FRANK S CHUYLER TOOK up most of the bed, so that his feet were sort of stranded over the edge of it, as if they hadnt been able to find anything big enough to fit him. Even lying down he was obviously over six feet. But the cancer had left him almost nothing but the height. The strong bones of his face that had shown in Robertas face were prominent in the way that skeletons are. His eyes were deep sunken brown caves. He still had a head full of black hair and a mustache just as dark. Apparently, either hed refused chemo or they hadnt found the cancer in time for it to be worthwhile.

He was hooked up to tubes in his arms and nose. The smell of death was heavy, but not worse than the corridor. Whatever was killing him hadnt taken all his dignity with it, not yet at least.

Jasons come to visit, and he brought his girlfriend, isnt that nice? Iris tried for happy, but it came out strained.

Hi, Dad, Jason said in a flat voice.

Why did you come? his father asked.

Jason took a stronger grip on my hand. Mom asked me to come. His voice was still careful.

You dont have to hold the girl so tight, the man in the bed said, in a voice that was so deep it was almost painful to hear. You dont have to pretend for me, Jason. His voice was a lot less hostile than his eyes. Maybe he just couldnt help the eyes.

Jason let go of my hand and put his arm around my waist, one hand on my hip below the gun. I played my hand back and forth on his side underneath his jacket, trying to give what comfort I could.

Ill hold Anita any way I like.

Robertas right, boy, you can touch the girl all you want in public. Its what you do in private that matters.

What do you think Ill be doing in private that I dont do in publicDad? Jason asked, softly.

Your mother told you to bring a girl home so I could die happy thinking my only son wasnt a He stopped as if he wasnt sure what word to end the sentence with.

A what? Jason said, still soft, but with an edge of anger to it. His otherworldly energy was beginning to creep along my skin where I touched him. Not good.

A fruit, Frank said.

A fruit, I said, and fought not to laugh. It was just one of those moments when the tension gets too high and you want to laugh.

He looked at me as if Id just appeared. Sorry, I said.

You think its funny that my wife told him to bring you and lie to me. To lie to me on my deathbed, you think thats funny?

I bumped my head against Jason. What do you want me to do?

Be yourself.

I moved away enough to look at him. You sure?

He smiled. Positive.

I shrugged, still with my arm around him. I looked back to the man in the bed. I tried to think of a polite way to begin. I think its funny that you think Jason is gay.

You hanging all over him doesnt change that hes a homo.

Fruit, homo, cant you even say homosexual?

You like that word better, girlie, fine. Hes a homosexual.

His mother had moved closer to the bed, but not to it. She was hovering somewhere between her husband and her son. I got the feeling that shed spent a lot of Jasons life caught like that.

I think Im in a better position to know what Jasons sexual preferences are than you are, Mr. Schuyler. There, that had been polite.

Dad, Julia said from near the door, Jason brought Anita here to meet you, doesnt that say something?

It says shell lie for him.

Jason moved away enough to just have my hand. He drew me toward the door. Lets go, Anita.

No, Iris said, grabbing his other hand.

Dad, Julia said, he came all this way. Both of them left work and everything to come here. Be nice.

Im dying, Julia, I dont have time to be nice. I want my son to be a man, and hes not going to be.

Jasons shoulders rounded as if hed been struck a blow. That was it, the last straw. This camel wasnt taking any more crap from anyone, not even the dying.

I kept Jasons hand, but turned toward the bed. Jason is a better man than you are, Mr. Schuyler.

Those cavernous eyes glared at me. Whats that supposed to mean?

It means that a man is courteous. A real man is kind. A real man loves his family and treats them like human beings.

Im dying, Ive earned the right to be a son of a bitch.

I bet youve always been a cruel bastard.

A look I couldnt read came over his face. Im not the bastard.

Oh, I think you are. So youre dying, so fucking what? Were all dying, Mr. Schuyler, you just know the checkout time and how much the bill will be.

Get your little chippie friend out of here. Putting a cross around her neck doesnt change what she is, he said.

Jasons hand tensed on mine, drawing me back a little. I must have moved toward the bed without realizing it. Id been told wearing my cross was wrong because I raised the dead, but never because I was a whore. It was a new insult. I didnt like it much.

You should not have said that, Jason said.

Does chippie mean what I think it means? I asked.

Yeah, he called you a whore, Jason said. I couldnt read his tone, but it wasnt angry exactly, more shocked, as if even for his father it had been too much.

Julia and Iris were standing openmouthed, as if they too were too shocked to know what to say.

Franklin, Mrs. Schuyler said, finally, in a breathy, uncertain voice.

Stripper is just one step up from whore, he said, totally unrepentant.

So now Im a homo and a whore, Jason said. He didnt sound angry, more like tired.

If the shoe fits, his father said.

Franklin, dont do this.

You told him to lie to me, Iris. You told him to bring his little stripper friend, so Id die in peace. Hes a fucking fairy and fucking coffin bait to boot.

