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Secret Vampire (Chapter 14)

"YOU see,I like James," Ash said. "I think he'sa little soft on vermin, but I don't want to seehim in trouble. I certainly don't want to see him dead."

Poppy felt the way she had last night when herbody was starving for air. She was frozen, too stillto breathe.

"I mean, do youwant him dead?" Ash asked, as ifit were the most reasonable question in the world.Poppy shook her head.

"Well, then," Ash said.

Poppy got a breath at last. "What are you saying?"Then, without waiting for him to answer, she said, "You're saying that they're going to kill him if theyfind out about me. But they don't haveto find out about me. Unless you tell them."

Ash glanced at his fingernails thoughtfully.. Hemade a face to show that this was as painful for himas it was for her.

"Let's go over the facts," he said. "You are, in fact,a former human."

"Oh, yeah, I was a vermin, all right."

He gave her a droll look. "Don't take that so seriously. It's what you are now that counts. But Jamesdid, in fact, change you without clearing it with anybody.Right? And he did, in fact, break cover and tellyou about the Night World before you werechanged. Right?"

"How do you know? Maybe he just changed mewithout telling me a thing."

He shook a finger. "Ah, but James wouldn't dothat. He's got these radical permissive ideas abouthumans having free will."

"If you know all about it, why ask me?" Poppysaid tensely. "And if you've got a point-"

"The point is that he's committed at least two capital offenses. Three, I bet." He flashed the wild, handsome smile again. "He must have been in love withyou to have done the rest."

Something swelled in Poppy like a bird trapped inher rib cage and trying to get out. She blurted, "I don't see how you people can make laws about not falling in love! It's insane."

"But don't you see why? You're the perfect example. Because of love, James told you and then hechanged you. If he'd had the sense to squash hisfeelings for you in the beginning, the whole thingwould have been nipped in the bud."

"But what if you can'tsquash it? You can't forcepeople to stop feeling."

"Of course not," Ash said, and Poppy stoppeddead. She stared at him.

His lips curved and he beckoned to her. "I'll tellyou a secret. The Elders know they can't really legis late how you feel. What they can do is terrorize youso that you don't dare show your feelings-ideally, so you can't even admit them to yourself."

Poppy settled back. She'd seldom felt so at a loss.Talking to Ash made her head whirl, made her feel as if she were too young and stupid to. be sure of anything.

She made a forlorn and helpless gesture. "Butwhat do I do now? I can't change thepast…."

"No, but you can act in the present." He jumpedto his feet in a lovely, graceful motion and beganpacing. "Now. We have to think fast. Presumably everyone here thinks you're dead."

"Yes, but-"

"So the answer is simple. You have to get out of jthe area and stay out. Go someplace where youwon't be recognized, where nobody will care ifyou're new or illegal. Witches. That's it! I've got some cross-cousins in Las Vegas that will put you up. Themain thing is to leave now."

Poppy's head wasn't just whirling, it was reeling.She felt dizzy and physically sick, as if she'd juststepped off Space Mountain at Disneyland. "What? Idon't even understand what you're talking about,"she said feebly.

"'I'll explain on the way. Come on, hurry! Do youhave some clothes you want to take?"

poppy planted her feet solidly on the floor. Sheshook her head to try and dear it. "Look, I don'tknow what you're saying, but I can't go anywhereright now. I have to wait for James."

"But don't you see?" Ash stopped his whirlwindpacing and rounded on her. His eyes were green andhypnotically brilliant. "That's just what you can't do. James can't even know where you're going."

, what?"

"Don't you see?"Ash said again. He spread hishands and spoke almost pityingly. "You'rethe only thing putting James in danger. As long as you're here, anybody can look at you and put the piecestogether. You're circumstantial evidence that he's

committed a crime."

Poppy understood that. "But I can just wait and James can go away with me. He would wantthat."

