SYBIL SUE FLANNERY
What it's Like to Be That Bird
Dreamed 1986/10/29 by Chris Wayan
for Rosel George Brown, Ed McBain and Dashiell Hammett
Read a bit of Sybil Sue Blue, Rosel Brown's hard-boiled bad-girl science-fiction private eye, from the 1960s. Nothing remarkable now, but years ahead of its time.
My neighbor Marianne is cleaning out her cabin in the back yard. She gives me an old calendar with elegant prints of birds by Wendy Morgan. A blob of color and you suddenly feel what it's like to be that bird. I wish I could do that.
In the evening, a short story by Flannery O'Connor comes on the radio just before I fall asleep.
You wouldn't think a day that quiet was a recipe for trouble.
My name is Sybil Sue Flannery. I'm a detective. What I look like doesn't matter; it'll change on my next case. You want to understand me, just follow the case I'm on: the case of the Bad Girls. They're a three-woman crime wave. Brilliant heists, if I do say so.
I track down a woman with dark hair cropped into a helmet shape, who I have good reason to think is one of the three. I wasn't sure. But she knows EXACTLY who I am and doesn't waste time pretending--just swings at me, hard! She's fast and dangerous, and after a brief, bruising, inconclusive fight, she knocks me down and gets away.
Following my intuition, I drive into the desert. Here in Southern California, all the green's on the coast--a narrow strip under jagged mountains. Well, a few oases inland. The Polynesian Indians grow manioc and taro here, which most people think are related, though they're not. They use flooded paddies just a few feet wide; the plants are like cabbages an inch high and wide, in endless dense rows. They're salty and bitter but you can eat them even raw if you chew them thoroughly. They're better hard-boiled, of course.
Everything is. Hard-boiled is my life.
Oh yeah, sorry, the case. I'm pondering a strange clue: the Bad Girls left their swimsuits in the apartment they used as a base for their last job. The three women moonlight, or I should say sunlight, as beach bimbos snapping up rich guys. They hang out at the beach and show off their bodies, and attract Elderly Gentlemen they can swindle--though by all accounts that's a fringe benefit. The word is, they're just plain vain.
So I'm wondering why they abandoned three perfectly good bikinis (not my size), when I pass the driveway to a lodge or a country bar, way off the road. I find myself turning up the long dusty driveway on a hunch. Pass a small fruit-and-vegetable stand near the gate, but I hardly notice, as it looks empty.
But it wasn't. I didn't learn till later, but hidden behind the empty stand was Fatlady--one of the three. She saw me coming and hid--phoned a warning up to the lodge.
I enter warily.. The bar is sprinkled with tacky little curios and plaques and trophies, thick as the glitter on a hooker's wedding cake, and probably tastier.
Leaning on the far end is a guy I know, a mystery writer. He goes by Ed McBain. Middle-aged, fiftyish, tall and balding and craggy. His suit suits him. He's drinking rum, gin, one of those monosyllables. Beware a man who drinks long names.
I go right over; I don't worry about being seen with him or getting him entangled in the case, since after all, his privacy's assured: he's just a pseudonym!
So I ask "How you been, McBain?"
Ed says "Sybil Sue. Well... I'm drinking. I had an unhappy affair. She was younger, beautiful, had short dark hair, hard and smart... and she dumped me, disappeared on me, and I felt used." Incredible as it sounds, at first I don't connect this with the gang, but finally I say "I believe I met her!" So my intuition was right; they're around here.
I drag Ed into a more private nook, and I turn into a little bird and perch on his shoulder. A little yellow peeping chick, that's me. Chick who peeps. Peepers. Private eye, get it?
McBain changes too, into a huge old hawk. I admire his elegant, conservative dignity--no attention-grabbing plumes for this guy, just rich, subtle browns. He'd make a fine eye. But he'd rather just write about it, and who wouldn't? Less bruises that way.
I chitter in his ear, trying to resist the temptation to nip it, "So you're back to square one... anyone new and promising?"
"Sybil Sue, I'm not dating at all. I'm giving it up for Lent. For good. I'm too old and ugly for the girls I like. She... she proved that."
"Chickenshit! You're handsome. Her. I'll tell you a secret about HER. That chick is one of the Bad Girls. It's her racket, conning men, no matter WHAT age or looks! You gonna let a lyin' crook be your judge?"
At that moment, the lady in question stalks into the room. Casually, with a languid motion I took to be the lift of a lighter to the cigarette at her lips... she pulls up a dainty little gun, and starts firing.
