Chance Meetings at Disneyland
Valeriah kept her eyes and ears open. It was her duty, after all. Fortunate that her werewolf senses could sort through the background noise in a crowd like this. Normally, she liked being requested for bodyguard duty. It was a sign that her abilities were recognized and appreciated. But she suspected that wasn’t why Tirella had asked for her this time. The assumption that because she was female she’d have some sort of maternal reaction to Tirella’s precious, bratty grandchild rankled. Did she really look or act like the motherly type? Come on now, really?
It was the fourth day of torment. Graciara wanted to see all the attractions Southern California had to offer. And Tirella seemed to have forgotten how to use the word “no”. Naturally, Tirella had a full complement of four bodyguards to protect her and the child. Especially since they would be too far away from the portal for Tirella’s own magic to be of much use.
The last two days had been the worst. Overnight in San Diego to visit the Zoo, Sea World, and the Wild Animal Park. And if you didn’t think the presence of a werewolf could cause a stir in a zoo, you hadn’t been paying attention. It was hard to stay inconspicuous when every animal she came within fifty feet of panicked and ran as far away as it could get. Well, except for the wolves, of course.
And that hadn’t made the child happy. Graciara had thrown such a tantrum that Tirella had considered sending Valeriah to wait in the car. If she hadn’t been the most experienced and capable of the bodyguards, Tirella probably would have. Valeriah would have welcomed it as a break from the brat. She could have taken a nice long run to work the tension out of her muscles. No such luck.
Today, it was Disneyland. Well, at least the animals on the Jungle Cruise couldn’t react like the ones at the zoo. They weren’t real.
Valeriah’s sharp ears picked up “Dhraxxxth! Or, in the vernacular, damn, damn, damn. If she’s going to smuggle me in inside that damned purse, she should pay closer attention. She’s so busy with that schizophrenic great nephew of hers, she doesn’t even know I’m missing yet. I could have been killed. Killed! Falling out like that.”
Valeriah was a connoisseur of swear words. They were sometimes useful in dissuading her more persistent comrades not to try to get into bed with her without the need to break bones, so she looked around for the source of this one. The continuing mutter of curses came from near the ground. And when she looked down she was astounded to see an apricot toy poodle dodging between the feet of the crowd.
Valeriah was so stunned she stopped where she was, getting bumped by an irate tourist before the crowd parted around her. Granting speech to an animal was dragon-level magic, not something most wizards would even attempt. And to maintain the spell this far from the portal spoke of a very powerful wizard indeed. If there was another wizard here, was he a friend, an enemy, or just another tourist? It was her job to know.
With a swift move, Valeriah reached down and nabbed the dog by the rhinestone collar. Her eyes narrowed. She’d smelled all kinds of dogs. This one smelled wrong–very wrong.
“Dhraxxxth!” The dog said again in evident surprise, then shut its mouth and tried to look ordinary.
Valeriah looked around for a quieter place. Main Street was crowded. The restrooms would be no good. But the Main Street Cinema looked fairly empty. She tucked the dog under her arm like a stuffed toy and walked inside.
“Who made you? What wizard is your master?” she demanded, pulling the dog out and holding it at arm’s length. The dog tried to look cute and pathetic.
“I heard you talk. You might as well answer.” Valeriah shifted her grip so she could apply just the right amount of pressure to the dog’s neck–not enough to stop her breathing (from this angle it was definitely female) or talking. But enough to convey a threat.
“No one made me. I’m just a trained dog. One of the attractions. If you look around, you’ll find the ventriloquist.”
Valeriah shook her head. “Not language like that. Not in Disneyland. And you smell wrong.” Valeriah took another sniff. “Like the air after a lightning strike. If you’re a dog, I’m a pixie.”
“Dhraxxxth! Just let me go. I have to find Susan.”
“Is Susan the wizard who gave you the gift of speech? If so, I have to determine if she’s a threat to my client. That’s my job.”
“Susan couldn’t be a threat to anyone if she tried. The most threatening thing she does is to take me to the groomer’s once a month to get this done to me. And I’ve wanted to kill her for it more than once.”
Valeriah had grown up around magic. Her grandfather was a powerful wizard himself. And she’d spent the last eight years acting as a bodyguard for other wizards. She’d never experienced the aftermath of a spell that smelled like this.
“What’s your name?”
“Grraxthma. But Susan calls me Peaches.” Grraxthma spat the name out with disgust.
“What exactly are you, Grraxthma?” The name made a very satisfying growl in her throat.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You might be surprised what I’ll believe. I believe in magic, wizards, unicorns, and werewolves.”
“Oh, definitely in werewolves. So, what are you?”
“Do you believe in other worlds? With intelligent life?”
Valeriah smiled. “Depends on what you consider intelligent.” After a moment she nodded. “Yes.”
Grraxthma let out a sigh. “Well, I come from one of them.”
Grraxthma paused, clearly expecting some kind of response, here.
“Go on,” Valeriah said.
“I was in command of a fleet of exploration. I led a small team down onto this rock. Soon after we lost contact with my flagship and the fleet. Mutiny probably. We were stranded. The others were killed by coyotes. I escaped to Boise–and Susan.”
Valeriah cocked her head to one side, considering. Why not? She knew of quite a few things people on this side of the portals didn’t believe in that were actually quite real. Why not space aliens, too? It would explain why this dog smelled so wrong. She nodded once and bent down to release Grraxthma. She represented no threat to Tirella and her granddaughter. She was not Valeriah’s business.
“Go ahead. Good luck finding Susan.”
“What’s wrong?” Valeriah asked.
“I almost got stepped on a dozen times out there. And I still might not find Susan. Look, I’m going to have to leave her soon anyway. It’s been fifteen years. Someone’s going to get suspicious if a dog keeps on living for a lot longer. I had an exit strategy. But . . . what if I just stay lost? It’s a relief to be able to talk to someone. Maybe, you . . .”
Valeriah frowned. “I don’t keep pets. Even if I did, a pink poodle would ruin my reputation.”
“I am not pink.”
“Close enough. You’re on your own. I have to get back to my duty.”
Valeriah started to turn to leave. Back to the brat. She took two steps and then turned back. “Maybe we can help each other after all,” she said, cocking her head to one side again. “You can’t stay with me. But I can think of someone else who would be glad to have you. Someone who wouldn’t think too much about a dog that talks. Or even one that lives too long. How would you like to live in a tower in Chimeria?”
“Are there coyotes there?”
“Oh, no. The werewolves would never permit that.”
“I . . . uh, okay.”
Valeriah tucked Grraxthma under her arm again and walked back out into the crowd. It didn’t take her long to track down Tirella and the others.
“Where did you disappear to? And what’s that?” Tirella asked.
“I went to investigate something suspicious. Turned out to be nothing to worry about. This is a little lost dog I found on my way back. I thought Graciara might like to have her. Especially since she didn’t get to see many of the animals at the Zoo yesterday.”
“Can I? She’s adorable,” Graciara said, holding up her hands for the dog. “What’s her name?”
Graciara’s brows knitted. “Grr–? That’s too hard to say.”
“Or you could just call her Peaches,” Valeriah said.
“Peaches. I like that.”
“She seems like a very intelligent dog. I wouldn’t be surprised if you taught her to talk, with a little help from your grandmother. Once you get back home, that is.”
“Really? Can we go home now, and try, Grandma?”
Valeriah smiled wolfishly.
Grraxthma growled low enough so only Valeriah’s sharp ears could hear. “Peaches!”