"But it wouldn't work," Ash said softly. "It doesn'tmatter where you go; whenever you're together,you're a danger to him. One look at you and anydecent vampire can sense the truth."

Poppy's knees felt weak.

Ash spoke soberly. "I'm not saying that you'll bemuch safer yourself if you leave. You bring your owndanger with you, because of what you are. But aslong as you're away from James, nobody can connect you with him. It's the only way to keep him safe. Do you see?"

"Yes. Yes, I see that now." The ground seemed tohave disappeared beneath Poppy. She wasfalling,not into music, but into an icy dark void. There wasnothing to hold on to.

"But, of course, it's a lot to expect, to ask you togive him up. You may not want to make that kindof sacrifice-"

Poppy's chin came up. She was blind and empty and giddy, but she spoke to Ash with utter contempt,spitting out the words. "After everything he sacrificedfor me? What do you think I am?"

Ash bowed his head. "You're a brave one, littledreamer. I can't believe you were ever human." Then he looked up and spoke briskly. "So do youwant to pack?"

"I don't have much," Poppy said, slowly, becausemoving and speaking hurt her. She walked towardthe bedroom as if the floor was covered with broken glass. "Hardly anything. But I have to write a notefor James."

"No, no," Ash said. "That's the last thing you wantto do. Well, after all," he added as she swiveledslowly to look at him, "James being so noble andlovestruck and everything-if you let him knowwhere you're going, he'll come right after you. Andthen where will you be?"

Poppy shook her head. "I… okay." Still shakingher head, she stumbled into the bedroom.She wasn't going to argue with him anymore, but she wasn't going to take his advice, either. She shut the bedroom door and tried as hard as she could toshield her mind. She visualized a stone wall around her thoughts.

Stuffing her sweat pants and T-shirt and whitedress into the duffel bag took thirty seconds. Thenshe found a book under the nightstand and a felt-tippen in the drawer. She tore the flyleaf out of thebook and scribbled rapidly.

Dear James,

I'm so sorry, but if I stay to explain this to you, I know you'll try to stop me. Ash has made me understand the truth-that as long as I stick around I'mputting your life in danger. And I just can't do that.If something happened to you because of me, I woulddie. I really would.

I'm going away now. Ash is taking me somewherefar away where you won't findme. Where they won'tcare what I am. I'll be safe there. You'll be safe here.And even if we're not together, we'll never really beapart.

I love you. I'll love you forever. But I have to dothis.

Please tell Phil goodbye.

Your soulmate, Poppy.

She was dripping tears onto the paper as shesigned it.She put the flyleaf on the pillow and went outto Ash.

"Oh, there, there," he said. "Don't cry. You'redoing the right thing." He put an arm around hershoulders. Poppy was too miserable to shrug it off.

She looked at him. "One thing. Won't I be putting youin danger if I go with you? I mean, somebodymight think youwere the one who made me an ille gal vampire."

He looked at her with wide, earnest eyes. They happened to be blue-violet at the moment.

"I'm willing to take that risk," he said. "I have alot of respect for you."

James took the stairs two at a time, sending probing thoughts ahead of him and then refusing to believe what his own senses told him.

She had to be there. She hadto be….

He pounded on the door at the same time as hewas thrusting the key into' the lock. At the same timeas he was shouting mentally.

Poppy! Poppy, answer me! Poppy!

And then, even with the door flung open and hisown thoughts ricocheting off the emptiness in theapartment, he stilldidn't want to believe. He ran around, looking in every room, his heart thudding louder and louder in his chest. Her duffel bag was gone. Her clothes were gone. She was gone.

He ended up leaning against the glass of the livingroom window. He could see the street below, andthere was no sign of Poppy.

No sign of Ash, either.

It was James's fault. He'd been following his mother's trail all afternoon, from decorating job to decorating job, trying to catch up with her. Only to find,once he did catch up, that Ash was already in Elcamino, and had, in fact, been sent over to James'sapartment hours ago. With a key.

putting him alone with Poppy.

