He nodded once. “But I’m only gonna warn ye once, unnerstand? You stay by me. Do as I say.”
“Sure. Got it.”
“And if ye get kilt, s’not my fault.”
It was only a little thing: a broach about the size of a baby’s fist, covered in glass rubies and emeralds. One of the gems was missing, had been for as long as Charlie had the thing, and the pin back was rusted at the edges. She didn’t even like it—she’d been stabbed by its rusty prong of death more than once—but it’d been a gift from her aunt and the woman had only so many years left and It gives me such joy to see it on you, darling, you must treasure it always…
Charlie angrily pinned the broach to her shirt this morning because her aunt had invited her to lunch. Charlie argued that she would only have an hour—Barney was a bastard when it came to break times—but her aunt insisted.
But at ten-thirty, after taking her morning pee break, she looked in the mirror and realized the broach was gone. She pawed at her chest, hoping it was somehow hiding within the folds of her blouse. She checked her pockets, her bra (it was like a trap for crumbs and earring backs), the toilet stall… Panic broiled in her chest as she tore apart her desk—memos flew through the air like birds and drawers clattered open only to be slammed shut again. It had to be here somewhere, she reasoned. It couldn’t have just pried itself from her chest and walked away.
She pretended not to notice Barney approach with subdued caution, like a zookeeper approaching an ornery lion. He’d probably fire her for this. Despite her pitiful savings and a backlog of bills coming due, Charlie didn’t care. She needed to find the broach with a savagery that seemed to come from nowhere. She tipped back the computer screen to check under the stand.
Barney cleared his throat.
Charlie didn’t acknowledge him.
He waited a beat then said, “That’s company property you’re destroying.”
“I’m not destroying anything. I’m… organizing.”
Running a finger through his thinning grey hair, he bounced on his heels. “We at Liquid Innovators Inc. don’t hold prejudice against those who practice alternative spiritual methods, but we will not tolerate your Feng Shui weirdness on the clock.”
Of all the things that bothered Charlie about Barney, the worst was his use of the royal “we.” We will not tolerate…; We feel…; We wondered if you were maybe possibly free this Friday…
The broach was nowhere. But it had to be somewhere. This wasn’t making any sense. Maybe she’d lost it earlier this morning and hadn’t noticed? It could’ve been long gone by now, though she couldn’t think of anyone who would want to steal a piece of old costume jewelry.
She dropped the pile of files she’d been sifting through and turned to Barney. “Do we have a lost and found?”
“A lost and found. You know, where people bring things they find?”
“I don’t follow.”
Charlie scowled. “Never mind. I’ll look myself.”
Barney’s voice carried after her as she abandoned her desk and practically ran for the elevator. “But it’s not your break, yet!”
She took the elevator to the first floor security desk where a skittish old man with a zig-zag scar on the side of his head told her to try the maintenance desk, where a woman the size and shape of a brick wall directed her to the janitorial staff while cursing the security guard for letting Charlie into her sanctum.
It was a long told joke that the cleaning men and women lived in caves beneath the parking garage and popped out of the floor like moles once the last daytime workers had departed. Taking the elevator to level B—basement—Charlie allowed herself a moment to wonder whether the joke had some truth in it. In the blurry reflection of the elevator doors, she adjusted her skirt and buttoned a button that’d come undone on her shirt. She ignored the blaring white space below her shoulder where the broach should have been.
The doors finally opened to reveal a black cavern with faint, yellow industrial style lamps strung across the ceiling. Smaller lamps hung from the walls, though they barely lit the walls around them. It looked like the entrance to a coal mine, all soot and dirt and smelling of mud and sweat. A shadow peeled from the wall behind a small desk, plumping as it drew near.
“Eh?” The shadow grunted. “Whoozat?”
It took several tries for Charlie to find her voice. “I’m, er, Charlie Jenson?”
“Is ye or ain’t ye?” The shadow stood beneath one of the brighter lamps and revealed himself to be not a shadow at all, but a man. Rather, a kind-of man. His shoulders were like boulders and his back curved at an alarmingly steep angle. His face was carved with wrinkles that reminded Charlie of the cuts in the sides of mountains where ancient rivers once ran and was ghostly pale. His nose ended in a bulbous button and his eyes squinted behind round spectacles. “I ain’t havin’ the time fer guessin’ games.”
