Day of the Dragon, Page 2Katie MacAlister
Archer considered that for a moment but shook his head and rinsed off the wickedly sharp straight-edge razor. “You forget one important point.”
Miles made an annoyed gesture. “I know, I know, there’s no proof it’s real, but if we can just get our hands on it and translate it—”
“No.” Archer finished shaving, then wiped his face clean of any errant bits of shaving cream. “You forget that if it is real, and if it has as much power as you believe, then nothing in this world or the next will stop every dragon in existence from trying to get their hands on it.”
“It has importance only to dragon hunters,” Miles said, dismissing Archer’s comment. “Hunter will lust for it, to be sure, but others? I don’t see what good it would do them.”
Archer’s shoulders twitched as he donned clean clothing. “Do you really think that the Raisa Medallion, if such a thing exists, will be allowed to remain untainted by those who would use it for dark purposes?”
“Only a demon hunter could wield it,” Miles objected.
“Or a demon.”
Their gazes met.
“Then we have to be the ones to acquire it,” Miles said, his eyes somber.
Archer hesitated, wondering if it was worth the effort to continue fighting the idea. What was the worst thing that could happen if he agreed to Miles’s suggestion to buy the manuscript? He would be removing it from the grasp of those who might seek to abuse it. There was also a certain amount of satisfaction to be drawn from the knowledge that he was keeping for himself an item Hunter was sure to covet. “Very well. I’ll buy the damned thing.”
“As a matter of fact, you already have,” Miles replied, grinning. “I came to an agreement in your name a few minutes ago, while you were waffling over the idea. I expect a call from the bookseller about when we can collect it. Are you free this evening? We could run into Santa Mar and pick it up.”
“I suppose, although I ought to be working on rebuilding some of the tribe businesses that are failing—”
“You know how the saying goes: all work and no play makes the dragon as dull as a mortal. We’ll have dinner, find a few females, and let them feel the beast inside of us.”
Archer came perilously close to rolling his eyes again, but agreed to meet his cousin in town later in the day. After all, he mused to himself as he took his seat in the living room, now used to hold tribal meetings, it wasn’t as if anything was going to come of Miles’s grand plans.
The Raisa Medallion was a piece of fiction. It was just that simple.
Anything else would be unthinkable.
“GIRL, WE NEED TO FIND YOU A MAN, STAT.”
The words danced around me, not penetrating the dark wall of my thoughts for a few beats. The second they did, though, I looked over at my friend Laura. “What? Me?”
“Yup.” She fanned herself with a flattened Junior Mints box as we trailed the last of a late-night crowd out of the movie theater and stood for a moment on the sidewalk. The air was downright turgid, with no breeze, making me feel like an invisible beast was licking me with a thick, sticky tongue.
Sweat started between my shoulder blades and trickled its way down my back. “What are you talking about? Why would I need a man?”
Laura arched an eyebrow at me. Beyond her, Bree, the third member of our party, watched her closely, then arched her brow as well. “Dude,” she said.
I hadn’t known Bree long, unlike my bestie-since-grade-school Laura, but she seemed pleasant enough, if a bit…eccentric.
Luckily, I’m all over eccentric.
“You clearly need a man because you didn’t once drool during the movie.” Laura fanned herself harder and pulled out her phone. “Thus, you are out of practice. Where’s that ride? He should be here by now.”
“I try to make a habit against drooling in public,” I said calmly, but backed up when a group of men stumbled out of a bar next to the theater, heading toward us with steps that were none too steady.
“We just sat through an hour and a half of the most gorgeous manflesh alive today, and you didn’t sigh once. Or squirm in your seat. Or even make a single risqué comment,” Laura said, snapping when one of the drunk men bumped into her. “For chrissake! You don’t own the sidewalk, asshat!”
“Asshat!” Bree repeated, shaking a fist at them. The man gestured rudely before staggering after his buddies. “I like that. Hats of asses. I’m going to remember that one.”
