Contest #250 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction Fantasy Mystery

The walls of the event hall are glass. Transparent panes lead to a curved ceiling decorated with painted dragons, the modern walls a recent installment after a fire forced us to repair them. Instead of reconstructing the ancient style, the architects went for simplicity, clarity. Something different. It feels  at odds, though, with the rich warmth of the ceiling and the deep colors of the jewel-toned dragons. The glass lets the night in, and from my spot at the entrance, I watch the guests arrive in glitter and black and finery, parading like proud birds with puffed up chests and too many feathers in their caps.

I survey the welcome table, mentally checking off the items I placed neatly on the pure white tablecloth. Name tags with cursive gold metallic script. Silver flutes with the city’s finest champagne fizzing inside. Programs printed with a list of benefactors beneath the words, “The Museum of Dragon History’s Annual Evening of Magic 2024”. There is a slight wrinkle at the corner of the cloth that I smooth over with my hands, and I glance above me to the top of the staircase where a banner hangs: “Welcome to the Universe of Dragons”. The letters are surrounded by hand-painted planets, moons, and stars to suit this year’s theme: Celestial Magic.

Everything is perfect. Everything must be perfect.

“It looks beautiful, Crystal,” a deep voice says from behind me. “You did a fantastic job with this event.”

I smile and turn to face my boss, the museum director, a short, plump man with thick gray whiskers and a shiny bald head. He should have retired three years ago, but there was no pulling Martin away from his museum. Especially not now, not when dragon fossils are being discovered at a higher rate than ever before.

“Thank you,” I said. “Looks like a good turnout so far.”

“It does. Look, there’s Mayor Windhaven.” Martin straightens his suit jacket and plucks two champagne flutes from the table. “I’d better go say hello to him and his wife.”

I scan my iPad and check off the Mayor’s name. Most of the guests had arrived. Now was a good time to check on Clara–she was, after all, the keynote speaker, and her presentation was imperative to the success of the evening. We hoped her speech would bring in a lot of fat checks.

It would be a waste of time to try to find her in the event hall. I knew Clara wasn’t mingling. The only creatures Clara likes to mingle with are dead, fossilized dragons, and we keep those in the basement. 

“Clara?” I knock carefully on the door to the research lab. “Clara, we need you on stage in an hour.”

I wait for a beat and sigh. Clara has a habit of listening to music while working, and I was sure tonight was no exception. I wish she would respect the importance of these parties a little more. Without the events I plan and the press releases I send, this museum would never have anyone walking through its doors. We would be another dusty, ancient building filled with old bones that nobody cares about. But, thanks to me, the Museum of Dragon History is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the land. 

When Clara doesn’t open the door after another sixty seconds, I try again, knocking harder this time. Still nothing. But it doesn’t matter. I have a key to every room in this place.

When I step inside, I am surprised to find myself in darkness. Preserving, analyzing, and cataloging fossils requires light. I am about to flick the switch when I hear voices.

Who is she talking to? I wonder. Everyone else that has access to this room is upstairs with the guests, where they should be.

A strange, primal instinct tells me to keep the lights off. Instead, I turn on my phone flashlight and aim it at the ground, gingerly stepping around lab tables and stools. I recognize the shapes of delicate wing bones spread across the largest table in the middle of the room–the most recent discovery, brought in by a young farmer from the country who found the fossil when he was trying to plant a new field. Clara had flushed with excitement. “It’s entirely intact,” she told me a few hours after the fossil arrived, breathless in my office. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We have the whole right wing, completely preserved.”

“That’s wonderful,” I told her, but I was only half listening. This was a week ago, a mere six days before the gala. I had no time to think of bones. The balloon artist had just emailed telling me they were out of stock of transparent stars, and did I want to go with half moons instead?

Now, the sound of breaking glass snaps me back to the present. I halt in my steps, trying to figure out where it came from. The voices have stopped, but there is a muffled thud from my right. The storage closet. 

The hair on my arms raises, and a cold chill shudders down my neck. I suddenly wonder if I should call Martin. It didn’t seem prudent to try to handle this on my own, whatever it was.

But what if Clara went in there to get something from a top shelf, and the voices were only because she was talking on the phone, and now she has knocked over a glass beaker that hit her on the head and she needs my help? There could be an explanation for all these noises. An explanation that wasn’t insidious. Right?

I am just about to open the door to the storage closet when the handle turns from inside, and the same instinct that told me to keep the lights off tells me to duck. I kneel behind the lab table with the wing bones and frantically turn off my phone flashlight. 

“She’s heavy,” a male voice mutters. It is muffled like he is speaking through a cloth.

