Getting Past Cerberus
Vlad won’t answer my calls. I left messages, not giving specifics of my problems, but telling him it was urgent that I talk to him. And he still didn’t call back. I only know two other dragons on earth and I can’t seem to get either one of them to talk to me.
I had to wait until dark to go outside. The full light of the sun was just too much for me to function in. Dark sunglasses helped, but I’ll probably have to get something like welding goggles if I’m going to deal with that level of light on a regular basis.
After the sun went down the temperature dropped to a mere 95 degrees, ten degrees cooler than the rest of the July day. The long sleeves, long pants, sunglasses and gloves that I wore earned me some puzzled looks from folks I passed on Congress Ave. Vlad’s office was in a high rise downtown on Congress just north of the river. This time of year, even the stuffy business folks were wearing short sleeves with their ties, and everyone else on the street wore shorts and sandals.
I rode up on the elevator, dark glasses shielding me from the harsh fluorescent lights, and making it somewhat easier to look like I didn’t notice everyone staring at me. Not that there were that many people there at this time of night to stare, but the cleaning crew clearly thought I was a weirdo. The directory in the lobby said that I would find the office of Vladimir Tchovsky on the 14th floor. Vlad does a lot of trading in the Asian market which doesn’t open until late evening here, so I knew he’d probably be at work. I had no idea where he lived so this seemed like my best bet for finding him.
I pretty much expected the huge waiting area with high dollar original art, real wood furniture and thick carpeting. What I didn’t expect was the pretty receptionist with the tailored business suit and wireless headset who stopped me before I’d hardly stepped out of the elevator, and asked from behind her soccer field-sized desk, “Can I help you?” in a tone that sounded more like, “What the hell do you think you’re doing here, missy?” I immediately got the mental impression from her of a guard dog, jealously guarding the entrance to her master’s domain.
“Um, I’m here to see Vlad,” I told her.
“Mr. Tchovsky does not have any appointments scheduled this evening.” And that seemed to be all there was to that, as far as she was concerned. She went back to what she was doing on her computer screen, like she expected me to turn right around and get back on the elevator.
“Yeah, he’s not expecting me. Just tell him Damson’s here.”
“Mr. Tchovsky has asked that he not be disturbed this evening.” She pursed her lips, starting to get that I wasn’t going to be that easy to get rid of. “May I ask what this is regarding?”
“It’s personal. Just tell Vlad I’m here.”
“I’m sorry, Miss … Damson, but you’ll have to make an appointment. I’m sure Mr. Tchovsky will see you as soon as it’s convenient.” Translation: “I’m sure my boss will ignore you until you give up and go away.”
I looked around the room. One wall was just a giant window with an awesome view of the Congress Avenue bridge and the river. Two doors on the other side were clearly marked with ADA signs Men and Women, pretty clear what those were. There was a hallway behind Vlad’s guard dog, Miss “You Can’t Come in Here Without an Appointment” with doors on either side, and way down at the end there was a massive solid wood double door in a rich mahogany finish that, based on the layout of the building, undoubtedly led to a corner office. Not hard to figure out which door belonged to the boss, and based on what Vlad had said about his financial situation, I had a pretty good idea who the boss was.
So, I ignored the receptionist, went around her big desk, and started down the hallway.
“Miss! You can’t just walk in.” She ran in front of me and planted herself.
“Mmm, actually, I can.” I took a step to the side, then kept walking.
Her voice gained the snap of authority. “Maam, I’m calling security. Stop where you are.”
“If you like your job, you might want to tell Vlad I’m here before you sic security on me.” I wasn’t too worried about security, anyway. I’d fought supervillains, and that was before I was mostly bulletproof. I wasn’t exactly at the top of my game right now, but I was still pretty durable.
I heard the receptionist talking frantically into her phone and a couple of the doors opened behind me after I passed them. “Stop right there,” barked a male voice.
I sighed and turned to look. Sure enough, some burly guy wearing cowboy boots and a walkie talkie had a gun pointed at my chest. If he’d pointed it at my head, I might have been nervous, but my chest could probably stop a bazooka blast these days. “Back off, cowboy. I’m just a friend of the boss, dropping in for a visit. The OK corral thing is a serious overreaction.” I turned my back on him and kept walking. Damn, this hallway was long. I focused on just walking, one foot in front of the other. Nowadays, that was more of a challenge than you might think.
“Maam, I don’t want to have to shoot you,” the guard said.
“Well, I don’t really feel like getting shot either. It stings,” I half turned and tossed back at him. “Go find something else to do with your …” Remember what I said about walking being more of a challenge these days than it should be? Yeah, walking while giving half my attention to the guy behind me didn’t work out so well. I tripped over a wrinkle in the carpet. At least, that’s my story. I would never admit to just randomly tripping over my own overly large and heavy-scaled feet.
I grabbed at a doorframe to keep from going down on my face. Unfortunately, I grabbed with my left hand, which means I didn’t just catch the wooden door frame, I crushed it to splinters and yanked a chunk of the wall off with it. “Crap. Sorry. I’ll pay for the repairs.” No one heard me, I don’t think.
