Savage Beasts - Book 1, First Four Chapters Only

TheWolfEmperor

Est. Contributor
Messages
1,317
Role
  1. Diaper Lover
Notes: I have been blessed with a surge of writing lately. These first four chapters are of a story that I am currently working on. Yes, I will finish it, but the entire book will be published in e-book format.

In the meantime, I hope this will suffice and that it will be a satisfying piece of the pie to get you hungry for the rest.

Thank you.

Chapter One



That's funny. I wasn't planning to skip any meals this week.

Arael ran his finger along the days of the week adjacent to his name.

Four days off might be a great vacation for someone who didn't count spare change, or pick up dirty bottles and cans on their way home from work to keep a full belly from becoming a luxury. Twenty hours would be fine, for a part-time student, or someone with another job just trying to make ends meet – neither applied to him.

Four months between jobs and MakMor Superstore was the only grocery/retailer within fifty miles that had accepted his online application. That made it even more insulting when his name – which he had written clearly on over a hundred documents he had been asked to read and sign, between the interview and orientation – was still misspelled.

Give me my name! He mentally cried out, channeling the words of the fictional John Proctor from the Arthur Miller play.

Arael tried to remain professional. This wasn't so easy with the Pig sitting at the far table, across from the cork board where the schedules were posted in the break room. There he sat, enjoying a freshly made meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans no doubt purchased from the store's delicatessen.

No, he thought. I like pigs. But he couldn't think of a more appropriate adjective to describe the manager of the store, who clearly looked like his biggest worry at the end of the week to find a Big and Tall store that didn't view him as a challenge. Arael even felt sightly terrible for judging a man based on his girth, and yet had he had known overweight people who just made bad choices in life but did not have so much deciding power in the lives of those beneath them, as this man had over the employees of this particular MakMor.

Okay, that wasn't fair either. Arael's direct supervisor, the one in charge of the schedules, was Marie. Certainly Marie would give him an extra shift or two this week. That would bridge the gap and give him more to work with in the paycheck.

Armed with this knowledge that the new front end supervisor would have to recognize his dedication to MakMor's success, Arael returned from his break.
He spent an hour scrubbing the men's room. Every tile, practically. Every day, Arael took pride in the fact that this bathroom was so clean that a catholic priest could take confession from the comfort of the stalls. Assuming someone used enough force to flush their offerings away, which they rarely did.

Arael moved onto the toilets, wiping the dust and the filth from the porcelain until they were in showroom condition. He sprayed and scrubbed the inside of the urinals and made sure to dispose of the used gloves and paper towels before emptying the trash bins and replacing them with new liners.

The woman's room was the real challenge. It could be as empty a tomb in the nighttime until Arael needed to clean it. Then, the bladders of every single woman in the North Shore would need to be emptied promptly.

“I need to get in there.”

“Can I get in there, please?”

“My mother needs to use the restroom.”

It wouldn't so bad if he worked in a country where women weren't shy about going into the restroom while a guy was in there. But social and cultural etiquette forced him to stand outside, where, even with plastic gloves on his hands and a bottle of spray in one, he was sure that the management who saw him standing in the hallway believed that he was slacking. Never mind the high school brats who took their sweet time facing the aisles, or the one kid who deliberately hid in the break room, or behind the store, so he could smoke or play around on his phone.

“Oh, Aaron, can I get in there?” Sheila, a cashier who had been working at the MakMor back when Jesus and Judas were roommates in college, couldn't wait for a reply as she pushed open the door and hurried to one of the stalls.

“It's Arael,” he mumbled, looking at his name tag. At least the human resources manager who had conducted his interview managed to spell it right when she had it made.

Finally, he had managed to get the ladies room in pristine order. After mopping the floors in both bathrooms, he returned to the broom closet and emptied the water into the drain. Then he got to work, sweeping the floors of the MakMor.

“Anthony? Anthony? Hey, Anthony!”

Someone tapped his shoulder. Arael stopped and collected himself before turning to see one of the boys who gathered carriages in the parking lot. Allegedly. More than likely, he had spent some of the day shooting the shit with the girl who was supposed to train the cart jockeys, but quickly forgot that she was also on the clock.

That he had to compete with these people for the share of the hours every week was the biggest source of his stress. It didn't matter to him if someone in the Deli department didn't cut someone's ham on time. He didn't care if those guys in the bakery actually washed their hands before handling the ingredients (he just didn't buy donuts from there). But the cart jockeys, like the cashiers, were all in the same department as the janitors. They were here to do a job and they were shitty at it, because they were students who didn't have to plan to pay for their meals with pocket change, or bottles and cans.

“You need to clean up the windows in the foyer,” the kid said.

Arael didn't respond. He held up his name tag for emphasis. The kid repeated himself and Arael still didn't respond.

“Oh, Arael,” the kid said, finally. “Sorry.”

“That's okay,” Arael replied, in the same he tone he would use to reward a dog with a biscuit. Except that he liked dogs. “Now what is it I have to do?”

“There were bees in the foyer. I sprayed them, so you need to clean them.”

The fuck? But before Arael could edit his thoughts for public consumption, the kid had vanished down the aisle of the organic grocery aisle. In the first place, no school boy had any authority to be telling him what he did or did not have to do. At least not this particular school boy. In the second place, what gave this kid the right to start a job and then to fob it on to him?

He thought about waiting until he was finished sweeping the floor. But then he ran through what the kid said and it hit him. Bees, in the foyer.
It was a warm spring day. Bees were a common hazard as they were attracted to the flowers and the plant displays set up outside. Naturally, whenever the doors slid open, bees and other flying insects could find themselves trapped inside the foyer. Since people could be deathly allergic to bees, Arael was always certain to try to get them back outside in the most non-invasive way possible. But this kid had said “sprayed”.

“No.”

Arael returned the dust mop to the broom closet and hurried to the front of the store. As soon as he was inside the foyer, he could smell the insecticide and see the wet spots on the window nearest the shopping carts. Two bees were lying on the sill, clearly soaked. One dead. The other struggling to move.

“Son of a bitch,” Arael said under his breath, careful to see that there were no customers in earshot. He walked over to the sill and looked down at the bee that was still moving. “I'm sorry.”

The bee couldn't hear him, obviously. It probably wouldn't know Arael from the dickhead that sprayed him. But Arael sighed and forced back the tears that were forming.

He looked over at the bank of recycling machines that all needed a good wipe down and saw a roll of paper towels on the top. He tore one piece off and gently urged the bee onto the paper. He didn't dare risk touching the poor insect, not knowing what the powerful chemical might do to his skin. But he kept the bee hidden from sight as he left the foyer and walked to the end of the pavement, where the parking lot met a narrow passage way to the loading docks and the dumpsters. Across the street was a clump of bushes.

It wasn't much. The crab grass was littered with cigarette butts, cartons and caked mud. The bushes were unremarkable. Arael lowered the paper towel onto the most hidden leaf, hoping that nothing would come along to eat the defenseless bee, and hoping that the poison wouldn't harm anything else. The bee still seemed to be struggling, but at least it could die in a better place.

“I don't blame you,” Arael wished he could hear it say. “Thank you for the respect, at least.”

He couldn't see much point in bringing the dead one outside. So he wrapped it up in another piece of paper towel and placed it in the trash, wishing he could give it something more ceremonial. He thought of the bee keepers in Japan, who held genuine funeral services when their imported European hives were destroyed by the deadlier local varieties. It wasn't much, but he thought of their tiny spirits as he returned to the task of cleaning the spray off of the window and the sill. He didn't dare use the cleaner, for fear that it would interact with the pesticide.

Then he went behind the counter at the far end of the checkout area. It was once rented out to a bank that maintained the office, and now it was used to store boxes of grocery bags and cleaning supplies. Inside a shopping cart, where they kept the vacuum cleaner, someone left a can of Raid in the child seat. Arael saw the store-use sticker and was grateful that the kid wasn't standing nearby.

“You stupid little shit,” he muttered under his breath.

He found Pamela, the supervisor currently in charge of the front end and showed her the can.

“This isn't the safest thing to use in the foyer,” he told her, knowing that she wouldn't give the same amount of thought to a couple of dead bees. “There are shopping carts there and you know that kids put their mouths on the railings. One drop of this stuff gets in their bodies...” Arael let that sink in. Pamela, to her credit, was at least annoyed.

“I didn't know he was going to use that,” she said. “He told me there were bees in the foyer, but I didn't tell him that he could store-use bug spray.”
That was probably as close to a reprimand as the kid would get, Arael realized. No word of concern for the poor children who might have been poisoned, or the elderly customers with breathing issues that might have been negatively effected by the spray. Maybe it was harder to emphasize safety when there were hardly any customers in the store throughout the day.

Pamela took the Raid from him and Arael continued to mourn for the bees, and to stress over his hours, and to worry about making the monthly rent. He was so far behind.

He gave the bottle machines a thorough scrubbing. He helped a customer get a bottle unstuck, gently reminding her not to put them in neck first. She proceeded to place the bottles in however she liked and sure enough, Arael was called to the bottle area to get them unstuck at least twice more as he tried to finish the store sweep.

Every minute of the time he was scheduled was spent cleaning and dusting and sweeping. Even the space above the vending machines and the lockers in the break room had enough dust to kill a small population, leaving him to wonder just what the other janitor did when he was here.

On his way out of the break room, he heard one of toilets in the men's room flush. The walls were so thin, that you could clearly hear the sound of movement in either restroom. But what Arael didn't hear was the sound of the sink. And sure enough, Phil, one of the bakers, emerged, still wearing his apron.

“Going home?” Arael asked.

“Not yet,” Phil said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Still got a couple hours of my shift.”

Off to the bakery. Off to make more donuts. Or bread. Or anything that might be normally fit for human consumption. Yeah, there was a lot of dust above the pastry cases, which were just outside of the bakery area, and Arael had scrubbed those too. The actual kitchen was the job of the staff, but if the health inspector ever surprised them, the whole place would be shut down in a heartbeat. And then the Pig would have to hope that a management position was open in another store, preferably one with a trough that he could just plunge his head into.

Arael could have called someone. Reported the whole store. But that never accomplished anything and even if it was the right thing to do, he could no longer afford to do it. This was as good as it was ever going to get.

“You should go back to college,” his neighbor would say to him, later, if he was desperate enough to unload about his job again. “You would have been so much better off if you had stayed in college and gotten a degree.”

“No,” Arael would counter. “I would have three more years’ worth of college debt to pay off. Even if I could have handled the workload necessary to graduate, there's no guarantee that I would be better off.”

It was true. No matter how many times he said it, people would accuse him of just making excuses. Or they would launch into the familiar tune of, “You never know until you try.”

Except that he had tried. Against his judgment, Arael had tried one year of college. It did not work out. He was not the first person to suck at college. He accepted that and struggled for the following year, finding a job very similar to the one he was in now. The years went by. He tried for better jobs. He even landed a supervisory position as a night supervisor, but it burned him out within three months. At least he lasted for a full two years as a regular store clerk, until he decided that he wanted to roll the dice again and see what fate had in store for him in another town, another state.

Thirty years-old. Thirty years-old and Arael had accepted that the best he could ever hope for was a janitor's position in a crappy grocery store, where you only had to wash your hands if a customer was in the bathroom at the same time. All of the training videos about food safety and the re-certifications and the signatures required were all a part of the show. It was the same at every job and would be the same at every job thereafter, but Arael did his best to survive because now he couldn't afford to try for anything better.

“Well at least you have time to search for something new,” one of his Facebook friends would reply when he updated his status. “Four days off might be the opportunity to do some job hunting.”

Right. Find another job that also promised flexible hours, but expected you to actually be the one who was flexible. Oh and while he was working at MakMor, he couldn't even think of applying for a job at a place that was considered a competitor. That was the price for taking the first fish to bite the line in a desperate amount of time. And in the meantime, there was a landlord to placate for back rent, a credit card he had owed money to since he was eighteen, a medical bill that needed to be paid, and a powerful need to eat sometime in this month.

One hour to go. Marie was bustling about inside of the print room, where sale signs were made. Arael stuck his head in.

“Hi Marie.”

“Oh, hello Amius.”

Amius. That was a new one. He was almost convinced that she had made it up ahead of time, but she was too preoccupied with whatever was on the computer screen to enjoy the result if it was true. Besides, Marie was a transfer from another store. She wouldn't risk a complaint to the corporate office now, would she? Would it matter if he made one?

“I was just wondering about the hours,” Arael said. “Are we just experiencing a bad week?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Marie said, turning towards the printer. “We have three new cashiers to train.”

“Three?” Arael pretended to the math in his head. “Well, I know I was still interested in getting cashier training. We talked about that the other day?”

“Really?” Marie looked up at him with a genuine look of confusion.

Okay, she was a busy woman. She probably forgot a lot of things, so Arael reminded her, “Yes, I have cashier experience from my time at TJ MAXX and K-Mart. It's not all that different, here, really. Could you spare some hours to train me and maybe I could take a couple of cashier shifts?”

“Well we have a set amount of training hours,” Marie explained, just as she did the last time they had this conversation. “Unfortunately, if I schedule you for training as a cashier, I would have to bring someone in to cover your janitorial shift and there's only Edward for that.”

“Okay. But you'd only give him twenty hours, or so, so it wouldn't be any different. And this way you wouldn't have to spend extra hours training someone with less experience.”

At this moment, the Pig walked in. He made no comment as to our conversation, but he went to one of the other computers in the room and proceeded to make signs for another department. His crisp blue shirt that indicated his place as the in-store brass left little room for imagination. And Arael imagined the guy on a spit, over a fire, with an apple in his mouth.

Okay, that's disturbing, he thought.

“I'm sorry, Amius, you're just going to have to wait until I have the extra hours.” Marie said, in a tone that wasn't remotely apologetic.

“Now I know you're doing it on purpose.” Arael hadn't meant to sound confrontational, but it must have slipped into his voice, because the Pig glanced over at him. He pulled up his name tag again and leaned as closely to Marie as he dared, not wanting to seem aggressive. “Arael. Right there. It's always been Arael. Air-Ree-Al. Sorry, my mother was weird like that, but it's always going to be my name no matter how many times people keep getting it wrong.”

Marie threw a subtle glance back at the Pig. The Pig, to his credit, didn't try to take over for Marie, but his look indicated that Arael had probably blown his chances for any kind of training in the near future.

“Okay, Arael, I apologize.” Dismissive. Deflecting. Marie didn't care what his name was, or what his past experience would have told her if she had looked at his application, which was stored in MakMor's files for as long as he worked here – which at this point he was beginning to count in minutes.

A rush of memories from previous jobs flooded his mind. It was grocery stores in particular that did this to him. His supervisors at the Chopper gave him the same lines, whenever he asked to be trained as a cashier. Now that he had actual experience, he found himself at yet another store that thought his sole purpose in life was to push a broom.

“Then what about next week?” He asked, stepping back towards the door.

“Can I expect any more than twenty hours next week?”

“Not likely,” Marie said. “I'm sorry.”

No you aren't. Arael thought. Outloud, “If I can't another shift this week, than I'm quitting. There's no point in my being here if you won't treat me like I'm a part of the team.”

Marie shrugged. “That's fine.”

Arael quietly went to his locker. He shrugged off the apron and tossed it on one of the tables. Then he pulled out the little grocery bag containing the bottles of water and cans of soda that he had purchased from the discount racks at MakMor and another grocery store close by.

“See ya,” he shouted towards the print room and not slowing down to hear the sarcastic goodbyes.

He kept his cool. The foyer where the bees had been sprayed was at the front of the produce department. On his way there, he saw a mother pushing a shopping cart with her toddler standing in the basket. Arael would not make a scene, or leave angrily, when there were children nearby.

Then, he paused. The floral department was in the front corner of the store, just as you came into the foyer on this side of the store. Laura was the manager of the floral department and had always treated him nicely. But he saw the phone, which she had used numerous times to read off the pre-written announcements and sales pitches to customers over the PA systems.

Laura emerged from the flower cooler and saw him standing there.

“Hi Areal,” she greeted him cheerfully. “Are you off for the day?”

Arael managed a sad smile, just for her.

“For every day, actually,” he answered.

“Oh, that's too bad.” There was the sympathy that Marie lacked. If Marie had worked in the floral department, her attitude would have done more damage to the flowers than a can of Raid.

“Laura, I need to use the phone,” he said.

“Of course.” Arael walked behind the counter and placed his grocery bags up top, so that anyone watching the security footage wouldn't try to accuse him of theft. Not that MakMor could afford a full time LP officer, but the guy who worked part time was very thorough. He looked at Laura who was still standing there, watching him and probably waiting to say good-bye when he was done. “Laura, you've always been very nice to me. So take a big step back, because you won't want to be associated with me when this is over.”

Before she could reply, he picked up the phone and hit the PA button. The musak went dead and he looked across the front end, to the bakery department where he could see a single customer waiting for an order. It wasn't the crowd he would have been happy with, but it would do. “Attention MakMor customers, this is your store janitor speaking. Just so you are aware, the staff who work at the bakery where some of you are now hoping to purchase fresh baked goods, do not wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. This includes Phil, the tall guy with the glasses who can usually be scene kneading the dough. Enjoy.”

The look of shock on Laura's face was not worth it. He would love to have seen it on Marie, or the Pig. But at least now, no one was ever likely to forget his name.

He picked up his bags and made a hasty exit. But not before apologizing to Laura and giving her the well wishes that she had been no doubt waiting to give him.

- - - Updated - - -

Chapter Two

Arael walked across the parking lot to the McDonalds. Busy as ever, he didn't see any of his former coworkers there, in our out of uniform. Sometimes the district manager would hold meetings with the management here. But today, he only wanted to sit and watch the carnage unfold.

He found an empty table to place his bags down and opened his wallet. Six dollars. Until his very last paycheck was wired into his bank account (with FU2 subtly worked into the memo line, probably) he would only have six dollars of hard currency and less than forty in the bank.

A medium iced coffee was still only a dollar and seven cents. He asked for extra caramel, which was the extent of the “treat”, before taking his place at the large window and watching the MakMor storefront.

