Monday, January 30, 2012

Bait in a Cat Trap

Writing in your diary may not be what most people do when playing bait in a trap for a homicidal maniac, but then most people wouldn’t have volunteered to be the bait in the first place. I’m supposed to be pretending to be a UT student. I could have brought my laptop and surfed the net or something, but I was afraid it would get damaged if the proverbial feces hit the spinning blades. When Jack had to be bait in a trap, he just skipped bathing for a while and we ran over his worst clothes with my Jeep a few times. I went to a used book store, got a textbook on Organic Chemistry, and brought my diary to write in, so it looked like I was taking notes.
I took Chemistry in college, but that was nearly half a century ago. It looks like things have progressed a lot, or maybe I’ve just forgotten a lot. I may have to go back to school. It’s not like I’m going to go get a job as a lab assistant or anything, but it sure would be nice to be able to analyze my own venom. I still have no clue what the venom from my claws does exactly. I can’t very well randomly start scratching people to find out. Those claws saved my bacon from Domina Death when she nearly killed me, so, if bad comes to worst, maybe I’ll see how the big bad Bobcat likes being the claw-ee for a change.
All the girls Bobcat attacked over the last few weeks were outdoors when he found them. His last victim was on her way to her dorm from the Communications buildings across the street. I staked out a comfy grassy spot, and settled in to “study” in the dorm courtyard about five in the evening of the day after the police tape was removed. The students had all been encouraged to spend the evening on the other side of campus via text message.
It seemed a bit obvious to me, but Liberty had done the homework. She said Bobcat wasn’t real high on the IQ scale. Liberty believed he was likely to bite on what to me seemed like a particularly obvious trap. Apparently, Bob, was a product of a cat-human gene splicing experiment by Doctor White, the same guy who made the spider device that stole nearly a century of my life. Liberty said Bobcat thought more like a predator than a man in some ways. He was likely to come back to a place if he’d found easy prey there before.
I bowed to superior experience. Liberty’s only in her mid thirties, but she’s been superheroing since she was in a training bra. I’m the novice in this world.
Liberty’s voice whispered in my ear bud, “Any sign?”
“Nada,” I whispered back, holding the Chemistry book up and squinting, so it looked like I was puzzling out a particularly complex concept.
“Are you certain, Dee?”
The way she said it made me tense between my shoulder blades. I’d been here for hours. The sun was setting. I’d just taken off my protective sunglasses now that the light was more bearable to my overly sensitive dragon eyes. And this was the first time Liberty had broken radio silence since we tested out the comm gear. “Why?” I whispered. You have to be quiet if you’re going to catch a bad guy with ears as big as my hands.
I did, but there was nothing unusual even with my own super-duper dragon hearing, just cars, people chatting a block over on the drag, and the wind in the trees. “I don’t hear anything,” I barely whispered.
“The grackles stopped.”
I was so used to the standard evening racket of flocks of roosting black birds, like every Austinite, that I had completely ignored the hundreds of birds in the trees around me, except to make sure none were sitting over me, ready to add their own personal touch to my hair or books.
The racket I’d been ignoring wasn’t there anymore. Hundreds of birds sat in the trees around me and did not make a chorus of sounds like rusty metal hinges. They were completely silent.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Something heavy hit me on the back of the head, slamming my face down into the open Chemistry book. My nose left a splash of blood on the page.
The birds took off all at once in a flurry of black wings.
I blinked tears and tried to get up.
A huge hairy arm hooked around my waist, yanked me backward, and slammed me to the ground.
“Son of a …” I kicked up, but only hit air. The hairy cat-man dodged sideways and slapped me in the face, an open-handed, no claws casual slap that still rattled my teeth.
I tried to punch him, but my hand swished through empty air where his face had been a moment before. He hit me harder this time, a closed fist punch that crunched into my temple.
When I came to, I was upside down, in a fireman’s carry, a bony shoulder digging into my armored belly, looking at a plumber’s crack covered in blond fur. Beyond that less than inspiring sight was a whole lot of air, about five stories worth. The ground was far enough away that I figured puking right now wouldn’t really affect much.
So, I did.
It made my mouth taste sour, did nothing for the pounding in my head, but my stomach settled a little.
