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The Dragon Conspiracy

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The Dragon Conspiracy

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Author: Lisa Shearin
Publisher: Ace Books, 2015
Series: SPI Files: Book 2

1. The Grendel Affair
2. The Dragon Conspiracy
3. The Brimstone Deception

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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After solving The Grendel Affair, the agents have another SPI File to investigate...

We're Supernatural Protection & Investigations, known as SPI. We battle the real monsters of myth and legend, but this Halloween, we're searching for diamonds...

A gala opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has attracted the upper crust of Manhattan--and thieves. A trio of vile harpies attacks the crowd and steals the stars of the exhibition: a colorful cluster of seven cursed diamonds known as the Dragon Eggs.
In the right mage's hands, each stone can pack a magical wallop. Together they have the power to "cure" the supernaturals of the tristate area--but for many of those vampires and werewolves, that means turning into dust.

I'm Makenna Fraser, a seer for SPI. With the help of my partner, Ian, and the other agents, I have twenty-four hours to prevent total global panic, find the diamonds, and save the supernatural community. No biggie...


Chapter 1

I was working, but if this was work, then sign me up for triple overtime.

This was my kind of Halloween party--cool jazz, a hot date, and a little black dress I'd paid way too much for, but refused to feel guilty about. It was my treat to me. My first Halloween in New York was shaping up to be one to write home about.

The jazz band was playing "That Old Black Magic." I wondered if they knew how appropriate that was.

My hot date was my partner, Ian Byrne. No, not that kind of partner; the kind that work together battling the forces of evil. He was a senior agent; I was the newbie. But his job title didn't keep him from being the ultimate arm candy.

He was tall, dark, lean, and born to wear a tuxedo.

It was Friday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the night before Halloween and we were posing as a hoity-toity Manhattan couple with an invitation to the season's most anticipated opening night at the Met's newest exhibit--Mythos.

Gods and goddesses, beasties and monsters, myths and legends, all safely represented in painting, sculpture, or artifact--all of the thrills with none of the danger.

I say danger, because monsters are real.

My name is Makenna Fraser and I work for SPI--that's Supernatural Protection and Investigations for those in the know. Those in the know consisted of the supernatural community in Manhattan and throughout the outer boroughs.

SPI was headquartered in New York, but had offices and agents worldwide. It was founded by Vivienne Sagadraco in 1647. And no, that wasn't the boss lady's ancestor. It was the boss lady herself. Vivienne Sagadraco was much older than she looked, less human than she appeared, and a lot larger than you could ever imagine.

I imagine there were plenty of people who called their boss a dragon lady and meant it as an insult.

My boss was a real dragon--and a true lady.

Right now, she was... well, holding court was about the only way I could describe it.

In her actual form, she'd have cleared the room; every human in the place would have been screaming and stampeding for the nearest exit. But as Vivienne Sagadraco, wealthy socialite and generous philanthropist, she drew a crowd of admirers wherever she went--especially admirers who had a cause or event they needed funded.

A mural of frolicking dryads was currently framing her slim and elegant figure. Whether intentional or not, the mural's jewel-toned tiles of semiprecious stones couldn't have provided a more flattering backdrop for her.

Though I shouldn't have been surprised if she had chosen it on purpose. Not because it made her look good, but because it looked good to her. Dragons loved their sparklies, and Vivienne Sagadraco was no exception.

In fact, it was her love of shiny things (and uncanny investment skills) that was behind SPI's funding. Monster hunting and protecting humans and supernaturals from each other--and keeping humans in the dark about all of it--took the latest technology, developed and run by the most brilliant minds, and seemingly bottomless financial reserves to pay for all of it. Toss in a financial management staff of scary accurate clairvoyants, and Vivienne Sagadraco's net worth would probably put the treasuries of many first-world countries to shame. Not to mention it made all of us agents warm and fuzzy to know that our 401k accounts were in the best hands.

Ian Byrne and I weren't here on a date.

We were here to prevent a robbery.

