Vern often thought of the old days, when dragons had ruled decent patches of the earth from high in their eyries. Dragons kept that shit on track for centuries, lording it over the rest of creation, no predators to threaten their supremacy. And Vern was royalty, too: heir to the Highfire Eyrie, including the castle itself and the entire town, not to mention the caverns of assorted riches stashed in the catacombs. It was an excellent package with top-class benefits. But what the dragons in general hadn’t realized was that, in the absence of physical predators, time itself becomes a predator. Dragons got accustomed to being top dogs. They started to enjoy the whole shock-and-awe thing. They forgot that humans weren’t just dumb sheep with thumbs.
First the dragons grew complacent; then they got lazy. And the universe cannot suffer laziness because it leads to species-killing mistakes. The dragons’ mistake was when they started keeping familiars, because before you knew it, the humans had moved on up from carrying logs and shoveling dragon shit to bringing home the bacon.
Next thing, those familiars were doing the books and giving pedicures, making themselves indispensable, making themselves invisible. Dragons allowed those humans to build quarters for themselves inside the walls. Dragons blabbed on about politics and strategy while their familiars were in the room. And goddamn if those familiars weren’t taking notes. It didn’t take more than five hundred years and half a dozen failed revolutions before those smart little humans were running the show, and any dragons who had survived the purge were reduced to hiring themselves out as muscle or skulking around in various inhospitable shitholes.
And still humans ran the show, keeping themselves sharp by becoming their own predators, which was twisted as hell. Sure, dragons used to throw down every now and then, but there was no organized slaughter. The era of man was nothing more than a reign of murder and conquest, so far as Vern could see, which was why enjoying human media was about as far as Vern was prepared to go on the whole integration front. Sometimes he fantasized about revealing himself to E! News and getting his own show, but it was just a pipe dream. Sooner or later all those reality stars went the way of the Hiltons. He would have to make a sex tape to keep his ratings up, and how the hell would that even work? So Vern kept himself to himself and hid out in the Pearl River and tried not to think about the inevitable day when some eagle-eyed CIA motherfucker would spot him on a satellite pass-over and the next thing he knew he’d be up to his ass in drones.
And with all the explosions popping off in the environs, that day could be this day, so Vern needed to know what the hell was going on before he dispatched this kid to kingdom come and slid the body into the bayou, to let the gators make short work of him.
At that precise moment the kid was passed out on the floorboards of Vern’s wilderness shack. Poor little bastard had hardly been expecting a night flight. He felt a little guilty for shaking up the kid, but Vern was quietly proud that he’d managed enough vertical acceleration to knock the human out.
You still got it, Vern baby, he thought, pulling on his T-shirt and cargo shorts.
He didn’t get to stretch his wings much these days, not since every human over the age of six months got themselves a camera phone. He’d gotten himself all pumped up on Absolut a couple of years ago and taken a quick swoop over New Orleans. Some janitor shot a video of him doing a loop around Plaza Tower and it made the Tribune’s website. Fortunately, the video was little more than a shadowy blur which might have been a big flying lizard, but could also have been a kite or a crappy Photoshop job, so the piece never went national. Vern had been lucky, simple as that. But his luck couldn’t hold forever.
The kid twitched a little, kicking his leg like a tummy-tickled puppy, and mumbled, “Momma.” He was waking up.
Poor little asshole, thought Vern. He ain’t gonna like what he sees.
Because while Vern fully intended to put the human boy down, he didn’t consider himself a cruel dragon. He would have much preferred to dispatch the human in his sleep, but on this occasion questions needed to be asked, and the kid was the only one with answers.
Squib came out of it slow at first, believing himself safe in his own cot, his momma in the next room and maybe a bottle of orange cream soda in the cooler. Then the evidence of hard board under his shoulder blades and the weight of his mud-sopped clothes put paid to that notion, and so the boy opened his eyes and saw what appeared to be on first glance some class of mutie gator up on its hind legs and wearing human clothes.
Squib was at that special age where he was young enough to believe what he was seeing and old enough not to entirely freak the hell out. It was a magical fine line. Six weeks later and he would have gone directly into a shock coma. As it was, he backpedaled into the corner of the shack and took his sweet time looking the creature up and down.
