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Night of the Dragon

"Once upon a time…" The wooden sign, painted with red lettering in Old English script, held promises of faraway places where magic was as commonplace as mourning doves and dreams could be plucked by the pocketful from golden trees that grew along the wayside.

Lydia loved the sign. She had brought it all the way from Pontotoc, Mississippi, in the back of her 1988 blue Ford truck, covered with a tarp so the storm she'd come through in Texas and the blistering heat in New Mexico and Arizona wouldn't warp it and damage its bright colors. Perched on a ladder she'd found in a dusty back room of the bookshop she'd purchased from Michael O'Hurley, she hung the sign over her front door.

"I'm going to miss this old place," Michael said.

"You can come here any time. I'm going to need your help getting used to the customers."

"I don't want to be a pest. Besides, I'll be too busy bowling and chasing women."

Lydia saw right through him. He eyed the book shelves with the same mixture of bravado and longing that she had felt when she'd pulled up stakes and left her small bookshop and her little white frame house in Pontotoc.

"Don't go," her mother had said.

"I have to."

"Why California? Why not someplace close like Oxford or Tupelo or Memphis?"

Lydia had picked up the picture of Trent Brandon in his ten-dollar frame and million-dollar smile. For two years she'd believed in the sincerity of that smile, and then it had turned out to be as false as the rest of him, and she'd sent him packing.

"Because I've always liked the idea of traveling to faraway places, and that's as far as I can get on my finances. Besides, Trent hates California."

She'd considered tossing his picture into the garbage can and along with it her engagement ring, but Lydia believed in rituals. That night after she'd finished packing and her mother had gone home, she built a big fire in her grill. Then she'd sat in her backyard surrounded by fireflies and serenaded by crickets while Trent turned to a pile of ashes and melted metal. His million-dollar smile had been the last to go. As it curled into a puff of smoke, Lydia tossed her ring into the fire. It turned the color of old wax before it shattered. She'd saluted the splinters with her glass of wine.

"I might have known it was a cubic zirconium."