When it came to art with supernatural provenance, value wasn't always measured in money. There were a handful of items in the exhibition that could cause a lot of trouble if they fell into the wrong hands.

That's why SPI was involved.

So while we had some idea of what the thieves were after, we had no earthly clue how anyone could steal any of them, especially tonight.

SPI had received intelligence that there would be a robbery. Tonight. Smack dab in the middle of a museum gala with hundreds of people in attendance. As to the identity of our potential thief, none of the supernaturals or humans were behaving suspiciously. It looked like a perfectly normal thousand-dollar-a-head museum exhibit opening on a Friday night in New York. People and not-people were out and about, seeing but mostly being seen, looking at ancient art and artifacts, and admiring the pretties and the sparklies from behind velvet ropes and bulletproof glass.

Stealing anything from this exhibition would be humanly impossible.

Inhumans, on the other hand, just might be able to pull it off.

That was where SPI came in.

Or more to the point, me.

I'm what SPI calls a seer.

Most of the members of my family could see supernatural creatures for what they really were. We could see through any magical veil, ward, shield, or spell any supernatural could come up with as a disguise. I could identify every supernatural present at this little shindig. It wasn't in the least bit surprising that supernaturals were among New York's glitterati. When your life span was measured in centuries, you could accumulate wealth in quantities unimaginable to all but Middle Eastern sheiks, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or Kardashian divorce-settlement recipients.

What passed for figments of peoples' overactive imaginations, or things that went bump in the night and day, were SPI's bread and butter.

Fact meets fiction.

Science meets entertainment.

Myths and monsters. If the museum hadn't wanted to tap into that, they wouldn't be officially opening the Mythos exhibition to the public on Halloween.

Most of the supernatural guests were the vampire, elf, and goblin variety. Naturally they were veiled, meaning they had used small magics to conceal their most distinguishing features--or at least those that would be most alarming to humans. That meant fangs for the vamps, upswept ears for the elves, and both of the above plus silvery skin tone for the goblins.

I could see them all, but I'd learned at a young age to keep that knowledge to myself. Most supernaturals didn't want to be seen for what they really were, especially by a human, which many of them viewed as a sub-creature, dinner, or both. I'd always made it a point to avoid being seen as either one.

An unremarkable looking, middle-aged couple gazed with obvious distain and quiet, derisive laughter at one of the promotional posters the Met had liberally spread around town on buses, subway stops, and anywhere else people couldn't help but notice them.

The couple were vampires.

In honor of the gala, a few of the more popular posters had been expanded into banners and hung suspended from the ceiling in all their glossy glory. In honor of Halloween, and people's seemingly never-ending fascination with vampires, one banner depicted what the Met's Marketing department knew humans wanted to see if confronted by a vampire--a breathtakingly beautiful, darkly seductive creature, with just a hint of fang visible, and deep bedroom eyes that assured their victim that their primary intent was merely to boff them silly. Yes, there was that tiny, insignificant thing that involved driving those fangs into the side of your neck and essentially ripping your throat out as they drained your blood and left you to die in an alley, darkened park, bathroom in a SoHo nightclub, or wherever they'd found you when the mood to munch took them. But because you'd be so hot and bothered by their sexy selves, you'd enjoy the hell out of the throat ripping while they did it to you.

Though most vamps were discreet in their selection of dining partners, and unless they were feeding for the first time, they didn't need to drain their victims dry. Regardless, it still felt like a pair of nails being hammered into the side of your neck. There was nothing sexy about that; I didn't care what you were into.

I looked again at the banner and had to agree with the vampire couple. The depiction was highly inaccurate. I guess I should just be glad that the damned thing didn't sparkle.

I turned to the man on my arm. "How about a spin around the dance floor? Just one song."

My ever-vigilant partner continued scanning the crowd for any oddity, something out of place that would signal a team of paranormal thieves getting ready to make their collective move. "We're not here to dance."

"No, we're not," I agreed, not about to give up that easily. "But we were told to blend in. A lot of people are dancing, therefore dancing blends in." I had new shoes to go with my new dress, and my new shoes wanted to dance.

