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A Good Yield of Monsters
Words by David Starnes
After twelve hours of tacking up electrified fence for those spiteful wendigos that ought to stay put now, Morgan Flint cruised to the lake at the western edge of his farm.
No finer end to the day than racing toward the sun on his ’32 Indian motorbike. The last brush of the day’s heat warmed his cold blood. Blooms of dust rose from the road as he sped along, grown huge by the recent drought that had swept through the great state of Texas. He sneezed twice, then sealed his nose slits shut and breathed through his mouth.
He tasted the water before spotting it. Salty, a bit sweet, ripe with the bones of what missed the chance to eat what ate it. Some guy was sitting in his truck bed by the water. He dropped his sandwich when Morgan came hauling down the last hundred yards.
Morgan bumped the kickstand with his tail, dismounted. “I’ll give you, let’s say, twenty-five words to explain why you’re trying to ruin my evening before I grind you into chum. And maybe a snack, I don’t know yet. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or gassy. Go.”
The guy just stared at him from beneath his Stetson. His eyes were wide and wet with fear, but then he removed his glasses and thumbed his tears dry. Glasses on again, he picked his sandwich off the floor and took a bite.
“You can have thirty words if you throw me half,” said Morgan.
“De--deal.” The guy ripped his dinner down the middle, tossed it over. Morgan snatched it out of the air with a quick snap of his jaws.
“Twenty-nine left.” He opened the left saddlebag on the bike and retrieved a jar of Swamp Water, his homebrewed concoction of corn liquor, chimera hearts, and pulverized mint leaves for color. A sip, followed by a burn that gave him the shivers. “Hey, any chance I could convince you to eat a couples sprigs of mint once you’re done talking? I bet you’d taste amazing with a little mint in you. Keep your answer short and sweet. Every word counts.”
“Mr. Flint, I--”
“That’s Dr. Flint to you. I didn’t fly all the way to Zurich last year to get an honorary degree from a bunch of mad nerds in lab coats for you to call me mister. Twenty-six.” Another sip, another shiver.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Flint, I’m a little more nervous than I thought I’d be. My name’s Gerald Bakersfield.”
“Eh, don’t sweat it. You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last to say that. It’s the scales, right?”
“For some reason they don’t photograph real well, so when people pump themselves up to meet me, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, it won’t be so bad. I’ve seen claws like that before, teeth like that before, I won’t be scared.’ And bam. They get a peep of their soul in the black reflection of my scales, and it is that bad, and they are that scared.” He shrugged. “Eight words.”
Gerald counted on his fingers. “Your wife said you’d meet me out here.”
Morgan sighed, loud and quick, like air scrambling from a blown-out tire. “That witch.”
“She seemed nice on the phone.”
“No, not like that ugly term you humans throw at your women, but an actual witch, with broomsticks and eyes of newt and this cat that tries to trip me when I get up in the middle of the night to take a leak. I swear that cat wants me out of the picture so it can steal my side of the bed. Anyway, didn’t you hear my wife cackle?”
“Not that I remember.”
“It’s a joke, Gerald, get it together. She actually has quite a charming laugh, part of the reason why I asked her to marry me forty-three years ago.”
“Yes, I am as hilarious as I am handsome and modest. So you’re here to buy one of my animals, should’ve said that to begin with.” He held out his hand for Gerald to shake. Besides being disgustingly sweaty, Gerald possessed the strong grip of a guy who knew what he wanted.
“Let’s go for a swim. We’ll chat in the water.”
“But, Dr. Flint, that sounds kind of impossible.”
“Impossible is for the unimaginative, Gerald. Follow me.”
Morgan squinted. The sun had sunk halfway into the horizon, setting fire to the smooth surface of the lake. Where the road met the bank that encircled the water, buried in a thicket of cattails, sat a pine box the shape and size of a coffin. Having misplaced the key to the lock long ago, and with him being too damn tight to replace it, he picked it with his left dewclaw. The scent of old mud, along with the desiccated remains of a basilisk, greeted him. He dug through some blankets and coils of rope to find an antique scuba helmet, the kind worn by the divers at the bottom of a fish tank.
“This is my wife’s, but it should fit you.” Morgan lowered the tailgate, set the helmet on it. “She doesn’t have the same watermelon head as you, but she does like to wear her pointy hat pretty much everywhere. You know, because she’s a witch.”
Gerald slipped off his seat once Morgan backed away. The city slicker picked up the helmet, grunting. “Who’s going to pump air into it?”
“Air?” Morgan smiled. During the one hour each week he dedicated to Googling himself and Tweeting corrections to his half-million followers of falsities he found, he had discovered the following: 1. The grin of Morgan Flint, the purveyor of all things that are a terrible in this world, is said to glint in the dark. 2. When extracted and pounded to powder, the teeth of Morgan Flint are said to be medicinal, similar to the horn of a rhino. 3. Morgan Flint is said to be a considerate but vocal lover.
