Dragon Train

Image of a preserved crocodile handing from the stone ceiling. The crocodile is wearing and red and white striped sweater made out of lights

Author’s Note: The inspiration for this piece is the legendary dragon of the city of Brno, Czech Republic. One of the symbols of the city is a fearsome dragon which was vanquished by tricking it into eating caustic lime. A replica of the “dragon” still hangs in the city hall (Pictured above, in its Christmas sweater). Sadly, the idea of a subway system being built is entirely culled from my imagination.

                                                                                                       ****

“Ye be disturbin’ the dragon.”

The old woman poked him in the ribs with her cane, and Honza flinched. How did the old hag keep getting down to the construction site, anyway? “Ma’am, you have to leave.” He stepped out of the way of the stick as he spoke.

Poke.

Damn the woman. How long was that walking stick, anyway?

“Ye be disturbin’ the dragon.”

“The dragon should have come to the planning commission meetings, if it had a problem.” He glanced towards the work crew, wondering which one could best be spared from the digging to help him get rid of her. He started to wave one of them over, but remembered the stick and decided to walk to the man instead.

“The dragon lady is back,” he grumbled.

“Why are you telling me about it?” Manny muttered back.

“Help me get her out of here.”

“You’re in charge, aren’t you? Call the police or something.”

“To deal with a crazy old lady that we could pick up and carry out with no trouble?”

“So do it. Don’t blame me if it gets plastered all over the news that you’re abusing babičky.”

Honza sighed, and told everyone on the crew to take a break until he figured out how to deal with the trespasser. The last thing he needed was for a piece of equipment to fall on her. He watched bitterly as the old woman poked her stick at everything she could find in the construction site. He approached three more crewmen to see if they’d help him hustle her away, but they refused point blank — they’d already run afoul of the walking stick during past incursions. He glanced at the sun, which had passed its high point half an hour ago, and scowled. Finally, he dialed the police, and waited.

Once the officer arrived, the men stood off to the side smoking and watching events unfold. The frustrated man inched the old lady away from the construction site and towards the ladder up to street level, making soothing noises at her as if he was dealing with a scared cat rather than a cantankerous old woman. Once they reached their destination, the officer stopped dead, staring from the old woman to the twenty-foot ladder, and back again. As the men watched him, grinning at the look on his face, his eyes suddenly widened. He took a step backwards, looking wildly around.

“Where did she go?” he yelled to the workers.

“How did you manage to lose the old biddy?” one of them laughed back.

“She was right here. Didn’t anyone see her leave? Where could she have gone?” he cast a baffled look at the ladder again.

“Huh. She must’ve run off while we were all laughing at you making a fool of yourself.” Honza grinned. It was odd though. “None of you saw her leave?” he asked the crew.

The men glanced at one another, and peered down into the hole in the ground, before finally shrugging and picking up their pickaxes.

“She’s gone, anyway.” Manny answered. “You can always tell by the smell. Reeks like the zoo when she’s around.”

                                                                                                 ####

Johann slammed his fist on the desk. His face was an alarming shade of deep red, and he sounded like he was about to hyperventilate. “What do you mean, there are no more workers? It’s supposed to be operational in three months!” he yelled.

Honza shrugged. “They all walked off the job.”

“Walked off!?”

“It was because of the bones, sir.”

“You mean that pile of animal bones you dug up? Why would they walk off a high paying job because of a couple of dried-up bones?” Johann’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Honza shuffled his feet, and made a very close inspection of the institutional beige carpet. “It’s because of the dragon lady, sir,” he said.

“The dragon lady?”

“This old witch who kept getting into the construction site somehow, and going on about disturbing the dragon. Now the men are saying she has mysterious powers, and the bones are from a dragon whose rest we’ve disturbed. There are old legends about a dragon in these parts, you know.”

“For fuck’s sake. Dragons? Have you been hiring thirteen-year-old boys with a knight and castle obsession?” Johann stood up and paced the room. “Get them analyzed.”

“The workers?”

“Not the workers, you idiot. The bones. Get the bones analyzed and find out what kind of animal it is. And find some workers who aren’t superstitious cowards, or you’ll be laying the tracks by yourself if you want to keep your job.”

                                                                                                       ####

The work on the new underground resumed three days later, with a skeleton crew that Honza had managed to scrape together by offering an exorbitant wage for inexperienced workers. There had been three major safety violations so far today, but no injuries, so all in all it hadn’t been a bad day. He was leaning against an excavator, smoking a cigarette to keep from grinding his teeth to powder, when he was disturbed by an excited messenger triumphantly waving a paper in the air. He looked at the breathless woman in surprise.

