She bit her lip and hopped in the car with him.
It was a silent drive. She walked up the five flights, glad Homer hadn't opted for the top floor. Jason pressed the button, pressed it again. Knocked. The door was thick, solid oak.
"Damn. I'm really going to do this." He pulled out the key and opened the door.
"Oh, nice. Homer does have good tastes." Scarlet looked around. Tranquil, understated elegance and lots of open space. "And he likes open flow rooms, and doesn't cook much. Nor entertain. Nor paint, here."
“Dragons generally eschew doors. And even constricted doorways.” Jason looked around as he walked through the rooms. "Nothing out of place."
In the bedroom the big puffy down coverlet was pulled up into a semblance of order. Nothing on the floor. Clothes in the hamper, no trace of blood.
"That's the biggest bed I've ever seen."
"Dragons like to stretch out."
He looked up. "What?"
"Sorry, it's just . . . Homer and Herod? Or is Herod female? Not that it isn't still icky." Okay, he's an artist. But a homosexual-bestiality arrangement is still a bit much.
Jason gawped at her for a moment. "Note to self. Lieutenant Magana needs a demonstration. All the lectures about dragons don't seem to be working."
A stack of books on the table caught her eye. The top one was The Thief of Alexandria, by Herod West Plateau.
She opened it and started reading. Homer’s paintings had had a depth and composition that flowed together, and vivid color. This writing had some of that same integrity and sweep to it. I can see why these two get along with each other. Deep down, they’re much the same.
Scarlet put it down and walked into the huge bathroom, started rummaging through drawers.
The doorbell pulled her back to the main room just as Jason flipped the lock and turned the knob. The door flew open, knocking him back. The big man outside lowered the foot he'd kicked it with and stepped in. He was damn near as big as a dragon, but blonde, with a pasty white skin. And fast. Before Jason could get his breath back the man had pounced and removed the gun he'd managed to half draw. The butt of the gun swung back and hit his head.
Scarlet jolted into action, froze as the gun turned her direction. "Who are you? What do you think you are doing?" There were three other men, following the big one into the room, two circled behind her, and a cloth covered her mouth and nose.
"They're waiting till Sunday."
Jason squinted his eyes against the throbbing headache. Homer wasn't immaculate any longer, and he was now accessorizing with handcuffs. Jason jerked and found he had a pair all his own, and a chain leading from his ankle to an eyebolt set in the concrete floor.
"How religious." Magana's voice.
Jason tried to look, winced and carefully turned his whole body to look the other direction. The pretty lieutenant had her own accessories. It wasn't fair of the woman to look so much better with her hair down loose and a smudge on her cheek. Or maybe it was just his hormones, trying to distract him from what was looking like a scene from horror flick.
"You sure know how to impress a girl on a second date." Her wry smile wasn't reaching her eyes.
"Yeah, well with Homer for competition, I had to pull out all the stops." He looked up at the dragon. "I suppose this once I'll forgive you for not answering your phone. Where are we?" He pushed off the floor and managed to sit up.
"Someplace owned or controlled by the Church of the Second Coming. I've heard they have a retreat in the foothills." Homer sounded deeply unhappy. Dragon hands were larger than human, strong muscles, hollow bones. The cuffs wouldn’t slide off if he transformed. The tough dry ridge of skin that ran from little finger all the way down a dragon’s side to the knee softened as it hydrated, and spread into the wing membrane. Not easily torn, but changing with tight, inflexible metal cuffs on the wrists could be crippling.
Jason eyed the block of granite in the center of the room, and shifted uneasily. "That thing must weigh ten tons. How'd they get it down here?" And what do they do with it?
"Probably before they put the roof on. Or floor. I think there's a building on top of us. There's a vehicle ramp over there in the dark, they brought you two in a van." He sat up straighter and looked to his right.
Jason followed his gaze. A man in the gunny sack robes of a priest walked through a door, barely discernible in the shadows.
