Monday, December 12, 2016

Dragon's Gold

A hunt for stolen gold brings Tom and Rachel face to face with an ancient dragon . . .

Dragon's Gold, Pt. One

I turned the key in the lock, waited, and slowly turned the knob. And waited. Pushed the door open. And waited for an attack.
            Nothing. Either it wasn’t here, or it was waiting for me to get all the way inside.
            I definitely preferred the first possibility.
            I flipped the light switch next to the door. The front room looked like a rhinoceros—or a dragon—had hurtled through it, throwing chairs over, demolishing a sofa, and shattering a china cabinet. Wreckage filled the dining room and kitchen too: a smashed table, piles of broken plates and glasses, food from the cupboards and refrigerator a mess on the floor.
            The bedrooms upstairs were a similar shambles—sheets shredded, mattresses torn apart, dressers in splinters.
            All I had left was the basement.
            Damn it.
            I’d gotten my Taser from the car. Would a Taser stop the thing, or just make it angrier? But I figured that after wrecking most of the house in its rage, the dragon wouldn’t be hiding now. Especially from someone like me.
            So I opened the door and took the steps slowly, the Taser charged in my shaking hand. At the bottom step I flicked the lights on. Fluorescents jabbed my eyes.
            No dragon. More wreckage. My stomach quaked with relief.
            But now I had a bigger problem. Like a dragon.

It was 1:30 in the afternoon. Leo Jarvis sat in a wheelchair, an oxygen tank sitting on the floor next to him and a catheter bag hanging off the back. He wore pajamas and a blue bathrobe. His eyes were closed, as if I’d come to the house in the Ravenswood neighborhood in the middle of his afternoon nap.
 “Honey?” Jarvis’s wife Marie patted his arm. “Tom Jurgen is here. The detective.”
            Jarvis opened his eyes. “What? Oh.” He coughed. His white hair was thin over his scalp, and his arms were weak and bony. Marie held a straw to his lips. He took a shallow sip and then pushed the cup away. “I’m fine.”
            Marie perched on a chair. She looked younger than her husband. Maybe in her sixties, her hair a mix of silver and gold. Jarvis looked older, eighties or more, with big ears and a jutting chin.
The small living room was crammed with books, empty bottles of wine, and old newspapers and magazines stacked on every available surface.
            “So what can I do for you?” I wasn’t sure who to talk to.
            “My gold is gone.” Jarvis groaned, his throat raw and dry. “Ten thousand dollars in South African krugerrands. I had it downstairs, in a safe. My brother took it. I’m sure of that. But that’s not the worst part.”
            Stolen gold? That was interesting. Something different than shadowing cheating spouses or employees faking their disabilities. But what was the worse part? “Okay. Go on.”
            He coughed again. “Marie? More water. Tell him.”
            She held the straw as Jarvis drank. “It’s true. That’s why I called you. Your website . . . it seemed like you’re interested in unusual cases.”
            Unusual? Yeah. Or just weird. Supernatural and paranormal, definitely. That seems to be were most of my work comes these days. “I try to keep an open mind.”
            “Good.” Jarvis cleared his throat. “Because this is a problem. A big problem.”
            “So what’s the story?”
            Jarvis and his wife looked at each other. Marie nodded. Jarvis closed his eyes. For a moment I wasn’t sure he was still breathing. Then he lurched up, gasping for breath.
            “My dragon.” He rubbed his throat. “My dragon is gone.”
            He swung a finger toward a door. “Show him.”
So Marie Jarvis took me down to the basement.
            The wooden stairs were solid, but the tile on the floor was wet. The chilly air smelled like rotting newspapers. And other stuff. Marie tugged a spring that brought a light bulb sputtering to life between two rafters in the middle of the ceiling.
            A thick pile of newspapers and wood chips lay pushed up against one corner—a year or two’s worth, ripped and soiled and arranged in a nest. In the opposite corner stood a tall metal safe, like something out of a bank in an old western movie.
            She turned the dial back and forth, and pushed down on a thick iron handle. I helped her pull the door back.
            The safe held a few thin envelopes, some canned goods, and an automatic pistol. Nothing else.
            “It was here. All of it.” Marie waved a hand. “Not just the krugerrands. There was some jewelry, some golden utensils like knives and spoons and cups. They’re all gone.”
            “And you think your brother-in-law took them.”
            “He’s the only other one who had the combination. We gave it to him in case—in case something happened. To us.”
            “And the dragon?”
            She pointed to the wall behind the stairs. Something had pulled bricks and dirt away into a pile of debris on the floor. “It must have gone to hunt for the gold once it was gone.”
            I leaned forward, planting a foot in the dirt. The hole in the wall was small and narrow, and dark as a black hole.
            I used my cellphone to cast a light. The tunnel bent in awkward angles, tangled roots holding up the dirt in a precarious formation that looked like it might bury the tunnel at any moment.
            But back in the distance, the tunnel snaked upward, toward—what? I shivered. I wasn’t going in there. Wherever it led. I’m stubborn, sometimes, but no one has accused me of being a hero.
I leaned back with a deep breath. Marie was watching me. “That’s where he went. It has to be. We found this hole two days ago. Leo sent me down to check the safe. That was Tuesday.”
Today was Thursday. So I asked the obvious question: “How do you even have a dragon?”
            Marie leaned against the staircase. “Leo’s grandfather brought it over from Europe. Between the World Wars. The jewelry was his. He brought the dragon to protect his own gold, and he gave it to Leo before he died.”
            She might have been talking about an ancient sword or an old firearm. “But it’s a dragon? Living in your basement? How does that work?”
            “He sleeps most of the time. For years. I only saw him awake once, two years ago, and even then he only rolled over once or twice. Leo brought down a couple of raw steaks, and he chomped them up in about two minutes. Leo said they can hibernate for centuries. Unless someone tries to take their gold.”
            “What happens then?” I guessed nothing good.
            She shivered. “He’ll . . . hunt for the gold. He can smell it—not just any gold, but just this gold. He won’t come back until he’s got it all.”
            Jarvis was asleep again when he came back up. Marie stroked his arm. “Leo? Leo, wake up.”
            “What?” He lurched up. “Oh. Right.” His head dropped forward. “Water?”
            She pushed the straw between his dried lips. He sipped, slowly. Then he leaned back. “Oh. Good.”
            Marie looked behind his chair. “Leo, we have to empty that bag soon.”
            “Fine. Just let me . . .” He rubbed his eyes. “Oh. You. We have to talk.”
            We certainly did. “So your dragon has escaped.”
            “My gold is gone!” He pounded the arm of his wheelchair. “I want it back!”
            I sat down. “What about your brother?”
            “That asshole?” Jarvis twisted around in his wheelchair. “After everything I’ve done for him?”
            “Leo. . ..” Marie leaned over him. “Shh. Shhh . . .”
            “Oh, go away!” Jarvis waved an arm. “I’ve lost my gold. What else am I supposed to do now?”
            “So why am I here?” I was annoyed at the way he treated his wife. And nervous about the possibility that they really wanted me to track down a dragon. “Mr. Jarvis? What do you want?”
            Jarvis sank down in his wheelchair. “Just find my brother. And my gold.”
            Right. “There are limits to what I can do. I’ll try to locate your brother—what’s his name?”
            “Daniel. Dan Jarvis.” He coughed. His finger pointed at the window. “He lives right over there.”
            Next door? I stood up. “Do you have a key?”
            “I should!” His voice trembled. “I paid for that house! Marie, find the key!”
            That was good news. If Leo was an owner, I could go in without risking a rap for illegal entry. Of course, if the dragon was inside . . .

