Jenkins's old-fashioned turkey quill pen scratched softly across the page of his notebook, his attention completely focused on recording the useful tidbits of knowledge he had gleaned from his research into corn wolves. While he worked, Franklin played with a puzzle toy on the floor underneath the immortal's desk. In a matter of minutes, the tea dragon had chewed his way through the heavy plastic to free the treat inside, a small piece of dark Swiss chocolate.
He gobbled the sweet down, then pushed the remains of the toy away, already bored. He tried to entice Bài Shān to play with him, but the patriarch only grunted distractedly and leaned over to give Franklin a wholly unsatisfying scratch behind his ears. Franklin gave up after a few minutes and flopped over onto his side with an irritated grunt. Maybe after a nap Bài Shān would be in the mood to play.
He was just about to drift off when his sharp ears pricked up. Franklin scrambled to his feet and cocked his head, moving his long ears around slowly as he tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. It was coming from far away, in the direction of the kitchen. With a trill of excitement at the prospect of new adventure, he ran across the workroom floor, then raced down the long hallway to the Annex kitchen.
When he reached the kitchen door, Franklin stopped and listened carefully. He could hear the sounds of something moving around inside, something that his sensitive hearing told him was not one of the other humans who lived here, but something else. A stranger.
The little dragon's ears instantly swung backward and flattened against his head in agitation. Tea dragons were very territorial creatures and very protective of their families. The Library was his home now, and the humans that lived here were his family. Even at his young age, Franklin's instincts to patrol and protect were strong. There was an intruder in his home; it needed to be investigated and, if necessary, action taken.
Franklin gently nosed the door open just enough to allow in his long head to poke inside. The kitchen was dark, but he had excellent night vision. He swept the room, and in a matter of seconds he located the source of the noise. Toddling across the tile floor was an animal—large and plump, nearly the same size as Franklin weight-wise. It had a long pointed snout, a thick, ragged coat of dirty gray fur and a long, hairless tail. As far as he could tell, it was a rat—a big, ugly, weird-looking rat.
Franklin was nearly beside himself with rage as he glared at the stranger through the darkness. Rats were one of a tea dragon's worst enemies in the wild. The nasty creatures often found and ate dragon eggs, no matter how well they were hidden. They also ate young hatchlings whenever they could, and sometimes rats even killed and ate very old or sick dragons.
It stopped next to the recycling bin, stood up on its back legs and reached for the edge of the can, its nose twitching non-stop as it sniffed the air. Franklin watched as it managed to grasp the rim with its forepaws and pull it over, spilling trash out onto the floor. Cans and bottles rolled noisily across the floor and the rat waddled over to it to investigate one.
Franklin, incensed at the brazenness of the rat, began to quiver and twitch. His large black eyes bulged with anger. Bài Shān liked to keep his magic house clean and tidy, and now this garbage-eating killer of tea dragons was making a mess! This was wholly unacceptable! Franklin decided it was time to do something.
The tea dragon bunched his rear legs beneath his body, rapidly shifted his weight back and forth on them, preparing to rush at the rat. As soon as its eyes were turned away from Franklin, he struck.
Franklin shot across the kitchen floor with blinding speed, screaming with fury. The rat, startled, jumped and spun around to face him. It fluffed out its fur in an attempt to make itself look larger and more threatenting, opened its mouth to display dozens of sharp, pointed teeth, and hissed a loud warning at the attacking dragon.
But Franklin paid no heed. He ran straight at the rat and threw himself into it, his momentum knocking the rat over onto its side. Franklin wrapped his forearms around the rat's neck and held on tightly as it struggled to get back onto its feet. Franklin tried to bite the rat, but its fur was so thick that he wasn't able to inflict much damage in this initial attack.
The rat, growling and hissing, fought back, trying to get its head around far enough to bite Franklin. The pair rolled across the floor as they struggled, scattering the bottles and cans all over the kitchen in the struggle, until they bumped up against the leg of the small kitchen table. They hit it hard enough to knock over a small crystal vase of flowers that Cassandra had placed there the day before. It fell over and rolled off the table, shattering as it struck the floor, sending water and brightly-colored gerbera daisies raining down on the combatants.