It was some class of a reptile, no doubt about that: swamp-gator-kinda-looking as regards to its hide. Shining black, with lines of ridges, but the snout was shorter and had a couple of tusks curving out of its lower jaw that Squib had never seen on a gator. Also, there was the fact that this fella had wings and was up on its hind legs. And while alligators could rear up, they sure as hell could not maintain the position. The creature had a tail, but it was stumpy, with some kind of arrowhead arrangement at the tip. And there was the small matter of the T-shirt the reptile was wearing, which bore the legend “Flashdance,” along with the famous dancer-on-a-chair silhouette.He would have much preferred to dispatch the human in his sleep, but on this occasion questions needed to be asked, and the kid was the only one with answers.
As Squib studied the creature, the creature studied him, and it occurred to Squib that the creature might be hungry enough to eat him.
“Stay,” he said, trying to sound stern.
Waxman had once told him that when dealing with animals, a man’s gotta imprint on the beast’s mind who the boss is.
“Shit, boy,” said the creature, snagging a half-full bottle of Absolut from a cooler in the corner. “I ain’t no goddamn dog. I’m what they call an ‘apex predator.’ You ever hear that term?”
A talking reptile? You’d think a boy would be petrified, but Squib found himself answering, “No, sir, I ain’t never heard that one.”
The creature took a slug of vodka, then laughed. Real human, it sounded, but alcohol-gruff. “‘Sir’? Five seconds ago I was a dog. Now I’m a sir. You switch it up fast, don’t you, kid?”
“Whatever the situation calls for,” said Squib, hoping that the reptile’s laughter was of the honest, good-natured type which meant nobody was getting eaten.
“You got a mouth,” said the reptile. He reached into the pocket of his army trousers and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. “Smoke?”
Squib shook his head. It was the truth, but he also reckoned that was the smart play: make himself an innocent child. Harder to kill with a clean conscience. If this thing even had a conscience.
“Wise decision,” said the reptile. He held up a cigarette and snorted a spark from one nostril to light it, like that was a thing of nothing. “I shouldn’t. The way my insides work, it’s asking for trouble. Like lighting up in a gas station.”
Squib knew he should clam up, but he had to know. “Sir, you don’t mind me asking, what are you exactly?”
The seven-foot reptile sank into a scuffed La-Z-Boy and ratcheted up the footrest. “What am I? I guess I’m an illegal immigrant, is what I am. You’ve heard of us, right? We’re taking over the country.”
Squib had seen plenty of illegal-immigrant clips on TV. This guy didn’t look nothing like those videos. “You messing with me, sir?”
The reptile blew smoke to the tin roof. “Yeah. I guess. I got here way before your folk. By the way you’re dispensing with th’s, I’d say Cajun, right?”
“That’s right. Some Irish Texas in there, too, Momma says.”
“Cajun and Irish Texas,” said the reptile, grinning an exceptionally toothy grin. “That’s a combustible mix right there.”
Squib knew the word “combustible.” Regence Hooke had said it to him often enough after the dynamite episode.
“Combustible. You some kind of dragon, mister?”
The reptile blew a series of interconnected smoke rings from one nostril. “Yeah, I guess ‘dragon’ is as good a word as any.”
Squib remembered a story Miss Ingram had told them. “You’re like that old boy in England? Got himself skewered by Saint George?”
The dragon glanced sharply with his swiveling gator eyes at the shivering human wretch in the corner. “I ain’t nothing like that dragon. I knew him, though: a full-grown half-wit by the name of Gudmunder who went wandering around the countryside, balls swinging like a bassinet. Shitfaced-drunk most of the time. Got himself shanked by a hunter. Passed out in a village, he was, after a week running around pillaging, fucked up on opium.” The dragon shook his head, sparks playing around his chops. “Humans don’t play that shit, less they’re doing it to themselves. Gudmunder was a dick, kid. He went looking for that shanking.”
“But not you, huh?”
The dragon winked. “I’m here, ain’t I? The last one, so far as I know. Keeping myself to myself out here in the swamp. Doing you guys a favor. Without me, the boar population would be out of control.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Squib. “Call me Vern,” said the dragon. “Yessir, Mister Vern.”
Squib hesitated a little before saying what was on his mind, but then thought, Screw it, it would be a shame to die curious.
“You don’t mind me saying,” said the boy. “But ‘Vern’ don’t seem like a good fit for no dragon, name-wise.”
“It’s short for ‘Wyvern.’ That’s ye olde English, as they say. I abbreviated when I came over here before the war.”
