The Maltese Black Bird

Written by Jon Reed not Wendi Knape

The following was a writer’s exercise in developing a short story, especially for Bogart fans; one requirement is that it had to include a golden Roman coin of Caligula somewhere in the plot.

 “Oh, Sam. Sam. What can it mean? There’s a dapper little frog-faced man calling himself Joel Cairo waiting to see you outside right now. Should I let him in? By the way, the painter’s adding our new name Sam Spade Detective Agency on the door.” Sam’s secretary, Bridget, seemed worried, whether it was frog-face man or the smell of new paint, he wasn’t sure.

“Sure, doll-face. We need the business right now, anyway. By the way, why’s it so dark in here? We’re in the twenty-first century and it’s almost like early ‘40’s film noir. Let Mr. Cairo in.” Joel Cairo was the spitting image of Peter Lorre, along with his menacing lisp. He had a drip of black paint on one of his white gloves. Spade took his time lighting a cigarette, smoke softly curling up into his eyes, almost making him choke. But ace detectives don’t cough, so he waited.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Spade. Gee, why is it so dark in here? Almost like an early ‘40’s film noir.”

Spade took a long minute putting out the first and lighting another non-filter Camel, measuring Cairo, before answering. “I don’t know, Mr. Cairo, since I don’t know why it’s so dark, much less why I’m wearing a double-breasted suit at this time of day. What can I do for you, anyway?”

“Mr. Spade, I’m prepared to offer you $5,000 to find a black figure of a bird for me. But, before you accept, I must pull this gun on you and search your office.”

Spade raised his hands. “Heh, heh. You sure looked suspicious coming in here wearing a tuxedo and white gloves at this time of day. Go ahead and search, by all means. As if you’ll find anything.” But, quick as a flash, he knocked a lethal-appearing Beretta from Cairo’s hand and slugged him. Cairo went down like a stone, and Sam began going through his clothes. Inside a tuxedo jacket pocket, he found a Detroit Free Press clipping from only a few weeks before:

“The future of the 108-year-old SS Ste. Claire remains uncertain after a fire ravaged the iconic steamer known for ferrying generations of Detroiters to Boblo Island. The Ste. Claire was docked at Riverside Marina in Detroit, and workers with welding equipment were on board when the fire broke out Friday morning,” officials said. According to Detroit’s Deputy Fire Commissioner, “Workers tried extinguishing the flames before calling for help.” The Ste. Claire’s co-owners watched as firefighters fought the flames, and had planned to open a restaurant on the boat. “We know everybody loved it, and we’re going to do our best to bring it back. There’s nothing like the taste of zebra mussel-stuffed, mercury-laced Lake Erie perch.”

It had taken a long time reading the clipping because the Freep wasn’t known for quality writing, and Spade had never knowingly tasted zebra mussel-stuffed, mercury-laced perch. Cairo was showing signs of consciousness as Spade finished reading. Did Cairo’s interest in a “black figure of a bird” have any relation to the Boblo fire? Hmm. Cairo recovered remarkably quickly, so Spade returned the Berretta to him because he needed the business.

Joel Cairo pointed the gun at him again. “And now, Mr. Spade, it seems ridiculous after just hiring you for $5,000, but I must ask you again to allow me to search your person and office. If there’s the slightest chance of possessing the black bird, I must have it, and by the way, has anyone ever mentioned you’re the spitting image of Humphrey Bogart?”

Not for the first time, Spade laughed at himself. How stupid could he be? Cairo soon left, and it was only moments before Sam and Bridget heard a noise outside. Sam opened the door and a disheveled old Captain stumbled inside, obviously mortally-wounded what with all the bullet holes in him. The man dropped a heavy muslin-wrapped bundle on the carpet, before expiring, eyes wide open, on the couch, a grisly scene. Bridget screamed. Spade noticed the Captain’s hat read “SS Ste. Claire” as did the metal tag on his blood-coated breast, his shoulder epaulets, and sleeve patches. Sam wondered aloud, “Where do you think he came from? Maybe the Ste. Claire?”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. Is he dead!!” She looked as if she would faint, before asking for a non-filtered Camel to soothe her nerves. Camel ads from the ’50s said, “More Doctors Smoke Camels than Any Other Cigarette” and “Not One Single Case of Throat Irritation Due To Smoking Camels” so what was there to worry about, anyway?