Jason looked him in the eye. "I am Detective-inspector Jason Miribeau, Sa Nafra Police Department. Release us immediately."
A second priest walked out. "Good. He's awake. I was afraid Henry might have hit him too hard. We'll take the tainted girl, and her demon sister tonight, then we just have to find Desota." He looked down at Scarlet. "I do not recognize you from Church, my daughter. You have fallen far, Demon's Whore. Do you repent? You have three days to save your soul."
Scarlet glared. "I am not a member of your Church. I have fallen nowhere, and I certainly am not having sex with a dragon. I am . . . "
The first Priest set a bag down and they both left while she was still talking.
"Not interested in chat, apparently." Jason wobbled to his feet and clanked over to look in the bag. Sandwiches, bottles of water, and a washed, empty cottage cheese container.
"The privvy." Homer explained, briefly.
“They might at least have brought three. No consideration, these religious types.”
Trouble approved of the safe house. "If we can stay here for just two and a half months, a mere eighty days, I can walk out of here and head straight for the Gold Country."
Gale sniffed. "When they catch the Ripper, I'm going to be famous, you know. I could star in my own movie. I'm the one who lived to tell about it."
They still had to share a bedroom, but Alley had a little room next to Mom and the stepfather's downstairs, so the five other kids had the upstairs to themselves. Two whole bathrooms, and a little "powder room" off the entry. No waiting, in the morning. Packing had been easy for her, horrible for Gale. But they'd made it away, scot free from the Ripper. Safe. Trouble headed downstairs. Because the best thing about this house was the bookshelf on the wall of the living room. It was stuffed with books she'd never read.
The snotty priests were right. There was a Heaven.
She shelved the one she'd just finished and kicked backed with the next book. She read until Mom, Alley and the step father came home. Mom looked terrific, in her pink dress, and the hat with the pink fake flowers. Even the stepfather looked good, in a suit that was getting a bit threadbare. Trouble guessed she could see why Mom married him. Maybe it would stick, this time. She'd be gone soon, and maybe Gale would get her own place. Then Mom would just have the four youngest to worry about.
"I can't believe you went to Church. What if someone recognized you? Followed you here?" Gale stomped downstairs. She wasn't going to be clubbing for a lot of nights to come.
"Don't be silly. Father Abraham understands the situation. We were in one of those balcony things and we kept the netting closed. We could see everything, but no one could see us. Father Michael came up and gave us Communion and talked about how we need to be strong over the next few days, until they catch that Demon Ripper."
Trouble buried herself back in her book. She emerged for lunch, briefly. Then the noise from the TV drove her upstairs to read in bed until Gale stomped up and stared at the clothes in her closet.
"I can't believe I'm stuck here. I'm just going to die of boredom."
Trouble scowled at her. "How about the police? Some of them are cute. Or do you have to be drunk before you can chat up a mark?"
Gale glared. And stomped out.
Her soft voice rose from the backyard shortly after. Trouble wished she hadn't given Gale ideas that were going to distract the guards. What if the dragon tried to kidnap them. Tied them up. Locked them in his dungeon.
She growled at her over active imagination. "I really doubt he has a dungeon." None-the-less, she crept down stairs and searched the kitchen, settling on a very sharp knife, short enough to keep in her back pocket. For cutting ropes, if she was tied up. The dungeon would be easier. The other kids in juvvie had shone her how to pick locks. Her career as a cat burglar had been short, and ended back in juvvie.
A search through Gale's stuff for hairpins, then the kitchen again, and the garage got her a pretty fair kit. She wrapped it all in one of Gale's least lacy hankies and shoved it in a pocket. She folded a square of cardboard around the knife, so it didn't cut anything, and put it back in her back pocket.