She couldn’t stop staring at his nose. The brownish tint kept disappearing and, maybe it was a trick of the light, but she swore he had long, grey whiskers. “I am Charlie Jenson.”
“I was told I could find the lost and found here.”
He nodded solemnly. “That ye can, that ye can. Though I ain’t be in no mind to take ye. S’a long journey and if truth be told I’ve no mind te goin’ when dark’ll be upon us afore we get to where needs getting’.”
Dark was at least nine hours away. This man was either insane, or felt himself a philosopher on the subject of time. Either way, Charlie wasn’t letting him off that easy. “Perhaps if you could just direct me to the box…”
“Box!” The man guffawed, puffing out his belly like a balloon. “Who said anythin’ `bout a box?”
Her face burned. “Well, I just assumed—”
His voice became quite somber. “Assume nothin’ in this place, ya hear?”
“Sure. Got it.”
He angled his head forward and his spectacles slid to the end of his nose. He peered over the rims. “What is it ye be missin’?”
She tried to describe the worthless bauble in a way that would present the situation as dire. “It’s a broach. Very old. Been in my family for generations. My aunt gave it to me and I’m meant to have lunch with her today and I know it would break her heart if she thought it’d gone missing.” She studied his face. Was that a tremor in his lip? “She hasn’t got much time left, you see. And there are so few pleasure left to her…” She broke off, letting his imagination fill in the holes.
“Auntie, you say?”
Charlie nodded solemnly.
“She a good auntie? Mend yer socks and stuff?”
“Uh, yeah. Definitely.” Charlie’s aunt, to her knowledge, had never sewn a thing in her life.
He nodded once. “But I’m only gonna warn ye once, unnerstand? You stay by me. Do as I say.”
“Sure. Got it.”
“And if ye get kilt, s’not my fault.”
Now here was a man who took his job too seriously. She wondered if he’d ever met Barney. The pair would either be best friends or the cosmos would explode upon first physical contact. “Need me to sign a waiver, or…?”
He stuck a finger in her face and waggled it angrily. “There’s no call te getting snotty, miss.”
She arranged her face in a more conciliatory expression—eyes down, a slight frown. “You’re right. Sorry.”
“S’okay. She’ll be sleepin’ fer a few hours yet, so we might get lucky. Hand me that there sack.”
It was a large, white sack with GOLD MEDAL FLOUR stamped across the front. A pattern of daisies and daffodils surrounded the label. She couldn’t lift it—the damn thing weighed a ton—so she had to drag it the five feet toward the janitor. It occurred to her she still hadn’t learned his name.
“What should I call you?”
He frowned and his nose scrunched in concentration, as though he’d never had to consider the answer to this particular question.
“You have a name, don’t you?”
“A’course I got a name! Of all the dumb… Silly woman comin’ here tellin’ me…” He bit his lip to stave the tirade. “Call me Jan.”
“Okay.” He rummaged through the sack and withdrew something wrapped in tattered black material. As he unraveled the material, a simple scabbard about the length of her arm was revealed. He gripped the hilt poking out of the top and pulled. An inch of sharp steel peeked out before disappearing again. “Lift yer arms.”
“Ye gonna face her, ye need to arm yerself.” His arms were around her middle before she could protest. A wide belt cinched her waist with the sword dangling at her hip.
“Bad luck to say her name.”
He shook his head. “I’ll not be bringin’ omens on our heads now. Alls I can say is her hide is strong as stone, her bite as sharp as this here sword, and her `tude as mean as a snake with a stepped-on tail.”
Charlie almost asked if he meant Brenda from accounting, but decided against it. Whoever she was, Jan was in no mood for jokes. He donned his own sword—the scabbard much more intricate than hers with what looked like a scorch mark along the side—and a helmet that looked torn out of the sixteenth century. “Remember what I said. Stay behind me. No funny business.”
Jan sighed. “Right, then.” He pulled one of the lanterns off the wall, holding it in front of him as he marched deeper into the cavern.
Charlie glanced quickly back toward the elevator, but all she saw was stone. The doors had vanished.
“Move it or lose it!” Jan’s voice echoed in the cavern.
Mostly convinced she’d somehow fallen asleep at her desk and this was all a dream, Charlie jogged toward the sound of his voice. She’d wake up any minute. Yep. Any minute now.
