Trials of the Tax Beast
I stumped up the cement steps of someone’s Neohome in Neopia Central. It was utterly un-extraordinary. In fact, it was nearly identical to the rest of multitude of neatly aligned Neohomes on this street, right down to the white picket fence and clumps of daisies growing on the front lawn. They were supposed to look charmingly unplanted and natural, but every front lawn had the exact same pattern of the weeds; as if someone had designed a pretty stamp and used it over a hundred times in a regular grid pattern. I sighed and shifted the heavy sack slung over my shoulder, so it would dig less painfully into my shoulder, and reached a claw out to ring the doorbell.
Before you say anything, that sack was not filled with presents and I was not wearing anything of the color red. You were thinking of something else that could be put in a sack and slung over one’s shoulder, to be dragged along unenthusiastically? Well, now. Let me quell your overactive imagination. First of all, it was in the middle of the day in a bright and cheery suburban neighborhood with a crime rate of less than zero. And anyways, the sack itself was an unobtrusive brown in color, and was filled to the brim with neopoints, nothing else.
It was heavy because they came in the form of one-neopoint coins. In actuality, the sack held a rather small monetary amount, but it would have been far too easy for the last person to give me ten-neopoint-bills or a check or something. It had been just my luck to catch the slight blue Wocky as he was hauling a collection of coins found under couch cushions over a number of years to be cashed in at the bank.
I suppose I don’t need to tell you who I am at this point. I am the feared Tax Beast; frightening on my good days, terrifying in anger.
Hated nearly unconditionally in even the remotest parts of Neopia.
The door in front of me opened. The user that appeared, framed in the doorway as she adjusted a strap of some sort on her purse, froze as she took in my small form. The story went that my little green impishness was so awful it made people run in terror. That didn’t happen most of the time; people just gave me a percentage of what they had on them in a defeated sort of way. Some part of them assumed that I was fearsome, even when their eyes told them I was not.
The user narrowed her eyes. “What percentage?” Her outer mask of anger and defiance slipped as her eyes flicked back to her purse nervously.
Sympathy flickered inside me, but I ignored it with the ease that came with practice. I opened my mouth to tell her that I’d need twenty percent, when suddenly a little blue bundle of fur bounded up and nuzzled the user’s leg.
“Mommy, let’s go to the bank now.” Uncomprehendingly, the baby Lupe stared with wide, sad eyes at first its owner and then me, the less-than-imposing figure that was causing all the worry and tension.
I wondered what earnings the user was planning to deposit as I glanced briefly at her purse. Restocking? Gaming? Stocks, even? I didn’t waste too much time dwelling on that subject, though. “Twenty percent, please. Preferably in neopoint-bills, not coins.”
I spoke the words politely enough, but the user immediately went white. I kept my expression carefully disinterested as she put the money in the sack, which I held open for her. She turned glumly and closed the door in my face, shepherding the confused baby Lupe inside as she did so.
I felt bad for her, I really did. It was just – after so many of these inescapably hard cases, you got used to it.
I tied the mouth of the sack closed with a worn piece of twine, with some difficulty. I hefted it back over my shoulder with little more than a low grunt, and ambled along my way. I noted the sun’s position in the sky; almost noon. If I didn’t hurry, I’d miss teatime.
I made it to Neopia Central only a few minutes late. I bypassed the crowded shop area and headed instead towards an unremarkable office building, nestled in the trees far beyond where any shopper, dedicated or not, would bother to venture.
The sign at the front proclaimed that the building was home to the Economical Emergency Agency. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Economical Emergency Ag. A line of shrubbery was slowly but surely moving on an overgrown path to obscure the entire sign. It already hid the sentence that I knew was somewhere underneath the office building’s name: “A covert branch of the Neopian government.”
I had often wondered how a covert branch of anything could be located near a bustling marketplace, in plain sight, but something must be working; nobody knew or cared about the Economical Emergency Agency. Secretly, I was of the opinion that it was a failed project, started as an afterthought at some point, and the higher-ups of Neopian Government had simply forgotten to shut it down. So, without a clear purpose, the people that held day jobs at the office building I now entered – like me, for instance – were completely wasting their time at the expense of the higher-ups of the company, who still suffered from delusions of importance.
I would say that it paid well, but it didn’t. It paid, though.
I pushed through the double glass doors and entered a bland hallway, the walls and carpet unexciting shades of beige. I went all the way to the opposite end of the hallway, not bothering to read the little black plastic signs that were tacked to the nice white doors on either side. I took a left then, ignoring the stairs, and pressed the button that would summon the new Virtupets hover-lift. I remembered without nostalgia the days when the stairs were the only option.