It wasn’t. Which meant it was loose in Chicago.
            “Looking for my gold,” Jarvis rasped when I went back to tell them what I’d found. “They’re bred to protect it. It’s gone, and he won’t stop until he finds it.”
            Jarvis seemed to be more worried about getting his krugerrands back than about the dangers of a dragon on the streets, or under them. At least the news wasn’t suddenly packed with reports of a giant reptile attacking citizens. That suggested that the thing was lying low.
 “I’ll do what I can to find your brother before the dragon does.” I pulled out a notebook. “Where does he work?”
            I got some basic facts: Daniel Jarvis worked at an architectural firm downtown. He was 49, Leo’s younger brother by more than ten years. I got some photos.
            Then I asked about the dragon. Fifteen feet long, with dark bronze scales. Six legs, but no wings. Six-inch claws. Rows and rows of serrated teeth. And a name: Ramathor. Whether he would respond to that and a cookie was uncertain.
            Marie wrote a check for a retainer, and I went out to my Honda.
            So the first person I called was Rachel. Partly because she’s the first person I always want to call, being sort of my girlfriend, but also because she knows a lot about the supernatural—being sort of psychic.
            “I’m hunting a dragon,” I told her when she picked up.
            “Is that your Elmer Fudd impression? It needs work.”
            “No, there’s a real dragon.” I gave her a rundown. “I’m starting with the brother, but I need to know what to do if I find it.”
            “Run. Fast. Don’t get eaten. Does it breathe fire? Or fly?”
            “They didn’t mention that.”
            “Okay.” She sighed. “This is new, at least. A change of pace from vampires and demons. I’ll call some people. If you see it, try to get a picture. While you’re running away. And try not to get eaten.”
            I nodded, starting the car. “First thing on my to-do list.”

Jefferson & Associates LLC was located in a downtown highrise, taking up about half of the 9th floor. An assistant at the front desk looked my card over, than picked up his phone and called the company president. A few minutes later I shook hands with Sheila Jefferson, an African American woman in her fifties in a blue work shirt and black jeans.
            “What can I do for you, Mr. Jurgen?” Jefferson sat down behind a glass-topped desk. “I have to tell you we haven’t seen Dan Jarvis since last Friday. He hasn’t answered phone calls or emails. We’re getting concerned.”
            “His brother is worried too.” I tried to think of questions that didn’t involve gold. Or dragons. “Did he do anything—unusual—in the last week or so? Spending more money, going out at night?”
            “Not particularly.” Jefferson shrugged. “He’s pretty reliable. Late sometimes, but he usually makes up for it. I don’t know that much about his personal life. You might ask . . .” She hesitated. “Except she’s on vacation.”
            “Who’s that?”
            “Livvy.” She tapped her fingers on the top of her desk. “We don’t actually have a policy against co-workers dating, even though I’m not entirely comfortable with it. But so far it hasn’t been a problem. Anyway, she called in on Monday and said she had to take some vacation days to deal with a family issue.”
            A girlfriend. “Would you be willing to give me her number?”
            Again she hesitated. “I think I’d really rather call her and ask her to get in touch with you. Her name’s Livvy Heinrich. Olivia.”
            Not my first choice, but I gave her a card. “If you don’t hear from her in a day or so, will you call me?”
            “Of course.” She put the card next to her phone.
            I stood up. “Would it be okay if I talked to some of your employees?”
            She thought for a moment, then gave another shrug. “I suppose so. As long as you don’t take too much of their time. We’re pretty busy around here, especially with two people out.”
            “Sure. I’ll be in and out before you know it. Thank you.”
            She turned to her computer. “I hope you find Dan. Soon. Tell him we need
him for the O’Reilly account.”
            So I wandered the cubicles. I didn’t interrupt anyone on the phone, or even any employee staring hard at a screen. But a few were open and willing to talk. Everyone liked Dan Jarvis, but he kept to himself most of the time, doing his job and going home. Oh, he showed up at the bar after work often enough, and brought doughnuts to the office at least once every few weeks. But no one seemed to know much about him outside of work.
            Eventually I found myself at a cubicle with nameplate: Dan Jarvis. I looked around, then quickly planted myself in his chair and started quietly opening drawers. I wouldn’t be a private detective if I didn’t invade someone’s privacy at least once in a while, right?
            Finding a bag full of gold would have been nice. Instead I found file folders stuffed with documents I couldn’t understand, a box of peanut butter granola bars, a sweater, and a half-empty pint of vodka.
            “Hi there.”
            I jerked up. A slender blond woman was peeking over the top of the cubicle.
“Hi.” I shoved the bottom drawer shut. “This isn’t what it looks like. I’m just, uh—”
            “You’re the private detective who’s going around asking about Dan.” She flipped her hair back and grinned. “You’re snooping.”
            “Caught.” I stood up. “I’ll leave. Unless you can tell me something about Dan. Anything. Or about his friend, Livvy?”
            She laughed. “I could tell you lots. But not here.” She looked back and forth. “There’s a bar down the street. Marco’s? Meet me there at 6:30. Maybe 7:00.”
            I looked at my watch. 4:30. A long time to wait. But if she had any information—“Your name?”
            “Oh, I’m Cory.” She winked. “See you!”