The rat broke Franklin's grip and scrambled to its feet, then galloped clumsily for the door in an attempt to escape the angry little dragon. Franklin, his blood up, was right behind it. He stretched his neck out, caught the long, thick, naked tail between his jaws and bit down on it hard. The rat squealed and tried the turn around to face his attacker, tried to pull its tail free, but Franklin held fast. The rat desperately snapped at Franklin's head, snarling with pain and anger. It clawed at Franklin's snout, but his tiny soft scales were surprisingly resistant to damage.
Finally, the rat managed to strike one of Franklin's large eyes with a claw. The dragon shrieked with pain and immediately let go of the rat. He frantically rubbed at the injured eye with his forepaws, blinking as his eye watered up. Meanwhile, the rat turned again and tried to run away.
Franklin caught sight of the retreating invader as the pain eased and his eye cleared. He shook his head and then, screeching, he streaked after the rat and leaped onto its back again. He sank his sharp little claws into the animal and clamped his jaws onto the back of its neck, determined now to kill the creature. The two rolled across the floor in a tangled, growling knot until they were stopped by one of Jenkins's tea cupboards. Franklin cracked his head sharply against the wooden cupboard, momentarily stunning him just enough to loosen his hold. The rat took advantage of the opportunity to slip out of the tenacious dragon's grasp and darted underneath the cupboard. The space beneath was too tight and dark for both of them, and Franklin remained in front of the cupboard, glaring into the darkness, his tail lashing back and forth as he shrieked loudly in frustration.
Jenkins ambled slowly down the corridor towards the Annex kitchen. With his work done for the night, he decided to have a little snack before bed, and his mouth watered in anticipation of enjoying another large slice of the lemon pie he and Cassandra had for dessert that evening after dinner. He didn't need to eat, of course, but the immortal had a weakness for sweets, especially anything that was lemon-flavored. For him and his sweet tooth, the pie sitting in the refrigerator right now was six slices of heaven just waiting to be enjoyed.
As he rounded the corner and started on the final leg to the kitchen, Jenkins suddenly heard a loud , shrill screaming sound coming from somewhere ahead of him that he instantly recognized—Franklin, his little tea dragon companion.
Jenkins ran the rest of the way down the hallway until he came to the kitchen. He could still hear a racket on the other side of the door, a great deal of which was Franklin's agitated vocalizations. He pushed open the door and rushed into the kitchen, reaching out to flip on the kitchen lights at the same time. He blinked his eyes against the bright lights as he quickly scanned the kitchen.
"Franklin?!" he called out anxiously.
As soon as he was able to see clearly, he took in the mess. The recycling bin was tipped over onto its side, with bottles, cans and plastic packaging were scattered all over the floor. Jenkins then spotted Franklin. The little dragon had his back to the Caretaker, his long, tufted tail slashing back and forth, his attention focused on something underneath the tea cupboard.
"Franklin! What on earth are you doing?" Jenkins rumbled as he made his way over to him. "You'll wake the entire Annex with all of this noise! And just look at this mess!" Franklin, paying no attention to Jenkins, continued to stare under the cupboard, batting a forepaw into the darkness periodically while angrily growling deep in his throat. Jenkins rolled his eyes. Doubtless Franklin had been playing with one of his toys and gotten the thing stuck underneath the cupboard.
When he was close enough, the immortal bent over to see what the little reptile was looking at, but could see nothing at that angle. Franklin began pacing anxiously back and forth, continuing to growl. Jenkins thought about just leaving the toy under the cupboard. Franklin had plenty of toys, but like all animals, he had his favorites. The immortal huffed a deep sigh and got down on his hands and knees to retrieve the toy before the tea dragon had a fit. He stuck his hand into the darkness and began feeling around. His fingers brushed against something soft and fuzzy.
"What is that…?" he grumbled, and grabbed hold of what felt like a ball of some kind. "Honestly, Franklin, you are the most spoiled tea dragon in the entire Pacific Northw—" He pulled the ball out into the open and held it up for a better look. A long, hairless tail dropped limply, and he could now clearly see the rat-like face, jaws agape to display a mouth full of teeth. It began to wildly struggle and hiss.