James had called the apartment immediately. Noanswer. He'd broken all speed limits getting backhere. But he was too late.

Ash, you snake, he thought. If you hurt her, if youput one finger on her …

He found himself roving over the apartment again,looking for clues as to what had happened. Then, in the bedroom, he noticed something pale against the light brown of the pillowcase.

A note. He snatched it up and read it. And gotcolder and colder with every line. By the time he reached the end, he was made of ice and ready tokill.

There were little round splashes where the felt-tippen had run. Tears. He was going to break one of Ash's bones for each one.

He folded the note carefully and put it in hispocket. Then he took a few things from his closetand made a call on his cellular phone as he was walking down the stairs of the apartment building.

"Mom, it's me," he said at the beep of an answering machine. "I'm going to be gone for a few days.

Something's come up. If you see Ash, leave me amessage. I want to talk with him."

He didn't say please. He knew his voice was clippedand sharp. And he didn't care. He hoped his tone would scare her.

Just at the moment he felt ready to take on hismother and father and all the vampire Elders in theNight World. One stake for all of them.

He wasn't a child anymore. In the last week he'dbeen through the crucible. He'd faced death andfound love. He was an adult.

And filled with a quiet fury that would destroyeverything in its path. Everything necessary to getto Poppy.

He made other phone calls as he guided the Integraswiftly and expertly through the streets of El Camino.He called the Black Iris and made sure that Ashhadn't turned up there. He called several other blackflower dubs, even though he didn't expect to find anything. Poppy had said Ash was going to take her far away.

But where?

Damn you, Ash, he thought. Where?

Phil was staring at the TV without really seeing it.How could he be interested in talk shows or infomercialswhen all he couldthinkabout was his sister?His sister who was maybe watching the same showsand maybe out biting people?

He heard the car screech to a stop outside and wason his feet before he knew it. Weird how he wasabsolutely certain of who it was. He must have cometo recognize the Integra's engine.

He opened the door as James reached the porch."What's up?"

"Come on." James was already heading for the car.There wasa deadly energy in his movements, abarely controlled power, that Phil had never seen before. White-hot fury, leashed but straining.

"What's wrong?"

James turned at the driver's side door. "Poppy'smissing!"

Phil threw a wild glance around. There was nobodyon the street, but the door to the house was open.And James was shouting as if he didn't care whoheard.

Then the words sank in. "What do you mean,she's-" Phil broke off and jerked the door to thehouse shut. Then he went to the Integra. James already had the passenger door open.

"What do you mean, she's missing?" Phil said assoon as he was in the car.

James gunned the engine. "My cousin Ash has taken her someplace."

"Who's Ash?"

"He's dead," James said, and somehow Phillip knew he didn't mean Ash was one of the walkingdead. He meant Ash was going to bedead, completelydead, at some point very soon.

"Well, where's he taken her?"

"I don't know," James said through his teeth. "Ihave no idea."

Phil stared a moment, then said, "Okay. Okay."

He didn't understand what was going on, but hecould see one thing. James was too angry and toointent on revenge to think logically. He might seem rational, but it was stupid to drive around at fifty five miles an hour through a residential zone with no idea of where to go.

It was strange that Phil felt comparatively calmit seemed as if he'd spent the last week being wacko while James played the cool part. But having someone else be hysterical always made Phil golevelheaded.

"Okay, look," he said. "Let's take this one step ata time. Slow down, okay? We might be going in exactly the wrong direction." At that, James eased up on the gas pedal slightly.

"Okay, now tell me about Ash. Why's he taking Poppy somewhere? Did he kidnap her?"

"No. He talked her into it. He convinced her thatit was dangerous for me if she stuck around here. Itwas the one thing guaranteed to make her go withhim." One hand on the wheel, James fished in his pocket and handed a folded piece of paper to Phil.

It was a page torn out of a book. Phillip read thenote and swallowed. He glanced at James, who wasstaring straight ahead at the road.

