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Flash Fiction 2012 Winners


First Place

 

 Best Wings in the Burgh

by Jim Busch

I wonder what Bravo team would think if they could see me now.  Eight years in the Rangers gathering intel and neutralizing bad guys in Godforsaken hell holes and here I am, breaking into a greasy restaurant on a run-down Pittsburgh street to snatch a damned barbecue recipe.  I should have signed on with Blackwater and gone back to Iraq with Osborne and DeCarlo. Same shit — different day — much better paycheck. But I wanted to go freelance.  I turned my back on the big money to be my own boss. Mike St. George: industrial intelligence and security consultant — big friggin’ deal.

Actually, it hasn’t been all that bad.  I’ve made a few bucks and most nights I sleep between clean sheets.  Industrial espionage doesn’t get the juices flowing like a night jump into the desert, but the odds of seeing next Christmas are a hell of a lot better.

This assignment is just getting under my skin.  My client, Art King, was totally pissed off at a crazy hippie in Pittsburgh.  King Foods had made millions buying unique regional restaurants and taking them national through franchising.  King was the reason that Americans could enjoy Cincinnati-style five-way chili from sea to shining sea.

But the hippie turned him down cold.  Art had offered an obscene amount of cash, enough to buy a lifetime supply of weed, but Merle Lindsay, owner of Dragon’s Lair Barbecue wouldn’t sell.  Art doesn’t like to hear “NO.”  He believes everything and everyone has their price.  If Lindsay wouldn’t be reasonable, Art would rip off the recipe for his famous Dragon Wings and leave his sorry tie-dyed ass without a pot to piss in.

Art’s culinary experts became Lindsay’s best customers, taking their sophisticated palates to Pittsburgh to identify Lindsay’s secret ingredient.  The only thing they could agree on was that Merle Lindsay made the best damned wings they had ever tasted.  They FedExed bucket after bucket of wings to King Labs for a detailed chemical analysis.  The 32-page lab report didn’t reveal anything about the recipe, but Art’s chief of research was fairly certain their unique flavor came from a special cooking method rather than from the sauce.  The only thing the lab rats could say for certain was that Lindsay made the best damned wings they had ever tasted.

That was when Art called me in.  I had worked for Art in the past, acquiring a copy of a competitor’s marketing plans.  I thought this would be an easy job: hack Lindsay’s system, poke around his hard drive, cash the check, and spend a week relaxing on a beach somewhere.  I had even made a bet with Art that he’d have the Dragon Wing recipe on his desk by Friday afternoon.  My big mouth was going to cost me a good bottle of double-malt scotch.  How could I know that Lindsay wasn’t online?  He didn’t even own a computer.  Someone should tell the pothead that this is the 21st frickin’ century, not 1968.  Apparently Lindsay’s a real nut case.  He was an honor student who went off the rails.  He had won a scholarship in chemistry, but during his sophomore year at Georgia State, he changed his major to medieval studies.  After college he traveled around the country for four years, performing magic tricks at renaissance fairs as the Master Druid.

Even though he had no experience in the food industry, Lindsay settled in Pittsburgh and opened this restaurant.  Dragon’s Lair Barbecue quickly gained a local reputation for serving “the best damned ribs and wings in the Burgh.”  A segment about Lindsay on the Food Network attracted Art King’s attention.  Long story short, that’s how I wound up crouched beside a dumpster in this alley.  I hate this old-school burglary crap, but I’m out of options.  After hitting the digital dead end, I tried greasing the palms of key people at the restaurant supply houses, only to find out they knew nothing about Lindsay’s operation.  He never bought anything out of the ordinary and never allowed anyone, including delivery people, into his kitchen.

I took a quick glance at my watch: 10:30.  It was time to move.  A full hour had passed since Lindsay had locked up.  Too many ops fall apart because the target forgot something, came back for their umbrella, and interrupted the party.  Being in a hurry is the best way to land in an eight by ten cell.   I picked the lock on the rusty metal door and gently pulled it open, using my headlamp to check for alarm sensors. Good to go...I’m in.

The dark room has an odd odor, smoky and pungent, but at the same time musty. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I find it.  Maybe a notebook or a recipe box.  When I scan the room, my light catches a reflection, green and sparkling like oversized sequins.  Whatever it is, it’s moving. I’m not alone.  This is not good!  From a dark corner comes an ungodly sound, a weird throaty hiss.

Turning around, I find myself staring into two massive green reptilian eyes.  What the—?!  I don't know what the hell it is, but damn, it's big!  Luminous purple smoke rises from the creature’s flared nostrils. It opens its mouth, exposing rows of dagger teeth and sending a sour, sulfurous cloud my way .  It’s time to—gaaaahh!


The next morning, Merle Lindsay stooped in the kitchen of Dragon’s Lair Barbecue, sweeping a small pile of coarse black ashes and misshapen bits of metal into a dustpan.  He smiled softly and said, “Looks like somebody was a naughty, naughty girl.  I hope that bad man didn’t keep you up all night.  We’re gonna be busy today; there’s a Steelers playoff game this afternoon.”


