A witch wind was howling out in the desert. I was praying for a storm to scour Coaling Depot 6 down to the ground, wipe it right off the Arizona Territory map. Apart from prayer, I still had a shot... [+]
Probably I shouldn't have looked in that NO ADMITTANCE HIGH VOLTAGE DANGER OF DEATH door. I was loitering on the ramp to the #7 subway train at Grand Central Station. I didn't want to go home to Flushing for various good reasons that included my design project coming due and no work done on it yet. Anyway, the door to the utility closet was ajar, so I peeked inside.
It was a tiny room with a board full of circuit breakers along with a big old knife switch. I have poor impulse control sometimes, so I had to fight off the urge to pull the switch. But, you know, DANGER OF DEATH, and anyway I didn't really want to black out the subway station. There was also a panel left open below the breaker board, revealing a duct, a crawlspace a yard wide, sloping down into darkness. Of course, I'd never crawl into some filthy shaft leading who-knows-where. Especially not wearing my new Uniqlo vest. Wouldn't want it to snag on anything sharp.
But an odd aroma was wafting out of the shaft. I took a deep breath, and I was lost. The scent put its hooks in me, and I just had to follow. It was a compulsion, like a magic spell. Five minutes later I kicked out a panel at the end of the duct, feeling blindly in front of me as I stumbled toward a faint light at the end of a masonry tunnel. Somewhere in there I thought, Kevin, you crazy or what? but the aroma pulled me onward.
I don't know what I was expecting. But it wasn't a room full of old rusted-out generators. It wasn't a dozen glowing fires burning in braziers made out of ancient steel garbage can lids (the source of the scent). And it wasn't a tribe of lizard people, either. One grabbed me as I entered the room. He was big and scaly, with a saurian tail, wearing the remains of a dress shirt with a striped tie still attached. I don't know even now if they stole their clothes from humans, or if they were humans, somehow transformed into lizard people. Honestly, I don't really want to know.
The lizard-person tried to say something, but it came out "Sss-thbbt." I struggled to escape, but not even kicking him between the legs had any effect. After some more sss-thbbting, a bunch of other lizard people gathered, and then they led me in a procession to the far side of the room, where a crack in the wall opened into a cramped tunnel heading down.
Down and down and down some more. Eventually, we emerged into a big underground space. One of the lizard-people carried a live coal in his hand, and the glow was enough for me to make out a huge chamber. The scent was back! Stronger, sharper, and even better than before.
The lizard-people led me to a big central mound, and there one of them, wearing what once had been a nice Armani houndstooth tweed, tied a bicycle cable around one of my wrists. He looped it through the end of an eyebolt that had been pounded into a crack in the stone floor. I was panicking, sure I was going to be sacrificed or eaten alive, and so it was a pleasant surprise when they all just filed out of the cavern.
Fifteen minutes passed. I tried to remove the cable from my wrist, but it was way too tight, and the bolt was too deeply seated for me to pull out.
That was when something moved in the hill in front of me. A yard-wide disk slid upward, revealing a golden, shimmering sphere. And in the center, a dark inner void.
"A human. How unexpected!"
The voice rumbled all around me, vibrating through my bones. The whole mound stirred, and then I finally realized what it was.
"Holy shit! A dragon!"
"Yes." The voice sounded amused. "My apologies, small one."
"The lizardfolk know I like conversation. But all they can say is sss-thbbt. So once in a while they find a human for me to talk to. Now then: don't move...."
The dragon extended the tip of one crystalline claw and severed the cable. He was lonely, and very talkative, and he promised to let me go home afterward. I mean, really: a dragon. It was almost worth that half-hour of sheer terror.
After a while I asked, "What is that aroma?"
"I'm afraid that's me." The dragon sounded embarrassed.
"You? But I smelled it upstairs, too."
"It's my droppings," said the dragon. "The lizardfolk use it for fuel. I hope I haven't offended you."
"Oh no," I said, "not even." Something clicked in my head. Ambergris was pretty disgusting stuff too, when it came out of the whale. "Would you mind if I took a sample?"
"What?" Now the dragon was outraged. "I hardly think—"
"See, I'm a student at FIT—"
"The Fashion Institute of Technology," I said. "My advisor does contract work for Chanel."
And then I had to explain Chanel. And about perfume. And how Chanel could kill nos. 1 through 46, including no. 5, and no one would care because the dragonshit smell was that good.
"I don't know how I feel about this," said the dragon, a bit primly.
"Pleeeease," I said. "Your lizard people really did freak me out. Anyways, don't you dragons like treasure?"
"Treasure?" The sudden surge of interest was unmistakable.
"This could be worth a sh— a lot of treasure."
"Yes," I said. "Really."
"Well then," said the dragon. "Tell me more."
And that's how my design project got an A. And how I got a vice-presidency at Chanel at age 18. And how I'm getting 1% of revenue off the top for eau de toilette du dragon. Actually, my contract says 2%. But I have to split it with the source of production....