“The stuff that goes in here and goes out there.” Gerald pointed at his nose, twice.
“Hmmm, yes, that air. Put the helmet on. Wife’s a witch, remember?”
“Is she? I don’t know if you’ve mentioned that yet.”
“I like you, Gerald.”
“That’s encouraging.” The city slicker struggled into the helmet. He freaked out a bit when the glass door in the front slammed shut and a rubber turtleneck grew around his actual neck, but he calmed down once he realized he could still breathe.
“Testing, testing, mic check, one, two, three.”
“I can hear you,” Gerald said, slightly in awe.
“It’s almost like you’re wearing the diving helmet of a witch.”
“Who’s a witch?”
Morgan stripped down to his boxers, and into the water he dove. A woman whose name he forgot as soon as he chained her to the lakebed was staring at him. So was her boyfriend, and his boyfriend, and his girlfriend, and her girlfriend with the stringy hair. Each of the five had a carabineer hooked through a rib, which was connected to the rib of their neighbor. A warm red light flowed through their translucent bodies, allowing Morgan to better see Gerald ease feet-first into the water. Morgan braced himself for the scream that never came.
Gerald said, “The Internet said you kept ghostly nightlights in your lake.”
“They flew all the way from Scotland to buy three eggs that contained the Morrigan for some coup they were working on, and they shot me in the leg after I handed over the eggs. I guess they‘d forgotten who the bad guy was. Now check out how they’re spending eternity. So, what are you here to buy?”
Gerald looked from him to the Scots, back to him, then beyond him, to where the other fifty-four groups of bums were locked to the silt and glowing. “Your mouth doesn’t move when you talk.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“All right. I need a manticore. Several, if you’ve got them.”
Something with teeth nipped at Morgan’s calf. He patted it on the head with his tail. “Manticores. You’re kidding. Those guys are a bunch of turds.”
“Can’t I interest you in something equally winged and frightening? Wyvern? Griffin? How about a lightning bird or even a harpy?”
“I have three-point-two million dollars in my truck, earmarked for manticores, all in precious stones, just the way you like it.” Gerald had one hand out of the water, holding on to the bank, as if he were readying to hoist himself up and out if need be. Smart man. Morgan really did like him, wondered what he’d say if he asked him to play poker next Tuesday.
“Let me guess: The Internet told you my currency preference.”
“Your wife did.”
He laughed, hard. When he finally stopped, he said, “And I’m sure she forgot to mention it’s her birthday in a few weeks.”
“Oh no, she definitely told me. Why else would I bring mostly emeralds?”
“Yep, and I have a guy who can set them for a fair price.”
Morgan sighed. “What Momma wants, Momma gets. But first I need you to grab me a rock and swim down here so I can beat these leviathans to death when I noodle them out.”
“Nice.” He paused. “Wait, what?”
And for the next hour Morgan demonstrated to the city slicker the safest way to stick his arm in a cave carved out of the side of the lake, wait for a mouth the size of an innertube to attempt to swallow his appendage, yank the fishy bastard out by the throat, then club him like a baby seal. Gerald, not the greatest angler ever, at least loaded the smallest of the three Morgan caught into his truck bed by himself.
* * *
Morgan raised the manticores fourteen miles northwest of the lake. He drove slowly on the service roads that connected each section of his farm so Gerald wouldn’t get lost. Or eaten, at least until he paid. Morgan raised free-range monsters, and most of them ranged at night.
Beside him ran a pack of jackalopes. A jackrabbit with the size and speed of a puma and a rack of antelope horns any hunter would love over her mantle. In fact, this lady in Vegas bought five hundred of them each year for her private game reserve. Certainly many of her customers had stuffed bunny heads in their living rooms.
Okay, so not every creature bought from him was purchased with destructive intent.
Close now, the fields of greens, which made up a majority of the farm, gave way to brown hardpan. Morgan’s bike thudded across rocks, stirred thick dust clouds. He sealed his nose slits. Over the roar of his engine he heard the roar of the monsters that roamed the dark. But what he did not hear was the high-pitched mewl of the manticores. They had human faces and skulls, but they only produced crazy-obnoxious cat noises when young.
His single headlamp sliced a yellow blade across the blackness. The manticore bay came into view. Hung above the door was a sign that read A BUNCH OF TURDS, on both sides, though he saw just the one facing outward. That his manticores only understood the written word in Farsi was of little import; Morgan knew what his sign said, and passive-aggression was the most satisfying type of aggression.
Gerald parked beside him, hopped out. “Dr. Flint, I saw a wendigo sitting on top of a barn flipping me the bird. Is that normal behavior?”
When they knock down the fence I spent the day putting up, yeah, he wanted to say. Instead: “Shhh. Listen.”
A moment passed. “You mean listen for something other than my heart trying to bust its way out?”
“Obviously. You bring a gun?”
“Obviously.” From his truck cab he produced a silver pistol that looked as if it had been plucked straight from the big screen.
