Jake flew over the village watching carefully for any sign of the disturbance Collin had predicted. No one came to the loft that night with the new man so ill, except Niles and Marta, but Jake barred the door and left without them. There might be trouble, and he wouldn’t risk them to be a part of it.
Jake trusted Collin, and if he believed he could trust the man in spite of his words earlier, then Jake knew he must also… for now.
Jake heard shouting into the night air from behind the tavern. From high above them he sensed the two men circling each other with short knifes, while several others stood around. It sounded like the bystanders were urging the fighters on. Jake had witnessed this once before, and Collin had needed to stitch one man back together. He sensed no projectile weapons among the group. The sheriff was not close to intervene as he was still at the mayor’s house, although he usually patrolled the village from dusk until the tavern closed.
Jake decided to save Collin the trouble of sewing someone up. He circled and then swooped down toward the group. Screams burst from them as they scattered, some into the tavern and some into the barn behind it. They hadn’t seen him until he was almost on top of them. If he’d been a reptile dragon, one of them would have died tonight.
Jake chuckled. That fight was over.
Then his acute hearing picked up a cry from the outskirts of town, a woman’s voice begging someone to stop. Jake streaked toward the sound. It came from inside a barn. It was the mayor’s daughter. Why wasn’t she at home? The man with her was holding her down. Jake didn’t recognize him as someone who belonged to the village. Jake could sense what was going on inside the barn, but getting into it proved a bit more difficult. The small side door was unlocked, but the large equipment door was sealed shut with a padlock.
Jake sensed the man’s fist slamming against the woman’s face. He drew back his lips and let his laser cut through the padlock. Then he pulled open the door.
The man jumped from the woman and ran out the side door. Jake glided around the barn, plucking the man off the ground and carrying him up into the sky. The man screamed in terror, but Jake felt no remorse. He would never again let anyone be hurt like Kayden had been. Neither would he kill again. Instead when he was almost a thousand feet into the air, he started straight down. The man’s shrieks continued. When he was almost to the ground, Jake flattened out, letting the man’s feet hit the treetops. But what could he do with him? He wanted to check the girl and get her to safety.
He headed back toward the barn. She was now huddling outside next to it. The barn’s lightning rod gave him an idea. He hooked the back of the man’s shirt to the top of the rod and left him hanging for the authorities to do as they willed with him.
Then he landed beside the girl. She pressed herself against the barn, wide-eyed, clutching her torn blouse to her. Blood ran down her chin and her left eye was swelling. “It’s all right,” Jake said softly. “No one will hurt you now. You’re safe.”
She trembled either in terror or from her ordeal.
“You do not need to fear me. I am a mammal dragon. I help people. You are safe now,” he repeated. “Let me take you home.”
“William,” she whispered.
“He will stay put.” He pointed a wing to the lightning rod.
“No. William. That man. He hurt William.”
“Where is he?”
“I… we were… were just taking a walk. I….” The girl looked faint.
“Let me take you home, and then I will look for him.” Slowly he drew his wings around her and brought her to his arms. Then he gently held her to him and launched into the air, gliding silently toward the mayor’s home. He landed in the front yard and carefully helped her stand on the porch.
“How do you know where I live?”
“I protect the village and strive to know everyone in it.”
She wavered, and he caught her with his muzzle.
“Careful. The sheriff is coming. I must go.” Jake jumped into the air as the sheriff opened the mayor’s front door to leave.
Jake found the young man moaning in a drainage ditch and suffering from a head injury. He lifted him out of the ditch and took him to Collin. When he returned to the village, he discovered a group of people staring up at the criminal on the lightning rod.
“Leave him up there,” someone shouted. “He’ll get the pit anyway.”
“We have to have a trial.” That was the sheriff.
“What difference will it make? Let the dragons get him.”
Jake wanted to tell them all that he’d never let a reptile dragon eat anyone while he was on guard. “Collin,” Jake said through his transceiver. “The people want him dragon-eaten, but I can’t let that happen here. What should I do?”
“Leave it be, Jamel. Just make sure no reptiles kill the outraged citizens. You’ve shown yourself to enough people tonight.”
“But I had to save her.”
“Yes. I know that. But now the people can handle their own criminals. You did good.”
Jake patrolled the village until dawn, when he silently made his way back into the loft. “Did I really do good, Collin?”
“Yes, my special friend. You saved her, and you did not kill. You did good.”