“Crocodile!” she gasped.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Crocodile,” she repeated. Pausing for breath, she finally continued. “The bones. The lab sent back the results. It’s a crocodile.”

“How in the bloody hell did a crocodile end up here? The place is landlocked.”

The woman shrugged. “It’s old. Maybe a thousand years old. Who knows how it might have gotten there?”

“Well, hopefully that ends all this nonse—“ he was interrupted by an angry shout from the excavation, and sprinted off in the direction of the noise to see what new accident had occurred. The panicked construction crew ran towards him.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Bones!” one of the men responded while trying to push past him, but Honza barred his way.

“Everybody calm down!” he shouted.

The men stopped running, but continued to mill around casting nervous glances at the unfinished tracks.

“Listen. We got the analysis from the lab. Those bones were from a crocodile. An ancient one. Who knows how it got here, but there are no dragons at the site. Understood? Ivan, what’s wrong?” he asked the young man standing directly in front of him.

“Those ain’t crocodile bones.” The man jerked his thumb towards the hole, and Honza walked over to look.

“No, those are chicken bones. Or some other bird. Look, there’s a wing right there. Are you all running away from a thousand-year-old dead chicken?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. The men looked at the ground, and glanced sideways at each other. “Well?”

“No, sir. We were just surprised is all,” Ivan muttered, as the men dragged themselves back to the excavation.

Honza breathed a sigh of relief, and scanned the construction site for any other problems. When his eyes alighted on the far end of the deep trench, he fell backwards in surprise. There, standing in a crag in the rock, was the old hag with her walking stick. He couldn’t hear the words she was saying at this distance, but he knew what they were sure enough. “Ye be disturbin’ the dragon.”

                                                                                                             ####

“What the hell, Honza — why are you tunnelling here? It’s not structurally sound.”

“It’s fine. Look, it’s on the plans.” A bead of sweat rolled down his temple as he unrolled the map of the proposed underground and jabbed his finger at a section of track that dog-legged off the main line before twisting back to the original route two hundred meters further down. There was a platform shown at the center point.

“You’re putting a station here?” Jakub asked incredulously.

“Yes. Look, it’s on the plans,” Honza waved his hand over the map.

“I’m the structural engineer, Honza. I never approved these plans. These are not the plans. There is not supposed to be a station here.”

Honza’s hand shook slightly as he pointed to the signature at the bottom of the page. “That’s your signature.”

“ … the fuck did that get there?” Jakub’s eyes started from his head.

“You signed it. That’s your signature. There’s a station here.” Honza’s eyes drifted nervously towards the crag in the rock just behind Jakub’s left shoulder. The old hag smiled at him, but for once said nothing.

“You can’t put an exit here. It comes up right in the middle of Mendlovo náměstí.”

“Seems like a logical place for an exit to me.”

“Not in the middle of the road it isn’t. Jesus, Honza.”

“So, we’ll shift the stairs a little further down, and bring them up in the sidewalk in front of the shops there. It will be perfect.”

“It will be an absolute mess. It’s going to cave in and take a pile of people and cars with it. And why do you keep looking over my shoulder?” Jakub spun around and stared at the bare rocks and piles of dirt behind him. “You got a lazy eye or something?”

Honza shook his head quickly, and stared at the ground. “Can I get back to my crew? We’re so far behind schedule…”

“Because you’re building a useless damned station that isn’t supposed to be in the plans, in an area that’s going to collapse!”

“It won’t collapse.”

Jakub pointed to his chest. “Structural Engineer.” Then he pointed at Honza. “Construction Foreman. It’s not structurally sound.”

“I’m following the plans I was given.”

Jakub rolled up the plans and stormed off in exasperation.

                                                                                                           ####

Honza turned to Manny, who had rejoined the crew when the pay had been increased yet again. “Well?”

“The crew is complaining, sir.”

“More chicken bones?” he pressed his fingers to his temples, trying to get rid of the headache that was lingering behind his eyes.

“The last set was a horse. But no, that’s not it. It’s the smell. It’s like…a burning matchstick. They say it smells like hell’s furnace next to that cave.”

