By Frank Byrns
29 August 2005
The city—my city—is quiet tonight.
I'm not complaining. That same quiet makes it easier to do my job.
I'll get back to work in a few minutes. Right now, though, before I do that, I need to take care of whoever this is that's been following me for the last eight blocks.
The heat and motion sensors in my cowl picked him up right away, the first block after I left my building. The government-prototype listening device in my left ear is picking up his every move, his every footfall.
He's obviously an amateur. You can hear it in his feet every time he lands—he lands too hard, on his heels, lacking the benefit of the years of martial arts training that I've had.
An amateur, like I said, but still . . . he's keeping up with me. Since I first noticed him I've doubled back twice, and been up and down the sides of two buildings, the second six stories tall. I slowed down a bit to let him catch up on the roof of that one, but I didn't have to wait too long.
An amateur, for sure, but definitely one with potential.
But now that I've reached my destination, it's time for this game to come to an end. I'm standing on the roof of a block of modest walk-ups, and he's right behind me, hiding in the shadows cast by the mammoth A/C unit used to cool the whole building. I peer over the edge of the roof for effect, gripping the gutter with my pressurized black rubber gloves as I look down across the street at a darkened Thai restaurant, a small bank, a dry cleaner.
"Does your father know you're out here?"
He doesn't answer, not wanting to give away his location by answering, not allowing me to zero in on his voice.
"Elliot," I say, turning to look directly at the air conditioner. "Does your father know you snuck out of his house?"
His deep sigh in the shadows tells me that he knows the gig is up. He stands up, pulls the hood of his black Slipknot sweatshirt down, uncovering a mop of curly black hair and a faintly dimpled face that doesn't look a day over sixteen. He shoves his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie and picks sheepishly at a pile of gravel with the scuffed toe of his black Skechers.
I give him the look, the one that has withered the truth out of him time after time, since he first learned to talk. "Elliot. You're avoiding my question. Does—your—father—know—you're—here?"
Even though my face and eyes are obscured by my cowl and mask, he knows the look when he sees it. It works. A son knows.
"No. I snuck out after he went to bed."
I want to blast his little behind with a shot of dragonfire. But I don't. "Really, Elliot—one weekend a month with your own father. Is that too much to —"
"He's boring!! You want to know what he thinks is fun on a Saturday night? Watching a baseball game. He drinks exactly one beer, he watches his game, and then he goes to bed."
I think about Ernie, on the couch, in his sweatpants, nursing a beer. I smile, thankful for the mask that hides my face from Elliot.
"You, on the other hand, you spend your Saturday night ca—"
"I'm on a stakeout."
"You can't be here, Elliot. Not only is your father worried to death where you—"
"He was asleep at 10:30!"
"And if he finds out that you were with me, out here, doing this, he'll be on the phone to Social Services so fast . . . you'll be watching the game with him every Saturday night." I watch his face fall as I deliver the ultimate threat. "And I'll probably end up in prison," I say as an afterthought.
A pout starts to curl along the line of Elliot's dimples. "You used to think your father was a lot of fun," I try.
"He doesn't even have the internet."
I flash on a different image, ten-page love letters, single spaced in impeccable block lettering. "He's an old-fashioned kind of guy," I say, another hidden smile on my face.
"I'll say." Elliot sits down on the tar-covered roof and pulls his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, making himself small. He stares at me for the longest time. "I know what this is about," he says finally.
"You know what what is about?"
"This. You don't think I'm good enough to work with you."
I can't believe this kid. "What? Elliot, you're sixteen years—"
"How old were you when Grandpa took you out with him the first time?"
I was fourteen. But that wasn't the same thing. "The world was a different place then. A safer place. And this city—" I don't even finish the sentence. This city. My city.
Elliot rocks back and forth for a second, composing himself, his knees pulled up to his chest still, giving him the appearance of an egg. "Do you know what it's like?" he says finally. "What it's like to be me?"