“Desert Storm?” asked Squib, who was keeping the conversation going to delay the inevitable reckoning.
Vern laughed again. “No, kid, the war in this country. The Civil War, and I ain’t talking about no Captain America. Desert Storm. Shit.”
Squib was a little amazed that once again Miss Ingram’s teachings were going to come in useful, God bless that woman. “The Civil War? That’s like a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Yep,” said Vern. “New Orleans was in the thick of the supply chain. The Confederates even built a couple of submarines to transport their gold. One took to chasing me, so I had to sink the fucker. All hands lost. The gold was lost, too, so far as anybody knows.” The dragon winked again, like he was letting Squib in on a secret, and the boy really wished that Vern wouldn’t confess things so readily. It was like he didn’t care what Squib knew because he wouldn’t know it for long.
“I understand, I guess,” said Squib. “Loose lips.”
“You got it, kid. They sink ships. And by ‘ships,’ I mean this old carcass. So in the interests of this old carcass, I need to ask you a few questions, and I would advise you to consider the hell outta your answers because I will not tolerate bullshit, which I got a nose for sniffing out, by the by.”
“Yessir,” said Squib, reckoning that maybe Vern was doing a little bullshitting of his own. “I’ll help whatever way I possibly can, trust me on that.”
“Good attitude, kid,” said Vern. “Now, question one. I urgently need to know what those explosions were about. Was someone looking for old Vern?”
Squib answered smartly, “No, sir. That was some kinda disagreement between Willard Carnahan and the police. A deal that went south.”
“Way south,” Vern agreed, “and it woulda gone a lot further south for you, kid, if I hadn’t batted that grenade back the way it came.”
“Thank you for that, mister,” said Squib, keeping up the polite act.
“Don’t thank me, boy. I just wanted to shut down the ruckus.”
“My thanks anyhow. Sincerely. I was a goner for sure.”
Vern snorted sparks. “You ain’t outta those particular woods yet, kid. And what the hell were you doing in those reeds? A kid like you, up in the swamp this time of night?” Squib reckoned there was no downside to telling the truth, so he kept on answering the dragon’s questions. “The cop—Constable Hooke—he has a hard-on for me and my momma. Different kinds of hard-on, respectively, you understand. I was trying to gather a little dirt, maybe get him to back off.”
“Back off?” said Vern and guffawed sharply. “You seriously misjudged that individual, from what I seen. Guys like that don’t back off. They ramp it up. A cop with a grenade launcher? I reckon that cannon wasn’t no standard issue.”
“He’s a bad man,” said Squib. “Worse than I figured, maybe.”
Vern studied the glowing tip of his cigarette, considering this information. “Willard Carnahan. I know him. Runs contraband down the Pearl?”
“Yessir. Best navigator on the river. He was supposed to be my new boss.”
“And this guy Hooke had some beef with Carnahan?”
“Some kind,” said Squib. “I ain’t sure what. It’s over now ’cause Willard’s fish food.”
“And you stuck your pesky nose in the middle?” “I messed up, I reckon.”
Vern thought hard on these details a spell. This was bad news, no doubt, but not catastrophic. Maybe he didn’t necessarily have to move on immediately, just keep an eye out for developments. It wasn’t likely anybody would be fighting a turf war in the swamp. These kinda deals tended to get sorted out in built-up areas. And maybe with Willard underwater, along with the cop’s boat, this whole affair was now sleeping with the fishes.
But the kid had seen him and knew what he was, and that was unfortunate.
Vern tried to think of another way, but he supposed there wasn’t one.
Never ever trust a human.
Vern sighed. “I’m sorry about what’s coming, kid, but I’m the last of my kind, so you understand why I gotta do what I gotta do, right?”
Squib guessed exactly what was coming. “You don’t have to worry about me, mister. I ain’t no snitch. Shit, I been keeping my mouth shut since the day I was born.”
The dragon rolled the cigarette between his scaled fingers. “Seems like the opposite to me, kid.”
“The name’s Everett Moreau. Everyone calls me Squib on account of a screwup I had with some dynamite a couple of years back.” Squib held up his damaged hand as proof, wiggling his pinky nub.
Vern tossed the cigarette through a gap in the floorplanks. “That was good, Squib. Real good. The amount of information you fit into a couple of sentences there? Making yourself real to me. It’s like you read a psychology text. But my game is self-preservation, kid, and I been at that game a long time. A long time. And you know the number one rule?”
