He followed them out. Homer was taller than the fellow, he must be a wuss.
"Hey, do I know you?" Homer staggered to show how drunk he was. Trying to act like a friendly drunk. The man's hair was brown, not black. But the hand on the woman's bare arm had the heavy nails of a dragon. Longer and sharper than Homer's and slightly hooked.
"No. Go panhandle elsewhere, Grandpa."
Young, hence the size. Hair dark brown, but the claws . . . Homer straightened. "Miss. This man is a dragon, and you should not go anywhere with him."
The blonde rolled her eyes.
The young dragon took half a step toward Homer and lashed out with claws that were starting to lengthen.
Homer jerked back, catching a single shallow scratch across his neck.
Car doors slammed and footsteps ran toward them.
"Police! Freeze!" Jason's voice.
Homer sagged in relief.
The young dragon still had one hand around the blonde's arm. He spun and threw her at Jason and bolted. Shedding clothing as he dodged out of sight.
"Damn! Homer, change, I need you aloft." Jason dropped the woman and ran weaving through the cars.
Magana had run to the side, gun in hand, but hadn't gotten a shot off. She sprinted after the dragon as well.
Homer swallowed a whimper of terror, and undressed with all haste. The ring alone was worth more than the apartment building he lived in. His favorite watch, the unique, hand hammered chunky gold links and clip . . . he leaped into the sky and flapped for altitude.
The young dragon was ahead of him, dodging around buildings instead of going for height. Homer climbed as he followed the dark, dodging form. Above most of the roofs, he could cut corners, see the young dragon clearly silhouetted against the street lights. The youngster dodged into an unlit alley. Homer hovered until he caught the flick of movement darting across the street to the north. He cruised overhead, coasting, watching the lights below.
He spotted the dragon at the last second, before the youngster loomed suddenly below him, sprinting almost straight upward. He swerved . . .
Jason watched Homer swing away from the charge and slash at the terminal sail of the other dragon's wing. He had a sudden flashback. Herod clawing the priest. Sending the man flying. Bruised, no doubt, but not eviscerated. "Neither Homer nor Herod could have killed those women. Homer keeps his claws too blunt."
Scarlet stared at him, then looked up at the dragons in the bright moonlit night. "Does he keep them too blunt to win a fight with another dragon?"
Up in the air, Homer was suffering a rapid series of epiphanies.
Oh, the claws. Bad idea, to shorten and blunt the claws.
He hadn't hurt the young dragon a bit. And he'd let the youngster get above him. Bad tactics, even he knew that. The diving dragon hit him hard, and he spun wildly, dropping like a rock.
And I have no idea how to fight.
When he spread his wings to check his fall, the young dragon lashed out. Claws scored down his outer sail, pain scorched through his awareness. And kept right on hurting him.
And I'm too drunk. Herod can't ascend and save me.
He climbed for height, whimpering a bit. Looking. There. Climbing like there was nothing to it. Homer couldn't keep up. The young dragon climbed above him, tucked his wings and dropped.
Just like an aerial dance.
On the downstroke, Homer tucked his hurt wing, and rolled. The youngster looked indignant as he whipped by.
Dancing, I can do. It's fighting where I have problems. I'll just have to keep dancing as hard as I can.
Homer headed up, keeping an eye on the other. The Ripper. An experienced killer. Homer quivered, faltered. The Ripper came at him from below, and Homer pulled his wings in and dropped, whipping a wingtip out long enough to spin away from a raking claw. The Ripper spat fire, a thin streamer that missed. The young dragon spread wings and climbed. He coughed but couldn't come up with more fire.
Homer breathed out a proper gust of flame. The Ripper was way out of range, but the youngster veered away. Homer spread wings and tried for speed instead of height. The other dragon was faster, came up behind him. Homer pivoted to the right and tucked his injured wing as he grabbed the tip of the Ripper's wing. They made an excellent windmill descent, until the Ripper wrenched his wing out of Homer's grasp.
I should have flamed him while I had him held close. Homer shuddered at the thought. Skin crisping, the screaming as he plummeted . . . I should starve my imagination. And pay attention to the dragon who's trying to kill me.
They circled, watching each other as they spiraled higher. With neither of them flaming, they were as close as a pair of aerial dancers. Homer caught the updraft from the Chambers building, and passed the other. The Ripper yelled insults and found the updraft himself. Homer reversed course, somewhere down there Jason and Diamond were trying to keep an eye on the fight. The Ripper climbed higher again. Didn't he ever get tired? Homer just wanted to drop somewhere, anywhere . . . The Ripper dived.
At the last second Homer folded his wings and somersaulted, whipped his tail to snag the other's tail just long enough to bend and grab. And keep hold. He might not be able to sink his claws in, but by Thunder and Lightning, he could hang on. And keep his wings tucked.
Because he was not alone. Because he had friends, people he could rely on. Help. Something Herod had trouble accepting.
The young dragon started flapping frantically, but he couldn't lift more than twice his weight, especially as he was tilted so badly . . . The ground was coming up fast, a brightly illuminated major street intersection. Homer spread his wings and flapped enough to not hit the ground too hard. Squad cars came screaming in. Homer hopped backwards, jerking the other dragon's tail, so he couldn't turn and rend anyone. Nets flew. Homer released the tail as the frantic dragon tangled himself.
Homer just laid down with a huff of relief. Nets over him as well. But hardly anything to get excited about. Nice warm pavement. He sprawled and soaked up the warmth.
Jason panted up to them. "Herod? Are you all right?"
Homer grinned. Then started laughing. Swallowed acid.
"I did it. I caught him. Bite that, Herod!" A bit of flame escaped; the troopers tensed.
"Homer?" Jason sounded stunned.
