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The Key is In the Details

Kevin McCullogh entered his agent's office in a foul mood.  Two months since he left his manuscript with Burt Mustin and so far, zilch.  The agent hadn't even bothered to call and update him.  He had his assistant do it.  Kevin doubted he even remembered his name or who he was.  Well, that was going to change today.
  He stormed into the office suite that Burt Mustin rented, passed by the secretary and went into Mustin's office without bothering to knock.

He opened his mouth--."Kevin, kid, just the guy I've been wanting to see," said Burt Mustin with a big welcoming smile.  He was leaning back against the window behind a large, dented, wooden desk on which his cowboy-booted feet were stretched. Kevin closed his mouth.

Burt Mustin came upright with a crash.  He was a big, genial man with a mustache.  Kevin believed that he liked to remind everyone of how big and genial he really was by acting as loud and cheerful as possible.  He reminded Kevin of a movie star he had never quite learned to like.  Burt waved Kevin to seat down.  "I've got a job offer for you," he said with a pleased grin.

Kevin ignored that. "What about my manuscript, did you-"

"How would you like," Burt cut in, "to write the first authorized dragon biography."  He leaned back again, banging the chair against the window.

"What are you talking about?" asked Kevin, irritated.

"Heard about Verinax, the last dragon?  He wants his biography written.  Guess he decided to give up being a recluse."  Mustin gestured at the phone. "That was him I just talked to."

"But what about my manuscript?"  Kevin persisted.

The grin on Mustin's face dimmed somewhat.  "Look, Kevin, don't you realize what I'm giving you here? Nobody has ever gotten a dragon to talk about itself, and now I'm giving it to you, You," he emphasized, pointing a large finger at Kevin. "A chance to get the first biography on a dragon written."

Kevin didn't look convinced. Burt made a special effort and widened the grin again and then some.

"Listen, Kevin, I'm doing the best I can for you. I care for you, kid.  I want to see you make it."  Kevin remembered Mustin using those same exact words when they first talked.  He wondered how many people he said this to during the day. Burt said, "Now look, its gonna take time to get people interested in your manuscript.  Not that there is anything wrong with it, but nobody snaps up manuscripts from a first time writer just like that." He thumped his hand on the desk surface for emphasis.  A glass of water at the corner jumped six inches into the air and sprayed water around the desk.  Mustin said "Meanwhile, you need to eat, right? Verinax is offering to pay your travel expenses.  You can fly over, take a look, talk to him, make up your mind.  So go out there, kid, do a good job and come back in six months with a draft.  By then, I guarantee you, I'll have your manuscript sold.

"Kevin opened his mouth, thought about what he was going to say, closed it and went.

                                                       *  *  *  *   Rockingham was nestled between forested hills that terminated in fog shrouded rocky summits.  It was an ordinary town in every sense of the word except one.  It had the last known, occupied dragon lair in existence.  It is hard to attract tourists when the star attraction refuses to show itself.  The municipal airport was small and dumpy looking.  The locals tried hard, though.  The first thing Kevin saw after getting off the commuter was a sign hanging over the airport building.  In very large,green letters it declared:  "Welcome to Rockingham .  Home of the Last Dragon."  Streamers of orange fire hung from either side of the sign.  Verinax avenue looked like any main street in a small, rundown town, long past its heyday, except for the frequent signs of dragon this and dragon that.  Kevin looked around him skeptically.  There was a shop that declared itself to be the only place in the world where authentic dragon scales could be bought.  Across the street, a coffee shop had old black and white pictures on its walls; pictures of the dragon, pictures of the town after one of his attacks (last one over a century earlier and none since) and autographed pictures in black frames of sacrificial virgins, arranged in rows above the counter.  In a corner opposite the local inn, a bar called the "Dragon Tavern" looked deserted.  A sign outside a boutique declared a curiosity item sale on fire-proof shelters.  There didn't seem to be much business anywhere at all.  Kevin snorted and went straight to his hotel where he spent a considerable amount of time in his room cursing Burt Mustin.

                                                          *  *  *  *   Verinax's lair was two thirds of the way up the tallest hill overlooking the town.  The opening lay above the tree line, hidden amidst a jumble of fog-shrouded boulders and rocks.  A taxi deposited Kevin at the end of a road that ended at a gate.  An old, weathered sign on the gate had the words 'Private Property' and 'No Trespassing' on it.  Kevin opened it and went through.  A faint trail took him up to the lair entrance.  He stared hesitantly into the opening.

"Hello," he shouted.  "Hello... hello....hello," his voice came back at him.

"Hello," he shouted again.  Without warning thunder boomed from all around him.  He looked up but couldn't see any clouds through the thinning fog.  It didn't look like a day for thunder.  The thunder came again.  This time He could make out words.