Dragon's Gold, Pt. Two

Two or three hours to kill. I debated going back home, but I’d just have to make my way back downtown in rush hour traffic. So I moved the Honda to a parking garage tried to find a signal for my laptop.
            A search for Daniel Jarvis turned up nothing. But a new search for Livvy— Olivia Heinrich. That turned up some unwelcome news.
            She was dead.
            I zeroed in on the story. Olivia Heinrich, 26, had been walking home from her car to her apartment on the west side early in the morning when something had attacked her. Maybe a dog, or a coyote—sometimes they wandered into the city. Whatever. She’d been mauled to death, dying from blood loss and severe trauma on the sidewalk outside her apartment building.
Just this morning. So maybe nobody at the company knew.
            I had a CPD detective on speed dial. She wouldn’t be happy to hear from me, but . . .
            “Dudovich. What the hell, Jurgen? I’ve got enough to deal with without another horror story. Homicides are up, in case you haven’t heard.”
            “President Trump will take care of that in a week, remember? And then you’ll be out of a job. So in the meantime, what can you tell me about the Olivia Heinrich murder?”
            Elena Dudovich was a cop. A good one, honest and tough. She sort of hated me, because I told her stories she couldn’t always ignore, and then she was stuck twisting them into reports her superiors would accept. Vampires? Serial killers with a taste for blood. Demons? People gone crazy. Monsters terrorizing a strip joint? Hallucinations caused by bad booze.
            But she’d a few things she couldn’t just write off. So sometimes she listened to me. “I swear to God, Jurgen, if this is another imaginary monster . . . wait, Heinrich? That one isn’t even classified as a homicide. Just an unexplained death. What the hell is this?”
            “Just tell me what killed her. Or can you do that without getting permission from City Hall?”
            “Screw you. I can’t send you the pictures, but they ain’t pretty. Have you had lunch yet? I haven’t and it’s almost five o’clock. It was last night, around 12:30 or 1:00. She was—I don’t know. The first officer who found her said she looked like a crocodile attacked her. Of course, he’s from Florida. There aren’t any crocodiles in the sewers here.” She paused. “Are there?”
            “It’s a dragon.” Dudovich wouldn’t believe me, but I had to tell her. “There’s a dragon loose in the city. I don’t know where it’s hiding, but he’s hunting stolen gold. I’ll try to take care of it, but you should tell everybody—”
            “What the hell?” It should have been a shout, but Dudovich kept her voice close to a whisper. “Every time I think you can’t surprise me with some new bullshit, you manage to raise it to a new level of insanity. What the hell would I tell anyone? Look out for a dinosaur coming out of every alley? You really think I can put this out there?”
            I rubbed my eyes. “No. Of course not. I just thought I should warn somebody. I don’t know what’s going to stop this thing—shotguns, maybe hand grenades. I’ve got Rachel looking into it—”
            “Good, because I trust her a lot more than you. Maybe it’s a girl thing.” Dudovich groaned softly. “Damn it. Hughes is coming over. Got to go. Call me, or—on the other hand, don’t call me. All right?” She hung up.
            Great. I looked at my phone, thought about calling Rachel just to hear her voice, even if she yelled at me, and decided what I really needed was a beer.
            So I headed to Marco’s. Cory might not be there for an hour, or even longer, but I could nurse a beer for that long. The w-fi was good. I read everything I could find on the internet about dragons.
            Smaug, from The Hobbit. Pete’s Dragon, from the Disney cartoon. The Jabberwock. The dragons of Pern. Godzilla. The Komodo dragons. Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal, the dragons hatched by Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Okay, I admit I checked out a few hot pictures of Emilia Clarke on that one. I’m a guy.
            None of this was helping me find Daniel Jarvis, Leo’s gold, or Ramathor. I was just killing time until—
            “You.” Cory’s face was pale. She dropped a small backpack on the floor and slid into a chair. “Livvy is dead.”
            “I just found out.” I waved for a waiter.
            “Is it about Dan? He didn’t . . .” She ordered a vodka with orange juice. “He wouldn’t do something like that.”
            “He didn’t kill her.” I didn’t want to start talking about dragons just now. “What did they tell you?”
            “It was on the internet. Sheila called a meeting, then she sent everyone home. I guess a cop called her.” Cory blinked, looking out the window. “She said they might want to talk to all of us.”
            “They usually do.” I finished my beer and ordered another when the vodka came. “So what can you tell me about Dan? He and Livvy were dating?”
            Cory giggled. Then she gulped her vodka. “Sorry. I just—I shouldn’t laugh. I like Livvy. She’s funny and smart, and we work together a lot. But . . . well, she wasn’t the only one.”
            “Dan and . . . other women?”
            “Well, hey, he wasn’t married or anything.” She twirled a strand of blond hair around a finger. “It wasn’t anything serious. He was a lot more open about Livvy, and that was okay. But he still wanted to hook up. And that was okay, too.” She turned her eyes on me, daring me to judge her.
            My beer came, and Cory immediately ordered another screwdriver.
            “An expense account is a wonderful thing.” I reminded myself to get a receipt. “So I don’t care who was having sex in your office. I’m just trying to track down Dan Jarvis. When was the last time you saw him, or talked to him?”
            “Last week. Thursday. My place.” She sat back with a sigh. “Long night. When he was getting up to go, he gave me this.”
            Cory unzipped a pocket in her backpack. “This. He said it was a present.”
            She dropped a gold Krugerrand on the table between our drinks.
            Oh god. I looked out the window, in case the dragon was coming up through the sidewalk. “Do you know—could Dan have given one of these to Livvy?”
            Her laugh was bitter. “I think he was dropping them in front of homeless people. He said he had to get rid of them. He was going out of town to trade them in for cash. I don’t know how much he had, or how he was going to get them out of the country, but—” Then she saw the terror in my eyes. “What?”
            I downed half my beer and reached out for the coin. “You have to give this to me. It could be dangerous. It might be . . .” Dangerous for who? “It could be why Livvy was killed.”
            “Okay!” Cory leaned back, hands high. Her chair knocked against a couple of guys drinking beers behind her. “Sorry! Uh, yeah, take the thing.” She sipped her vodka. “Wait a minute. That’s worth a lot of money, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you give me a receipt or something for it?”
            I was worried about dragons. She was thinking about money. But she had a legitimate point. “Honestly, I probably don’t have enough money in my checking account to reimburse you. You’d have to sue me, and I might have to sue my client, and it would be a whole mess. But here . . .” I kept a receipt book in the pocket of my jacket. “Let me give you this—”
            “Oh, forget it.” Cory finished her drink. “I just thought—I don’t know. I hope Dan’s all right.”
            She stood up, somewhat unsteady on her legs. “I’m going home. Thanks for the drinks.”
            “Thanks for your help.” I slipped the gold coin into my back pocket and signaled for the waiter.

