”What’s that, Harold?”
“What?” The day had turned murky and hot, and he was sweating copiously under his soft hat.
“That, there – see?” Emilia pointed across the road to a squat, scruffy building, the grill over the boarded-up shop window long rusted closed.
“It’s an abandoned building, Emilia, jeez.” Harold took his hat off, wiped the broad expanse of his forehead, and jammed the hat back on. “Are we going to find a bar, or what?”
“Well, they’re hardly hard to find,” she replied tartly. “There’s one about every ten feet. Now would you look?”
Harold looked. There was nothing to see but peeling white paint and some desultory graffiti. “I don’t see what you’re getting so excited about. Look, it’s hot, we’ve been walking all damn day, and I just want to sit on the beach and have a beer. Can we do that, please?”
“In a minute. Look at the sign.” She pointed at the graffiti, just black paint sprayed on too thick, so little snaking curls of it meandered down the rough paint.
“That’s not a sign. It’s just scribbling.”
“Look at what it says, though. ‘Nest Access.’ I bet there’s some amazing bar up there – the roof would have a perfect view of the sea.”
“Emilia. It’s graffiti. Who has a bar with no signs to even say it’s a bar? You don’t just have some meaningless crap scrawled on the wall.”
She frowned at him, crossing her arms under her breasts. “You’ve no sense of adventure. Couldn’t we just try? Just a quick look. It might be some cool local bar that no one else knows about.” Her voice had a wheedling tone to it, and Harold was having trouble looking away from the swell of her cleavage. He sighed.
“Fine. But the door’ll be locked, anyway…” He trailed off as she gave a squeak of delight and ran across the road, not stopping to check for cars or cyclists. He shook his head, standing his ground, but the door opened under her hand and she waved at him excitedly. He groaned. She’d already vanished into the cool, shadowy interior by the time he reached the threshold. “Local bar my arse,” he grumbled as he left the heat of the sun behind. “More like local shooting alley.”
Inside, the building still held the chill of the night, faintly damp and musty smelling. As Harold’s eyes adjusted he saw damp-streaked walls and a long-abandoned poster advertising sun cream. Wires dangled bare from the ceiling and crept across the floor, fittings scavenged. Weak light filtered in from around the boarded windows, and he could see a stairwell set at the back of the store. It was less filthy than he would have thought, given the open door, but it wasn’t anywhere he wanted to linger.
“Emilia, can we go now? There’s nothing here.”
“In a minute.” She had peeked into a cubicle at the side of the room, and now she wandered back, sneakers squeaking on the floor. “Let’s go upstairs.”
“Really? It’s not going to be a bar, you know that, right? And we’re trespassing.”
She smiled at him, a teasing little smile that made his cheeks flush. “It’s a bit naughty,” she said. “But don’t you think we may as well keep going? Come on – we’ll get a great view from the roof.” She walked past him, giving his bottom a quick squeeze as she went, and he followed her. Of course he did. He never could resist her.
The stairs were bare concrete, and the squeak and slap of their shoes sounded muted in the close confines of the stairwell. It seemed to be getting hotter as they climbed, and Harold took his hat off to wipe his head again. Emilia glanced back at him.
“You ok, honey?”
“Yes.” It came out sharper than he intended, but he wanted done with this. He was panting, and the windowless climb was making him feel vaguely claustrophobic. “Let’s just go take a damn photo and get the hell out of here.”
“You can wait here, if you want.” She’d paused to peer into the upstairs room, nothing but dust and some chipped tiles stacked haphazardly against one wall, illuminated by shafts of light that stole around the shutters.
“I’ve come this far, haven’t I?”
She looked up at him as he leaned into the doorway next to her, and bumped him with the curve of her hip. “You have. One more flight then we’re out of here.”
“Great.” He’d privately been hoping the stairs would end on this floor, but there was just a short, tight landing, and they were climbing again. At least they were almost there. There must be no insulation in this place whatsoever – the heat from the roof was pressing down on them so heavily he felt it should be visible, shimmering through the dimness.
They rounded the midway landing, and now it was dark as well as hot. Emilia hesitated, and Harold bumped into her. She gave a surprised little squeak, then fished her phone out of her handbag.
“Honestly?” He said, as the pale light of the screen lit the stairs. “This is ridiculous.”
“But we’re here,” she protested. “Look!” She waved the phone ahead of her, and he saw the thin outline of daylight around a door frame.
“Fine,” he said. “But just for the record, I think this is one of your worse ideas.”
She grinned at him, the phone lighting her face from below and making it ghastly. He shivered, and she turned away again without speaking, starting back up the stairs.
This is what you get, Harold thought. This is what you get for marrying a younger woman. He flinched at a sudden scream of tortured metal, and raised his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun that pounced on them as Emilia opened the door. She stepped out into the light, her sundress rendered translucent, then was gone. He stumbled up the stairs after her, tasting a sudden bitter panic in the back of his throat.
