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The Black Bird

David Barr Kirtley

The black bird on the mantelpiece spoke. It said, "Nevermore."

Spade looked up from cleaning his pistol. The bird, a black-lacquered falcon statuette, sat motionless. Spade placed the pistol on his desk, pushed back the brim of his hat, and approached the bird.

"You talk?" Spade said.

The bird watched him evenly with two small, black eyes. "Yes," it answered. Its voice was eerily familiar and echoed through the silent office.

"How?" Spade demanded. "You're just a statue."

The bird's lacquered beak moved as if it were alive. "Sounds like a mystery to me," it said.

Spade confidently lit a cigarette. "Well, I'm good with mysteries. I just solved one."

"You didn't solve squat." The bird sneered.

Spade blinked. He had solved the case. The black bird was a fake—a decoy. They had scraped away a bit of its lacquered exterior and instead of priceless jewels they had found nothing but worthless lead. "What do you mean?" asked Spade suspiciously.

"You never did find the real falcon," said the bird. "Don't you wonder where it is?"

Spade shrugged. "The Russian has it, probably. Let Gutman and the others go after it if they want. They'll never find it."

"Wrong," said the bird. "The Russian doesn't have it. In fact, it's right around here somewhere."

Spade studied the bird carefully. "All right." He sat back down. "I'm listening."

"This is a real mystery." The bird shook its head. "Not like your usual work—which is always about who killed who, or who's banging whose wife. That's not a mystery, Spade. That's hardly even a puzzle."

Spade frowned.

"Real mysteries," the bird continued, "like, why do we exist? What's the nature of truth? Is there a higher power? They don't have solutions. That's what makes them mysteries."

Spade broke in. "Okay, so where's the real falcon?"

The bird sighed. "It's so obvious. I would think you would have figured it out by now. You're a detective, after all."

"Tell me."

"Didn't you ever read The Purloined Letter? The best place to hide something is in plain view, where no one will think to look for it."

Spade frowned. He walked across the room and lifted the black bird off the mantelpiece. It watched him, and chuckled as he turned it all around. Spade went back to his desk, brushed off the cigarette ash, and placed the bird in front of him. He flicked open his pocketknife and began scraping off more of the black lacquer. Underneath, of course, was nothing but lead.

"You're getting warmer," said the bird.

Spade opened his drawer and took out an iron file. He scraped away at the bird's leaden neck.

The bird chuckled. "Oh. You're getting even warmer now."

Lead filings flaked away. Spade scraped deeper and deeper. Finally, something began to emerge beneath the lead. Spade took a deep breath and blew, sending filings flying away into the smoky air.

Beneath the lacquer and the lead, the bird was made of gold and jewels, which glowed and sparkled even in the dim light of Spade's office. "Congratulations," the bird cried. "You solved the mystery!"

Spade got up and closed the buff-curtained windows.

A faint hint of ammonia drifted up from the courtyard.

"You're rich," the bird chanted. "You did it! Case solved."

"Something's not right here," Spade said.

He took up his pocketknife again, and poked the largest jewel. The tip of the knife sank in a few centimeters, as if the jewel were made out of chocolate. Carefully, Spade started scraping it away altogether. Beneath, there was something else.

"Oh boy," said the bird. "Now you've done it. The plot thickens!"

Spade scraped away at more of the jewels.

"I should warn you," the bird intoned ominously, "if you keep digging into this matter, you may not like what you find."

Spade ignored him.

"Of course," the bird continued, "people in mysteries always say that, don't they? And does it ever happen? No way. The hero goes right ahead, catches the killer, and gets the girl. He gets his picture in the paper, and a handshake from the mayor. So go ahead, Spade. Don't listen to me. Keep digging. Everything will probably turn out all right in the end."

Spade carefully scraped away at the bird's throat. The faux jewels fell away like dry scabs. Beneath lay an intricate network of tiny machinery, cogs, and flashing lights.

"What's this?" Spade asked.

"Microcircuitry," the bird explained. "That's what allows me to talk."

"There's no such thing," Spade said.

"Well," the bird exclaimed. "Look who knows so much! Just because you've never seen microcircuitry before, you presume it can't possibly exist. What a fool. Read Hume some time, why don't you?"

Spade poked at the microcircuitry with his pocketknife. "What is all this?"

