Herod flew slowly and quietly, keeping an eye on other flyers, especially low level flyers while he cruised in lazy circles and crosses around and across the district where the murder victims were last seen. There weren't very many flyers, and none seemed to be coming here.
Of course not. These clubs and bars cater to human-form. I could go in, but to fit in I'd then have to change, shower and dress. He snorted, careful not to flame and pull eyes upward. He sped up his wing strokes, rising and letting his circle widen. The Club District overlapped with the upscale addresses to the west and the Arts District to the south. Homer's shop was well placed in the western section of the art district, his home right in the middle of the upscale district. Movement on the street outside the shop caught his eye, and he slowed his forward speed, spun down to check . . . oh, good grief.
"Looking for Homer so you can kick him again?" He backwinged and settled to the pavement.
The girl scowled. "My family is driving me crazy. Sometimes I just want to kill them all. I think I must be insane, maybe I should be locked up forever."
"I suspect you're just being a teenager."
"Heh. I doubt you even remember back far enough to know what it's like, Herod Far Seeker." She rubbed her arms, then crossed them.
Herod sat back, surprised she knew him, then what he had briefly seen registered. His hand snapped forward and grabbed her arm. He shoved the sleeve up to expose the scales. "Huh. I thought you were a second comer?" He released her, and studied her. "You've got the lightest hair I've ever seen in a Dragon. Red? Absurd."
"My Mom is a Comer. I don't know who my Dad is, Mom didn't realize he was a Wuss until I was born with scales."
"Wuss? With scales all the way down your arms? Your father must have been a dragon. I'm not even that scaly in human-form. I've never heard of a hybrid Comer who could change, though. Fascinating. I'll ask around and find out if anyone knows anything."
"You think I could change?" Her blue eyes widened and she looked a bit panicky.
"I don't know. Truly. But I think perhaps you should have lessons, so you know what to expect. Changing pulls muscles and abuses the bones. The first few times are the worse, but even I still find it past uncomfortable and verging on painful."
She shook her head. "And I thought I was in trouble because the Church threw me out. You can't possibly be right. I can't be a dragon! What would my mother say? My Stepdad would throw me out. Where would I go?" She was backing away as she talked, then spun and ran.
"At least read up on it." He lowered his voice as she turned the corner. "We built this modern civilization, created this modern society for our convenience. But that doesn't mean it's a good place to raise the next generation of children—dragon or otherwise. I think I'd better tell people about the need to watch for baby dragons in households that don't expect or recognize them." He didn't bother to look around, to see if anyone heard him talking to himself, he just leaped into the air and climbed a couple hundred feet. He spotted the Trouble girl and watched to be sure she got home safely, then he swung back to the strip. He suspected that he'd not spot anything from up here. He should change and check out the scene on foot. Bleck!
Jason didn't even bother to try and tell himself it was just two cops having dinner. Scarlet was just too damned gorgeous to call a colleague.
And even without Homer present, they wound up talking about dragons.
"Now, why is Herod a common name? I got the impression there was a Bad Herod?"
"Herod the Explorer. Three hundred and fifty years ago, a young dragon who was getting into a lot of trouble at home just picked up and walked off. He explored most of Freer. Set up as a Dragon Lord. Didn't think it was fun to harass the wuss, so he moved whenever too many people moved in around him—because he would protect them from dragons who did enjoy the smell of scorched wuss. He was the first person to make it to the north pole, discovered the Northwest continent and mapped the coastline, explored a bit into the interior. This was over several sunspot cycles, mind you. In the last one, he studied the second comers and recommended against letting them come in any numbers, or permanently. He's got a millions legends attached. He supported the formation of the nation, and fought the last brutal holdouts. He was on the committee that wrote our constitution, one of the members of the first parliament and so forth. He's King Ferris's maternal grandfather."
"So, he was actually good?"
"Well, for those times. He is rumored to have killed a lot of people, but they were mostly bandits. There are also stories about what he did to peaceful interlopers, colonists, trappers, other explorers. It all depends on which set of books you're reading. And most of the stories are more myth than history, but one gathers that it was a toss-up whether he was going to be one of the brutal holdouts or the dragon who ended their reigns."
"And he made the name popular?"
"You said he 'walked off.’ I thought he was a dragon. Was he actually a wuss like you and Homer?"
Jason grinned. "Don't say that in company. Homer is a very well-known dragon."
She crossed her arms and frowned. "All right. If Homer is a dragon, what are those things with the wings and scales and claws, one of whom is murdering women?"
"Those are dragons, too. In dragon-form, rather than human-form."
She glared balefully. "You're enjoying my total ignorance, aren't you?"
Jason fought to keep a smile off his face. "How about some desert?"
“While you tell me how to tell a good dragon from a bad one?”
“Well, that’s hard to say, since dragons all have completely split personalities, one good and one bad. For some definitions of good and bad. Not necessarily law abiding verses criminal. One could be grumpy, the other outgoing. One generous, the other a miser. Or a school teacher and an ambulance chasing shyster lawyer. At any given time one is ascendant, and one suppressed. The rest of the brain: senses, body control, education, training, various abilities and so forth, are accessed by both personality clusters. Not equally. Memories can be shared or personal.”