An hour later, there was no carnage. Another hour went by and there were no news vans, no reporters with note pads interviewing witnesses. No police cars. A policeman did stop at the McDonalds, but it was to order a Big Mac and fries. On closer inspection, he was a police officer, but an employee for an armored truck service who also happened to be armed, but otherwise had no interest in Arael.

He bought another cup of iced coffee and a double cheeseburger. Customers were not filing out of the store in a disgusted rage. At least no more than usual. Even the Pig eventually went home, but it wasn't clear if he was in any harried state as a result of Arael's stunt.

The ballsiest move you've ever made and the world doesn't care, he thought. But at least he didn't feel like their bitch. Small victory, that.

It got dark. Arael had lost track of time. There was technically a two-hour sitting limit, but no one had bothered him as he continued to stare hopefully out at the store to see if anyone was even slightly enraged by his outburst.

Finally he gathered his bags and left. It really was getting late, but it's not like he had to be awake in the morning. And this late at night, his landlord was probably at his New Hampshire house, knocking back a cold one and glued to whatever sports game of the season was important at the time.

The walk down Highland Avenue was uneventful. The air was warm, with a cool breeze that did not blow the winning lottery ticket in his direction. Arael was already resigned to the fact that his credit rating was somewhere the Earth's core. If he didn't have to deal with the Monday morning quarterbacks who would try to tell him where he went wrong and what they totally would have done, it wouldn't be so bad.

Pleasant Street was quiet and well lit. Even though it wasn't quite ten o'clock, the neighborhood was settling in for the night. Kids had school in the morning. Parents had jobs to go to. Some of those parents probably had adult children who could barely pay bills too. Arael felt for them.

He crossed the street at the corner and thought nothing of the transition from light, warm and homey, to dark and foreboding. Here it was mostly high picket fences on one end, signaling the edge of someone's property, and a higher fence covered by green mesh and overgrown bushes on the side that he was on.

Hardly anyone was out here. And even though cops were regularly called to clear the dilapidated property of squatters and partiers, the Warren Street was as quiet as the residential street that still cast enough streetlight to make walking here at night bearable.

So when he heard someone running towards him that was strange. When someone slammed into him that was startling. When a pair of bright blue eye belonging to a pale face stricken with panic, that was even more startling and unusual. Arael couldn't help but gaze into the small, vulnerable face of a messy blond haired boy that had grabbed his arms for support and struggled to catch his breath.

No words. No “please hide me.” Just silent, horrified panic. The boy was wearing some kind of trench coat that was definitely suited to someone much older and much bigger than he was.

As quickly as he had come, the boy recovered and bolted past Arael, leaving him stunned as he turned around to see the coat billowing in the wind. The light wasn't that great, but it seemed as if the coat was the only thing the boy had on.
Arael thought to cry out, to ask him if he was okay. But then the boy stopped and looked at the fence. At first, Arael thought there might be a hole in the fence that he was going to try to disappear into. But instead, the boy, who was four feet tall at most, with an extra five inches if his hair was standing up, grabbed the link of the fence and started climbing. It looked cute, if not desperate. But with the speed and skill of an Olympic hurdler, the boy was at the top within seconds. The barbed wire didn't even slow him down as he vaulted himself over and hit the ground on the other side. Aside from a disturbing impact that Arael couldn't actually see, the only other noise was the sound of the boy running off, presumably towards the warehouse.

“Well that was a thing.” Arael tried to think of something more descriptive and gave up. He didn't know how real a hallucination was supposed to seem, but if he told anyone else about this, his next living arrangement would involve a three day stay on the psych ward. So he started to put it out of his mind when he saw two more runners coming to a stop in front of him.

“Did you see a kid run through here?” A spiky blond-haired kid had asked. Arael's confusion seemed to aggravate him. “Excuse me. There was a kid, about this height,” the boy raised his hand to about the height of the amazing fence jumper. The fist he made was neither subtle nor appreciated. “He might have been wearing a trench coat. Did. You. See. Him?”

The kid was no older than sixteen or seventeen. Broad shouldered, with a tight gray, sweat soaked t-shirt that suggested the athletic build of a high school football player or wrestler. He wasn't close enough to guess an eye color, which Arael was grateful for, but he had a slightly brighter shade of shoulder-length blond hair.

“No,” Arael said, quickly. He didn't know why he felt the need to lie to this kid. Common sense told him that the smaller boy was probably a danger to himself and that these people were his family, or caregivers, concerned for the safety of their loved one. But instinct, which sometimes clashed with common sense, said that these guy were the danger.

“Are you sure about that?” The larger of the two, a full grown man, stepped forward. He was dressed more like a mafia hit man than a caring father-figure, and the stone cold, calculating expression of his chiseled, clean-shaven face did not offset the image. He reached beneath his jacket, causing Arael to drop his bags in panic.“Because we really care about this boy and are willing to pay generously for any information leading to his safe return.”

The man pulled out a wallet and removed several bills. Arael felt relief, followed by another wave of panic as the man took one of his now empty hands, and placed the bills there. When he released it, the man looked at him expectantly.

“Trench coat, kid...” Arael looked from the man to the boy, struggling to regain the ability to speak as he fought the urge to glance towards the fence. He was never any good at keeping a lie going. But if he tried to tell some of the truth, it might work. “Well, someone bumped into me. But there's joggers all over here, so I didn't think anything of it. I guess he was kind of small, but I thought he might have been a midget or something, because you don't normally see kids running around-,”

“Where?” the kid snapped.

“That way!” Arael pointed towards Pleasant Street. “He, he, just ran into me and then across the street.”

How soon after the kid jumped the fence did he see these guys? They must have seen something. They must have known he was doing a terrible job of lying.

“Thank you for your help,” the man said. He started to cross the street, but the kid hesitated. “Dydrik, come on!”

Deedrick? Diderick? Arael thought he had a weird name. But if his parents had gone as New Age and hippy as Dydrik's, then he could definitely understand the desire to take up a sport that involved a lot of hitting or kicking.
Dydrik didn't budge. That he didn't respond to the words of a man who looked like he put a twelve-year prison sentence for murder on his resume, was scary enough. But Arael grew more and more concerned for the state of his boxers the longer Dydrik looked him over.

“He's lying,” Dydrik said.

Yep, he was dead. He sure hoped that helping the kid was a fair trade for exposing the health code violations of his former employers, but he would talk to St. Peter about that soon enough.

“Are you sure?” The big guy asked, doubtfully.

Dydrik looked up and down the street, regarding the fence. Then he gave Arael another once over, before taking several deep contemplative breaths through his nose.
Was he actually sniffing the air?

“No.” There was a strange, predatory look in his eyes as Dydrik glared into Arael's eyes. “No, I'm not sure.”

With one last look, at both Arael and the fence, Dydrik fell into step behind the bigger man as they ran across the street and down Pleasant.

Arael waited and listened. Their footfalls echoed loudly against the sidewalk, and if they stopped, he knew he might have a second's head start. But his fight or flight response seemed to be set to 60's Horror Film, and he was unable to so much as look over his shoulder, let alone start moving in a direction that resembled forward.

Funny. They were so concerned for the safety of this kid, yet they weren't calling out his name. The further away they got, the more convinced Arael was that he had done the right thing. He risked stepping into a shaft of light, so he could see the bills he had been holding tightly. Slowly, carefully, he unclenched his fist and quickly sorted through the money.

Two hundred and sixty-dollars. It was probably more of an incentive to keep his mouth, but there may as well have been a note attached that said, “We can afford to break a lot of rules, and we could just as easily retrieve this money from your pummeled corpse.”

Dydrik didn't seem stupid. He probably knew saw that they were near a residential neighborhood and didn't want to draw unwanted attention. Any moment the men would double back to check this area. And if they found him standing there, still no wiser to the location of the boy, Dydrik probably wouldn't smile and say, “I love being lied to. Let's get some lemonade.”

Arael looked at the top of the fence. What the hell was he thinking? For all he knew, this kid was like that murderous little brat from that book. He even saw a clip of the movie, with Tilda Swinton, and he was not foiled by Kevin's devilish charm.
With one last glance towards Pleasant Street, he began looking for a break in the fence. It was the same fence that had been here for most of his lifetime, or so he had been told. There had to be well worn breaks in the links. He once speculated that the cops deliberately discouraged the owner of the property against having it fixed, since it was the only guaranteed place to find people of the unwanted variety. More than half a page of the police section in the local paper included mentions of the Warren Street warehouses, Arael kept an eye out for patrol cars, or unmarked vehicles. If nothing else, he could tell a police officer what he saw and maybe get a ride home for his trouble.

That's right officer. I wasn't sneaking onto private property to do drugs or hide from the law. I was chasing a half-naked boy. That sounded far less suspicious. In his defense, however, he could also claim that he was checking out a new living arrangement.

There was an opening in the fence. Was it right where the kid had stopped to climb it? He couldn't tell, but even in the filtered street light that barely revealed the dark green shade of the covering that lined the inside of the fence, he could see the stress marks from where the fence had been pulled back many times.

“Kid?” Arael called out, in the lowest possible tone necessary to avoid getting attention. “Kid, are you over there?”

He looked up at the fence again. No fully grown man could jump over the barbed wire and hit the other side without breaking a limb. But he clearly remembered hearing the kid run off like he had just finished a game of hop scotch. The last few moments were a teensy bit stressful, so maybe he was imagining it?

No matter how he tried to rationalize it, Arael couldn't bring himself to leave. He definitely risked his life lying to Dydrik, so he at least deserved some answers. But more to the point, if the kid got himself hurt running around in there, he probably didn't have long to live. Most of the squatters were probably decent people who wouldn't lay a finger on a kid, but they also wouldn't lift one to make his life easier either. If the cops turned this place into a full-fledged crime scene, complete with forensics, news crews, and Youtubers, that would be over for anyone who called the place a home. No way would the city let it stand after that.

I have to see if he's all right, Arael thought, checking for any sign of life along Warren Street. If the police got involved somehow, there was just no getting around it. He would explain himself as best he could and if push came to shove, he could hand over the money as evidence.

He crammed to the bills deep into his pocket, taking care to fold them, before crouching down beside the fence and inspecting the link. Surprisingly, it wasn't as easy as cats made it look. He tried pulling the fence toward him, which was required more effort and far too much noise. Pushing it inward was just as intensive and he didn't think his head was strong enough to do the rest of the work while he tried to force the rest of his body through the opening. There was no lighting on this side to show him where the concrete might be safe to touch.

Arael looked along the fence. He supposed there were other spots that were easier to get through. Places that were more obscure and had been used more consistently. But was it worth trying to find them? He cocked his head to one side and listened for the sounds of cars or approaching footsteps.

Then he looked at the fence itself. He was no athlete. A picket fence would have given him a challenge. And then there was the barbed wire. Supposing he made it to the top before the cops pulled up and tazered him, he couldn't see the parts of the wire that were safe to touch any more than he could see the bits of broken glass and other fun surprises on the ground.

“What did you eat for breakfast, kid?” he wondered, thinking about how easily the boy had moved. And this was considering how many gym activities were being taken out of schools. Good for him. But how in the hell was Arael supposed to get in there?

He tried pushing the fence inwards. Then, seeing no alternative, he got as low to the ground as he could before tentatively putting a hand there for support. It was not a comfortable maneuver. His skull and spine protested the movement. So far there was no glass, but the uneven surface of the gravel dug into his hand just as painfully. There was a lot of noise, a lot of heavy breathing. He was sure he heard his shirt tearing against the edge of the fence. He grabbed things that were not to be grabbed for support, causing twists and contortions that he didn't think he was capable of. His joints joined the protest.

Somehow, he found himself on the other side of the fence. He stood up, not trusting the ground at all and tried to feel for any cuts or gashes that may have been made during the transition. Blood in copius amounts was warm and he didn't feel like he had cut himself anywhere. But he still checked his sides, holding back the cries of pain as his arms and shoulders screamed at him from inside.

Why was I worried about Dydrik and Company? I'm so good at kicking my own ass.

He took a minute to recover, leaning against the fence. It was too late to think about going back now. And in the worst case scenario, he would have just as soon spent the night in this dump until it got light out enough to find an easier way back to the sidewalk. Although, when he thought about it, the worst case scenario was still finding the boy dead. So he kept his goal in mind as he tried to make sense of the landscape before him.

The light from Pleasant Street illuminated the roof of the warehouse. From memory, Arael knew that the building was made from red brick and that it was the last standing building of what was once some kind of factory. It wasn't important enough for the historical society to preserve it, but no one had come along to invest the money into cleaning it up and turning it into a property worthy of the nice neighborhood it was the center of. More to the point, Arael knew from the hundreds of times he had walked by this place that there were deep drops, tripping hazards, and things that made cleaning up the shittiest toilet bowl seem like a night in a luxury hotel.

No one had a fire going, unfortunately. That would have at least provided a bit more light. Arael looked through his pants pocket and pulled out his cellphone. The light of the clam shell was barely adequate to illuminate the ground at his feet, but it was better than nothing.

“Kid?” Maybe he could try speaking a little louder. No. That would be stupid. “Kid, are you okay?”

Still nothing. Jumping over a fence and running like the wind was nothing, but super hearing was apparently farfetched.

“Okay kid, the bad men are gone,” he said, holding the light up towards the warehouse. “Seriously, I'm not here to hurt you.”

I only took money from the guys who were chasing you. But I totally fooled them. Yep, you've got Sam fucking Spade in your corner now, kiddo.

He found what he thought was the driveway up to the front of the building, sweeping the ground around him with every step. He heard crunching sounds wherever he stepped. To his right, the basement of some long gone office building opened up into an abysmal murk that the light couldn't penetrate. His olfactory sense was more than capable of filling in the blanks. The smell of stale feces, urine, and moldy old newspapers that had covered by decades of rain, snow, and mud, along with other fragrances that had no name but were less likely to appear in an Avon catalog made him gag. Arael stopped and covered his mouth with his arm.

Oh God, he thought. What if the kid had fallen down in there? Arael listened as he tried to hold his breath. It had been a few minutes at least. Would the kid still be breathing? Whatever was down there might not be enough to cushion a sudden fall, and if you got infected by that ecosystem of filth and disease, you were probably better off dead.

“No, I'm sorry,” he muttered. “If you're down there kid, I'm sorry. But there's nothing I can do if you don't make a noise.”

Before he could turn around and make a hasty exit, he heard something moving.

“I'm not a cop and I'm not armed,” he said, a little more loudly. Hopefully not enough to alert anyone on the outside of the fence to his presence, but just enough to keep any transients from lynching him.

He turned back, towards the warehouse. Someone was moving. The noise was faint, but it was too random to be a gust of wind, or rattling pipes. The internal voice of self-preservation screamed out, calling him every obscenity in the book as he got closer to the warehouse.

The large barn-style doors reeked of moldy wood. In the pale glow of the cellphone, he could see lichen and moss growing in parts of it. The doors were held shut by a rusty chain and a huge lock that had long given up the hope of reuniting with its key. There was a huge hole in the frame, bigger than the opening in the fence, but still only barely large enough to fit through. Arael took a cautious sweep with his phone, from the outside, which only managed to illuminate a few inches of dirty concrete.

“I'm not a cop, I'm not a cop, I'mnotI'mnotI’mnot a cop.” His impression of the Cowardly Lion fell on deaf ears, at least within the vicinity of the doors.

Arael found moving through the hole in the door to be slightly easier than the fence. But on the inside, he misjudged a step and he fell forward. His cellphone went flying as he threw out his hands to break his fall. He landed on something soft.

“Hey!” The something moaned. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“I'm sorry, I tripped,” Arael scrambled to get to his feet. “Please, I'm only looking for someone.”

A shapeless mass writhed in front of him. Arael took a cautious step back towards the gate

“Please don't hurt me,” he whined.

“Keep it the fuck down,” someone else hissed.

Arael waited. The transgression seemed to be forgiven, if for no other reason than no one could see him any more clearly. For all they knew, he really was a cop, or he was armed with a shiv. No point in risking a scuffle.
He had no idea where his phone was. Until... the light from the screen hovered in the air, before someone closed the clam shell.

“Um, that's mine.” Like that mattered. Property laws meant something different to people who had to trespass just to find a place to sleep.

Arael remembered the money in his pocket and wondered if it would be worth it just to buy a new one. Then the clam shell opened again. He couldn't see who was holding it, but they moved the light in such a way as to give him the impression that he was being beckoned. Then he judged the saw the floor beneath the glow and judged the height of the mysterious stranger to be about that of a ten year-old.

The light guided him appropriately enough, but it wasn't strong enough to see if there was anyone else on the floor in front of him. As quietly as possible, he slid his feet across the floor, barely lifting them more than a centimeter, probing he empty space. The boy kept the cellphone opened, never moving.

“This is yours,” the boy said in a clear, even tone. He held out the phone, keeping it open so the light would remain on. Arael took it without comment, glancing at the battery life and hoping he had enough juice to get them safely out of the warehouse and back to the street.

“What's your name?” Arael asked.

His response was a low scowl, which made the boy seem like an angry ghost in the glow of the phone.

“Why were those men chasing you? Was that kid your brother?”

“You lied to Dydrik.” It wasn't an accusation. Just a fact.

Arael shrugged. “Yeah, about that. I don't think he left because I convinced him you weren't here. Why were they chasing you?”

Nothing.

“Hey, you're keeping me awake with that cellphone.”

“Sorry.” Arael replied in the general direction of the voice.

For a moment, after he closed the phone, everything went so dark that he was convinced that the boy disappeared into nothingness. Even the sound of his breathing had been drowned out by someone's snoring. Another person coughed, from somewhere above them.

“Keth.”

“Excuse me?”

“Keth is my name." The boy said. "You asked for my name.”

Arael snorted.

“Keth and Dydrik. I'd tease, but my mom named me Arael.”

Something brushed his arm. He flipped open the cellphone quickly to see that it was the boy, reaching out from under the oversized trench coat. He placed a curious hand on Arael's shirt sleeve, squeezing the muscle.

“Arael?” He repeated the name. There was a tone of scrutiny in the child's voice, as if the name on the label didn't match the product. “You're kind, Arael.”

“Thanks, I guess. Listen, Keth, were those guys trying to hurt you? Because if Dydrik is a bad person, then I'll take you to the police and they might be able to help you.”