“Get ahold of yourself, doll-face. And stop repeating my name. He sure looks toes up to me. Let’s see what’s in the package. It must have been hidden on the Boblo boat for a long time.” He sliced through the bindings, tearing at layers of ancient Free Press newspaper. “He sure packed a lot of Freep around whatever’s in here. Must have been more Kroger and Walmart clippings than usual. Have you noticed how many Menards ads there are lately, and no Sears Roebuck at all? And why is it so dark in here; almost ‘40’s film noir-ish, whatever that is?”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. What can it be? Can it be the black bird? Yes, I’ve seen Menard’s ads, but I’ve never shopped there.” Their eyes glowed with anticipation. And greed. The wrappings parted, revealing a black, sculptured and painted bird constructed of tiny stacks of gold coins.

“Yes, doll-face. That’s what dreams are made of. Hmmm. Did someone else once say that? Oh, well. Get some string. I have to re-wrap this and store it in a local bus station locker before mailing the key to myself. I’ll have trouble getting rid of all this extra newspaper ‘cause my trash can is full. Wait a minute. Don’t you have a birdcage that needs re-lining”?

Doll-face glanced at Spade, confused. “Are you kidding? We haven’t had bus station storage lockers in the States since 9-11, what with the ease of terrorists storing bombs. You’ll have to check it at Metro Airport’s Westin and ask them to hold a piece of luggage. That way, you’ll have a claim ticket to retrieve later.”

“Oh, yeah. I wonder where I’ve been all these years. It used to be so simple. What does the Westin cost for a night?”

After disposing of the black bird for safekeeping, and mailing the Westin claim ticket to himself, he received a text on his cell phone from Joel Cairo. “Meet an associate, Casper Gutman, in room 342 re black bird.”

Spade knocked and entered, finding Cairo, a gunsel triggerman, and a huge Gutman who looked appalling like Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman extended a welcoming hand. “Well, sir. If I may say so, don’t mind the film noir appearance in this room. The lighting seems to be under stress at the moment in this rather stark airport hotel. Well, sir, I understand you have access to the black bird, and I am willing to pay a lot of money for it. It was hidden for years on the recently demised SS Ste. Claire, and it appears you may have knowledge of it. If that is correct, would you like some indifferent hotel whiskey I found in the refrigerator? It may taste a little odd, but that’s hotel whiskey for you.”

Spade took his time lighting another non-filtered Camel, smoke softly curling into his eyes, almost making him choke. But ace detectives don’t cough so, instead, he wondered where he could find another carton. Camels were in short supply unless one drove to Indiana and smuggled them across the state line without paying Michigan’s sales tax, which was outrageous anyway. “Of course, Gutman. As long as you haven’t added any drugs. Heh, heh. But, let’s get down to business. Tell me about the bird.” He downed a half glass of Old Ironsides, making a face. “This stuff sure tastes funny.”

“Well, sir. If I don’t mind saying so, the bird as you call it is made of gold Roman coins stuck together in the shape of a falcon, or a chipmunk if you will, by 16th-century Knights of Malta; a gift to the King of Spain. But it was captured by pirates. They could never figure out how to get the coins apart. Something to do with Caligula’s heads interfering with each other. After passing from owner to owner, at some time the sculpture was coated with black enamel to conceal its value. It then led to a General Kemidov, a Russian exile in Constantinople, and I hired Cairo to retrieve it. But it found its way to Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio before being hidden on the SS. Ste. Claire. Have you ever been to Toledo, Ohio? I spent a week there one day.”