“Oh, shut up,” a woman responds. “I’ve seen you lift dragon bones bigger than me. Just get on with it.”

There is a groan, and I cover my mouth with my hand to suppress a gasp. I can just make out Clara’s shoes–the ugly white ones with thick soles and good arch support that she wears when she has to stand for hours on end staring through a microscope. She has paired them with black tights covered in tiny stars, the tights she picked out especially to go with my theme for the gala.

From behind me, I hear a click and a swish. Someone is opening the window–the only window in this lab, which goes to the back garden.

“You go first,” the man says. “I’ll lift her from the bottom, and you can help pull her through.”

There is a heavy thud, and I wince.

“Be careful!” the woman hisses. “We want her alive and coherent, you idiot. She is no use to us if you smash her head in.”

“I told you,” he complains. “She’s heavier than she looks.”

My hands are trembling so much that my phone shakes. I should do something. Call the police. Call Martin. Maybe take that heavy microscope over there and defend myself with it. Or maybe a dragon bone would do as a weapon. Clara would be furious if I did that.

I need to do something, but fear has me trapped like a startled rabbit beneath a bush. I am one person, and Clara is clearly unconscious. Who knows what these people would do to me, someone who does not have advanced scientific knowledge of dragon research, and therefore has a much less valuable brain than Clara.

I can text, though. Maybe they won’t notice the light from my phone.

I open my text thread with Martin. My hands shake so much that I can barely type.

Help. In lab. Bring security.

Meanwhile, I hear the sound of dragging fabric. “Her tights ripped,” the man observes.

“I don’t care!” the woman retorts. Her voice is more distant now, and I am sure she is outside.

I stare at my phone, willing a message from Martin to appear.

Seconds pass like years, and nothing happens. I hear the man step on the bench I know is along the back wall and the swish of the window being closed.

They are gone. I let out a breath and count to one hundred. Martin still hasn’t responded, so I rise to my feet unsteadily and take the elevator to the event hall. I find him in conversation with Ted Halloway, one of our most generous patrons.

“I am so sorry to interrupt,” I say with as pleasant a smile as I can muster. “Can I steal Martin away for just a moment?”

“Of course,” Ted says with a smile. And then, to Martin: “I’m really looking forward to what you have up your sleeve tonight, old friend. Game-changing news, you say?”

Martin beams. “It will change everything you thought you knew about dragons, I promise you that.”

“Excellent. I look forward to supporting you.” Ted shakes Martin’s hand and gives me a nod before heading in the direction of a server carrying a tray of spinach puffs. 

“What is it?” Martin sounds annoyed until he gets a good look at my face, and I know my panic must be plastered across it like a billboard. “Crystal… what’s wrong?”

“Not here,” I whisper. “Come to my office.”

I collapse at my desk and tell him what happened. His eyes grow wide and he grasps for his phone.

“We have to call the police.”

“I know. But…” 

“But what?” he snaps, looking at me in shock, surprised I would have any hesitation.

“Crystal’s research is the biggest reason people are here tonight,” I say, as calmly as I can. “The biggest reason they will write a check in support of this museum. I am afraid if they know she is gone, and potentially never coming back…” I can’t look him in the eye as I say it. “We might lose the funds we need to complete the project.”

Crystal was working on a research project she called The Lifecycle of a Dragon. She was collecting fossils of dragons from varying age groups and cataloging the differences in their behavior, diet, and bone structure throughout their life. Information like that was powerful, because, despite centuries of research, we still barely know anything about how dragons lived–or why they went extinct. We only know it wasn’t at once. They were dying off one by one, over time, but no one was ever able to figure out why, or how long they usually lived, or what was powerful enough to kill the strongest, most intimidating creature in our world.

There had been no breakthroughs for over a hundred years. Until now, when Clara discovered a new chemical compound in a set of bones six months ago, a compound that implied something we never guessed–magical properties. She had tested each set of bones in our archives since, and every single one had the same compound. The conclusion she was going to reveal tonight was that dragons could wield magic, perhaps in the same way as wizards and witches and faeries. Until now, the most unique power we knew they had was fire-breathing.

The magical compound meant that we had truly barely scratched the surface of dragon history. If they had magical abilities, it was possible that dragons had intelligence, too.

I hold my head in my hands as my mind spins. No one but myself, Martin, Clara, and her assistant, Adrian, knew what she was going to tell the world tonight. Clara’s announcement was going to change everything for this museum. For Martin. For me, if I used it in the right way to propel my career forward.

“Martin,” I continue slowly, knowing he needs a nudge. “We can’t lose this opportunity.”

“We have to call the police,” he insists, panic lacing his voice. “It’s Clara, for Heaven’s sake.” 