“The platform will be in front of the cave. They don’t even have to go in the cave. Tell them to put on masks and get on with it. We’re already six months behind schedule and I don’t even want to know how much over budget.” Honza stormed off towards the ladder, but thought better of leaving the crew unsupervised. He settled himself on a handy pile of dirt, and stared at the pointless station on the plans which had mysteriously appeared on his desk with a note written in an old-fashioned script that said the original layout had been modified.

                                                                                                          ####

Honza stared dully at the TV from his hospital bed, as the images from a news report about another disappearance flickered across the screen.

“Why did you do it, sir?”

He turned his head to stare at the young man standing by the bed, holding a box of chocolates. “Ivan. How nice of you to visit.”

Ivan sat down on the chair next to the bed, and laid the chocolates carefully on the end table. “They’re all saying you forged the structural engineer’s signature on those documents. Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then … who did?”

“Those were the plans I was given. I don’t know how the signature got there. He probably signed it without noticing and was trying to cover his ass.”

“Well, that worked, then,” Ivan commented drily.

Honza groaned. “My bloody career down the toilet, all because of some —”

A nurse entered the room before he finished the sentence, and looked severely at Ivan before setting a tray down on the table. “It’s time for your sedative, Honza. Be a good patient, and swallow it down this time instead of hiding it behind your back molars.” She smiled tightly as she picked up the pill and a glass of water and handed it to him.

“I don’t need a sedative.” He growled. “I’m not crazy. Those we’re the plans that I was given.”

As his voice started to rise, the nurse reached towards the bell.

“Fine, fine, I’ll take the bloody thing. No need to buzz security again. It’d be real nice if all of the staff stopped treating me like a child, though.” He swallowed the pill and slammed the glass of water back onto the stand.

The nurse beamed at him. “Very good, sir. Now, this young man needs to say goodbye and let you rest.” She looked significantly at Ivan before walking out of the room.

Honza closes his eyes. “You’d best go. She’ll be in here chasing you out with a broom any minute now.”

“It’s alright. I’m going.” Ivan hesitated. “I saw it, too, you know,” he said very softly, before hurrying out of the room.

                                                                                                          ####

“How the fuck did you manage it!” Johann slammed a pile of papers and folders down on the table between himself and Honza.

Honza winced. “Lower your voice. They’ll decide you’re one of the patients.”

“Fuck that. How did you do it!?”

An orderly hurried over towards the table. “Sir, if you don’t stop shouting —”

Johann stared him down, before turning back to Honza. “How. The. Fuck. Did. You. Manage. It?” he asked, more quietly than before.

“Manage what?” Honza sighed.

“The plans! How did you draw up the plans to add this crazy fucking platform that you built?”

“So now I’m supposed to be moonlighting as an engineer? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous? Ridiculous?” Honza winced as Johann’s voice rose again. “Who else could be responsible. Who else wanted an unplanned station next to weird cave that no one comes out of once they go it?”

Honza’s eyes widened. “People went in?”

“Of course people went in. Damned fools at the Radnice posted a whole advertising campaign about staying out of it. Every other day some idiot gets off the train looking to go ghost hunting, and disappears into that damned sulfurous cave.”

Honza leaned back in his chair, and stared at the ceiling. “What does the security footage show?”

Johann flopped into the chair across from him, and put his head in his hands. “Nothing.”

“Nothing? The footage is blank?”

“Of course it isn’t blank. It shows thousands of people a day getting on and off. Not a single one of them ever goes into that bloody cave.”

“So, nobody is disappearing into the cave, and the police are just looking for an excuse to not do their jobs.”

“But they are disappearing into the cave. At least that’s what the witnesses say. Every disappearance someone comes forward to say they saw the person get off the train with an old woman and walk into that damned cave.”

Honza shrugged. “It’s nothing to me. I don’t see myself getting out of here as long as everyone keeps insisting that I was responsible for…that.”

Johann stood. “You’re right. You’re not getting out of here as long as you insist that you had nothing to do with it. But I guess it’s better than prison.”

                                                                                                             ^^^^

The old hag smiled to herself as she tottered into the cave. She hadn’t brought anyone with her today, but that was alright. There had been a string of them this week, and she wasn’t really hungry today. As she slid into the shadow of the cave, her long fingernails began to lengthen even more, gradually emerging as razor sharp talons. Horns sprouted from her head as her body lengthened, and the hairs on her arms spread out into scales. Finally, her face grew long, and smoke and fire began to come out of her nostrils in short puffs. She stretched her cramped wings and flapped them once or twice before laying down along the back wall, and curling her tail around her legs like a cat.

The vibrations are still annoying, but humans do taste so much better than crocodiles.