Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Receipt For A Dragon

by Stuart Sharp

The library was better than the job centre, at least, Brian thought, as he browsed through books on snakes and lizards, crocodiles and tortoises. There wasn't much he hadn't read before. At least the books didn't expect him to think a job flipping burgers was a good thing. But after the way he'd left his old job, he knew, that was about the best he could hope for.

Being the most junior of Sprot and Illston's office juniors wasn't a particularly good job, but it had paid the bills. And there were a lot of bills. Feed bills, bills for keeping the tanks heated, vet bills, the list went on.

Sometimes, for brief instants before the rest of him drowned it out, Brian thought that his life would have been easier if he didn't like reptiles quite so much.

He didn't know where the love of all things scaly had come from. It certainly wasn't from his family. His father didn't like animals at all; had only allowed Brian and his sister a hamster as children because Rachel had cried until she got her way. She'd been good at that. His mother was scared of snakes. As for Rachel, she just thought Brian was weird and wasting his life.

It had been her who got him the job with Sprot and Illston. She'd been furious when Brian had managed to get himself sacked, immediately thinking of how it might damage her chances of making full partner.

"What were you thinking?" she'd demanded. "Are you trying to make me look bad?"

It was at that point that Brian had tried to explain. Now it might be said that in some ways Nature had blessed Brian Northington; he was good looking, in a slightly distracted sort of way, he had a mind that might have taken him through University had he remembered to put his applications in on time, and he could talk extremely eloquently about all sorts of reptiles. And possibly even about other things, though he'd never really tried.

What Nature hadn't seen fit to include in the package, however, was the sense not to try to explain to his sister that the allegation of sexual harassment that brought about his sacking was in fact down to a lizard.

"You see, Rache," he tried, forgetting once again that his sister didn't like the short version of her name, "it's all down to George."

"Who's George?"

"One of my Geckos. He must have got into my bag while I was putting my lunch in."

"And how does that justify you making a grab for Felicity Barstwick's tits?"

"I wasn't!" Brian countered hurriedly. "It's just that George got out, and he climbed onto her, and she didn't notice, and I thought that I could get him off her before anyone noticed. I didn't want to get into trouble over bringing him in. You know I was on a warning over the time King..."

"That would be the python?" Rachel's voice held the weary note of someone who just knows they must have done some wrong in a former life to have to put up with a brother like this. "The one who somehow got into the boardroom during a meeting?"

"I just didn't want to cause any more trouble. I mean, you've told me all about your big promotion, and I didn't want to embarrass you or anything."

"Brian?"

For a moment, Brian was struck with the hope that his little sister would understand; that she would explain things to the management of Sprot and Illston and somehow get him back his job. She didn't cry anymore, but these days she had other ways of getting what she wanted, particularly from men unaccustomed to the attentions of an aggressively good looking blonde.

"Yes Rache?" Brian said hopefully.

"You're an idiot."

She hung up.

That had been earlier. Now, Brian was searching among the books for something to cheer himself up. Perhaps that book on Indian Mugger crocodiles... but no, he'd read that only the other week.

One of the librarians was new, because she came up to Brian and flashed a perfect smile. Brian was used to that. At 23 he was six feet of blond haired, high cheek boned, reasonably solid muscle, which was hardly surprising given that he had to wrestle a boa constrictor out of her cage on a regular basis.

"Maybe I can help you find what you're looking for?" the young librarian asked hopefully. Behind her, one of those who had been there longer stifled a laugh.

Five minutes later, when Brian had critiqued most of the reptile books on show, patently failed to show any interest in her (not enough scales) and described at some length the process of a large snake dislocating its jaws to swallow prey, the librarian beat a hasty retreat.

Embarrassed now, Brian reached out and grabbed a book at random, checking it out. He shouldn't have done that. He knew other people didn't find reptiles as fascinating as he did. It was just that he had a hard time understanding why. Sometimes, if they asked, or looked like they might ask, he just couldn't stop himself.