"What do you want?" it roared.

Kevin shouted. "I'm Kevin McCullogh, the writer.  Burt Mustin should have told you I was coming."

"Come in," the voice thundered.    Kevin made his way in gingerly over the rocks.  There was moss on most of them.  Once he lost his footing and slipped, landing on his behind on the wet, slimy rock.  The thunder chuckled.  "Mind the rocks," it said.

He made it through the entrance and into a large, football-field sized cavern that stretched above him and far away into the distance.  Dark recesses surrounded the cavern.  Hanging from the almost unseen ceiling were large electric chandeliers, and off to one side Kevin saw piping running into the watery bottom.  Steam surrounded it.  Heating.  A generator was chugging away somewhere in the dark.

Something huge and dark green and shiny with water came out of one of the recesses.  It slipped into the water and made its way over to where Kevin was standing.  It lifted its head, looking down at Kevin from a height of about thirty feet. Kevin stared back at it.  The dragon looked old and mean.  The eyes were expressionless, large, yellow and black affairs.  The scaly skin of the face gray-green and dull.  The dragon coughed.  "Well?"  it said testily.

"My name is Kevin McCullogh.  I guess Burt didn't tell you that.  Anyway, I'm here to talk over the biography thing and maybe stay for research and stuff."

"Humph," Verinax rumbled.  "Don't seem very enthusiastic, do you?  No, not at all, I would say." It coughed loudly.

Kevin leaned forward against the wind.  A long, uncomfortable silence ensued.

"Well," said the dragon finally. "You want to look around, see the place?"

Kevin agreed without enthusiasm.  The dragon humphed and turned away.  Kevin followed. They made their way through the cavern, the dragon in the water and Kevin walking along the edges.  Verinax showed him the generator and the water heating system.  Then they went into one of the recesses.  It proved to be the entrance to a small, slippery tunnel.  They walked through to its end, their way shown by the electric bulbs strung out along the ceiling.  A small treasure was lying by the rear wall, glittering in the light.  There were gem stones and diamonds and objects made out of gold and silver.

The dragon gestured royally.  "My treasure," it said proudly.  "Took a lot of centuries of hard work getting that accumulated."

Kevin was not impressed.  It didn't look that big a treasure to him.  A reasonably rich man could have amassed more than this and stored it in a medium sized bank vault.  The dragon seemed to expect a comment.  "Well...." said Kevin.

"That one," said the dragon, pointing to a large, heavy gold chain with a heavy gold medallion in which was embedded a diamond," is the royal diamond of King Athyvyr of Perion, who came to do battle with me twelve hundred years ago."  The dragon paused uncertainly. "Or was it thirteen hundred years...." The dragon turned to look at Kevin, who was standing around looking bored.  It didn't seem to notice.  "It was a fierce battle.  He was a smart one and a good warrior.  He had a shield made for him by Gerin the magician that deflected my fire.  Lasted a whole day."  The dragon rumbled to itself in pleasure.

Suddenly it seemed to notice Kevin, whose face just failed to show appreciation of the story or the treasure.   The dragon got angry.  It huffed explosively and the air in the tunnel heated up.  "What do you expect after so many years without even a single virgin available anymore to be kidnapped for ransom.  You try living on your savings for a century and see where you end up," the dragon rumbled.   "Bills, bills, bills.  Do you know how high the cost of a simple dentist's bill can reach?"   The dragon opened its mouth.  Kevin saw that the teeth were worn down and blunt.  Many had silver fillings.

The dragon grabbed hold of its front teeth and pulled.  The bridge came out and the toothless gums smacked together.  "Coth a thmal fortune, that bridge.  And he wouldn't take my gold or diamonds.  Thaid he wouldn't touch fortune earned by criminal acthen. Criminal acthen!"  The dragon spun around furiously and spat fire at the nearest wall.  It cut off abruptly and the dragon started to cough.  It cleared its throat and spoke with a raspy voice, waving its false teeth in the air.

"I had to launder half my fortune and convert it into athetht tho that I could have thome cath to pay him with, the thcoundrel.  Ath if he didn't know it wath the thame money.  Lotht half the value in laundering it."

Kevin backed away from the enraged dragon, holding his hands in front of him placatingly.  He didn't come for this.  He could see himself spending most of a hefty book fee on hospital treatment for third degree burns all over his body and a hearing aid.