“So far as I’m concerned, Hollywood can take their policy of inflicting story arcs and plot twists and emotional depth on superhero movies, and dump it all in favor of ninety minutes of buff, shirtless men parading around flexing at things. Damn. Evidently the driver was in a minor fender bender.” She looked up and down the street. “We can try to get someone else, or we can go to Pemm Square and pick up a cab at one of the fancy hotels.”
“I don’t mind a walk,” I said, hoping no one heard the lie in my voice. Since I had made a promise to myself that I would work at tackling my fears, I added in a voice filled with false confidence, “It would probably be faster to walk.”
“Smart thinking,” Bree said, nodding. She had two round blobs of long blond hair wound onto the top of her head like little anime animal ears. “Plus, if we walk, we can find a place that has booze. I like booze. Booze is good.”
“Booze is very good,” Laura agreed, and marched determinedly up the street.
“Uh…you do know you have to be twenty-one to legally drink, right?” I asked Bree. She looked like she was about eighteen. Nineteen, tops.
“I’m older than I look,” she answered, then flashed a huge smile at me before whirling on her heel and dashing after Laura.
I pushed down the little wriggle of uneasiness that we’d be out and vulnerable to comments by the uninhibited folks who frequented the area at night. My stomach felt like it had twisted upon itself.
A couple of women stood together kissing, breaking apart when I hurried past to catch up to my friends, one of them saying to the other, “Holy jebus, did you see that girl?”
I shut my ears to it and caught up just as I heard Laura saying, “—you had a bad experience with your ex, who I completely agree was an asshat—”
“Hat of asses!” Bree interrupted, grinning again. “Lots of hats. More asses. What did he do?”
“Cheated on her royally,” Laura answered before I could.
“Cards?” Bree asked, her nose wrinkling as she slid an arm through mine. “Or sexually?”
I sighed. Evidently tonight was going to be one of those nights where everything made me uncomfortable. “He two-timed me with someone he worked with, but that was a long time ago, and we weren’t really that…together.”
“Rat bastard still broke your heart,” Laura tossed back over her shoulder to us.
I said nothing. There wasn’t anything to deny.
“Wow. What did you do to him?” Bree asked me.
“Do to him?” I shot her a curious look. “You mean revenge? If so, nothing. I was pretty…well, devastated, to be honest, because I trusted him, and he broke that trust.”
“She cried for weeks,” Laura said, pausing to wait for a light to change. “He really did a number on her psyche. I wanted to geld him, but alas, the California Bar doesn’t look kindly on its members emasculating the general public. No matter how much they deserve it.”
“I know a curse to make pubic hair grow really heavy,” Bree offered, giving my arm a squeeze. “I’ll teach it to you if you want.”
I slid her another look, unsure if she was joking or not. Her expression was filled with concern. “Er…thanks, but as I said, this was all a long time ago. Eight years, as a matter of fact.”
“Eight years in which you haven’t dated at all,” Laura pointed out.
“There’s nothing wrong with being by yourself,” I protested, trotting across the street with Bree still glued to my side.
“Nothing wrong with it if you are truly happy, but you ar
en’t, and don’t tell me you are because I’ve known you for more than twenty years, and I know sad when I see it.”
“I’ll know the right man when I find him,” I said with much dignity. “I’ve always been a fall-in-love-at-first-sight sort of girl. I just haven’t found someone to fall for yet.”
“Out of all the men in Northern California? Methinks the lady protests too much.”
“Methinks so, too,” Bree agreed.
“Bah,” I said, trying to dismiss her comments.
Before I could dredge up a suitable topic to change the subject, Laura continued. “Good Lord, woman, we just saw the most delectable men in skimpy superhero costumes, so you can’t tell me your motor isn’t running at least a little bit. I had to shift into third gear when the Hemsworth guy had that water scene. Mmrowr.”
“Mmrowr,” repeated Bree, who nudged me, clearly expecting me to reply in kind.