Jason turned away; the otherworldly energy just stopped, as if hed put up some big shield that cut off everything. The furry energy, the emotion, all of it. He shut down.

I held his hand, kept him in the room. If you walk out of this room, thats going to be it.

I know, he said softly.

If its over, can we go out with a bang instead of a whimper?

He looked at me, studying my face. Then he nodded. Why not?

I smiled at him, and knew it was that smile, most unpleasant. The one that used to scare me in the mirror, but Id gotten used to it. I knew it was in there now. I turned it on the bed and the man in it.

Some of my best friends are strippers, Mr. Schuyler, people I love, even. So thats not the insult you want it to be. Im Federal Marshal Anita Blake. I let go of Jasons hand so I could get my badge out of my pocket with my left hand. I moved close enough to the bed for him to see it.

I dont believe it.

I put the badge back and slipped off the left sleeve of my jacket so I could show him the worst of my scars from my job. The scar tissue at the bend is where a vampire gnawed at me. The doctors thought I might lose the use of my arm. The cross-shaped burn is from some human servants who thought it would be funny for a vampire hunter to have a scar like a vampire. The claw marks were from a shapeshifted witch.

So youre one of the federal marshals who hunt vampires.

Yeah, I am.

You know hes fucking the master vampire of St. Louis.

Actually, I know he isnt. Jean-Claude gets a lot of people thinking hes sleeping with anyone whos seen with him in public. One of the downsides of being a beautiful man, I guess.

Those deep brown caves of eyes stared up at me. You telling me he doesnt give him blood?

I thought we were talking about sex.

Same thing.

If you think taking blood is the same thing as sex, Mr. Schuyler, then youre the pervert, not either of us.

Iris said, Anita! as if she were my mom and that tone had ever worked on me.

He said, No, no, dont stop her, I started it. He gazed up at me. But youll finish it, wont you?

You damn bet I will, I said.

He smiled, just a little one. Youre really my boys girlfriend?

What do I have to do to prove to you and his other sister that were dating? Were lovers and were friends, so I guess that makes me his girlfriend. The word just sounds a little too junior high, dont you think?

He smiled again. I guess it does. He reached out as if to touch the scars, then hesitated. He wasnt the first to want to touch them. I moved closer so he could.

His fingertips were very rough, as if his day job had been something with his hands. There was a gasp behind me. I turned and found Mrs. Schuyler with her hand to her mouth and her eyes a little surprised.

Jason moved up to lift my jacket into place. She saw the gun.

Gun, Julia said.

Jason helped me on with my jacket, and the scars were invisible again. Well, except for the one in the palm of my right hand. Its a smaller cross-shaped burn scar. That one I got because a very big and bad vampire was trying to possess me and someone shoved a cross into my hand. The vampire hadnt given up until the cross had sunk into my flesh.

I dont go anywhere unarmed, I said quietly.

Jason kissed my cheek, and I moved back to stand with him. Ill take Anita back to the hotel. Well leave in the morning.

Stay a day, or two. His father said it, flat, almost no emotion. But the two other women in the room all tensed, as if that one small statement meant more than youd think.

Jason put his face next to my neck and breathed in the scent of my skin again, as if he needed another hit. I felt him use that touch and scent to help his voice be calm when he said, We wont leave tomorrow, but beyond that Ill have to see. We both have jobs.

Ill see you tomorrow, his father said.

Jason nodded. I guess you will.

We went for the door. His father said, Glad to see you cut your hair.

Jason looked back, and it was not a friendly look. If Id known Id be coming home, Id have started growing it out again.

Because you know I like it short.

No, because you think when its long I look too pretty to be a boy. Anita likes long hair.

Then why did you cut it? his father asked.

For a change. Ill see you tomorrow, Dad.

Ill be here.

His mother started to follow us out, but his father said, Iris, in a tone that called her back. She waved at us, and called, ByeI love you. Jason didnt reply.

Julia followed us out and hugged us both very thoroughly. Jason hugged her back; I did my best.

Peterson and the suit fell into line around us. Jason put my left arm through his so he could touch my hand and arm with his hands. He was icily calm in the elevator going down and in the lobby, and perfectly calm as we slipped into the limo.

Peterson closed the door. We were alone. Jason held on until the motor started, and then his shoulders started to shake. He put his hands in front of his face and cried. He cried with his whole body, shaking, shivering.

I touched his shoulder, and he flinched. I tried one more time and he fell sideways into my lap, so that I held him while he wept. I held him while he cried in huge racking spasms, buTHE wasnt loud. His body felt like it was being torn apart with grief, buTHE didnt shout with it. He cried like someone whod been taught not to attract too much attention with his grief. Too much noise and they come find you, to find out why the tears.

Call it a hunch, but I was betting that Franklin Schuyler had thought boys werent supposed to cry, especially his very small, very pretty, very-unlike-him son.