"And a lot of people are not dancing," Ian countered. "They're going through the exhibition, which is why we're here, remember?"

How could I forget?

Change of tactics. Ian was always telling me that a good agent is flexible. "Okay, then. Think how many more people you could see from the dance floor." I lowered my voice conspiratorially. "It's raised."

Ian continued his surveillance. "I noticed."

"Of course, you did. But I bet even you can't resist that song. It's perfect."

Ian didn't respond, at least not with words.

Quicker than a takedown in one of our hand-to-hand combat lessons, Ian swept me onto the dance floor.

I yelped. Fortunately the music covered it up. "You could warn a girl."

"You asked for it. A good agent is always careful what they ask for--spoken or unspoken." A trace of a grin quirked his lips. "You never know what you're going to get."

Like my normally by-the-book partner being coaxed into mixing a little fun into our business this evening.

"Everything's a teaching opportunity, isn't it." I didn't ask it as a question; I already knew the answer.

"It is until you learn everything."

"Which means my future's gonna be chock full of teaching."

Even I couldn't deny it. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know. My bullets were getting closer to the centers of our shooting range's paper targets, but human silhouettes were only one kind of target that I practiced on. Some of them were so big you'd think I couldn't miss them. Wrong. In my defense, when multiple targets popped up either at the same time or one right after the other, it was hard to remember where to shoot. Some of the things we came up against didn't have hearts in the same places as humans. Heck, some didn't have hearts at all.

The rest of my training was going even slower, though it'd help if Ian wasn't the ultimate commando-ninja-badass monster fighter. Him being so good made me look even worse. However, if someday I found myself backed into a dead-end alley facing a wendigo with a hankering for a late-night snack, I knew I'd be glad that I'd been taught by the best. Ian hadn't deemed me competent enough to progress past what looked to me like Nerf knives, and I still couldn't last more than fifteen seconds on the sparring mat without Ian pinning me. If he wouldn't throw me quite so hard, at least that part would be fun, though I think that was why he did it; that and to be a constant reminder that any encounter I had on the job with a supernatural critter wasn't going to feel like fun and games.

Ian and I had spent a lot of time together since he'd been assigned as my partner/bodyguard/babysitter. SPI's seers didn't get combat training, but since my three predecessors had met with fatal accidents that might not have been so accidental, SPI's management had taken steps to protect their personnel investment. That would be me. Ian Byrne was that protection. To Ian, a big part of that protection was teaching me to fend for myself. I couldn't have agreed more, and was doing my best to learn everything he had to teach. However, I think Ian was feeling a whole lot like Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle.

During that time, my training had extended to time off the clock. Though it was more like an educational series of "Let's have a beer after work, and I'll tell you how to tell normal sewer sludge from the mucus trail of a giant demon slug." Let me tell you, nothing puts you off your bar-food nachos quicker than a lecture on the color and consistency of slug secretions.

But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun, because between the lectures on monster bodily fluids, Ian would tell me about past missions. Purely from an instructional viewpoint, of course. At least that's what Ian wanted me to believe. I could tell he enjoyed the telling as much as I did the hearing. It must have been the Irish storyteller in him.

Ian began maneuvering us toward the center of the dance floor. One spin was so sudden I nearly fell off my heels. Though any heel height was too high for me. I was the only person I knew of who could fall off a pair of flip-flops.

"Easy there, partner. What's the rush?"

Ian lowered his head to my ear while still steering us toward the center, showing his usual impressive coordination. I displayed my usual lack.

"I want you to get a look at Viktor Kain's date," he said. "Human or not human?"

I stiffened, and if Ian's hand hadn't been firmly at the small of my back, I would have stumbled.

Ian knew my reason wasn't due to clumsiness.

"Relax," Ian told me. "He's just dancing."

Well, if Nero had fiddled while Rome had burned, it stood to reason that mass murderers could dance, but that didn't mean I wanted to dance anywhere near one.

Viktor Kain had loaned art to the Met for the exhibit--art that was the main reason we were here, and Ian had spotted him before I had.