Morgan said, “I assume the bullets are silver, too.”
Gerald touched the tip of the gun to his nose.
“You watch too many movies.”
“They’re going to make a movie about my life after I unleash these manticores.”
“You think Clooney’ll play me?”
“If he doesn’t play me, sure.”
Morgan nodded. “Feel free to shoot anything that wants to eat you.”
“You want to eat me.”
“Actively wants to eat you.”
“That’s good to know. I was beginning to like you.”
“Beer after this?”
“Only if you let me buy.”
Morgan pressed a long black finger to his lips. He unlatched the gate as quietly as possible, which wasn’t very because it was a lock made in his own shop, heavy cast iron with wards inscribed in the metal to deter the riffraff. Manticores, despite their fearsome appearance, possessed sensitive digestive tracts. When they chowed down on dummies who thought it fun to wander in, the manticores became ill for a week, minimum. That, and wildly angry.
With careful steps he made his way across the darkened bay, his eyes long since adjusted. Litters of scat and bones and claw marks decorated the ground. The bay, a scant three acres for these jerks, seemed impossible to search after a day like today. A day like every day: an exhausting day.
Fifteen minutes in his legs had grown stiff, his patience rubbed raw, wanted to go home. But there was a man with several million dollars worth of his wife’s favorite gemstones behind him in need of monsters, and the last few years Morgan’s gifts to her had sucked. Like, kept him awake at night after watching her expression fall as she unwrapped them.
So on he went, on his new friend Gerald went, tracing the line of the fence. Morgan heard children laughing up ahead. Scanned the immediate area but couldn’t see the source for the exaggerated darkness that had suddenly taken over the bay. His heart, which beat only every once in a while, lurched painfully in his chest. Gerald grabbed his shirtsleeve.
“Please tell me the manticores diet doesn’t consist of kids. They are outrageously expensive this time of year.”
Morgan shook his head. “Manticores live off liquor and spite. Everything else is filler.”
Another few feet, the laughter became louder, the blackness that surrounded them thick enough to blot out the sky. Morgan unclipped the penlight from his belt, clicked it on. The unnatural nightfall swallowed the LED beam an inch after it left the flashlight. Laughter: louder, closer, now on his right. Now on his left. Now in front of him.
He barred Gerald from moving any farther. “Hello, Zeta.”
“Hey, hey, hey, look at you remembering my name.” Her high-pitched voice dug at his ears and nerves. “Who’s that hiding behind you?”
“Gerald,” said Gerald. He was breathing heavily, was clutching Morgan’s elbow.
“He’s cute. Any chance of leaving him here to play?”
“There’s a better chance of me getting reelected again next year,” said Gerald.
“Oooooo, a politician. How fancy.” Zeta giggled.
“Zeta,” Morgan said, “what have I told you about making it so dark?”
“Not to do it.”
“Okay, then why are you?”
“From?” He closed his eyes, began whispering, “Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say--”
“You. Tag, you’re it.”
The barbed end of her tail poked his palm. Poison flamed through his fingers to his forearm to his shoulder, and then he dug a claw beneath his armpit and ripped off the limb before the poison spread to the rest of him. A squirt of blood, a pinch of pain, no more as his body was already clotting the wound.
Zeta laughed her childlike laugh. “I love that trick! Now come get me!”
“I’m not playing this tonight.”
Her four feet stopped bounding around the earth. “But you never play with us anymore.”
“I told you these guys were a bunch of turds,” he said to Gerald. “All they do is lay guilt trip after guilt trip on me for not being around as much as they think I should be. Look,” he said to Zeta, “I have a thousand acres to farm and only two extra pairs of hands to work the place. You can’t expect me to be here all day long, only to have both our hearts yanked out when you go home with someone else.”
“Oh. That’s what you’re here about.” She sounded so small, so disappointed.
“You’ve met Gerald. He’s a nice guy. He helped me noodle leviathans this afternoon.”
“You never take us fishing.”
“Turn the lights back up, Zeta, and meet your new buddy.”
“But we’ll miss you.”
“I won’t ask again.”
The darkness lifted like a veil, revealing the ground, the fence, Zeta, her three sisters and one brother, the night sky. Zeta, like her siblings, stood four feet tall and six feet long, their bodies covered in golden feathers, their wings in black leather, their tales in green scales. Their human faces sunken by sadness.
“Hey, Gerald,” said Zeta.
“Is yours the red Ford?”
She beat her wings against the air, lifted off, headed toward the front of the bay. Her siblings followed.
“Five is a good yield,” said Morgan once he could no longer see them.
“God, they’re spooky. They’ll be perfect for what I have planned. Thank you so much for your help, Dr. Flint. What happened to your arm?”
Gerald slipped the satin sack of gems into Morgan’s remaining hand. The sack weighed only a few ounces, but it was a crushing weight, and it was a wonder if he could carry it home.