Excerpt from The Pipes of Wrath
I rapped on the counter and walked to the Board. There was some good stuff on there, including an actual harpy. That was exciting and gross, all at the same time. Winged creatures are always a little more of a challenge, due to the fact that they can simply fly out of range, but they usually carry a bigger pay off because of that. And harpies in general are just disgusting. They’re essentially huge vultures, with the heads and breasts of old ladies.
Not the sort of old lady who gains wisdom and sophistication over the years, but the type that you envision shoving innocent children into ovens inside cabins made of candy. And they still eat roadkill and carrion, so they stink to the high heavens. I know nothing about their “culture”, if they can be said to have any, but they are somewhat intelligent. They talk, even if what they have to say is mostly curses and foul language.
What was strange, other than there being one in Capitol City, was that there was only one. Like most birds, they flew in flocks, so there should have been several. This one was hanging out around a fountain on Silver Tree Lane, one of the high-brow areas of the city. It was leaving its droppings and the remains of its meals around, and the denizens of the street wanted it gone.
Good for me. They could, and did, pay well to have nuisances removed from Silver Tree Lane. Luckily for me, I was the first one to grab it off the Board.
“I’ll take this one,” I said, walking over to Sarge and showing him the notice.
“Good one. Pay is nice, and who doesn’t want to shoot a harpy? Even the NHLF couldn’t have a problem with that one.”
“You wouldn’t think so,” I said, and took my leave.
According to the notice, the harpy was around pretty much all the time. During the day, it came and went, screeching and verbally abusing whoever came within earshot. At night, it slept on top of the statue, but slept light enough that any attempts to sneak up on it resulted in its flapping off, aiming its discharge at its would-be attackers with remarkable accuracy.
I found the person who posted the complaint, a nice old gent name Roland Remington, the Fourth. If he was the Fourth, it was the most current edition of a story filled with money and success. His house made most of the other houses on Silver Tree Lane look shabby. I was sure he could afford to move to one of the really posh neighborhoods higher up on the hill and closer to the Palace. But, maybe he liked being where he was the biggest fish in the pond, or, maybe I was being too harsh, and he just wanted to stay where he had grown up. Whatever the reason, the ridiculous amount of money that he was offering to get rid of the harpy probably didn’t even dent his daily tea and crumpets budget.
“It’s around the corner, Mr. Grandfather,” he told me. A tall, distinguished man, with silver hair and a truly, epic brushy mustache, he had stepped out on the porch of his home to greet me himself, rather than letting a servant do it. That alone gave him a few credibility points in my book. “It perches on top of the War Memorial Statue and makes a mess of it. A perfect disgrace if you ask me.”
“You can’t even see it from here,” I said, looking up the street in the direction that he indicated. “Why do you care?”
“I like to take my morning walk there, and sometimes in the evening, Mrs. Remington will accompany me. It’s bad enough having to hear the vile thing when I’m on my own, but I simply will not allow my wife to be subjected to it. Besides that, it’s fouling the statue, and, well, perhaps you’ll understand when you see it.”
That was good enough for me, although with the amount he was paying, he certainly didn’t owe me an explanation. I took the money, shook his offered hand, which was another check in the plus column, and went after my prey.
On my way up the street, I reflected a bit on Mr. Roland Remington, the Fourth. He obviously had more money than any ten families could burn through in a lifetime, but his demeanor was of someone who still knew its value, and didn’t look down on those that hadn’t been born as fortunate as himself. In that way, he reminded me of Bryer, Lilly’s father. I wondered if they knew each other.
When I turned the corner and came to the square, I saw immediately why Roland had been so adamant that the harpy be removed. First, it truly was leaving the place a mess. Second, it had fouled a statue that must have meant a great deal to him. The man it depicted was surely Roland’s ancestor, and he was a dead ringer for it, right down to the mustache. I have no idea which of many wars it was supposed to commemorate, or what the man had done, but it was an obvious source of pride.
The harpy was there, perched on top of the statue, surveying what it surely believed to be its kingdom by this point. It saw me coming and let loose with a string of profanity which was even offensive to me, and I’ve been in bars where ogres drink.
“Nice mouth,” I said. “Do you kiss your mother with it?”
The harpy replied by telling me what it did to my mother, what I could do with her, who else was doing it, and so on. I actually hesitated in raising my gun, stunned at the creativity of the thing.
“Wow,” was all I could think of to say as I shot it off the statue. Not quite in the same league as the harpy’s verbal assault, but the little, metal ball that took it out made my point for me.
The smell that lingered after I shot it was horrendous. I gagged a bit and turned to go, but as I did so, I heard a sad note played on a pipe. The man came around the corner, playing what could only be described as a funeral dirge. He wasn’t the same guy as the night before, but was dressed much the same, in a bright mismatched outfit, with a peaked cap and a feather.
He continued to play as he came up to me, and then stopped, looking me right in the eyes.
“Now why did you have to go and do that?” he asked. “Was she really all that bad?”
“You’re joking, right?” I asked.
In answer, he smiled, began blowing his pipe again and sauntered on down the street. I watched him go, not quite sure how I should take his question. Shaking my head, I turned my gaze back to the square and fountain. The people who lived around here would have to come clean the place up themselves, since that wasn’t a service that the crown provided for. Having met Roland, I didn’t think he’d have too many problems convincing others to join in.
They should hurry though, I thought. Already the rats were coming, dragging bits of offal to their underground lairs, now that the harpy was no longer there, happy to prey on them also. I shuddered, never having seen so many of the things at one time. They must have been gathering, just waiting for their chance.
Yuck. I turned my back on the scene and went on my way.