Minnie’s house was already ablaze when I got there, smoke billowing from the living room windows. I’d seen the smoke from the park where I take my daily constitutional. The fire trucks had just arrived, lots of serious faces efficiently unpacking hoses, with arm waving and shouting. I tried to blur between them and around to the back door, but I’m not invisible and I knew someone would see me. Seconds counted.
The kitchen door gave with the first push. I grabbed a little jar from the spice rack, dumped it out, and headed up the narrow hall toward the living room. Minnie usually spent her mornings in her favorite light-blue recliner, watching her latest addiction on TV. The hall was black with swirling ash and smoke, but of course that kind of thing doesn’t bother me.
The curtains in the living room were blazing, flowered wallpaper peeling off in fiery black strips. As I suspected, the blue recliner was the center and the source of the inferno, the wall and ceiling behind it a hellish charcoal arch. The center of the chair was a flaming mess, but luckily Minnie had been resting her arms and legs on the outside of the chair and her left leg had fallen to the floor. I dived toward it and scraped off tissue samples into the spice jar.
The front door burst open, and shouting echoed through the smoke. I barely had enough time to gouge my fingernails down the length of my arm. I’ve learned that freed blood boils and bakes nicely, leaving the impression that I had suffered at least a few injuries in that inferno. I also sucked in a lungful of smoke, to give the EMTs a little more to do. Then I let them drag me out.
I coughed on cue and sobbed quite convincingly all over the uniform of the young woman EMT assigned to me. Still, it wouldn’t do to be the subject of a too-thorough physical examination, so I got away from the scene as quickly as possible, my tissue sample safely tucked into an inner pocket.
When I got home, I found a small brown box tucked between the screen and the door. I was not surprised to find that it contained two golf-ball sized blue diamonds. I knew Minnie had them, even though it was forbidden.
My answering machine light was flashing, and the Caller ID showed Minnie’s number. I rolled the azure crystals between my palms while I listened to Minnie’s last, pitiful instructions. There was no doubt. The despair was obvious, the intent clear. The Council’s ruling would be unanimous - Self-inflicted Combustion. Suicide. My good friend Minnie had committed suicide.
It’s not easy being Human. I was once Tvaka, Enforcer of the Law for the Council of Dragon Affairs. Now I’m just plain Janine, for all intent and purpose a Human woman, for now until my death from natural causes. I’ve been fairly content with my life, but others have found the transition more difficult than they expected.
It was fun at first, this adventure into another dimension, thousands of years ago. We of the Dragon Sisterhood have enjoyed watching ourselves pass into multiple legends and mythologies. But even the most enjoyable vacation palls, and it will be a thousand more years before the stars align and the gate re-opens to our home.
Some of us grew weary of disguises and hiding, and elected to spend our remaining days as Human, giving up immortality for the companionship found in the larger Human community. But it’s one thing to walk disguised among Humans for short periods, knowing in your heart that you can return to Dragon. It’s another to permanently live as a Human, with no turning back and a certain early death. Those who made the Turn sought families and happiness, but families do not always bring happiness and Humans can be lonely, too.
Of course, the more of us that Turn, the fewer and more isolated the remaining Sisters are, creating resentment and fractiousness. In addition, those left behind are charged by Law with the task of preserving our ashes until we return to our own dimension, where we can be restored to life. The growing shelves of urns in the Central Alcove are a constant irritant. To say the least, the practice is somewhat controversial.
I’ve cultivated a number of contacts in various local crime labs, through lots of batches of chocolate chip cookies. They think I write mysteries for fun. My buddy Carl was on duty, and agreed to slip the sample into a batch of tox-screens he was running. I’d told him I didn’t quite trust my Medicare doctor, and had wanted the test rerun. I’m amazed sometimes at what Humans will believe.
The drug analysis was really just for my own verification. I was 85% sure who I was after, which is all the Law requires. But I’m a stickler sometimes.
I left a message at Central, choosing the meeting place at midnight in the most remote location I could think of, an abandoned quarry. I mentioned the blue diamonds as a tantalizing lure, but the real bait was me. During my career as an Enforcer, I was chewed out more than once for taking unnecessary risks, and here I was, doing it again. I guess I’m a slow learner.
