Authors: Alan F. Troop
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Dragon DelaSangre
A ROC Book / published by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 2002 by Alan F. Troop
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Electronic Edition: May, 2002
For all the dragons among us.
First, foremost and forever, to Susan, my wife and my favorite reader, without whose love and forbearance I doubt I'd ever have completed this or any other book. To Rocky Marcus for her encyclopedic knowledge of literature, her advice and her well timed and well delivered ego strokes. To Jim Cory, wherever you are, a damn good poet and an excellent critic. To Bob Darwell for your help and advice and to Bob Hollander who always wanted to be in a book. And to Jason, David and Leahâdreams can come true if you work hard enough at achieving them.
Since Mother's lonely demise on an arid isle beyond the Gulfstream, Father and I have lived alone. He sleeps most of the time now. The years have caught him in their grip and, during those brief times when he's awake, he's become quite fond of repeating that death lurks beyond each labored breath he takes.
I never detect any sorrow in those declarations. Father has lived long enough to savor whatever he wished. When death comes, he'll surely embrace it.
Dignity is all I wish for him. He's always admired those who fought for the joy they found in life.
“And I've always regretted the necessity of their deaths,”
Father's often said.
“Even in defeat, the brave ones surrendered only their bodies.”
But no matter how calm Father's death, no matter how well received its arrivalâI fear the loneliness that will follow.
he reassures me.
“There are still others. One day you will find a woman of the blood, just as I found your mother.”
But each year passes without such fortune. Father can doze and dream his memories. I can only wish for my future.
Ours is a large house, made from coral stone. It sits on an islandâa small spit of sand stuck between Miami's Biscayne Bay and the great blue wideness of the Atlantic Ocean. As much as I love the salt smell and ocean song that
fills the air each day, I dread the thought of a lonely future spent roaming the cool stone corridors, from empty room to empty room.
We've owned this island, Caya DelaSangre, or Blood Key, since Philip II, the king of Spain, granted it to my family in exchange for gold, services rendered and the promise of Don Henri DelaSangra to never return to any portion of Europe. When first deeded to our family in 1589, the island measured eleven acres long and five acres wide. But over the years, wind, tide and storm have eroded our homestead, just as our family has diminished under the weight of time. My inheritance has worn away to no more than nine acres of dry land. Truth is, I wouldn't trade them for ninety anywhere else. My mother gave birth to me here. I grew up in the house Don Henri himself built.
Without a bride of my own, without children, I admit it's an empty kingdom to rule. Still, I pity those poor souls on the mainland who move every few years, from house to house, without any connection to their land, without any sense of their history or their responsibility to it.
The other night Father awoke and grew nostalgic.
“Remember when you were a boy,”
Father wheezed and coughed,
“how you loved to play soldier?”
“You'd go out on the veranda, climb on its coral parapet and point to the seaâshouting that pirates were coming to attack. Then you'd run, seeking pretend enemies, circling the house until you finally stopped by one of the gun ports cut into the coral andÂ .Â .Â .”
“And I'd beg you to move the cannon into position,”
“Your mother always hated that I kept a few of the old ship killers. When I'd fire one for you, she'd be mad for weeks. She always worried we'd be heard. She
never believed we were far enough from land for the noise to go unnoticed.”
It was a wonderful place for a boy to grow upÂ .Â .Â . even a strange child like I was. I still like to stand in the great room on the third floor of our coral-stone house and overlook it all, like a captain viewing his ship from the top deck. Usually I dine alone each night at the massive oak table in the middle of that room, Father asleep, rumbling and turning with his dreams in the room below.
From my seat I can survey all the approaches to our island home. To my right, a large multipaned window faces the endless waves of the Atlantic Ocean. To my left, three smaller windows look out across the pale blue width of Biscayne Bay to the South Miami skyline on the horizon. In front of me, two other windows view the swift current flowing through the narrow channel separating us from the bird sanctuary on Wayward Key. And behind me, yet another window overlooks the mile-wide channel between our small island and the green tree-covered spits of land called the Ragged Keys.
