"Yo, Jonny! Ollie ollie outs in free, buds," Edgar "Benny" Benedek called, poking his head into the store room where Juliana Moorhouse kept the flotsam and Jetsam of history. The head of the Georgetown Institute of Science's anthropology department referred to her collection as bizarre and marvelous, but most other people considered it junk. Benny made his way past glass cases of preserved human heads, odd-shaped rocks, a mummy wearing a suspiciously-modern sun visor, a snarling stuffed mountain lion, and other unidentifiable items.
"Jack? Dr. M said you were in here," Benny continued, ducking under a low-hanging swatch of musty old drapery. "She didn't tell me you'd been added to her collection—whoaa! Hold it, JJ!" he broke off, holding out his hands to halt the onward rush of Jonathan MacKensie. "Where's the fire, pal?"
"Benedek, what are you doing here?" Jonathan demanded, his voice squeaking.
"Looking for you, Jon-Boy," the tabloid journalist replied, his keen gaze taking in the frazzled state of his reluctant shadow-chasing partner. The Englishman had been sweating and his hair was plastered to his scalp, and dirt streaked his handsome face. His brown eyes held a glazed look, and he was breathing heavily. The glazed look was one Benny was quite familiar with, usually following some paranormal display which Jonathan fervently denied witnessing. The panic usually accompanied stage two of said phenomenon, so Benny was betting Jonathan had just seen something he didn't want anyone else seeing.
"Why don't we just go to my office?" Jonathan suggested, glancing over his shoulder. "I'm sure we'll find some new assignment from Dr. Moorhouse— "
"Is this place grrreat or what?" Benny asked cheerfully, ignoring Jonathan's attempts to steer him towards the door.
"What, no doubt," Jonathan muttered, watching nervously as Benny unerringly made his way to the very corner the professor wanted to avoid. "Benedek, come away from there before you break something!"
Benny was oblivious to his partner's command, his blue eyes widening as he saw the ornate, enameled bottle which sat in a nest of straw in a small crate on the floor. The stoppered bottle was about eighteen inches tall, curving gracefully out to a breadth of about nine inches. It was painted with a design of a bird among leaves, and looked vaguely Middle-Eastern in origin. It was also rocking from side to side and growling. "Check it out, Jack!"
"No," Jonathan said. "Benedek, don't touch that!"
The reporter pulled his hand back as the bottle jumped up from its nest in the crate. "What is this thing, J.J.?"
"I don't know. Dr. Moorhouse asked me to inventory her museum's new acquisitions. The bottle began moving as soon as I opened the crate."
"Maybe there's a genie inside, or something wonderful like that." Benny closed his hand around the bottle's neck and picked it up. The artifact stopped wriggling but continued to growl. "Some special effects for an old jug. Where'd it come from, Jack?"
"I'm not sure, and I don't want to know. Put it back, Benny." Jonathan was sounding desperate, a sure sign Benny was onto something.
"WHOA-HO!" Benny exclaimed as smoke poured out of the mouth of the bottle when he pulled out the stopper. "Smoking is bad for your health, Jack!" he coughed, waving a hand to disperse the dense purple-colored smoke.
"Benedek, what have you done?" Jonathan's voice rose two octaves and cracked on the last Word.
Benny peered through the swirling smoke. "Jon-Boy?"
Jonathan stood with his mouth working soundlessly, his wide-eyed gaze focused on the floor. Benny looked where Jonathan was pointing, and his sharp-featured face lit up with a huge grin.
"Bing-O, Jonny! Where was this little guy when we needed a dragon to slay?"
"Slay? Not this dragon, pal!" the foot-high creature protested, flapping its iridescent wings and stretching up its neck.
Benny squatted down, holding out a hand. "Edgar Benedek, but my friends call me Benny. Wait 'til Dave gets a load of this, Jack! Talk about your stupid pet tricks'"
"It's—It's a dragon!"
"Good, Jonny," Benny praised the stuttering professor.
"But dragons aren't real!"
The dragon opened its mouth and hissed at MacKensie.
"Back off, Jack! I don't know if he's had his shots," Benny cautioned, grinning at Jonathan. "So, Puff, how's it going? Anything we can get you? Raw meat, virgins— ?"
The dragon glared at him. "My name isn't Puff. It's Hank."
