(picks up where we left off, on a bench in NYC’s Central Park)
“Cara mia.” Luciano gently lowered Cat until her feet met the ground, slapped the side of my arm, and stumbled backward, hands on his heart and eyes only for my friend. I watched Cat devour her lover with her gaze as he rejoined the passel of rambunctious kids and proud parents now veering toward the nearby expanse of dormant grass.
“That man has such a nice ass,” she declared.
“He’s got great legs too. Makes me think I should take up soccer.”
Cat plunked down on the bench and kicked sideways, nicking the side of my calf with her lime green running shoes. “Stop ogling my man’s assets. And you’re built more for rugby. Or being Henry Cavill’s stunt double.”
That wasn’t the first time someone had compared me to the muscular actor. “I was admiring Luciano’s assets. I wasn’t ogling them. Do you have any idea how hard it is to fit these monsters into normal pants?”
I flexed my thigh muscles. Cat glanced over and shook her head. “Good thing you dragons have your own tailors. And as I was saying” –she waggled her fingers at me until I returned her bagel—“the more granular the information the more gold in your pocket.”
“You do know I don’t actually keep gold in my pocket.” I kept my gold in my fifth-floor aerie and in a vault in a sub-basement of the building’s garage—l was an urban dragon, after all—and paid for purchases with the app on my phone. Or cash.
“Very funny. Put your glasses back on. Don’t forget we have a thief to catch.”
“Who’d want to steal stuff from kids’ backpacks?” Keeping an eye on the pile of packs and gear bags during soccer practice completed the third part of my deal with Cat. Luciano had mentioned the issue to her, and she volunteered our services. While the soccer kids dropped their stuff and tore off after each other, we finished our bagels.
“Jake, I thought of another thing. Voice commands. Keyed to the wearer.”
“Like, ‘highlight werewolves only’?”
“Yup.” Cat scanned to her left, then right. “Okay, so is amber the base color for cat shifters?”
“Correct. Did Luciano mention which clans he was coaching?” I added a couple notes to my phone, along with a question about the frame material’s durability under prolonged exposure to natural elements.
“Mostly leopards, cheetahs, and cougars. The bigger cats have their own league to keep it fair for the kids.” She stuffed the empty wrapper into the paper bag and sighed. “I can’t wait to see Luc in a tux tonight.”
“I’m just glad you’ll be there. I need at least one ally.” At first, my parents had insisted that my birthday party be a dragons-only event. I’d vetoed that idea, especially once I learned the dragon elite had been strongly encouraged to bring along their eligible offspring. Apparently, Audrey and Elijah Winslow were distressed I was turning twenty-nine without a marriageable love interest in sight.
I rebelled against the idea of being forced to find someone to partner with. But as my parents explained—thoughtfully, sensitively—the sooner I found a mate and dutifully performed the actions that would complete the mating bond, the sooner all the physical traits that would make me a fully adult dragon would appear.
That was the theory, and neither it nor my parent’s explanation included anything about the possibility of organically occurring physical attraction, or… love.
Spirit knew I was desperate to produce a set of wings. My human form had changed in completely appropriate ways as I aged. My voice deepened. More hair appeared where it was supposed. Muscles and bones and other body parts grew, and articles I perused in men’s magazines assured me my body was quite normal.
My dragon form—the mythical flying beast all dragon shifters aspired to—remained stuck in a state of arrested development, with no perceptible wings. That right there was one of the reasons for my nonexistent dating life. The more human Jake grew and matured and the longer dragon Jake spent stuck in early adolescence, the less connected I felt to the other half of who I was, of what I was.
I refocused my attention on the playing field as Luciano and his assistant coach measured out a kid-sized pitch, dropped orange cones in each corner and down the sides, and anchored a collapsible goal net at either end. A bright blue aura entered my field of vision from a nearby cluster of trees. The non-feline Magical centered itself behind two adults chatting close to the pile of gear bags and backpacks. I rose to my feet and stuffed our trash into the nearby receptacle.
“Did you catch that blue aura?” I asked, reaching my arms overhead to stretch. “I need to get closer for the lenses to differentiate whether it’s an avian or reptilian shifter.”