As long as she was raiding Gale's stuff . . . she fingered her boyish button front shirt and eyed a dark green cap sleeved tee with a square collar that would show the dragon scales on her collar bones. She lifted her arms and bared her midriff. "Yeah. That would be better. If they're going to call me a demon, I'll show the world why. Bet I could fight a dragon, too. Just let them try to kidnap me!" She was talking to the person in the mirror, but the person moving into the background was the one that answered.
"That's what I'm here for." He grabbed her head, the cloth in his hand half in her mouth as she opened it to yell.
Jason watched in dismay as they unloaded the Meyers sisters. The younger one was already half-conscious, trying to hit one of the priests as he shoved her out of the van and found another ring to lock the end of her chain to. The blonde sister was still limp. The priest's hands lingered as he moved her.
The older priest came and nodded his approval. "One more. We'll be ready by Sunday."
"What's Sunday, to a criminal psycho like you?" Jason asked.
The priest looked over at the stone and smiled. The others closed the van doors and it drove away. The older priest walked away as well.
The woozy Trouble braced herself on her hands and knees to look around. Then she patted her pockets and crawled up to Homer's feet. The lacy hanky unfolded to display as nice a scavenged lock picking kit as was imaginable. The lock took a bit of work, but finally clicked open. The handcuffs took a few minutes.
A sharp whistle. Running footsteps. Homer gulped audibly, but stepped over the girl as she got to work on Jason's ankle. He squared off, raising his fists. Over the girl's head Jason saw the first guard knock Homer flat with a single blow.
It may have been Homer who hit the ground, but it was Herod who stood back up. With the man's ankle in his hand. He spun and let go. The man hit the wall head on and did not get up. The second man got a kick to the stomach that dropped him, retching and trying to breathe. Herod eeled out of the coat and ripped the shirt open. Jason caught a quick glimpse of Scarlet staring slack jawed as the dragon started changing.
The lock on Jason's ankle popped open. Trouble switched to his handcuffs. A dozen guards piled in through the door. Jason gathered his feet under himself, and at the click, hurled himself at the fight.
Herod swiped a hand across the third man's stomach, sending him staggering into Jason. Jason assisted his head first encounter with the wall.
"Damn it all Homer!" Herod looked at his immaculately shortened and rounded and buffed claws. He punched the nearest Priest, and yelped in pain.
Dragon hands weren't made for punching.
He grabbed a man and choked him, lashed out with a wing across another man's eyes, whipped his tail to trip one trying to get to the girls. The priest sprawled past him, rolled and pulled out a knife. Trouble jumped on him and tried to strangle him. He reversed the knife and slashed at her hands. She jerked them away and blood spurted. The priest's expression was frozen in disbelief as he dropped.
The dragon took a club away from one man and started swinging. Then Magana was loose and helping. The last one tried to run, and Jason leaped on his back and skidded to block the door open. Two priests there bolted, and Jason followed.
"Guard the girls!" Magana yelled, and followed him.
The underground complex was not extensive. Four offices and a bathroom. And steep stairs up, the two men climbing fast. A quick glance showed the rooms empty. Jason charged up the stairs. The hatch closed in his face. He hit it with his shoulder, and bounced. Magana reversed and ran back to the big room. No one moving there, light coming down the ramp through an open door. At the top, the interior of a barn. Outside the barn, three priests on the ground, hands clasped behind scorched hair. A dragon just taking off, and two girls, finally getting their handcuffs off.
Jason took a deep breath, and searched the priests. The second one had a phone. He called his own office first. Zeu only knew what the locals were going to make of this mess.
Then he tapped in the code for a local emergency.
Half the county sheriff's department responded, and most of the county's ambulances. Seven of the priests were dead. With five definitely needing medical care, the other two were taken along for quick checks. The sheriff looked like he'd prefer to be arresting Jason. Then Herod landed and informed them there's been no sign of anyone fleeing. The dragon curled a contemptuous lip at a request that he change to human form.