While Spade was mulling over the clever Bon Mot “spent a week in Toledo one day,” he not only wondered what “Ste.” stood for in the ship’s name but what Bon Mot meant, since he didn’t speak French. That was before he fell over unconscious.

Gutman heaved himself to his feet. “Gentlemen, let us continue our adventure by first departing this darkened Westin room and its rotten hotel whisky. I didn’t even put anything in his drink, and it knocked him out anyway. I think Mr. Spade has hidden the “bird” in his room at the decrepit Hotel Fordson in downtown Dearborn. It would be just like him.” As they left, the triggerman, who had had a bad morning, kicked Spade in the head just for luck.

When Sam came to his senses, the room was even more dark than usual. He vainly searched his pockets for another non-filtered Camel to sooth his nerves. It would be another long drive to Michigan City, Indiana for more. But he could always send doll-face Bridget. He pocketed a pistol the triggerman had stupidly dropped, before texting doll-face, “meet me at the Fordson” and set out. He didn’t need a car this time, since he could get a Uber, or take the FAST bus downtown if he pointed the gun at the driver and was dropped off in Dearborn.

He got to the Hotel Fordson before Gutman, Cairo, and the dirty son-of-a-bitch stupid triggerman arrived, and met doll-face. Once in the room, he sat her down and said, “I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. What are you talking about?

“Sorry, doll-face. It must be the rotten no-good Old Ironsides Westin whisky that’s still affecting me. That, and the look on the bus driver’s face when I had him drop me over here in Dearborn. I told him I voted to support the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus system otherwise known as SMART, so I didn’t think he’d mind. Of course, holding the gun that stupid no-good triggerman dropped didn’t hurt, and he thanked me for supporting SMART.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. Why do you still have a room in East Dearborn, anyway? And why’d you mail the claim ticket to me? And I never heard the full name of our local regional transit system before, so thank you. And why is it so dark in here? Did you pay the rent?”

“Don’t mention it, doll-face. Come back here in an hour with the bird and we’ll get it all settled.”

“But I have to get an Uber to go back out, because the latest regional transit system millage was defeated.  And you and I don’t look like each other, so the Westin clerk will be suspicious.”

“All right, doll-face, here’s some car fare. And you shouldn’t begin all your sentences with the word “And.”  Just remember, I won’t play the sap for you. If I can get you off with a long prison term, I’ll wait for you. But, if you hang, so be it. And don’t hold your breath. Times, they are a-changin.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. That’s not original. And I still don’t know what you’re talking about. Michigan no longer has the death penalty, but whoever started the Boblo Boat fire should be hanged, anyway, because I was looking forward to zebra-mussel stuffed perch.”

Bridget was out and back from Metro Airport in a jiffy, just before the doorbell rang. “Oh, Sam. Sam. Here’s the package. The men have arrived.”

Portly Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and the dirty son-of-a-bitch stupid triggerman entered Spade’s strangely darkened, almost ‘40’s film noir-ish apartment. A tiny bit of Spade’s forehead stuck to the latter’s shoe.

The forgetful triggerman spoke first. “Have you seen an extra pistol laying around by any chance? I seem to have mislaid one somewhere.”

Gutman interrupted, “Well, sir. Have you the bird? I am prepared to pay a half-million.” He handed over a wad of bills, and he and his cronies tore at the wrappings. “There doesn’t seem to be as much newspaper this time” he intoned, suspiciously. “It must not have been a holiday issue, or people aren’t buying the Freep as much as they used to. They really don’t have much news to report these days, do they?” He palmed a knife and began scraping the black coating off the bird, which actually looked more like a chipmunk than a falcon. Gutman was sweating, eyes ablaze with greed.

“Yes, Gutman. That’s what dreams are made of. Hmmm. Did someone else once say that? Oh, well.”

Gutman began scraping faster, before blurting, “These are actually WWII U.S. one-cent, zinc-coated steel coins.  I like the term “steelie” as it takes me back to my childhood. Well, sir, after my erudite soliloquy, I must ask for my money back. We will return to Constantinople to pursue better avenues, besides departing this wretchedly dark room, almost ‘40’s film noir-ish in its own way.”

