Ace turned another page with his claw, careful not to let the paper tear. Mari bustled around the store with the vacuum. Ace shook his head. What was the point? In some places, the carpet faded into bare cement patches, then back to carpet. The vacuum, in less capable hands than Mari’s, had left the bottom book shelves dented and chipped.
Ace dragged his attention back to the book in his hands, though the words had a funny way of moving away from his eyes. At least he knew what lurked outside, waiting for the jingle of that little bag full of cash. No one paid with checks around here. Too risky to own a checkbook. With luck, and him as escort, Mari would make it safely to the bank in a few hours, and then home unharmed. After all, both gang-bangers were Human, and they never saw him in the dark.
The whining drone of the vacuum fell silent with a click, and Mari returned the old heap to its closet. “Ace.”
“Hmm?” He looked toward the voice. Mari was back at the counter.
“You really think there’s a gang out there waitin’?”
“I saw them a few hours ago. I know Jericho. He’s been a thug since before this neighborhood went bad. No idea who the blond is. Neither of them are smart enough to stay well-hidden.”
“Oh.” She wrapped her right arm around her body, letting her shoulders droop. “What are they gonna do to us?”
“Nothing. They’ll try. I won’t let them.” He glanced to the back, the stain of Wil’s blood on the carpet creeping into his mind again.
He startled, one wing knocking over a display rack of greeting cards. The cards scattered, the rack landed against a display table, sending hard covers tumbling to the floor. A pile of red envelopes slid across the carpet. Wil shouted for help from the back room. No. Wil was dead. Ace scrambled for something to ground him visually, and landed on Mari.
“Are you alright? You just,” she bit her lip, “just stopped for over a minute.”
“Fine. Fine.” He righted the rack, careful to keep his tail and wings tucked to avoid any further displacement of merchandise. The care required to keep his claws from ripping, scratching, or tearing any product helped calm his nerves. After the display stood again, he turned to face Mari, “I was here the night Wil died.”
She put a hand to her mouth to hid her open gape. “You said it was your day off.”
“It was. Didn’t stop me from dropping by for a few hours,” he shrugged. “Why don’t you get the bag ready? I just heard the back door. Cass’s here.”
“Right.” She shook her head, hugged herself, dragged in a deep breath, and let it out in a huff. “I’ll do that.”
Ace nodded once, finished straightening the display table, and sat down, picking up his book. Reading proved a fruitless endeavor. The words all blurred together, like ink pooling across a soaked newspaper. He set the book down. Mari had her back to him, hunched over the cash register. The muscles in her back and shoulders held taught, ready to run at a second’s notice. Like prey. Ace buried his face in his hands until he felt movement close to him. He looked up.
“I’m ready.” Mari stood, clutching the bag, her lips pressed thing, lines carved into her forehead. “Let’s do it.”
Ace nodded. “Thanks for trusting me. Let me go first.”
He closed his eyes a moment, bringing his attention to his body, creating a barrier between his obsidian scales and the world. It may not stop a bullet, but it helped. Once finished, he tucked his wings close, and maneuvered out the front doors, keeping Mari shielded with his body as she moved out into the night.
“Wrong side, lizard boy.” The crack of a gunshot rang out.
Ace pushed Mari behind him one second too late. She cried out, and fell to the ground. He picked her up as a second shot ripped through his left wing and grazed his scales. He roared, getting Mari back inside. “Cass, call an ambulance, and get pressure on that before she bleeds out.”
“Right.” Cass nodded, purple hair shading worried silver eyes. As Cass moved to Mari’s side, Ace turned to face Jericho and his new buddy.
“Jericho, you’re a rat-eating son of a nethersprite, you know that?”
“Aw, did I hurt the little lizard’s feelies?”
Ace growled, fire rising in his throat. If that little bastard took one more step, he’d be a roast rat.
“Um, Jer, we really shouldn’t mess with him. I mean, Drakern spit acid, don’t they?”
“Only some, and Ace wouldn’t hurt me, would ya, old pal?”
Ace closed the gap far enough for a shot, sucked in a deep breath through his nostrils, and sent it out his mouth, along with a cascade of black fire. Jericho screamed, dropped his gun, and cradled his charred arm, choking back another howl.
“You shot Wil, now Mari. Take your weapons and go. Your little blond shadow needs new pants.”
The blond whimpered, his eyes darting from Ace to Jericho, then to Ace again. He turned dropped his gun, turned and ran. Ace walked up to Jericho, getting so close he could smell the alcohol on the Human’s breath and see the patterns in his brown irises. He picked up Jericho’s gun, and dismantled it, breaking each piece and letting it fall to the ground. “Now,” he growled, letting silver smoke curl out of his mouth, “Leave, and don’t come back.”
Jericho stumbled back, turned, and ran. Ace retrieved the pieces of the destroyed gun, as well as blondie’s cheap pistol, sending a silent prayer to the Creator that the ambulance siren in the distance was headed their way.
Remember, the Dragon Hoard Books webcomic goes live New Year’s Eve 2016, so check out our Patreon!