Clutched in his huge fist was a good-sized opossum. The immortal's heart nearly stopped dead in his chest. Jenkins hated opossums—with their sharply pointed snouts, long naked tails and dead, black eyes, they looked exactly like gigantic rats to him, only with more fur. And Jenkins was terrified of was rats.
The immortal screamed. He flung the animal as far away from him as possible, at the same time tripping backwards to get himself even further away from the hated creature. The airborne opossum flew across the kitchen and smacked hard against the side of the door to the broom closet with a hollow-sounding thunk, then flopped onto the floor and remained still.
Jenkins, his back pressed against the refrigerator, stared at the lump of fluff with wide, terrified eyes. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest that it was almost painful, and he was panting wildly, raggedly gasping in lungfuls of air to the point of hyperventilating. He stood frozen in panicked fear; all he could see in his mind's eye were the dozens of small, sharp, pointed teeth—teeth that could easily tear into his own flesh. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the vision, groaning loudly as unwanted memories of brutal, merciless torture in a long-ago English dungeon threatened to overwhelm him completely.
The momentarily stunned opossum suddenly regained its senses and rolled over onto its feet and began staggering drunkenly back towards Jenkins.
Franklin shot across the kitchen like an arrow and was on the opossum in an instant, screaming at the top of his tiny lungs. Things had now become a matter of life and death for the angry dragon. Franklin had seen the large, ugly scar on Bài Shān's arm a long time ago, and instantly recognized it as being the work of rats. Now this rat was foolish enough to threaten Bài Shān, and in Franklin's mind that meant that this rat had to die, now, before it could bring any more harm his beloved old patriarch. With a shrill, surprisingly chilling roar, Franklin jumped onto the "rat" and knocked it back to the ground. The 'rat' fought to get the dragon off of it, frenziedly clawing and biting Franklin. The tea dragon refused to back down, and as they rolled clumsily across the floor, he managed to clamp his jaws tightly on the animal's throat, his long, sharp teeth sinking into its flesh and cutting off its air. Jenkins heard the sound of the fighting and opened his eyes.
"NO! Franklin! NO!" shouted the horrified immortal, his insides turning to ice as he watched his little friend encircling his long, sinuous body around the horrid rat-like thing like a boa constrictor and seize its throat in his jaws. He saw the frightened opossum trying to bite the little reptile and he instantly became afraid for Franklin. It was rare for opossums to transmit diseases like rabies, but not unheard of. Not knowing how susceptible a magical creature like a tea dragon might be to something like that, Jenkins looked wildly around for something to use to separate the dragon and the opossum, but he could find nothing. He needed to get Franklin away from the opossum, but his musophobia held him back. Just the thought of touching the opossum made him nauseous, but the idea of Franklin contracting rabies and possibly dying of the dreaded disease quickly became far more powerful.
Jenkins hurried over to the pair of animals. He focused all of his attention on separating them as fast as possible and nothing else, lest his fear of rats overpower him. He seized both creatures by the backs of their necks and lifted the entangled combatants into the air. He ordered Franklin to let go of the opossum, and thanks to the training for their obstacle course racing, Franklin obeyed, albeit relectantly. As soon as Franklin released the opossum, Jenkins pulled them apart. He held each animal at arm's length and as far away from each other as he could get them. Franklin continued to squirm in agitation; he still wanted to rip the 'rat's' throat out. The opossum, for its part, continued to squirm in agitation as well; all it wanted to do was to get out of this place and away from this strange snake-like attacker and never come back.
Suddenly the kitchen door burst inward, startling the already terrified man and the two distressed animals, causing all of them to shriek loudly. Jenkins nearly fainted with relief when he recognized Eve Baird, still in the shorts and tank top she'd worn to bed. Clutched in both of her hands in front of her was her sidearm, ready for action. Her blue eyes swept the room, then her brow furrowed as she took in the bizarre scene: A pale, petrified Jenkins, all but cringing in the middle of the floor, holding a furious Franklin in one hand and an opossum in the other.
Eve dropped her gun and stood up straight. She didn't know any of the details, but Cassandra had told her a while back that Jenkins was deathly afraid of rats. As soon as the Guardian saw the opossum, she surmised at least part of what was happening. The opossum looked enough like a rat to trigger the old Caretaker's phobia, and she guessed that Franklin was just trying to be helpful in some convoluted tea dragon way. What the opossum's part in this was still not totally clear.
