Monday, December 12, 2016

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!”

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