Squib didn’t know and he didn’t want to know, but he had to ask. “What’s the number one rule, Vern?”
Vern stood up real fast, unfolding to his full height. The Flashdance T-shirt stretched tight across his massive chest, and little pilot lights of blue flame danced behind his molars.
“Number one rule, kid: A human comes in here, he don’t come out. It’s like Thunderdome, ’cept no man leaves.” Vern popped a single claw on his index finger, then sprayed it with nose flame till it glowed white. “I promise
you, kid, it’ll be real quick.”
Nose flame, thought Squib, descending into dreamy shock. Cool.
And after that: Damn, I never even kissed a girl.
Then the alligators came up through the floor.It was unreal to see the swamp come indoors this way, like the world was on its head. Something about this influx of reptiles felt even more wrong than meeting Vern the dragon.
Squib would have said that nothing could have surprised him at this point, but seeing that surge of teeth and sinew writhing its way into the room changed his mind real sharp. He felt the balm of shock recede, to be replaced by the fear he’d been repressing: a fear which surged upwards from his boots and took a hold of his guts, wringing them like wet rope.
It was unreal to see the swamp come indoors this way, like the world was on its head. Something about this influx of reptiles felt even more wrong than meeting Vern the dragon.
These gators were organized, is what it was. They had group intent.
“Fuck me,” said Squib. “Oh Lord in heaven.”
“Calm down, junior,” said the dragon, who’d been on the point of killing him a moment before. “It’s just swamp bullshit is all.”
The alligators congregated in one corner, snapping and writhing, issuing strange breathy, ratcheting roars. They lashed the shack’s planking with their tails and stomped their stumpy legs, splintering entire sections of the floorboards. There was murder in their eyes.
Vern was not unduly worried. “Come on, fellas,” he said. “This is my home. You are messing with a guy’s bachelor pad. Invading my space is what it is.”
One alligator, a massive bull maybe fifteen feet long and three feet through the shoulders, stepped forward from the herd, waving his head from side to side.
“Really, Buttons?” said Vern. “We gotta do this now?” Buttons, who Vern had named ironically, for the creature was certainly not cute as a button, hissed, and the pale wattle under his jaw rippled. Whatever this was, it appeared that it did indeed have to be done now.
“Come on, man,” said Vern. “I got company here. I’m in the middle of an interrogation.”
The gator, who did not understand Vern’s words and would not have cared even if he had, lowered his warhead snout and made a lightning sortie, jaws snapping in a scything blur of teeth. Steam rose from his back, and his eyes flashed gold.
“Oh, please,” said Vern, not in the least impressed. He’d gone claw-to-claw with a sea serpent in Russia. This guy was no big deal compared to an arctic lizard.
He could have fried the big dumb gator, simple as pie, but the challenger’s supporters needed to be taught a lesson in a language they understood, so Vern opted to put on a quick and brutal exhibition. He stomped hard on the gator’s neck, driving his challenger half through the rotten boards. Then he shattered the vodka bottle on the ridges of the gator’s snout and made a lot of noise.
Vern lit up the alcohol with a snort from one nostril, and suddenly the creature’s head was on fire.
“That’s right, gators,” said Vern. “Your great green hope has got himself a head full of fire.” And then, with no apparent effort, he hoisted his challenger aloft and hurled him back out through the window.
Hurt my damn back, he thought, but did not show it.
“Look at me, kid,” he called over his shoulder. “The supreme warrior. The goddamn Predator. As a matter of fact, I would kick that Predator’s ass back to outer space.”
The other gators could not vacate the premises fast enough. They flowed out through gaps in the cypress planking, clambering over each other in their eagerness to be away from the mighty dragon.
Vern might have laughed if he hadn’t had enough of fighting for one night. Gators sure looked funny in retreat, though. It was a skill they’d never mastered.
Vern returned his focus to the kid. Another dumb animal I gotta deal with.
“You wanna say a prayer, Squib fella? Or should I just go ahead and get her done?”
The kid did not respond, because of course he had gone out the window the second Vern’s back was turned.
Smart kid, Vern thought. And then, This could mean trouble for the Wyvern retirement plan.
Steps would have to be taken.
From Highfire by Eoin Colfer. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harper Perennial. Copyright © 2019 by Eoin Colfer.