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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chapter 4 - Entree le Dragon

Entree le Dragon.  It's French.  Maybe it means the dragon has entered the room.  Or maybe it means that you are now the piece d'resistance of some lizard's Happy Serpent Meal from McDonald's.  I don't know for sure which - I don't really know any French.

I do, however, know that we have a dragon in this chapter...and he's more mad than hungry...

4 – Dragons Never Lie

            For a tense moment – was it a minute?  Was it seconds? – he thought that Higgins would shoot the man with the gut.  Of course he wouldn’t have – the man hadn’t pulled a gun.  He didn’t even look that dangerous.  He was a big fat man in a faded white undershirt stained yellow with sweat and what looked like smears of cooking grease.  And the heavy man – he wasn’t very tall, just heavy – turned slowly on his heel.  He didn’t seem angry or sad or even disappointed – just tired.  Like someone who has seen too much for his years.  As if he was about to either pass out from the strain or fall asleep from exhaustion.
            From behind him, the man’s children came up to support him.  At least, Jonathan assumed they were his children.  A young woman covered from head-to-toe in black took charge, snapping out sharp words in Arabic for the younger boys around her to step up and take hold.  She was almost too late.  The man’s eyes were already rolling into the back of his head as he fell back into their waiting arms.
            Hirsh pushed forward help stop the man from falling, and the young woman squealed as he sandwiched her between his body armor and the falling fat man.  Jonathan pushed up onto his feet.  There was the thought of reaching out, grabbing the man’s shirt from the front.  But he was too slow – he couldn’t haul his body up off the ground fast enough.
            It didn’t matter, though.  It was right around that moment that someone turned off the sun.
            Time froze.  Maybe it was the sudden loss of the light from outside.  Or it could have been the way eyes widened and jaws dropped.  Jonathan could almost feel his eyes as they scanned across the room, taking in the onlookers and the slow falling of the fat man.  He could hear Higgins shouting beside him, but he could not make out the words.  He turned to look, and it was like staring halfway into a solar eclipse.  Narrow rays of sun lit the dust in the air while the deepening shadow dropped everything into darkness.
            Higgins swiveled.  He dropped down his weapon, twisted his body, and an instant later he was targeting the street.  Jonathan found himself following suit, but it was a long, long time before he realized what exactly he was staring at.
            The first image that fixed in his mind was wings.  The broad, narrow wings of a bat.  They filled the sky just outside the open shop windows.  The rest was lost to shadow.  But he was faintly aware of the rough outlines of scales.  And then the head.  The large, large mouth, suddenly yawning open to reveal the empty blackness of a sharks gullet.
            Higgins acted first.  “Shoot!!”  And then he did.  And Jonathan brought up the two-four-nine, but his finger froze on the trigger.  He shuddered with the pop-pop bursts of Higgins’s weapon.  And then came the rumble of machine guns from outside.  The fifty-cals were like a roiling thunder from the left.  And Jonathan could make out the tracer rounds as the individual bullets zipped up and through the creature’s wings.  There was a bellow of pain – or was it rage? – that shook plaster from the ceiling.  Then the creature pulled in its wings as the head snapped around toward the convoy.
            It was the heat that snapped Jonathan out of stasis.  The stream of flame jetting from the creature’s mouth burned his eyes, it was so bright.  He yanked up his arm to shield his face, and he could feel the oven heat through the sleeve of his uniform – even through the Nomex gloves.  He fell back into the cashier’s counter without realizing he’d even begun to move.
             But then the heat was gone.  He opened his eyes – the searing flame had left a diagonal slice of purple across his vision.  When he turned to look back at the street, the place was deserted.  There were no teeth, no batwings, and no people – just the empty pavement and the flutter of loose trash in the wind.
            Higgins was stumbling around up near the front of the store.  He tripped over a rack of clothes.  He muttered that his gun was jammed, that he had to break it free.  Jonathan stumbled over to him.  He called out, but his own words were like whispers in his own ears.  He shouted, and only then began to realize just how deaf he was.  Or maybe it was how loud the world had become.  As he reached Higgins, he felt the blood drain from his face at the sight of the sergeant’s.
            He blocked it out.  The baked layers of  skin peeling from the cheeks and forehead, the eyes clamped shut, the lashes and eyebrows burned away – he blocked it out.  Shoving the two-four-nine back past his hip with one hand, he shook Higgins with the other.  “Sergeant!” he shouted, hearing nothing but the hoarse echo.  “Sergeant Higgins!”
            And then Higgins gave up his struggle.  He hadn’t been wearing any gloves, and now he clutched his left arm to his chest and began curse.  The exposed tops of his fingers looked no better than his face.  But it wasn’t until he opened his eyes that Jonathan gasped.
            “Forget me, goddamnit!” Higgins spat.  He let go of his burned hand long enough to slap his good arm out toward the street.  “Help the others!”
            He looked up, then, out toward the parked convoy.  There was movement, there, among the blackened shells of humvees.  At first he didn’t believe his eyes – not with the purple stripe of blindness obscuring all he saw – but blinking away the dry grit did nothing to change the picture.  Through the waves of heat bubbling off the baked trucks, someone was poking his head up from inside a turret mount.  Was it Grimes?  Jonathan couldn’t tell.  He tried to call out, but his tongue had dried to the inside of his mouth.  But the soldier was cranking the turret wheel, turning the heat-warped metal back toward the clothing shop.  Jonathan stared in rigid wonder as the soldier slapped at the gun, apparently trying either to reload or to fire.  He only worked at it a minute, though, before the heat rolling off the truck finally got to him.  Jonathan stared, helpless, as Grimes – he was sure now that it was Grimes – burned his hands on the truck armor trying to hoist himself out.  Jonathan knew he was supposed to help.  He was supposed to dart across that distance, hop up on the hood of the truck, and pull Grimes out.  But he didn’t.
            It didn’t matter, though.  A moment later, the creature swooped down over the humvee.  And it was then Jonathan realized just how long the thing was.  It was long – like a leonine snake with wings – and the wings stretched as wide apart as the rotor blades of a Chinook.  And the body seemed longer, even – at least as thick around as one of the trucks.  And the creature hardly slowed the long glide as it passed over the humvee and dropped its head down to slurp Grimes out of the turret with its tongue.

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