Monday, December 12, 2016

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.


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