“Rowr. The difference is that those sort of men aren’t realistic,” I objected as we turned a corner, a fetid smell of rotting garbage wafting up from side yards. The night being as hot and muggy as it was, people sat on the steps of the houses, smoking, laughing, kissing, and in one instance, barbecuing. We climbed the hill that led to a popular area that housed two of the most prestigious hotels in Santa Mar, a growing suburb along the northern California coast. The air seemed to get thicker and moister with every step we took. I plucked the damp gauze of my dress from my sweaty chest, wishing I’d turned down Laura’s offer to see a movie and meet her new neighbor.
“Superheroes? Of course they aren’t real,” Laura said.
Bree looked thoughtful. “I liked the one who wore that plastic suit and flew around shooting people. If I could do that, I’d get so much more done every day.”
We laughed, but there was a note in her voice that had me sliding her a questioning look before saying, “Actually, the superhero part was what I found the least unreasonable. What doesn’t ring true at all is the idea that men who look like those actors, with their perfect hair, and six-packs, and general drop-dead-gorgeousness gave the time of day to the common people on the street. That just doesn’t happen in real life.”
Laura, who was still walking slightly in front of Bree and me, cast a glance back as we rounded another corner. Ahead of us was the first of the exclusive hotels, the Merit, in all its art deco glory. In front of the curved drive sat a long row of cars, everything from a stretch limo to a couple of sleek, expensive sports cars, and even a handful of more mundane cars and taxicabs. “Why wouldn’t they talk to people? That’s who they were saving, silly—the people in Metropolis. Or whatever town they were supposed to be in. I didn’t hear much of the actual dialogue since I was too busy drooling over the eye candy.”
I shook my head. “Men who look like that—like actors or models or just guys blessed with really good genes—aren’t interested in people like us.”
Bree watched me with bright eyes but said nothing. I had a feeling that since Laura and I were in our early thirties, and she was obviously much younger, she was feeling her lack of experience with men and dating.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they do! Handsome men pay attention to me all the time.”
I was silent, feeling even more like I was an outsider looking in. Laura was lovely—of course it made sense that the sort of man who wouldn’t give me a second glance would still notice her.
“Oy. Now the app says the nearest driver is forty minutes away.” Laura slipped her phone into her purse and waved a hand at the hotel. “Let’s go in and have a drink while we wait. The bar is bound to have AC.”
Bree clapped her hands happily and did a little hopping skip as she followed Laura. My stomach tightened even more when I followed my friends, hesitation making my steps lag. There were beautiful people everywhere—women who were dressed in club wear, all glittery short dresses that exposed a lot of boob and leg, with gorgeous hair, perfect makeup, and impossibly high heels. The men swaggered next to them, clad in equally elegant attire, reeking of money and expensive cologne. They were very aware of themselves and each other, clearly entranced by their partners, their faces showing both satisfaction at the eye candy on their respective arms and a smooth self-confidence that made my stomach drop.
And then there was me. Sweaty, odd me, standing out like a thumb at a toe convention.
Behind me, a car purred to a stop, no doubt about to disgorge another gorgeous couple. I took a step forward, rallying my courage and telling myself to just go into the hotel and not worry about anyone else.
A sudden sharp blow to my back had me stumbling forward a couple of steps, knocking my purse out of my hand.
A man who was a couple inches taller than me, with shoulder-length reddish brown hair, stood with his back to me as he helped an elegant woman out of the car. She had the long legs and poise of a model or actress, her thigh-high slit dress moving around her like it was made of water. Another long leg emerged from the car, causing the man who’d obviously bumped into me to help out a second lovely example of what I could never be, followed by a second man.
The first woman flicked an annoyed glance my way before slapping a smile on her face and clinging to the first man’s arm as they glided past me. I bit back a testy comment about people who didn’t have the decency to apologize when they bumped into someone, and bent down to pick up my purse, but another hand was there already.