Rachel was sitting at the dining room table back at my apartment, peering at her laptop. “I found a dragon hunter.”
            “So that’s a thing?”” I dropped my briefcase on the sofa. “Do we have any Doritos?”
            “What am I, your waitress?” She stood up and stretched. Rachel has red hair and hazelnut eyes, and she was wearing jeans and a “Chicago Cubs win the World Series” T-shirt. “I could use a beer, I guess.”
            “Just water.” I pulled out a chair and sat, trying to think. Rachel brought out a bag of chips, a Heineken, and a bottle of water for me. “So what do we know about dragons?” I crossed my arms, mostly to keep them from shaking with fear. “Aside from the obvious.”
            Rachel stretched her arms. “They were probably cross-bred from the last of the dinosaurs, by sorcerers trying to protect their gold. That’s one legend. Or explorers in African saw huge crocodiles and other animals and their stories got exaggerated over time. Or they existed, but most of them died out thousands of years ago, except a few went into hibernation. The Nazis might have woken some up to protect the gold they looted during World War II. Or they started out in Asia, made their way to Europe but couldn’t handle the climate, so they—”
            I held up a hand. “All right. Sorry I asked. What about this dragon hunter?”
            “He’s in California. We can Skype with him, but he’s going to charge you $100 for a consultation, and a crap-ton more if you actually want him to come out here.” She opened her laptop and her cell phone. “There’s a woman in Wisconsin, and she only charges $50 for a phone call. I’m not sure if she does house calls.”
            “Let me call my client.” I hit the number on my phone.
            “Leo’s asleep.” Marie Jarvis’ voice was a quiet whisper.
            “Okay.” I sighed. “I think the dragon has already killed one person—Daniel’s girlfriend. He gave her one of the krugerrands. He may be trying to convert them into cash. What kind of box were they stored in?”
            “A big—a metal container. With handles. It was heavy. I couldn’t lift it. I tried once.” She gasped. “Wait—Ramathor killed someone?”
            “Yeah.” Calling the dragon by a name sounded—weird. “It was a woman Daniel was dating at work.” I gulped some water.
            “Oh my god.” Marie swallowed. I’m so—I’m so sorry. I can’t . . . Leo said he slept all the time. I didn’t even think . . . Oh my god.”
            I waited. But I couldn’t wait for long. “I’m sorry, I have to ask a question.”
            “Go—go ahead.” She blew her nose.
            “Right now I’m a little more concerned with finding the dragon and, uh, dealing with it before it kills anyone else? Than I am with recovering your husband’s gold.”
            “Of course.” She was whispering again.
            “How would Daniel have gotten the gold out without waking it? I mean, if it’s job was to guard the gold . . .”
            “Leo has—some kind of a sleeping potion. So he could go down and take some out, and put more in, safe and sound. Of course, he doesn’t go down there much anymore. And I don’t go down at all.”
            I understood. “That’s good to know. I may need some of that.”
            “I’ll . . .” She hesitated. “I’ll have to talk to Leo about that.”
            “I’ll be in touch.”
            “Wait! What about Daniel?”
            Now I hesitated. “I don’t know. If he’s got the gold . . .”
            “You—oh god. You have to find him before the dragon does.” Her voice was urgent. “He’s the only family Leo has left.”
            I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. “I’ll do my best.”
            We hung up. I looked at Rachel. “Set it up with the California guy.”