“Police won't help me.”

“You don't know that.”

“I do know that.”

Well that was impeachable logic. Arael thought of his youngest brother and realized that it had been awhile since he had tried to win an argument with a ten year-old. But this ten year-old in particular had more baggage than deciding whether Onyx was a rock or ground-type Pokemon.

“It's not safe for you here,” he said.

“It's not safe for you,” Keth reminded him. “Dydrik can't hurt you. The one who was with him can. Those are the rules.”

“Rules?”

“Keep it down!”

“Shut the fuck up or get out of here!”

“I'll kill you if someone calls the cops on us.”

Keth grabbed his wrist again, tugging at it with such force that Arael stumbled forward. But wherever Arael held the light out to see where Keth was pulling him to. He thought that they were going further towards the back of the warehouse, to find a place where they could talk more freely. But Keth had simply found another exit. It was another door that had supposedly been boarded up. The plywood was still clinging to the threshold, but it gave little resistance to Keth's little arm as they stepped back out into the night air.

“You shouldn't get hurt because of me,” Keth said. He led Arael to a section of the fence that had been far more heavily used than the one he had come in through. The link rolled back like a curtain and Keth gestured for Arael to go through. “Keep going to where you were going when I ran into you. I have to keep running.”

“Keep running where?” Arael asked. The edge was creeping into his voice and he felt bad for snapping at a kid. But here he was again, trying to help someone, who now seemed to be dismissing him as readily as Marie had done earlier. “You can't go running off anywhere. There are people worse than your brother. People like those guys in there.” He jerked his thumb towards the warehouse.

The boy shook his head.

“No. There's no one as evil as Dydrik.”

Common sense told him that Keth was just a little boy who didn't like being told what to do. But instinct and the experience of helping to raise three younger brothers told him something else. Dydrik wasn't a worried and exhausted older brother being forced to watch a problematic sibling. There was something dangerous in the way he had accused Arael of lying. It had frightened Arael far more than the older man who had given him the money. And there was the money which raised more questions. But worse still was the way Keth used the word evil.

He didn't say it in the tone that a kid would use to call someone a jerk, or a meanie. There was weight to the word, as if Keth understood the meaning of evil in a way that no child his age should ever understand it.

Arael sighed. He got down to his knees to make eye-contact.

“Listen, you seem like a smart kid. But there's probably a lot of things you don't know right now. I'm a grown-up and I don't always think of the consequences before I act.” Internally, I added, and sometimes I know all too well what they are and I stop caring, “So, what I'm asking for you to do is to let me try to help you.”

Keth seemed to think about it. He looked back at the warehouse, then out at the street beyond the fence. Then he looked to Arael and nodded.

“Okay.” he said. “If Dydrik returns, I'll protect you.”

Arael held back a derisive snort and smiled.

“Well, thank you for that.”

- - - Updated - - -

Chapter Three

Lately, with far too much frequency, Dydrik felt as though his brain were deliberately wired so that he could feel the tight squeeze of the bars of this cage made of flesh-and-bone. The last time he felt this way, he had broken free of the shell from which he had hatched.

Impotence.

That was the word. Dydrik felt impotent.

He entered the restaurant, ignoring the host as he sauntered past the cash register. Keiki, who sat behind the bar, tapping furiously at the screen of her iPad barely looked up to send him the subtlest of nods. When he returned it, she gestured to a booth at the far end of the carpeted dining area.

There were a few customers, in spite of the late hour. The buffet was nearly empty and the food that remained had stopped being fresh some time ago. A waitress and a busboy sat at one table, folding napkins while flirting with one another, while their boss sat at the table behind them.

He looked up and smiled.

“Dydi-Kong, what brings the royalty to my humble establishment?”

Like others in his lineage, Anwyng – known as Mr. Wing to his human employees and customers – had the appearance of a Chinese-American man in his late thirties. Tall and thin, with raven-black hair and a perfectly formed, roundish face, he blended in with his employees who were mostly of the same nationality and yet completely unaware of their boss's true nature – except for Keiki and Bruce. He wore black pants and a dark-blue button down shirt befitting of a successful businessman who owned, among other things, the popular buffet restaurant where he was enjoying his customary pot of tea.

“Just bringing back the equipment that I borrowed,” Dydrik answered.

He sat down at the booth and Anwyng generously poured him a cup of tea. Bruce stood beside his boss, with his hands folded in front of him, waiting for instructions.

“And did my equipment perform to standard?”

“He should think twice before dropping my real name in public,” Dydrik said, with a subtle glare at Bruce. Out of politeness, he didn't mention Anwyng's pet name for him, since most humans wouldn't get the joke. “Otherwise he didn't completely disappoint.”

Anwyng nodded. The customers paid their bill and left and he told the busboy and waitress to go into the kitchen and let the staff know that they could go home. When they were out of earshot, he spoke to Bruce in a calm, even tone that invited no interruption. “Your kind is most appreciated when it does as we have told them. Do you not agree, Mr. Upright?”

“Forgive me, sir,” Bruce said. “It won't happen again.”

“It had better not. Get some rest and return to the dance club on Monday.”

“Yes Mr. Wing,” Bruce replied, bowing before leaving the restaurant. He was followed shortly by the remaining staff, who all bid Mr. Wing and Keiki a goodnight. Keiki remained at the bar, pouring herself a customary shot of Jägermeister as a reward for getting through another long day.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Anwyng asked.

Dydrik grimaced. He took a sip of tea before answering, “The slippery shit got away. Whoever got the bright idea to disguise his scent with that tramp's coat knew what they were doing.”

“Tsk, tsk,” Anwyng shook his head. “Oh well, I guess you'll have to deal with the competition.”

“Dammit!” Dydrik pounded the table with his fist and immediately regretted doing so. Anwyng reached across the table and grabbed him by the ear. Dydrik tried to pry his hand off, knocking over his cup in the scuffle, which slid across the table as it splashed hot tea everywhere.

“Damage my restaurant and I'll use your face to mop the bathroom floor. Understand?”

“Yes, yes, I'm sorry.” Dydrik pleaded, hoping no one else could hear him.

Anwyng let go and started to clean up the mess. Dydrik got up from the booth, rubbing his ear fiercely. Some tea had gotten on his shirt, but it wasn't hot enough to cause a burn. Keiki went into the kitchen to get a towel and when she returned to help Anwyng clean up the mess, she made a deliberate show of bumping into Dydrik.

“Hey, help out or get out,” she said, flatly.

“Oh man, you better enjoy it while you still can,” Dydrik snapped, careful to direct his anger at Anwyng. No amount of rubbing would will the pain away, so he left his ear alone and checked his hand for blood. “If I had my Player, you and this whole fucking place would be toast.”

“Yeah, well you don't,” Anwyng retorted. “But I'll just have to look forward to kicking your ass until then.”

Dydrik waited until the table was wiped down and Anwyng had emerged from the kitchen with two clean cups. Within seconds, it was as if the whole confrontation had been erased. Anwyng even looked up mid-sip, pretending to notice him for the first time and invited him to sit down.

Keiki left the kitchen and disappeared into an office at the other end of the dining area. A door squealed shut and the sound of some female rapper began to drift out.

“Best thing to happen to me, my little Keiki,” Anwyng said. “I'm leaving the restaurant to her, as my adoptive parents did for me. It seems prudent, since I only have about twenty years before they start noticing. Although in this day and age, anti-aging technology is so advanced that I might not have to leave so soon.”

Anwyng knew he needed something else, or he wouldn't be here, and this rambling was just a thinly veiled form of payback for disrupting teatime. When a polite amount of silence had been observed, Dydrik said, “I have something for you to look at.”

“Oh, dear, I'm so sorry Lord Furon.” Anwyng mockingly dropped the name of Dydrik's clan and his title and pointed to the shopfront, “Did it say Mr. Wing's Free Bank on the window? I've already paid you in full by lending you Bruce Upright. If you want anything more from me, you will have to dig deep, Little Prince.”

“Is restoring our race and promising your clan power over the Asian clans not enough?”

“It's a very lofty ambition, but it will not pay Keiki's tuition,” Anwyng held out his hand in anticipation. Dydrik dug into his pocket and pulled out a rare stone, making a show of how much he was losing just by handing it over.

Anwyng didn't need a microscope to scan the intricate features of the stone and like all of their kind, he possessed a keen knowledge of rare and valuable minerals. He smiled smugly.

“How can I be of service?”

Dydrik pressed a finger to his forehead. Then, he tapped the table. Over the centuries, they had learned a number of gestures that could disguise those abilities that might attract unwanted attention. If any human who didn't know their secret, happened to see the exchange, they might think he was showing Anwyng a picture. Anwyng tapped the glass thoughtfully, as he received the clear memory of the man's face.

“Who is he?” Anwyng asked.

“I have no clue who he is. But I suspect that he helped the runt to escape and he doesn't quite look like the one percent, so I thought you might have encountered him.”

“All I know is that he could use a haircut,” Anwyng said, with a smug grin. He held up the stone. “You brought me a memory of the average white guy. For that, you gave me ten thousand dollars. I hope it was worth it.”

Dydrik stood up and left, resisting the urge to provoke Anwyng again. Player or not, with Keiki distracted, there was much he could do to Anwyng in this form, even as old and as experienced as the older dragon might have been. But for now, Dydrik possessed one piece of information that was far more valuable than an unrefined diamond.

Whoever this human was, however he had come to cross Dydrik's path, there was something very rare about him. Something that every dragon on Earth would cross oceans to possess... or destroy.


* * *

Making the five mile journey home was by no means as easy as Arael would have liked. He was used to walking up and down hill in all directions to get to work, sometimes with less than four hours of sleep. He wasn't so used to having a child in tow.

It wasn't that Keth complained. On the contrary, he seemed perfectly comfortable walking in a trench coat that had belonged to a grown man. He wrapped the over half of the coat tightly around him, but the rest of the material dragged behind him like the royal robes of a hobo king. Arael, on the other hand, was not looking forward to having to explain to anyone why Keth was wearing a trench coat that belonged to a grown man, while it seemed that he was also barefoot.

No sir, he was ready to face a court martial for rage quitting work, but this was fifteen minutes of fame he had definitely not signed up for. His eyes were open and his head always whipping about in all directions, searching for a curious pair of eyes in a house or apartment window, a car on the street, or a surveillance camera. On Warren Street, he had plenty of advanced warning when someone was going to drive or walk by, so he could have Keth duck behind a car, or a trash barrel. But eventually one of those drivers was going to be somebody with authority, as well as the natural instinct and societal encouragement to take a night stick to the heads of any perverted freaks with inappropriately dressed children in tow.

“I'm going to carry you down this street,” he said, as they approached a corner. There were stores and a laundromat and at least one gas station. Some of those things were open and others were more popular than others, so that meant heavier traffic.

One driver definitely slowed to a stop at the intersection and for the first time, Arael was opening that all of the motorists on the street were more concerned with their text messages.

“I can walk.” Keth stated, not protested.

“Yes, but you're getting a few heads to turn, for all the wrong reasons.” Arael stopped and listened to himself. Keth's manner of speech and his expressionless face and deadpan tone made it easy to forget that this wasn't a miniature adult he was talking to. Even if he was a child prodigy, Arael still had to remind himself to be the mature one in the conversation. “Listen, I'm trying to help you, but you have to help me, too. You don't want to draw attention, right?”

That sounded even worse. Keth just nodded and Arael took it as a yes, before asking him to put his hands up. This caused the coat to move a little and Arael had to avert his eyes to avoid seeing what he had already suspected.
You could have called the police and this would all have been in someone else's hands, he reminded himself.

He squatted down, getting ready to use his legs to lift Keth off the ground. After a full shift at MakMor, followed by his adventures through the transient hotspot, he wasn't up for carrying more than the two grocery bags full of liquids he had abandoned. But he wrapped his arms around Keth as he had done a million times before, with his brothers and a host of cousins.

“Wow." Arael had expected Keth to be heavier, so he had put the right amount of muscle into it, only for Keth to be as light as a small stack of books. He almost stumbled backwards, but quickly regained his footing. Keth's arms were still held high. “Okay, lower your arms.”

Keth did as he was told, folding his arms over Arael's chest and resting his head on them. Arael tried to drape the lower half of the trench coat in such a way as to shield his bare feet and legs from public view. It was an odd position to be in, but it was slightly less uncomfortable when Arael worked out the simple excuse of having a sick and tired... cousin, whom he was babysitting.

Yeah, that would have to do. Arael moved as quickly as he could, hoping that no one paid any attention, or that he wasn't working too hard to seem like he was avoiding attention. The half-baked plan worked. Some people take a closer look at the two of them, but without having to tell him, Keth seemed to sense that keeping his eyes closed was as good a disguise as the coat.

Soon, they were on Arael's street. He placed Keth down on the steps to the front door of the house where he rented a room.

“Okay, so I share this house with three other people.” He said, speaking in a low whisper. “Try not to make a lot of noise and don't talk above a whisper. Understand?”
Keth nodded.

Arael took one last look up and down the street. It would be his luck that his landlord, or one of his roommates would show up, or step outside and catch them there. He would have to explain Keth away, starting with his name.

“If anyone asks about your name, just tell them your mom is weird.”

“My mother is dead.”

Arael couldn't have been more shocked if he had been punched in the gut. He looked at Keth, who just stood there, waiting to be let in.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “That's terrible.”

“I know.”

Arael's youngest brother was more devastated over the death of his pet mouse. The very idea of his own mother, or anyone in his family dying would bring himself to tears. He didn't know what to say, so he remained silent as he inserted his key into the door and led Keth up the stairs.

There was a flickering light underneath the door to Chris's room and the muffled sounds of headphones. Bob was also home, unless he forgot to padlock his door before leaving. Howie was either working late or spending the night with a girlfriend. Arael undid the padlock to his room and gestured for Keth to go in.

“Welcome to where my heart is,” he said, in a low voice. He flicked the light on as Keth stood in the center of the shag carpet.

“It's very nice,” he said.

“Thank you.” Arael went into his closet and sorted through his t-shirts. Nothing his size would be any more appropriate than the trench coat, but Keth could at least be comfortable. He chose a dark blue one and handed it to Keth. “You can sleep in this for the night.”

Keth shrugged of the coat. Arael studied the ceiling for cobwebs and only ventured a glance when he was sure it was safe. Keth was having some trouble, trying to die the sleeves of the shirt behind his neck.

“Don't you know how to put on a shirt?” he asked, hoping that Chris couldn't hear him through the walls.

“I don't.”

“Okay, let's be quick about this, too.” Arael took the shirt from Keth and pulled it down over his head in record time. It fell straight to the floor and hung off of his shoulders precariously, but it was going to have to do. “Are you hungry, or thirsty? I might have some water.”

“Yes, please.”

At least he was polite.

Arael pulled a bottle of water and an old sandwich meat container full of baby carrots from the mini-refrigerator in the corner. He opened the bottle for Keth, who took it and quickly guzzled it.

“Whoa, easy.” Although it wasn't surprising. All of the running and the excitement would make anyone thirsty.

Keth regarded the carrots quizzically at first. He took one out of the bag and sniffed at it. Then, cautiously, placed it in his mouth. The first sign of emotion since the panic from being chased appeared in the form of a smile.

“Never had a carrot before, either?” Arael asked.

Keth shook his head. At least he knew not to talk with his mouth full. Unfortunately he didn't know seem to understand the concept of chewing as he swallowed it. Then the next one. Then the next one.

“You really need to chew those.” he said. “Please, I don't want you to choke.”

Keth nodded. The smile was gone, replaced by the sounds of crunching. This was also a new sensation apparently. Keth spent a little longer than necessary chewing on the carrot until it was effectively mush when he finally swallowed. He did the same thing with the next one.

Arael set up the blankets on the futon couch that also doubled as his bed. Then he pulled the camp bed and an extra pillow – which he had purchased a while ago for when his brothers visited – and set it up so there would be a clear path to the door.

When Keth was finished eating, he asked for another bottle of water. Arael obliged, but by now he was definitely beat. He made a big deal of how comfortable the futon was, hoping that Keth was as tired as he was. Keth didn't need to be convinced. He climbed onto the couch, taking the position that Arael had suggested so that the metal bar wouldn't jab into his back all night. Within minutes he was practically comatose and Arael felt comfortable getting dressed for bed.

He threw the blue-green polo shirt on top of the hamper. There were obvious tears along the back from where it had caught on the fence, but he wasn't ready to throw it away just yet. He kicked off his shoes and traded his pants for pajama bottoms.

Before he gave in to the urge to collapse onto the bed, he picked up the trench coat. It was surprisingly clean, except for the mud and dirt on the parts that had been dragged along the ground. No odor at least. Or none that could be detected without the aid of a K-9 unit, which was why Arael resolved to throw it out first chance he got. As he carried it to a hook on the back of the door to his room, something fell with a thud against the floor.

He hung up the coat and then turned around to see a white flute. Curious, he picked it up and found that it was made entirely of wood. There was no paint covering it or polish to explain the brilliant light color. It was smooth and intricately carved and very light in his hands.

Lacking a better place for it, he set it down on the top of the refrigerator before trying to follow his house guest's lead.

- - - Updated - - -

Chapter Four

Sleep. Yeah, right.

Every time he started to drift, the house would settle, a floorboard would creak, the branches of the trees outside would bend and the sound would carry far enough into the house that he would sit up and stare in the direction of the door. An episode of rapid breathing later and he would try to close his eyes, only to have the refrigerator start making noise. The sound of a car driving by. The hum of a low flying jet.

Every noise had him convinced that someone wasn't too far behind, ready to storm the house and kick in the door.

He got up to check the lock. It was hard to see, since there was no window and he didn't want to turn the light and wake up Keth. He felt for the deadbolt and saw that it was in place. He even tested the door to see that it couldn't open far.

Then he tried to drift back to sleep.

The door squealed open. Someone was climbing the stairs. It took a whole minute of trying to find a blunt object to defend themselves with for Arael to remember that he had one roommate who was unaccounted for.

In typical Howie fashion, the door closed a little too loudly for a house full of people who, usually, had jobs to go to in the morning. Howie's only function was to keep the hallways clean and occasionally make a few hundred dollars of some pyramid marketing scheme that was apparently paying well enough to keep the landlord happy.