Making a retreat from the library that would probably have set some sort of record had anybody been timing it, Brian took his book to a nearby bench, deciding that he didn't want to go home yet. It was a nice day, and he thought that it might cheer him up a bit to bask in the sun like one of the monitor lizards. Not that four-foot long lizards ever read while they did it, but Brian was sure they would if they could.

What they wouldn't do, though, was read P.E. Straggle's The Proper Care of Dragons. That was something of a problem, since it was the book Brian had, in haste, grabbed from the shelf. Brian hadn't seen it there before, but just the title told him enough. It was almost certainly a joke, with advice like "make sure your dragon gets enough virgins chained to rocks'. It probably belonged in the fantasy section, or the humour one. One place it almost certainly didn't belong was in Brian's hand.

On the other hand, it did look like a serious sort of book. It didn't have a colourful jacket, and in fact looked quite old, quite worn. It looked like the sort of solid, important book written by men in their fifties who are certain that the world needs a text on their favourite hobby, even if the world isn't quite so certain. It didn't look like a joke.

Maybe he'd misjudged it. After all, the world had dragons of a sort, didn't it? Bearded dragons and Komodo Dragons and other lizards like them. Brian thought it might be fun to learn to look after them, even if there probably wasn't room for a couple of metres of Komodo Dragon in his house. He started reading.

Very shortly after that he stopped reading. Then he started reading again, but with a kind of horrified fascination. The book was everything he'd feared; a textbook on how to rear and train flying, fire-breathing dragons. And yet it was compelling. The details were so complete, from the variations between a dozen different species, to the dietary requirements, to diseases Brian simply hadn't heard of. It was a joke, a hoax, but such an elaborate one that even Brian couldn't help but admire the effort that had gone into it.

Resolving to finish the book at home, Brian stood, and watched as a piece of paper fluttered down from between the pages, where someone had used it as a bookmark. Brian had to admit that he didn't like finding that sort of thing in library books. Not only did it seem to him to be on a par with not rewinding a video before you returned it, but he didn't like the reminder that someone else had been there before him, and knew how the book ended. Even so, he picked the piece of paper up. He didn't want to be responsible for littering.

It looked like a receipt, except that it was on headed notepaper. Brian realised that it was a shipping receipt in approximately the same moment that the words of it caught his eye:

Received 13 Feb 2008, 1 Dragon. P. Edgeborough.

####

23 South Bridge St, the letterhead said. The trouble was, 23 South Bridge St didn't seem to exist. 22 South Bridge St was a newsagent, while a florist occupied 24 South Bridge St. In between, there was nothing. Actually, that wasn't quite true. In between, there was a gap that might have been mistaken for an alley, if the alley in question had been on a diet. It looked hardly big enough to squeeze through. Brian, his mind on more important (or at least scalier) things, did so.

After a few feet, it opened out into a yard with a door on one side. P Edgeborough & co. was written in fading script above the door. It had faded to the point where it looked more like "dgeb ough & c". Brian tried the handle, and was surprised to find it unlocked. He stepped inside.

The first thing he noticed was that it was dark inside, barely enough light to see by coming in through a grubby window. The second thing he noticed was that it was large in there. The place seemed to be a warehouse of sorts, large enough that it had to take up most of the space that should have housed the adjoining florist. The third thing he noticed was the pain of his foot stubbing against a large oak chest.

"Ow!"

"Oh, hello," a voice said, "I wasn't expecting anyone. Hang on a moment while I get the lights."

Lights flicked on with retina searing intensity, only adding to Brian's discomfort. After a second or so they faded to a more manageable glow. Brian could see more of the clutter around him after that, and it wasn't promising. Away to his left was a bucketful of what looked like green slime, covered over with clingfilm. To his right, a collection of swords, spears and other suspiciously pointy implements lay in a heap. A desk next to them held an array of candles in various states of dribbly-ness, while a couple of faded rugs were rolled up against it. Brian noticed that they had dumbbells tied to them with string. Most of the rest of the place seemed taken up with boxes. There was no sign of any reptiles.