Voices were yelling in my head. “He’s got her. He’s on the move!” “Where the hell did he go?” “Have you ever seen anything move that fast?” “I see him!” “Oh, my god, he’s climbing the building with her like King Kong.”
“Cordon off the block,” came Liberty’s voice. “Don’t bother with warnings. If you get a clean shot at him with a trank gun, just fire. Confirm your target, though. Don’t hit Dee. Team 2 cover the elevator and front door. He might try to come down through the building.”
That was Liberty. She looked like a Hollywood starlet, sounded like a public service announcement when the cameras were on, and in casual situations, she chatted with me about life like any BFF, but in situations like this, she sounded like a front line general commanding troops.
The world spun and shifted under me while Bobcat punched his claws into the dark rust-colored metal of the communication building where Austin City Limits gets filmed. He pulled himself and me both onto the roof.  I got an upside down view of a gigantic radar dish and several smaller ones on an elaborate metal framework.
I thought about struggling, but didn’t really want to get free seven stories up over concrete sidewalks with my wings folded under a jacket. I waited until we were fully on something flat and solid. When I tried to make my move, I moved more sluggishly than I expected. I elbowed him in the back, but it wasn’t a solid blow.
Bobcat threw me down onto the gravel, which actually didn’t hurt much now that I’m mostly armored, aside from the swimminess that it increased in my head. He pounced on my chest. He extended shiny black hooked claws four inches long from the back of his hand. He laid them over my face, one claw right over my eye. “I hear them, bitch, but they won’t get here in time to save you.”
He could hear the voices in my ear mike.
“It doesn’t matter if you can hear them,” I said. “You won’t be able to get away this time.”
Liberty snapped, “Switch channels to 224.” She sounded a little breathy, like she was running or doing something strenuous. The chatter in my ear all went silent.
I no longer knew what Liberty or the SWAT team were doing, but now, neither did the bad guy with the big claws sitting on my chest.
Bobcat leaned in close to my face and licked my cheek. Gross. His claw tips just drawing blood in the skin of my face made moving seem like a really bad idea. “Pretty, pretty coed looking down on me. I bet you wish you’d never made fun of freaks, now, popular girl. Say you’re sorry, and maybe I won’t mess up your pretty face.”
I laughed. I know, not the normal thing to do when someone’s about to rip your face off, but the idea of me as the pretty, popular girl, making fun of a freaky kid, was about as bass ackward as you could get. “You’re picking on a fellow freak, Bob. Take a look at my left hand.”
“Whuh?” Bobcat said. He pulled the claws away from my face as I held up my left hand, covered in the usual black leather glove.
I popped my claws through the leather. They’re only a couple inches long and silver, not black, but the similarity between the two of us was crystal clear.
While his less than brilliant mind pondered that, I took a swipe at his face with my shiny new claws. No telling what they’d do to him, but considering what he’d been about to do to me, I wasn’t real concerned.
He moved faster than a freakin rattlesnake. He caught my arm in mid-swing, but not with quite enough force to stop it. He twisted, snarling, with my arm in his grip to keep my claws away from his furry flesh.
I used the momentum to roll over, get on top of him instead of the other way round. We rolled over in the gravel, a couple times, but I seemed to be a little stronger than him. I kept the top position. I punched at him, but couldn’t get in a solid hit the way he kept twisting and moving. He slashed at me, but all he did was put slashes in my jacket and t-shirt. The needle sharp tips of his claws screeched across my scales making us both wince.
He tried to bite me on the shoulder. Fortunately, it was my left shoulder.
His teeth made a sound on my scales like someone scraping their teeth on their fork. I hate that.
“OWRRR!!” he griped.
“Heh heh. This morsel’s got a hard crunchy shell, furr boy.” I’m not sure why I thought making fun of the psychotic serial killer was a good idea. It just slipped out.
His face turned ugly, even uglier than before, I mean. His flat nose wrinkled, and his yellow eyes narrowed to slits. His legs curled up into me and he raked my belly with his claws as he shoved, hard.
Another chalkboard screech, and he’d hurled me off of him. I’ve got very well-armored abs, so no harm there.
I tumbled in the air, crashed through a small radar dish, (ow) and saw the low safety wall around the seven story building as it flew by. YIKES!