After they left, Spade texted the local police where they could pick up Gutman and his men for smuggling Indiana cigarettes into Michigan, wearing tuxedos in the middle of the day, and not paying for Westin Hotel airport whiskey. But local law enforcement couldn’t find an Uber driver to take them to Istanbul, so they hung up.

He turned to his somewhat distraught secretary. “Oh, all right, doll-face. I won’t turn you in, but remember I won’t play the sap for you. Instead of Camels from Indiana, can you pick up some gin at Windsor’s Duty Free Shop next time you’re over there? Here, take this coin with you. I think it’s actually a gold Roman coin that fell off the bottom of the chipmunk, since it’s a Caligula with a wreath on his head. The coin, not the chipmunk. It may come in handy. All the time we were fooling around, who knew?”

 

Resident Evil Characters that Deserve a Comeback

As a fanfiction writer, I love any series that offers a wealth of characters that stories could be built around. In that regard, the Resident Evil video game series is one of the best mediums out there—at least a hundred unique characters have been introduced since the franchise started in 1996. But out of the many personas that have been seen over the years, only a small fraction were deemed worthy of recurring appearances—dozens of characters were only seen on-screen once before fading from the limelight.

Below is my list of fourteen Resident Evil one-shot characters, in no particular order, who could easily return to the series in some form.

1) Billy Coen (first appearance in 2002) – In the first Resident Evil, fans were introduced to the STARS Alpha team, a paramilitary unit who were fighting for their lives within a monster-laden mansion while investigating the disappearance of the secondary Bravo team. Given how popular the game series became in its early years, it was inevitable that a prequel would be produced that focused on the sole survivor of the Bravo team—Rebecca Chambers. She could easily have been paired with one of her doomed teammates for this new adventure, but the game’s developers had other ideas. Enter Billy Coen, an ex-marine wrongfully accused of mass murder and sentenced to death row. He escaped from his prison transport during its ill-fated trip through the woods populated by recently-escaped genetically-engineered creatures. Billy and Rebecca soon crossed paths and were forced to team up to survive the night and discover how the outbreak happened. By the end of their story, Rebecca was convinced of his innocence and helped him fake his death—Billy is never seen or mentioned again after they part ways. While he presumably went into hiding to escape his fate, there are multiple ways in which he could have come back into the over-arcing story. Whether he managed to prove his innocence or assumed a new identity, Billy would have fit in nicely in later entries for the series.

2) Oswell Spencer (first appearance in 2009) – As the mastermind behind the development of illegal viral and genetic research, it’s surprising that Oswell Spencer only appeared on-screen once during the entire run of the Resident Evil franchise. While it’s fitting that he was killed by one of the monsters he helped create—the super-powered villain Albert Wesker—Spencer is a character that deserves more than a one-shot appearance. If Capcom—the production company—ever decides to produce a game that delves into the thirty-years-worth of history prior to the series’ first title, Spencer could easily make a comeback.

3) Sheva Alomar (first appearance in 2009) – Later entries of the Resident Evil series introduced a global military organization called the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance that was founded in response to Umbrella’s illegal research making its way onto the black market. While the B.S.A.A. has headquarters on every major continent, very few of its soldiers have gotten any screen time. One exception is Sheva Alomar, an African operative assigned to assist series veteran Chris Redfield on one of his missions. Sheva has proven a very capable fighter in her own right by simply surviving several run-ins with the super-powered Wesker. Should she return in a future game, she has more than earned the right to stand alongside the veteran soldiers of the series. As an added plus, Sheva is young enough that she could easily come to the forefront should the older B.S.A.A. members either perish or retire.

4) Carlos Oliviera (first appearance in 1999) – Though he was employed by Umbrella Corporation as a security officer when first introduced, Carlos was initially completely in the dark about how shady the company was. His run-in with the first game’s survivor, Jill Valentine, opened his eyes and he easily could have joined the fight to take down the corrupt pharmaceutical company. With the many directions that Carlos’ story arc could have taken, it’s a shame that he never returned in the succeeding entries of the series.

