Authors: Robert Asprin
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Science Fiction, #Dragons, #Fantasy fiction, #New Orleans (La.)
Griffen McCandles is adjusting well to running his gambling operation in the French Quarter of New Orleans and to his newfound status as head dragon. Other dragons are getting a whiff of his reputation, though, and they're not happy about it. Which is why there's suddenly a hit out on him.
And, just in time for Halloween, the ghost of a voodoo queen wants Griffen to moderate a supernatural conclave. And though the strange goings-on will barely be noticed in a city used to drunken conventioneers and wild revelers, it's Griffen's chance to spread his wings - or crash and burn.
George was impressed, though, he suspected, not as much as he was supposed to be.
Southern California wasn’t his normal hunting ground, and every time he visited it, he found he liked it less and less. He kept being reminded of something he had once heard said about the area: Once you took away all the tinsel and glitz, what you had left was tinsel and glitz.
He found all the faddishness of what restaurant or club was in, much less what designer clothes one wore or food one ate, to be depressingly shallow and frantic. In his own private protest, he had long since consciously decided not to play their reindeer games.
He was an out-of-towner and an outsider, and made no effort to hide the fact. His suit was off-the-rack and not custom-tailored, and his shoes were comfortable and durable rather than one of the flimsy, short-lived imported fashions.
In one sense, this was appropriate, as George was himself an unimposing man. Anyone passing him on the street in the Midwest or the Northeast would barely notice him, much less remember him a half dozen steps later. In the youth-and-beauty-oriented culture of Southern California, he was as invisible as a homeless person, noticed, if at all, with distaste.
Even his rental car was an economy-sized Ford, readily sneered at by the valet at the trendy restaurant he pulled up at. At least, he assumed it was trendy. The girl at the car-rental counter had recognized it readily enough when he asked for directions.
None of this bothered George in the slightest. It was expected and, in some ways, gratifying. Anonymity was a plus, if not a necessity, in his chosen profession. What was more, he was sure enough of himself and what he could do that he did not feel the need for outside admiration or reassurance.
The hostess sized him up and dismissed him with one glance before asking if he had a reservation in a voice that assumed he didn’t.
“I’m here to meet with Flynn,” he said with deliberate casualness.
It was entertaining to watch the transformation that came over the hostess at the mention of Flynn’s name. Her bored, skeptical expression changed in an instant to a beaming smile of welcome. With a smooth glide she came out from behind her reservation stand to escort George personally to Flynn’s table.
Yes. People knew who Flynn was. Even George knew who he was, though they had never met or spoken before he was contacted for his recent assignment.
There was a noticeable break in the deal-making conversations throughout the room as the combatants realized where George was being led and paused in their negotiations to appraise him.
Yes. Everyone knew who Flynn was. What amused George was the knowledge that while everyone knew that Flynn was, perhaps, the most sought-after agent in the country, very few knew what he really was. George knew. Flynn was a dragon.
Though not a dragon himself, George was more than familiar with what they were: descendants of a shape-shifting, size-changing race that first resisted, then blended with the humans when that species rose to prominence. Centuries of mixing with and interbreeding with humans had thinned the blood and weakened their powers, but their basic characteristics remained the same. They were long-lived, resistant to disease or injury, and highly charismatic. They were also selfish, greedy, power-hungry, and utterly ruthless regarding any perceived threat to their amassed fortunes or power bases.
George knew all this because he was not human himself, and had made it his life’s work to hunt dragons… for pay, of course.
Flynn rose to greet him as George was led to the table. He was tallish, with dark, wavy hair, gleaming white teeth, and what could only be called a California tan. Impeccably dressed, he could have been the poster boy for a “Beautiful California” ad campaign.
“George,” he said, flashing his teeth and extending a hand. “So good of you to join me.”
George ignored the hand as he seated himself.
“I was under the impression that I didn’t have much choice in the matter,” he said, flatly.
“I simply felt that, considering the substantial fee you charge, I deserve a face-to-face debriefing.” Flynn smiled. “Not just a few written pages in a report.”
“There was also something said about withholding the balance of my fee until we met,” George said.
“That was an unfortunate misimpression,” Flynn said. “The balance of your fee has already been deposited in the designated account.”
George calmed down but was still not completely mollified.
“Well, there’s also the matter of this breaking my rule against meeting my clients face-to-face.”
Flynn shook his head.
“I understand. It’s the whole ‘man of mystery’ thing where no one knows your face,” he said. “Well, I’m certainly not going to share your description with anyone. The whole trust thing should be a two-way street.”
“You’re talking ‘trust’ to someone who hunts dragons for a living,” George said with a smirk. “Maybe we know different dragons.”
“I see your point,” Flynn admitted. “Very well, then perhaps the knowledge that the deposit to your account included a sizable bonus for your inconvenience will help mollify your discomfort. Fifty percent, if I recall correctly.”
It did, and George caught himself smiling. He quickly reminded himself that the dragon he was dealing with was successful mostly because of his ability to use glamour… the power to charm others into doing just about anything and have them grateful in the process.
“It helps,” he said, carefully. “I’m still not wild about this, but what’s done is done. Shall we order?”
He picked up the menu and started to peruse it.
“I think you’ll find the cuisine here a pleasant change from your normal fare,” Flynn said with a smile.
“We’ll see,” George returned. “Remember, I’m fresh from spending several months in New Orleans. They have one or two good restaurants there… and some of the best service I’ve ever encountered.”