I scrambled for the edge and managed to scrape the metal with one hand, then hook on with two claws on the other. I’m not one to worry much about heights normally, but hanging eight stories above a parking lot by two fingernails almost made me wet myself.
“Who’s laughing now, bitch?” Bobcat started prying my fingers loose of the metal wall.
Liberty yelled from up on the roof, “Leave her alone!” Not sure when she got there, or from where.
“Make me,” he growled at her and lifted one of my two fingers. It took his whole hand to do it, but I only had one finger left. I’d gotten my brain together enough to realize if I lost my grip, I could just pop my wings out and glide.
I stopped being scared and got pissed off. This guy was making me look bad in front of Liberty. “I’ll make you,” I growled.
I swung up my other hand, trying to grab his wrist where he was prying at my finger.
He dodged back, and laughed at me. “Pretty, but dumb,” he said. “You can’t catch me. You’re too slow.”
“I’m not,” Liberty said, and did a diving tackle.
I got a good look at the last part of that dive as Bobcat sidestepped and shoved like a matador with a bull.
Liberty went sailing over me, head first down into the parking lot.
“NO!” I yelled and tried to grab for her. I let go of my grip on the roof, pushed off, but physics wasn’t on my side. Liberty was going down first, and I didn’t have time to catch her.
I popped my wings out as the parking lot tried to hit me in the face. My shirt and jacket were both shredded, but I back-winged hard and kept the landing from doing more than slamming me to my armored knees. Before I hit pavement, Liberty hit car.
Liberty shifted to a skydiver’s flat pose in the air, so she hit on her whole front, rather than on her head, on the roof of a parked car. Glass shattered and the car roof smashed in like it had been hit with a wrecking ball.

I’ll write more in my diary later. Right now, I want to sleep for like, a week.

D Dragon

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I looked down at a dead girl, body slashed from right shoulder to left hip by four deep gouges. Bobcat.
A few weeks before, the corporate sponsored All American Alliance hero Amazing Ashley had accidentally freed a clawed serial killer in Austin, and nearly killed me trying to recapture him. I recovered with no permanent damage, but Bobcat got away. Now, a super-strong criminally insane cat-man with four inch razor sharp claws was loose in my city.
Yeah, I guess Austin was my city now.
I’d made a stand here against the Order of St. George, the religious fanatics who murdered my dad, and who wanted to murder all dragons. I’d spent most of my life running and hiding from them. Now, I wasn’t running anymore. I still kept my scales and wings hidden, though. I wasn’t going to live in paranoid fear anymore, but I wasn’t going to be stupid about it either.
Liberty, the leader of the local chapter of the US government sponsored hero group, The Protectors, had put out an APB with the local Austin police for Bobcat. The Austin area hero community had been on the lookout for him as well. You’d think a huge cat-guy with pointed, fur-tufted ears would stand out in a crowd.
Not so much, really. It’s Austin after all. Home of the weird.
On the UT campus, I’d seen a girl with six inch long elf ears in a chain mail bikini just yesterday, accompanied by a guy who looked like a Klingon, complete with wrinkly forehead and a bat’leth. There weren’t any sci fi conventions in town or anything, just a normal Saturday on campus. Add that to the high number of supes drawn to the area and you got a lot of folks who wouldn’t blend anywhere else blending just fine here.
So, Bobcat was still free. And just past sunset on what had been a 75 degree, sunshiney Sunday in January, some nice young Co-ed ended up as a statistic. She’d still been breathing when the cops called the ambulance.
Jack and I, as usual with Jack driving, got there in record time, but it wasn’t quite fast enough.
Jack brushed the dead girl’s dark hair back from her face with a gentle hand and felt for a full minute, hoping against sense for even the flutter of a pulse. Jack’s my boyfriend, my partner, and the bravest man I know.
She’d been pretty, the dead girl.
“Bobcat,” I said.
Jack looked at me and nodded. His lips tightened in frustration. He drove our ambulance like Mario Andretti, but it wasn’t quite fast enough this time. This was the third pretty young dark-haired girl with claw slashes we’d seen this week. Between his driving and my healing venom, we’d been able to save the other two.
