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.”
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.”
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.”