The Lorelei Signal
Written by Morgan Branthorne / Artwork by Marcia Borell
Big Pay, Little Delivery: Requesting quote for individual to transport a single crate (total weight 200 lbs.), contents not to be discussed, approximately 700 miles, as soon as possible. Absolute discretion a must. Interested parties contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You should never have responded to that ad online,” I told myself as the rain started. The weight in the trunk of my ’98 Oldsmobile caused the suspension to creak around every turn on the old mountain pass, and Bertha and I had just reached the part that consisted exclusively of 30 yard sections of switchbacks through dense evergreen forest. I patted her dash. “Just a little farther, Bertha.”
“All for a single crate,” I muttered. “One little delivery, my ass.” I cranked the wheel with particular vigor as I imagined the woman I had met with early that morning who smiled and offered me the first half of my payment in the form of a golden tea rose print personal check.
After meeting Mrs. Resden, I had been expecting pastel puppies, to be honest. She had that Angel Donor to the Humane Society vibe. She also had a distinct distrust of human beings I could respect even if I was less afraid of the ones who kicked puppies and more afraid of the kind who hired people like me. She had interrogated me more subtly than anyone I’d ever made a delivery for, but by the end she could have told you my greatest weakness and the full extent of my ambitions in life. I can’t tell you those things, but I got the sense she could. What I can say I noticed is that whatever I was going to deliver for her mattered in a way that meant I’d be losing more than my fee if it didn’t arrive safely at its destination.
I reassured her sufficiently it seemed.
The household help at her stately mansion had already loaded the delivery into my trunk before I made the way back downstairs to my car. I noted the way the vehicle had sunk a little lower, revised my assessment of what might be in the trunk, shrugged, and pocketed the check anyway. My business was getting it there, not carrying it. Bertha could take the weight and I wouldn’t have to lift it once, whatever it was.
I took a backwater route to the nearest state highway to avoid driving through any of the towns nearest Mrs. Resden’s estate. I thought more than once about stopping for a coffee and a donut, but my plan included not drawing any attention to the fact a courier had been hired by the wealthiest family in the area. No stops until I passed the county line. My stomach gurgled. I hushed it and kept driving. We’d be better off making some good time while we could.
Four hours later, the scritching started. The sound of sharp nails scratching against a stone wall initially distracted me very little. The 85 mile per hour highway traffic had my full attention. I started to shift my attention when I heard the first crack.
Nothing I had done could have caused the package to roll or to bump against its container’s presumably well-padded walls. I thought back over the more creative merging SUVs I had narrowly avoided a few miles back.
“Best to go see,” I said aloud. It was time for a snack anyway. Using all of my best defensive driving techniques, I separated Bertha from the rush of gleaming Escalades, Ford trucks, and semis. The nearest gas station had an attached mom-and-pop style general store, immediately improving my mood. I admired the building while old reliable Bertha’s tank guzzled down gallon after gallon of unleaded gasoline. The fresh coats of paint only added to the antique charm of the wooden façade and patio. Metal plates with familiar logos of soda companies and plastic sheets listing acceptable credit cards had been displayed in the windows without additional fanfare or sales announcements.
Inside, paying for the gas with the last crumpled bills from my previous job, I noticed a display of flavored honey sticks and bears right by the cash register. I don’t do sweet much, not anymore, but a memory of my childhood surfaced with the smell of the place, and the way light filtered through the trapped honey in the clear straws caused my mouth to water. A whole handful wouldn’t cost more than a dollar or two, I reasoned silently, and the new payment would land in my bank account before end of day today.
“Live a little,” said the thirty-something clerk. Brad, I read off his tag. He’d been so quiet until now I wasn’t sure he had any intention of speaking to his customers. Now he leaned toward me from behind the counter as if he would pass me a stick or two if I didn’t take one soon myself.
I almost put them back. “What did you say?”
Brad smiled, revealing the gleaming metal handiwork of an expert orthodontist that belied the simplicity and antiquity the store projected. “Try the jalapeno ones while you’re at it.”
I took a few more of the indicated straws in spite of myself. The saliva in my mouth was starting to make me feel ill. I had to eat something and soon. I knew I’d just be hungry again twenty minutes later if I gave in, but honey was all I wanted. Except perhaps the honey over one of those scones I had turned down at the old lady’s house this morning…
“The crack,” I hissed. “Shit.”
The clerk’s brow furrowed.
“I…uh…There’s a crack in my side mirror.” I added quickly, “I almost forgot to ask if you had any quick-set epoxy.”
The clerk’s smile returned and he pointed to the third aisle where the spare parts and cleaning materials for various makes and models of modern truck and car were dangling from the cutesy cast iron pegs. I put the tube of epoxy atop my pile of honey straws and counted out the cash for my purchases including the gas. I might need it eventually.
The moment the clerk dropped the last glowing straw into the bag, I rushed back to my car.
I moved my car around behind the station, out of sight of the clerk, in case he decided I really had meant crack cocaine and came to play hero. I didn’t know if the delivery was packed into an inconspicuous container or not since I hadn’t participated in the loading process. Best to keep it out of the public eye just in case. I still had two months’ rent on the line for the safe delivery of this package and safe also meant discrete.
The trunk contained a wooden crate so large the fitting of it into the car had left indentations in the wood. However, there were no signs of impact or shifting around. The box’s contents were silent now and nothing was oozing out or visibly out of order. Nonetheless, the temptation to open the crate insinuated itself into the forefront of my mind. I popped open one of the honey straws and chewed on the end, sipping blackberry-flavored honey bit by bit while I contemplated the situation.