He moved toward the tunnel entrance, keeping his eyes on the dragon while walking slowly backwards.  Verinax was spitting fire at the walls and coughing alternatively and the air in the tunnel was heating up rapidly.  Water condensed and fell to the ground.  Kevin sweated.  His feet felt behind him on the slippery, rocky floor.  Where was the entrance?  Then he slipped, fell on his behind again, and realized he had found it as he plunged backwards, down the gentle slope and into the water in the cavern.  His head emerged above water to hear a series of thunders followed in succession by rumbling echoes.  He looked up.  The dragon was standing at the opening of the tunnel.  Its head was jutting out, looking down at him, and it was laughing and coughing alternatively. Kevin felt the heat rising in his checks.  This was entirely too much.  He felt sure no writer had ever been as humiliated as he had in the cause of fees and royalties.  He turned away from the laughing dragon above him and began to swim resolutely toward the exit.  Behind him the dragon grew louder.  Kevin pretended to himself that he was succeeding in ignoring it.  He reached the edge of the water, made his way out and started to climb over the rocks that led to the exit.  Behind him the noise stopped.   Kevin turned around.  The dragon was making its way to him through the water, fast.  It emerged near him and thrust its head forward.  It stared at Kevin for a moment and then lowered its head before him.

"I apologize," said the dragon. It had put its teeth back in place.  "Any one could have slipped back there."  It giggled helplessly.

Kevin fumed.  He saw the dragon's throat moving in gulps as it resolutely tried to control its laughter, holding its breath so as not to open its mouth.  Kevin stood and watched, letting it stoke his fury." A kind of choked "Owoomp" came out finally and degenerated into a cough that went on for a long time. Kevin waited for it to subside.  When it did, somewhat, he said two words.  "Get stuffed," he said to the dragon and turned toward the exit.

"Wait." the dragon shouted.  It came after Kevin, still trying to control its cough.  "I'll double the fee and give you forty percent of the royalties," it said.

Kevin considered for a moment.  "Fifty," he said.

"Deal," said the dragon and grinned, almost shaking its teeth loose. It grabbed hold of the teeth in one brach, and offered the other to Kevin.  Kevin shook it and smiled slightly.  The dragon took it as a good sign.  It grinned at him again, and Kevin's smile widened.  He reminded to himself to buy as many ear plugs as they had in the local stores before he started work.

                                                        *  *  *  *   Kevin stepped into Burt Mustin's office and closed the door.  Burt was leaning back against the window, his booted feet on the desk.  He smiled at Kevin and waved at him to sit down.  He was holding a phone about two feet away from his ear.  Kevin didn't have any trouble hearing the thunder that roared from it.

The thunder paused.  Burt brought the phone to his ear. "Mr. Verinax, you had ample opportunity to read the first draft that was sent for your approval.  It was sent back with hardly any comments," he said.

"At any rate," he went on, "I hardly have any control over the issue now.  The book is in the publisher's hands."

More thunder emerged from the other end of the phone.  "I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Verinax. Optometrists are just not what they used to be."  He put his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to Kevin: "his glasses won't fit." and then resumed listening, tapping his feet restlessly on the desk.

"Mr. Verinax, I'm sure that wasn't the author's intention.  He merely wrote what he believed to be the truth based on what he observed while staying with you for a very considerable period of time.  I found nothing in the book that seemed like fabrication to me."  Burt grinned at Kevin who had suddenly realized where all the dents on the desk came from.

"Actually," Burt continued, "I thought it was brilliant work.  It touched on all the little details of a dragon's life that make such a book very authentic.  In your place, I would be very pleased, Mr. Verinax.  Just between us, I think we have a best seller on our hands."

The thunder was practically wailing now.  Burt grimaced and held the phone further away until the siren subsided somewhat.  He brought it close again.

"Mr. Verinax," he began again,  "whatever may be your personal objection to Mr. McCullogh, a young, brilliant writer whom I personally chose for this assignment,  I'm satisfied that he fulfilled his job as well as could be done under quite trying circumstances and at the cost of a serious case of hemorrhoids.  I'm sure you would agree, sir," he went on conciliatingly, "that we want to give a true picture of dragon life to the readers.  Not mentioning, for example, that the frequent smoke inhalation and searing by fire may cause chronic throat problems and are a potential health hazard, would not be fair on our readers.  They expect to be told everything about your life, not just the heroic stuff.  And now, Sir," Burt finished firmly, "I have to say good-bye as I have another client on the line.  I want you to feel free to call me at any time with whatever problems you may have."  Burt lowered the phone.  Half way down he stopped, brought it back quickly to his mouth.  "And good luck with the cough, sir."  He hung up the phone over the thunderous protests that emanated from it.

"Well," Burt leaned back, grinning at Kevin. "Kevin, my boy, looks like the old fire breather loved your work."  He crossed his feet on the desk, inadvertently knocking off the desk a pencil sharpener, a small, shriveled plant and a cigar case.

"Now," he continued, "what about that idea for a new book you were telling me about."
Copyright 2007 Alon Josefsberg

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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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