Noah’s Boy – Snippet 27

Thinking of Old Joe made her stand straighter.  Yes, old Joe was probably nuts in many ways.  But then, from things he’d said about being alive before the domestication of horses… she was fairly sure that no human brain — no shifter brain either — was designed to store that much information.  Though he wasn’t addled as such.  It was more that he’d decided that following human rules, or shifter rules, or any rules at all was no longer in his interest.

In his human form, he lived the life of a vagrant, hitting all the soup kitchens and the clothing giveaways in the city — and the diner too, half the time — and sleeping in parks and under underpasses.  In alligator form… well…  He roamed all over town, and seemed to enjoy himself immensely, judging from reports of people finding an alligator in all sorts of unusual places, including but not limited to the archeological dig at the edge of town, which he haunted for reasons that he’d never been willing to explain to Kyrie.  Probably like old people hanging out at the cemetery, Kyrie thought.  They’re digging up dinosaur bones, after all.  He’s probably looking up old friends.  The idea was very silly.  Old Joe had never given any indication of being on Earth before human occupation, and that might not have been possible anyway.

But one thing was sure.  Old Joe was one of the older shifters still alive, and if something weird was happening with Tom and the dragons, he would probably be able to explain it to her.  Supposing she could get him to tune in to the present and pay attention to her for a change.

His memory might or might not be erratic, but Old Joe often gave the impression that his perception — the part of him that was aware of his surroundings — wandered through the millennia in which he’d been alive.  His responses were random and nonsensical most of the time.

Unless Tom was around, of course.  For reasons not immediately clear — unless it was gratitude to Tom for looking after him — Old Joe seemed very fond of Tom, or perhaps amused by him.

Kyrie finished her notes on the accounting for the night, and caught Jason’s eye, right after he set down a load of dirty dishes.  There was only one table occupied in the diner right now, though there would be the usual burst of activity at about half past midnight, as people came in from late movies and late art-shows, or just having finished a study session.  But Jason had been tried by fire in one of the most demanding nights the diner had ever seen.  “Jason, do you think you could hold down the fort for an hour or so?” she asked.

“Uh.”  He looked behind the counter dubiously.  “I don’t know how to operate anything.  I suppose I could manage the dishwasher and the grill, but…”

“Well, that’s fine.  Just tell them we’re out of fries.  It’s actually true, I think we went through all the potatoes, certainly all the pealed ones we had reserved.  It will be an hour or little more.”

Rya cleared her throat.  “Are you going to… find out where the guys went?”

“Sort of.  I’m trying to figure out what made them go.  What… this is all about.”

“Um,” Rya said.  “Sometimes I help out.  When Conan works on Saturday afternoons.  I think I can manage the grill and stuff, if Jason will do the serving, and I will do some potato peeling too.”

“The fryer?  You can manage the fryer?”

Rya looked up at the sky.  “I’ve given a hand now and then when… you know… dragon business.”

“Don’t tell Tom.  Whatever happens, don’t tell Tom,” Kyrie said.  “He’d go insane thinking of the insurance costs.  But,” she said, more calmly, as she took off her apron and passed it to Rya.  “If you can man … er… woman the cooking now, we won’t say anything more about it.  I’ll go and see an alligator about some dragons.”

* * *

Tom looked at the dragons standing at the back, and though he didn’t say anything, and though none of the other dragons moved, he had the sense that every one there was aware of the dragons there, at the back, and of their standing in… defiance? Challenge? Of him.

He looked at them a long time, while the back of his mind ruffled through files.  He had an impression he should know their names, should know who they were and what they wanted.  “Li Liu,” he said at last as the names came to him, as well as the explanation that these two were brothers.  “And Sun Liu.  Do you believe you’re bigger than the Great Sky Dragon?”

“We are collaterals of the Great Sky Dragon,” the taller of the two dragons said, hissing his language like a pro.  “We are the many-time sons of the Great Sky Dragon’s brother, and we say our claim is greater than ours.”

Tom hesitated.  Of course, rationally, he wanted to say “Fine, you be the Great Sky Bastard, then.”  But he suspected that like most things involving the triad this was not a gentleman’s dispute, involving his stepping down and their receiving the honor.  In fact, he wondered if they could receive the honor at all, even were he dead.  He didn’t think so.  He remembered the Great Sky Dragon’s gambit with Bea, and he very much doubted so.  There was something else going on here that he could not fully comprehend.

He felt, as if a touch in his mind, from Conan.  It was both friendly and diffident, not so much an intrusion in his mind, as there had been when The Great Sky Dragon had sent him warnings before, but rather an hesitant touch, as though of a friend knocking at a room’s door.  He received the touch with relief, and Conan’s voice said in his mind, weirdly still in his Southern drawl, “I don’t think they understand how it works.  I mean, no one does.  Everyone thinks it’s being the son’s son of the Great Sky Dragon, but I think… it’s more than that.”

Tom gave him a mental indication that it was indeed more than that.  But meanwhile, he suspected the blue gentlemen dragons would not be fobbed off with that.  He tried to reach into their minds, but he could not.  Wasn’t the Great Sky Dragon supposed to be able to reach into the mind of every member of the triad?

“See, you are not him,” Sun Liu said.  “We can keep you out.”

A pull through Tom’s mental files brought up the idea that the Pearl of Heaven, which Tom had had in his possession far too briefly, would solve that, but the process seemed complicated, and Tom wasn’t at all sure he understood it.  What he was sure of was that this was not the time for a philosophical discussion.

He sighed.  The file also informed him the only way to solve this was to kill his challengers and gave him, in knowledge under-his-skin the sense of how to do it, as though he’d grown up in the culture and fought a hundred such battles, which the Liu brothers very well might have..  He didn’t want to kill anyone.  Then a thought intruded.  Fortunately, in the dragon world, death could be painful and, in fact, horrible, but it need not be permanent.

Tom reared on his hind dragon legs, and flapped his wings to the sky.  “We fly,” he said.  “We fly.”

* * *

Old Joe wasn’t by the dumpster, and Kyrie walked some way down the alley, whistling his peculiar whistle, which had become Tom’s way of calling him.

She was about to give up, when something moved inside the ruin of the burned out, water-soaked bed and breakfast across the parking lot from the diner.  At first she thought it was a cat or a dog.  That part of the ruin, where the tower collapsed, was open to the world, but when she blinked, she realized it was an old man, white haired, soot-smeared, coming towards her, with a smile that exposed broken and missing teeth.

She recognized Old Joe at the same time she realized he was wearing a trench coat and barefoot.  That he looked like he’d been sleeping in a coal pile was something else.

His smile enlarged, and he squeezed his eyes in amusement.  “I was looking for clothes,” he said.  “So I could come into the diner.  I thought there might be some clothes in there, no?  And there was.” He gestured, proudly, towards his trench coat.

It was something Kyrie appreciated in Tom that he could have heard a declaration like this and smiled and said, “How nice.”  But Kyrie was not Tom and their minds didn’t work in the same way. Throughout her upbringing, she’d often found herself being the oldest foster child in seriously inadequate households, and having to look after all the young ones, as a means of keeping them from being neglected.  This had bred a personality into her that was somewhere between mommy and educator.  The mommy was willing to concede that Old Joe putting on … anything before sauntering into the diner was an improvement.  It wouldn’t be the first time he crouched outside the side windows, popping up now and then like an insane Jack O’lantern, his hair all on end, and his wrinkled, naked body flashing up and down, trying to catch Tom’s eye, so Tom would bring him clothes or food.  The educator on the other hand felt forced to say, “Well, yes, but it’s filthy.  Come into the back, I’ll get you clothes, and you can wash and put them on.”