They followed the narrow cavern for what felt like days. Icy water dripped from the ceiling and down Charlie’s shirt, she kept catching the tip of her scabbard on jutting rocks, and she really had to pee. Worst of all, she felt a blister forming on her right heel.
“Can’t we take a break or something?”
Jan harrumphed. “That’s just when she’ll gitcha. No way. We keep movin’.”
Soon the cavern widened far enough she could stretch out her arms and still not touch the walls. The dripping stopped, only to be replaced by stiff, hot air that clung to her face like a pillow. It stank like rancid meat.
“Jesus,” she muttered, “something die in here?”
“Quiet.” Then, “Stick to the walls. Don’t touch nothin’ till I say.”
Charlie followed Jan’s movements as he inched forward, rock digging into her backside. She tried to sidestep a puddle and walked straight into a spider web. She would’ve screamed if Jan hadn’t clapped a calloused hand over her mouth.
“Quiet,” he said. “Or she’ll wake up.”
They continued on, with the cavern growing darker with each step. Charlie could barely see a hand on front of her face while Jan seemed to have no problem negotiating the dips and jagged rocks threatening to take out their ankles. He stopped suddenly and Charlie realized the cavern had opened up into a cave. Somehow, the air was denser here and she had to breathe in short bursts. If this didn’t let up soon, she’d probably pass out.
Jan turned toward her and she gasped. His eyes glowed bright white, like fireflies. “She’s sleepin’ but won’t be for long,” he whispered. “See her tail twitchin’?”
Charlie followed his gaze, but for a long time didn’t see anything. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could just make out a curve like a hill that rose and fell in smooth rhythm. To the left, the curve shrank into a long, snake-like tail which did seem to twitch. To the right, a thick, scaley neck and a head the size of a car with nostrils, which exhaled curls of blue smoke and teeth that could’ve bitten a chunk out of the rock face.
“A dragon.” Charlie’s voice was barely a whisper. “A fucking dragon.”
“She’d be beautiful if she weren’t s’damn bitey.” Jan clutched Charlie’s arm, pulling her closer. She felt his breath on her ear. “Yer broach’ll be in that pile there behind her.”
It looked like a pile of junk. She caught the silhouette of a shoe and what looked like an old computer monitor. “I’ll never find it.”
“If it’s yers, it’ll come to ye.”
“You gonna keep askin’ questions or go get your trinket? We’ve got minutes maybe before she—aw, shit.”
Charlie didn’t want to look. If she looked, it was real, and if it was real, it would probably try to eat her. But Jan’s whimpering forced her to turn her head. The dragon’s eyes were bright green and the size of windows. The smoke curling from its nose thickened as it huffed in warning. The tail snapped back, forming a protective barrier around the pile of junk.
“Dammit,” Jan muttered.
Charlie couldn’t feel her legs. It wouldn’t be long before she peed herself. “What do we do?”
“We? Missy, this is yer business. All I do is bring ye here.”
A low rumble began in the dragon’s chest.
Jan drew his sword and brandished it like a broom against a cat. “Now looky here, Doris—”
“—you got somethin’ here that don’t belong. You know it. I know it. And this here lady would like it back.”
The rumble became an indignant belch, followed by a stream of blue-white flame. The heat knocked the air out of Charlie’s lungs.
Jan threw up his hands as he trudged back toward Charlie, the hair on his knuckles singed. “Well, that’s that, then. Yer gonna have to slay her.”
She became uncomfortably aware of the weight of the sword at her side. She could barely move the couch when she wanted to use the outlet; how was she supposed to slay a dragon? “Can’t you just, I don’t know, make her give it back?”
“Ha!” He tipped his helmet back. “You try reasonin’ with a fifty ton beast of female resentment.”
The dragon—Doris—raised her head as if to say she didn’t like being talked about when she was right here, thank you very much. Maybe if Charlie appealed to her as a woman…
“Doris?” The dragon peered at Charlie, eyelids drooping in a long, languid blink. Her black, forked tongue flicked the air. Probably tasting Charlie’s fear. It wasn’t until this moment that Charlie realized she’d never been very good at girl talk. “You’ve got nice eyes.”
“Oh, fuck me runnin’.”
But the compliment seemed to have some effect. Doris batted her lids—there were no lashes—and her tail’s grip around the pile loosened every-so-slightly.
