Dragon Hoard Books: A Rotten Neighborhood

Black, brown, and a bit of rust red swirled through the scuffed, dinghy green carpet of Noble Books’ cramped back room. Ace shook his head. Wil never stood a chance that night. In a world full of wondrous magic, there had been no miracle six months ago. The hinge on the door into the main store screeched, and his boss, the manager of the site walked in. Ace swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. Correction. Not bile. Black fire. Tempting, torching that crisp, thousand jian suit right off the smug jerk.

“Well, that’s settled. Mariami is perfectly comfortable covering the night shift, Ace.” The short Human pulled a book from near the printer, settled himself on a padded, black folding chair, and picked up reading at a marked page. “You are free to head home for the night.”

“No.” The stain of Wil’s blood seared further into Ace’s mind, “Mari is unfamiliar with this neighborhood, and you know that, Mr. Lynton.”

“Now, now, I’ve told you and the rest of the staff. Please, call me Freud. Mr. Lynton makes me sound old.”

“Fine, Freud. I’ll stay til her shift is over.”

“I won’t pay you for the time.”

“I don’t care. I’m not letting another co-worker die in my arms because you can’t be bothered.” Ace turned, opening the door, and squeezing his black, leathery wings as close as possible to his body, maneuvered his way through the door, into the main store. Whatever Mr. Freud Lynton just said, he didn’t care. One fluorescent light brushed his wing tip. Two more near the entrance flickered, and one over by Children’s Books gave off no light at all. Why did he stay?  Ace shook his head.  Because only one other did, and the rest of them left in a hurry or a body bag.

Mari waved, her smile full of crooked, blunt teeth, and her dark green eyes bright with excitement. “Mr. Freud just gave me permission to deliver the bank bag tonight after night shift!”

“I know.  Damn it.” He bent down, careful to stay out of the space between shelves now that he’d cleared it, and re-shelved the book he’d just sent tumbling to the floor. The carpet needed a complete redo. Too many stains, some from customers and their disregard for the No Food or Drink sign, and a few hiding more disturbing origins.

Mariami giggled, “You’re so big. You could just stay at the front.”

“Hey,” he shrugged, careful not to raise his wings too high, “I like helping with the shelving.  It’s just most places aren’t designed for people like me.”

“I know. So, are you headed home?”

“No. I’m going to make sure you get to the bank safely.”

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” she flipped her black hair out of her eyes, “Really, I can take care of myself. It’s not as though there’s a gang-banger staking the place out to grab the cash.”

“Two of them, currently.”

Her hand stopped over the candy display, blazing fire designs flashing glitter in the one bright light the store had. That hand then withdrew to her chin as she bit her lip, “You’re just trying to scare me because I’m the newbie. Right?”

Ace shook his head, moving to straighten the candy display himself, “I wish. This neighborhood is rotten to the core. We’re lucky we aren’t three blocks further south, or we’d be in war territory.”

“Freud didn’t seem worried.”

“He’s not. Just like the last two managers. The last one lasted two months. The one before that? Four.” The candy now straightened, Ace took a seat on the floor near an open stretch of window. No bench or chair here was strong enough to hold his muscled, three meter frame.

She leaned against the counter, arms crossed, muscles tense under her cocoa skin, “What about the one before that?”

“Wil’s the reason for the blood stains in the back room. Crazy Æther Elf cared so much about the place, he got himself killed trying to prevent an armed robbery on my day off.”

“I thought they didn’t do things like that.”

Ace let his eyes trail along the needle sharp claws tipping his fingers, “He did. Didn’t start that way, but he did.”  He didn’t know what he’d do if he failed to protect Mari, too.  Just out of school, she had too much life left to end up like Wil.

He looked up as Mari set her hand on his shoulder. She smiled a bit, her tone soft, “Ace, it’s okay. I doubt they could touch you through all that scale-skin anyway.”

“They can. Just not as permanently. Most of the time.”

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