The situation was bad. Not just the standard localized-apocalypse-bad. No, more along the lines of impending humiliation of the career-ending sort bad.
To help you understand exactly why the situation was so bad, I first need to tell you about dragons.
Dragons are the world’s largest cockroaches. The biggest pain that anyone could have as a housemate. Hoarders like you wouldn’t believe, naturally. Old, powerful, and ornery. Incorrigible cheats at cards. And those are just the big ones.
The little ones are rarer. Unlike their larger cousins, the smaller species of dragon got the short end of the evolutionary stick. Used to be that they were farmed for their skin, unscrupulous companies going out of their way to provide real dragon-leather products. Until their farming practices got out of hand and made national news when one of their factories burned down, releasing a plague of the little buggers all over the midwest.
Long story short, people got outraged, strong words were thrown around, and some famous people threw a metric shit-ton of money at lobbyists. Now, any dragon naturally under fifty pounds is a protected species, which means that if it should decide that, I dunno, your living room is its new lair, you may as well resign yourself to having an unruly houseguest who steals all the silverware.
The little ones aren’t sentient like the larger variants. Like I said, short evolutionary stick. They are about as smart as a clever bird, and can learn to mimic words about as well. So, you’ve got a three-foot-long unnaturally lightweight reptilian parrot, sometimes with the capacity to project a dazzling variety of dangerous substances from their mouths, sometimes merely in possession of inch-long fangs, always possessed of greed that would put an international bank to shame. Make it more territorial than a polar bear and about half as cuddly, and you begin to understand why Animal Control “loses” so many reports of them.
How their biology works is the subject of much speculation, but considering that people have been doing autopsies on them for decades without learning anything new, most assume that they act as portals for malicious forces to throw out whatever caustic garbage they feel like making the dragon spew forth. In other words, the general consensus is *jazz hands* MAGIC.
As a result, most people just accept that the dragon is now a part of their daily routine unless they can distract it with something sufficiently shiny long enough to relocate it beyond its territorial instinct. If that doesn’t work, they’re there to stay until they get bored.
Now, if you haven’t worked out how all of this is relevant yet, let me give you another hint: The ring wasn’t at either of the convenience stores
“Nice dragon… I just need to get some cereal… Not going to hurt you,” I muttered as I edged towards a display of some fruit-flavored nonsense.
The subject of my baby-talk apparently did not approve, as it hissed in a voice halfway between an alley-cat and an iguana. On the plus side, I neither burst into flames nor got covered in acidic bile, so it seemed likely that the array of spines that currently stood at attention in a crest along its back were the biggest threat about Vegas’s own Cereal Aisle Dragon. I wouldn’t know, I hadn’t thought much about it when it had moved in about two years ago. I had payed even less mind when the store made it a tourist attraction. When people actually started to come and see it, I just stopped shopping here altogether.
These same tourists were now gathered at both ends of the aisle, peering in with amusement and taking photos on their cell phone of the scene before them. A pug-sized nightmare of terror and legal repercussions atop a mound of sugar-covered pieces and plastic-wrapped knick-knacks, squaring off against the stupid soon-to-be bipedal hamburger who decided to cross the safety line against the protests of the uniform-clad wage slave. Hamburger played by moi. Shows at nine and eleven.
“Come on, you little,” I muttered louder, making a swipe at an abandoned bag. I managed to jerk my hand out of the way before the jaws of the hellbeast snapped shut inches from where my appendage had just been.
“Nnno! Mmmmine!” It growled, its voice filled with the strange trilling and tongue-clicking of a bird imitating speech. I was honestly surprised that it could talk, let alone use words properly.
“Nice dragon… I don’t want your hoard… Just the useless shinies…” I reached once more for the opposite side of the mound, only to again be driven back in a flurry of violence.
“To hell with this,” I muttered, straightening and crossing the safety line again. Sure enough, once I was over the yellow stripe, the beast’s crest immediately relaxed as it curled around its pile once more.
“Hey. You,” I said, pointing at the bedraggled employee. “Can’t you sedate it or something?”
“Sorry sir, that would be against store policy,” The kid drawled in the half-annoyed half-tired dialect of the criminally underpaid.
“Okay,” I said, careful not to grit my teeth. After all, it wasn’t the kid’s fault, and on top of the dragon, he had to deal with crazy tourists all day anyway. I was just on the receiving end of his misguided angst. No sense taking out my own frustrations on him. “So, tell me. How do you clean up the aisle and restock normally? Or even fetch items for customers?”
The employee gestured disinterestedly at a plaque that bore a long-handled stick, with both broom and manipulator attachments.
“Doesn’t it attack that?”
“Better it than us.”
“Fine. Can I use it?”
“Sorry sir, employees only.”
“Alright, fine. How do you suggest I get something from the dragon?”
“Ask nicely?” He said, words dripping with sarcasm. Almost as a counterpoint to his words, the dragon raised its head and growled at a small child walking close to the line.
“Look sir, if you need something, just tell me what it is, and I’ll get it for you.”
“Ok, sure. I need that box.”
He got down the telescoping stick, and retrieved it. One might even go so far as to say promptly. Unfortunately, when I ripped open the box, no ring.
“You’re going to have to pay for that,” He informed me casually.
“Fine, fine. Get the next box.”
“What?” He blinked in confusion.
“Next box please.”
As it turns out, the next box didn’t have the ring either. Nor did any of the three following. This wasn’t working fast enough, and the dragon was getting ornery enough to snap at the stick any time it neared the yellow line.
So, I looked for another angle. My watch was pretty shiny. Maybe not shiny enough to hold the dragons attention for long, but hey. Some of us have better things to do with our time than polish watch-bands. So it might buy me five seconds.
I couldn’t search through much cereal in five seconds, assuming even that the ring was somewhere in its “hoard”. If it was in one of the boxes, I was worse than screwed. So, after the distraction, I needed a trap. Something to hold the dragon without hurting it while I searched. Something like…
“Thank god for velcro,” I muttered as I reached over and yanked the apron bodily off the employee.
“Ow, what the hell?”
I ignored him as I crossed the line once more, to the hissing protest of my quarry. I couldn’t afford to lose focus now. I let the apron fall in a cascade from one hand as I unstrapped my watch from my wrist using my teeth. It dropped into my free hand, where I rotated it slowly to catch the crappy fluorescent light. I almost squealed with glee as I saw the dragon’s head snap to regard the shiny object, following it with his eyes like a cat with a lazer pointer. The hungry look in those malevolent orbs was promising.
“Easy, easy…” I chanted, walking closer. The overgrown lizard flexed its impossible wings, but did not leave its pile or tear its gaze from the watch.
“There’s a good dragon,” I said under my breath as I reached out to snare the spines with the apron.
It was going to work!