When the windows are open, no matter which direction the wind blows, it washes through the room like an unending wave. Always the house smells of sea salt and ocean damp. Always every outside noise washes through too. Only birds and fish can visit our island and escape notice. Don Henri planned it that way when he built this house.
Tonight I choose to dine out far from our home, away from the endless waves and restless breezes that worry at our tiny island. I land our motorboat, a twenty-seven-foot Grady White, at our slip behind Monty's restaurant in Coconut Grove. It's been almost a week since I've come ashore.
I walk down the dock, ignoring the blare of reggae music and the smells of fried fish and spilt beer that always seem
to fill the air around Monty's thatch-roofed outdoor patio. Just past the restaurant's parking lot, I pause for the light, and glance across South Bayshore Drive to the green-and-beige concrete tower on the leftâthe Monroe buildingâwhere LaMar Associates, my family's business, keeps its offices.
While I've little interest in the daily functions of the company, I find it difficult to pass the building without giving it at least a cursory glance. After all it houses the company Don Henri founded to manage and grow our wealth.
Studying the office building's sparse, utilitarian lines, I wonder, as I often do, why anyone would pay an architect to fashion such an ungraceful edifice. Just to the south of it, workers swarm around the skeleton of another, taller tower, one probably just as sterile in design.
I curl my lip. I can remember a time when Coconut Grove was a simple bayside village, when a five-story building would have dwarfed everything in the area. Now concrete towers line South Bayshore Drive, the well-designed ones crowded and eclipsed by their inferiors.
Unfortunately I have to give myself part of the blame. My family's corporation probably has some money invested in every building in sight.
A shiny black Mercedes coupe sits parked on the street in front of the concrete tower. I recognize it as belonging to Jeremy Tindall, my family's attorney and the comanager of LaMar Associates. Frowning, I wonder why he's chosen to work late. It's unlike Jeremy to show such initiative.
I toy with the impulse to go upstairs and pay him a surprise visit. But I have little desire to confront him tonight. Knowing Jeremy as I do, I never doubt whether he's plotting against me, looking for new ways to divert some of my family's considerable wealth. Only the vigilance of his comanager, Arturo Gomez, and the threat of my family's power keep him in check.
A long time ago I asked Father why he tolerated such an employee. He sighed.
“Great wealth always results in great temptation and great temptation invariably destroys honor. If I could, I'd do without them all,”
“But if you have to have employees, it's better to know one is a thief than be surprised by it. I've found in my long life that the only men who could do great damage to me were the ones I trusted.
“At least with Tindall, I know what I have. I can rely on him to behave in certain ways and because of that, I can control him. But I would never trust him or any of the others, not even Gomez. And you shouldn't either.”
I make a mental note to call Gomez in the morning, warn him to be more vigilant, and then I turn my attention to the bustle of the cars, the rush of people going about their business, celebrating another evening in the Grove.
As I cross the street, passing the office buildings, I smile. I've missed the feel of concrete and asphalt under my feet. As the neighborhood turns more residential and I walk past the manicured lawns and the towering trees that fill each yard, I take deep breaths, smell the richness of the vegetation, the sharp tang of newly cut grass and I relaxâthinking only of the evening before me.
Detardo's Steakhouse sits on the corner of 27th Avenue and 12th, a good two-mile hike from the bay. Once fashionable, the area's on the wrong side of U.S. 1 now, almost hidden beneath the concrete columns that shoulder the weight of the elevated Metrorail tracks. Only the restaurant's legendary gargantuan steaks at picayune prices continue to lure patrons.
People still come, even though they have to park their oversize luxury cars in an unguarded lot, illuminated by a few murky yellow security lights. They scurry past the dozens of winos who spend their evenings lurking nearby, hidden behind the bushes and crouching in the shadows.