“Oh. Thank you,” I murmured, taking my bag from where it was offered by the second man’s hand. He was taller than the first, with shoulders that seemed impossibly broad. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even look my way, just nodded and allowed the second woman to latch on to his arm before they, too, glided their way into the hotel.
“At least that one had some manners,” I murmured to myself, irritated at my moment of weakness.
So what if I didn’t have a man who treated me like I was the best thing in the world? I didn’t need adoration. I might have an appearance that kept me from swanning into expensive hotels like the two women I’d just seen, but that didn’t mean I was dirt under their feet.
With my chin held high, I entered the hotel lobby.
“The glamorous people are going to do their thing no matter what I think. Although I would like to point out that I couldn’t have predicted their reaction to me any more accurately,” I told Laura and Bree ten minutes later as we sat at a small table in the emptiest of the three hotel bars. Bright neon blue light that traced down the bar cast a weird glow on everyone, but the noise was of a volume that would allow us to converse without having to yell. I took a sip of my gin and tonic. “It proves my point exactly.”
“What, that some guy who bumped into you didn’t stop to chat?” Laura gave a one-shouldered shrug. “He probably didn’t realize he’d done it.”
I remembered the strength of the blow to my back. I had no doubt he’d felt the collision.
“Plus, and I’m not excusing his rudeness in not apologizing and picking up your bag, because politeness costs nothing, but you have to admit that sometimes you aren’t aware of where you are. Spatially, I mean.”
“Huh?” I asked, plucking out a bit of ice from my drink and crunching it.
She waved a vague hand. “You do insist on walking with your head down like you’re a hideous monster who is going to stop traffic if anyone catches sight of your face.”
“You’re not a hideous monster,” Bree told me frankly, somehow having managed to possess herself with three different beverages, all of them of the sweet, fruity variety. She fanned three straws and sipped from all three at once. “I’ve seen a behemoth that was hit by a truck and that stopped traffic because it was so hideous. Well, also its intestines caused three cars to flip, and they blocked the road, but you can believe me when I tell you that it was hideous. You just have”—she plucked a piece of pineapple spear off a plastic swizzle stick from one of the drinks—“patches of white on your hair and eyelashes, and weird-ass eyes.”
said sternly, consulting a list of bar snacks. She didn’t even look up while she chastised the girl. “We don’t said weird-ass. It’s differently eyed. And streaks of white hair are super trendy right now. Besides, Thaisa has a genetic thing going on. Polioni. So it’s not like she can help it.”
“Poliosis,” I corrected, taking a big pull on my drink. I welcomed the sweet, sweet burn of gin as it slithered down to my stomach.
“Right, and it’s not like she has a third arm or something.” Laura waved a hand at me while she drained her margarita, and caught a waitress’s eye before signaling for a refill.
“Do you want a third arm?” Bree asked me, leaning toward me.
I gawked at her. “Why on earth would I want that?”
She shrugged. “It would keep peeps from looking at your hair and eyes.”
I blinked at her a couple of times and tried to send a “she’s had too much already” eyebrow semaphore to Laura, but the latter was still consulting the menu. “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
“Your choice,” Bree said, craning to see what the people at the table next to ours had ordered. “Snacks! Mama needs snacks.”
“I’m getting some. I think we could all use something to soak up the alcohol.” Laura glanced up to smile, considered me for a minute, then reached a hand across the table and gave my fingers a squeeze. “I think your eyes are very pretty. Unique, yes, but the browns and golds and the other colors in them are lovely.”
“Thank you,” I said, returning her smile, a little ball of warmth easing my knotted stomach a little. Then again, it might have been the gin. “You are a good and valued friend.”
“I’m not just saying it— Hi, can we have another round, please? Oh, and some wings. Er…and a blooming onion. Thanks. I love those things,” she said in a confidential tone to Bree. “So bad for you, but damn, they go down good.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bree said, her face animated, her eyes sparkling with joy. The two little balls of hair on top of her head fairly vibrated with happiness. “But I like watching you talk.”