By David Hunter
Cousin Billy once told me a story about his days as an exterminator down in Texas. Now, mostly, he dealt with cockroaches, rats, spiders, that kinda thing. Occasionally he’d have to fish a raccoon out of the attic room, or flush bats out of someone’s barn. Sometimes an animal got under the back porch and died there and old Billy’d have to drag it out. He had the stomach for it, mind you. Nothin’ fazed Billy Joe Warner. He was a medic back in ‘Nam and he told me he seen all manner of things that bugs can’t possibly compare to.
Except this one time. He told me he seen guys flayed alive with napalm in Kai San, guys lying half-dead with they guts hangin’ out crying for their mamas, guys with skulls open to the sunshine for all to see - but never seen anything like he did that night 30 years ago.
He got a call about midnight from a family in nearby Wynch – a short drive west of Houston – about a noise up in the attic. They was all too scared to go up and look, and the daddy, who was new to Texas, didn’t wanna leave the girls alone to go see, so he looked up the phone book number for Cousin Billy’s Exterminator Service. Billy was might pissed that he got woken up in the dead of the night like that, mostly because he was still sauced from an evening of whiskey and he hadn’t completely slept it off yet. The man on the phone said he thought there was an animal up there and would he come over and look? Billy tried to tell him he’d come at first light, but something in his stone heart told him to go, so got in his truck and headed off.
Well, when he got there the whole lot of ‘em was standing out in front of the place, still in their pajamas.
“What’s the trouble?” said Billy, hauling his gear out of the pick-up truck and walking over. The father, a tall drink of water with glasses, stepped forward.
“I’m really glad you could make it, Mr. Billy. We don’t usually get this kind of thing back east.”
Billy grunted. “Back east? Wherabouts?”
“Connecticut. I was an insurance broker there. I’m Malcolm and this is my family,” He said, looking back at them all huddled together. They all waved amiably.
Billy grunted again. He looked around but all he could see was whatever the front porch-light illuminated (A fifteen watt bulb, Billy had assessed) which wasn’t much. Can’t survive in Texas with a 15 watt bulb! He did see something glinting in the moonlight off to the side on the front lawn.
“Whut’s that?” said Billy, nodding his chin in the direction instead of pointing.
It took Malcolm a few seconds to register, but he finally turned his head in the direction of Billy’s chin. He adjusted his glasses and squinted.
“Oh, that. That’s an aluminum shark cage.”
Billy double grunted this time. “No shit!”
“I was interested in doing some shark photography back in Martha’s Vineyard so I had a friend make it for me. I never got to use it – when the economy tanked I got laid off of work,” he said, shrugging. “Plus, I had second thoughts about it.”
“Stickin’ yourself in a cage and dumpin’ yourself in the water with sharks ain’t too smart anyhows,” Said Billy. He looked up and noticed something in the attic window, glinted in the light of the full moon, something large flattened against the glass. Malcolm followed his gaze and gasped.
“What IS that?” he said.
Billy pointed his flashlight up to the window. “Looks like one big-ass bat, man,” said Billy, “Probably the noise you been hearing.”
“A bat? Wow!” One of the kids marveled.
“How’d it get in there?” asked Malcolm.
“Flew in the window and the wind closed it up and trapped him.”
Malcolm was transfixed, his fear abating a little. “I’ve never seen one before. What kind is it?”
“Can’t hardly tell from here. You got to watch them, though. If they get in your hair you’ll never get them out,” said Billy. He put his spray gun back in the truck, picked up the large vermin net with the long handle, and a baseball bat, and marched up to the house. “Y’all stay out here. This’ll only take a minute,” He called back.
The house was chaos; boxes everywhere, and it looked like they had just moved in that very night. When Cousin Billy made his way through to the stairs a terrible sound stopped him in his tracks; it was a high pitched screech coming from somewheres up in the attic. From what Billy told me, he never heard nothin’ like it. Not even a bobcat screeched like that.
