Over at Terribleminds, authorial sage and all around penmonkey, Chuck Wendig is hosting a literary throwdown. Titled “A Game of Aspects”, he asks his fellow monkeys to come up with a piece of flash fiction that combines several strong — and sometimes seemingly conflicting — aspects of genre, elements, and themes. I’m all for a library where readers could find a directory that covers all stories with deep space naval battles, magical garden gnomes, and thrilling police forensics within a single volume! It’s an interesting take of storytelling, and I’d love to dip my toes into the deep end. It’s a good enough excuse for me to put some actual story content here at Outwardbounder!
I was only partly brave with my selection process. I just couldn’t let go of the chance to write about dinosaurs. “Write about what you know” and all that.. I rolled the die and came up with “Noir” as my subgenre and “Childbirth” as a theme/motif. (Alright, more of a motif..) I took my stapler and had at it. I went to town and eventually came up with “Nobody Trusts a Talonfalcon”. Talonfalcon, Maltese Falcon — Yeah, maybe I should have tried a little harder… It’s Noir! Anyways… I’m actually kinda proud of what came out at the other end of Chuck’s inspiring take on the creative process. A tale of a couple ‘wise guys’ that find it hard to agree. One thing is for certain; their job just got a little more complicated.
Hope you have some hardboiled fun.
Nobody Trusts a Talonfalcon
Rex McBain had boarded the Ithaca with one thing in mind. The next guy to make a crack about small arms gets it. He was tired of hearing it. It didn’t help that he fit the bill so perfectly. Large, meaty torso balanced on lumbering tree trunk legs. If he paused, he could still hear the laughs. Rex was ready to cave in another nose or two and Erle knew it. Erle Brice; The John. He’d stayed astutely silent over the matter. Oh, sure; he was cordial. Talked about what they were up against. Asked plenty of questions about the dean they were looking to nab. The right questions. Erle Brice knew better than to rib a man like Rex. He was a goddamn insurance agent. Collateral was his mother’s maiden name.
The two men halted in the dim illumination filtering down the foredeck. Through a wordless exchange, they knew it was time to wait up. It was past midnight now; the only opening they’d get. Yet they waited. Only a few cabins showed any life. Rex took care of patrols. He was The Heavy. The larger man looked down at Erle.
“So tell me,” he said in his deep basso, “How many soon-to-be widows see you about life insurance?” Swell, small talk. The shorter man was agitated, fidgeting and looking around. After a tenuous chuckle, he decided to change the subject.
“What do you think, Rex? This job can’t be passed down by naturalists. Naturalists! We’re talking about the loons that fill museums with skeleton deans that still drag their tails.” His derision trailed off. He craned his neck away from the big man’s direction. “Say they won’t change ‘em until it’s proven! Some kind of “scientific integrity!”’
“So what? Long as we get our lizard,” Rex said simply. The silence seemed to stretch after that. Erle cleared his throat, but was interrupted by a jarring clamor. A rustle behind the two men. Rex bulged his eyes with what could have been rage. It was Charlie. Finally. Why’d he come from that goddamn way? Rex was boiling. They’d split at the transom a long time ago. Charlie’s face and hands appeared pure white in moonlight. He was hunched and they could see him quivering. The Inside Guy looked shaken. His fists were bunched in a familiar way. Rex always pictured him carrying a pair of die. Old habits.
“The dean, it got Roy,” he said.
“The hell it did,” Rex said. “Go get Roy and stop fucking around. Dean’s this way.” He pointed to the front of the ship.
“Roy? Roy Faulkner?” said Erle. The other men ignored him.
“Pointy end is crest, back end is wake. We meet up at crest to collect the dean,” Rex quoted.
“I’m telling you. Roy and me found the dean. The thing killed him but I got away, I swear.” Charlie’s voice seemed a little too even-keeled to Erle.
“You came from aft-cargo,” said Rex skeptically.
“It’s eating him. That’s why I could escape. It’s still busy below decks” said Charlie. His hands twitched like he was getting ready to throw snake-eyes. Erle stepped forward in the gloom.
“What did it look like?”
“Red and mean; with scaly black stripes,” Charlie said. He eyed Erle, lingering a little too long. He seemed expectant, as if prepared for something to come barreling down on the shorter man at any moment. “There was leathery folds on its throat that ballooned out big when it swallowed Roy’s scapula.”
“You’re a sick man, Charlie Caine,” Rex said. “And you don’t even know what a scapula is!”
“Look, I’m really sorry for Pally Boy, Roy. It was a shame to see him go. But mostly, I’m just sore I didn’t have him in the month’s pool.” Erle blinked, confused. Rex grimaced painfully.
“You sick fuck,” he said.
“We have to go back for the dean, right away,” said Charlie, motioning behind.