“You never know,” I warned myself before the impulse to open it won over my better sense. “It could have a sensor. Could be a test.”
Nothing was leaking out of the container. If something had cracked, opening the crate to find out would just increase the odds I’d be blamed for the damage I was damn sure I hadn’t caused. I closed the trunk, popped a second honey straw, and got back on the road.
The scritching started again as soon as I merged onto the highway. I ignored it for the next two hundred miles before I had to pull over to stretch and to eat and to generally do anything you can’t do in a car at speed.
I sucked on a pair of lavender honey straws as if drawing on a pipe while I inspected my car and the mystery crate. The contents of the crate were as silent as when it had first been loaded.
I tried to ignore the crate long enough to eat a more substantial meal than honey straws, but the majority of the sandwich and fries ended up in a brown paper bag on the passenger seat just a few minutes later. I had to get rid of this ticking time bomb of a delivery. The old woman might offer a tip for getting it to the mountain lodge earlier than estimated. She had been most insistent on arriving promptly. Plus, I could see thunderheads building on the horizon. Bertha doesn’t much like puddles on account of her current wiring not being 100% manufacturer guaranteed.
The scritching noises began when I hit 70 mph. I ignored them as best I could, by which I mean I put on the best radio station I could find and drove exactly 4 miles per hour over the speed limit—more if the rest of the traffic seemed to have the same sense of urgency.
That was how I ended up on the mountain pass road right when the thunderstorm finally struck. The sky went as dark as twilight but without the benefit of a moon or stars. The rain turned patches of dirt on the road into slick mud, and my wheels spun now and then when I tried to accelerate after each hairpin turn of the switchbacks. I could no longer maintain the full speed limit but the scratching in the back of the car was now constant, regardless of how slow I had to go.
The GPS in my phone kept telling me the mountain lodge was only a few hundred yards away. “On your right, on your left…” I would have turned the thing off if I didn’t have both hands firmly gripping the steering wheel to keep the car on the narrow and increasingly muddy road.
A lightning strike only a short distance ahead blurred my vision and raised all the hairs on my body. I slammed on the brakes—a mistake, I know—and skidded to a halt inches from a tree at the corner of the last switchback as the thunder caught up with the bolt’s flash. I could see the mountain lodge, just as my GPS had last said, ahead on my right. The heavy beams and sloping roof promised stability and security in a way that convinced me to ease my car back from the tree, turn up the last hairpin turn, and pull onto the narrow gravel drive immediately in front of the lodge. I yanked the parking brake as hard as I could and pulled my keys from the ignition. Parking was presumably around the back, but I had no time to worry about such things.
Pulling my jacket over my head, I ducked out of the car and jogged to the front door.
“I have a delivery for one Ms. Adelaide Resden. Ms. Resden, open up!”
Lightning struck again, though not close enough to raise the hairs on my arms this time, and the thunder shook through me. I looked back and saw the car moving slightly.
Thunder can’t move an Oldsmobile.
I forgot about keeping dry and jogged back to the trunk of my car. As I reached to open it, I heard a creaky groaning sound from within almost like a voice or the cry of an animal. A crack of nails tearing free of wood came next. I had put the key in the lock and turned it before my instincts told me to back up. Bertha’s trunk sprang open, propelled by the lid of the crate.
My gaze fell on the amethyst and emerald streaked irises of a creature easily as long as I am tall from tip to tip. A long tail and damp wings slipped out of the remains of the crate littered with bits of cracked egg shell thick enough to have been made of plaster or drywall, only there was no doubt left in my mind that the egg was real and so was this creature that now stared at me from the back of my poor ’98 Oldsmobile.
“Stop!” A new voice—human, unlike the creature staring me down from my trunk—cut through the air. “Don’t approach the wyrmling!”
I had no intention of doing so, but the wyrmling had ideas of its own. It slipped and slithered until it had its feet all beneath it and then leapt in one bound from the trunk to the ground just before me. Its scaled snout nuzzled the pocket of my jacket where the last of the honey straws were hidden. I knew it was after the same sweetness I had been craving all day.
Suddenly, I had no interest in trying the jalapeno honey. The beast could have it.
It had the whole lot clamped between its teeth before the owner of the warning voice could approach, wielding a ten-foot pole with a loop of heavy gauge wire on the end.
“There’s no need for that,” I informed the woman I now recognized from her mother’s photo to be Ms. Adelaide Resden. I put my hand on the head of the happily humming baby dragon. “If I could just have your signature here on the dotted line, and she’ll take more honey if you’ve have it.”
Twenty minutes later, I nursed a hot cup of black coffee and nibbled cucumber sandwiches, the only food already prepared in Adelaide’s kitchen when we had entered in search of honey. Ada and I had given the hungry newborn its space, but I lead it through the front door without the need for a catch pole. We both knew the warm, pleasant smelling room down the hall was the best place in the house during such a horrendous storm. Ada and the beast also came to an understanding as soon as she set the whole pot of honey down on the kitchen floor. The baby dragon fell asleep, its muzzle wet and sticky with the last traces of its first meal before we had even settled on its name.
Morgan Branthorne is a longtime sci-fi and fantasy reader and writer with
aspirations of someday being someone's favorite author. She has relocated often enough not to know how to answer accurately the question of "where are you from?" and would rather answer "what are you reading?" Among her favorite authors are Ursula K. LeGuin, L.E. Modessitt, and Seaman McGuire.
People and animals and work occupy the majority of her time, but it's all fertilizer for the stories to come.