A single dollop of raspberry donut filling. That is what prevents Victor Manson's seventy-seventh death by dragon. It begins as they all do, Manson sauntering onto his patio at three AM sharp with a cup of imported coffee in one hand and his Ocom loading the daily stock report in the other. Five minutes, fourteen sips, and three stock pages later, he notices the unnatural vibration that anyone with half an attention span would've felt an hour before. So he gets up, taking the cup but leaving the tablet, and adjusts his vacuum-sealed, royal blue designer boxers as he wanders onto his lawn. The vibrating morphs into the stampeding step of something twice the size of an elephant, but Manson struggles to decipher the meaning of the sound.
Until his hideous fence explodes into a rain of six-figure cedar chips.
It streaks across the lawn: twenty-six feet of night-black scales and wings the size of hovercopter blades. Clawed feet hit the ground running. Sharp eyes lock onto the stupefied Manson. For two-point-one seconds, the man thinks he's dreaming, and the flight response doesn't kick in until the stream of fire hits his face dead on—
The raspberry filling lands with a dull plop on a large piece of shredded fence.
The murderous dragon freezes mid-fire stream. Manson gets stuck with his hands held up in a pitiful attempt to get a please don't eat me message across to something that gives him less consideration than a cow. The grass doesn't burn. There are no screams. And the dragon doesn't soar over the house and disappear into the night like it has seventy-six times before.
Despite several attempts, the death scene reconstruction won't start moving again, and before it can be reset, another foreign element invades it. A person. Named Jin. Whose lips are stained an incriminating shade of red.
"What's cracking, Firecracker?"
My illusion disintegrates.
The meticulously constructed dragon fades away to reveal a bustling cul-de-sac, IBI vehicles with flashing lights blocking the entrance to Pennimore Street and a crowd of hapless passersby staring stupidly from behind the digital DO NOT CROSS boundary. Manson's terrified face dissolves; all that's left of him is a set of charred remains in a body bag that rests in the black arc of grass where he made a final plea to his dragon overlord moments before it melted his face off.
Jin rips another chunk out of his donut. Filling clings to the corner of his lips. "What's wrong? You've got that I hate you, asshole look on your face." After a few lengthy seconds of consideration, his eyebrows arch in a Jin-exclusive manner of expressing epiphanies. "Oh, were you doing that mental movie thing again?"
"No, Jin, I was staring off into space, brooding over my personal problems on the government's dime." I shove my hands in my pockets and nudge the soiled piece of fencing with my foot. "You've contaminated evidence, you know?"
"Eh, the servers already got it." He nods to the hole in the fence, where a couple of scene preservers are busy taking a high-res holograph. "Plus, what's a single chunk of wood going to tell us anyway? I think Manson's body—or, what's left of it—might hold a few more clues."
"And that's why you're in Cyber Security and not Crime Scene Investigation. Using the location of every piece of wood from the fence, I can extrapolate how big the thing was that killed Manson, what shape it was, how fast it was moving, what direction it came from, and what direction it went." The words roll off my tongue a little too smarter than you sounding, and Jin's cheeks redden.
A tongue pokes out and licks the dirtied corner of his lips as he stares in half-embarrassed wonder. "All that from a hunk of wood, Firecracker?"
"All that and then some. Turns out reconstructing crime scenes is about more than just looking at a body and going I think fire killed him."
Jin's cheeks are purple now. "Hey, that was an accurate observation."
"And now Briggs thinks you're an idiot."
"He thought that already."
"Well, you didn't have to confirm it."
"All right, ginger genius, you tell me what killed old Manson, then." He shoves the last bit of donut in his mouth and proceeds to lick the mess off his fingers one by one.
"A dragon," I say.
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