Normally, I have a snazzy BMW I love to drive, but tonight I drove a battered red Ford pick-up I’d bought for cash off the street. It was unregistered, and held just enough gas to get me to the abandoned quarry fifty miles from anywhere. Waste not, want not, since I wasn’t expecting to use it again. The Sisterhood had actually purchased the property, as well as extensive acreage all around, demonstrating how conventional we had become in Human business dealings.
I sat on the hood and admired the full moon. The sky was dark and clear, but to the north a bank of clouds promised a glorious thunderstorm later on. I swung my feet like the young woman I felt inside, rather than the mature woman I resembled. My jeans and top were ready for the trash bin, but as my toes came up, I realized I’d forgotten to change shoes. I was wearing my most comfortable sneakers. It would be a shame to lose them, but it was too late now.
This was the weakest part of my plan. Everything depended on the idea that Nichole wouldn’t just blast me with fire from the air before she ever landed. There is no love lost between Nichole and myself, but I knew she loved to brag. In fact, I was counting on it.
I was jumpier than I thought, because I gasped when my cell phone rang. It was Carl, confirming that Minnie had died with significant amounts of aspirin in her system, though not much more than the prescribed dose. In Humans, it’s an ordinary over-the-counter pain reducer. In us, it’s a powerful depressant.
I had just hung up when the moon went black, Nichole’s idea of showing off. I noted that her wingspan, silhouetted against the Milky Way, was wider than normal and felt the air throb with her strong wing beats. She’d been working out again. Not good for me.
Then she landed in front of me, her scaly head nearly the size of the pickup truck. Her scales have a reddish hue which I’ve always secretly envied, and crimson highlights flashed as she stomped across the rocks.
I concentrated on her ruby eyes, which were a good ten feet above me, while Nichole looked down her nose, and said, “Hello, Abomination.”
I held my head high and goaded right back. “Hello, Nichole.” I like using her Human name, though I instantly doubted the wisdom of pissing her off. Still, I needed to appear somewhat overconfident. I climbed down slowly from the hood of the pickup. “I go by Janine full-time now.”
“No,” she hissed. “Janine is a name of convenience, used by the Sisters when we want to walk among the lesser beings. You are an Abomination. A Traitor.”
I sighed. “Turning Human is not treason. The Queen said so. We have been fully sanctioned by the Council and awarded the Queen’s Protection.”
Nichole made a rude noise that indicated her opinion of the Queen’s Protection. Normally, that would be cause for confrontation in itself, but I had to remember I wasn’t an Enforcer anymore. She tapped on rocky ground with her claws and growled. “Where are they?”
I reached into my pocket and casually tossed the blue diamonds in Nichole’s general direction. “Minnie left a message. She wanted you to have these. She said you’d admired them once.”
She scraped them toward her, also trying to appear casual, but I caught the greedy gleam in her eyes as she closed her claws around the gems and held them to the moonlight.
Nichole sniffed the sparkly rocks. “I see you’ve abandoned your duties as Enforcer as well. The Abomination forfeited these when she Turned.”
I shrugged. “A memento, nothing more. Besides, I don’t work for the Council anymore.”
Her eyes flashed. “No, you work for no-one. You are nothing. You languish in a pale imitation of life until your ashes join those of your traitor friends.”
I kept my voice mild. “Humanity has its advantages. Being able to go around in public is one.”
Then, the first sign that I was in trouble. Surreptitiously, Nichole tucked the diamonds at the base of a distinctive boulder, where they would be out of harm’s way. She planned to come back for them later.
Still, I needed more from Nichole. As I’ve said, I’m a stickler about such things. So I let a little tremble come into my voice. “Minnie also said you came to her house last month.”
Nichole’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe. Is that business of yours?”
I shrugged. “You visited
in Seattle, right before her business collapsed. You were in
when Charlene was accused of molesting that child.”
“Abominations, all. I told them so.”
“I’m sure you did. They all committed suicide. Your words pushed them over the edge.”
“I told them the truth. You will never be happy, giving up all the power of the Sisterhood for a little sloppy sentimentality. Death is preferable to living such a farce.”
I ignored her and continued. “But words wouldn’t be enough. So you helped them along by drugging their food, and ruining their lives with anonymous rumors and whisperings. That makes it murder.”
Her next words provided the confirmation I needed, which also meant I wouldn’t be leaving the quarry alive. “It was as they deserved. I showed the Abominations their proper path,” she snarled. “Now listen while I describe yours. Humanity makes you puny and spineless. You will drift along, pitifully suffering, until you beg me to relieve you of your misery.”