"I stink when I change, I doubt you'd want me to shower, and I undressed in haste, ripping just about everything." He walked over to a faucet and turned it on. He drank about a gallon of water, while the sheriff read him his rights and arrested him for multiple homicides and careless flaming. Herod stood up, turned his back on Trouble and Scarlet and hosed himself off while he changed. All three women gawped in fascination as his spine shortened and broadened, his arms shortened and the wing membrane shrank into the skin of his arms and sides. Naked and dripping he suggested that someone escort him down to retrieve his clothing. The sheriff sent a deputy to retrieve the clothes. Herod stepped into the trousers before turning around and finishing dressing. He rolled his sleeves up and left his abraded wrists exposed. The sheriff’s handcuffs disappeared.
Herod leaned on a rock in the sun and ignored everyone, including the two armed and anxious deputies watching him. The sheriff had other men watching Jason and Scarlett, while they searched the scene, and brought out their lab people. Trouble and Gale huddled, with only a small complaint from Trouble about how she was too dangerous and worthy of being watched. That actually brought a faint tick of a smile to Herod’s face. The searchers found all their IDs in one of the offices and some of the guards relaxed a tiny bit.
But Herod was still under guard—and still basking in the sun—when the Chief, Captain Evens and the District Attorney arrived. Then they all moved to the County Courthouse. Since the multiple kidnappings had in all cases been initiated in Sa Nafro, the Judge handed jurisdiction to the Sa Nafro PD, and all the prisoners were transferred to their custody.
The seven homicides and the flaming remained local. Herod, at the judge's request, poked Homer back into control.
"I don't remember what happened. It must have been quick, some drug, I think. I didn't find any lumps on my head or anything. When I woke, I was already chained up, and those people wouldn't even talk to me." Even in ripped clothing he managed to look fussy and harmless. "First they brought the two police, then the sisters. Trouble, err, Trudy, is an art student of mine. She had some hair pins and such and was able to unlock us. Me first—she knows Herod. So I tried to hold off . . . oh. Zeu. I tried to not get knocked out, but get hit hard enough for Herod to ascend. That was his kind of fight. I much prefer the battle of words, thank you very much."
The judge raised an eyebrow. "Now I think we need to speak to this alt of yours again. I hope we don't have to hit you?"
"Oh, no. He's quite shallow, just now. No problem to hand over to him . . . " His casual slump straightened, eyes narrowed and surveyed the courtroom, and it was definitely Herod looking down on all the potential snacks. The guards stirred uneasily.
"We've gotten as far as Homer being struck and you ascending. Please tell us what you saw and what you did after that." The judge frowned at the dragon.
A step by step reconstruction of the fight ended with the body with the cut throat being labeled an accidental suicide. The other six were determined to be Herod's victims. The judge was inclined to lock up the dragon. Herod politely requested a phone call and was escorted to one side, while the judge issued summons for a Grand Jury to the rest of them. A clerk hustled in with papers. The judge read them and gawped at Herod. The dragon stared back. The judge turned away and Herod received a summons as well, all question of putting him behind bars dropped.
Scarlet leaned over and whispered. "I think someone just pulled some strings."
Jason nodded. "But who did he call? Damn it, I'm coming to realize that I don't even know Homer all that well. Let alone Herod."
The sheriff finally accepted that those nice church people weren't actually nice. His lab reported finding blood traces around the base of the large granite block. Other deputies digging up disturbed ground found a body.
"I'm going to have to go over the whole place with cadaver sniffing dogs. I thought they were such nice people." He stumped off, pulling out his phone.
Herod snorted. "I'm flying home. Remember that the Church isn't the Ripper. Protect those two." He eyed the younger girl. "Remember what I said about lessons." He dropped the much abused shirt and turned away, kicking off shoes and pants. He leaped into the air and flapped to clear the nearby buildings.
Trouble rubbed the bruises on her wrists. "So, does that mean we're going back to the Safe House?"
Jason shook his head. "A different Safe House."