So a half hour later we were on Skype with Desmond Hacker, dragon hunter.
            I expected a big man with in a leather vest with a beard and maybe a necklace of dragon teeth. Instead I saw a pudgy white guy in a black T-shirt. “So you’ve got a dragon?” He smiled. “What species is it?”
            Species I didn’t have a field guide to dragons. “His name’s Ramathor. Six legs, about fifteen feet long. No wings. No idea how old it is, but it was brought here from Eastern Europe before World War Two. It’s been guarding my client’s collection of gold for years, and now it’s out because the gold was stolen. So how do I find? And what do I do about it?”
            “Huh.” Hacker tapped some keys on his laptop, and a small drawing came up in a corner of the screen. “Is this what it looks like?”
            I didn’t bother magnifying the image. “I haven’t actually seen it. I know it’s killed at least one person. What do I do?”
            He folded his arms, as if in deep thought. “It’s probably hiding in the sewers or the storm drains. You need to lure it out somehow.”
            Gee, thanks. “I have a piece of the gold it’s looking for. How do I—”
            “What?” Rachel slugged my arm. “Where?”
            “Ow! I left it outside.” I’d put it inside a plastic bag and shoved it into the dirt next a fire hydrant down the street, hoping that dog pee would keep both the dragon and humans from finding it right away. And then I cleaned my hands with five disinfectant wipes from my car before coming back to the building.
            Hacker leaned forward to peer at Rachel. “Hi there. Who is that?”
            “I’m Rachel. Tom’s worst nightmare.” She smiled. “And maybe yours. How much is this consultation costing again?”
            “Wait a minute.” I waved a hand before everything spiraled out of control. “So what’s a safe way to lure it out? And how do I kill it?”
            Hacker chuckled. “There’s no safe way to deal with dragons. Killing them? Well . . .” He lifted a long spear. “This works if you hit the right spot. Do you have a sword? You can cut off its head if you want to get close enough. Or—”
            “I do have a sword, actually.” A Japanese army sword that my father had given me. It had killed, or at least wounded, an ancient vampire called a lamia, but I wasn’t the one wielding it. I wasn’t sure I could swing it hard enough to cut anything more than a slice of cheese, especially while gasping with terror. “What’s the right spot?”
            “Usually in the middle of its chest.” Hacker tapped his T-shirt, just above his belly. “Right here. But you have to hit hard and deep. Now I can come out there tomorrow, or the day after—”
            “I’ll think about it. Thanks for your help.” I closed the laptop. Now what?
“Asshole.” Rachel stood up. “He looked like a muscular, dragon-fighting warrior in the pictures on his website. I guess they can do a lot with Photoshop these days.”
            “Yeah.” I sipped my water. “Goddamn it. Mom was right. I should have been an accountant.”
            Rachel snorted. “Right. You can’t pay your own bills on time.”
            “So that means I have to go fight a dragon?” I stared at the table. “There should be some middle ground.”
My phone buzzed. Damn it. Rachel got up and went into the kitchen as I answered. “Tom Jurgen speaking—”
            “Hey! It’s me. Cory.” She sounded hoarse. “I just heard from Dan.”
            I sat forward. “Where is he?”
            “I don’t know. But he sounded scared. He wanted to know about the gold coin he gave me.”
            I grabbed my water. “I’ve got it. It’s hidden. You should be safe.”
            “But—oh shit. I’ve got a bunch more. He gave them to me to keep until he could get back from, I don’t know, wherever he went to change them. But he sounded like he was crazy. I don’t know what’s going on!”
            Oh god. “Get rid of them. Right now. Throw them out the window, down the garbage chute, whatever. Just don’t keep them in your apartment. Where are you?”
            She gave me an address. I could be there in—well, twenty minutes, but I had to make a stop first. “I’ll be there as fast as I can. Call me if Dan calls back.”
            “What is it?” Rachel came back with and the bottle of whiskey I keep for special occasions. Like New Year’s or when I really want to get drunk. I wanted a drink or six, but it looked like I was going dragon hunting, like it not.
“More gold. In this girl’s apartment. I hope she’s dumping it right now.” I stood up. “I’m going to need the sword.”
            She put her hands on her hips. “First things first—what girl?”
            I groaned. “I’ll explain on the way.”
            “I’ll get the sword. I’m coming with you.”
            I nodded. No point in having this argument again. “Of course.”
            She headed to my bedroom. “This doesn’t make me the sidekick, by the way!”

            I took a quick drink of whiskey. It burned. Like a dragon’s breath. “Of course.”