"Computers," the bird said. "Machines. That's what it's all about, Spade. Everything's a machine in one sense or another—your body, the universe. One day, you'll probably be replaced by a machine. Who knows?"

"I don't think so." Spade shook his head.

"Sound improbable? Why don't you try scraping away at your own outer layer? You might be surprised at what you find."

Spade absently ran a fingernail over the skin on his forearm.

"Leave well enough alone," the bird said. "Just this once."

"I think there's something else," Spade said. He began to scrape away at the microcircuitry. "A deeper layer."

The circuits popped and sparked and fell away. The tiny motors broke and oozed hydraulic fluid. The lights went dark.

"You're out of your league, Spade," the bird said. "Why don't you go back to murder, adultery, that sort of thing. That's more up your alley."

"I've broken the machines," Spade observed, "but you're still talking."

The bird nodded reluctantly. "Perhaps it isn't the microcircuitry after all."

The last layer of twisted metal mechanics flaked away. Beneath was a soft, porous surface.

"Looks like skin," Spade said.

"Maybe," said the bird.

Spade scraped away at the falcon's head. Its beak cracked off and fell away onto the floor. Spade carved away at its head, its eyes, and throat.

"It's a face!" he exclaimed, as the shape gradually took form.

"Oh. It gets better," said the bird.

"It's my face," said Spade finally.

A living, miniature version of his own face stared back at him from the carved portion of the black bird's head. Two brown, living eyes regarded him.

"So you see," said the bird, with its miniature human face, "this is how I can talk. I'm actually alive, after all."

Spade realized with a start why the bird's voice sounded so familiar. It was his own. "Why do you look like me?" Spade asked.

The bird sighed. "Because our perception of things, mysteries for example, are filtered through our own consciousness. If you keep digging for truth, eventually all you find is yourself."

"There must be something deeper," Spade insisted.

"I wouldn't count on it," said the bird.

Spade held the pocketknife towards the miniature face. The eyes regarded it nervously. "Spade? What are you doing?"

Sam Spade had never failed to solve a mystery, and he didn't intend to start now. "I want the truth," he said. With an unsteady hand he began to scrape away the flesh of the miniature face's cheek. A viscous, transparent fluid oozed out. Spade cut deeper. He began to scrape away at the falcon's throat.

"That's the jugular vein," the bird whispered hoarsely. "You might want to be careful around that."

"Will it kill you?" Spade asked.

"No," the bird answered.

Spade sliced it. A thick line of blood billowed forth, splattering dark spots across the desk. Spade gasped. "Blood?"

"Blood," the bird confirmed. "That's as deep as you're going to get."

Spade put down the knife and frowned. "That's the answer to your mystery? Blood?"

"I never said there was an answer." The bird scowled. "Quite the opposite, in fact."

Spade looked disgusted. "That's not a mystery."

"Au contraire," said the bird, "that is a true mystery. Real quests for the truth usually end in fits of self-destruction and bitter disappointment."

"I'm not finished yet," Spade said.

"Oh no? What's left to do? You've already—" The bird paused. "Uh-oh, Spade," it added, "looks like you're bleeding."

"What?" Spade stuck his hand to his throat, and it came away sticky and soaked with wet blood. He leapt to his feet, ran across the room, and leaned towards the mirror.

"I told you it wouldn't kill me," said the bird. "Beyond that, who's to say?"

Blood oozed from a gory section of Spade's cheek, and a deep gash ran across his throat. Spade seized a cloth to staunch the flow of blood out of his neck, but it soaked through instantly.

He spun around, and looked at the bird.

"I said you might not like what you found," the bird said, almost apologetically, "but you didn't listen."

Spade sank to his knees, his blood dripping wide, wet spots across the carpet.

"No girl for you," the bird scolded. "No handshake from the mayor." It hopped down off Spade's desk and slowly walked across the carpet towards him. "I told you that you were out of your league." The bird shook its head ruefully. "I said to stay away from real mysteries, but would you listen? You've learned your lesson now, though."

Spade's neck collapsed and his forehead struck against the carpet.

Spade watched warily as the bird loomed closer and closer, speaking with its identical, bleeding face. Finally, it stood over him, casting a dark shadow across his eyes.

"Nevermore," it answered, chuckling. "Nevermore!"



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