“So you approach a dragon carefully, until you know which personality is ascendant?”
“For the last six years one side had been dominant most of the time. That’s why so many people are so shocked, just now. A lot of them are meeting the alts for the first time, and finding them the opposite of their old friend. And the nicer the old friend, the worse the shock. Because the degree of goodness or badness tends to match.
“The tepidly helpful/merely rude are the dragons that most people know. The common ones, a part of our joint culture. The difference no more noticeable than mood swings in a wuss. Or human.
“The Heroic/Evil dragons are the stuff of legends. The extreme dragons tend to adapt poorly to civilized life . . . except when they adapt to it very well.”
“Like the Ripper?” She eyed him. “An evil dragon who see humans as prey?”
Jason shook his head. “He’s not hunting for sustenance. There’s a deep sexual perversion in there. None-the-less, he’s finding the city an excellent hunting ground.”
Homer escorted Kelsey and Harriett from limo to front door with a bit of a swagger. So what if they preferred each other? Here he was with a gorgeous woman on each arm. He managed to raise eyebrows as they were announced. The current Lady White Cliff was young, pretty, and invited Homer so she'd get mentioned in the society pages. She smiled warmly and he introduced the girls.
"So nice of you to let me expand your guest list at the last moment. What with all of us dealing with our alts, I decided I'd better break in some apprentices. Harriett's an artist, I show her work regularly. Kelsey's a business woman, lives in the Art District and knows everyone on the lower end."
"What he's trying to not say is that we've been telling him all the good gossip for years." Kelsey grinned. "Now he's going to train us in writing up the right parts of it."
"I have other sources as well," he declared loftily. "Dear Lady Desiree, shall we mention that you are glowing?"
She tsked. "How do you always know? You horrible man. I was going to wait a few months, spare myself all the early enquiries."
"Your wish is my command." He bowed over her hand and moved on.
Harold White Cliff rolled his eyes. Lord White Cliff was almost as old as Homer, and knew Herod well. "I see Herod isn't asserting himself yet."
Homer sighed. "Well, you know Herod. The world's worst loner. He's been out, but he certainly isn't making calls."
White Cliff laughed. "Of course not. I can't wait to see what he makes of the changes of last decade."
Homer smiled wryly. "I can't wait to find out how far he's going to go, to get away from the changes of the last decade. This time."
A quick survey of the room revealed that it was almost exclusively a wuss and dragon affair. Homer meandered casually toward the sole group of fair heads almost hidden behind taller and darker people. Kelsey and Harriet trailed after him. He stopped and chatted twice, blew a few kisses to lady friends across the floor.
"We're going to get jealous, Homer!" Kelsey looked over at the last one. "I thought you preferred blondes?"
"Shh! Don't give away my perversions!" Homer turned at a laugh.
Lady Marsha Surf Side shook a finger at him. "Two? You dare show up with two pretty and very young wussies? I shudder to think what that Lumpkin person is going to say."
"Oh, surely Lady Desiree has failed to invite him. I'm convinced he must be a second comer."
"Eww! What a hideous thought! Speaking of which, did you see Lamon's new play?"
"Yes. Very controversial. Their Church swears that hybrids are impossible. But then a noisy protest is invaluable in catching the public's eye."
"Oh, Thunder and Lightning! I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose."
Homer chuckled. "You? Naive? Lady Marsha, you shock me! Lamon is a very clever man. Wait and see. I'll bet he has a dynamite show just waiting in the wings. As soon as he has everyone's attention, he'll whip it out and make a name for himself for excellence."
She looked thoughtful, and turned slightly. "Have you met Bernard Grammain? He's the ambassador from those strange new people. Bernard, this is Lord Homer West Plateau."
"Ambassador Grammain, a pleasure. I hope you aren't finding our northern winter too difficult, after your tropical island?"
The man had light brown hair, going gray. He was shorter than even the wusses in the crowd. They are very like the second comers. "Lord Homer, a pleasure. I'm enjoying the brisk air. Are you also in government?"
"Pala, no. I avoid politics as much as possible. I'm an artist." They introduced each other's companions. The Ambassador had no wife, but a trio of aides in attendance. One more than Homer had thought, from a distance. One of the young men was darker than a wuss. Speaking of coming in all colors. Homer pressed Harriett and Kelsey into service as dance instructors, and they took the youngest two men off to the center of the room.
"That was kind of you." The ambassador watched the flow of bodies and the band started with a waltz. "One of my first duties is to find out all about the dance and music styles."
Homer nodded. "Eager to fit in, are you? I spoke to one of your people a few days ago, Scarlet Magana. She says you have several religions, and lots of tolerance."
The Ambassador launched into an explanation of what he called the five main religions. Three sounded not unlike the dogma of the Church of the Second Coming. The other two were quite different. And they all tried to get along.