Max Leiber nods to me when I enter, motions me past the waiting crowd. “Mr. DelaSangre,” he says, winking a wrinkled eyelid, “the table you reserved is waiting.”
The ancient maÃ®tre d' grasps my right elbow with his bony hand and guides me to a small table in a dimly lit alcove. “You always seem to stay so young,” he says as he hands me a menu he knows I won't use and lights a small table candle I don't need. “I wish I knew your secret.”
I smile in return, hand him the twenty-dollar bill he's come to expect. “Remind the chef how I like my food prepared,” I say, wishing him gone. He smells of age gone bad, weakened bladder and stale cigarettes.
“Maria will be your server. Just give her your order. I'll make sure the chef takes extra care with it.” He rushes off to calm his waiting throng.
Everywhere people consume meat. The aroma almost overpowers me. I can close my eyes and still point to which tables have pork or fowl or beefâand where the rarest meat is puddling blood on its plate.
Maria looks almost too young to be waiting tables, a slightly plump girl with wide, strong hips and bright black eyes. She is in her menses. The smell of it floods my mouth with saliva. I have to swallow before I speak.
“I'll have a twenty-four-ounce Porterhouse steak, blood rare. Tell the chef it's for Mr. DelaSangreâhe'll know how I want it.”
She stares at me, asks what else I wantâsalad, potatoes?
I shake my head.
Still, she stares.
My own fault really. Father has laughed many times at my vanity. Like all of my people, I'm taller than most men. My muscles strain against my clothes, especially at the shoulders and neck. But where Father's face is angularâhis nose, long and sharp, his lips, thin and cruelâmy features are softer, more middle-American.
“Your eyes,” she says.
I grin at her.
“I've never seen such green eyesÂ .Â .Â . like emeralds.”
“They run in my family,” I tell her. It's true. There's much about ourselves we can change, but no one of the blood has ever been able to conceal their eyes. In the old days that's how they would find us. Thankfully, such knowledge has long been lost.
Maria lingers at the table. “If everyone else in your family looks like youÂ .Â .Â .” she coos, then blushes and rushes off to place my order.
I grin again. I can hear Father saying,
“It's your damn ego, calling attention to yourself.”
Father will never understand. He was born well before this time. To him, all human forms are equally unpleasant.
“You might as well admire cattle!”
he says anytime I remark at a human's beauty. But I'm young enough to have been shaped by the movies and later, television. It's only natural for someone like meâbrought up in a world where appearances matter more than realityâto choose to improve his looks.
Father laughed most, when, after viewing Kirk Douglas in
, I decided to have a cleft chin. For a creature who can change form at will, something like a cleft chin is a moment's thoughtâas are all the other shapings I've done. What Maria sees as she bustles around my table is merely an amalgam of years of watching movie heroes.
The steak tastes almost cool to my tongue, thick with its own juices, redolent with blood. I force myself to cut each piece small and eat at a measured pace. Even so, I finish before Maria comes back to check my table.
She eyes my empty plate, cocks one eyebrow. “I guess everything was okay, huh?”
I nod, smile and order a coffee, black. She returns the
grin, lingers, as if she's going to say something, then blushes and rushes off.
There's no doubt she's available but my stomach's full. All I want to do is slouch in my chair and enjoy the warmth of the room.
My eyes are half closed when she returnsâmy thoughts far away. I smell the coffee and something else. An edge of nervous perspiration and a hint of sexual excitement now spike her aroma. Before she speaks, I know what she'll offer.
She hands me the check and another piece of paper. “My number,” she says. “I get off by eleven most nights. I don't live far from here so I'm home by midnight at the latest.” She grins. “I live alone, so don't worry if you have to call late.”
I return her smile, carefully fold her note and place it in my pocket. “My name's Peter,” I say. Tonight would not be a good time to take her. But in a few weeks, before she's forgotten meÂ .Â .Â . “Things are difficult now”âI stare into her eyesâ“but as soon as I can, I'll call.”