Dragon's Gold, Pt. Three

We pulled up a block from Cory’s Bucktown apartment building 45 minutes later. I carried the sword, hidden by a blanket, and Rachel held a plastic drugstore bag. We rang Cory’s buzzer, and an elevator ride brought us to her door.
            “You’re here.” She seemed surprised. “I didn’t think you were really coming. Uh, you’re . . .”
            “Rachel.” She pushed through the door first. “I’m Tom’s associate detective. Not an assistant. Let’s get that straight right now.”
            “Okay!” Cory backed away. “Dan, they’re—”
            “What’s going on?” A voice thundered behind her. “Who the hell is here?”
            Cory shut and locked her door. “I did what you said.” She lowered her head, her voice quiet. “I took it out back. Under the dumpster, in case I needed to get it again. But now Dan’s mad.”
            That was the least of my worries. Rachel walked ahead of me into Cory’s living room, where Daniel sat on a couch, slumped over, like his brother in the wheelchair.
He had gray hair, thicker than Leo, and broad shoulders. But he had the same big ears and thick chin. “Who the hell are you?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I set the sword on the ground. “Your brother Leo hired me to find you.”
            “Right.” Daniel glared out the window. “He’s only worried about his gold.”
            “We all have bigger problems right now.” I pulled my phone from my pocket. “But I can call him right now if you want to talk. Maybe patch things up?”
            “Wait! Don’t!” He lurched forward. “Yes, I took his gold. Do you know what he’s like? Did you meet him?” Daniel pounded the arm of the sofa with pent-up fury. “All my life, Leo acts like he knew everything, and I’m just the stupid little brother. But I’m an architect! I build things! And what does he do but sit around counting his money? What’s he going to do with it?”
He slumped back again. “You saw him, didn’t you? All that gold down in his basement, and he’s lying there like a lump in his chair. He just stares out the window at the house next door. My house. I offered to pay for his share, but he turns me down. He just wants something to hold against me, like he’s doing me a favor I don’t need.”
            Yeah, family disputes are the worst. Just ask any cop. I put my phone away. “So the bigger problem I mentioned? There’s a dragon out there killing people. Like Livvy.”
            “Oh, god.” Daniel lowered his head. “I didn’t think . . .”
“You gave Livvy a gold krugerrand. And Cory. Anyone else?”
            “No.” He shook his head. “I only knew I was going to have to go away. But what can you do with that much gold? I had to turn it into cash, and that’s not easy.”
“So you kept going to work?”
            “I didn’t want to disappear right away. I had to figure it out. And I wanted to—take care of people.” He gazed at Cory. “I didn’t think . . .”
            “Yeah, right.” She turned away. “Asshole.”
            “So where’s the rest of the gold?”
            “In my van. I parked it at the top of the highest garage I could find. You wouldn’t believe how heavy that locker was when I carried it up the stairs.” He looked at Cory. “I just kept some of it so I’d have some cash while I figured out how to convert it.”
Cory suddenly looked at me. “Hey, what happened to that coin I gave you?”
            I reached into my back pocket. “Right here.” I held it out in my palm.
            Cory backed away. “Is that—oh shit, is that going to bring it here?”
            “Either that, or all the krugs you dropped in the dumpster.” I looked at Rachel and picked up my sword. “You ready?”
            “You are crazy. Guess that’s why—oh, forget it.” She grabbed the plastic bag. “Nice meeting you both.” She glared at Cory. “Just in case, I’m his girlfriend. So don’t get any ideas.”
            “Who? What?” Cory blinked at me. “Oh. Okay. I can see that.”
            How? I didn’t care. My body was shaking too much. “Come on.”
The alley behind the building was suitably dark and creeping for a dragon stakeout. I found a black metal box under the nearest dumpster and popped it open.
            My heart fluttered. Gold. More than I’d ever seen, outside of the movies. I dropped the coin Cory had given me in with the rest, for luck. Or something.
            “Do you have your Taser?” Rachel patted the pocket of my windbreaker.
            “Just a flashlight. I’m pretty sure a Taser will only make it mad.”
            “Good point. How long do we wait?”
            I looked at my phone. Eight thirty, not too dark yet, and fortunately not too cold. “No idea. However long it takes the dragon to smell gold from a distance.”       “Great.” Rachel sat down on the pavement and crossed her legs. “Did anyone ever tell you you’re a fun date? Because they lied.”
            “You can go back inside.” I leaned against the brick wall. “Or home, if you want. Just leave that bag.” Actually, I would have felt a lot better with her far away. But the thought of arguing with her about this (again) was almost as terrifying as the prospect of facing a dragon.
            “No.” She snickered. “I want to make sure Cory doesn’t come down to keep you company.”
            Rachel’s jealousy is mysterious. She usually denies being my girlfriend unless there’s another woman in the room. Then she gets as protective as a mama grizzly. I kind of like it.
            So we waited. Two hours.
            “Do we really have to kill it?” Rachel’s voice startled me. I thought she’d fallen asleep. Or I had.
            I stretched my shoulders. “Well, it did kill a person.”
            “Doing what it was trained for. I mean, it’s dangerous, I get that. But what if it’s the last one? Suppose we could, I don’t know—let it go back to its home? And just sleep?”
            I couldn’t tell how serious she was. Maybe Rachel was just trying to think of an excuse for us both to get out of here. I couldn’t blame her. “Protecting the gold is one thing. The dragon stalked her. If it was a guard dog, they’d kill it. A tiger in the jungle gets a taste for blood—”
            “Or a shark attacks a swimmer and they kill every shark they find. This isn’t Jaws.”
            “It’s not like there are dozens of otherwise peaceful dragons lurking in the sewers.” My nerves were already at a thin edge. I didn’t want an argument now. “I mean, yeah, you’ve got a point. I feel bad for the thing. But what are we supposed to do?”
            The back door opened before Rachel could answer. She jumped up, possibly expecting Cory, but Daniel stepped through the door with two cups of coffee. “Here. I thought you might need this.”
            “Thanks.” I sipped. Lukewarm, but caffeinated. Rachel sat down again.
            Daniel sighed. “I called Leo.” It sounded like a confession.
            I kept an eye on the street. “And?”
            He shook his head. “I told him I’d bring his gold back. It was a stupid idea. I was just mad at him. And I didn’t think . . .” He rubbed his rubbed. “I just didn’t think.”
            “Did you tell him we’re going to kill his dragon?” Or try, at least.
            “Yeah.” Another sigh. “He’s not happy. In a way I don’t blame him. Ramathor’s hundreds of years old. But he killed Livvy. I can’t—even if it’s my fault, I can’t live with that.”
            “Guys?” Rachel pointed. “I hear something.”
            Daniel flicked on a flashlight. I pulled up my own.
            A round manhole cover in the middle of the street was rattling.
            I set down my coffee and unsheathed my sword. “Get ready,” I told Rachel.
            “Here.” Daniel stuck out a hand. “I did this before.”
            Rachel handed the bag over without arguing. The prospect of chasing a dragon will do that, I guess.
            Daniel and I walked slowly until we stood on either side over the slotted cover. His shoulders trembled as he clutched the bag. I was pretty sure my whole body was shaking, and I concentrated on holding the sword firmly.
            The cover rattled again, then popped up and skittered across the street like a stone skipping over a lake. We both took a step back, then two. Rachel held a flashlight of her own the opening. From a safe distance behind us. I hoped.
            A scaly, reptilian arm emerged from the hole. Three clawed fingers, digging into the concrete.
            Daniel dug a hand into the plastic bag. He came up with a handful of gray crystals—the sleeping potion I’d gotten from Marie before driving to Cory’s apartment. He drew his arm back.
“Wait!” I held up a hand. “We don’t want it to fall asleep and fall back down into the sewer.”
            “He won’t fall asleep that fast.” But Daniel hesitated. “When I did this, he was already sleeping. I just didn’t want him to wake up—”
            A head rose up from the hole.
            Long and thin, like an oversized crocodile, with yellow eyes that glowed like searchlights and teeth like a great white shark, the head of the dragon slid through the opening, its long red forked tongue flicking from side to side through its open jaws. Its breath smelled like a forest fire, burning in the night. At least it didn’t breathe fire.
            “Okay, okay!” I waved a hand. “Just a minute, let it get a little higher . . .”
            “Hey, dragon!” It was Rachel, behind me. I risked a glanced over my shoulder. “This is what you want, right?’
            She threw a handful of krugerrands through the air. They landed in front of the dragon.
            The dragon roared and thrust its body up through the hole. Fifteen feet and six legs of fury. Daniel reared back and flung a handful of crystals into its face.
            Some of them went down the dragon’s throat. The rest bounced off its glowing eyes. Daniel threw more, staggering back, and I lifted my sword, feeling like a weak imitation of a stunt man pretending to be a Samurai warrior in a TV movie. Today is a good day to die, I told myself. Oh, wait, no, that was Klingon. Good enough. I steadied my hands.
“Here, dragon, dragon. Here . . .” Rachel’s voice can carry. I’ve heard her singing in the shower. Now she was at the top of her lungs, and she was shoving the box of gold across the concrete.      
Daniel kept throwing the crystals. I looked for an opening—a chance to stab the dragon right in the center of its chest, like the dragon killer in California said. I just needed it to turn, or rear up, or something. How long would the crystals need to make him fall asleep?
It lunged forward. I dodged, my feet slipping on the concrete, but I stayed upright. Daniel tossed the bag into its mouth, between those jaws crammed with jagged teeth. Then he turned and ran.
Rachel jumped away from the box, but not away from me. “Should we run?” Her voice was surprisingly calm.
“It only wants the gold.” I said it more to myself than her. It only wants the gold, it only wants the gold . . . “We have to wait for it to fall asleep.”
“It ate all the crystals!” Suddenly she sounded on the verge of panic. “Do we have to sing it a fricking lullaby?
The dragon was shoving the box back and forth with one of its claws. Its eyes gleamed in the shadows of the alley. It opened its mouth for a roar, and we could smell its foul breath.
Then the roar turned into a yawn. Its breath didn’t turn into anything that smelled better.
I tried to stand between Rachel and the dragon, and Rachel was trying to get out in front of me. I expected an elbow in my ribs, but she restrained herself as we waited.
The dragon’s forked tongue flicked over the box, then slid back into its mouth. The big jaws closed. And then its eyes.
The dragon slumped to the street.
“Daniel!” We had to roll him over. Fast. I had no idea how long the sleeping crystals would keep it out—or if it would fight us while it slept.
Daniel had no trouble staying behind us as we slowly approached the dragon. Its scales rose and fell softly, shallowly, as its breath permeated the air. “Yuck.” Daniel coughed.
“Hold this.” I handed the sword to Rachel—mostly to keep her from getting too close. I crouched down, my hands under one of its thick, scaly shoulders, and Daniel took a leg. We lifted—or tried to. The dragon didn’t move.
“Okay.” My mouth was dry as sandstone. “One, two, three, lift!” We managed to shift the big body a little, and I got one hand further underneath. “One, two, three, lift!”
Two more tries, and we managed to flip the dragon over. It slid onto its back, its legs dangling limp, breathing a little faster now. Did one of its eyes flicker?
I still had my flashlight. Running it over its hard armored scales, I looked for the soft spot Desmond Hacker had told us to look for. Did he even know what he was talking about? How many actual dragons had he killed, anyway? I should have asked for references.
The dragon groaned.
Wait a minute. Right in the center of its stomach, a bare patch of skin. Gray and slick. No scales, just dragon flesh. “Sword!” I reached out my hand.
Rachel pressed the sword against my sweaty, shaking fingers. “Be careful.”
Too late for that. With the sword in both hands, I leaned over the dragon’s belly. I tested the soft spot once. Making sure I had the right target. Then I tightened my grip. “Get back,” I told Rachel. And Daniel too, but mostly Rachel.
I tensed my shoulders and took a deep breath. “Sorry,” I whispered.
So I drove the sword down as hard and deep as I could into Ramathor’s body.
The sword’s curve made the strike a little tricky, but I pushed it in almost up to the handle. A sharp gasp burst from the dragon’s mouth. I tried to pull the sword out, but it wouldn’t budge. I scrambled back, leaving the sword impaled in Ramathor’s stomach. Sorry, Dad.
Its eyes flared, burning with the fire of a supernova. The dragon’s jaws opened wide, displaying its teeth one more time for a ferocious roar as it tried to roll over. One of its legs hit me, and I stumbled to the ground hard and crawled desperately out of reach. Rachel grabbed my arm and pulled me up.        
The roar faded into a guttural groan. Its head rose, as if looking for the human who’d dared to strike it. Then its eyes closed and the head dropped down. One final gasp, and then its whole body sagged, resting on the pavement, motionless, not breathing.
A stream of black blood trickled from the wound in its stomach.
Rachel held onto my arm. “Wow.”
“It’s gone.” Daniel turned away. “Damn it. I should have—it was so old . . .”
I wondered what the city would say when the garbage collectors found an ancient dragon on their route. Maybe it would dissolve into dust before morning, like vampires on TV. Not my problem.
Rachel rubbed my hands. They were still shaking. “Are you all right?”
“I th-th-think s-s-so.” I was trembling too hard to speak.
            “Jerk.” She punched my shoulder. “Do you have to act so brave?”
            I lifted a shoulder. “I just l-like to show off in front of my g-girlfriend.”
            “Girlfriend? Where did you get an idea like that? Come on.” She walked toward the dragon. “Let’s get your sword back.”