I touched his face, tracing the line of his high cheekbones. He had soft Asian features that normally wore a crooked smile that charmed the world and made him look even younger than his twenty-seven years. I could see in his dark eyes now that he was kicking himself for not getting here faster.
He leaned into my hand for a moment, accepting the comfort.
Officer Flynn made notes on a pad. “That makes six victims. The captain’s on all our asses to find him. I called the detectives right after I called you guys. Long’s on his way.”
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and speed dialed the second most powerful superhero in the country. It used to make me feel important that Liberty knew me. It still did, I guess, but now, I felt more that she was a friend who wanted to stop this lunatic as much as I did. We both felt partially responsible for letting him get away since we’d both failed to stop him.  I put the call on speaker so Jack and Flynn could hear. “Liberty, we found another Bobcat victim. Another college age woman with dark hair. This one didn’t make it.”
I heard a sad sigh. “Where?”
“North side of UT campus, near Eastwood Park.”
“Could he still be nearby?”
“She was still breathing three minutes ago.” I looked around and tried to think like an insane cat-man. I’d seen him bound from roof to roof to put the best parkour practitioner to shame. “Honestly, he could be anywhere by now.”
Liberty’s voice fell with disappointment. “We’ve got to get ahead of him, Dee. Every day he’s free, we lose lives.”
“He’s hit campus twice, both right around sundown. These girls he’s after look a lot like me. I’m up for playing bait.”
 “That’s a very brave offer,” Liberty told me. “Unfortunately, he has an embarrassment of choice. You would be one among hundreds of potential victims.”
“Maybe not,” Jack said. “What if we could clear the campus somehow, get all the real students out of sight?”
It seemed like a good idea, but there was a catch. “Bobcat has super-hearing. Anything the students talk about, he’s likely to overhear.”
Flynn said, “The campus police set up a Twitter handle and voluntary cell phone sign-up list for all students and professors. It’s becoming common practice after a few shooters have gone postal on college campuses. We can send out a signal that essentially says, ‘A killer is loose. Stay indoors from sundown to two hours after. Spread the word digitally, but don’t say anything out loud.’”
“That might work,” Liberty said. “Dee would need formidable backup, but they also would have to be nearly silent. I will, of course, lend my own aid, but the other Protectors are all on assignment elsewhere. We’re short-handed without White Knight. Officer, we will need some help from the supe squad.” That’s the nickname for the SWAT team that handles super-powered criminals, usually after a superhero has already subdued them.
Jack looked down at the dead girl. She had light cinnamon brown skin, a prominent nose, thick dark hair past her shoulders and slightly Hispanic features. She did look a lot like me, actually. Except that she was dead from bloody claw slashes. Jack swallowed. He didn’t bother to try to talk me out of it. Jack knew me too well. “Be careful, Dee.”
I would have said something flip, like, ‘Aren’t I always?’ Or ‘You know me,’ but the trouble was, he did know me. Careful is not really something I’m good at. “I’ll try.”

D Dragon

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Home is Not a Place for Pit Traps

Mournful howls filled the halls of the mansion.
Vlad sent movers to my apartment over the weekend after Christmas. I think he was making a preemptive strike, in case I decided not to take him up on his offer to let me semi-permanently house sit for him. I came home from an afternoon shift on Friday to find all my stuff already gone. When I arrived at the mansion, my things had been installed in the master bedroom as if I’d put them there myself. My clothes were in drawers or hanging in the closet. My laptop was charging on a spiffy desk with an external monitor the size of a billboard. Even my posters were already on the wall.
Hard to argue with a fait accompli.
“Donovan!” I shouted. “I told you to disable all those traps.” Floyd Donovan was the actual, real name of the security guy who wore cowboy boots who I had been calling Tex before. He sort of works for me now. Vlad pays his salary, but I’m the one he’s supposed to be guarding, and taking orders from. The two sometimes appear to be mutually exclusive.
Donovan’s long-legged strides were a little slower than normal. He’d just gotten out of the hospital two days before. “I disabled all the lethal ones, maam.”
Another wailing howl echoed through the walls.
I stepped into the hot tub area, but the sight of Brad in a Speedo was enough to make me wish I hadn’t. “Um, Brad, Ma’s making snacks. Let her know if you have any specific requests.”