“Hold it,” Rex pushed an enlarged hand forward. “The red one ain’t our dean. The one we need is about to brood.”
“It’s a she? She’s pregnant?” said Erle. His mind whirred. That makes this haul three times as lucrative! No wonder it’s high profile. We gotta talk surpluses when we get back. Should be more coming to us.
Rex wrinkled his nose, but didn’t look away from Charlie. “It was explained, our dean, the one we’re looking at, it’s pure. It’s as true blue as you can get: feathers, small size, the whole kit.”
“Feathery deans ain’t no deans at all,” said Charlie with a hiss. “I’ve seen The Land Unknown. My dad used to take me to dinosaur exhibits. I’m the expert on deans here. Sounds like you’re talking about a talonfalcon.” Erle looked between the men several times. He wondered why he wasn’t told these kinds of details.
“Talonfalcons are deans,” Erle said. He didn’t sound sure.
“I ain’t blowing money on a fancy crow,” Charlie said. He lurched forward and clasped Erle by the scruff. “We’re going back.” He began hauling Erle along the gunwale.
“I’m tired of you and your Hanky Panky. You’re just as bad as that dean that killed Roy,” Rex growled. Before turning to hoof it down forward-cargo, he leaned his severe bulk toward his retreating accomplices.
“Erle, I wouldn’t go with him. He’s got a death pool going. Horrible gambler, but he’s a little too good at his pools. And kid, it looks like he’s got his eye on you.”
After a yelp, Erle yarded himself free for a moment and cast a thumb about.
“I – I should go meet up with Tommy,” he stammered. “I bet he’s got the johnboat in position.” Charlie’s hand came down heavily on his shoulder.
Rex didn’t see any of this. He’d disappeared down a stairwell and into a musty chamber. There was a warbling noise. Rex wound his way through useless crates and boxes, letting his eyes adjust. He found himself in front of a very strange birdcage. It was reinforced with metal, yet seemed worn. Sun bleached. A faded insignia was stamped into the side. Rex could make out the word “Peru”. Inside was his dean. He could have cradled the thing in one arm. Its black plumage fluttered as he approached. The narrow yet long snout tracked his shadow until deeming him too close. It ducked beneath broad primaries on its arm, concealing a row of super-fine razor teeth beneath obsidian feathers. Rex could still see the folded hooks that made up the creature’s three-pronged fore claw. It was clasped delicately over a ball of living goose down. A fledgling peeped. The mother dean chattered and cooed.
“You found her,” said a voice.
Rex turned to see Erle picking his way towards him. He moved cumbersomely.
“Good to see you’ve got some sense,” Rex said.
“I, uh, talked some sense into him.”
As he approached, the little man leaned closer to the folded form of the dean.
“Why, she ain’t so bad. She’s all curled up.”
“I wouldn’t test that,” said Rex, pointing down at the single recurved talon in view. Erle began backing away. A strange slithering sound ratcheted inside the room. All around them. The openness in the air fueled the noise. A heavy brushing like cat’s tongue on sandpaper. There was a click and a thud. The sound of a baseball bat cracking wood paneling.
“Saint Christopher! It’s the mean one,” cried Erle.
Rex saw it. The red scales looked like dried blood in the dark. A scattering of dusky bands would have camouflaged it, were it in its own element. It was a dean. Or what passed for one for ninety-nine percent of the suckers Rex knew. Its four-fingered paws waved pathetically, raking the tops of some cases and containers. The broad, rounded head was wagging blearily at them. Angry eye slits blinked in the diffuse light. Erle caught a forked tongue spring forward in pure reptilian fashion. Rex was looking at the feet. They were the same. Exactly the same as the pint sized feathery dean. Only this creature’s toe claw was held a good six inches off the ground. The dean was moving. Its back appeared too rigid and upright to the two men. A long and bony tail hovered low but the point never touched the ground.
Erle shrank back beside his taller companion. He bumped into an extended oak of an arm. Rex was holding a piece. A blunted instrument in his oversized fist, it shined despite everything. It was already cocked. There was no lead up, no noise before the explosive concussion. No warning. A great flare up of light scalded Erle’s vision. He managed to catch a ferocious snarl peeling back the dean’s muzzle. An equally brutal grimace gnarled Rex’s face. There might have been a scream, but for the rush of four more shots, Erle couldn’t be sure. Several long minutes passed and nothing stirred. Heady wisps of spent gunpowder cloyed the air in front of them. As they danced and swirled into dissipation, Rex and Erle could make out the fallen form of the bastard dean. The head was partly missing.
“Was that really –? Is that what they look like?” Erle said at length.
“I don’t care. Long as it don’t rattle my check,” said Rex.
After a while the cooing began again.