The hover-lift ride was uneventful. The doors pinged open and I stepped out into a nearly identical hallway to the one I had left. I walked down to almost the other end – but not quite – and gratefully let my sack fall to the floor with a heavy clunk. By this time, I had been dragging it along with very little energy; I bent over wheezing, trying to catch my breath.
Before I could collect myself enough to knock on the white door in front of me – Senior Co-Manager of Junior Bookkeeping Assistance, the plastic sign read in incredibly small letters – a split Grundo opened it for me. His face was divided horizontally in half by a wide smile, to match the line between orange and purple that divided it vertically.
“Come in, Taxi!”
I left my sack outside in the hallway and squeezed myself into the closet of an office that belonged to Rellox – the Senior Co-Manager of Junior Bookkeeping Assistance of the Economical Emergency Agency.
We sat at his desk (actually, I sort of squatted; in the way of furniture, his office contained only the desk and a single chair) and drank tea in companionable silence. After a few moments, the Grundo managed to produce a tray of biscuits from somewhere and set them on the desk, clearing away a pile of papers.
There were always piles of papers in Rellox’s office. I didn’t really know what kept him so busy, Junior Bookkeeping Assistance being a rather obscure branch of the Agency, but I knew that he nearly always had something to do. One could tell from his aura of perpetual worry, even if they had never been in his office. His face was lined with premature wrinkles.
But without fail, we always had teatime at noon. It was the day’s only respite for both of us.
The bond between Rellox and me was a strong one. We had similar backgrounds; I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were tragic, but they were pretty upsetting. Rellox had been one of Sloth’s experimental Grundos. After his liberation, he had come to Neopia Central and decided to earn a living, as opposed to waiting in the Pound indefinitely for an owner that might or might not show up.
Here at the Economical Emergency Agency, they were always short of staff, so they hired basically anyone stupid or desperate enough to apply. Rellox was not stupid, but he had been ill-informed at the time, so he didn’t realize the Economical Emergency Agency was probably the worst company he could have ended up being an employee for.
As a result of the nonexistent acceptance qualifications, Rellox and I shared a rather unstable red Skeith for a boss. During moments of clarity, he was very kind and just; very good, as far as bosses went. But intermittently he would become consumed with a crippling fear of Sloth and all of his creations, which included all Grundos. Because of Rellox’s split coloring, the Boss (that was all we knew him as) would mistake him for Parlax and go into a fit of screaming and pointing.
I often envied Rellox, though. He had a clear idea of where he came from – and although he knew basically what his time there had been like, he remembered things fuzzily and was therefore spared from all the disturbing details.
I didn’t know where I came from. My earliest memory was of being cold and alone on a rainy day, just outside of the Pound. I could guess with some certainty that I had been created a mysteriously deformed green Yurble, and whomever had created me had just... left me there. Like Rellox, I found I had little faith in the Pound after spending a few days within its walls. Very few people would hire me, because of my appearance –and that was how I managed to land myself a job here. I was desperate enough to apply.
I suppose if you were to pin a purpose to the actions of the Economic Emergency Agency, it might be that they were helping Neopian economy. That’s where I – the Tax Beast – came in. Any Neopet that took Neopoints, even when the theft was disguised as a tax collection, would be hated. I, with my deformity, was hated already.
Perfect for the job.
As we munched our biscuits, the silence continued. Its nature changed perceptibly, however, when Rellox asked timidly, “So... Where are you headed this afternoon?”
I brought another biscuit to my mouth. I ate it without tasting it, chewing slowly and determinedly. Only after I swallowed did I answer.
“Provided the Boss is in a good mood this afternoon, I’ll have him dump the contents of my collector’s sack into the vault. Then I’ll go down to the Lower Daily Efficiency Planning Department and get my addresses for the rest of the day, so I can go tax collecting.”
(I’d like to interject here with a note on the Lower Daily Efficiency Planning Department; it isn’t that the efficiency of the Lower Daily Efficiency Planning Department is any less than the efficiency of the Higher Daily Efficiency Planning Department, it's just the Lower... erm... one is on a lower floor than the Higher... one.)
The words seemed to resound loudly in the silence. Rellox looked at me with sympathy in his eyes.
For, although I spoke the words, we both knew they were meaningless. After dropping off the contents of my sack in the vault, I would bypass the trip to the Lower Daily Efficiency Planning Department and go straight to my usual spot, right in front of the Pound/Adoption Center complex. I would halt users with the authority of the Tax Beast, and then, as scared and lonely Taxi, I would ask if they recognized me. If they had created me; if they knew who had created me; if they were or knew someone who would take me in.
Just like I did every day.
I knew that it was probable I would never find my original owner. I knew that it was also probable that my original owner would not want me, having abandoned me in the first place. So, I asked the same questions constantly, sometimes to the same people, over and over.
The answers were always the same.
I sipped my tea in silence.