5) Manuela Hidalgo (first appearance in 2009) – Given how rare it is for someone exposed to a genetically-altering virus to maintain their humanity, those that fall under this category could be the subject of some interesting storylines within the franchise. Manuela is one of the lucky few to avoid mutating into a bloodthirsty monster. Her story began when she contracted a fatal illness and her wealthy drug-lord father procured the T-Veronica virus from the black market in a desperate bid to save her. To keep Manuela from mutating, her father kidnapped many young women from the neighboring villages for routine organ transplants. Upon discovering what her father had done, Manuela ran from him and subsequently aided a pair of government-trained operatives in taking him out. Though she remained human, she was taken into custody by the US government since she possessed the unique attribute of making her blood spontaneously combust when exposed to oxygen. In spite of the avenues that could have been explored with her character, she hasn’t been seen since her introductory story.

6) Jake Muller (first appearance in 2012) – In spite of the broad character roster and potential for romantic pairings, children are a rarity within the series. Only three of the mainstream characters are known to have kids, all of whom were born prior to the first title of the franchise. The most interesting member of the next generation, Jake, wasn’t even introduced until three years after his supervillain father was killed. While it’s unclear if Wesker even knew he had an illegitimate son, Jake had grown up to despise his dad for never being there. What little is known of Jake’s background is that he and his mother were barely getting by; he became a soldier of fortune in a failed attempt to secure proper medical treatment for her when she got sick. Despite being on a path to becoming a bad guy in his own right, Jake turned his life around upon discovering who and what his father was. When last seen, Jake was operating as an independent fighter against bioterrorism free of charge.

7) Excella Gionne (first appearance in 2009) – Every supervillain, no matter how powerful, still must rely on others to carry out their orders and help build an empire. And Wesker found an influential and very loyal follower in Excella, a wealthy ambitious woman in charge of her own pharmaceutical company. Though she was quite intelligent, Excella was still blind to the fact that he was using her for his own gain—she even fancied herself as a suitable romantic partner worthy of his attention. While she was ultimately betrayed and killed by Wesker, there is still room for her to return in a game set earlier in the overall chronology.

8 & 9) Bruce McGivern & Fong Ling (first appearance for both in 2003) – When a former Umbrella employee called Morpheus threatened attacks against the U.S. and China for ransom, each country sent in a single operative to neutralize the situation. In spite of the fact that they were working toward the same goal and could benefit from each other’s help, Fong frequently undermined Bruce to serve her own ends. That all changed when her country gave in to Morpheus’ demands and sold her out. At the end of their story, Fong and Bruce were on their way to becoming a couple. It would have been nice to see them working as a team combating another threat, but they never came back for a second game.

10) Moira Burton (first appearance in 2015) – In a franchise filled with skilled fighters, it’s refreshing to see a character with a strong aversion to firearms. Moira—daughter of STARS\B.S.A.A. veteran Barry Burton—is one such person. As a child, she hurt her sister in an accidental shooting involving one of their dad’s guns. When abducted years later alongside several other employees of the NGO company Terra Save and dropped into a nightmarish scenario, Moira relies heavily on a crowbar or partner Claire Redfield to survive. Though she was forced to overcome her fear of guns to save Claire’s life, Moira still stands out for being a very headstrong character with a foul mouth. It would be nice to see her again in a future title.

11 & 12) Raymond Vester & Jessica Sherawat (first appearance for both in 2012) – The Resident Evil series has its share of two-faced characters, but most who fall under that category at least earned recurring status. Raymond and Jessica—who started out under the employ of the Federal Bioterrorism Commission—are extremely good when it comes to subterfuge. Both of them were exposed as double agents during their story who were seemingly working against each other. However, it was revealed at the end of their story that they were triple agents under Excella Gionne’s employ and had been playing an elaborate charade simply to steal a new virus strain. Though both Raymond and Jessica are guns-for-hire, it would be interesting to see them in action again.