“Thanks, Dee.”
I did an about face with Donovan sticking right on my heels. In an effort to escape from blinding amounts of back hair, I headed for a different entrance to the corridor that surrounds this giant house, the one where all the secret doors go. And the traps, can’t forget the traps. “I really don’t need or want traps where I live.” I pushed down on two of the eight arms on a little statue of Kali on one of the many shelves full of odd things that Vlad had left behind. A section of the wall clicked open. “What if Ma fell into one of those things? She’s 87 years old. She could break a hip or something. I told you to disable all the traps.”
“Actually, you said, ‘Get rid of the acid and spikes and stuff. I don’t want anyone accidentally getting killed.’ So, I disabled all the lethal traps as ordered, maam.”
Of all the security guys in the world, I inherited a cowboy with an eidetic memory. “Well, now I’m saying all of them. Disable all traps in this house. Is that clear enough?”
“The traps are an effective deterrent for anyone not familiar with the layout. A would-be burglar was caught in one just last year.”
You notice he didn’t say, ‘yes, maam, I’ll disable the traps.’ He’s a very honest man, Donovan, but you have to pay close attention. He’s very literal.
“I would feel sorry for any burglar who tried to rob this house. If Jack didn’t taze him, Brad would toss him through one of the concrete walls. And Ma would make him feel horribly guilty for ever having chosen a life of crime.” I gestured at a corner with the dark plastic eye of a concealed camera. “And if any burglar made it this far, he’d have to have mastered invisibility.”
Donovan’s jaw tightened. “I didn’t have the outer corridors monitored then.”
I held up a hand. “I’m not implying that you aren’t doing a good job. I just don’t have the level of paranoia that Vlad had.”
Donovan nodded. “Mr. Tchovsky told me that you took huge risks, and that protecting you was a challenge.”
I made a face. “Vlad is entitled to his opinion. But I’m not going to live in an armed fortress.” I gestured at the pitiful sight that greeted us as we reached the source of the howling.
Rocky was an Australian shepherd mix mutt. His owner’s house had burned down and the guy hadn’t been able to keep Rocky, even after we reunited them. Then, after Jack adopted Rocky, Jack’s apartment burned down. At least the dog’s name wasn’t Lucky. That would be a bit too much irony.
Rocky whined, and looked up with sad doggy eyes, one brown, one blue, from an eight foot deep square pit that spanned the width of the corridor. I strongly suspect that Vlad, who designed this house, was a D & D player. I regretted never having the chance to find out. Playing D & D with Dracula would have been awesome.
I looked at into Rocky’s sad, mottled blue face, and looked at Donovan pointedly.
He raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. I’ll disable all the traps.”
“Thank you.”
I jumped down into the pit, picked up the dog and jumped back out. I can jump about 2 stories. Eight feet is a tiny hop. The trick was not to overshoot and hit my head on the very solid concrete ceiling. That, and to avoid the happy slobbering dog tongue thank-you’s that Rocky lavished me with. He wagged so hard his whole back end went sideways.
“I don’t know how he got in here,” Donovan said.
“He has a talent for finding trouble.” As soon as his four paws were on flat floor, Rocky took off at top speed. He hit a trigger stone and a small bit of wall rotated, neatly depositing him in the living room. “Well, that answers that question. I didn’t even know about that door.”
“It can only be opened from this side,” Donovan pointed out.
“Well, then, the mystery remains.” I grinned as I stepped on the trigger stone, rotating myself and my own personal bodyguard into the living room. This house was seriously cool.
Jack grinned back at me with shared admiration for the cool factor, while carefully petting a delighted Rocky at arm’s length. Cam, the cat, growled a warning and raised a clawed orange paw just in case the dog violated her personal space. I wondered sometimes if Jack had a powerful electromagnet that turned on the second he sat down anywhere, instantly causing the cat to shoot through the air and attach herself to his lap.
Jack sat at the head of a long oak table in the dining room area with books, a folding cardboard screen and multi-sided dice scattered in front of him.
Tamara, the short lady firefighter with the blue streak in her hair sat next to him, and contributed to the essential task of scritching Rocky’s ears. She also slipped him a bite of chicken when Jack wasn’t looking. Jack fed his dog nothing but what amounted to doggie health food. Tamara and I conspired to sneak Rocky tasty tidbits at every opportunity.