Way to be a watchful agent, Mac.

I was glad Ian had seen him first. If my partner had swung me around and I'd suddenly gotten a gander of the Russian, I'd have probably freaked out, which would have blown our cover, at least with Viktor Kain. Though if the people around us had known what the Russian businessman really was, they not only wouldn't have blamed me one bit, they'd have run like hell.

Viktor Kain was a dragon.

That wasn't my problem with him. Far from it. I knew a few dragons. Heck, our boss was a dragon. Once you got past the whole humans-occasionally-on-the-menu thing, dragons could be nice people.

No, my problem with Viktor Kain was that he was the head of an international crime syndicate. He had personally killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people over his long criminal career and even longer life, and he'd ordered the deaths and ruin of even more--and he'd enjoyed every last minute of it.

Ostensibly, the Russian was here in New York because he'd loaned several items to the museum for the exhibition. SPI strongly suspected that wasn't the only reason. Viktor Kain had brought more than art with him; he'd brought trouble, not just for SPI, but for every human on this island and probably beyond.

The Russian's very presence on East Coast soil was a slap in the face to every rule of dragon etiquette, and two skips away from a declaration of supernatural war. No dragon would dare set claw on another's territory without an invitation. I'd put enough agency rumor and innuendo together to know that Vivienne Sagadraco and Viktor Kain had crossed each other's paths in the past, and as a result of those encounters, each barely tolerated the existence of the other on the planet. So if Viktor Kain the dragon wanted to come to New York, he knew better than to ask for an invitation. It wasn't gonna happen, in this century or any other.

Local and federal law enforcement knew that Viktor Kain the Russian mobster was here, but until he broke any laws, watch was all they could do.

We couldn't do anything, either.

Though before the night was over, karma might just kick Viktor Kain in the teeth. In all probability, one of the items he'd brought was the one that was going to be stolen.

The betting had started early among our agents on what the thief would go after. The odds were leaning heavily toward the Dragon Eggs--a massive ruby cut in the shape of a coiled dragon surrounded by seven of the world's rarest, egg-shaped, colored diamonds, all contained in an intricately woven solid-gold nest.

The Dragon Eggs were being shown for the first time outside of Russia since they'd been given to the Empress Alexandra. Yes, that Alexandra. Wife of Tsar Nicholas, and mother to Anastasia, et al. The separate stones had blood-soaked histories that'd turn your hair white, but collectively they were said to be cursed. The curse rumor definitely picked up a couple extra believability points when in July of 1918, only months after the czarina received the diamonds, the Bolsheviks wiped out the Russian imperial family. The Dragon Eggs had vanished after the Romanov family was murdered, and the diamonds had only come together again within the past few months in the collection of Viktor Kain.

I wasn't normally the superstitious type, but you couldn't pay me enough to touch the things, let alone own them.

But there were a lot of obscenely wealthy people, or their representatives, here tonight who wanted to do just that--touch and own. They were using tonight's gala as an auction preview. Whether due to the curse or a need for cash, Viktor Kain was selling the Dragon Eggs; however, for a reason known only to him, he'd let it be known that he could be persuaded to sell them separately rather than together. Maybe he thought he could get more money that way.

I got a good look at the white-gowned, willowy blonde in Viktor Kain's arms. I didn't have to look long to determine that she was stunning. The men around her had arrived at the same conclusion, but apparently they felt the need to keep stealing glances at her in case their opinions changed.

While the woman was inhumanly beautiful, human was all that she was.

"Just human," I told Ian. "Though try convincing any guy here that she's not a goddess."

Viktor Kain saw the stir his date was causing, and the oily smile on his face told me that it amused him.

The Russian had a face like the business end of a hatchet, sharp and cold. He was a couple inches taller than Ian, probably pushing six four. His date was only an inch or two shorter, but thanks to the slit in her gown combined with a particularly impressive dance move, I got a look at a pair of what had to be five-inch heels.