"That tolerance will be a large drawing card, when our government comes to a decision. Too many of us have come to regret ever letting the second comers get a toehold in our nation."
"And one of them seems to be making a personal attempt to run them off, from what I've read." The Ambassador looked mild, but Homer suspected it was all show, over a very analytical mind.
"The Ripper? Umm, I suspect he's just an ordinary sexual pervert, who's gotten lucky in not getting caught so far. I doubt politics has anything to do with it."
"Well, murderous and sick. But hardly a political activist." He let the Ambassador lead him into a discussion of politics, both national and local. The man showed a bias toward the Crease style government, rather than the parliamentary.
"Do you think it is the presence of the dragons that shapes your government? I haven't quite gotten a grip on your nobility yet."
Homer chuckled. "Oh, the titles have nothing to do with the government, well, other than the King. Anyone can call themselves anything they wish. I'm a lord because I'm old and rich, plus my alt is scary enough that no one would want to slight me. Anyone putting on airs by starting to call themselves 'lord' is likely to find him or herself fed to the knives of gossip and ridicule. We become lords when people start calling us lords. And ladies."
"Fascinating. So second comers could be lords and ladies?"
"Zeu no! They'd be thrown from the Church if they adopted what they consider a demon form of respect. It sounds like your religions have strayed so far from their rigid beliefs that you may have trouble dealing with them, too. And they can be relied on to vilify those last two religions. Umm, tell me more about this 'sky-clad' dancing. What myths about gods and creation led to . . . "
It was a nice dignified gala. He learned a lot, garnered enough gossip for five columns, and he showed Kelsey and Harriett a few new methods of applying charm to get what they wanted; lots of chatty friends.
"Biggest news is the medical examiner's report. He was pissed because #7's DNA scan was contaminated after all, but only by one or two guys. Now he's trying to sort through the DNA and get us another profile or two. He says there are definitely the markers for either dragon or wuss, but a distinct second comer X chromosome that didn't come from the victim."
"Can't he tell the difference between dragon and wuss genes? You'd think there would be huge, obvious . . . " Scarlet trailed off at Jason's shaken head.
"We're all closely related. There's only one gene that's definitely found only in wusses. With a field sample, with most of the DNA the victim's, he doesn't have a complete set for the other person or persons. Thing is, that witness to the dragon dropping the woman in the dumpster admits that it was dark, and he was mostly going by the sound of wings. There could have been other people, or he could have been mistaken and a man on foot heaved her in there."
"The injuries are caused by a dragon, no doubt about that, right?"
"Right. There is a dragon. Now we have to wonder if someone else is helping him, or vice versa. It's time for some footwork, with pictures." Jason blew out his breath in an unhappy huff. "The thing is . . . two days before then, Herod had a woman up in Homer's apartment. Blonde, wearing a red dress."
"Herod is a suspect? He lives there, right?"
"Right. So we've got his picture in the batch we're taking around to show everyone."
"So, Dragons. If I understand this correctly, the alternate personality could have started appearing last winter, when the sunspots dropped off so quickly. And now that the magnetic field is reversing, he'll be coming out . . ."
"Ascending, more frequently and for longer periods as time goes on?"
Jason nodded. "That's mostly right. But even at the maximum the non-dominant can ascend. They just mostly don't, and only briefly. But not randomly. They have cycles, you see. Natural cycles of dominance—Daily, monthly, yearly, Sunspot Cycle.
"When the Sun is in its north positive magnetic state, the right brain is dominant seventy to ninety percent of the time. Ditto negative polarity and left brain cluster. With a bit of randomness tossed in, for illness, weather, alarm, fear, anger. . .
"The other cycles are individually variable. Dragons who are left dominant in daylight, full moon and summer have the most equitable timeshare, and tend to be fairly mild in temperament. That's probably why three fourths of Parliament voted for King Ferris. Dragons who are left dominant night, new moon, winter tend to display the most extreme dominance swings, and the extremes of good and evil."
"Good and evil?" She sounded amused.
"Ah, a fellow Agnostic. I shall have to classify you. Evil sounds so primitive, doesn't it? Anyway, the Ripper seems to be the left personality and a Full Mooner. And night dominant, although that could just be for concealment, and good hunting in the night clubs. His sudden appearance indicates that he's either very Bi or quite young."
"Young. Hmm. Homer didn't say anything about the dragon life cycle. How young, and why is that important?"
"Dragon's mature around thirty years of age. But they generally start morphing and can fly when they are eighteen or so."
"Late puberty, eh? And their body changes? They grow wings?"
"For a dragon, that's the start of puberty. When they're twenty to twenty-five they'll start flaming. That was the old 'coming of age' age. Wusses just had to go with twenty-years-old-so-you'd-better-start-a
Her eyes crinkled. "So, if you're going to live several hundred years, how old are you now?"
"Thirty-five. Single. Contemplating throwing myself at your feet."
“That’s not terribly professional.”
“No, and doubly foolish since, as like as not, you’ll wind up moving to Crease.”