The light in the hallway snapped on and the sound of a key entering a lock, followed by the click and the movement of metal, was concluded with the opening and closing of a door. This time, Howie had the presence of mind to do it quietly. A few minutes later, noise stopped coming from that room, indicating that Howie was now off to dreamland and would be there well into the afternoon.

Normal, Ariel hated it when the hallway light was left on as it always kept him awake. But now, as he shifted his position in the camp bed, he could make out the vulnerable shape of the other main thing that had kept him awake.

Keth. Okay, so he was a brilliant little boy with some developmental delays. That wasn't so unusual anymore. He could be a lot worse, especially since Arael couldn't that damned movie out of his head.

A movie. A fantasy.

His real name was probably Keith. Or Seth. Dydrik... who knows? Maybe his real name was Derrick and Keth just the name up made to cope with some harsh reality.

The whole night, he barely moved. If it weren't for the faint sound of breathing, Arael would have had something else to worry about. And there were moments in his more coherent state that he was certain Keth was only waiting him out, looking for his opportunity to sneak out of the house and make another run for it.

Which wouldn't be a terrible thing. Arael was sure that he could deny ever running into Keth at all, even if there was some CCTV footage on a traffic control camera somewhere in the district. He would even call the police himself, anonymously, of course. From a payphone. If it wasn't such a dick move, at least.

Arael got up and looked for his pants. They were still by the hamper, where he usually tossed them. He felt around until he found the pockets and pulled out the money.
In dreams, whenever he found a large sum of cash, he always seemed to know it was a dream. That didn't stop him from trying like hell to get to a safe place to store the cash, regardless of how penniless he inevitably awakened. Tonight was the first time ever that he had come into possession of so much cash that was entirely his, even if it was acquired by dubious means.

He got up and quietly left the room, closing the door behind him. Then he stepped nimbly into the bathroom and closed that door, as well. It was less out of a need to really go and more out of a desire to count the bills once again in a well lit room.

Yup. Still two hundred and sixty-dollars. None of the bills had made babies in the last few hours. Okay, so it wasn't going to get him the Porsche he always dreamed of, unless it was from the toy aisle at Walmart. But that was a hell of a lot more than he had at the beginning of the day!

Dydrik. The big guy had called him Dydrik, too. Okay, that just proved that the older brother really was named Dydrik. Fine. Arael wasn't the only brother in his family to get the freaky name treatment. Sebastian came after him and the two of them had learned to direct their hatred at the Disney princess and not the people who signed their birth certificates. Maybe Keth and Dydrik's parents were fantasy club fanatics who liked mythical sounding names.

So Keth was telling the truth about his name. Fine. That didn't mean Dydrik was out to kill him. Arael had lied to his face about seeing Keth. It was only natural to be suspicious of a random stranger when your sibling was in some kind of danger and you loved him so much that you were willing to pay money to find him. People offered money to find missing loved ones all the time, so what if Dydrik and his associate decided to cut out the middle man?

Associate. No, that wasn't right either. Kids didn't have older men for associates. That guy was either a parent, or a guardian of something perfectly innocent and explainable.

Keth needed clothes. Arael definitely needed to get this burden off of his shoulders and soon. But he would use some of the money to get Keth into a presentable state before dropping him off with child services. That would cement his conscience for good.

Yeah, he was just wandering around Warren Street. I gave him a place to sleep for the night because he seemed confused and I was worried about him. Oh, he also has a future in gymnastics.

Kids could do some death defying acts, that was for sure.

Now that he had a semblance of a plan, Arael tried to at least let his body recover since his mind was shot. There would be plenty of time to sleep tonight. But if he drifted off now, the only way he was waking up was with smelling salts.
He checked his cellphone for the time. The hours did not pass slowly. When six o'clock finally rolled around, he sat up and leaned over just enough to gently nudge Keth's shoulder.

“Keth?” Nothing. “Keth, I'm going to run down to the store to get some things. I won't be long. Okay?”

If Keth heard him, he gave no notice.

Arael got dressed as quickly and as quietly as he could. Then he stuffed the bills in his wallet to be on the safe side. Out of habit, he reached for his padlock and stopped.

His roommates were most decent people. They wouldn't just barge into his room without knocking. Hopefully Keth was just with it enough not draw attention to himself.


* * *

Dydrik retreated to the safety of his lair; a cave sitting near a stream that had long ago turned to dust.

It galled him to rely so heavily on others. Especially those that were too weak and too afraid to risk Anwyng finding out about their betrayal. No promises of land or wealth were enough to coerce them.

There was very little rest. Dydrik sat on the rubber mat with his back against the wall and watching as the sky went from pitch black, to gray, to bright red. Lying beside him was a violin carved from the black ichorwood that came from a grove of trees near the cave where he was hatched, some great distance from here. The baton rested beside it. He lifted them both to his chest, handling them as cautiously as he might an egg.

The strings were of the strongest materials and finely tuned, or so he had been told. He might as well have been trying appraise the air.

For now it would be safe here in the cave. Hardly anyone occupied the lifeless rock that had once been their world. Few people other than Dydrik had the ability to pass from world to world. Fewer still could control the movement so precisely as to avoid a massive shift in time. So when he stepped out side and took that first breath of the scorching morning air, it was no surprise that he found himself back in the human world, standing in the alley behind a butcher shop, just as their sun was starting to rise.

He had to walk around a bit to orient himself. He only hoped he could find the warehouse before the passage of time ruined any chance of finding a reliable scent.

* * *

The sun wasn't even that high yet, but the morning light still stung Arael's eyes. It was a sensation he had been all too familiar with in his days on the night shift.

He walked quickly, but he couldn't resist the impulse to look back at the house. When he rounded the corner, he couldn't resist the impulse to look back at the street, knowing where the house was. Even when he stopped into the 7/11 for coffee, he kept his eye on the door and his ears open for the sound of a siren.

Customers pulled into the 7/11 for gas. None of them looked like cops, but you never knew. The guy behind the counter could be an undercover cop.

Arael pulled out the smallest bills to pay for the coffee, certain that the security cameras above the counter would be able to recognize suspicious amounts of cash and flag him. The cashier gave him his change and he left the store.

With each sip of the warm french vanilla, he felt the paranoia slipping away. He timed the trip so that the Goodwill would be open by the time he got there, but it was only seven-thirty. He tried to think of anything else they would need this morning.

For breakfast, they would have oatmeal. Lukewarm oatmeal, of course. With no stove and no microwave, if Arael wanted anything warm he either ate out or ordered in. But oatmeal would be fine. He would get some milk before returning to the house, so that Keth wouldn't have to totally slum it.

The coffee was gone. He returned to the 7/11 to use their bathroom, certain that he was forgetting something. A donut? A bagel?

No. Oatmeal would be fine. Maybe he would even get some juice as a treat.

Arael saw the phone cards for his service and remembered that he would need to buy extra time soon. Then he had to invest in a bus pass. As soon as Keth was out of his life, he would need to start pounding the pavement again. And since most of the people who worked at MakMor lived in town, that meant scouring the limits of the public transportation system to find jobs in places that wouldn't have heard about his little PR stunt.

He had no ill feelings towards Keth. But the sooner he could get his life back on track, the better.

When the store opened, he went straight to the children's section and found himself lost. Keth was a boy. That solved half of the problem. But was he a size eight or ten? What size shoe did he wear? Socks? Underwear? Would the picture on that shirt be too babyish for a ten year-old?

Morning Mom. I found a kid on the street and I don't know how to dress him. What's that? They sell straight jackets now? He didn't dare ask the lady at the counter for any advice. How much less pleasant would that conversation be?

Of the underwear and socks he bought two different sizes of each. A pair of pants that looked like they might fit and a pair of shorts that supposedly fit all sizes. One gray polo shirt with the cute little alligator logo. And sandals would be fine as long as it didn't rain today.

“Can I return these if they're not the right size?” was the only thing he dared ask the clerk. The answer was yes, with the receipt. Fine. His life was starting to make sense at long last.

He made as mad a dash for the house as he dared, only stopping for the milk and a box of cereal. By now he was certain that someone had broken into the house, found Keth, and had run off into the night like a demon in a fairy tale. Never mind that it was morning.

Up the stairs. Two doors padlocked. Howie was still home and snoring. So far so good.

Arael walked into his room and turned on the light to see Keth standing by the refrigerator, clutching the flute in his hand. There was a nervous energy about him that hadn't been there before. It only took a second to figure out what it was.

“I'm sorry I wet your bed.”

A visible stain covered the lower half of his shirt. Arael looked to the bed and saw that the covers were thrown back, but couldn't tell the extent of the damage just yet. So that was what he had forgotten.

“It's okay,” he said, holding back a groan that was meant for himself. “It's not your fault.”

He placed the Goodwill bag on the camp bed and put the groceries on top of the refrigerator. Keth stood still, watching him expectantly. Arael smiled tolerantly.

“It really isn't your fault. I should have had you use the bathroom last night. Lets get you in the shower, okay?”

“Shower?”

“Yeah. It's a small bathroom, so there's only a stand-in shower. I'll get the water started for you so you can clean up.” Seeing Keth's confusion, Arael fought the urge to frown. “Okay, forget the shower. Tell you what, here.”
Arael went into his closet and pulled down a bin of wipes from the shelf. He had bought them on clearance, not realizing they weren't as flushable as they advertised.

“Use these to clean, yourself. Then try these clothes on.”

“I don't know how,” Keth said, exasperated.

It was a real effort not to lose patience. Arael sat down on the bed to compose himself before speaking. He suspected Keth of having some kind of problems, so this wasn't that big of a surprise.

“Fine,” he said. “I'll help you get dressed. But you have to do this part on your own.”

Arael opened the bin of wipes and gave Keth a verbal rundown of how to use them. Keth seemed relieved that he wasn't going to be turned out on the street and he placed the flute carefully on top of the refrigerator. When he saw that Keth would be fine for a few minutes, he busied himself stuffing the dirty shirt and the blanket from the futon into the empty Goodwill bag. He tied it up tightly and crammed it into the hamper. Then he checked on the futon. It seemed as though the shirt and blanket took much of the damage and there was a barely noticeable trace of moisture in the mattress. The smell was nothing that a few sprays of Febreez wouldn't fix.

He opened one of the packages of boxers and turned his attention to Keth, reminding himself that he was not doing anything inappropriate. Uncomfortable? Yes. But, if it were one of his nephews, or his cousins and their children, Arael would hope that someone was willing and able to care half as much for them.

Success! The boxers were the right size. Keth followed verbal instructions well, making the process easier. Once the shirt was on, Arael decided that the worst was over. The pants were a size too big, so they went with the shorts, which were just right. The socks were too small, but the sandals were comfortable to walk around in.

“Well, you're dressed for a day at the beach anyway,” Arael said.

He pulled out a TV tray from the closet and set it up in front of the camp bed before retrieving two bowls and plastic spoons from the lower shelf. Keth didn't seem to particularly care what he had for breakfast, so Arael poured him a bowl of cereal. He went to the bathroom to get hot water for his oatmeal and when he returned, Keth was shoveling a handful of Cheerios into his mouth with his hand.

“Of course,” Arael muttered. “You don't know how to use a spoon either?”

Keth shook his head. Whether he was embarrassed at this or not was unclear. Arael patiently showed him how to hold the spoon and gently guided his hand into the cereal and to his mouth. He was a fast learner, or he was playing one hell of a mind game, leading Arael to think that his comparison to “Kevin” might not be such a long shot. Hopefully with therapy and good parenting, his story wouldn't also end with a prison sentence for murder.

“Thank you for being so kind.” Keth said, avoiding eye contact.

“You're welcome,” Arael replied, sincerely. He sat on the carpet eating his lukewarm oatmeal and trying to ignore the bits of milk and cereal that were staining the carpet. Hopefully he could borrow Robert's Dust Buster. “Why don't we talk about what we're going to do now.”

Keth continued eating.

“I'm not upset with you, but you can't stay here. You said your mom is, er, has passed away. So can we get a hold of your father?”

“He's dead, too.”

“Okay. I'm sorry to hear that. Then who's taking care of you?”

Keth pointed to the flute.

“I need to find someone who can play that for me,” he said. “That was who I was looking for when Dydrik found me.”

Arael didn't know what to say to that. He finished his oatmeal and waited until Keth finished his cereal before taking the bowls to the bathroom to wash them in the sink. When he returned to the bedroom, Keth had the flute in his hands again.

“I'll tell you what,” Arael said. “You can come with me to the Laundromat. But by the time my clothes are out of the dryer and folded, I want you to stop pretending and start thinking about what you want me to do to help you.”
Keth looked down at floor. If this was him being thoughtful, Arael was willing to give him time to do that while he pulled the laundry bag out of the hamper.

“You've been kind.”

“I told you, it's no problem.”

“But I'm not pretending.” Keth insisted. “I have to find the person who can play his, before Dydrik finds me again. Can you help me find that person?”

Arael sighed. He did say that the game was over after the laundry was done. Fine then, he could be fair.



* * *

None of the transients who had been camping out inside the warehouse remembered seeing a little boy, or the man from last night who had lied about seeing him. And no amount of assurance that the diamonds and sapphires in his pockets were real was sufficient to hire these people as muscle, even if Dydrik was willing to put up with their fragrance.

So he walked the perimeter of the property. Fetid piles of trash and the decaying corpses of rodents and birds filled the empty spaces. The strong smells of bodily fluids and illegal substances were harsher in parts of the ground than in others.
How did anyone ever believe that dragons would destroy the planet when humans were doing such a great job on their own?

Dydrik walked to the edge of the property and climbed back over the fence. He sniffed the air one last time. Now that was interesting. He followed the unusual smell to a break in the fence on the Warren Street side. It was a section of fence that had rarely been used, but was recently bent. A piece of fabric clung to the edge of the fence, so small that it would have gone unnoticed had it not smelled so strongly of... cleanliness.

There were traces of detergent mixed with something else. A pretty typical human smell, belonging to at least one portion of the species, but there was a trace of some other cleaning fluid as well. Industrial in nature. Disinfectant.

With the scent stored in his memory, Dydrik called up the image of the man with the unusual powers of deception. It had been dark last night and Dydrik couldn't risk altering the image with his imagination. He focused only on the details that were obvious in the residual streetlight.

A blue-green shirt, with some kind of patch on the sleeve. Dydrik then noticed something else on the ground that he hadn't taken notice of before. It was the same logo. Or at least part of it matched the one in his memory and it belonged to a grocery store that was very close by.

MakMor Superstore.
 

TheWolfEmperor

Est. Contributor
Messages
1,317
Role
  1. Diaper Lover
Screw it. Here's the rest of what I have so far, starting with Chapter Five.
##########

Hungry employees were distracted employees. Even the most honest employee could be come dishonest when distracted. A long standing benefit of working for Anwyng Garaug was the freedom to eat as much as you liked, free of charge at one of his buffet restaurants.

Magazines praised him and investors criticized this policy. But the bottom line always justified the policy.

Employees felt encouraged, empowered even to make sure that customers were satisfied, whether they worked for the restaurants or one of the other businesses that Anwyng owned. Educations were financed, fine apartments and homes were rented or purchased, children were given the best healthcare. And for this not a single penny had ever been stolen from Anwyng's registers.

So it was no surprise to Anwyng that one of his most valued employees was having lunch there. It was a bit of a surprise to realize that it was Bruce Upright, because no other employee would dare to walk into his office and slam the door shut in such a hurry.

“Mr. Wyng, something serious is happening.”

Anwyng looked up from his invoices.

“If your ass is on fire Mr. Upright, I would kindly remind you that the toilet is near the bar.”

Bruce came around the desk and placed his tablet on the table. Anwyng assumed there was something of importance on the Internet, so he humored his beloved pet in spite of the impertinence.

A few minutes later, he stood up.

“Find out where Keiko is. Have her meet me there.”

* * *

Keth was silent for most of the morning. He stayed close as they walked to Arael's favorite Laundromat, clutching the flute to his chest and immediately watchful of anyone walking in their direction, whether it was on the same street or the next one over.

“It would have been safer at the house,” Arael ventured.

“No it wouldn't.”

So they were back to short sentences now. Arael couldn't blame him for fuming, but it was almost a complete personality change from last night. It wasn't just pedestrians that seemed to bother him. Cars also got him jumpy. If someone drove by Keth got as close to Arael as he could, almost hiding behind him as glared at the driver.

Arael had a heavier bag to carry than usual, or he would have offered Keth his hand, just to see if he would be more comfortable. Besides, he doubted Keth would ever let go of that flute.

“Was that a present from–––,” Arael tried to think of something that wouldn't be upsetting. He fell back on, “–––was it a present?”

“Yes.”

When they got to the laundromat, Keth sat beside a window while Arael loaded the washers. One for his slightly cleaner clothes and another for the shirt and the blanket. He routinely glanced at Keth, who never took his eyes from the window, his head moving slowly and mechanically like a camera.

“Find anything interesting?” Arael asked, as he got change from the machine.

Keth only shook his head. His eyes were a little wider now, with the same look of panic that he had when he was running from Dydrik.

What did you do to your little brother? Arael wondered if Dydrik was the reason why Keth didn't know how to use a spoon of all things. It was heartbreaking to think that Keth had been trying to keep up such a brave front when it was obvious how scared he was.

If Dydrik returns, I'll protect you.

Dydrik might have been tough with backup, but if Arael ever saw him again he was going to be the one who needed protection.

When the machines were running, Arael took a seat next to Keth..

“Want to play Pac-Man?”

Keth turned his head. “What?”

Arael pointed to an annex where the owner kept a couple of old arcade games.

“They've got Pac-Man, Galaga, Space Invaders. Only a quarter and they're good for your hand eye coordination.”

“No thank you.”

Keth started to relax a little, turning away from the window and sitting comfortably in the chair. He held the flute in his lap.

“Do you know how to play that?” Arael asked.

“No. Only a Player can play this.”

Ask a silly question. “You know there's also flat screen back there. I mean, a television.”

Keth gave him a knowing smirk. It was nice to see a smile again, at least.

“I do know what television is.”