“If we call the police, they will storm this place. There will be no hiding that she is missing, not with all the press I invited. Do you really want that kind of story to be associated with our museum?” I said. “With our biggest, most important night of the year?”

My museum,” he corrected. And then paused. “Can Adrian make the announcement?”

Guilt twists like a snake in my belly. This was Clara’s discovery. She was the expert. It should be her behind that podium.

I remember her ugly shoes with those starry tights that she bought to try to please me, to support my work in the only way she knew how, and sigh.

“No,” I said. “We can’t do that to her. We need to call the police.”

Martin nods sadly and pats my hand across the table. His palm was warm and soft.

“You know this means that we are going to lose a lot of funding tonight,” I add, just to make sure he understands what involving the police means. “And if the police can’t save her, we will need to find another scientist. And Clara…” I swallow hard. “Clara is the best. She is irreplaceable.”

He leans forward in his chair and locks eyes with me. His eyes are blue and clear, sharp as they were decades ago, even as wrinkles settle into his face like storylines. 

“I’ve kept this museum going for fifty years, Crystal, even when no one cared about dragon lore. Clara is the best at what she does, but I am the best at what I do, and so are you. Make the damn call. We’ll figure out how to finish the research project. Somehow, we will learn the secrets of the dragons, even if it kills me. Even if I have to spend my last days dusting bones and labeling fossils. This is my purpose, and one more setback doesn’t change that.”

He lets out a slow breath and gives me a small smile. Martin should be tired. He is seventy years old, but somehow, in this moment, he has more hope than I do. There is energy in his eyes that has never left his spirit, not since he was nineteen years old and unearthed his first dragon. He told me that seeing its body laid out in the dirt, waiting for him, was like seeing a map of the rest of his life.

I make the call.

May 17, 2024 17:11

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22 comments

Daniel Rogers
02:43 May 29, 2024

Fantasy is my favorite genre and bringing it into 2024 is spectacular. Now here is my thoughts on your story free of charge. lol. Crystal is driven by an unhealthy desire for success. She can be excused for fearing for her life, but her struggle between covering up the kidnapping and calling the police proves she has her priorities wrong. You created a complex character in a very short amount of words. Your concept of fossilized dragons is original and unique, and I personally love it. There is a lot left hanging: the safety of Clara, the mo...

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12:16 May 29, 2024

Thank you very much! Crystal is certainly a complicated character. Honestly, her decision in the end surprised me! For most of the story, I thought she was going to do the wrong thing. If Martin wasn't there, I believe she would have. I am tempted to do more with this concept, so it is great to hear your thoughts. Building out this world for a novel would be a lot of fun.

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VJ Hamilton
20:21 May 26, 2024

Great story, Alexandra! I love how supportive Martin is!

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12:17 May 29, 2024

Thank you VJ!

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Martina Guaiumi
20:53 May 25, 2024

I cannot wait to read the end of the story, PLEASE!!!!

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12:17 May 29, 2024

I think I might expand on it!! I would also love to know the ending, LOL.

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08:37 May 25, 2024

What an awful decision to have to make. If the MC had given away her presence in the room, she may have been grabbed as well or harmed in some way. Gripping account. Hope they save Clara. Wondered what on earth they wanted with her. Congratulations on the short list.

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13:32 May 25, 2024

Thank you! I am glad you found it gripping and interesting :)

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John Rutherford
04:13 May 25, 2024

Congraulations.

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15:03 May 28, 2024

Thank you! :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
02:39 May 25, 2024

Congrats.

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15:03 May 28, 2024

Thank you!

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Philip Ebuluofor
02:49 May 29, 2024

Welcome.

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Kristi Gott
18:48 May 24, 2024

Congratulations! A very creative answer to the prompt!

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19:16 May 24, 2024

Thank you! :)

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Alexis Araneta
18:11 May 24, 2024

Intriguing one here !!! Lovely work !

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19:17 May 24, 2024

Thank you very much! :)

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Marty B
17:50 May 24, 2024

I loved the last line- 'seeing its body laid out in the dirt, waiting for him, was like seeing a map of the rest of his life.' Congrats!

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19:17 May 24, 2024

Thank you! That was my favorite line.

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Mary Bendickson
16:44 May 24, 2024

Some mix-up I think in names but an intriguing mystery. Congrats on the shortlist.

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19:18 May 24, 2024

Thank you! I spotted the names today too. The danger of writing two characters with names that start with the same letter :D

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Mary Bendickson
23:07 May 24, 2024

It happens. Sometimes I think the auto correct is trying to help too much. Thanks for the follow.

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