Second Place

 

  Home Alert Dragons

by John A. Frochio


The frequency of burglaries went down significantly when we began using dragons for home security.  So did elf infestations, wood sprite invasions, Jehovah’s Witness visitations, and Girl Scout cookie-sales calls.  I did miss the cookies.

It all started when I was having breakfast one morning.  While I was examining a toy dragon I had extracted from the cereal box, my wife, Marsha, commented that the Crumwells’ house had been robbed again.

That's when it hit me.

When I told my wife my idea, she hit me.  The idea sounded ridiculous when spoken aloud, but I decided to pursue it anyway.

I drove to a dragon whisperer's office in an abandoned farmhouse near where the dragons roamed.  They resided mostly south of the city, in the mountains.

The name on the door was Charity Paxton.  I walked in.  Her office was brightly decorated with colorful sculptures, paintings, and photographs of dragons.  The woman behind the counter was surprisingly young, perhaps early thirties.  She was attractive, with long fiery red hair.  I could see how dragons might be attuned to her.

"May I help you?" she asked in a soothing voice.

"I'm Jack Bellinger.  From the city.  I have a proposition that might sound outrageous at first, but if you're willing to hear me out..."

"Certainly."

"You make your living giving tours of the dragons' lairs and providing simple entertainments for the masses.  Would you consider expanding your repertoire?"

She smiled.  "Go on."

"Home protection services."

She hesitated.  "Have you considered how this might work?"

Negotiations began.

 

Well, my idea took off.  More of my neighbors joined in.  Soon there were nearly a dozen dragons circling our neighborhood, majestic beasts of power and grace.

Each of us had our own whistle keyed to a specific dragon.  We were required to take a short training course to learn how to work with them effectively.  The training was crucial since one mistake could result in your house going up in flames.  Or worse.  We took our training seriously, including cleanup training.  Once we got our dragons trained to watch our homes, they caught on quickly and crimes dropped significantly.

The neighbors who didn't participate became more than a bit nervous.  One day, a grievance committee came knocking at my door.

"Hi, Angie, Bill, Carol, Duane, Sue..."   I couldn't remember the rest of their names.  "This is a surprise.  What's going on?"

Sue, as usual, spoke up.  "You know very well why we're here, Jack.  You have to get rid of those dragons.  They’re pests and nuisances.  And they keep us up all night fretting about what they might do."

"Now wait a minute.  Aren't burglaries nonexistent anymore?   You folks who aren't participating in the program are reaping the benefits without footing the bill."

"At what cost, Jack?"

"No cost for you."

"What about frayed nerves and sleepless nights?"

I groaned.  Marsha joined in the debate and we almost came to blows.  Finally I had to ask them to leave.

We had no further confrontations.  No authorities came calling on us.  I assumed they had simply given up.

Until the day the ogres showed up at some of our neighbors' homes.

I immediately had a bad feeling about this.  I visited John and Sue Alderman, but they refused to talk to me.  I did some Internet research on the compatibility of ogres and dragons, but I couldn't find anything.  Ogres lived north of the city while dragons lived in the south, so they were not known to interact.

I slept uneasily the first night of their co-existence.  I heard many unidentifiable sounds during the night.  Eventually I slept.  And awoke to blaring fire alarms.

I jumped out of bed.  The Crumwells’ house was on fire.  I saw lots of smoke and flames and their dragon circling overhead.  I quickly threw on some clothes and hurried down the block.  My wife followed in a nightgown and robe.

It was total mayhem.  The Crumwells were pacing in their front yard.  The Aldermans were nearby with their ogre, who was chewing on something I couldn't identify.  The firefighters were setting up.

I ran over to Jeff Crumwell and shook him .  "What happened?"

He pointed shakily at the Aldermans.  "Their damn ogre..."

John and Sue came over.  Sue said, "Their dragon attacked our ogre."

"Your ogre was trespassing."

"He was chasing an intruder.  You were being a good boy, weren't you?" she said to the ogre.

I managed to piece together the story.  Apparently, when the ogre chased the intruder onto the Crumwells’ property, the dragon fried the intruder.  Then the dragon turned its attention to the ogre.  When the dragon spat fire, the ogre grabbed a scarecrow from their Halloween display to block the flames.  The scarecrow caught fire.  The ogre tossed it aside and left the premises.  Unfortunately, the flames from the burning scarecrow spread to the garage and then to the house.

More of our neighbors showed up, some with ogres, others with dragons.  The arguments escalated.  The dragons became more agitated and all began circling the burning house.  The ogres began pitching large objects at the dragons.  Burning lawn chairs, tricycles, and lawn decorations pelted various houses in the neighborhood. Including ours.

Widespread panic followed.  The night went downhill from there.

 

Later, we settled into our cots at the homeless shelter with several other families.  We had all pretty much calmed down by then. What else could be said?

After a moment of reflection, I sat up in my cot and said, "I have an idea."

Everyone took turns slugging me.