The two men carefully stuck to minor cocktail-party chitchat until after the meal had been consumed and the dishes cleared away.
“So,” Flynn began, sipping at his coffee, “shall we get down to your debriefing? I’m very interested in hearing your observations firsthand.”
“Well, I assume you’ve already read my report,” George said.
“Yes, but take it from the top as if I hadn’t,” Flynn answered. “I want it fresh from your own memories.”
George took a moment to collect his thoughts, then began.
“Griffen McCandles and his sister, Valerie, are the orphaned offspring of two half-blood dragon parents. He is just coming to the age when his secondary powers, if any, should emerge. You hired me to track McCandles and test him to see if he would be any kind of a threat to you.
“I found him shortly after his uncle Malcolm informed him of his heritage. Apparently both he and his sister had been kept in the dark about even the existence of dragons until that point. His immediate reaction was to go to his sister, both to pass the information on to her and to seek her counsel.
“At that time, they were approached and offered refuge in New Orleans by Mose and his gambling cabal. It’s common knowledge in that area now that Griffen is being groomed to take control of Mose’s operation.
“Over the period of a couple of months, I both watched Griffen’s development and arranged a few minor tests of my own. He is a fast learner… disturbingly fast.
“When I finally confronted him, he proved to be a formidable opponent. Though he had only been aware of his dragon heritage for a few months, he demonstrated a surprising familiarity with his new powers, which include animal control, shape-shifting, and fire-breathing.
“As I said in my report, while he is still developing, I feel you should take him seriously as a potential threat and monitor both his development and activities.”
With that, George leaned back and picked up his own coffee, waiting for the inevitable questions.
“Very concise,” Flynn said. “But without much detail. You really feel that he’s a serious threat to me?”
“Actually, what I said was that you should take him seriously as a
threat,” George corrected. “As near as I can ascertain, for the time being he’s content to sit in his holdings in New Orleans and run his gambling concern. I don’t really see him coming after you unless you provoke him in some way.”
“But, if provoked, you see him as a serious threat?” Flynn pressed.
“He’s still very young and unfamiliar with either his powers or the current pecking order of dragons,” he said. “As I mentioned, however, he’s showing amazing growth for the short time he’s been consciously working at it.”
“Could you give me an example?”
“Well, I’ve already mentioned the development of his secondary powers,” George said. “What I feel is more significant is how he is using them and interfacing with others. There has been a sudden growth spurt of people joining his gambling operation, mostly for the chance to work with Griffen. It’s said that he tangled with some of the local drug gangs and not only survived, but backed them off. Melinda sent one of her sons in to try to seduce his sister, Valerie, but they saw through his glamour and sent him packing.”
“So Melinda is taking an interest in him as well,” Flynn said, thoughtfully.
“Only peripherally,” George said. “I think her main interest was in his sister. The point is, they stopped him cold. Not bad for a pair of effectively untrained dragons.”
“I see.” Flynn nodded. “Anything else?”
“More rumors than anything confirmed,” George said. “It was being bantered about in hushed tones that he’s somehow formed an alliance with the spirit of a deceased voodoo queen. That’s something I’ve never heard of another dragon doing. I’ve also heard that he’s somehow in touch with some of the Eastern dragons.”
“The Eastern dragons,” Flynn said, suddenly attentive. “What sort of connection does he have there?”
“Nothing definite,” George said. “He has a girlfriend who followed him down from college and supposedly is somehow tied in to the Easterns. It’s my guess that they’re curious and keeping an eye on him… rather like you are.”
“All that in a few months,” Flynn said. “And you don’t see him as an immediate threat to me?”
“Basically, I don’t see him as having any motivation to come after you,” he said, slowly. “Perhaps if you would share with me what your specific concern is, I could appraise the situation more accurately.”
It was Flynn’s turn to be silent for several moments.
“You claim to know dragons,” he said at last. “In your research, have you come across anything regarding a prophecy?”
George blinked, then shrugged.
“Just some old tale about there arising a near-full-blood dragon who would unite the various dragon factions into one powerful force. Is that the one you’re thinking of?”
“Something like that.” Flynn waved. “I just find myself wondering if some of the appeal that young Griffen is experiencing is from other dragons wondering if he’s the one from the prophecy.”
“I doubt it,” George said. “Almost every culture has some variation of a savior legend, someone who will either appear or return to put things right. While it’s reassuring, I don’t think there are any who take it seriously.”
“You’re probably right,” Flynn said, rising and putting out his hand. “Well, I certainly appreciate your taking the time to humor my request for a personal debriefing. It’s been most informative.”
George rose and shook the offered hand without thinking.
“As you said, you paid for it,” he said. “Just because he isn’t an immediate threat, though, I still think you should take young Griffen seriously. He is formidable, and that is a word I don’t use often or lightly.”
“Oh, I’m taking him seriously,” Flynn said with a smile. “So seriously, in fact, that I’m putting several things on hold to fly down to New Orleans to see to him myself.”
George stared at him.
“If you were going to do that, why did you bother hiring me?” he said.
“Until I heard your report, I wasn’t sure he was worth my while,” Flynn said with an easy shrug. “Now I’m convinced that he needs to be checked out and tested further by me personally to see if he should be recruited or killed.”
While George had a long-standing hatred of dragons, he realized that he was developing a specific dislike for this one in particular.