Ed takes a bullet, maybe two, and goes down; she winged him, which is serious in a hawk. Oops, an ex-hawk: he turns human, so he must have blacked out. Not good.
Bad Girl pulls out his wallet and inspects it for a moment; then she searches the bar counter, trying to figure out if I'm hiding among the souvenirs, or if I fled in some small form. She knows I'm a shapeshifter too...
And she's right! The instant she entered, I changed again, from a peeping chick to a big round seed.
As Bad Girl searches the room, she does it in bird-form herself, as a dark-headed songbird. A seed-eater. Will she swallow me? She finds me at last, picks me up, curious what a lone bean is doing here, but doesn't crack me and swallow me as she could--too much work. I've always been hard! She drops me on the bar counter and I bounce to the floor and roll and settle into stillness. An innocent little eye on the floor.
With a frustrated screech, she flies out the bar and down the hall.
I change again into a songbird myself and perch on the bar-rail, nervously, wondering how to get the resort's doctor without alerting the Girls. Ah, speak of the devil--he enters with his black bag and spots Ed and kneels by him muttering, "Damn, I was afraid so." A doc on the ball! Hears shots, comes running like a gold-medalist ambulance chaser! I feel relieved. Free to chase the Girls.
I flit across to my car, in the open window, and perch on my dashboard. Whoops! Here comes the gang! Searching the lot. I use my power fast, turn into a plaque showing a rare, large songbird, only known to live in a 44-square-mile valley in south-central California, right by the sea. It loves that green foggy coast, not this desert.
The bird is called a "Dashiell Hammett," by the way. Who the hell thinks up these names? The peewit, the tomtit, the hammett. It would make some feeble sense if it were a Black Bird, but the damn thing is gaudier than a Picasso parrot--about eighteen colors all louder than those stripy drinks with umbrellas. Some tribute! Dash would gag. But I'm bearable in plaque form, just a bas-relief in tasteful faux-gold on wood.
The whole gang assembles around my car. I'm just an innocent bird-watchers' plaque, lying on the dashboard watching with my one hard little tin eye. They search the car for me... then shriek and pounce with glee. A set of red and white pom-poms! Hell, I'd completely forgotten the Case of the Itchy Cheerleaders.
My arch-enemy stands back, legs wide, aiming a pistol with both arms... at the pom-poms! "Don't even think about changing, bitch!"
Material Girl douses the pom-poms in gas, fishes out a cigarette lighter and set the fuzzballs on fire! Pompoms in flames... As they burn, Gun Girl uses them for target practice, just to be sure...
"We got that nosy cunt at last!"
"Shit, she was smart -- how'd she find out about our new cover job?"
"She probably planned to join the squad and spy on us!"
What are they babbling about?
Next they steal my car! I'm stuck with them. Oh, well, I wanted to know what they're up to. I stay a plaque. No choice.
They drive on deep into the desert, through the pass to Palm Springs, and park by a high school with a screaming-green football field. So unnatural out in this Sonoran desert, like an emerald in the dirt.
The Bad Girls hop out and put on spangled shorts and little vests... and pom-poms! So that's why they burned mine! And why they left their swimsuits behind... This have a new scheme to exploit their bodies for money, now.
The most wanted bank robbers in LA practice cheerleader routines. Strut and jump and split till my thighs hurt just thinking about it (and they're aluminum, too).
I watch and listen from my car's dashboard for what seems like hours... becoming a real Dashiell Hammett bird now and then, just enough to lift my head and peek. Now what? I know where they are and what they're doing, but... where's the crime in it? All I know is, there WILL be. Why else act so secretive? They thought they killed me, just to keep their cheerleading rehearsal private.
It must be bad. Well, of course! They're the Bad Girls. They have standards.
THE MORNING AFTER
So what's it all mean? I've racked my tiny brain, and... it's a mystery to me. All I get is that my femme side, the whole Three-Sided Goddess, is up to something so hard-boiled and secretive it makes less sense than the plot of "The Big Sleep" (and even the screenwriters later admitted it baffled them).
Maybe that's the real lesson here. You can detect and deduce all you like; clues don't always add up and you can't solve every case. Some dreams get away.
Well, this one wanted to be a mystery. Man, did it succeed!
Of course... all I have to do is be patient and wait. Eventually they'll play their scam; these aren't dabblers and dilettantes. They're the Bad Girls.
And this chick will be there.
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