"Sorry about that," a man said, stepping out from behind a pile of the boxes, "I wasn't expecting anyone."

"You said that," Brian pointed out, and took a better look at him.

The man was short, probably not more than five feet, and bald except for a few wisps of white hair that stuck out from the sides of his head like he'd recently been electrocuted. He wore glasses on a chain around his neck, reminding Brian of an old fashioned sort of librarian, but he was dressed in a boiler suit and Wellingtons. There was a faint smell about him that Brian recognised, because he shared it. It was a smell that made him suddenly hopeful, since it was the musty smell of someone who spent too much time around snakes.

"Peter Edgeborough?" Brian asked.

"You're not with the police, are you?" The man was well spoken, but there was a trace of an accent Brian couldn't place.

"What?"

"The police. Only, that's invariably the sort of thing they start by asking."

"What, your name?"

"Exactly. So you're not?"

"Not what?"

"With the police?"

"No!" That came out louder than Brian intended, and he raised his hands in apology. "Sorry, I didn't mean to shout. It's just that if you are Mr Edgeborough, I think this belongs to you." He held out the piece of paper, which the other man took carefully.

"Why, so it does! I've been looking for that everywhere. You've done me a great turn, young man."

"Brian. Brian Northington. I couldn't help but notice what was written on the paper, Mr Edgeborough. About the... um... dragon."

For a moment, Brian thought that the man looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"Well, it's supposed to be something of a secret, you understand." He put an arm convivially around Brian's shoulders, or at least started to before he realised the difference in their heights. "But I suppose the cat is already out of the bag, isn't it? Tell me, Brian, what do you think I do here?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," Brian admitted. "Listen, about the dragon..."

"A theatrical prop," Edgeborough interrupted. "Inflatable, of course. That's what I do here, you see. I supply props and costumes to the theatrical industry. The film industry too, occasionally."

Brian found himself downhearted and relieved at the same time. There was part of him that quite liked knowing that the world was as he thought it was.

The other part of him held up his library book.

"It's just that I found it in this."

Edgeborough smiled. Brian thought there was something of a sad edge to it.

"That was written by a friend of mine, you know. Philip Edmonton Straggle. Wonderful chap. And, as I'm sure you're finding out, a great sense of humour. A pity really, about Philip..." he rallied after a second. "Is your interest in the fantastical then, Mr Northington?"

Brian shook his head. "I just like reptiles. Do you, Mr Edgeborough? It's just that, if you don't mind me saying, you whiff a bit of them."

"Oh that!" Edgeborough waved the hand holding the paper vaguely at the overalls he wore. "I've just been cleaning out the... um... newts?"

"Newts are amphibians," Brian pointed out.

"Are they? Surprising that they should smell so reptilian then. Forgive me though, I must be about my work. Dragons don't inflate themselves, you know. Thank you for this though." He held up the shipping note. Brian wondered if he should try pushing past him, but thought better of it. After Felicity Barstwick, he'd had enough trouble for one day. Besides, there was no such thing as dragons. He turned to leave.

It was at that point that the woman landed on him.

####

Now there were, Brian would have been prepared to admit, circumstances in which a woman landing on top of him might have been an acceptable, even enjoyable experience. This was particularly the case given that the woman in question seemed to be A) an exceptionally beautiful redhead and B) not wearing very many clothes. She was, in fact, wearing little more than a string bikini and a set of manacles.

Sadly, the occasions when such a young lady landing on top of Brian might be a good thing didn't include ones on which she'd suddenly appeared from thin air several feet above him, landed hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and also managed to catch him a solid blow on the side of the head with the manacles.

"Ow!" Brian complained, while noting that the woman had the most beautiful green eyes. Oh, and quite an intricate spider's web tattoo on her hip. It occurred to him that he probably shouldn't be noting that sort of thing, so instead Brian started to move her off him. It took about a second to realise that there weren't many places he could put his hands without causing trouble. Thankfully, the woman was too incandescent to notice, and stood up angrily.