“Then let’s go.” Cat drew on her gloves, never taking her gaze off the field. Glancing skyward, I winced. Sudden changes in barometric pressure gave me headaches and I could already sense thunder rumbling over the Atlantic in advance of the sleet predicted for our region. I ran my fingertips underneath my knit cap, checking to make sure the magic-cancelling ear cuffs I wore 24/7 were firmly in place, and offered my elbow.
She swatted me away. “No touching, Boss. Luciano’s possessive and he runs way faster than you.”
Walking side-by-side, we picked up our pace when the blue glow began to move among the bags. Neither parent standing there appeared to notice. Either they were completely engrossed in watching their kids, or the inquisitive Magical was cloaked.
“Head around the goal net on the right,” I said to Cat, keeping my voice low. “I have a feeling they’ll try to hide underneath the pile or go for the trees.”
The closer we got, the more I could see of the interloper. I peered over the top of the eyeglass frames. The hazy outline of the ground hugging creature disappeared, affirming my suspicion some kind of magic was keeping it out of sight.
“I think it’s a crocodile. You go right.”
I peeled away and poured on the speed, something earthbound dragons weren’t known for. I made it to the far end of the makeshift field, banked right, and dove into a flying tackle when the crocodile shifter noticed me coming and scurried toward the snaggle of nearby bushes.
I grabbed its snout and held tight, avoiding the multitude of short, curved teeth and the side to side lashing of its thick, scaled tail. Cat crouched, placing herself between its stubby-legged body and the bushes. The possible robber was extremely agitated and smaller than I expected. I almost felt bad for over-reacting.
Keeping one hand clamped on its peculiar snout—I wasn’t in the mood for puncture wounds and who knew where its mouth had been—I scrabbled to my feet and tucked the reptile shifter under my arm.
“Now what?” Cat asked. “Everyone’s looking at us.”
“Let’s see if we can get them to talk.” I slid the glasses off and handed them over. “Can you take care of these?”
“Sure.” Cat swept her gaze over the field. “I’ll keep mine on in case they’ve got a friend.”
“Do you have anything we can use as a leash?” On closer inspection, the little fella looked like a miniature version of the gharial shifters working as lobby attendants and maintenance crew in the building my parents owned.
“Nope. But you do. Hold still.” Cat deftly worked the heavy string out of my hood and tied it around the shifter’s neck. “We’re not going to hurt you,” she cooed. “We just want to know why you’re interested in that pile of stuff.”
The shifter blinked its pale yellow eyes. A raw squawk sounded from its mouth before it jerked its snout to the side.
“I think it wants us to go in there.” Cat indicated the tangle of azalea bushes. I tightened my hold and clambered to my feet.
Neither of us was prepared for the onslaught of brambles hiding in the bushes. My legs got scratched up and Cat swore as thorns snagged her clothes. We broke through the natural barrier, leaving the players’ and parents’ grunts and shouts behind. The bundle in my arms stopped wiggling once we stood in front of a leafless sycamore tree.
I handed the creature to Cat, got onto my hands and knees, and peered into the hollow at the tree’s wide base. “I’m going to reach inside.”
“Better you than me,” she said, bending her knees so the shifter could see what I was doing.
I lowered onto my belly and thumbed my flashlight app. Sweeping the narrow beam side to side, I saw a mess of shredded power bar wrappers and a pile of colorful little toys, the kind that kids clipped to their backpacks.
“I think I know what’s going on.” I scooted backward and studied the shifter now dozing in Cat’s arms. “This little one’s lost, or maybe it was abandoned. I’m taking it home. I can contact the Widows and Orphans Aid Network from there.”
Cat snorted. “You do know you’re not responsible for every lost or abandoned shifter kid in this city, right?”
“I do know that.” I shone the light closer to the looter’s snout and the curved teeth near its tip. “No other lizard shifters have scales this color. Kunal would know if anyone in their clan is missing a kid.”
“Do you want my help getting it home? Because if not, I’m staying here and watching my man run around on those very fine legs of his before my nail appointment.”