Charlie took a cautious step forward. “And, uh, I love what you’ve done with the cave. It’s so… homey.”
“Keep it up.” Jan inched toward Doris’s flank, still holding his sword. “See the way her belly’s gone all pink? She likes you.”
The scales on Doris’s belly had indeed gone an alarming shade of fuscia, only to revert to black when Charlie stared too long. “Sorry. It’s just… I’m jealous?”
Doris purred, vibrating the ground and shaking a few overhead stones loose. It was unsettling.
“So, maybe, since you’ve got that cool color-change thing, you could spare a little bauble?” Charlie didn’t add, seeing as it’s mine anyway.
But Doris wouldn’t have it. The muscles in her massive body rippled as she lurched onto her feet. Her back scraped the ceiling and the sound was like nails on a chalkboard. Charlie felt it in her teeth.
“More a’ them nice things!” Jan shouted.
Charlie clenched against the urgency in her bladder. “Uh, yes. Nice. So. You’ve got to be quite intelligent, right? Luring all those things down here.”
Was that a nod?
Jan crept flat against the wall, one step for every few seconds.
“And I bet you’ve been doing it for—” Fuck, cornered herself into an age thing. “—a while now. You must be an expert.” She chanced a step toward the hoard. Doris watched, but didn’t move. “Bet a boy dragon couldn’t do that.”
Doris’s belly burned red with pleasure.
Jan thrust his sword toward the deepest splotch of red. “Run!”
Charlie’s body reacted without her mind. She sprinted for the hoard, sword slapping her thigh. Doris roared with the strength and decibel of a bomb, nearly knocking Charlie off her feet. In the corner of her eye, she saw Jan rush at Doris’s middle. She didn’t see his sword make contact, but Doris’s squeal was enough to tell Charlie the dragon was pissed.
The tail whipped over Charlie, nearly taking off her head. Somewhere to her right, Jan shouted something that was either ancient Celtic or a string of expletives spewed too fast to decipher. The hoard was only a few feet away, but it didn’t mean squat unless she could find the broach before Doris decided to give Charlie her full attention. Jan had said it would come to her.
So Charlie shouted the first thing that came to mind. “Oy! Broach!”
The hoard split, spilling half-empty wine bottles and picture frames and bent up wire hangers down the sides. Something small that glinted in the cave’s half-light flew at Charlie, landing painfully in the palm of her hand. She didn’t have to look at it to know. “I got it!”
Jan’s winded voice came from somewhere near Doris’s bitey end. “Fan-fucking-tastic. Let’s get outta here.”
Charlie ignored the pain in her calves as she bolted for the cave entrance. Jan’s jalopy footsteps weren’t far behind. They reached the cavern just as Doris’s flame ignited the mold growing along the walls. They didn’t stop until they reached Jan’s desk at the end of the cavern, panting like heat-stroked dogs.
Jan tossed his helmet on the desk. “You get it?”
Charlie glanced at the thing in her hand. “Oh.”
“Nuh uh.” Jan shook his head. “No take-backs. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”
Miraculously, Charlie made it to the restaurant only a few minutes late. Auntie Sophia was already seated, interrogating the server. Part of her wanted to turn back and call from the office claiming one excuse or another, but the other accused her of being a wuss. That part sounded strangely like Doris’s grumble.
She approached the table wearing a thin grin.
Auntie Sophia clutched her fists to her chest. “Charlie! Oh, dear it’s so good to see you! But, where’s your broach?”
Didn’t even give her the chance to sit down. Probably for the best. This way, she could run for it, should Auntie Sophia start swinging her cane.
The server disappeared to wherever it was servers went to spill dining room drama. Charlie stood next to the table and withdrew the thing she’d rescued from the dragon’s hoard. It was exactly like Auntie Sophia’s broach, except the backing wasn’t rusted and, in fact, gleamed in the light. All of the stones were present and accounted for and, though Charlie wasn’t an expert, looked worth about the gross domestic product of a small island country.
“I’m sorry, Auntie, I—”
Auntie Sophie shushed her. Tears welled, threatening to spill over her plump, rosacea ridden cheeks. “I thought it was lost forever. They took it… your Uncle bought that ugly, worthless thing to replace it and now…” Her voice caught. “Where did you find it?”