"Another one who decided not to pay," she snarled. "Why do they all think they can pull the 'throw them in the seraglio once they've done the job' routine?"

"Er, Spider..." Brian heard Edgeborough begin, but the woman kept going.

"I mean, these Mad Sorcerers, who do they think they are? Most of them are just hacks in a silly robe until we get through working on them. And then they go and think they don't have to pay us! I wish you'd do proper credit checks sometimes, Peter."

"Now, Spider, you know I do my best, and he'll regret it soon enough, but..."

"Oh I know we'll hand out the plans for his new dungeon to any adventurer that wants them, but that doesn't change the fact that the little bastard cheated us. If I hadn't had my portal, I could have been in real trouble. Oh... who's this?"

Brian dragged himself to his feet as the woman's eyes swung back to him.

"I'm Brian," Brian said automatically, edging away. "Look, I'll leave you to get on with whatever it is you're doing. It was lovely... urk!"

In the seconds between Brian starting that sentence and not quite finishing it, Mr Edgeborough had whipped out a long, slender piece of wood, pointed it at him, and said a word that sounded a lot like "Jellybabies". Brian found himself frozen in place, unable to move. The woman gave Edgeborough a disapproving glance.

"Peter, I thought we talked about using confectionary names as wand password protection."

"It's the only way I can remember them, you know that."

"Sadly, so does every two bit hedge wizard from here to the Nine Hells."

"Cynthia," Edgeborough's voice took on a placatory note, "I think we have more important things to worry about right now, don't you? Like what to do with this young man."

Brian was having a hard time believing what had just happened. He tried to move. He couldn't. He tried to speak, and since he couldn't move his mouth, all that came out was "wssfgl?"

Mr Edgeborough turned to him. "Yes, of course, sorry. You're probably wondering what's going on, and who the young lady is. Brian Northington, meet Cynthia Williams-Frothes."

"Spider," she put in, pointing to the web tattoo on her hip. "Forgive me if I don't remember your name. Frankly, I'll be surprised if you remember it for the next day or so."

"Now, Spider," Edgeborough said, a touch reproachfully, "I've improved the memory spell no end since the last time. It should be perfectly safe."

"Should being the operative word. Look, I'll leave him with you. I want to get some proper clothes on and find a hacksaw for these chains. Mad Sorcerers can be so bloody predictable sometimes." She walked off into a back room, giving Brian a view he wasn't fully in a position to appreciate.

Mr Edgeborough gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "I imagine you've worked out by now that we don't really supply props here, young man, and I really must apologise for freezing you like this. I suppose I owe you an explanation, even if you probably won't remember it later."

He unzipped the boiler suit, revealing a dandyish outfit: trousers, shirt, waistcoat, even a watch on a chain.

"There, much better. I hate having to wear the thing, but mucking out a dragon in normal clothes just isn't an option. Now, how to explain this? Oh yes. Think of the universe as an onion," he paused, as though testing that thought against some internal measure, "or perhaps a pomegranate. I've always liked pomegranates. Each of the skins or... um, seeds is a separate world, all floating within the outer skin of the Multiverse, so to speak. If you know how, it isn't particularly difficult to step between them."

"Ffgarzl" Brian agreed.

"As you might well have noticed by this point, on some of them what you would call magic is very well understood. What's currently holding you could, by most definitions, be thought of as a spell. I'm proud to say I've built up this business by understanding what it is that the average Mage really wants from life."

"Glrg?" Brian asked.

"A dungeon, of course! It seems that no sooner have they got the eldritch robe and spell book than they want some tower or cavern complex filled with elf-eating denizens and cunning traps. They can be a strange bunch, sometimes."

Brian, having worked out that there wasn't much point, refrained from commenting. Edgeborough waved a hand vaguely.

"Of course, it's not just that; we do a nice line in security for temples of light, royal palaces and sacred groves. But it's mostly the wizards. I'm sure you can understand why we might not want too many people knowing about this. I mean, even before we get into the problems with competition, just think of the trouble we might have if every unicorn we brought through here on the way to an elven grove had to go through quarantine."