Third Place

 

Gift of the Magi(cian)

by Kirk Baker

 

“I hate it!  I wish it were gone from here,” she said.

“Soon enough, Marianne.  The faire is next week, and then we’ll be fixed for life.  Samantha will want for nothing, and perhaps you too can have some pretty things?”  He tried the lopsided grin that once won her heart, but she was having none of it.

“Samantha already wants for nothing of importance.  She has a loving father, a roof to sleep under, and a full belly from our garden and your skills.  And what’s to become of us if that thing kills you?”

Alwen sighed.  He was never able to explain to Marianne how much he adored her and the beautiful flame-haired daughter she had given him.  He ached when he saw them in tattered clothing, using eggshells and colored stones for jewelry.  Fine women like these, so much better than a poor cabinetmaker deserved, should be caressed by silk from faraway lands, weighted down by yellow gold and sparkling gemstones.

The dragon screeched, Marianne cringed, and Alwen sighed again.  Without another word he turned to attend to his charge while Marianne took Samantha’s four-year-old hand and started toward the snug cabin he had built for them.

“Are you coming, Papa?”

“In a few moments, my sweet.  Papa has some chores to attend first.”

“I love you, Papa.”

“And I love you.”


Marianne didn’t see how fortune had smiled upon them.  If not him, someone else would be preparing to sell a dragon at the faire next week.  He understood her concern.  Best to have no dealing with Magicians.  They were indeed unpredictable, following paths that others could not see, with purposes hidden from nonmagical eyes.

But the old man had been well and truly trapped in the deadfall of branches and thorns below the trail.  His gratitude to Alwen seemed genuine, and the gift of the egg was unexpected.  He provided detailed instructions on the care of the creature once it hatched, as well as a long list of precautions to prevent the dragon from killing Alwen.

Alwen followed the instructions carefully, and the dragon, (he never gave it a name), was beautiful in its way.  Its movements reminded Alwen of a cat, the eyes too somehow.  But Alwen never felt any attachment, and it was clear that the dragon’s preference was to be gone from the little corral — although the cabinetmaker suspected that it would have cheerfully paused to feast on Alwen’s flesh.

Dragons had many weapons.  They could bite.  Alwen’s dragon was near full grown and about the size of a pony.  The jaws could snap a man’s arm off in an instant.  The tail was a club with barbs long enough to impale human or beast, and poisoned as well.  And the claws were long and sharp.  Strangely, fire, though potentially the biggest problem, was the easiest to handle.  The magician had told Alwen of a small root plant whose oily juices, mixed with goat’s milk, prevented the spark needed to ignite the fiery breath.  Dragons loved goat’s milk.

The dragon defense that most intrigued Alwen was the whiskers, tipped with tiny needles and filled with a substance the males used to calm a female when mating.  When a male nuzzled a female dragon, the whiskers soothed her.  But a prick from a dragon’s whisker sent a human into sleep from which he or she never awoke.  Alwen had been instructed to trim the ends of the whiskers every week before barbs could form and to burn the cuttings.  He had done so without fail until this week.  A mixup with the faire director delayed him two days and he missed the whisker trimming.

Alwen had already received inquiries about an early purchase, but he intended to go to the faire, where bidding would drive the price up.  Some young nobleman would pay handsomely.  Fighting dragons were all the rage among the rich, and the creatures were extremely rare.

As Alwen advanced toward the corral, the dragon’s scales flickered, changing from a deep emerald green to a shimmering rusty color.  Fighting colors.

He placed a bucket of the root-laced goat’s milk on a hanger on the outside wall of the corral below a shuttered opening.   The dragon put his head through and Alwen closed the shutter, trapping the head and neck in the hole.   The scales became green while the dragon was engrossed in the milk.

While Alwen was cutting the last whisker, the dragon sneezed.  The shears were knocked from his hand.  Alwen’s blood ran cold as he felt a scratch across his palm.  He looked down.  A fine line of blood bisected his palm.  Was it from the barb or one of the trimmed whiskers?  He didn’t know.

There was nothing to do but finish his work, placing the whisker tips in a small bottle with a cork stopper.  In town he’d learned witches paid in silver coin for dragon’s whisker barbs.  Shaking inside and wondering if he’d awaken on the morrow, he placed the small bottle on the shelf above the hearth and said nothing to Marianne or Samantha.

 

A week later Alwen returned from the faire with a sack of gold large enough to keep his family, with their modest needs, for the rest of their lives.  He’d forgotten to take the whiskers, but no matter, they wouldn’t need the money.  He’d bought two silk dresses and even allowed himself a beautiful unicorn-handled knife.

He came into the cabin, waved the sack of gold in front of Marianne, and said, “There, I told you it would work out for us!”   He kissed her soundly.

His enthusiasm was contagious, and Marianne laughed.  But then she cautioned him to be quiet.  “Ssssh!  Poor Samantha was so upset when she broke your bottle this afternoon.  She cut her finger and cried herself to sleep.”

Alwen looked with horror at the empty space above the hearth.