My friend’s newfound devotion to soccer was a beautiful thing. She transferred the gharial over to me. “I think I can handle this. I’d appreciate you letting the parents know where they can find their kids’ missing valuables.”
“Will do, Boss.” Cat parted the bushes with a heavy stick and held them back as I passed.
I quickened my pace eastward, ignoring the tempting bits of metal glinting in the dirt and the startled glances of unsuspecting pedestrians whenever I emerged from a shortcut with a bright blue lizard cradled in my arms. Though one woman did a one-eighty and tugged on my elbow as I waited for a break in traffic.
“If that’s going to be a bag, I want one,” she said, eyes alight with the familiar fanaticism of Manhattan’s shopping elite.
“Not for sale,” I growled, before crossing Park Avenue at a run. I shouldered my way through the revolving door and into my building where three adult male gharial shifters in dark gray uniforms quickly surrounded me. Low rumbles vibrated in their throats.
“Is that what I think it is?” Kunal, the oldest of the trio of cousins and my parents’ chauffeur, gawked at the little one. It had started quivering and lashing its tail the moment it spotted probable kin.
“I found it in the park.”
“You found it?” Aravind, wearing coveralls and a toolbelt, shouldered his cousins aside, layering his tone with unspoken accusations.
“Step down.” I glared at him as I loosened the extraneous leash with my free hand. “I was in the Park with Catriona. We were watching her boyfriend coach a kids’ soccer team. This little guy, or gal, was nosing around in the shifters’ stuff. I think it’s lost and hungry. So instead of challenging me, how about you find something for it to eat?”
Kunal cuffed Aravind on the head. “Tap into the network,” he ordered his cousins, gently accepting the transfer of the gharial into his arms. “See if anyone in the city’s missing their kid. If that doesn’t pan out, reach out to the North American representative of the queen’s court.”
“Sorry. It’s just that—” Aravind dropped his chin and pressed his fingers to the inner corners of his eyes. Tanvir, the quiet one, clapped his shoulder.
“We understand. Make the calls.”
Aravind nodded and strode behind the concierge desk. Tanvir waited a beat before turning to me. “You know we’re endangered, Jake. And you know the details of our emigration, how harrowing it was. So to find an unprotected gharial child is—” His lips thinned as he pressed them tight. “It’s unheard of, especially here in the city.”
“I hope it’s an anomaly.” I took a step back. “I’ll inform the Aid Society. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“We will,” Kunal assured me. “Oh, happy birthday and good luck upstairs. Audrey’s in a mood.”
I entered the private elevator and waited for the doors to close. Lifting my gaze, I finally registered what was different about the wall behind the concierge desk and groaned.
Between the time I’d left the building to meet up with Cat, and returned with a juvenile gharial, my mother’s minions had decorated the lobby to receive party guests. An enlarged photograph of me, framed in gold leaf on carved wood and draped with baby blue satin bunting, graced the wall.
I recognized the little boy holding an ice cream cone with both hands. He stared at the double scoop of melting mint chocolate chip like the treat contained everything he’d ever wanted. Either Audrey or Eli had taken the picture within days of their newly adopted son’s arrival in New York City.
In the photo, my clothes were new and my hair freshly cut. It would be months after that picture was taken before I could eat an ice cream, or a hot dog, or a pretzel, without also feeling like I should share my bounty with every other kid on the street.
The elevator doors dinged their warning just as Tanvir ran up and pressed an oversized padded envelope into my hands.
“This arrived for you today,” he whispered, “I thought it might be that thing you’ve been waiting for.”
“Thanks. Keep me posted on the kid.”
“You know I will.”
My heart rate accelerated the moment Tan showed me the envelope. Crabbed handwriting and Ukrainian postal stamps said he was right, this was the thing I’d waited months for. Somewhere outside and overhead, another series of thunderous booms speared the skies and my head. Rubbing my temples, I collapsed against the inner wall of the lift.
“Fourth floor, please.” From my first ride twenty-one years ago, I had engaged with the elevator’s inner workings as though its motor and gear shaft were as sentient as me.
“Yes, Jonathan,” the mechanical voice answered. I kept my eyes closed and counted the seconds it took to pass each floor before I arrived to the sound of, “Have a nice day.”