“No, I enjoy my life. I volunteer at a pre-school twice a week and play Scrabble at the library on Mondays.”
That did it. She raged. “Liar! You crave death, like the others, or you wouldn’t have come here, and certainly not alone. The Tvaka I knew would never have made such a stupid mistake. She was fully Dragon, a powerful Council Warrior. I mourn her. I spit on the stupid, empty shell of Tvaka that cowers before me now. I will burn it into nothingness, where it belongs!”
Wow, that was the closest to compliment I’d ever heard from Nichole. I’d have to remember to repeat the “powerful Warrior” remark to the Queen sometime. Now, it was time to get back to work.
I pressed myself against the truck. “The Council will object,” I whispered.
“Let them. The Council can issue all the decrees they want, but they have no jurisdiction over this dimension!” She crowed.
I moved behind the truck, as though seeking the protection from that metal shell, but in truth I just needed some more room. I pulled off my favorite sneakers and threw them as far as I could behind me, in among some granite boulders. It was hard to find comfortable shoes for someone my age, and I was hoping they would survive the next few minutes.
Then I turned back toward the enraged Dragon. I said, “Maybe that’s true, but Justice is still important to some of us. Also, I’m not so stupid as you think, Nichole.” Then I shook myself and shifted.
Stars! It felt so good! The change from two legs to four left me slightly off balance. To cover my awkwardness, I spread my wings, snapped my tail, and stretched my length in full display. It had been so long, my scales gleamed chartreuse, bright as a new hatchling.
The clothes lay shredded at my feet. I could have removed them, but that would have ruined the surprise. It was worth it to see the shocked, bemused expression playing all across Nichole’s scaly face.
Bemusement slowly turned to a comical astonishment, which was equally entertaining to watch. “You Turned,” she hissed. “It was announced at Council, decades ago.”
I rolled my eyes in exaggerated sarcasm. “Reported is not the same as done. Besides, as I keep telling you, I don’t work for the Council anymore.” I stretched my claws and swung my tail a few times to work the kinks out, then settled into my favorite battle stance. “I work for the Queen.”
Nichole may have been working out, but I’ve learned a few tricks since the last time we battled, some of them in the Self Defense for Seniors class I took at the Y last year. The news reports would later describe explosions and a huge fire at an abandoned quarry, blaming it on an old leaky propane tank. Investigators would also be looking for the owner of the charred wreckage of a pickup truck, presumably someone who was camping there. They wouldn’t find him.
The Ford was an expected casualty, of course, but I mourned the loss of my favorite sneakers. I found them later, lumps of charred plastic the size of walnuts. I cursed roundly for several minutes over that.
I was tempted to leave Nichole’s ashes where they were, spread in a thin layer all over that old quarry for the rest of eternity. But in the end, I scraped together enough for her rejuvenation into a plastic grocery sack I found along the road. The blue diamonds made soft ashy “poof” noises as I dropped them into the sack. Sometime next week, I’d collect Minnie’s ashes from the funeral home and deliver both sets of remains to Central. There’d be questions concerning Nichole’s unscheduled demise, but I’d leave that for the Queen to handle. She’s good at deception.
Nichole was actually right about one thing. Nobody is sure what the legalities of killing those that Turned Human would be, once we return home. As I’ve said, the practice is controversial. In a thousand years or so, Minnie, Charles, and Roger can face Nichole and have their justice in the Court. It’s not really my job.
Tomorrow, I’ll drive the BMW with my hands and use my legs to walk up stairs. I’ll use my fingers to tap on a keyboard and access the Internet to console my sisters around the world over the loss of Minnie. I’ll play bridge and sip coffee and do all those mundane things that make people Human. Tomorrow, I’ll dutifully go back undercover as plain Janine, serving in my mission from the Queen to protect the Turned.
But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, the moon is full and that storm front to the north has started rumbling, presenting a perfect cover against radar imaging. My breath is hot in victory, and my muscles burn for more action. Even my scales glitter iridescently, calling to the moonlight. Distant lightning flashes, and my wings involuntarily twitch in response. I am Tvaka, Council Warrior and Enforcer of the Law, if only for the rest of the night. Tomorrow, I’ll go back to being Janine. Tonight, I think I’ll fly.