My son, the sphinx. "What are you talking about?"
"See? You don't know what it's like! You have no idea what it's like to be your son."
"How could I—What are you saying?"
"Dragonfire's son. Gold Dragon's grandson. All that, and to not be able to tell anyone, even though I can do all the things they can do—"
"You can't do all the things I can do."
Elliot stares up at me, his left eyebrow rising in challenge. He unfolds his gangly legs and stands up, taking his eyes off of me only long enough to search the rooftop for a suitable target. This is just typical teenage stuff, I'm thinking to myself. Wanting to be an adult way too fast, thinking that he can already do anything—but I stop myself as he tosses a stream of fire across the roof, incinerating a beer can twenty feet away.
This time both of his eyebrows rise. And though I try and fool myself into thinking that my mask is hiding it, I've got impressed written all over my face. But he can tell I'm impressed. A son knows.
"How long have you been—when I was your age, I could—"
"Barely hit a large target, like a car." He scowls. "I know. I've heard."
I think back to my father, him telling me at sixteen that when he was my age, he didn't even know that he could control flames that way. And the fact that I could even aim at a car impressed him.
Kids grow up so fast these days.
Elliot knows I'm impressed. But he also knows that this isn't what I want for him. Not even close. I try that tactic.
"Elliot. This life—I want so much more for you than this. I do this so that you won't ever have to. Why do you think I'm so tough on you about your grades? You make good grades now, you get into any college you want—money is no object, you know that. Anywhere you want to go, I'll find a way to pay for it, and so will your father."
"I've made straight As since I was five—what more do you want?"
"You've worked so hard. Why would you want to throw all that away—all that promise, the future—for this?"
Elliot reaches down, picks up a small pebble. He tosses it towards the edge of the roof, then just as quickly blasts it out of the air with a small fireball. I can't even do that. I think he knows that, too.
He whirls and faces me again. "Dad never wanted you to do this, right?"
How does he—"What?"
"That's why he left, isn't it? Because you wouldn't give this up? Be a normal family?"
Elliot was only five years old—"Yes."
"But even then, even after he left, you wouldn't give this up. You couldn't. You didn't do this because you had to to make a living. You do this because you have to. It's who you are. It's all that matters."
Pretty perceptive for sixteen.
"So," I say, reaching out, brushing a stray hair out of his face with my gloved hand. "How do you figure you know all this?"
He reaches up and takes my hand in his own, squeezing it. "Because that's how I feel."
I pull my hand away. "But you've never even—"
"It doesn't matter. I know."
A son knows.
"If I let you do this . . ." I don't even recognize my own voice. I can't stop myself. He's right. About all of it. About himself. "You realize that once you start down this road . . ." What am I trying to say? "There's no going back. Ever. The rest of your life, looking over your shoulder, not trusting anyone . . . any hope of a normal life gone. Out the window. Tonight."
He doesn't say anything in response. Instead, he reaches for the hood of his sweatshirt and pulls it back over his head, tightening the drawstrings into a makeshift cowl. His hands glow with excitement as he ties off the knot.
"This is what you want, then."
"More than anything," he says, his voice full of more confidence than I have ever heard before. My little man. My baby boy.
"OK," I say, after a long while.
"No time like the present." I turn and point down at the row of small storefronts across the street. "You see that bank down there."
He nods, taking it all in.
"When I blow that front window, the alarm's going to sound, but you can't panic. I timed it last Saturday. We'll have about seven minutes to get in and out before the police get here."
I turn to gauge his reaction. He's ready.
"Seven minutes is plenty of time. I figure that if we both hit the safe at once, it'll go even quicker than I had planned." Elliot nods. "You ready?"
He doesn't answer, instead turning and launching a ball of flame towards the plate-glass door of the bank. Before it even reaches the target, he's vaulting up and off the roof, down into the street below. "What're you waiting for?" he calls over his shoulder on the way down.
My son. Dragonblood.