Rocky was entirely cool with the arrangement.
Three other chairs, with Player’s Handbooks, character sheets and little lead statues of warriors, mages and thieves sat empty.
A much larger lead figure of a brilliant red, scaly, winged monster sat in the middle of the table on a laminated sheet covered in hexagonal lines like a honeycomb. “Come on, guys. We’ve just reached the lair of the beast. You need to roll initiative or be roasted before you can act.”
“A dragon? You didn’t seriously just put us up against a red dragon? My new character’s only third level,” I griped. “Besides, that’s terrible stereotyping. How do you think Fafnir would feel?”
Jack just smiled the smug unrepentant smile of a game master who can do whatever the heck he wants because he’s the game master.
“Damson, help!” Ma yelled from the kitchen area. My nose twitched with the smell of something burning.
Donovan shrugged and sat down in his spot at the table. “Officially, I’m still on medical leave.”
I think maybe the big bad security guy was afraid of my mother. Smart man.
I stepped around the long granite counter, snitching a fried chicken leg off a big platter as I did. Ma’s idea of game snacks went way beyond pizza and Mountain Dew. There was enough food already piled on that counter to feed twenty people, or us five and Brad, whichever.
“Ma, what the heck are you doing?” I said around a mouthful of absolutely heavenly fried chicken.
Ma waved a towel in the general direction of a small, folded paper bag sitting in a frying pan on the stove with smoke curling up from the underside. This had the effect of causing the paper to burst into active flame.
Ma flinched back out of range as tiny explosions punctuated the fire.
The smoke alarm went off with ear bleeding intensity, at least for me.
I ignored the agony in my brain and got between my mother and the tiny ricocheting flaming missiles. I picked up the frying pan, put it in the sink, and turned the water on. This created a cloud of awful smelling steam, but also put out the fire and stopped the little explosions.
“Donovan! Turn off that …” I finished screaming the sentence in total silence. “noise!”
 “I’ll reset the alarm as soon as the smoke dissipates,” the lanky man in cowboy boots said.
“And open the …” I didn’t bother to finish.
Tamara was already operating the controls on the wall that opened up the observatory and the dormer windows and turned on a big fan that sucked air up through the center of the house and out through the observatory. “No setting the house on fire,” she said. “I’m off this week.”
“Ma, what the heck? That’s microwave popcorn.”
Ma put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “I just don’t see the point of those … things.” She waved a tiny contemptuous hand at the large, modern microwave mounted on the wall. “I’ve always made popcorn just fine on the stove.”
Ma was still adapting to having people to feed who ate more than just animal products. I suspect she hadn’t made popcorn since Truman was in office.
“But not in the bag.”
“The instructions said to leave it in the bag,” Ma pointed out.
“In the microwave, yeah.” I snagged an un-incinerated popcorn bag and demonstrated putting it in the microwave and pushing the appropriate buttons. “Keep an eye on it and when the popping slows down, turn it off. Otherwise it’ll burn.”
“We wouldn’t want that,” Ma said with a twinkle in her dark eyes. “Burning popcorn smells terrible.”
I chuckled as I went back to the gaming table, munching on the chicken leg I’d managed to hang onto during the crisis. It tasted kind of funny when combined with the overwhelming smell of burnt popcorn, but the fan was sucking the smelly smoke away at a pretty good pace. I snagged a paper towel for hand cleaning, so I wouldn’t get grease on my character sheet.
Donovan was already at the table rolling a D6 for party initiative.
We got it, or my little third level thief would have been barbecued hobbit. I know, no hobbits in D & D anymore, but I’m a Tolkien fan, and I’ve been playing this game since it came in a box. “I sneak around behind the dragon,” I said.
“Roll for success at moving silently and hiding in shadows,” Jack said.
While I rolled pairs of 10 sided dice and prayed to whatever god is in charge of getting good percentage rolls, the rest of the party stated their actions.
“I activate my ring of fire resistance and draw my two-handed sword,” Tamara said, sliding her figure of a mighty-thewed Conan type into place directly in front of the dragon statue.