The receptionist dove under her desk as the security guy opened fire.
I twisted so my left side faced him and covered my head with my left arm. Bullets pinged around the hallway and made holes in several of the office doors and walls.
“I hope no one else is working late,” I said. Vlad is not going to be happy about this.
“What the hell is going on out here?” Vlad stood in one open half of the big mahogany double door, looking really handsome in a Givenchy suit.
“Security breach, sir,” the cowboy-booted goon said. “Get back into your office until we have it contained.”
“Hi, Vlad,” I said, and waved.
“Damson! What in the world …”
“Your receptionist wouldn’t let me see you without an appointment. You have very, um, enthusiastic security.”
“Are you injured?” He jogged down the hallway and extended a hand to help me up.
“No, but …” I held up the chunk of wall I accidentally ripped out. “I think your offices are due for a bit of remodeling.”
Vlad didn’t crack a smile, but that dimple in his cheek appeared and I knew he was suppressing one. “You certainly know how to make an entrance.”
“I had to take drastic measures. You haven’t been returning my calls.”
“I apologize. This has been … difficult for me.”
I’ve only dated two men in my whole life, and within a few weeks, I’ve made them both wish they never had anything to do with me. (Jack of All) “I’m sorry.”
Vlad nodded, a smaller version of his usual old world bow.
Vlad gave his receptionist and the security guy the night off and we talked for a while in his office about what happened. Vlad’s office was as big as my apartment, tastefully furnished with modern lamps and art contrasted with very old world mahogany and leather chairs, shelves full of thick books, and a well-stocked bar. The place looked like somewhere that men with long names and obscure titles would wear their silk jackets and cravats while sipping brandy from snifters and smoking expensive cigars. That, combined with the sparkling night view of Austin in the wall of windows behind Vlad, made me feel small and hopelessly out of place. The top of the line Mac with the huge flatscreen monitor was the only thing that seemed more out of place than me.
When Vlad realized that I nearly died the first night he wasn’t there to watch over me, he didn’t take it well. (Death and Her Scythe) His eyes got all red and glowy. “I should have been there. I should not have let bruised emotions keep me from your side.”
Oh, great. If I wasn’t careful, I’d get my stalker back. “Vlad, you’ve saved my bacon more than once, and I appreciate that, but I’m a grownup, even more so now than before. I don’t need you to protect me all the time.”
“What is it that you do need from me, Damson? Why go to all this trouble to tell me about your misfortune if not to show me the consequences of failing to protect you?”
I sighed. “I need you to teach me … how to be a dragon, I guess.” I wanted to get up and pace, but I was afraid I’d trip over air again.
Vlad was quiet for a while and I wondered what he was thinking. “Perhaps Fafnir could …”
“Fafnir’s in California. He told me to ask you.”
“I see.” I never want to play poker with Vlad. He does blank face better than anyone I know. I had no idea how he felt about all this.
“I could really use your help, Vlad. I’m a walking disaster. Just look at your hallway if you don’t believe me. And if I had to fight anyone right now, I’d probably knock myself out.”
“How does your young dragon lord feel about you coming to me?”
I’d already talked to Jack before I came. I knew better this time than to do anything behind Jack’s back. (Defusing Explosive Situations) I may be a bit of a screw-up, especially when it comes to love, but I don’t believe in making the same mistakes twice. I’ll undoubtedly come up with new ones. “Jack gets that I need help from another dragon. He doesn’t like that it’s you, but he understands that I’m pretty low on choices.”
Vlad’s poker face broke a little and he showed surprise, then his brows drew together. “I would have had a hard time being that understanding, were our positions reversed. Your dragon lord is an exceptional man.”
My turn to be surprised. “Did you just say something nice about Jack?”
Vlad looked painfully sad for a second, like he was fighting tears, then he hid it behind that poker face. “I understand why the brave young dragon lord is your chosen mate, Damson. I also know that you will one day regret your choice to love a human.” Before I could ask what he meant by that, he stood up from his desk, and bowed. “Since you will not permit me to be your protector, my lady, permit me to teach you to protect yourself.”
Relief flooded me. I’d been dreading what a mess I’d be in if Vlad just flat said no. “Thank you!” I ran around his desk to hug him, tripped over his garbage can, grabbed for a metal floor lamp reflexively, crushed the neck of it, giving it a 90 degree angle, smashed it into the side of his desk as I flailed, and realized, with horror, that I was stumbling toward the wall of windows with the 14 floor drop to concrete outside it.
Vlad caught my waist before I could crash through the window and plummet to my death. I dropped the broken lamp and hung on to him. He winced where my left hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Sorry.” I did my best to consciously loosen my grip, as my heart pounded in my chest, dealing with my close brush with death, as well as with the firm feel of Vlad's body pressed up against me. Vlad's cologne smelled dizzyingly wonderful, a bit like cinnamon or cardamon or some exotic spice I had no name for that made my mouth water.
His dimple appeared again, and he let the grin show in a twitch of his lips as he looked at the devastation I’d wreaked on his office, just by trying to walk around. “I do believe you’re right. It is about time for some remodeling.”