“Okay, that's something. What do you like to watch? Cartoons, movies, music videos?”

“I don't know.”

Arael nodded. “Yeah, we didn't watch a lot of TV in my house either. Whenever we had cable we didn't get used to it. Do you read?”

“No,” Keth said, sighing as he looked down at the flute. “My mother use to tell me stories.”

The smile vanished, replaced by the first hint of sadness. Arael wasn't sure if he should hug him, or pat his shoulder, so he just sat there and listened, hoping that Keth might open up about his parents. He turned sideways again, looking out at the street and said in a low whisper, “I really should go. You're in danger every second you're with me.”

“No I'm not,” Arael said. He doubted that the two women folding laundry behind the service counter were listening, but he kept his own voice down, just in case. “Look, I'm not afraid that I'm in danger. I just can't take care of you, not really. You've seen the place I rent. I can barely care for myself. And I feel very strange telling you that.”

“I understand.”

Arael snorted. “You know what, I actually believe you do.”

After a long silence Arael got up to check the washers. When he returned he squatted and made sure he had Keth's attention.

“I need some caffeine. If I run and get us something to eat, will you promise to stay here and not to run off?”

Keth nodded and smiled. Arael got up and started to leave, pausing. “Oh and the bathroom is over there by the arcade games.”

* * *

The trip to MakMor was certainly educational.

There were twenty locations and only one of those was outside the state. Not counting distribution centers, that made for a fairly mediocre grocery chain that resembled every other small chain in the country and elsewhere in the world.

Dydrik would have found nothing slightly remarkable about this one, were it not for a second glance at the store name.

It was a play on words. Nothing their customers would recognize or any of the shareholders and investors who were of entirely human heritage. But to the dragons who lived among them, MakMor was practically a six year-old greeting new adults at the door way by saying, “Look at my funny sign. Do you think I'm clever?”

Inside the break room, the store's mission statement ran along a fading paper banner that was tacked above the counter with the microwaves: MakMor time for family, MakMor time for yourself, MakMor time for celebrations and gatherings, We MakMor for You.

Only two people questioned Dydrik as he milled about the break room. One, a security guard with a black uniform that was meant to throw shoplifters off guard by giving him the appearance of a police officer and the second was a woman with her job title on her name badge; Marie, Front End Supervisor.

“I'm just here for a job interview,” he said, with a confident smile.

That was enough to satisfy them. No questions about what time his interview was, or what he was applying for. Everyone else just assumed he had a right to be here.

Blue-Green was the company color scheme. All of the floor employees seemed to wear the shirt and a black apron. The only variations were kitchen and bakery staff, management, and the occasional delivery driver who stopped into the break room for some coffee, or a snack from the vending machines.
Supervisors and department managers did paperwork. An old Magnavox from before the HD conversion sat on a stand in one corner of the room showing one of the many judge shows saturating the air, but no one paid it any attention.

Dydrik wondered if he could risk a small memory projection into some of their minds. Plant the memory of the man's face deep enough into their psyches that they thought it was their own, but close enough to the surface that it would force someone to start talking. Employees on this level were little different than servants and all that it took was a gentle prompting to incite a flurry of gossip. But among this gallery of faces that were either focused on their phones or paperwork they might not have even have a name to go with a face.

Forced to play the detective, Dydrik got up and walked around. At first he pretended to show an interest in the vending machines. In truth a soda would be nice, but he had no money. He didn't dare go back to Anwyng, who would only extort him for his remaining jewels, or try to press him into collecting tribute in exchange for the loan and he time for neither.

There was a water fountain outside of the bathrooms and he helped himself to one of the plastic cups on the counter.

While it was filling, he caught a familiar whiff and looked up. A very rotund man was coming town the hall. His clothing, which was business casual, seemed stressed with the task of keeping their owner's dignity in tact. A white shirt hugged the flab of his belly and revealed the interior temperature of the store with far greater accuracy than any thermometer. The black trousers, held in place by a faux leather belt, practically dangled from his waist like a dwarf holding on tightly to the outside of a wayward balloon's gondola while the legs dangled helplessly in the air.

Dydrik straightened up. He took a long sip of the water, disgusted by the bitterness and spitting it out into the drain almost immediately.

“If you're trying to poison your enemies, there are more humane ways to do it,” he said, when the store manager was close.

The man stopped, frowning as he looked at Dydrik. Then he sniffed, either deliberately, or as a result of a nasal condition and his eyes widened in shock.

“My, my, the Makmor clan doesn't answer to the Garaugs,” he stammered. Sweat covered his forehead and stained the shirt instantly. “We don't owe anyone anything.”

Dydrik raised a hand in warning. “Keep it down. There's enough drama in the news without us exposing ourselves. I am Dydrik Furon and I have business related to my own clan's purposes.”

If the man had gone a shade paler, he would be dead. Dydrik searched his memory for a dragon that had ever appeared so timid, but remembered that he hadn't been alive for long. There had to be some out there, or why else would territories and tributes exist?

“Is there somewhere private that we can speak?” He asked, firmly to avoid implying that it was an option.

“Of course,” the man said. “My, my office... my Lord.”

If anyone overheard them, who knew what they might think? Dydrik cared little, as it wasn't his establishment to run but it was amusing to think about.

They went into a large office at the end of the hall leading from the break room. There were four large metal desks set up in different areas. Two flat screen monitors sat on the manager and assistant managers desks. The others had the older, bulkier monitors, with the store's name in large block letters bouncing around the screen. Shelves of binders took up one wall and another wall featured pegboards full of store communications and stock information, among other things.

At Dydrik's request, the door was locked, with a sign that said Meeting In Progress, Do Not Disturb. Then the manager lead him to the desk at the far back of the room, with a big, sleek ergonomically designed chair and two, smaller metal chairs with the sickly green cushioning sat on the other end.
The man offered him one of these. Dydrik took his chair instead.

“Very comfortable,” Dydrik said, leaning back and letting out a long sigh of relief. “The Makmors really have done well for themselves. How is your father, anyhow?”

The man smiled, nervously and waited. When it was clear that Dydrik wasn't giving up the chair, he managed to rest his enormous weight on one of the metal chairs.

“Papa Makmor is doing fine. He's saddened that it's becoming harder to hide. He can rarely take his true form these days.”

Dydrik nodded. “Please, extend my sympathies.”

The man smiled again. It was likely that this sweaty, walking ball of pork was more human than dragon. Makmor, like many old dragons, had a habit of siring as many bastards as possible upon his harem of human wives, especially if there was a chance that their end was coming near. The ancient instinct to preserve the species was difficult to avoid, even if the next generation was becoming hopelessly diluted to the point where extinction was inevitable.

Every single manager of a MakMor store was the bastard child of Makmor the Dragon. Humans could only rise to the position of assistant manager. Dydrik had no idea what explanation was given for why manager positions never seemed to be available for them, or why promotions were never offered. But he imagined that anyone who raised too much of a fuss was either offered a position at the corporate office, or they were strongly encouraged to find employment elsewhere.

“I'll get right to the point. Does this man work at your store?” Dydrik projected the memory into the man's head. His expression went from nerves, to recognition, to fury.

“Oh, not any more,” the man half growled. “I hope to never see that fucking prick again.”

A new memory was projected into Dydrik's mind. Good. This man's dragon heritage was stronger than he thought.

Dydrik closed his eyes to experienced the memory from this man's point of view. Another office –––this was also close to the break room as Dydrik remembered seeing the poster on the outside wall–– with printers and computers. Marie stood at one of the printers, but her attention was on the man who was angrily jutting his name tag out for her to see. The man did not have a clear memory of focusing on the name tag, but there was a blur as he altered the memory for narrative purposes.

“–– always been Arael. Air-Ree-Al.”

The memory skipped forward to a few minutes later. Marie was flustered, but she went back to what she was doing while the man tried to reassure her.

“You handled it perfectly. If he thinks he deserves special treatment then it's probably better that he goes–––”

“Attention MakMor customers, this is your store janitor speaking. Just so you are aware, the staff who work at the bakery where some of you are now hoping to purchase fresh baked goods, do not wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. This includes Phil, the tall guy with the glasses who can usually be scene kneading the dough. Enjoy.”

Dydrik snapped out of the memory.

“Arael?” he said out loud.

“Yeah and he'd better not set foot in this store again,” the man continued to rant. “Suddenly we get these bad yelp reviews from customers who heard what he said. Then a health inspector made a special visit this morning. I had to take my whole bakery staff off the floor until they watched the health and safety videos, again. And all because that little punk couldn't just do his job and keep his mouth shut?”

“I'm sure it's a fascinating tale,” Dydrik said. “But right now, I'm more interested in finding out where I can find Arael.”

The man looked like he was about to say something sarcastic, then he realized who he was talking to. He may not have known how the hierarchy worked, but his father clearly gave him the basics, which would certainly involve not pissing off any of the ruling class. Of course, if Makmor realized that Dydrik was no longer officially the ruler of his clan, a very one-sided war would be in everyone's future.

“You know what,” the man stood up. “I'm probably breaking a law or two by giving you this. But whatever you have in store for the turd is going to be worth it.”

He went to his colleague's computer and tapped a few keys. A few seconds later, the employee information of Arael Knightsire. Dydrik got up and came to the man's side, committing the information to memory.

“Will that be sufficient?” the man asked. The sadism in his voice wasn't so amusing now. It implied that he was the one in control of this situation and Dydrik couldn't allow that.

Dydrik pulled out one of the stones from his pocket.

“I'll need cash and your car. This ought to cover both.”

Suitably humbled once again, the man swallowed. He took the stone and pulled out the keys to his vehicle and the cash from his wallet.

“It's parked over by the liquor store,” he said. “Also, please, don't tell my father or Anwyng about this.”

Dydrik stopped at the door and turned, giving him the deadliest grin. “I am as eager to keep this meeting a secret as I'm sure you'll be to keep the secret of who among Makmor's children has revealed, to one of his oldest enemies, that he has found his Player. Good day to you, sir.”

* * *

While the second sandwich was in the microwave, Arael picked up the courtesy phone and dialed. Twenty minutes later, he was sure he had done the right thing. When the conversation played over in his head, he wasn't so sure.

“Yes, I found this kid,” he said, when he got through to child protective services. “He was wandering around, confused. He said his parents are dead and that his brother is trying to hurt him. I think he might have some mental health issues, so I didn't feel right letting him run around on his own.”

“That's very kind of you, sir,” the lady said. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”

He told her everything. Or, the edited version of everything. There was no need to specify what time of day it was, or where he found Keth, or in what state. Just that it was probably a good idea to come by and get him. They agreed on a time that someone would stop by his house and he said he would give Keth lunch before then.

Very kind, she repeated once again.

Only Keth had called him that. Sincerely, anyway.

Now that it seemed inevitable that Keth would be out of his life for good, every step carried a little more weight. He hoped Keth would understand and that he wouldn't put up too much of a fight. Arael wasn't going to tell him until the last minute, but he wasn't looking forward to it.

You don't need it right now, he told himself. You did more than what others would have done. That's the important thing.

Someone else needed the microwave and was kind enough to put the second sandwich on top of the first one. Both of were cold by now, but still edible.
Arael paid for the food and drinks. When he got to the other end of the plaza and saw that Keth wasn't in the window, he nearly panicked. He hurried to the door, stuffing one of the sodas into his pocket and trying to handle the other one and the sandwiches as he flung open the door.

“Nope, I can't do it either.”

Keth was standing at the service counter while the older of the two employees held his flute in her hands. She had was lowering it from her mouth when Arael entered.

“Oh, hi there,” she said, smiling. “Your little brother was trying to awaken our inner talent.”

Little brother? Keth looked up at him, grinning sheepishly. He was figuring out those facial expressions at least. Arael didn't know if he told her they were brothers, or if she assumed it somehow, but he didn't bother correcting either one of them.

“You little rascal,” Arael said, relieved. “Come on, I got you a burger.”

Keth took his flute back and said good bye to the lady. She seemed very charmed and not the least bit suspicious.

They went to one of the folding tables. Arael placed one of the burgers in front of Keth, making sure to unwrap it for him (in case he thought the wrapper was edible, too) then he squeezed out the tubes of ketchup and mustard to taste, spreading them evenly. He wondered if he would have to tell the social worker about Keth's apparent delays. Would they even take the word of an unemployed janitor?

“Put that on the table,” Arael said. Keth wouldn't reach for the burger with the flute in his hands. “No one's going to take it.”

Keth was still reluctant. Now Arael was really concerned that this might cause problems later. Whatever home he got sent to, or if they took him to a doctor for an evaluation, someone was going to want to make him give up that flute. So far, Arael hadn't tried to take it from him by force.

“You let that lady hold it,” he pointed out.

“I was trying to see if one of them was my Player,” Keth explained. “I don't know how else to find them.”

“Okay, well they obviously weren't... that. So if someone comes along, just ask them if they're your player and don't give it to them if they say no.”

Keth looked at the burger and at his flute. Hunger obviously won out. But as he lowered it onto the table, Keth trembled as if her were letting of a small pet with a tenancy to bolt. Arael could definitely understand not wanting something valuable to go missing, especially in a laundromat.

“Look, there's no one else here.” Arael said. “Our washers are right over there. I swear no one is going to take this flute, if you just stand there and eat your burger. I'll make sure that doesn't happen.”

That seemed to convince him. Keth put the flute down, but continued to watch it like a hawk once his hands were firmly around the burger. Relieved to see that eating a burger wasn't going to require much instruction, Arael pulled out the bottle of root beer. He opened it over a sink, carefully, to make sure it wasn't too badly shaken before putting it in front of Keth.

“Make sure you drink that with both hands, too,” he said.

They are while the clothes were drying. Keth liked the burger, although he didn't seem to be tasting much of it as he took huge bites, barely chewing before swallowing. Arael provided a few quiet reminders about the dangers of choking but otherwise didn't make too huge a deal of it. The sooner he stopped feeling attached the easier it would be when Keth was gone – even if he had to perform the Heimlich before that happened.


* * *

Traffic. Signal lights. Pedestrians. Crosswalk! Don't pass the school bus, pull over for the ambulance, too fast! Oh and don't forget the seat belt.
With every jerk of the wheel, every time he pushed the pedal down, Dydrik felt the phantom twitch of his wings. At every red light he would glance up at the sky, remembering how it felt to clear a thousand miles in seconds.

That was a kindness. To be allowed a small taste of the air. To fly as high as the sun and the moons and to see the land below him moving in a blur of wind and velocity. What had it been like for those that came before him, who dominated the skies of both worlds and claimed that which they could touch with their eyes before their claws?

Dydrik was all too aware of how helpless he was in this form. Those that saw him would see a human child, no older than sixteen. Humans had forgotten how to fear them. When they looked at him, they didn't see the child of one of the most powerful dragon clans in the world. They saw a weak and scared little boy, who would never understand true suffering in his carefree little world.

Look at that car, see that kid? What's he doing out of school, driving that really nice car? Do his parents even know where he is?

What a far cry that was from, Please don't eat our sow. She's got one litter left in her and we need – no, please, not the house. Okay, you can have the pigs, but please just leave us one piglet, for trade.

The Zycite clan wants thirty-percent of our harvest. Will you protect us from them in exchange for fifty?

None of these were his memories. Like the ability to drive most cars, these were merely passed to him as a form of emotional investment. Unlike the ability
to drive – which he paid for in trade – repaying those investments was a long way in coming, especially now that the runt was on the loose.

He pulled onto the street from Arael's file – a residential neighborhood that eventually led up into the mountains. There was a housing project on one side, a small auto repair shop on another, and a few side streets that either didn't have names or were private driveways. Old growth trees that had survived more than their share of thunder storms grew near some of the homes.

Dydrik slowed down and lowered the window, breathing in the fresh air. As pleasant as it was, it only reminded him of his desire to take to the sky once more. He rolled up the window and searched the houses.

A woman, pushing a stroller, eyed the car suspiciously. Dydrik stopped and leaned out of the car, projecting Arael's face into her mind before asking her if
she knew him. Her face lit up.

“Oh yes,” she said, turning and pointing. “He lives in that yellow house, right down there. Do you see it?”

Dydrik smiled. “Yes, I do. Thank you.”

There was only one house, although how far into the yellow spectrum it ran was debatable. Maybe the woman had no other word for the mustard-color paint job. Dydrik brushed it aside. At least he wouldn't have to waste time asking around for Arael, possibly tipping off another dragon in the process.

He pulled up in front of the house and got out. Immediately he could hear televisions, radios, and sounds of movement in the other homes nearby. He looked down the road towards town and towards the mountains. Should he wait and see if Arael showed up? What other option did he have besides driving around and – pay dirt! A smell, coming from the house!

Dydrik bounded up to the porch and flung the screen door open. He threw the weight of his body into the door frame, breaking the lock and forcing it off the hinges. Some of the glass cracked, loudly, but he only hesitated long enough to determine where the scent was coming from. If someone called the police, he would be long gone before they arrived.

There was a small hallway leading to a single door. Dydrik could all ready tell no one was in there and bounded up the stairs. The scent was coming from one of the locked rooms. He snapped the padlock off and threw it aside before kicking in the door.

“What in the hell?” Someone shouted.

Of course no one was actually here. That didn't matter. Once inside, he knew for certain that the runt had definitely been here no more than a few hours ago! Dydrik spun around and saw the familiar trench coat hanging from a hook. He turned around again and saw an empty laundry hamper with the lid on the floor, lying on top of the MakMor shirt that Arael had been wearing in the memory. But the best part of this increasingly rewarding discovery, was the strong smell of urine left by a fledgling dragon who had not yet mastered control of his human body.

Dydrik inhaled, committing the distinctive smell to memory. There would be no way to hide now. The real challenge would be getting to him before some other dragon found him.

“Who the hell are you?”

Dydrik turned to see a man standing in the doorway, wearing nothing but his boxers. Even height, his muscles were the only thing to give Dydrik pause, until he caught a whiff of the alcohol that was strong on his breath.

“Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt breakfast, or lunch. I'll be on my way.”

When the man stood in his way and wouldn't move. Dydrik placed one hand on his shoulder. The man attempted to grab his wrist, presumably to force it behind his back and place him in some kind of hold. Fortunately for him, Dydrik was in rush. He shoved the man aside with minimal force, knocking him to the floor and leaping to the bottom of the stairs.