13) Joe Baker (first appearance in 2017) – Like Billy Coen, Joe Baker is an ex-marine but from a completely different walk of life. A Lousiana native, Joe both looks and talks the part of a hillbilly who enjoys life in the swamplands. He first came onto the scene after a virus had consumed his brother Jack and Jack’s family. Joe aims to cure his niece, Zoe, by any means necessary, only he relies primarily on his fists to subdue any bad guys or creatures he sees roaming about the bayou. If Capcom follows the same route with Joe as they have with many other characters, he will likely only have the one appearance in the games. But it would be nice to be proven wrong.

14) Nicholai Ginovaef (first appearance in 1999) – Most of the bigwigs from the Umbrella Corporation have been systemically eliminated over the years since the company went under. But there are several who remain unaccounted for. Nicholai is a corrupt Umbrella officer—and team leader of Carlos’ unit—who managed to escape intact but who has never been seen since. He could easily return as a formidable opponent for the heroes of the franchise, but time will tell.

With such a diverse set of fictional characters—there has to be somewhere around 150 that have been dreamed up in the twenty-plus years the franchise has been around—it’s no wonder that the Resident Evil game series inspires so many fanfiction stories. And maybe someday there will be a game or two that gives some of the “forgotten” characters another chance to stand in the spotlight. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the future stories that the franchise’s development company could come up with. And if some old familiar faces turn up in the process, all the better.

Our Book (Part 1 of 3)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” St. Augustine

 

My husband, Roger, and I embarked on Holland America’s Panama Cruise after a short Sunday flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our first day was spent relaxing, eating, and playing Scrabble. On Monday, we docked at the cruise line’s private island, Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, where we were treated to a delicious buffet lunch. They served ribs, grilled chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, mac and cheese, a variety of salads, fruit, lemonade, and cookies. We could also purchase soft drinks and liquor.

 

While at sea on Tuesday and Wednesday, we socialized with many fellow travelers playing trivia in groups of six people, listening to music, and line dancing. Playing games with the passengers was a fun way to meet new people. At dinner, we met a delightful couple with whom we spent time telling stories about our various travel experiences, our children, and our grandchildren. They enjoy long biking trips as well as cruises. Roger also started teaching me how to play cribbage.

 

Thursday, we took our first excursion to the National Aviary on Isla Baru about 45 minutes from Cartagena, Colombia. We saw some of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen. More than 138 species represented the thousands of birds including the Harpy Eagle, the toucan Caribbean, the Pink Flamingos, and the Crane Corona. The Aviary supports three systemic eco environments – rainforest, coast, and desert – to accommodate the wide variety of permanent exhibits.

 

The next morning, we arose early to see an awesome man-made wonder of the world. We transited the Panama Canal, sometimes referred to as “The Ditch.” The engineering marvel of this canal can’t be overstated. As we went through the canal heading west on the right, we passed a huge cargo ship crossing the canal going east on the left. We marveled at the coordination of the raising and lowering of the water, the movement of the ships, and the “mules” which guide ships through the lock chambers. Mules are locomotives so named because they replaced the many mules which originally helped guide the ships. While many marveled at the engineering, I marveled at who first thought of this process.

 

After dinner, I attended an intriguing 2001 Irish-American spy thriller. The movie, The Tailor of Panama, starred Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

 

Saturday was spent at sea. Roger played pickleball. I participated in a line dance class. We both played games, socialized, and enjoyed the delicious cuisine.

 

Our Sunday excursion at Puntarenas, Costa Rica was a Tropical Mangrove River Cruise where we saw crocodiles, macaws, herons, and egrets. Sadly, we also saw numerous tires, debris, and building materials that covered part of the landscape due to severe flooding a few years ago. It was interesting to learn that Costa Rica’s major export is technology. In the evening, we participated in Barry from Boston’s sing along.