Phil shifted, embarrassed at having intruded on private territory, embarrassed at the sting in his eyes. Your soulmate, Poppy?Well. Well.

"She loves you a lot," he said finally, awkwardly."And I'm glad she said goodbye to me." He folded the note carefully and tucked it under the emergency brake handle. James picked it up and put it in hispocket again.

"Ash used her feelings to get her away. Nobodycan push buttons and pull strings like he can."

"But why would he want to?"

"First because he likes girls. He's a realDon Juan."James glanced at Phil caustically. "And now he's gother alone. And second because he likes to play withthings. Like a cat with a mouse. He'll fool around with her for a while, and then when he gets tired ofher, he'll hand her over."

Phillip went still. "Who to?"

"The Elders. Somebody in charge somewherewho'll realize she's a renegade vampire."

"And then what?"

"And then they kill her."

Phil grabbed the dashboard. "Wait a minute.You're telling me that a cousin of yours is going tohand Poppy over to be killed?"

"It's the law. Any good vampire would do thesame. My own mother would do it, without a second thought." His voice was bitter.

"And he's a vampire. Ash," Phil said stupidly.

James gave him a look. "Allmy cousins are vampires," he said with a short laugh. Then his expression changed, and he took his foot off the gas.

"What's the-hey, that was a stop sign!" Philyelped.

James slammed on the brakes and swung into aU-turn in the middle of the street. He ran over somebody's lawn.

"What is it?" Phil said tightly, still braced againstthe dashboard.

James was looking almost dreamy. "I've just realized where they've gone. Where he'd take her. Hetold her someplace safe, where people wouldn't carewhat she was. But vampires wouldcare."

"So they're with humans?"

"No. Ash hates humans. He'd want to take hersomeplace in the Night World, someplace where he'sa big man. And the nearest city that's controlled bythe Night World is Las Vegas."

Phil felt his jaw drop. Las Vegas? Controlled by theNight World? He had the sudden impulse to laugh. Sure, of course it would be. "And I always thoughtit was the Mafia," he said.

"It is," James said seriously, swerving onto a freeway on-ramp. "Just a different mafia."

"But, look, wait. Las Vegas is a big city."

"It's not, actually. But it doesn't matter anyway. Iknow where they are. Because all my cousins aren'tvampires. Some of them are witches."

Phil's forehead puckered. "Oh, yeah? And how didyou arrange that?"

"I didn't. My great-grandparents did, about fourhundred years ago. They did a blood-tie ceremonywith a witchfamily. The witches aren't my realcous ins; they're not related. They're cross-cousins.Adopted family. It probably won't even occur tothem that Poppy might not be legal. And that'swhere Ash would go."

"They're cross-kin," Ash told Poppy. They weredriving in the Rasmussen's gold Mercedes, which Ashinsisted his aunt Maddy would want him to take."They won't be suspicious of you. And witches don'tknow the signs of being a new vampire the way vampires do."

Poppy just stared at the far horizon. It was evening now, and a lowering red sun was setting behind them. All around them was a weird alien landscape: not as brown as Poppy would have expected a desertto be. More gray-green, with clumps of green-gray. The Joshua trees were strangely beautiful, but alsothe closest thing to a plant made up of tentacles as she'd ever seen.

Most everything growing had spikes.

It was oddly fitting as a place to go into exile. Poppy felt as if she were leaving behind not only herold life, but everything she'd ever foundfamiliarabout the earth.

"I'll take care of you," Ash said caressingly.

Poppy didn't even blink.

Phillip first saw Nevada as a line of lights in thedarkness ahead. As they got closer to the state line,the lights resolved into signs with blinking, swarming, flashing neon messages. Whiskey Pete's, they an nounced. Buffalo Bill's. The Prima Donna.

Some guy with a reputation for being a Don Juanwas taking Poppy in thisdirection?