Beneath Viktor Kain's human glamour was a monstrous dragon the color of dried blood. While Vivienne Sagadraco was a dragon of incredible beauty with her peacock blue and green iridescent scales, and immaculate wings that held a similar jewel-like glow, many of Viktor Kain's red scales were edged in black as if burnt, or missing altogether, revealing rubbery, bat-like skin below. His wings folded crooked over his back, and had been torn in more than a few places, their healing marked by thickened scar tissue.

The Russian looked like a dragon that'd fought many times, and since he was here, he'd apparently met and defeated every challenger. I knew the boss wouldn't back down from a fight, and I'd seen her in two of them, but she'd either had fewer than Kain, or was so good that she'd never been seriously injured. In a dragon fight, size took a backseat to speed and agility. Viktor Kain was bigger than Vivienne Sagadraco, but I'd seen firsthand how agile the boss was in the air. I got the impression the Russian probably lacked in that area. He looked like more of a use-brute-strength-to-set-an-example kind of guy. Rumor had it he used fire to rid himself of inconvenient business associates. Not with a blowtorch or a flamethrower, but with his own exhaled breath.

Viktor Kain had hidden his true identity over the centuries by assuming a human form; only a small and fanatically devoted circle of associates knew his true nature. I guess he needed a few people to get rid of any crispy critter that used to be an employee whose performance had disappointed him. Though you had to wonder what Viktor's underlings who weren't in his inner circle thought when a live man walked in to see their boss, but a human-shaped charcoal briquette got carried out. Most of them probably didn't want to know how that happened. Keep your head down, don't ask stupid questions, and live to resperate another day.

Our agency briefing had touched on why Viktor Kain had chosen St. Petersburg as his territory. A city of history, palaces, museums, and art. He fancied himself a patron of the arts, and true to his draconic nature, he was an avid collector. He'd been known to pay an astronomical sum to have the Hermitage closed to the public and the alarms turned off so he could walk the galleries alone, admiring and touching the priceless works of art.

A dragon communing with his hoard.

Ian and I stayed on the dance floor for one more song, and then entered the exhibit. I was glad to leave the dragon and his date to their samba.

The art and artifacts were arranged mostly by subject or time period, and what could only be called theater sets had been designed and lit for maximum effect. The exhibit representing the Delphic oracle was located in what looked like a real cave. Hollywood--or since this was New York, a Broadway set designer--couldn't have done a better job.

It was spooky as hell; but I had to admit, it was effective.

There were paintings, sculptures, tapestries, artifacts, armor, weapons, jewelry and huge stained glass windows illustrating dragons, furies, demons, sea monsters, vampires, gryphons, giants, fae, gods, and more fantastical creatures from myth and legend--all perfectly lit to maximize their beauty and impact.

Ian paused by the oracle's cave, getting a report from Edward Laughlin, a security consultant SPI often called upon when the valuables (or the hopeful thief of said valuables) were paranormal in nature. Eddie also had a profitable sideline business as an acquirer of antiquities with a paranormal provenance, making him kind of like Indiana Jones, minus the whip and fedora.

Eddie was also half elf and half goblin, and as such was looked down on by many of both races. Your average elf or goblin on the street was fine with the whole mixed race thing, but any pure-blood aristocrats of either race here tonight (and there were quite a few) would rather spit on him as look at him. Needless to say, Eddie was rocking a serious glamour this evening that no one short of a mage was gonna see through. And he'd recently added some ubercool sunglasses to his disguise, due to an infection he'd gotten courtesy of an irritated temple-monkey demon that actually had managed to spit on him--right in the eyes. Though if you had to get something that was the supernatural second cousin of pink eye, cover it up in style. Between the super-sized glamour, the shades, and a thick film over his usual aura courtesy of the nasty magic–infused monkey spit, no one--including myself--could tell what he really was, making it perfectly safe for him to walk around among the upper crust of both of his races.

Ian nodded to me, indicating that I should continue; he'd catch up. I did.

