Chapter Two — Billy Bones
The shotgun kicked and spat forked fire. Mrs. Eldridge staggered back into the wall and slid down onto the walkway.
Steam crept out of the yellow truck's dingy grill. The driver's door opened slowly.
"No!" Mrs. Eldridge yelled. "Don't make me do it, William Skelton! You know I will." Still sitting, she levered open the shotgun and forced in two more shells.
Heavy drops slapped onto Cyrus's bare shoulders as he looked from Mrs. Eldridge to the truck and back again. The sweet smell of rain on warm asphalt was mingling with the harsh taint of gunfire. He took a step toward the stairs.
The old woman grabbed the rail and pulled herself up.
"Mrs. Eldridge?" Cyrus said again. One slow step at a time, he climbed up to the old woman's side, glancing back at the truck. "Hey," he said. "Maybe put down the gun. You're going to kill someone."
"Not that lucky," she said. "But I'll try."
A lean white-haired man in an ancient leather jacket and gloves stepped out of the truck and into the rain. He was old, skeletal, and his weathered face looked too small for his skull. Cupping his gloves around his mouth, he lit a cigarette and stepped backward toward the Pale Lady's pole. Exhaling smoke into the rain, he leaned against the pole and dropped his hands to his hips.
"Eleanor Eldridge," he said. "What exactly are you trying to pull?"
Mrs. Eldridge snorted. "Get out of here, Billy. Move along. You're not wanted."
The old man grinned. "Can't keep me out, Eleanor, you old hen. But you know that already. Fire away."
Cyrus focused on the man's face. This was the guy. Room 111.
Electricity buzzed as long dead neon chattered through forgotten veins. Above the old man, the Lady no longer slept on her pole. She was golden and dripping golden rain — her limbs, her bow, her arrow, all humming and flickering in front of the dark and drifting clouds. The Lady was alive.
The man patted the pole and stepped forward. "Let me on in Eleanor. You know I'm not a body to fear."
The rain surged. Raindrops slapped down in crowds, and the wind broke into a run. Cyrus tore his eyes off of the Lady, blinking away streams, shivering. He was directly beside Mrs. Eldridge now. He could grab her gun if he needed to.
Mrs. Eldridge shook her head. Gray strands of hair were rain-glued to her cheeks.
"I made a promise, William Skelton. I promised Katie. You remember. You did, too, but only one of us would care about a thing like that."
Cyrus glanced at Mrs. Eldridge. "Katie?" he asked. "Katie, like my mom, Katie?"
Eleanor Eldridge didn't look at him. She sniffed loudly, and then pushed her dripping hair back from her face.
The rain had doused the old man's cigarette. Flicking it away, he stepped forward. "That's right, boy — your mother. At least if you're one of the Smith mutts, and with that skin and that hair, I'm saying you are." He laughed. "I wouldn't be bragging about promise keeping, Eleanor, not with this Raggedy Andy beside you, shirtless and filthy in the rain. Maybe I'm here to keep a promise myself."
Cyrus squinted through the rain at the old man, at the truck, at the crackling Golden Lady. What was going on? None of this seemed real. But it was. The rain on his skin. The soggy waffle and drooping napkins. The smell of gunpowder.
Mrs. Eldridge coughed. "One more step, Skelton, and you'll get two barrels' worth of shot in the gut."
The man reached into his jacket and pulled out a thick, clear square of glass, holding it up between his gloved forefinger and thumb. Cyrus could see something dark and round in its center.
"You're bluffing!" Mrs. Eldridge yelled, but her voice wavered. "It's not real. We put them all in the collection!"
The old man's eyebrows climbed. "Go ahead and shoot me, Eleanor. But only if you want this place to burn." His white hair drooped on his spotted scalp. "Last call," he said. "Going, going, and already gone!"
William Skelton raised his arm to throw. Eleanor Eldridge cocked two hammers and braced herself.
"Hold on!" Cyrus yelled. "Hold on! I don't know what the fight is, but it doesn't matter." Still holding the waffle with one hand, he reached over and pushed the gun barrels to the side. "He can stay. It's fine." He turned to the old man. "You want a room, right? We can give you a room. Not a problem. Nobody needs to get shot, and nothing has to burn down."
The old man grinned. "Listen to the boy, Eleanor. Nobody needs to get shot."