"Jenkins! Are you all right?" she asked him. He nodded his head, his eyes again shut tightly and his head turned away from the hand holding the opossum so that he couldn't see the wriggling beast.
"Yes, I'm…I'm fine!" he lied, trying very hard to hide his terror from her and failing miserably. Eve pretended not to notice his fear and turned her attention instead to the two animals he was holding.
"Looks like you could use some help!" she said, hurrying over to him, at the same time laying her gun on the countertop. "Here, let me give you a hand, big guy!"
Franklin growled at her in warning to back off as she reached out to take the opossum from Jenkins's tightly clenched fist. It was his job to protect Bài Shān and the others, not hers! He squealed angrily as he continued to struggle against the immortal's grasp.
Ignoring Franklin, Eve gingerly grabbed the opossum by its scruff and gently removed it from Jenkins's control. By now, the opossum was completely overcome with fear, and with one loud, final squawk of terror it went completely silent. Eve held up the opossum and looked it over. It hung stiffly in her hand, its mouth open, eyes shut, tongue lolling out. The left corner of her mouth twisted upward and into a wry smile—then twisted into a grimace of disgust as the stench hit her nose.
"UGH! Oh, GAWD! That is just FOUL!" she exclaimed, dropping the board-stiff carcass and instinctively rubbing her hands on her shorts.
Franklin, shrieking with renewed rage, twisted violently in Jenkins's hand and managed to escape. He dropped onto the floor and attacked the opossum with renewed vigor, jumping on the furry body and again clamping his jaws on the creature's neck, the tea dragon's tail snapping sharply back and forth as he growled.
Eve was shocked; she'd never seen Franklin when he was angry. He was like a long, scaly, fun-sized pitbull! It occurred to her that this instinct to attack intruders might come in handy someday if he could be trained, and she tucked the thought away for later as she went over to coax the angry little dragon into letting go of his victim.
"Okay, Mr. 'Possom," she gasped, finally hoisting the opossum into the air and holding it at arm's length while trying not to breath in too much of the putrid air. She turned and headed quickly back through the kitchen door and toward the Annex workroom. "You are SO out of here!" Franklin started after her, yapping and jumping up to try and latch on to the lifeless animal.
"Jenkins! Hold onto Franklin, will you?" she called out. Jenkins, still slightly dazed by what had just happened, opened his eyes and snapped back to attention, then hurried over to scoop up the tea dragon.
"Yes, yes, I have him!" the immortal said.
Eve carried the opossum through the Annex to the front door, running as fast she could in her bare feet, then outside into Cathedral Park. It was dark and still outside, just past midnight. She carried the animal to the end of the walkway and gently laid it down on the ground, then hurried back inside the Annex and into the workroom. She quickly activated the magic mirror. There, in the surface of the silvered glass, she saw the small dark form of the opossum.
She watched quietly, anxiously, for several long minutes, her eyes never leaving the mirror. I hope Franklin didn't actually kill that poor thing, she fretted to herself. Finally, she spotted a bit of movement as the opossum flicked its ears. A few more minutes passed. The opossum rolled over onto its feet, shook itself out, then ambled unconcernedly off into the darkness. Eve grinned, deactivating the mirror before she marched briskly back to the kitchen.
She found Jenkins seated at the small kitchen table, his forehead wearily resting against one hand, while the other held onto Franklin in his lap. With the hated 'rat' now gone, the exhausted little tea dragon curled up on Bài Shān's lap and went peacefully to sleep. The broken glass that she'd seen on the floor earlier had been swept up and discarded, along with all of the bottles and cans.
As soon as Jenkins heard the door open, he raised his head and opened his eyes. She saw them dart quickly around her in search of the opossum.
"Where is it?" he demanded shortly. "Is it dead?!" Baird shook her head.
"Nope, not dead; just 'playing 'possum'." Jenkins gave her a mistrustful look.
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"Self-defense mechanism," she replied as she took a seat at the table with him. "Whenever a 'possum feels threatened, it just sort of…goes unconscious. Then it releases a scent that smells like rotting flesh in hopes that a predator sniffing around it will lose interest and go away. They can't control it, but it usually only lasts a few minutes. They just wake up and go on their merry way." Jenkins relaxed slightly, but he still eyed her warily.