Collin’s words of praise were all he needed. He settled down into his straw bed and let his body relax into sleep while he analyzed the changes they needed to make in the design of Cee’s body. He wished he could debate with Collin as they’d done when designing his body, but Collin almost always had others around now. And this new man would take even more of his time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Collin slept in the chair between Geoff’s bed and William’s. He had recognized the young man when Jake brought him, and he’d sent Quinn out to tell his family that he was keeping him overnight because of a slight concussion. He hadn’t added that he was sure William would be dead, but it appeared he’d moved as the attacking object reached him. It only grazed his head with his shoulder taking the brunt of the damage.
“Still sleeping in chairs,” Geoff said softly.
Collin smiled. “Only when I have visitors. How are you feeling?”
“Better. Weak. Heard the excitement last night. You get that often?”
“No. It’s actually pretty rare.” He heard Wilma enter the kitchen, so he stretched and stood to start his day. Hopefully he’d have time with Quinn today – Quinn and Jake.
William’s parents arrived just after breakfast to reassure themselves that their son would live. “What happened, Son?” asked his father. But William could tell them nothing.
But then Mayor Talbert arrived with his daughter, Missy, insisting he would only see Doc Collin. He wanted an expert witness to prove that his daughter had been attacked.
“Oh, we’ve got plenty of proof,” Collin said. “Poor William has been near frantic asking for you, Missy. You might let him know you’re okay.” Collin led Missy and Mayor Talbert back to William and his parents.
William struggled to sit, wincing in pain when he jarred his shoulder. “Oh, Missy. Your eye. He… he didn’t….” He glanced at her father and then trailed off.
“A dragon saved me, William. A real dragon.”
William’s father shook his head. “Dragons eat people. I don’t suppose he ate the man who attacked you two.”
“No. But he hung him on the lightning rod over the barn. He’s still there.”
“Alive?” William’s father directed the question to the mayor.
“Yeah. Unfortunately. We all hoped he’d be dragon-eaten by this morning, but he’s still hanging there, screaming obscenities occasionally, so we know he’s alive.”
“A dragon hung him on…? You mean he was attacked and got snagged on the rod.”
“No. Oh, no. That’s not it at all. The dragon put him there on purpose. I saw him. Then he carried me home in his arms. His fur is so soft.”
William’s father scowled. “Dragons don’t have fur.”
“He said he was a mammal dragon, and he helps people,” Missy said, her eyes shining, although the left one was swollen almost shut.
“He said?” William’s father shook his head. “And you’re buying this?” he asked the mayor. “She’s obviously been traumatized.”
“Actually,” Collin began with an offhand shrug. “The mammal dragon brought William here. He does that occasionally.”
William’s father looked like he wanted to argue, but Mayor Talbert spoke up. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had reports of a helpful dragon, but it is the first time I’m inclined to believe it. I don’t know how else the man could get to the top of a lightning rod, nor how my daughter made it home. And Sheriff Paxton saw the creature leaving my front yard after returning Missy. Paxton sees him quite a bit as he patrols at night. You say you’ve had contact with the creature, Doctor?”
“He brought me William. He also brought Jaynee after she nearly drowned. In fact, he brought me my young apprentice.” He nodded toward Michael who’d just entered the room. “Quinn first encountered him in a confrontation with a bronze dragon. You might remember that. Although we decided no one would believe us if we told them the bronze was killed by a talking blue mammal-dragon.”
“So how long do you estimate he’s been with us?” William’s father asked, now somewhat subdued.
“I haven’t treated a dragon injury from this town since Burke Stone’s death four years ago. I suspect our record of zero attacks in four years is due to our village protector.” He shrugged. “That is my unofficial conclusion.”
The mayor briefly glanced at Geoff in the other bed, gave him a slight nod, and then sat in Collin’s chair. “The people are asking about this creature. Some want him dead, but others have come to your conclusion, Doctor, that the beast is protecting us from the others. After last night, I’d love to meet this fantastic creature and give him my heartfelt thanks. You say Quinn Stone spoke with the creature also? What did it say?”
“Pretty much what Missy said. He’s a mammal-dragon who protects people.”
Mayor Talbert stood. “I think it’s time we discussed this dragon creature at the next town meeting. Since you and Dr. Stone have had contact with it, I hope you will attend to lend support to its benign nature. Come, Missy.” He walked toward the door.
“Wait,” called William’s father. “What are they going to do about that man who almost killed my son. You know he was out to rape your daughter.”
“I’m going to leave him up there for the dragons. There is no doubt of his guilt.”