* * *

“Do you want me to carry that bag? I can carry that bag. I can carry that bag if you want. It's not too heavy, I'm stronger than I look. Want me to carry it?”

“No, Keth, I'm all set.”

Twenty ounces of soda was all it took to release Keth's wild child, apparently. The first sip was a cautionary one and then he was like Barney Gumble taking that first sip of beer. He drained his bottle and then wolfed down the burger. Then, he managed to at least direct his new found energy to helping Arael fold the blanket. But with nothing else to do – since Arael wasn't comfortable letting him help with the clothes – the kid was off like the shot from a gun.

Customers walked in and Keth ran to each one, offering to help them with their clothes. When they refused (casting glances at Arael and offering up their nervous laughter) he asked them if they could try playing his flute. The flute was his biggest priority. He absolutely demanded that they try to play it, prompting Arael to cram the rest of his clothes back into the laundry bag, stuffing it under one hand while he practically dragged Keth out with the other.

“What'd I do wrong?” he asked. “I was only trying to find my Player. I need my Player to play the flute. Why don't you try playing my flute, cause you might be my Player!”

“Keep it down,” Arael said, watching all around him as people became aware of Keth's behavior. “No, stop, I'm trying to walk.”

Keth slowed down, falling into step beside Arael, but it was only a small concession. Arael shifted the laundry bag to one hand, in case he had to grab Keth again.

“I really liked that brown stuff,” he said. “Can I have some more of that stuff later? What was it called?”

“Root beer. And no, not right now. Not as long as I can help it, anyway,” Arael shook his head. He wasn't sure if this was a refreshing change of pace or a frightening one. Could he hand Keth over to unsuspecting strangers without warning them first? “Speaking of strangers–,”

“You didn't say anything about strangers.” Keth cut in.

“No, I was thinking of it. But the point is you shouldn't go running up to random strangers, asking them to play your flute. Don't you know there are crazy people out there?”

“And one them might be my Player.”

“Okay, stop.” Arael got in front of Keth to get his attention. “Do you remember what I said about pretending?”

“Yes, you said you it has to stop after the laundry is done,” Keth looked at the laundry bag. “It's done. That's why I need to find my Player. Only the one who can play this––,” he held up the flute, “–– can help me. You asked me how I wanted your help and that's it. I want you to help me find my Player.”

Arael rubbed his eyes. Did he have such a one track mind at that age? He resolved to call his mother for stories, after he had gotten about forty-eight hours of sleep. Thinking about his childhood made him remember something he had read.

Oh no, he thought. I will never hate myself more than now, if I do this.

“Well, actually, that's what I want to talk to you about.” Arael got down to his knees. Keth listened intently. “I talked to someone, on the phone. Because I was wondering how we might find your Player.” He didn't remember where he had read it exactly. Something about how a psychiatrist might work with someone's delusion to get to the source of the problem. “And there's a lady, who is an expert on Players. She knows all of the, uh, signs of what makes someone a Player.”

It was a play. A play about the guy who thought he was a president. That's where Arael got the idea. No wonder he wasn't convincing himself. But for a few precious seconds, it seemed as if it might be working on Keth.

“What do you mean you've been talking to someone?” Or not.

So much for that.

“You don't even know what a Player is.” Keth took a step back, towards the road.

“Be careful,” Arael said. “Please, I don't want you to get run over.”

“You don't even know what I am.”

Arael reached out to him, hoping to keep him from stumbling off of the curb. Keth took one hand from the flute and swung it forward, striking Arael in the chest. Surprised by the speed and the force, Arael went sprawling onto the concrete.

“Oof!”

Keth bent his and knees and jumped, across the road, to the sidewalk on the other end. Arael blinked several times, rubbing his eyes furiously. There was no way he could have seen that! He got to his feet and saw Keth, standing there, staring back at him with a look of betrayal and fear that was more painful than the blow.

“I told you I didn't want to hurt you,” Keth shouted. “Good bye, Arael. I'll get my coat and leave.”

“Your coat? Keth, no wait! Please!” Arael ran into the street without even looking. Breaks squealed and a driver had to swerve to avoid hitting him with his pickup. Arael stood, paralyzed from the shock until he realized Keth had just disappeared. Arael looked all over, desperately trying to find him. Another driver honked their horn and shouted something inaudible.

Arael got to the sidewalk and caught a glimpse of Keth, who had made all the way to the end of the street in the confusion. He was turned the corner, running toward Arael's house at a speed that would have put most Olympic gold medalists to shame.

He ran after him, forgetting his clothes. If someone in need of a blanket that happened to be his size walked by, it would be their lucky day.

By the time he got to his street, there was no sign of Keth in either direction. He slowed to a jog, trying to catch his breath. When he saw the unfamiliar car parked in front of his house, he thought, Oh great. They showed up early.

He was as concerned for Keth's safety as the social worker would be, but he didn't know what they would think if he lost the kid that they were coming to collect. It had to look suspicious when he called from the convenience store instead of using his own phone. And what if Keth's version of events was more edited than his was? Keth seemed like a sweet kid, but Arael had read all about the allegations kids could make against adults when they were angry enough. And that was without the glory hounds who worked with them filling in the blanks in the hopes of grabbing fifteen minutes of fame.

I should have just called the police last night.

The front door to the house was wide open. Arael remembered closing it and knew that Chris or Bob wouldn't have left it open. There were no police cruisers around and the car didn't have the right plate to be an unmarked vehicle, so even if someone had been knocking loudly enough to bring Howie out of his stupor, there was no way that their resident “law student” was letting anyone in without a warrant.

As Arael got closer, he thought the car looked familiar. There was no child seat or booster in the back. He thought a social worker might at least have someone, like a police escort, waiting outside in case things became difficult. Then he heard shouting and movement. He looked up at the door, but the sun was high and it was hard to see in side.

He thought it was Keth, running out to demand that Arael unlock his door. One blur of movement later and he saw Dydrik, standing at the top of the porch.

“Oh, wow,” Dydrik said, throwing his arms up to the sky. “Well, that's one of the mountains. Now I just need to find the other one.”

Arael clenched his fists

“It's great to see you again so soon, Arael. I did pronounce your name correctly, right? Are you absolutely certain that you didn't see my little brother? You remember, the kid wearing the big trench coat. The one that might have been a midget?”

“I don't know where he ran to, but if you hurt him I'll––,” Dydrik jumped from the steps and landed in front of Arael, grabbing him by the throat and tossing him across the hood of the car. Before Arael could even cry out in pain, Dydrik jumped onto the car and crouched over him, pinning down with one hand.

“Where. Is. The. Runt?”

“Get off me!”

Arael tried shoving him off. He wasn't as strong as he might have liked and the only real fight he had ever been in was in the third grade. Otherwise confrontations that got physical tended to be one- sided, with the other party beating the crap out of him until they got bored and walked away. Dydrik must have been a hundred-and-eighty pounds, dripping wet, but he held Arael in place like he was a dead frog in a laboratory pan.

“That is not the answer I'm looking for,” Dydrik smacked him, lightly on the cheek.

In a panic, Arael threw one desperate punch that managed to connect with Dydrik's jaw. It seemed to be more annoying than painful, but Dydrik responded with a stronger backhand. Pain exploded across his face, bouncing around inside of his head like waves. His vision became blurry. When he opened his eyes, he felt like someone had strapped him to the wrong side of a helicopter and his stomach began to turn.

“Dydrik, leave him alone!”

Dydrik looked up and saw the runt approaching them, cautiously.

“Well, hello little brother. My, my, how you've grown.” He leaned in so he could talk right into Arael's ear. “I see you Bruce's generous money to good use. The clothes are a huge improvement over the coat.”

Arael winced. He tried to tell Keth to run, but Dydrik gripped his throat again.

“You can't hurt him!” Keth cried. “It says so in the rules.”

“Oh, you learned about the 'rules',” Dydrik said. “Well, they should have explained to you the concept of fine print. There's only one line in the entire spell that involves harming humans and it says, 'no blood shall be spilled of any kine'. I can do quite a bit to this one without spilling so much as a drop.”

Dydrik grabbed a fistful of Arael's hair, for emphasis, raising his head up and slamming it back on the hood.

“Keth,” Arael moaned. “I'm sorry. Just run.”

“I can't,” Keth said. “I told you I would protect you.”

Arael's vision was clearing up enough that he saw Keth holding the flute out. Dydrik saw it and slipped off the car, moving slowly as Keth started to back away.

“Just take it Dydrik,” he said. “This is what you want, right? If you break it, I can't hurt you.”

“You haven't got much chance against me, either way Little Brother. Keth, is it?”

“I have more of a chance than you right now. I don't see your instrument but you don't have your Player either, or you would have found me sooner.”


Dydrik chuckled.

“Not bad. Very observant for only two days old. But not very smart if you planned on living longer.”

Keth got to his knees and held the flute out. Dydrik was still wary.

“Why are you giving up so soon?” he asked. “You're a Furon. We are the direct descendants of the grand-matriarch. We don't surrender, not even to each other.”

Arael sat up, slowly. The hood of the car was hot and it made the headache worse. He didn't know if it was the concussion or the pain in his face and neck, but some of what Dydrik was saying actually made sense. One thing, at least.

Keth's only two days old? Well, that explains a lot.

“Arael's been kind to me.”

Dydrik put his hand over his heart.

“Isn't that so sweet, Arael?” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “I wonder what he'd think if he found out who you are.”

Arael coughed and wheezed. He leaned forward, expecting to throw up, but only tasting bile.

“Who am I supposed to be?” he asked, exasperated. “I'm just a janitor.”

Dydrik laughed. “Not any more. By the way, your boss sends his best wishes. That's his car you're coughing up a lung on. I suppose it's appropriate since your great-great grandfather is the one who fucked over our entire species.”

“What?”

“Relax. There will be time to drop all of that information on you later,” Dydrik turned to Keth, snatching the flute from his hand. “I accept your trade, Keth. You wouldn't have lasted much longer as a dragon. Not if this is what humanity has done to you.”

Dydrik raised the flute high above Keth's head, taking it in both hands. Keth locked gazes with Arael, who had manged to slide off of the car without spilling over.

Arael felt the world spin beneath him, but he fought down the nausea and ignored the headache as he slammed his body into Dydrik. Unprepared for the attack, Dydrik stumbled and Arael grabbed his arms, trying to pry the flute from his hands. By now he didn't care what the big deal was, about Dydrik, or any of the crap that came out of his mouth. He didn't understand what this flute was that made it so worth sacrificing it for him, but he swore he wouldn't let Dydrik hurt Keth again. This seemed like as good a time as any to cash in on that vow.

“Arael, be careful!” Keth shouted.

Dydrik slammed his head back. Arael coughed and sputtered as blood began to gush from his nose. Before Dydrik could turn around, Keth got to his feet and landed a kick that was meant for his stomach.

Even with bare feet and sandals, it was a mighty blow. Dydrik doubled over. Then Keth brought his teeth into the fight, biting down on Dydrik's wrist.

“Gah, fuck!” Dydrik dropped the flute. He lifted Keth into the air, shaking him violently, before slamming him into the pavement.

Arael was paralyzed with shock. Someone from one of the houses must have seen it, because he heard someone shouting to call the police. Keth writhed in agony. Arael wanted to rush to his side, to see if he was badly hurt, but before he could make a move, Keth got to his feet and fixed Dydrik with a deadly glare. Aside from a few scrapes on his face and chin and the dirt on his clothes, there was very little sign that he had taken such a violent impact.

Dydrik also recovered, physically. His mental state seemed to be in question as he shook his head in disbelief, chuckling.

“My mistake. You're way more dragon than I thought. Tell you what, since you're going to fight like one, you can die like one.”

Keth stood his ground as Dydrik advanced.

Gunfire! Twice.

Arael winced. Dydrik and Keth also covered their ears and looked to see Howie, coming down from the porch with a shotgun trained on Dydrik. A cry of alarm came from one of the houses and in the distance, sirens blared.

“Put your hands up fuckwad!” Howie shouted.

That's what it sounded like. By now, Arael was sure that Dydrik and Keth could hear him clearly, while his own brain had turned into pudding sometime before the report of the rifle. Howie got between Arael and Dydrik.

“Oh, look it's Captain Kill,” Dydrik said.

Would the shells even kill him? Arael wondered.

“Are you okay?” Howie asked, keeping his eyes on Dydrik.

Arael vomited. Howie didn't need a translation.

“Get away from the kid,” he told Dydrik. “Get on the sidewalk and sit your ass down.”

The sirens got louder as two cruisers pulled up from both ends of the streets. The officers got out, taking cover behind car doors as they pulled their guns.

“Put the gun down!”

“Sir, drop the weapon!”

Arael had the presence of mind to put his hands up, even though his stomach wanted him to remain doubled over. But Dydrik actually lowered his, as if two armed cops were less of a threat to him than Howie.

“Dydrik, just go,” Keth said. “You don't need to hurt anyone.”

“Put the weapon down!”

Howie didn't lower his rifle. Dydrik conjured a simple command, laced with paranoia and instability and projected it into Howie's subconscious.

“Aim at one of the cops.”

Dydrik only glanced down at the flute and at Keth before muttering, “Rain check, kiddo.”

He grabbed Arael just as Howie gave into the suggestion. Two guns fired. One bullet struck Howie in the chest and the second one got him in the temple. Blood splattered as Howie fell to the ground.

One of the officers called in the shooting while the other rushed forward to grab Keth, just as Keth was getting his hand around his flute. The officer succeeded in getting Keth to the car, but then Keth broke away and ran, heading for the mountains. He was already out of sight before the officer could even think to give chase.

Arael and Dydrik were gone.

* * *

David Durkee, full time reporter and co-founder of the podcast Maximus was sitting in his car at the end of the street. A firetruck and ambulance were on the scene, police were directing traffic along a narrow strip around the yellow tape, and all of the fixings of an investigation were visible from where he sat; or as David liked to call it, the rubber neck special–––Guaranteed to make the most devoted crime show binge watcher forget the fact that there were drivers behind them who had places they needed to be.

In the past hour alone, he typed up two articles. He e-mailed one to his editor, to be posted on the website shortly. The second article was for his blog. Then he fired out a string of Tweets praising the local police force for their vigilance and expertise in handling the situation (while also responding to a few commenters who wanted to rant about gun control and police brutality) and taking plenty of pictures of the house where the shooter lived, the people working the crime scene, and he even managed to get a shot of the victim being loaded into the ambulance.

No one bothered him, so long as he didn't obstruct traffic or get in the way of the professionals. No one with a uniform would give him a quote, but plenty of neighbors and witnesses had given David more than enough fodder to satisfy the media for a couple of weeks. But his plan was to stay close by, hoping to get more substantial details about what happened.

Another car pulled up behind him, followed by a jeep. A woman, probably in her late twenties, stepped out of the jeep. She had a leather backpack slung over one shoulder, but there was no telling what was in it. She stopped by the car, just as a slightly older man stepped. Both of them were Asian, but David thought he recognized the man from somewhere.

The two of them exchanged a few brief words, then they made their way towards the cordoned area. The man stopped beside David's car and leaned into passenger window, making a rolling gesture. David lowered the window.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said. “Are you the young gentleman who wrote this article?”

The man held out an iPhone which displayed the article that David had just written. His profile pic was at the top of the article, next to his picture of the house. David felt a swell of pride to see that someone was not only reading his articles, but that they seemed to recognize him, too. That's when he realized that he knew who that man was.

“You're Jian Wnyg,” David said. “I saw you on Shark Tank last year. And I love your restaurant. It's so great to finally meet you.”

“Very nice,” Anwyng replied, shaking David's hand. “That was a fun year, Mr. Durkee. I'm please to meet you, as well.”

“Hey, can I get an interview sometime?”

Anwyng smiled warmly and glanced up at Keiki.

“Why don't you go on ahead,” he said. “I'll be with you in a moment.”

David couldn't believe his luck. Breaking news on a police shooting and the chance to interview one of the most influential business owners in the state was something that only happened to journalists in movies and books. There had to be an angel on his shoulder, somewhere up there.

“Before we begin,” Anwyng said. “In exchange for my time, I hope you will permit me the indulgence of asking you a few questions of my own.”


# # #
All of this is a rough draft btw. So I'm sorry for the clunky sentences and the poor editing.

- - - Updated - - -

Screw it. Here's the rest of what I have so far, starting with Chapter Five.
##########

Hungry employees were distracted employees. Even the most honest employee could be come dishonest when distracted. A long standing benefit of working for Anwyng Garaug was the freedom to eat as much as you liked, free of charge at one of his buffet restaurants.

Magazines praised him and investors criticized this policy. But the bottom line always justified the policy.

Employees felt encouraged, empowered even to make sure that customers were satisfied, whether they worked for the restaurants or one of the other businesses that Anwyng owned. Educations were financed, fine apartments and homes were rented or purchased, children were given the best healthcare. And for this not a single penny had ever been stolen from Anwyng's registers.

So it was no surprise to Anwyng that one of his most valued employees was having lunch there. It was a bit of a surprise to realize that it was Bruce Upright, because no other employee would dare to walk into his office and slam the door shut in such a hurry.

“Mr. Wyng, something serious is happening.”

Anwyng looked up from his invoices.

“If your ass is on fire Mr. Upright, I would kindly remind you that the toilet is near the bar.”

Bruce came around the desk and placed his tablet on the table. Anwyng assumed there was something of importance on the Internet, so he humored his beloved pet in spite of the impertinence.

A few minutes later, he stood up.

“Find out where Keiko is. Have her meet me there.”

* * *

Keth was silent for most of the morning. He stayed close as they walked to Arael's favorite Laundromat, clutching the flute to his chest and immediately watchful of anyone walking in their direction, whether it was on the same street or the next one over.

“It would have been safer at the house,” Arael ventured.

“No it wouldn't.”

So they were back to short sentences now. Arael couldn't blame him for fuming, but it was almost a complete personality change from last night. It wasn't just pedestrians that seemed to bother him. Cars also got him jumpy. If someone drove by Keth got as close to Arael as he could, almost hiding behind him as glared at the driver.