"Go faster," he told James as they left the lightsbehind and entered a dark and featureless desert."Come on. This car can do ninety."

"Here we are. Las Vegas," Ash said as if makingPoppy a present of the whole city. But Poppy didn'tsee a city, only a light in the clouds ahead like the rising moon. Then, as the freeway curved, she sawthat it wasn't the moon, it was the reflection of city lights. Las Vegas was a glittering pool in a flat basinbetween the mountains.

Something stirred in Poppy despite herself. She'dalways wanted to see the world. Faraway places. Ex otic lands. And this would have been perfect-if onlyJames had been with her.

Up close, though, the city wasn't quite the gem itlooked from a distance. Ash got off the freeway, and Poppy was thrown into a world of color and lightand movement-and of tawdry cheapness.

"The Strip," Ash announced. "You know, whereall the casinos are. There's no place like it."

"I bet," Poppy said, staring. On one side of her wasa towering black pyramid hotel with a huge sphinxin front. Lasers were flashing out of the sphinx'seyes. On the other side was a sleazy motor inn with a sign saying "Rooms $18."

"So this is the Night World," she said, with a twingeof cynical amusement that made her feel very adult.

"Nah, this is for the tourists," Ash said. "But it'sgood business and you can do some fairly seriouspartying. I'll show you the real Night World, though.First, I want to check in with my cousins."

Poppy considered telling him that she didn't reallycare to have himshow her the Night World.Something about Ash's manner was beginning to bother her. He was acting more as if they were out on adate than as if he were escorting her into exile.

But he's the only person I know here, she realizedwith a dismayed sinking in her stomach. And it's notas if I have any money or anything–not even eighteen dollars for that crummy motel.

There was something worse. She'd been hungry for some time now, and now she was starting to feel breathless. But she wasn't the dazed, unthinking animal she'd been last night. She didn't want to attacksome human on the street.

"This is the place," Ash said. It was a side street,dark and not crowded like the Strip. He pulled intoan alley. "Okay, just let me see if they're in."

On either side of them were high buildings withcinder-block walls. Above, tiers of power lines obscuredthe sky. Ash knocked at a door set in the cinder blocka door with no knob on the outside. There was no signon the door, either, just some crudely spray-paintedgraffiti. It was a picture of a black dahlia.

Poppy stared at a Dumpster and tried to controlher breathing. In, out. Slow and deep. It's okay,there's air. It may not feel like it, but there's air.

The door opened and Ash beckoned to her.

"This is Poppy," Ash said, putting an arm aroundher as Poppy stumbled inside. The place looked likea shop–a shop with herbs and candles and crystals.

And lots of other weird things that Poppy didn't recognize. Witchy-looking supplies.

"And these are my cousins. That's Blaise, andthat's Thea." Blaise was a striking girl with masses ofdark hair and lots of curves. Thea was slimmer and blond. They both kept going out of focus as Poppy's vision blurred.

"Hi,"she said, the longest greeting she couldmanage.

"Ash, what's wrong with you? She's sick. What have you been doing to her?" Thea was looking atPoppy with sympathetic brown eyes.

"Huh? Nothing," Ash said, looking surprised, as ifnoticing Poppy's state for the first time. Poppyguessed he wasn't the type to worry about other peo ple's discomfort. "She's hungry, I guess. We'll haveto run out and feed-"

"Oh, no, you don't. Not around here. Besides,she's not going to make it," Thea said. "Come on,Poppy, I'll be a donor this once."

She took Poppy by the arm and led her through abead curtain into another room. Poppy let herself betowed. She couldn't think anymore-and her wholeupper jaw was aching. Even the word feedsharpenedher teeth.

I need…I have to …

But she didn't know how. She had. a vision of her own face in the mirror, silvery eyes and savage canines. She didn't wantto be an animal again ,and jump on Thea andripher throat. And she couldn'task how-that would give her away as a new vampire for sure. She stood, trembling, unable to move.

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