Collin winced. “Mayor, I do not believe the mammal dragon will allow anyone to be eaten in this village. The man will die of thirst and dehydration on that rod, a slow and agonizing death.”
“Just what he deserves for trying to rape my daughter.”
“Please. I realize he will die either way, but let me give you a lethal injection. I can not stand to see even the evil suffer.”
“But then we’d have to find a way to remove him….”
“Are you going to leave his corpse to rot all summer? Perhaps Jed Atkins will not appreciate the aroma of rotting flesh over his farmyard.”
“Surely the dragons will get him some time soon. The smell will attract them.”
“And do we want to attract reptile dragons when the mammal dragon has done such a good job of deterring them? I’ve stitched up enough dragon victims in my lifetime. I’d rather not endanger the village. After all, it appears this mammal dragon is just one dragon, and he can not be everywhere.”
William’s father stepped forward. “I’ll go with you, Mayor, and I’ll do the deed, if you wish. He’s right. We don’t want to attract dragons by leaving a rotting corpse for them.”
Soon only the patients remained. “Guess I wasn’t seeing things yesterday. You….” Geoff began, but stopped when Collin gave a slight shake of his head and then nodded toward William. Geoff closed his eyes and relaxed.
Collin stepped over to his bed and touched his son’s shoulder, now realizing what had triggered the heart attack. It was a long day on the road, all the shocks of Collin’s confessions, and then seeing Jake look out of the barn loft. “I’m sorry, my son,” he whispered. “I gave you too many shocks yesterday.” He would never say out loud that Jake’s untimely appearance had contributed to the heart attack, not with the way Jake hung on to the guilt over Kayden’s abduction and the surgery he had attempted on her during his first days with Collin.
Geoff smiled, but didn’t open his eyes. “I won’t always be in this bed. And when I’m out, I want to meet all your friends.”
Collin squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll make sure you do.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Quinn met with the others in the loft that night after Jake patrolled the village. Even Niles and Marta were there.
“The whole village is talking about the dragon that saved the mayor’s daughter,” Niles informed them.
“Did you contribute to the conversation,” Collin asked.
“No. Didn’t say a word,” Niles said with a slight smile.
“But we can say something now, can’t we?” Marta asked.
“No. Not yet. There may be a time when everyone knows Jake is living in our barn, but the mayor admitted there are some who see him as a threat. Do you want this barn burned to the ground? Keep your silence. Quinn and I will speak for the accused at the town meeting.”
Tara had told everyone he hadn’t really killed the dragon. Now the truth would come out at last. Quinn actually felt relieved.
“You told the mayor I was rescued also,” Michael said. “Should I go?”
“You were unconscious. You technically don’t remember your official contact. You may come as an observer though. Any of you might, but you better make sure you can keep your mouth shut.”
“Marta and I will stay home,” Niles said.
“I’m afraid I’d be too tempted to speak up,” Niles said, “and tell them what a wonderful guy Jake is.”
Quinn suspected he meant his wife would be too tempted to speak up, but no one said that.
“I know I can’t go,” Kayden said, hugging Jake. “I couldn’t stay quiet if someone said something bad about you, Beloved. You saved both of them just like you saved me.”
“No. Kayden. I failed you. I failed Michael. I can never take away your nightmares.” Jake turned from them. “I must check the village again.” And then he leapt through the curtain.
“What was he talking about? I thought Kayden was….” Marta began.
“He just meant that he wishes he’d have come upon Kayden and Michael before their injuries, instead of, as in Michael’s case, after he was unconscious and close to death,” Collin said.
Quinn knew that was not at all what Jake meant, but he admired Collin for being able to bring about a plausible lie.
“Oh. But just bringing Michael here saved his life.”
Michael slowly nodded. “Yeah. Jake saved my life. Jake and… Well, I had a piece of tech. I owe that piece of tech and Jake my gratitude.” He met Collin’s gaze. “You, too, of course.”
Collin smiled. “But you are right. I could have done nothing without their preliminary work.”
Marta sighed. “It must be because I’m so tech illiterate that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Could be,” Collin agreed. “But remember. Silence on Jake until I say.”
“That new guy? Is he really going to be a doctor here, or is he going back home now that he’s sick.”
“This is Geoff’s home now. I worked with him before, and I trust him completely. He will work as his health permits. We should turn in now,” Collin stood, and they all left the loft and walked back to the house.
Quinn held back Collin from going out to Geoff. “Do you wish me to sit with the patient?”