"I was too drunk to change. That'll teach me to drink too much on a stake out. How did you know he would be there?"
The pretty lieutenant panted up, and glared at him. "We didn't. We were following you."
Homer stared at them with his mouth open. "But, but . . . the ME's reports. And the Meyers sisters said it wasn't me."
"I know, but . . . all the bartenders know you, know you go off with women all the time. And . . . you know all about forensics and DNA tests. You would know how to confound them. You had a tour of the medical wastes plant where the Ripper's contamination could have come from."
Homer sagged, adrenaline fading. "Oh. My. I should never have told you I was the Evil Alt. But I don't think picking up human women should count as a perversion. After all, they look just like dragons in human-form. In pretty colors."
The struggling dragon was shot with a tranquilizer. Untangled. Sacked—a restraint system for dragons, a wide elastic girdle that would hold the wings close to the body. Leather mittens on hands and feet, stretchy plastic restraints that wouldn't damage anything, if the dragon changed. A slug of antacid poured down his throat.
"He must be under thirty, he could barely flame." Homer started laughing again. "And I'm so damned civilized I just couldn't do it. Herod is going to be furious." He burped, and controlled his breathing.
Sergeant Diamond walked away from a confab with a bunch of the troopers. "Homer, I'm sorry, but half the city saw you flame . . . "
Homer just wormed a hand out from under the net and took the antacid from him. Chugged it all down. Turned his head carefully away and burped. Not a bit of flame. Excellent.
The youngster was fighting the tranqs. There was a limit to what the police were allowed to ask him, while he was under the influence. But identity and next of kin were allowable.
Jason stooped over the prone dragon. "Desota. What is your address?"
"Don't call me that." His lips pulled back from white teeth. "They threw me out, I won't use their name."
"Shall we call someone for you?"
"Call my mother a . . . " His eyes glazed, but he shook his head and fought his way back. "She won't even talk to me. And it's all her fault, not mine. She's the whore that bedded a dragon. I'd like to kill her. Kill all the loose women who . . ." his eyes glazed.
A squad car pulled up with the intended victim, and the two dragons' clothing.
The woman was clutching his jewelry. "Who should I give these to? Do you want me to keep them safe for you?" She bent and peered at him. "Oh my god! The Ripper! You saved me from the Ripper!" She edged away from the other netted bundle. How could she tell us apart?
The ID in the clothing the Ripper had left behind was counterfeit, but he answered to Herod Knife Edge.
"Couldn't you pick a different sort of name, something unique?" Jason flipped through the cards in the wallet.
"Herod was the best. The last of the Dragon Lords. I laugh when I hear dragons call themselves lord. But I was going to be a real lord. The ruler of all I surveyed." He panted angrily. "A reign of terror." Then the tranqs won and he went limp.
Homer bristled. "Herod never killed anyone who didn't need it. And he didn't kill women unless they really needed it."
Jason snickered. "The Herod? I suppose you are old enough to have known him. Did you ever meet him?"
Homer rolled his eyes, but then a second wave of people arrived. Jason's superiors, the District Attorney getting in at the start, reporters. As they untangled him, Homer made sure the news camera all got a good shot of his injured wing. Women were suckers for injured heroes. If he was going to feel the pain, he might as well reap the benefits.
Once the drugs wore off, they found themselves dealing with a dragon who gazed dully at the bars and whined that he hadn't done it, whatever it was, who remembered his Church prayers, and wept to have been cast out. Who changed back to human-form and refused to acknowledge being a dragon.
The prosecutor kept them briefed. "A beggar, a druggie. He started changing five years ago, when he was twenty. He first noticed the alt as a teenager. He started remembering doing dangerous, violent things. He drank to forget, and managed to partially inhibit the Ripper's ascent, purely by accident. But he couldn't stay drunk all the time. His alt started stalking women, stealing, got clothing that would get him into clubs, where he could find the women he wanted. Where he could play with them before he raped and killed and . . . partially ate them."
Jason shivered. This part wasn't up to him, and he was really glad.
Homer was so pumped up, he didn't seem to mind his stay in jail. Herod had surfaced early in the morning, and been sarcastic, but just a bit proud of his alt. He'd only been a little rude about the stitches in the wing, which would require that they stay in dragon-form for two weeks.
Jacqueline, the blonde from Homer's apartment; Betty the blonde from last night, Gale and Trouble had all ID'd Desota as the Human-form dragon they'd met in bars on the strip. "Except now he looks pathetic." Trouble said.
"They always do, once they're caught." Jason shrugged. "And this is his other personality."
Eventually the Church rolls turned up the teenaged demon who had been cast out when they spotted his scales. A woman who refused to admit she had a son with dark hair and scales.
Trouble had visited Homer, and left looking thoughtful. Scarlet had intercepted her.
"I'm fine. I just . . . I always thought I was a hybrid, half Wuss. But Herod said I may be a dragon. Homer said the weird way some of the stuff I remember seems kinda remote, how sometimes I'm cheerful, and then I'll turn around and hit people . . . He says that's just like a dragon. He says it'll get worse, until I'm two completely separate people. I wanted to go to the Gold Country. Stake a claim. I didn't even care about getting rich, so long as I could make a living out there, away from everyone."
"Don't dragons ever mine?" Scarlet scratched her head. "I read a book about a dragon that was a pioneer. There's not a whole lot of difference."
"Yeah. If I can fly . . . and if I grow big claws, I could dig . . . " She frowned at her fingernails. Thick and strong, but nowhere near a dragon’s.
"I suspect a shovel would still work better."
"I suppose. And I can stop worrying about going crazy, because it's all normal for a dragon." A hesitant smile peeped through and the girl’s shoulders relaxed.