We checked in with Cory, and then we went back to Leo’s house. Marie rushed around, serving tea, while we waited for Daniel to return in his van with the gold he’d stolen.
            Leo was angry. “You killed it. You killed it!” He pounded a fist on his wheelchair. “Who’s going to protect my gold now?”
            “Something that isn’t likely to go on a killing spree if it disappears again.” Leo was a client, but I was too tired and shaken to argue. “Maybe invest in an actual security system? I can recommend a few good companies . . . ”
            “I’d say he did pretty good.” Rachel patted my shoulder. “He did get your gold back in one day.”
            Leo sighed. “That’s something, I guess. But still . . .” He closed his eyes. “Killed it. Ramathor . . .”
            “Are you his girlfriend?” Marie set a plate of cookies on the small table in front of the couch. “He seems like a good boyfriend.”
            “Associate detective.” Rachel picked up a cookie. “And yeah, I’m kind of—wow, this is really good! Can I get a dozen to go? Did you make them yourself?”
            The doorbell rang. Daniel, carrying a big heavy locker in his arms. “Here it is. Hi, Marie. Hello, Leo—oh.” Leo was sound asleep.
            I helped him carry it downstairs and pack the gold back into the safe. He slammed the door hard enough to make an echo across the basement.
            “Okay.” Daniel looked around. “I brought the gold back. Now I have to fix the wall. It’s going to be complicated.”
            I looked at the hole. “You can do it. You’re an architect.”
            “But I got Livvy killed.” He hung his head down. “And Ramathor too.” Daniel groaned. “What do I do?”
Yeah. He was going to have to deal with that, and I couldn’t help him. “Get some counseling. Maybe talk to your brother some more. Go back to work and do what you can.”
            “I will, but . . .” Daniel looked at the safe. “It’s done. I can’t change it. Goddamn it!”
            He started to cry. I stood there, uncertainty. I didn’t want to hug him—he was right, he had gotten Livvy killed—but I couldn’t  just walk away.
            Then Marie shouted down the steps. “Daniel! Come up here! Now!”