Collin hesitated and then settled his gaze on Michael. “Can you sit with Geoff for a couple hours?”
He’d startled Michael. Quinn heard Niles and Marta climb the stairs and then their bedroom door shut.
“About that transceiver. No operation, and I can pull it out any time, right?”
“Yes. The flat end of a scalpel shoved underneath will keep your skin from getting ripped up more than necessary, but yes, it can be removed just as quickly as it is installed.”
“Right now? Then I could call you if Geoff has another attack.”
“Of course, Michael. Come, Quinn. Perhaps you can perform the procedure this time.”
Kayden hugged Michael. “You won’t regret it,” she whispered.
They made their way into the surgery, Collin stopping briefly at his safe in the office. Then Collin instructed Quinn about placement, and let him push the six-pronged tiny dot into the skin above the bone behind Michael’s ear.
“Can you hear both Cee and Jake?”
Cee spoke first. “I’ve missed you, Michael. Thank you for giving me another chance.”
“I will guard your privacy,” Jake said. “And unless it is an emergency or you request it, I will not speak. I will try not to annoy you.”
Michael smiled. “Yeah. I hear them. We’ll see how it goes. It’s just that with things so uncertain in the village I thought it might be prudent.”
“Of course, Michael,” Collin said with a slight grin. “Very prudent thinking on your part. Now go sit with your new brother for me.” He sobered. “You know leukemia is a form of cancer, don’t you?”
Michael became serious. “He’s dying?”
“If I don’t get him the operation. I gave it to him once, fifty years ago and thought it cured. But genetic predispositions have overruled his system again.”
“You’re taking him to the lab. You know I want to go.”
“I know. That’s why I’m taking the time to explain why I am making this decision. You’ll go another time. I promise. There isn’t much for you to do the first time anyway. Quinn will probably get bored also. Jamel – the robot – and I will do most of the work.”
“Trust me, Michael,” Kayden said, wrapping her arm around his waist. “It is boring. That is after you look at the hordes and hordes of artwork he’s stashed there.”
“Thief,” Michael said with a teasing grin.
Quinn wanted to protest that Collin wasn’t a thief, but Collin grinned. “I paid for my purchase, and I wasn’t the one accused, was I? It was that new guy who fixes the tech.”
“She still thinks I have that painting,” Michael said, keeping his grin. He glanced back toward the patient guest rooms. “I guess I can’t begrudge the guy lifesaving surgery. But you know I’d love to see all that artwork.”
Collin gave a low laugh. “Yeah. I’m sure you do, tech spy.” He cuffed Michael’s arm, and then motioned Quinn to follow him outside.
When they were almost to the barn, Quinn asked, “Will Geoff know everything?”
“He does now almost. He guessed who I was and then… then he had the heart attack. And with the mayor discussing Jake in his sick room, he has guessed that he is my friend. Geoff is my son, Quinn. If I’d gone back to check on him, maybe his wife would be alive. But it’s too late, and he’s hurting and sick. He needs us. How do you feel about Geoff?”
“How should I feel? Like Michael I can’t deny him the surgery he needs.”
“But you wish we were going alone.”
Quinn shrugged. He couldn’t admit that.
Collin gripped his shoulder at the ladder to the loft. “It will change things for us, but Geoff will be sick and unconscious for much of his stay. We’ll still have our time.”
Quinn could only nod. Perhaps it wouldn’t be bad with Geoff around. He had adjusted to Michael as Collin’s son; perhaps Geoff would be just as easy to get along with. But he feared he’d think he was better than Quinn, and he’d never see him as an equal.
Jake flew into the loft as Quinn and Collin arrived. They didn’t bother lighting the lamp, and they sealed the door behind them. Then Collin lowered himself to rest against Jake, rubbing his face against his soft hide.
Jake covered Collin with a wing. “Will we work on Cee’s body tonight?”
“Yes, tonight we talk of bodies. The color modifications are simple.”
Jake rattled off something Quinn couldn’t comprehend. And then Collin was talking just as cryptically. He realized that he really wasn’t needed during this planning stage. He’d probably be bored at the lab, just as Collin had said.
It was some time before Quinn realized Cee was not participating in the conversation either. Quinn rubbed his pocket.
“I love you, Quinn,” Cee said in his ear only, he was sure.
Quinn smiled. Michael certainly would have a fit at that statement. Computers didn’t love, he would say. But if they feared, they could love. “I love you, too,” he whispered. “You’re going to be beautiful.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.