"You've got no say here, Cyrus Smith." Mrs. Eldridge clamped her wrinkled jaw, but her eyes were worried. "I made a promise to your mother and that's that. Now get inside."
"I don't think he's leaving," Cyrus said. "And I own one third of this motel, and I'm going to let him in."
The old man laughed and slid his glass cube back into his pocket.
Mrs. Eldridge didn't move. Potholes were overflowing now. The motel's gutters rattled. Cyrus looked down at the waffle in his hands. Half sponge, half dough, it was swamping on the plastic plate. Hooking one finger into its side to keep it from falling, Cyrus tipped the plate and dumped the water. Then he held it out to Mrs. Eldridge.
"Your waffle," he said. "It was done before the power went out."
The old woman lowered her gun and took the plate. She didn't look at it. Her veined eyes were searching Cyrus's. "Me or him?" she asked. "I told Katie I'd keep you safe. If he stays, I can't do that. Not from what's coming. I leave. No more protection. Not from anything."
"Protection?" Cyrus looked at the thin old woman, at her bone white fingers on the black barrels of the shotgun. "No," he said. "No more protection. But you don't have to leave if you don't want to."
Mrs. Eldridge seemed to deflate. She looked at the plate in her hand, and her lips were tight. Scowling, she turned back into her room and slammed the door behind her.
Cyrus hurried down the stairs and moved slowly toward the man called William Skelton. He stopped a car length away.
"How did you do that?" Cyrus pointed up at the Golden Lady. The wet asphalt warped and spattered her reflected light.
"The sign?" The old man shrugged. "The lightning maybe. I didn't do anything."
"It came on after you touched it."
William Skelton smiled. "Did it? Well, it wasn't me exactly."
Cyrus licked rainwater off of his lips and wiped it out of his eyes. "What was the glass thing?"
The old man blinked slowly. Up close, his skin was the color of caramel, freckled with patches of paper-white and bone-grey. He smiled, once again reaching into his jacket. "Boy, you ever seen a lightning bug?"
"Every summer," Cyrus said. "Why?"
"Not fireflies, son." The old man held out the glass square. "I'm talking lightning bugs." The glass was rippled and warped — homemade somehow. Frozen in its center, with six legs folded against its belly and black armor that glistened with blue, there was a heavy beetle. The glass was drip-free and dry. The rain didn't seem to touch it.
Cyrus stepped closer, squinting. "A beetle?" In glass. Like for a microscope. He wasn't sure what to say. What could be frightening about a beetle, even one the size of his big toe? But Mrs. Eldridge had definitely been scared, even with a shotgun.
Cyrus looked into Skelton's eyes and nodded at the Golden Lady. "This did that?"
The old man shook his head. "Nope. This didn't do anything. But you asked to see it."
Cyrus inched closer, watching the old man.
Water ran down around Skelton's eyes, dripping off sparse and antique lashes. He didn't blink. Instead, slowly, he looked down at Cyrus's bare shoulders, at his hands, at his feet.
The sky groaned, rolling thunder in its throat.
Cyrus reached for the old man's extended arm, his cracked glove, the glass square and its prisoner beetle.
"Careful, she's hot," Skelton said, and Cyrus closed his fingers around the glass.
Electricity shot up his arm, buzzing in his joints, tingling in his teeth. He staggered backward and swung his arm down, shaking himself loose from the current. Glass shattered on the asphalt at his feet, and the heavy beetle tumbled free.
Skelton hadn't moved. Hadn't flinched. Gasping, Cyrus watched the beetle right itself and lever up its wing casings. The wings beneath them were much too small to do anything, especially in the rain.
William Skelton whistled between his teeth. Blinking, Cyrus tore his eyes off the beetle and looked at the old man.
"If I were you," the man said, "and I wanted to stay alive, I'd get those bare feet off the wet ground and inside. Fast. She's ready to lay her eggs, and she's been waiting in that glass a long, long time."
Cyrus's feet began to tingle. With a pop and a crackle, the lightning bug launched and landed and launched again. Blue electric arcs trailed its abdomen and flicked between its wings as it circled, bumblebee heavy.
Cyrus spun in place, asphalt tearing at the balls of his feet as he scrambled toward the motel. Four strides. Five and he was in the courtyard. Ten and he'd reached the front door. He jerked it open.
Thunder knocked him forward.
Excerpted from The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson. Copyright 2011 by N. D. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House Inc.