Robert Asprin's Dragons Run
In New York Times bestselling author Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye’s newest Big Easy dragon tale, Griffen McCandles is about to give the forces of evil a run for their money…
Griffen already has his hands full running his gambling operation in New Orleans and dealing with his dragon heritage. Now his pregnant sister, Valerie, is missing—possibly kidnapped—and his uncle, Malcolm McCandles, has flown into town for a mysterious meeting with a powerful man who’s been dead for almost eight decades.
And Griffen certainly hasn’t got the time to protect Councilwoman Penny Dunbar, a dragon who’s running for governor of Louisiana—if malign forces don’t take her out first. Griffen learned a long time ago to play the hand fate has dealt him, but with many lives at stake—including Val’s unborn dragon—he’s hoping for an ace in the hole…
Griffen McCandles only half listened to his uncle Malcolm’s unending tirade. He had to concentrate on driving. The eight lanes of US Highway 10 from the airport heading toward New Orleans were completely tied up with morning rush-hour traffic. High winds from gray, cloud-streaked skies were whipping rain into his windshield. The red Camry was unfamiliar. He had had to borrow it from one of his poker dealers, who lived in Metairie and had the space to park a car. Brenda had freely handed him the keys but neglected to tell him that she ate most of her meals in it. There had been no time to clean it out before Griffen had to go to the airport to pick up Malcolm McCandles, his father’s older brother and his guardian since the disappearance of both of Griffen’s parents many years before. He and Malcolm had to shove aside piles of burger and sandwich wrappers, heaps of aluminum cans, and waxed paper bags from pralines and beignets so their long legs would fit. The mess displeased the elder McCandles.
On the other hand, almost everything did.
“Even first-class air travel is a miserable experience these days! The food would be low quality for a prison, and expecting a grown man to cut a steak with a plastic knife is ludicrous and demeaning. Not that the so-called safety provisions are making anyone safer! And the seats! I felt as if I had been packed in with the cargo.” Malcolm kicked at a milk-shake cup. “Couldn’t you find anything better to drive? What happened to your car?”
“It was vandalized,” Griffen said, not wanting to go into detail. The wreck of his prized auto had been a murder attempt. He had been in it at the time. Malcolm snorted. Like Griffen, he was above average in height, slender but strongly built, with a long face, a masculine jawline, and slightly hooded eyes. Except for age and coloration, the two men looked very much alike, including, at the moment, disgruntled expressions
“That’s what you get for living in an uncivilized environment,” Malcolm McCandles declared. “If you weren’t too lazy to try and make something of yourself, you could be living in New York or Seattle, or Silicon Valley—one of the centers of business. Not an antique backwater.”
Griffen bit back a retort, knowing it would just invite debate. New Orleans was a small city but hardly a backwater. It supported a working port and one of the most thriving tourist cultures in the United States. Except for the central city, you could hardly tell it from any other Southern town, with its apartment houses, shopping malls, and sports arenas lining the very highway they were driving along. Besides, he was happy there. He had hardly ever been able to say that before.
He and his younger sister, Valerie, had spent ten years in their uncle Malcolm’s care, with him as a vaguely disapproving, generally absent personage. A housekeeper, also distant and gruff, cared for them most of the time. She had been no more motherly than Uncle Malcolm had been fatherly, but it was far better, he had since been informed by those who knew personally, than the foster- care system. One way or another, he had been unprepared for the realities of adulthood.
On the other hand, how did you tell someone that he was a hereditary dragon? As far as Griffen was concerned, the explanation had come far too late, without sufficient details to assuage his curiosity. Much of what he had learned about himself had come from other people and from experimenting with his budding powers. A glance in the mirror showed a mild, Midwestern American twentysomething male with green eyes, medium brown hair, a long jaw, and a straight nose with somewhat prominent nostrils. Who would guess that beneath that handsome if ordinary visage lay Puff the Magic Dragon?
His uncle looked less friendly and more draconian glaring out the window at the traffic.
“Couldn’t you take another way into town?” he asked.
“The other way takes about three times as long,” Griffen reminded him. Again. He kept his face as smooth as if he were playing poker. He had trained himself not to have tells. It helped at times like this to keep his emotions concealed.
He was trying not to blow up. The weather was as grim as the company. The Thursday after Mardi Gras stood a good chance of having good weather, since spring came early to the Gulf Coast, but Griffen was glad he hadn’t bet on it. Rain spattered the windshield and splashed in through holes in the floor of the car. He was going to have to think about giving Brenda a raise so she could afford to replace this beater. And he was unused to being out of bed before noon. His profession as well as his personal inclination made him a night owl.
His profession, which was being neglected due to Val’s disappearance, was president, administrator and chief executive officer of a free-floating gambling organization handed off to him a few months before by another senior dragon named Mose. He wished Mose could have been in the car with him. He was one of the wisest people Griffen knew. He might have figured out how to solve Griffen’s problem before Malcolm showed up, maybe even preventing the elder dragon from getting on a plane.
On the other hand, Mose might have had little more insight into where Valerie had gone than he had. Griffen was beginning to realize how little he knew about the way his sister thought. He was kicking himself for not investigating further how she really felt about her unborn baby’s grandmother. She had distrusted Melinda on sight, as he had, but they had been forced into a truce with her. The moment the crisis was over, Melinda had showed her true colors. Or had she? Was the disappearance Val’s idea?
Griffen stared out the windshield at the rain, making sure he didn’t miss his turn. The unfamiliar engine juddered. He hoped they would not break down. Waiting on the edge of the road for Triple-A to come and tow them would not improve his temper.