“I draw my mace and pray to Pelor for strength to face the foe,” Donovan said, and slid a plate mail armored figure onto the play space. A paladin suited him.
“Ms. Emerson, what action would you like to take before the dragon notices you?” Jack asked Ma politely, as she carefully watched the popping popcorn.
She held up a hand until the popping slowed down, not wanting to be distracted at a crucial moment and renew the dissipating stench. She turned off the microwave, pulled the hot bag out gingerly, still popping occasionally, and set it on the counter. Finally, she faced Jack, brows furrowed. “I think Damson is right. It’s entirely inappropriate for the main monster to be a dragon, especially in this family. Dragons are not monsters.”
“Yes, maam, I know,” Jack said. “But it’s just pretend.”
Ma put a hand on her hip. “Fictional portrayal of dragons as destructive monsters perpetuates the myth. I won’t tolerate it in this house, Jack Nguyen.”
Uh, oh. She called him by his full name.
Then, she clinched it. She gave him the look. Ma was slender and not terribly tall. Her shoulders, a little stooped with age, made her seem even smaller. Her once raven black waist length hair had gone iron gray, but still hung in a thick braid down her back. Her wise dark eyes were usually all but lost in smile wrinkles, but when she gave that look, those eyes turned into black mirrors of your darkest hidden guilt. She seemed to tower over you as you shrank in shame.
That look was probably why Donovan was afraid of her.
Jack swallowed. My Jack, who fearlessly faces street gangs, drunken super-trolls, and 16 mile fires paled a little. “Yes, maam,” he said. He pulled the big dragon statue off the middle of the table and put it back in the backpack by his feet. He had obviously gone to some trouble to buy and paint the dragon statue just for the finale of this game. I felt a little bad about it, but really, Ma was right.
Cam hung on with claws dug into Jack’s jeans as his lap tilted 45 degrees.
Jack rummaged in his bag and came up with the plastic dinosaur that he used to represent most large enemies. “You see a huge eight-legged lizard-like reptile with glowing eyes and a horn on its nose like a rhino.”
Tamara and I groaned. Well, that’s certainly a monster.
“What?” Donovan asked. He was still fairly new to the game, although he seemed to be taking to it.
“Basilisk. Just don’t look it in the eyes,” Tamara commented.
“Actually,” Jack corrected, “This is a greater basilisk. It’s about 30 feet long.”
“We are so dead,” I said, and then I noticed I’d failed my sneaking roll. “I could roll again? It’s not a dragon anymore.”
Jack gave me his own version of the look, and I shut up.
Ma sat down with a large bowl of popcorn for sharing. “I cast a spell of invisibility,” she said, and slid her robed figure with the tall staff out, just behind the paladin. Ma had been playing nearly as long as I had, although she wasn’t as into the game as I was. She tested the popcorn with her tongue as if unsure if it was edible, before munching a bite thoughtfully.
Brad showed up wearing a t-shirt, gym shorts and a towel over his shoulder, hair still dripping wet from the hot tub. He heaped chicken, raw veggies and chips and dip onto a plate while asking what burned. He grabbed a handful of popcorn that emptied half the bowl before sitting down beside Tamara. “I thought you’d be done with this game by now. Are you guys still slaying imaginary dragons?”
You could have heard a pin drop.
Everyone in the room gave Brad a look.
Brad froze with popcorn halfway to his mouth. “What did I say?” Brad was the one person there who had no idea that I was a dragon.
Even Tamara had figured it out, although I’m not sure how.
Ma giggled like a teenager, and the tension went out of the room like a balloon stabbed with a pin. “Nothing, dear,” she said to a very confused Brad. She patted his huge hand. “Enjoy the popcorn.”
The basilisk turned me into a furry-footed statue in the first round.
I ate chicken and heckled until the rest of my team managed to kill the basilisk. There were a fair number of wounds, but Donovan’s paladin and a few potions were able to heal the worst of them. You can’t heal a statue, though.
I’d have to roll up a new character again. This was the third character I’d gotten killed in the last six months.
Ma’s character pulled out a scroll and she winked at me. “I’ve been saving this for a special occasion.” It was a Stone-to-Flesh spell, which turned the little hobbit statue back into my mini thief.
I gave her a big hug. “My hero.”

D Dragon