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The Harpies

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Underby leaned his knee into Tenk under the bar, whilst slowly polishing a glass and turning toward the shrill voices cooing out in unison, a large practiced smile oozing across his features as the trio rounded the bar. Bib, who had just come down for his breakfast, watched the women, one shaggy eyebrow raised as he picked at his teeth with a match stick, but said nothing. “My dear ladies, you fair breathe new life into these walls. Had only I known an action so simple as the light and delicate steps of three women such as yourselves, I would have been trolling the local tea-houses years ago.”

The middle woman blushed. “Mr Underby, you flatter us.”

“Not at all, Mrs…,”

“Mrs. Reginald Thistle,” the lead woman said, emphasizing her late husband’s name.

“Mrs. Thistle,” continued Mr. Underby, finally. “The three sisters in Wise Old Willy’s Macbeth have absolutely nothing on you.”

Mrs Thistle paused, catching her breath slightly as a twitching expression –somewhere in the middle of suspicion, confusion, and intrigue passed over her face. “Oh, I… well… Mr Underby, you are altogether too fresh.”

“Indeed, were I any fresher I would be hanging on one of Mr Bones’ hooks next door.”

The thin frail-looking woman on the left paled slightly. Tenk grunted.

The woman on the far right, the tallest of the three, knocked once on the bartop, briskly. “Enough!” she said in a dry brittle voice. “I know all about your snake-oil ways, Mr Underby… I have attended the meetings for the Canal Pollutants and seen the way you smooth talk those naive fools, I tell you I will have none of it.”

“Ah, but Mrs…,”

“Miss.” she said, leaning her head back further. “Miss Venetta Vericose.”

Underby raised his eyebrows, but carried on: “Miss Vericose, what you must understand about those meetings concerning pollutants in the canal, is that they are pure humbug, and a waste of city time. The only pollutants drfiting into that water are microscopic bits of coal from the smokestacks. Do any of you ladies realize how much water is in one of these canals? These canals which lead directly into the Vernian Sea? Do you know how much water is in a sea? It’s rubbish, if someone told you the sky was red you would not argue with them, Miss Vericose, you would treat them like the soft-minded fools they are.”

He folded his arms, seemingly pleased with himself.

Miss Vericose took a long, slow, deep breath, but said nothing.

“If I might proceed unmolested.” he said, looking each of the women in the eyes sternly, then broke into a smile. “I jest, ladies, we are all friends here. In fact, I am on your side.”

Mrs. Thistle blinked, then sputtered. “You, you what?”

Underby placed one hand on his chest, and raised the other into the air. “On my mother’s grave.” In unison, all three ladies turned their heads toward the end of the bar; it was common knowledge around the city that Underby kept his mother’s skull under glass on the end of the bar – though each was shocked to see only a single red candle sitting in what should be its place. Each of the three faces registered varying levels of disappointment.

The small woman on the far left slowly raised her hand. Underby looked at her. The other two women turned their heads toward her. Bib looked over. After a pause, Underby finally asked: “Yes?”

The small mousy woman cleared her voice before she spoke. It didn’t help. “But Mr Underby,” she whispered hoarsely. “I hate to be, well, the one to have to… well, it seems like the obvious, you know, well… I mean, I hope what I say isn’t rude and seem like I am assuming. It seems to me… I mean…”

“Oh for goodness sake, Eunice, spit it out.” Miss Vericose hissed.

“Well well well well…” the small woman repeated, seemingly caught in an embarrassed loop as her face steadily reddened. Underby’s long thin hand slid toward her, moving over hers, squeezing softly. “Eunice. Breathe deeply. This is a casual conversation between four friends and peers.” His eyes slid over to Bib for a moment. “Ignore the shaved Orang-Utan, he barely understands us.”

Bib tsked sharply, turning his back to them and picking up a nearby horse racing form.

The small woman closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, as the other two women looked at the bony hand covering hers on the bar. “Now.” he purred. “What were you about to say? I am intensely curious.”

“Ooh er.” the small woman said slowly, then shook her head a little and looked to the other two. “It’s just, well, if you are, as you say… and I believe you, but, if you are, as you say, on our side… well, then, well, why not just change the name? And be, um, done with it?” She exhaled, as if having just finished a marathon race.

Underby nodded. “Oh, if only it were so easy.”

“It is.” said Miss Vericose firmly.

The bald man sighed, smiling sadly. “Oh, but it isn’t. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For you see, this is a bar.” he looked all three women in the eyes, as if making certain each understood his words. “ And this is New Babbage.”