Arael had a heavier bag to carry than usual, or he would have offered Keth his hand, just to see if he would be more comfortable. Besides, he doubted Keth would ever let go of that flute.

“Was that a present from–––,” Arael tried to think of something that wouldn't be upsetting. He fell back on, “–––was it a present?”

“Yes.”

When they got to the laundromat, Keth sat beside a window while Arael loaded the washers. One for his slightly cleaner clothes and another for the shirt and the blanket. He routinely glanced at Keth, who never took his eyes from the window, his head moving slowly and mechanically like a camera.

“Find anything interesting?” Arael asked, as he got change from the machine.

Keth only shook his head. His eyes were a little wider now, with the same look of panic that he had when he was running from Dydrik.

What did you do to your little brother? Arael wondered if Dydrik was the reason why Keth didn't know how to use a spoon of all things. It was heartbreaking to think that Keth had been trying to keep up such a brave front when it was obvious how scared he was.

If Dydrik returns, I'll protect you.

Dydrik might have been tough with backup, but if Arael ever saw him again he was going to be the one who needed protection.

When the machines were running, Arael took a seat next to Keth..

“Want to play Pac-Man?”

Keth turned his head. “What?”

Arael pointed to an annex where the owner kept a couple of old arcade games.

“They've got Pac-Man, Galaga, Space Invaders. Only a quarter and they're good for your hand eye coordination.”

“No thank you.”

Keth started to relax a little, turning away from the window and sitting comfortably in the chair. He held the flute in his lap.

“Do you know how to play that?” Arael asked.

“No. Only a Player can play this.”

Ask a silly question. “You know there's also flat screen back there. I mean, a television.”

Keth gave him a knowing smirk. It was nice to see a smile again, at least.

“I do know what television is.”

“Okay, that's something. What do you like to watch? Cartoons, movies, music videos?”

“I don't know.”

Arael nodded. “Yeah, we didn't watch a lot of TV in my house either. Whenever we had cable we didn't get used to it. Do you read?”

“No,” Keth said, sighing as he looked down at the flute. “My mother use to tell me stories.”

The smile vanished, replaced by the first hint of sadness. Arael wasn't sure if he should hug him, or pat his shoulder, so he just sat there and listened, hoping that Keth might open up about his parents. He turned sideways again, looking out at the street and said in a low whisper, “I really should go. You're in danger every second you're with me.”

“No I'm not,” Arael said. He doubted that the two women folding laundry behind the service counter were listening, but he kept his own voice down, just in case. “Look, I'm not afraid that I'm in danger. I just can't take care of you, not really. You've seen the place I rent. I can barely care for myself. And I feel very strange telling you that.”

“I understand.”

Arael snorted. “You know what, I actually believe you do.”

After a long silence Arael got up to check the washers. When he returned he squatted and made sure he had Keth's attention.

“I need some caffeine. If I run and get us something to eat, will you promise to stay here and not to run off?”

Keth nodded and smiled. Arael got up and started to leave, pausing. “Oh and the bathroom is over there by the arcade games.”

* * *

The trip to MakMor was certainly educational.

There were twenty locations and only one of those was outside the state. Not counting distribution centers, that made for a fairly mediocre grocery chain that resembled every other small chain in the country and elsewhere in the world.

Dydrik would have found nothing slightly remarkable about this one, were it not for a second glance at the store name.

It was a play on words. Nothing their customers would recognize or any of the shareholders and investors who were of entirely human heritage. But to the dragons who lived among them, MakMor was practically a six year-old greeting new adults at the door way by saying, “Look at my funny sign. Do you think I'm clever?”

Inside the break room, the store's mission statement ran along a fading paper banner that was tacked above the counter with the microwaves: MakMor time for family, MakMor time for yourself, MakMor time for celebrations and gatherings, We MakMor for You.

Only two people questioned Dydrik as he milled about the break room. One, a security guard with a black uniform that was meant to throw shoplifters off guard by giving him the appearance of a police officer and the second was a woman with her job title on her name badge; Marie, Front End Supervisor.

“I'm just here for a job interview,” he said, with a confident smile.

That was enough to satisfy them. No questions about what time his interview was, or what he was applying for. Everyone else just assumed he had a right to be here.

Blue-Green was the company color scheme. All of the floor employees seemed to wear the shirt and a black apron. The only variations were kitchen and bakery staff, management, and the occasional delivery driver who stopped into the break room for some coffee, or a snack from the vending machines.
Supervisors and department managers did paperwork. An old Magnavox from before the HD conversion sat on a stand in one corner of the room showing one of the many judge shows saturating the air, but no one paid it any attention.

Dydrik wondered if he could risk a small memory projection into some of their minds. Plant the memory of the man's face deep enough into their psyches that they thought it was their own, but close enough to the surface that it would force someone to start talking. Employees on this level were little different than servants and all that it took was a gentle prompting to incite a flurry of gossip. But among this gallery of faces that were either focused on their phones or paperwork they might not have even have a name to go with a face.

Forced to play the detective, Dydrik got up and walked around. At first he pretended to show an interest in the vending machines. In truth a soda would be nice, but he had no money. He didn't dare go back to Anwyng, who would only extort him for his remaining jewels, or try to press him into collecting tribute in exchange for the loan and he time for neither.

There was a water fountain outside of the bathrooms and he helped himself to one of the plastic cups on the counter.

While it was filling, he caught a familiar whiff and looked up. A very rotund man was coming town the hall. His clothing, which was business casual, seemed stressed with the task of keeping their owner's dignity in tact. A white shirt hugged the flab of his belly and revealed the interior temperature of the store with far greater accuracy than any thermometer. The black trousers, held in place by a faux leather belt, practically dangled from his waist like a dwarf holding on tightly to the outside of a wayward balloon's gondola while the legs dangled helplessly in the air.

Dydrik straightened up. He took a long sip of the water, disgusted by the bitterness and spitting it out into the drain almost immediately.

“If you're trying to poison your enemies, there are more humane ways to do it,” he said, when the store manager was close.

The man stopped, frowning as he looked at Dydrik. Then he sniffed, either deliberately, or as a result of a nasal condition and his eyes widened in shock.

“My, my, the Makmor clan doesn't answer to the Garaugs,” he stammered. Sweat covered his forehead and stained the shirt instantly. “We don't owe anyone anything.”

Dydrik raised a hand in warning. “Keep it down. There's enough drama in the news without us exposing ourselves. I am Dydrik Furon and I have business related to my own clan's purposes.”

If the man had gone a shade paler, he would be dead. Dydrik searched his memory for a dragon that had ever appeared so timid, but remembered that he hadn't been alive for long. There had to be some out there, or why else would territories and tributes exist?

“Is there somewhere private that we can speak?” He asked, firmly to avoid implying that it was an option.

“Of course,” the man said. “My, my office... my Lord.”

If anyone overheard them, who knew what they might think? Dydrik cared little, as it wasn't his establishment to run but it was amusing to think about.

They went into a large office at the end of the hall leading from the break room. There were four large metal desks set up in different areas. Two flat screen monitors sat on the manager and assistant managers desks. The others had the older, bulkier monitors, with the store's name in large block letters bouncing around the screen. Shelves of binders took up one wall and another wall featured pegboards full of store communications and stock information, among other things.

At Dydrik's request, the door was locked, with a sign that said Meeting In Progress, Do Not Disturb. Then the manager lead him to the desk at the far back of the room, with a big, sleek ergonomically designed chair and two, smaller metal chairs with the sickly green cushioning sat on the other end.
The man offered him one of these. Dydrik took his chair instead.

“Very comfortable,” Dydrik said, leaning back and letting out a long sigh of relief. “The Makmors really have done well for themselves. How is your father, anyhow?”

The man smiled, nervously and waited. When it was clear that Dydrik wasn't giving up the chair, he managed to rest his enormous weight on one of the metal chairs.

“Papa Makmor is doing fine. He's saddened that it's becoming harder to hide. He can rarely take his true form these days.”

Dydrik nodded. “Please, extend my sympathies.”

The man smiled again. It was likely that this sweaty, walking ball of pork was more human than dragon. Makmor, like many old dragons, had a habit of siring as many bastards as possible upon his harem of human wives, especially if there was a chance that their end was coming near. The ancient instinct to preserve the species was difficult to avoid, even if the next generation was becoming hopelessly diluted to the point where extinction was inevitable.

Every single manager of a MakMor store was the bastard child of Makmor the Dragon. Humans could only rise to the position of assistant manager. Dydrik had no idea what explanation was given for why manager positions never seemed to be available for them, or why promotions were never offered. But he imagined that anyone who raised too much of a fuss was either offered a position at the corporate office, or they were strongly encouraged to find employment elsewhere.

“I'll get right to the point. Does this man work at your store?” Dydrik projected the memory into the man's head. His expression went from nerves, to recognition, to fury.

“Oh, not any more,” the man half growled. “I hope to never see that fucking prick again.”

A new memory was projected into Dydrik's mind. Good. This man's dragon heritage was stronger than he thought.

Dydrik closed his eyes to experienced the memory from this man's point of view. Another office –––this was also close to the break room as Dydrik remembered seeing the poster on the outside wall–– with printers and computers. Marie stood at one of the printers, but her attention was on the man who was angrily jutting his name tag out for her to see. The man did not have a clear memory of focusing on the name tag, but there was a blur as he altered the memory for narrative purposes.

“–– always been Arael. Air-Ree-Al.”

The memory skipped forward to a few minutes later. Marie was flustered, but she went back to what she was doing while the man tried to reassure her.

“You handled it perfectly. If he thinks he deserves special treatment then it's probably better that he goes–––”

“Attention MakMor customers, this is your store janitor speaking. Just so you are aware, the staff who work at the bakery where some of you are now hoping to purchase fresh baked goods, do not wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. This includes Phil, the tall guy with the glasses who can usually be scene kneading the dough. Enjoy.”

Dydrik snapped out of the memory.

“Arael?” he said out loud.

“Yeah and he'd better not set foot in this store again,” the man continued to rant. “Suddenly we get these bad yelp reviews from customers who heard what he said. Then a health inspector made a special visit this morning. I had to take my whole bakery staff off the floor until they watched the health and safety videos, again. And all because that little punk couldn't just do his job and keep his mouth shut?”

“I'm sure it's a fascinating tale,” Dydrik said. “But right now, I'm more interested in finding out where I can find Arael.”

The man looked like he was about to say something sarcastic, then he realized who he was talking to. He may not have known how the hierarchy worked, but his father clearly gave him the basics, which would certainly involve not pissing off any of the ruling class. Of course, if Makmor realized that Dydrik was no longer officially the ruler of his clan, a very one-sided war would be in everyone's future.

“You know what,” the man stood up. “I'm probably breaking a law or two by giving you this. But whatever you have in store for the turd is going to be worth it.”

He went to his colleague's computer and tapped a few keys. A few seconds later, the employee information of Arael Knightsire. Dydrik got up and came to the man's side, committing the information to memory.

“Will that be sufficient?” the man asked. The sadism in his voice wasn't so amusing now. It implied that he was the one in control of this situation and Dydrik couldn't allow that.

Dydrik pulled out one of the stones from his pocket.

“I'll need cash and your car. This ought to cover both.”

Suitably humbled once again, the man swallowed. He took the stone and pulled out the keys to his vehicle and the cash from his wallet.

“It's parked over by the liquor store,” he said. “Also, please, don't tell my father or Anwyng about this.”

Dydrik stopped at the door and turned, giving him the deadliest grin. “I am as eager to keep this meeting a secret as I'm sure you'll be to keep the secret of who among Makmor's children has revealed, to one of his oldest enemies, that he has found his Player. Good day to you, sir.”

* * *

While the second sandwich was in the microwave, Arael picked up the courtesy phone and dialed. Twenty minutes later, he was sure he had done the right thing. When the conversation played over in his head, he wasn't so sure.

“Yes, I found this kid,” he said, when he got through to child protective services. “He was wandering around, confused. He said his parents are dead and that his brother is trying to hurt him. I think he might have some mental health issues, so I didn't feel right letting him run around on his own.”

“That's very kind of you, sir,” the lady said. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”

He told her everything. Or, the edited version of everything. There was no need to specify what time of day it was, or where he found Keth, or in what state. Just that it was probably a good idea to come by and get him. They agreed on a time that someone would stop by his house and he said he would give Keth lunch before then.

Very kind, she repeated once again.

Only Keth had called him that. Sincerely, anyway.

Now that it seemed inevitable that Keth would be out of his life for good, every step carried a little more weight. He hoped Keth would understand and that he wouldn't put up too much of a fight. Arael wasn't going to tell him until the last minute, but he wasn't looking forward to it.

You don't need it right now, he told himself. You did more than what others would have done. That's the important thing.

Someone else needed the microwave and was kind enough to put the second sandwich on top of the first one. Both of were cold by now, but still edible.
Arael paid for the food and drinks. When he got to the other end of the plaza and saw that Keth wasn't in the window, he nearly panicked. He hurried to the door, stuffing one of the sodas into his pocket and trying to handle the other one and the sandwiches as he flung open the door.

“Nope, I can't do it either.”

Keth was standing at the service counter while the older of the two employees held his flute in her hands. She had was lowering it from her mouth when Arael entered.

“Oh, hi there,” she said, smiling. “Your little brother was trying to awaken our inner talent.”

Little brother? Keth looked up at him, grinning sheepishly. He was figuring out those facial expressions at least. Arael didn't know if he told her they were brothers, or if she assumed it somehow, but he didn't bother correcting either one of them.

“You little rascal,” Arael said, relieved. “Come on, I got you a burger.”

Keth took his flute back and said good bye to the lady. She seemed very charmed and not the least bit suspicious.

They went to one of the folding tables. Arael placed one of the burgers in front of Keth, making sure to unwrap it for him (in case he thought the wrapper was edible, too) then he squeezed out the tubes of ketchup and mustard to taste, spreading them evenly. He wondered if he would have to tell the social worker about Keth's apparent delays. Would they even take the word of an unemployed janitor?

“Put that on the table,” Arael said. Keth wouldn't reach for the burger with the flute in his hands. “No one's going to take it.”

Keth was still reluctant. Now Arael was really concerned that this might cause problems later. Whatever home he got sent to, or if they took him to a doctor for an evaluation, someone was going to want to make him give up that flute. So far, Arael hadn't tried to take it from him by force.

“You let that lady hold it,” he pointed out.

“I was trying to see if one of them was my Player,” Keth explained. “I don't know how else to find them.”

“Okay, well they obviously weren't... that. So if someone comes along, just ask them if they're your player and don't give it to them if they say no.”

Keth looked at the burger and at his flute. Hunger obviously won out. But as he lowered it onto the table, Keth trembled as if her were letting of a small pet with a tenancy to bolt. Arael could definitely understand not wanting something valuable to go missing, especially in a laundromat.

“Look, there's no one else here.” Arael said. “Our washers are right over there. I swear no one is going to take this flute, if you just stand there and eat your burger. I'll make sure that doesn't happen.”

That seemed to convince him. Keth put the flute down, but continued to watch it like a hawk once his hands were firmly around the burger. Relieved to see that eating a burger wasn't going to require much instruction, Arael pulled out the bottle of root beer. He opened it over a sink, carefully, to make sure it wasn't too badly shaken before putting it in front of Keth.

“Make sure you drink that with both hands, too,” he said.

They are while the clothes were drying. Keth liked the burger, although he didn't seem to be tasting much of it as he took huge bites, barely chewing before swallowing. Arael provided a few quiet reminders about the dangers of choking but otherwise didn't make too huge a deal of it. The sooner he stopped feeling attached the easier it would be when Keth was gone – even if he had to perform the Heimlich before that happened.


* * *

Traffic. Signal lights. Pedestrians. Crosswalk! Don't pass the school bus, pull over for the ambulance, too fast! Oh and don't forget the seat belt.
With every jerk of the wheel, every time he pushed the pedal down, Dydrik felt the phantom twitch of his wings. At every red light he would glance up at the sky, remembering how it felt to clear a thousand miles in seconds.

That was a kindness. To be allowed a small taste of the air. To fly as high as the sun and the moons and to see the land below him moving in a blur of wind and velocity. What had it been like for those that came before him, who dominated the skies of both worlds and claimed that which they could touch with their eyes before their claws?

Dydrik was all too aware of how helpless he was in this form. Those that saw him would see a human child, no older than sixteen. Humans had forgotten how to fear them. When they looked at him, they didn't see the child of one of the most powerful dragon clans in the world. They saw a weak and scared little boy, who would never understand true suffering in his carefree little world.

Look at that car, see that kid? What's he doing out of school, driving that really nice car? Do his parents even know where he is?

What a far cry that was from, Please don't eat our sow. She's got one litter left in her and we need – no, please, not the house. Okay, you can have the pigs, but please just leave us one piglet, for trade.

The Zycite clan wants thirty-percent of our harvest. Will you protect us from them in exchange for fifty?

None of these were his memories. Like the ability to drive most cars, these were merely passed to him as a form of emotional investment. Unlike the ability
to drive – which he paid for in trade – repaying those investments was a long way in coming, especially now that the runt was on the loose.

He pulled onto the street from Arael's file – a residential neighborhood that eventually led up into the mountains. There was a housing project on one side, a small auto repair shop on another, and a few side streets that either didn't have names or were private driveways. Old growth trees that had survived more than their share of thunder storms grew near some of the homes.

Dydrik slowed down and lowered the window, breathing in the fresh air. As pleasant as it was, it only reminded him of his desire to take to the sky once more. He rolled up the window and searched the houses.

A woman, pushing a stroller, eyed the car suspiciously. Dydrik stopped and leaned out of the car, projecting Arael's face into her mind before asking her if
she knew him. Her face lit up.

“Oh yes,” she said, turning and pointing. “He lives in that yellow house, right down there. Do you see it?”

Dydrik smiled. “Yes, I do. Thank you.”

There was only one house, although how far into the yellow spectrum it ran was debatable. Maybe the woman had no other word for the mustard-color paint job. Dydrik brushed it aside. At least he wouldn't have to waste time asking around for Arael, possibly tipping off another dragon in the process.