"I see," he replied tightly, not pleased at all that it was still alive and able to terrorize him in the future if it chose to do so. "And where exactly is this creature now?" Eve smiled reassuringly.
"Don't worry, it's gone. I took it outside and turned it loose on an unsuspecting Portland!" She adjusted her seat in the chair. "Not gonna lie, Jenkins; I'm getting really sick and tired of all the holes that're still in the Library's so-called security perimeter." Eve was about to go on a renewed tear regarding how careless the Library seemed to be when it came to security issues. She stopped when she saw Jenkins.
The Caretaker's shoulders were slumped with relief, and he ran his free hand through his white hair as he breathed in a deep, cleansing lungful of air and released it. His expression became sheepish.
"I must apologize to you, Colonel…" he began, but she reached out and laid her hand on his arm.
"No need," she cut him off, then patted his arm affectionately. "I heard Franklin yelling all the way down the hallway! I'm just glad it was only a 'possum and I didn't bust in here and find someone lying on the floor in a pool of blood!" He dropped his eyes in embarrassment.
"Still," he insisted. "It must seem foolish to you that a man who's been around as long as I have and who has seen so much death and destruction is afraid of something so mundane as an opossum."
"Except that I know why you're afraid of them, and if I were in your shoes, I would react exactly the same way," Eve said softly, sympathetically. "And don't worry, I won't say a word about this to anyone, not even Cassandra." Jenkins placed his hand over hers and gave it a squeeze.
"Yes, well…Thank you, anyway, Eve," he murmured shyly, grateful for her compassion. "You're very kind." Eve placed her other hand over his and returned the squeeze.
"And knowing about your phobia, I'm very impressed by how brave you were to grab that thing bare-handed!" she said.
"I was more afraid for Franklin, I guess, that he might be injured," Jenkins replied with a tiny shrug of his shoulders. "Not exactly what I would call 'brave'."
"Bull!" snorted Eve. She leaned forward to look him directly in the eyes. "That's the very definition of bravery! It takes guts to do what you think is right, to protect your loved ones from harm, especially when you're afraid. You are a brave man, Jenkins, and I wouldn't want to go into a fight without you!" Jenkins's cheeks turned pink with embarrassment at the compliment, and he dropped his gaze. He smiled, but said nothing.
"So… What're you doing down here in the middle of the night, anyway?" Baird asked, changing the subject to something she hoped was more agreeable to the old man. To her relief, Jenkins instantly perked up.
"I was coming down for another slice of that lemon pie that Cassandra picked up at the market today!" he said, leaning if afraid someone might overhear. "It's absolutely delightful! Perhaps you'd care to join me?"
"I never say no to pie!" Eve answered, winking conspiratorially, then stood up. She nodded at the now-dozing tea dragon curled up in Jenkins's lap.
"You stay put, I'll get it," she offered. "Let the 'mighty hunter' there get his beauty sleep!"
Jenkins watched as Eve quietly retrieved the pie from the fridge and cut them two fat slices and poured them each a small glass of milk. When the snacks were ready she brought them to the table and sat down. They each filled their forks with large mouthful of the gooey dessert.
"To 'possums!" said Eve, raising her fork. Jenkins smiled.
"To 'possums," he repeated, chuckling, then gave two small nods to indicate Eve and Franklin. "And to those who defend us from them!"
Caretaker and Guardian then touched their forks together in a "toast". Franklin, as if on cue, sleepily raised his head and caught the scent of something sweet and lemony. He spied the slice of pie on Jenkins's plate and, whimpering softly, began to clamber to his feet and crane his neck in hopes of sharing in the treat. Jenkins smiled indulgently and held his fork lower so that Franklin could lick the pie from it, almost purring with happiness. Eve shook her head in disbelief as she started to work on her own slice.
"Honestly, Jenkins, that has got to be the most spoiled tea dragon in the entire Pacific Northwest!" she commented with mock sourness. She cocked her head in surprise when Jenkins burst into quiet laughter.
"What?" she asked.
"Franklin and I were just talking about that!" he said, then took a huge bite of his pie.