“Emilia! Emilia – “ But she was there, as he blinked like a rabbit in the sunlight. She was smiling, leaning against the brick wall that encircled the rooftop, the sea glittering blue and perfect behind her.
“See?” She said. “I told you it’d be worth it.”
He fumbled for the camera, wanting to capture her there, the tilt of her head and the curve of her lips, the sun on her hair and the easy way she stood. He looked down to check the settings, then looked up at her again, his own smile rising. But hers was fading, and she straightened, pushing herself off the wall, and raising a hand to point.
“Harold,” she said, “What’s that?”
He spun, finger jerking convulsively down on the shutter button, as her voice lilted up into a shriek.
“What did you do?” Her voice was stern.
“Nothing, Mum, they just, like, appeared here…” He trailed off, looking to his brother for support.
Nile nodded eagerly. “Yeah, totally, they were exploring, right?”
“Right!” Sampson ducked his head, lips pulling back from his teeth ingratiatingly. “Honest.”
“And the doors just happened to be unlocked? All of them?”
“I dunno what to tell you, Mum,” Nile said. “I guess the old dude left them open when he came last. He’s getting on a bit, y’know. Getting a bit forgetful.”
She huffed hot air at them both, rumbling deep in her throat. “His name is Monsieur Jacques to you, and you’d do well to remember he makes things easy for us around here. Who do you think cleared up the mess you two made with those goats last month?”
The brothers looked at each other, then slid down onto their forelegs, shoulder to shoulder, scales flashing to contrite green. “Sorry, Mum,” Sampson said. “But, honestly, we didn’t open the doors. They did just come up.”
“You didn’t have to eat them, though, did you?” She said, looking at the scorched hat lying in the corner of the roof, next to a handbag. The handbag had been disembowelled, and a sad little collection of lip gloss and tissues and hotel pens were spilling out of it. She sighed. “You could have just hidden.”
“Well, how were we to know Monsieur Jacques hadn’t sent them?” Nile asked. “They just showed up!”
His mother gave another huff, dangerously close to a flame. “Did they look like the kind of people Monsieur Jacques sends up? And in broad daylight?”
“But I was hun-gry,” Sampson whined.
“You had an aggravated assault two days ago! How can you be hungry?”
“I’m growing,” Sampson said.
She sighed, and looked out at the glossy, boat-peppered sea. They were growing, and the tight confines of the roof wasn’t an ideal place for young dragons, especially not ones already the size of ponies. But so few places were these days. Here at least they had someone willing to provide them with a steady supply of thieves and thugs, and it worked well for all concerned. If they had to move to some hicksville village, and go back to stealing sheep and cattle, like in her childhood – well, it was past the days of flaming torches and pitchforks, but that just made it worse, not better. She licked Sampson’s cheek, making him squeak in protest, and cuffed Nile gently.
“Boys,” she said. “Why did I end up with boys?”
In the low afternoon light, an old man with sparse white hair pointed at the wall. “Scrub it off,” he said. “Right now!”
“But, grandpa,” the boy whined. “I’m sorry! I’ll paint over it, ok?”
“No, you won’t. You’ll damn well scrub it off, and be grateful I didn’t tell her it was you.”
The boy paled. “You wouldn’t.”
“I will if you do anything like it again. We’ve got an arrangement, just like there’s always been an arrangement. If you ever want to be able to do your bit, you better learn the rules.”
“You obviously don’t. Idiot.” The old man pressed his hands into the small of his back and stretched. He was regretting taking the boy into his confidence. He’d seemed so promising as a child, but as a teenager he was nothing short of impossible. Well – such things ended up being taken care of in their own way, in his line of work. He held his hand out. “Give it to me.”
“What?” The boy sounded aggrieved.
“What’d they pay you? Scales? Come on, give it up.” He shook his hand under the boy’s nose.
The boy groaned, and dug in his pocket, extracting a cone the length of his little finger from his pocket and dropping it in his grandfather’s hand. “Fine.”
The old man help it up to the light and examined it. “Dragon baby teeth. You idiot. It’s not like you even have the contacts to sell it.” He pocketed the tooth and glared at the boy once more. “Get this place cleaned up, then I don’t want to see you around here again unless I say so. Got it?”
“Got it,” the boy mumbled, kicking the pavement.
“I don’t think I heard you,” the old man said.
“I got it, alright?” The boy glared at his grandfather, then dropped his gaze when the old man raised his formidable eyebrows. “I got it.”
“You better.” The old man hobbled away, leaving the boy with his bucket and scrubbing brush. He’d get a tidy sum for the dragon’s tooth, but he thought he’d tell the Dame first. Theirs had been a long and mutually agreeable relationship, but with dragons it was best not to get complacent. He had to go back later, anyway. He was meeting a man who made a living snatching old ladies’ purses, and who had been surprisingly eager to help a frail old man with a bulging wallet move some furniture.