"Hank?" Jonathan repeated.
"My father's name was Hank," the little dragon informed them, ruffling its wings in a shrug-like gesture.
Jonathan and Benny exchanged glances, and decided to drop the subject. They watched as Hank stretched his neck and flapped his wings, taking to the air, his snake-like tail streaming behind him. He hovered in front of Jonathan's face, and the professor leaned away from the small creature. With a snort of disgust, Hank landed on Benedek's shoulder. "Let's go, Benny."
Benedek's grin grew even wider, if possible, and he stood up, ready to head for the door. Jonathan caught his friend's arm. "You can't take—him—out of here!"
"I'm not going home with you," Hank declared.
"I don't want you to! But you can't go with Benedek, either. You're a dragon— "
"He's not real bright, is he?" Hank said to Benny, who chuckled.
Jonathan glared at them both. "I won't allow you to place a talking dragon on the next cover of the National Register."
"You're right," Benedek said, much to his partner's confusion. "We'll skip the papers and go straight to television."
"Benedek, he doesn't belong to you!"
Hank hissed softly. "He opened the bottle, he let me out, he gets to take me home. Now back off, Jack."
Jonathan's mouth dropped open, and he slowly stepped aside, letting Benny and his new pet leave the room. "Dr. Moorhouse is not going to like this," he murmured to himself.
Two days had passed and there had been no newsflash about a dragon, either on the television or In the papers. Jonathan had been extremely diligent about checking every tabloid paper he could lay his hands on, hopefully before Juliana Moorhouse could do her daily checking to assure herself Benedek hadn't dragged the Institute's name in the mud. And he had monitored every talk show Benedek had ever mentioned, but there had been no sign of the journalist or his dragon.
Jonathan considered calling Jordy Kerner at the Register office but he'd been afraid of alerting the editor to a possible scoop. Every time he'd tried calling Benedek's New York apartment, the phone had been busy.
The anthropology professor breathed a sigh of relief too soon. The persistent ringing of the phone finally pierced Jonathan's slumber and he rolled over, dragging the phone under the covers. "'lo," he answered sleepily.
"Jack, ya gotta help me!" came Benedek's frantic plea.
"Help you?" Jonathan mumbled.
"He's a tyrant! The little monster could give Ivan the Terrible lessons!"
Benny's voice dropped. "Hank!"
"Hank? He's still with you? But I thought—I mean, there wasn't anything on the news— "
"I know, Jack! He can't be photographed or videotaped. He can't even be seen by people unless he wants to be visible. So far he only wants to let me and you see him. He's not housebroken, he eats like a elephant, he's—" Benny broke off, then whispered, "I've gotta go, JJ. Will you come to New York and bring that bottle?"
"Yes, all right, I'll..." Jonathan trailed off as Benny hung up, and stared at the receiver.
Later that morning, Jonathan unlocked the door to the store room at the university and slipped inside. He placed the bottle which had contained Hank under his jacket and turned around—to be faced by the disapproving Dr. Moorhouse.
"What are you doing, MacKensie?"
Jonathan's mind searched for a plausible story, and finally blurted out the truth. "Benedek let a dragon out of this bottle and he wants me to help him trap it again, Dr. Moorhouse."
She studied him for a long moment, then held her hand out and waited. He meekly handed it over. Moorhouse examined the bottle closely, then sniffed in disgust. "We'd better get there as quickly as possible, Jonathan. Come along."
Astonished, Jonathan obeyed.
"I'm not even going to ask you how Benedek managed to get his yellow journalistic hands on this bottle," she said, glaring at him as she sat at her desk and placed the bottle in the middle of the desk blotter.
"Dr. Moorhouse— "
She held up a hand to silence him, then picked up her phone. "Liz, I need you to get me Dr. Derek Rains in San Francisco," she instructed her secretary. "Tell him it's an emergency. And then get two seats on the next flight to New York." Hanging up the phone, she settled back in her seat and stared at the uneasy professor. "I am disappointed, MacKensie— "
"I did warn him not to open it," Jonathan said in self-defense.
A sly look crossed her face. "But you did see a dragon. A mythical, nonexistent creature, yet you saw it."
"Saw it? I heard it!"