Edgeborough looked at his watch.

"I suppose you're wondering what happens now. Well, I can assure you that you'll be absolutely fine. As soon as I've remembered where I put my book of forgetfulness spells, you'll be waking up, safe and sound, with no memory of having been here." He started to search through the nearest of the boxes, pulling out a golden cup, a jewelled necklace, and what looked like a mummified hand.

"You know, I put the thing down somewhere around here; I just can't remember exactly..."

A scream cut Edgeborough off.

####

Brian didn't rush towards the sound. He didn't run away. In fact, since he was incapable of doing either of those things he had to settle for standing where Edgeborough left him as he rushed off.

"I'm coming, Spider!" Edgeborough called, disappearing through the same door she'd gone through.

Sounds emerged from beyond it; the crunch of something hitting a wall, a bone watering roar, another scream, masculine this time. Brian found himself really wishing he'd stayed at home that morning.

Instead, he had to watch as a huge, clawed, scaly foot emerged through the doorway. It was followed by a huge, scaly head, and indeed all the other huge scaly parts of a winged, lizardlike creature that Brian could only think of as a dragon. It had some trouble with the doorway, squeezing through like a sumo wrestler trying to get into a Fiat Panda. It solved it eventually by simply tearing a huge chunk out of the wall.

The dragon stalked forward, malevolence, to Brian at least, obvious in its reptilian eyes. Behind it, Mr Edgeborough and Spider stumbled through the doorway. There was blood on the cream blouse she was now wearing, and Edgeborough seemed to be limping. Even across the room, Brian heard Spider gasp.

"It's headed straight for him, Peter. Quick, undo the spell."

"I'm trying, I'm trying."

"Oh, give it here!"

Brian knew it was too late. The thing was almost on him. It sniffed at him for a moment, then opened a maw filled with the largest teeth Brian had seen on anything.

He was quite surprised when it licked him.

####

Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting in a comfortable chair opposite Mr Edgeborough and Spider, sipping tea that Mr Edgeborough had made after Spider had reminded him that she didn't make it, but took two sugars if he was offering. Both were now unhurt, thanks to a noxious smelling liquid that Edgeborough had found in one of the boxes.

"How did you do that?" Spider demanded.

Brian shrugged. He didn't feel like admitting that he didn't know.

"Don't just shrug. You managed to avoid being eaten, and then, when we unfroze you, you led the thing straight back to its pen. It even rolled on its back for you to tickle its tummy."

Brian was trying to forget the last part. Trying, but largely failing. The sight of a couple of tons of lizard rolling around like a playful kitten wasn't something that was easy to forget. Nor, if he was honest, was its breath as it licked him. Edgeborough came to his rescue.

"It seems Mr Northington has a talent."

"Philip couldn't do that." Spider shook her head. "I mean, just think about what happened..."

Edgeborough raised a hand to cut her off.

"No need to go into that now. But this is, perhaps, an opportunity. Tell me, Brian, have you ever seen anything like that before?"

"Of course not!" Brian replied.

"And would you like to see more like it. Full grown ones, I mean."

"Full grown?" Brian sputtered, "You mean that was..."

"Just a young one, yes."

Images of what a full grown dragon had to be like filled Brian's mind's eye. They'd be noble, and powerful, and huge, and hopefully they wouldn't roll over to be tickled.

"Yes," he admitted, "I'd like to see them."

Mr Edgeborough smiled.

"Then perhaps, dear boy, you might like a job."

THE END


© 2009 Stuart Sharp

Bio: Stuart Sharp has very nearly finished being a postgraduate history student. Definitely, this time. He's also the author of the urban fantasy novel Searching, published by Double Dragon Publishing. A number of Stuart's poems have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Motto of the Gnomish Postal Service, August 2009. His story Cats and Fairies" appeared in the December 2008 / January 2009 Aphelion.

E-mail: Stuart Sharp

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