing a perfectly tailored gray suit and a shirt with French cuffs. He had an aura of power and purpose.

But not of warmth. He said, "What is it, James?" in the same voice he used for his clients: thoughtful, deliberate, confident.

"Do you have a minute?"

His father glanced at his Rolex. "As a matter offact, my next patient won't be here for half an hour."

"There's something I need to talk about."

His father looked at him keenly, then gestured to an overstuffed chair. James eased into it, but found himself pulling forward to sit on the edge.

"What's on your mind?"

James searched for the right words. Everything depended on whether he could make his father under stand. But what were the right words? At last hesettled for bluntness.

"It's Poppy. She's been sick for a while, and nowthey think she has cancer."

Dr. Rasmussen looked surprised. "I'm sorry to hearthat." But there was no sorrow in his voice.

"And it's a bad cancer. It's incredibly painful andjust about one hundred percent incurable."

"That's a pity." Again there was nothing but mildsurprise in his father's voice. And suddenly James knew where that came from. It wasn't surprise thatPoppy was sick; it was surprise that James had made a trip just to tell him this.

"Dad, if she's got this cancer, she's dying. Doesn'tthat mean anything to you?"

Dr. Rasmussen steepled his fingers and stared intothe ruddy gloss of his mahoganydesk. He spoke slowly and steadily. "James, we've been through this before. You know that your mother and I are worried about you getting too dose to Poppy. Too . . . attached ...to her."

James felt a surge of cold rage. "Like I got tooattached to Miss Emma?"

His father didn't blink. "Something like that."

James fought the pictures that wanted to form inhis mind. He couldn't think about Miss Emma now; he needed to be detached. That was the only way to convince his father.

"Dad, what I'm trying to say is that I've knownPoppy just about all my life. She's useful to me."

"How? Not in the obvious way. You've never fedon her, have you?"

James swallowed, feeling nauseated. Feed onPoppy? Use her like that? Even the thought of it made him sick.

"Dad, she's my friend," he said, abandoning anypretense of objectivity. "I can't just watch her suffer. I can't. I have to do something about it."

His father's face cleared. "I see."

James felt dizzy with astonished relief. "Youunderstand?"

"James, at times one can't help a certain feeling of . . .compassion for humans. In general, I wouldn't encourage it-but you have known Poppya long while. You feel pity for her suffering. If youwant to make that suffering shorter, then, yes, Iunderstand."

The relief crashed down around James. He stared at his father for a few seconds, then said softly, "Mercy killing? I thought the Elders had put a banon deaths in this area."

"Just be reasonably discreet about it. As long as itseems to be natural, we'll all look the other way. There won't be any reason to call in the Elders."

There was a metallic taste in James's mouth. Hestood and laughed shortly. "Thanks, Dad. You've really helped a lot."

His father didn't seem to hear the sarcasm. "Gladto do it, James. By the way, how are things at the apartments?"

"Fine," James said emptily.

"And at school?"

"School's over, Dad," James said, and let himselfout.

In the courtyard he leaned against an adobe walland stared at the splashing water of the fountain. He was out of options. Out of hope. The laws ofthe Night World said so.

If Poppy had the disease, she would die from it.
    
 

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