The siblings had been in New Orleans for over a year. What had precipitated the move south was that people had started trying to kill or kidnap Griffen. With the help of an old friend—all right, another dragon—named Jerome, they had fled to the Crescent City, where they lived in relative safety.
“Relative” being a relative term, of course. In those months Griffen had had run-ins with werewolves and other shape-shifters, government agents, a bounty hunter, enemy dragons, the element of fire, and, not least, as it happened, the New Orleans Police Department. He had had to concentrate on staying alive while making a living and dealing with being factual head of the local dragons, of which there were many more than he could have dreamed existed. Two of them were his girlfriends.
He didn’t look forward to explaining all that to his uncle.
On the other hand, why should he explain anything? Malcolm had pretty much washed his hands of him when he refused to give Griffen a job in his corporation. Griffen was prepared to get along on his own.
He decided he was just dealing with too many hands, and he had no idea what cards were in any of them, including his own.
If only Valerie would call! He glanced down at his cell phone, stuck upside down into the cup holder so he could see the screen. No missed messages. The volume was turned up all the way.
The phone rang, and he grabbed it.
“Hey, bro,” Jerome’s smooth voice hummed into his ear.
“Where y’at?” Griffen asked. He had been born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but the local patois appealed to him enough to adopt some of it.
“Nothing fresh. None of my cabbie friends took a fare matching Val’s description anywhere at any time, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, or this morning. Your watchers on the apartments reported in about nine. She wasn’t there and hasn’t been there, but some of her clothes are missing. Not many things, really. Toiletries, toothbrush, hairbrush all still in place. Did she have a passport?”
“No,” Griffen said, thankfully. “We’ve never been out of the country.”
“That wouldn’t stop Melinda,” Malcolm said. Griffen glanced at him, wondering if he had been able to hear Jerome’s side of the conversation. “She could arrange for false papers on a moment’s notice. Even genuine ones would not be outside her realm of influence.”
Griffen nodded. “Did you hear that?” he said into the phone.
“Sure did. Not around here,” Jerome assured him. “Anyone making fake paper with your sister’s picture on it would prod someone to call someone who knows you.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“People want to stay on your good side, King of Fafnir. They all hoping for a favor one day.”
“I know. I’ll catch up with you later,” Griffen said. “Thanks for the update. How’s the rest going?”
“We’ve got one table tonight at the Sonesta, nothing you have to worry about,” Jerome said. “You can count on me.”
“I know, Jer,” Griffen said, sincerely. “Thanks.”
“No problem, man.” The connection went.
“You’ve been careless, Griffen,” Malcolm said. “Your sister should not have been out of sight at any time.”
“Her life is her own business,” Griffen said, as evenly as he could. “But what do you care? I haven’t seen you taking any particular interest in us. It’s been over a year since we moved here, and the first time you call is in the middle of the night on Mardi Gras.”
To Griffen’s surprise, Malcolm McCandles looked almost sheepish, a far cry from the formidable businessman’s mien.
“I have been keeping tabs on you, but you had not caused or been in sufficient trouble for me to step in.”
“Thanks a lot!”
Malcolm looked at his neatly trimmed nails as if his thoughts were written there. “I did not mean that to sound deprecating. I have been pleased at the application to task that you have shown while you have been here. You’re doing well, better than I would ever have expected. If you had worked so assiduously at your education, you might have had a master’s degree right now.”
“And do what with it?” Griffen countered, glaring through the windshield at a truck’s bumper. “I’d probably be a cog in your machine right now, wouldn’t I, fed just enough information about my . . . my secret identity . . . to keep me satisfied, but still under your thumb.”
“Griffen, no McCandles lives under the thumb of anyone else! As you grew into your abilities, we would have assumed a role more akin to partnership—”
Griffen snorted, twin jets of steam lancing from his nostrils.
Malcolm continued, “You may not believe me, but it’s true. Look at what you have accomplished on your own. Without any guidance or backing from me, you’ve put yourself into a position of authority here. Once you started to gain confidence, I couldn’t force you to comply. You would have declared your independence on your own. I would have had to convince you to ally with me.”
Something in the way he said that made Griffen’s ears perk up, figuratively.
“Is that why you’re here?” he asked. “It’s not all about Val, is it? You phoned before you knew she was gone.”
Malcolm nodded grimly. “I can’t argue with your perception. You have always had a gift for spotting nuance. No, I had no idea. Yes, I am here for another purpose. I have been asked to manage a . . . situation.”
Griffen allowed one eyebrow to climb up his forehead. “Well, I appreciate the courtesy call before you came into my territory. I’ll drop you at your hotel. Let me know if there’s something I can do to help, and I will keep you posted on anything I learn about Val.”
Malcolm scowled, his handsome face creasing. “It is not like you to jump to conclusions, Griffen. I do not expect to operate alone, especially, as you say, on your territory. I would appreciate your help.”
“On your situation. What about my sister?”
“I feel responsible for not insisting you safeguard Valerie more closely, especially considering her . . . condition. I offer you my help, not as quid pro quo, but as a concerned relative.”
That sounded better than Griffen would have expected, which immediately made him suspicious. “From what you have said, my guess is that whatever you have cooking is difficult.”
“Very.” Malcolm grimaced again. “I need information from a very powerful person.”
“I have a lot of the local politicians as clients, and a few of them as friends,” Griffen said, in the spirit of cooperation. “I can probably arrange a friendly meeting with whoever it is, maybe at a private poker game. Not many of them are dragons, but they like some action.”
“Again, I have no intention of denigrating your accomplishments or your acquaintances, Griffen, but I doubt very much whether few, if any, of the local humans have ever met the man I need to see.”
“Because he’s been dead for almost eighty years.”
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