"So you can't deny its existence. And if dragons exist, then it's highly possible other things do as well. Agreed?"
"Well, I—I suppose so," he admitted reluctantly.
"And from now on when I present you with an assignment, you won't call it ridiculous, or bizarre, or a waste of time. Agreed?" The sternness In her voice made Jonathan merely nod. She looked extremely pleased with herself, and Jonathan's heart sank. He would spend the rest of his life chasing shadows.
The buzz of her phone prevented further discussion. "Derek? I have a bit of a problem. It seems someone has gotten his hands on the dragon jar. Yes, I'm afraid he did. No, I have the jar here. New York. You will? Bless you, dear boy. We'll meet you there. The address?" She looked at Jonathan expectantly and he recited Benny's address, which she repeated before hanging up. "This will come out of your budget," she said, getting up and tucking the bottle under her arm. "Come along, MacKensie."
Much later that day, Jonathan was beginning to understand the note of exhaustion that he'd heard in Benny's voice that morning. The journalist's apartment was even messier than usual. A chocolate milkshake had been spilled over Benedek's computer keyboard, an Eggo waffle protruded from the VCR, the drapes were shredded from Hank's claws, and Hank himself was nesting on a hoard of pizza boxes.
The little dragon had stubbornly refused all suggestions, entreaties and orders that he re-enter his bottle. Even Dr. Moorhouse's sternest tone, well-known for Intimidating the most recalcitrant of students, had not affected the creature. By the time Dr. Raines of the Luna Foundation arrived, the three humans were slumped around the kitchen table. Hank was snoring peacefully atop the three-foot pile of pizza cartons, not all of which were empty.
Derek raised an eyebrow, then greeted Dr. Moorhouse, who introduced him to the others. "Good news. 1 was able to locate the incantation which should re-imprison the dragon in its jar."
"I think you'd better hurry," Jonathan said, "before it wakes up!"
Hank was snuffling and twitching.
The Dutch parapsychologist nodded, unrolled a scroll and began reciting the unfamiliar words written on it. The others turned to look at Hank as the dragon awoke and squawked in dismay.
Pink smoke was enveloping the small creature. As the recitation continued, the smoke streamed into the dragon jar. With the last syllable, the smoke—and Hank—had disappeared into the vessel. Benny hurriedly slammed in the stopper, then shoved it at Jonathan.
The professor juggled it, then handed it to Dr. Moorhouse.
She looked down at it, then held it out to Dr. Raines. "Derek, perhaps you wouldn't mind keeping it someplace safe—and out of the way?"
"Of course, Juliana. In the future, Mr. Benedek, you might want to read the warnings on magical containers before removing the stoppers. This dragon was imprisoned for a very good reason, and you're lucky he was not out long enough to gain his full strength."
"Full strength?" Jonathan echoed, looking around the demolished apartment.
"I didn't see any warning!"
Dr. Rains iIndicated the script encircling the neck of the bottle. "This is Sumerian for 'Beware of the Dragon.'"
"Oh, that warning." Benny looked sheepish. "Well, I really appreciate your getting rid of him for me, Doc. Hank was a real drag on my lifestyle." He grinned, tapped a rim shot on the back of a chair. "Get It? Drag on— ?? Hey, where's everybody going?"
Dr. Moorhouse had taken Derek's arm and the pair was heading for the door, followed by MacKensie. "Dinner," she said, baring her teeth in a false smile. "Next time, keep your hands to yourself."
"You don't have to tell me twice. Hey Jack, you're not leaving me to clean this up by myself are you?" Benny appealed.
"It's your mess," Jonathan said, hand on the door knob.
"Okay, pal, I'll remember this next time you need my help," Benny said, walking gingerly over a broken glass and picking up a pizza box.
"Your help? When have I needed your help? You're the one who needs help.'" Jonathan protested.
Benny produced a woman's high-heeled shoe from seemingly nowhere and tossed it to Jonathan. "You need to be careful about what your students leave in your office, boy-o. Or would you rather I let Dr. M give this back to Mindy?"
Jonathan opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then pocketed the shoe. "Where do you want me to start?" he asked with a sigh. Benny grinned and handed Jonathan a broom. "I love America and free enterprise."
"Blackmail," Jonathan corrected.
"Whatever works, pal, whatever works."
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