The pieces featured in the exhibit came from a mix of loans from private collections and other museums. I saw a few that I recognized, like the Pre-Raphaelite painting of Pandora by John William Waterhouse. His subject may have been romanticized, but the box she was shown opening was very real. Some of the evils and diseases that had originally escaped from the box had been captured, or contained and re-imprisoned. Agency rumor had it that one of the diseases presently in the box could wipe out the entire human race in a matter of days. Pandora's box and its remaining contents were now securely sealed in a vault deep beneath SPI's Berlin office.

Nearby was a Greek wine jar on loan from the British Museum featuring Perseus having just cut off Medusa's head, with the goddess Athena looking on in approval. Nice lady.

Gold flickered out of the corner of my eye. Vivienne Sagadraco wasn't the only one who liked things that went glitter in the night. I strolled over, and the closer I got the more familiar it looked. A Viking sword. Not just any Viking sword, but the blade reputed to be the source of the legend of Gram--the sword that the Norse hero Sigurd used to kill the dragon Fafnir.

I chuckled. I had news for the Oslo museum it'd been loaned from, there didn't need to be a source for Gram's legend. The real thing existed, and Sigurd hadn't been a myth, which meant that Fafnir had probably been the real McCoy as well.

I'd seen Gram up close and met Sigurd's descendant personally last New Year's Eve. We'd had a problem with the descendant of another Scandinavian. Grendel. Sigurd's multi-great grandson was a SPI commando from our Oslo office named Rolf Haagen. He'd brought the sword with him when a team of Nordic monster hunters had jumped across the pond to give us a hand. Rolf killed one of the grendels, but he hadn't used Gram to do it. The crazy Viking had goaded the monster into grabbing him, and then shoved a grenade down the thing's throat.

That'd been messy.

Next to the reputed source for Gram's legend were more swords.

We'd been warned in our pre-mission briefing that there were a few items in the exhibition that were more than what they appeared. The usual arrangement was that people used objects. A couple of the objects in the Mythos exhibition had the reputation of using people.

Between me and the room with the Dragon Eggs, was an Egyptian mural of Anubis, a cursed and bloodthirsty Japanese sword that a pair of our agents were keeping a close eye on, gold Incan temple artifacts used in human sacrifices (likewise getting some special SPI protection), and the obligatory statue of St. George and the Dragon. I was betting the boss wouldn't be a fan of that particular piece.

The lighting got even more dramatic with more than its fair share of red and oranges. Fire. The art in this section depicted evil in its various mythical forms. Everything from a statue of the classic horned representation of the devil, to the black-winged concept of the fallen Lucifer in a more modern--and quite frankly, hot--painting. I had news, when you caught a real demon, their veils dropped and you got a good look at what you really had on the end of your hook. Kind of like going fishing and coming up with a water moccasin. Believe me, that wasn't something you want sharing an itty-bitty boat with you.

A life-sized painting of Hades had been roped off, not for the safety of the painting, but for the safety of female guests, especially those that resembled the daughter of Demeter. Per Demeter's agreement with the god of the underworld, Persephone was supposed to spend summers with her mom. However, Hades had been known to have occasional bouts of amnesia on that part of the contract. A certain Italian Renaissance artist had traded his soul to Hades for talent with a brush. In return, Hades had added a nifty portal feature to the newly completed painting; a painting that could give you a direct flight straight to Hell. While Hades wanted Persephone, there'd been enough incidents over the centuries of girls disappearing into the painting to prove that any petite blond, blue-eyed beauty with long, shampoo-commercial hair would work in a pinch.

I was petite, but my eyes were green, not blue. And while my hair was blond, it wasn't long. Still, I wasn't taking any chances and gave the painting a wide berth. Even though I wasn't exactly his type, I could swear the painting's eyes followed me.

I guess it didn't make a hill of beans worth of difference if you were the king of the underworld, or the managing editor of the bottom-of-the-journalistic-barrel tabloid I'd worked for when I'd first come to town, a lecherous sleazebag was a lecherous sleazebag.

A hand on my shoulder nearly made me jump out of my skin.

Ian. Not Hades.

"The boss called. She wants us on egg watch," he told me.


Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Shearin


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