The paramedics were too late. Marie thanked them as they carried Leo’s body out the door and down the steps outside.
            Marie Jarvis sat looking at her husband’s empty wheelchair. Daniel stood behind her, his face gray. Haunted. I didn’t know what he and Leo had said to each other on the phone—when he’d called to say he was bringing the gold back—but he’d probably wanted to have more of a talk. A chance to patch things up. That chance was gone now.
            I leaned forward on the couch. “Ma’am, is there anything we can do for you?”
            “No, thank you.” She shook her head, not looking at us. Then she stood up. “Let me wrap some cookies to take.”
            “Oh, that’s okay—” But Rachel clamped a hand on my arm. I shut up. Probably Marie had to do something. Anything. If only for a moment.
            Daniel gazed out the window at the house next door. “Should I stay?”
            Did he mean in the living room, or in the house his brother had bought him? I didn’t know, and honestly at that point I didn’t care. I was tired and irritable. I didn’t want to tell Daniel that this was all his fault. Maybe Leo would have had his heart attack today no matter what happened. But Livvy would still be alive.
            But I was no one to judge. “Ask Marie.” At least she had the gold. She could take care of herself now.
            She came from the kitchen, a bag in her hands and a weak smile on her face. “Here. I’m glad you like them.”
            Rachel stood up. “Thank you.”
            “We’ll go.” I left a card on the table. “If there’s anything you need . . .”
            “Just send me your bill.” She shrugged. “I think I can pay it.”
            “Marie . . .” Daniel crossed his arms, uncomfortable. “I’m—I’m not sure what to say—”
            “You should just go home now, Daniel.” She sat delicately in her chair, her eyes shrouded. “Come back tomorrow.”
            He put a hand on her shoulder. Only for a moment. “All right.”
Down in the car, Rachel squeezed my hand. “You did good.”
            “I guess. Hey, I killed a dragon. Any of your other boyfriends do that?”
            “They were all assholes.” She kissed my cheek. “You okay?”
            “Yeah.” I started the Honda. “I don’t really want to do that invoice, but I suppose I should.”
            “I get the feeling she’d be insulted.”
            “And my cable bill isn’t going to pay itself.” I checked my mirrors. “I wonder what they’ll do with the body.”

A light rain fell on the streets. In one dark alley, a fallen dragon stirred.
            Slowly, painfully, Ramathor rolled over. Its eyelids flicked up and down. It licked the pavement and sniffed the damp air, searching for traces of its gold.
The dragon shook one leg, then another, making sure they all moved with the same strength and power as before. It reared up, balancing on its back legs, and uttered a thunderous roar at the sky.
Then it slumped down, panting, and slouched toward the storm drain. The gold was gone, but he was still alive.
Ramathor was tired. He would sleep. Maybe for a day, maybe a hundred years.
It takes more than one sword to slay a dragon.