He pulled up in front of the house and got out. Immediately he could hear televisions, radios, and sounds of movement in the other homes nearby. He looked down the road towards town and towards the mountains. Should he wait and see if Arael showed up? What other option did he have besides driving around and – pay dirt! A smell, coming from the house!

Dydrik bounded up to the porch and flung the screen door open. He threw the weight of his body into the door frame, breaking the lock and forcing it off the hinges. Some of the glass cracked, loudly, but he only hesitated long enough to determine where the scent was coming from. If someone called the police, he would be long gone before they arrived.

There was a small hallway leading to a single door. Dydrik could all ready tell no one was in there and bounded up the stairs. The scent was coming from one of the locked rooms. He snapped the padlock off and threw it aside before kicking in the door.

“What in the hell?” Someone shouted.

Of course no one was actually here. That didn't matter. Once inside, he knew for certain that the runt had definitely been here no more than a few hours ago! Dydrik spun around and saw the familiar trench coat hanging from a hook. He turned around again and saw an empty laundry hamper with the lid on the floor, lying on top of the MakMor shirt that Arael had been wearing in the memory. But the best part of this increasingly rewarding discovery, was the strong smell of urine left by a fledgling dragon who had not yet mastered control of his human body.

Dydrik inhaled, committing the distinctive smell to memory. There would be no way to hide now. The real challenge would be getting to him before some other dragon found him.

“Who the hell are you?”

Dydrik turned to see a man standing in the doorway, wearing nothing but his boxers. Even height, his muscles were the only thing to give Dydrik pause, until he caught a whiff of the alcohol that was strong on his breath.

“Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt breakfast, or lunch. I'll be on my way.”

When the man stood in his way and wouldn't move. Dydrik placed one hand on his shoulder. The man attempted to grab his wrist, presumably to force it behind his back and place him in some kind of hold. Fortunately for him, Dydrik was in rush. He shoved the man aside with minimal force, knocking him to the floor and leaping to the bottom of the stairs.

* * *

“Do you want me to carry that bag? I can carry that bag. I can carry that bag if you want. It's not too heavy, I'm stronger than I look. Want me to carry it?”

“No, Keth, I'm all set.”

Twenty ounces of soda was all it took to release Keth's wild child, apparently. The first sip was a cautionary one and then he was like Barney Gumble taking that first sip of beer. He drained his bottle and then wolfed down the burger. Then, he managed to at least direct his new found energy to helping Arael fold the blanket. But with nothing else to do – since Arael wasn't comfortable letting him help with the clothes – the kid was off like the shot from a gun.

Customers walked in and Keth ran to each one, offering to help them with their clothes. When they refused (casting glances at Arael and offering up their nervous laughter) he asked them if they could try playing his flute. The flute was his biggest priority. He absolutely demanded that they try to play it, prompting Arael to cram the rest of his clothes back into the laundry bag, stuffing it under one hand while he practically dragged Keth out with the other.

“What'd I do wrong?” he asked. “I was only trying to find my Player. I need my Player to play the flute. Why don't you try playing my flute, cause you might be my Player!”

“Keep it down,” Arael said, watching all around him as people became aware of Keth's behavior. “No, stop, I'm trying to walk.”

Keth slowed down, falling into step beside Arael, but it was only a small concession. Arael shifted the laundry bag to one hand, in case he had to grab Keth again.

“I really liked that brown stuff,” he said. “Can I have some more of that stuff later? What was it called?”

“Root beer. And no, not right now. Not as long as I can help it, anyway,” Arael shook his head. He wasn't sure if this was a refreshing change of pace or a frightening one. Could he hand Keth over to unsuspecting strangers without warning them first? “Speaking of strangers–,”

“You didn't say anything about strangers.” Keth cut in.

“No, I was thinking of it. But the point is you shouldn't go running up to random strangers, asking them to play your flute. Don't you know there are crazy people out there?”

“And one them might be my Player.”

“Okay, stop.” Arael got in front of Keth to get his attention. “Do you remember what I said about pretending?”

“Yes, you said you it has to stop after the laundry is done,” Keth looked at the laundry bag. “It's done. That's why I need to find my Player. Only the one who can play this––,” he held up the flute, “–– can help me. You asked me how I wanted your help and that's it. I want you to help me find my Player.”

Arael rubbed his eyes. Did he have such a one track mind at that age? He resolved to call his mother for stories, after he had gotten about forty-eight hours of sleep. Thinking about his childhood made him remember something he had read.

Oh no, he thought. I will never hate myself more than now, if I do this.

“Well, actually, that's what I want to talk to you about.” Arael got down to his knees. Keth listened intently. “I talked to someone, on the phone. Because I was wondering how we might find your Player.” He didn't remember where he had read it exactly. Something about how a psychiatrist might work with someone's delusion to get to the source of the problem. “And there's a lady, who is an expert on Players. She knows all of the, uh, signs of what makes someone a Player.”

It was a play. A play about the guy who thought he was a president. That's where Arael got the idea. No wonder he wasn't convincing himself. But for a few precious seconds, it seemed as if it might be working on Keth.

“What do you mean you've been talking to someone?” Or not.

So much for that.

“You don't even know what a Player is.” Keth took a step back, towards the road.

“Be careful,” Arael said. “Please, I don't want you to get run over.”

“You don't even know what I am.”

Arael reached out to him, hoping to keep him from stumbling off of the curb. Keth took one hand from the flute and swung it forward, striking Arael in the chest. Surprised by the speed and the force, Arael went sprawling onto the concrete.

“Oof!”

Keth bent his and knees and jumped, across the road, to the sidewalk on the other end. Arael blinked several times, rubbing his eyes furiously. There was no way he could have seen that! He got to his feet and saw Keth, standing there, staring back at him with a look of betrayal and fear that was more painful than the blow.

“I told you I didn't want to hurt you,” Keth shouted. “Good bye, Arael. I'll get my coat and leave.”

“Your coat? Keth, no wait! Please!” Arael ran into the street without even looking. Breaks squealed and a driver had to swerve to avoid hitting him with his pickup. Arael stood, paralyzed from the shock until he realized Keth had just disappeared. Arael looked all over, desperately trying to find him. Another driver honked their horn and shouted something inaudible.

Arael got to the sidewalk and caught a glimpse of Keth, who had made all the way to the end of the street in the confusion. He was turned the corner, running toward Arael's house at a speed that would have put most Olympic gold medalists to shame.

He ran after him, forgetting his clothes. If someone in need of a blanket that happened to be his size walked by, it would be their lucky day.

By the time he got to his street, there was no sign of Keth in either direction. He slowed to a jog, trying to catch his breath. When he saw the unfamiliar car parked in front of his house, he thought, Oh great. They showed up early.

He was as concerned for Keth's safety as the social worker would be, but he didn't know what they would think if he lost the kid that they were coming to collect. It had to look suspicious when he called from the convenience store instead of using his own phone. And what if Keth's version of events was more edited than his was? Keth seemed like a sweet kid, but Arael had read all about the allegations kids could make against adults when they were angry enough. And that was without the glory hounds who worked with them filling in the blanks in the hopes of grabbing fifteen minutes of fame.

I should have just called the police last night.

The front door to the house was wide open. Arael remembered closing it and knew that Chris or Bob wouldn't have left it open. There were no police cruisers around and the car didn't have the right plate to be an unmarked vehicle, so even if someone had been knocking loudly enough to bring Howie out of his stupor, there was no way that their resident “law student” was letting anyone in without a warrant.

As Arael got closer, he thought the car looked familiar. There was no child seat or booster in the back. He thought a social worker might at least have someone, like a police escort, waiting outside in case things became difficult. Then he heard shouting and movement. He looked up at the door, but the sun was high and it was hard to see in side.

He thought it was Keth, running out to demand that Arael unlock his door. One blur of movement later and he saw Dydrik, standing at the top of the porch.

“Oh, wow,” Dydrik said, throwing his arms up to the sky. “Well, that's one of the mountains. Now I just need to find the other one.”

Arael clenched his fists

“It's great to see you again so soon, Arael. I did pronounce your name correctly, right? Are you absolutely certain that you didn't see my little brother? You remember, the kid wearing the big trench coat. The one that might have been a midget?”

“I don't know where he ran to, but if you hurt him I'll––,” Dydrik jumped from the steps and landed in front of Arael, grabbing him by the throat and tossing him across the hood of the car. Before Arael could even cry out in pain, Dydrik jumped onto the car and crouched over him, pinning down with one hand.

“Where. Is. The. Runt?”

“Get off me!”

Arael tried shoving him off. He wasn't as strong as he might have liked and the only real fight he had ever been in was in the third grade. Otherwise confrontations that got physical tended to be one- sided, with the other party beating the crap out of him until they got bored and walked away. Dydrik must have been a hundred-and-eighty pounds, dripping wet, but he held Arael in place like he was a dead frog in a laboratory pan.

“That is not the answer I'm looking for,” Dydrik smacked him, lightly on the cheek.

In a panic, Arael threw one desperate punch that managed to connect with Dydrik's jaw. It seemed to be more annoying than painful, but Dydrik responded with a stronger backhand. Pain exploded across his face, bouncing around inside of his head like waves. His vision became blurry. When he opened his eyes, he felt like someone had strapped him to the wrong side of a helicopter and his stomach began to turn.

“Dydrik, leave him alone!”

Dydrik looked up and saw the runt approaching them, cautiously.

“Well, hello little brother. My, my, how you've grown.” He leaned in so he could talk right into Arael's ear. “I see you Bruce's generous money to good use. The clothes are a huge improvement over the coat.”

Arael winced. He tried to tell Keth to run, but Dydrik gripped his throat again.

“You can't hurt him!” Keth cried. “It says so in the rules.”

“Oh, you learned about the 'rules',” Dydrik said. “Well, they should have explained to you the concept of fine print. There's only one line in the entire spell that involves harming humans and it says, 'no blood shall be spilled of any kine'. I can do quite a bit to this one without spilling so much as a drop.”

Dydrik grabbed a fistful of Arael's hair, for emphasis, raising his head up and slamming it back on the hood.

“Keth,” Arael moaned. “I'm sorry. Just run.”

“I can't,” Keth said. “I told you I would protect you.”

Arael's vision was clearing up enough that he saw Keth holding the flute out. Dydrik saw it and slipped off the car, moving slowly as Keth started to back away.

“Just take it Dydrik,” he said. “This is what you want, right? If you break it, I can't hurt you.”

“You haven't got much chance against me, either way Little Brother. Keth, is it?”

“I have more of a chance than you right now. I don't see your instrument but you don't have your Player either, or you would have found me sooner.”


Dydrik chuckled.

“Not bad. Very observant for only two days old. But not very smart if you planned on living longer.”

Keth got to his knees and held the flute out. Dydrik was still wary.

“Why are you giving up so soon?” he asked. “You're a Furon. We are the direct descendants of the grand-matriarch. We don't surrender, not even to each other.”

Arael sat up, slowly. The hood of the car was hot and it made the headache worse. He didn't know if it was the concussion or the pain in his face and neck, but some of what Dydrik was saying actually made sense. One thing, at least.

Keth's only two days old? Well, that explains a lot.

“Arael's been kind to me.”

Dydrik put his hand over his heart.

“Isn't that so sweet, Arael?” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “I wonder what he'd think if he found out who you are.”

Arael coughed and wheezed. He leaned forward, expecting to throw up, but only tasting bile.

“Who am I supposed to be?” he asked, exasperated. “I'm just a janitor.”

Dydrik laughed. “Not any more. By the way, your boss sends his best wishes. That's his car you're coughing up a lung on. I suppose it's appropriate since your great-great grandfather is the one who fucked over our entire species.”

“What?”

“Relax. There will be time to drop all of that information on you later,” Dydrik turned to Keth, snatching the flute from his hand. “I accept your trade, Keth. You wouldn't have lasted much longer as a dragon. Not if this is what humanity has done to you.”

Dydrik raised the flute high above Keth's head, taking it in both hands. Keth locked gazes with Arael, who had manged to slide off of the car without spilling over.

Arael felt the world spin beneath him, but he fought down the nausea and ignored the headache as he slammed his body into Dydrik. Unprepared for the attack, Dydrik stumbled and Arael grabbed his arms, trying to pry the flute from his hands. By now he didn't care what the big deal was, about Dydrik, or any of the crap that came out of his mouth. He didn't understand what this flute was that made it so worth sacrificing it for him, but he swore he wouldn't let Dydrik hurt Keth again. This seemed like as good a time as any to cash in on that vow.

“Arael, be careful!” Keth shouted.

Dydrik slammed his head back. Arael coughed and sputtered as blood began to gush from his nose. Before Dydrik could turn around, Keth got to his feet and landed a kick that was meant for his stomach.

Even with bare feet and sandals, it was a mighty blow. Dydrik doubled over. Then Keth brought his teeth into the fight, biting down on Dydrik's wrist.

“Gah, fuck!” Dydrik dropped the flute. He lifted Keth into the air, shaking him violently, before slamming him into the pavement.

Arael was paralyzed with shock. Someone from one of the houses must have seen it, because he heard someone shouting to call the police. Keth writhed in agony. Arael wanted to rush to his side, to see if he was badly hurt, but before he could make a move, Keth got to his feet and fixed Dydrik with a deadly glare. Aside from a few scrapes on his face and chin and the dirt on his clothes, there was very little sign that he had taken such a violent impact.

Dydrik also recovered, physically. His mental state seemed to be in question as he shook his head in disbelief, chuckling.

“My mistake. You're way more dragon than I thought. Tell you what, since you're going to fight like one, you can die like one.”

Keth stood his ground as Dydrik advanced.

Gunfire! Twice.

Arael winced. Dydrik and Keth also covered their ears and looked to see Howie, coming down from the porch with a shotgun trained on Dydrik. A cry of alarm came from one of the houses and in the distance, sirens blared.

“Put your hands up fuckwad!” Howie shouted.

That's what it sounded like. By now, Arael was sure that Dydrik and Keth could hear him clearly, while his own brain had turned into pudding sometime before the report of the rifle. Howie got between Arael and Dydrik.

“Oh, look it's Captain Kill,” Dydrik said.

Would the shells even kill him? Arael wondered.

“Are you okay?” Howie asked, keeping his eyes on Dydrik.

Arael vomited. Howie didn't need a translation.

“Get away from the kid,” he told Dydrik. “Get on the sidewalk and sit your ass down.”

The sirens got louder as two cruisers pulled up from both ends of the streets. The officers got out, taking cover behind car doors as they pulled their guns.

“Put the gun down!”

“Sir, drop the weapon!”

Arael had the presence of mind to put his hands up, even though his stomach wanted him to remain doubled over. But Dydrik actually lowered his, as if two armed cops were less of a threat to him than Howie.

“Dydrik, just go,” Keth said. “You don't need to hurt anyone.”

“Put the weapon down!”

Howie didn't lower his rifle. Dydrik conjured a simple command, laced with paranoia and instability and projected it into Howie's subconscious.

“Aim at one of the cops.”

Dydrik only glanced down at the flute and at Keth before muttering, “Rain check, kiddo.”

He grabbed Arael just as Howie gave into the suggestion. Two guns fired. One bullet struck Howie in the chest and the second one got him in the temple. Blood splattered as Howie fell to the ground.

One of the officers called in the shooting while the other rushed forward to grab Keth, just as Keth was getting his hand around his flute. The officer succeeded in getting Keth to the car, but then Keth broke away and ran, heading for the mountains. He was already out of sight before the officer could even think to give chase.

Arael and Dydrik were gone.

* * *

David Durkee, full time reporter and co-founder of the podcast Maximus was sitting in his car at the end of the street. A firetruck and ambulance were on the scene, police were directing traffic along a narrow strip around the yellow tape, and all of the fixings of an investigation were visible from where he sat; or as David liked to call it, the rubber neck special–––Guaranteed to make the most devoted crime show binge watcher forget the fact that there were drivers behind them who had places they needed to be.

In the past hour alone, he typed up two articles. He e-mailed one to his editor, to be posted on the website shortly. The second article was for his blog. Then he fired out a string of Tweets praising the local police force for their vigilance and expertise in handling the situation (while also responding to a few commenters who wanted to rant about gun control and police brutality) and taking plenty of pictures of the house where the shooter lived, the people working the crime scene, and he even managed to get a shot of the victim being loaded into the ambulance.

No one bothered him, so long as he didn't obstruct traffic or get in the way of the professionals. No one with a uniform would give him a quote, but plenty of neighbors and witnesses had given David more than enough fodder to satisfy the media for a couple of weeks. But his plan was to stay close by, hoping to get more substantial details about what happened.

Another car pulled up behind him, followed by a jeep. A woman, probably in her late twenties, stepped out of the jeep. She had a leather backpack slung over one shoulder, but there was no telling what was in it. She stopped by the car, just as a slightly older man stepped. Both of them were Asian, but David thought he recognized the man from somewhere.

The two of them exchanged a few brief words, then they made their way towards the cordoned area. The man stopped beside David's car and leaned into passenger window, making a rolling gesture. David lowered the window.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said. “Are you the young gentleman who wrote this article?”

The man held out an iPhone which displayed the article that David had just written. His profile pic was at the top of the article, next to his picture of the house. David felt a swell of pride to see that someone was not only reading his articles, but that they seemed to recognize him, too. That's when he realized that he knew who that man was.

“You're Jian Wnyg,” David said. “I saw you on Shark Tank last year. And I love your restaurant. It's so great to finally meet you.”

“Very nice,” Anwyng replied, shaking David's hand. “That was a fun year, Mr. Durkee. I'm please to meet you, as well.”

“Hey, can I get an interview sometime?”

Anwyng smiled warmly and glanced up at Keiki.

“Why don't you go on ahead,” he said. “I'll be with you in a moment.”

David couldn't believe his luck. Breaking news on a police shooting and the chance to interview one of the most influential business owners in the state was something that only happened to journalists in movies and books. There had to be an angel on his shoulder, somewhere up there.

“Before we begin,” Anwyng said. “In exchange for my time, I hope you will permit me the indulgence of asking you a few questions of my own.”


# # #
All of this is a rough draft btw. So I'm sorry for the clunky sentences and the poor editing.
 
Top