Mrs. Thistle cleared her throat loudly to regain control of the conversation. “Mr. Underby. As you are the person who has the Mayor’s ear, we have brought you our list of names that we deem as appropo to the rennovation of this unfortunate neighborhood. Here. See here. Shall I read them to you, Mr. Underby?”

The women brightened and sat straighter as their carefully discussed plan regained its track, although one wonders how a woman in a corset can do anything but sit straightly.

“I am fully capable of reading, miss.” he said, snatching the piece of paper, then holding his fist on it. “As I was saying. This is New Babbage. And the people here, have certain… superstitions concern-” he started to say before being cut off by a tiny whisper.

“I rather liked the Imperial Lilac,” said the small mousy woman hopefully. Bib snickered softly.

“Women.” Underby said in a new tone of voice. “Understand this, and understand it keenly. All I do is for your own protection.”

“Protection?!” Miss Vericose scoffed.

Underby, who had been leaning on the bar until now, raised himself up and positioned his face in a manner he knew would catch the candle light. He knew, because he had practiced with a hand mirror many many times before. He paused, allowing the dramatic suspense in the air to grow.

“Who here remembers what happened when the mayor, our sovereign and democratically elected leader, attempted to force the urchins to attend school, hm?” he raised his eyebrows, looking between each of their faces, waiting. Each woman broke eye contact, looking down at the floor, or their fingertips, mumbling.

“Mm hmm.” he responded, grimly. “And the last judge. Anyone remember his fate?”

The women nodded sulkily, each saying a few cursory words of remembrance.

Underby nodded with them, sarcastically. “Yes, yes of course you do, because mob justice isn’t simply a trite phrase in this city of mad folk. It is a literal reality, and yet you women play your name games as if you live in a fantasy world, well it is frankly outrageous, my dears.” he spat, now looking each woman squarely in the face, all pretense of nicety withered away.

“Mr Underby…” Mrs Thistle began.

“Save it, Gladys. I am going to spell out how this ends, and then you are all going to vacate these premises, promising to never return upon threat of bodily harm.”

The woman all gasped. Not quite in unison, but close enough for hand grenades.

Underby took up the sheet of paper, then held it over the nearby candle. “Here are your options.” he began. “You may continue your berserk crusade out of abject boredom and a general sense of worldly failure, dooming yourselves to being ripped limb from bloody limb by a mad mob who believes it is to tempt the most dire of ill fates to alter a bar in any manner, or you can embrace reason and abandon your absurd cause, holding onto dear life. Your existence will be dull, no doubt, as dull minds breed dull lives. But you will be safe.”

He looked at them, exhaling through his nose. The women were silent for a moment, before Miss Vericose said very seriously: “The mayor will hear about how you spoke to us today.” she threatened, as she turned on her heel to exit the bar. Others rose as one and followed in marchstep.

“No doubt.” he responded, remembering suddenly who he was leaning on below the bar. The little man had been exceedingly quiet throughout.

When the last woman’s shoe was heard to be safely up upon the sidewalk cobbles, Mr. Tenk let out a low whistle. “Nicely done,” he remarked as his grizzled head popped up from behind the bar. “Now go fetch my coat and cane.”

Underby motioned to Bib to get the mayor’s things, but Tenk gave Underby a cautionary look and kept his back to Bib. Underby turned to look at the twisted little goblin, a shiver running through him again as he was reminded of the specimen of inhumanity which sat before him. “A shame.” he said.

“Mm?” grunted Tenk.

“I didn’t get a chance to suggest my own name change to the women.” Underby said, running a finger around the top of a nearby glass.

Tenk hopped neatly onto a stool, then looked at Underby, knowing where this was going. “Say it.”

Underby tried to swallow the smirk, but was not entirely successful. “I was becoming rather attached to renaming this place… the Chamberpot.”

Tenk closed his eyes. “My coat and cane.” He didn’t open them again until he heard the door close.


((Underby wrote this one))

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  1. Jonathon Spires Jonathon Spires November 23, 2012

    Nice to see Mr U still doing his best putting things to right.

  2. Victor1st Mornington Victor1st Mornington November 23, 2012

    I got to admit, the political intuitiveness of Underby and the way he softens the ladies up…and then smacks them down in the same conversation is remarkable…

  3. Jimmy Branagh Jimmy Branagh November 24, 2012

    Jimmy Branagh finds this lesson in persuasive diplomacy immensely facinating.

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