“Don’t you worry none, I’m coming, you sumbitch,” he said. When he got half-way up the stairs he turned back down and saw Malcolm.
“You might wanna stay outside, Mr. Malcolm. This here bat got kind of a bad attitude, if you get me.”
“I thought you’d need help.” Said Malcolm feebly, standing there in his robe.
Cousin Billy, even with his meager 8th grade education, knew what was going on. The man didn’t want to look like a sissy in front of his family. Billy understood that better than anything.
He motioned him up the stairs, and passed down the bat.
“If there’s any trouble, you use that.”
Malcolm took it and held it in his hands as if it were an alien object.
“The big end’s for hitting,” said Billy.
Together they proceeded up the stairs; a former Marine and a former accountant. That thing, whatever it was, screeched again and Billy almost ran back down the stairs hisself, cept he was a Texas boy and that meant you never turned back, even if it killed you, once you said you’d do a thing, that is.
They got to the landing, the door mebbe four feet away.
“This is what we gonna do,” Billy said quietly. Malcolm was holding the bat above his head like he was gonna whomp someone right then and there.
“I’ll go in and catch the sucker. You stay out here’n back me up case he gets loose, y’hear?”
Malcolm nodded nervously, with the baseball bat still above his head.
Billy went over to the door and tried the knob, but it was locked. Malcolm rushed down to the master bedroom and returned with a set of keys. Through the door they heard the thing bumping and scraping against the window.
Billy unlocked the door and slowly opened it.
Now, I don’t reckon I can talk intelligently about the Bat species or anything like that there, but from what cousin Billy tole me this one was pretty smart, because once that thing heard the tumblers turning it made a bee-line straight for the door. Caught Billy by surprise, it did.
Malcolm took a wild swing at the sunnuvabitch and hit the door frame just above Billy’s scalp. You gotta hand it to that city fellah though; he was a persistent cuss. He followed that Bat every which way, smashing up the place somethin’ terrible until he caught it at the bottom landing. When Billy got down there the thing was deader’n a doornail, and Malcolm was sitting beside it struggling for breath.
“Got it,” he managed to say between ragged gasps of air.
“Yeah you did. Now alls you need is a new decorator,” Said Billy, lighting up a cigarillo, looking back up at all the holes in the stairwell walls.
“Maybe you should be in charge of the bat.”
“Huh uh. You’re doin jus fine. Hate to see you with any kind of firearm, though.”
They inspected the Bat lying dead at their feet, wings splayed in grotesque crookedness, blood spattered. Billy Whistled.
“Never seen nothin’ like it,” he said. He pinched the edge of a wing and lifted it. “Sumbitch must weigh 10 pounds at least. Wingspan looks …”
From somewhere behind them a hideous mewling sound filled the air. Cousin Billy tole me his hackles rose, and he didn’t even know what a hackle was.
“What was that?” asked Malcolm, standing up with the bat over his head again.
“Careful, son,” said Billy eyeing the bat. He looked up the staircase at the open door to the attic. “You got some kinda crawl space up there in the roof?”
Malcolm shrugged. “I … I don’t know. We only bought the house last month.”
“Sounds like maybe you got some kinda sick raccoon stuck up there.” said Billy. A lie; truth was, Billy had never heard a sick raccoon make that kind of noise. But he didn’’t want to completely unhinge city Boy, if you get me. Billy motioned for Malcolm to follow him back up the stairs and into the attic room.
It was dark, and the light switch did nothing when Billy flicked it, so he shined his flashlight at the ceiling and saw that the critter had smashed out the bulb. He turned back to Malcolm. “You wait in the hall if you want. You swingin’ a bat around in the dark don’t thrill me much.”
“Whatever you say, Billy.”
From above them, in the roof presumably, came furious thrashing sounds, great wracks of noise, and finally a bone-jarring crash that shook the house and rattled the window.
“Mister Cousin Billy, sir, I think I’ll take you up on that ‘waiting in the hall’ offer,” said Malcolm. Billy put a hand on his shoulder.
“Hold up, son. Look, whatever’s up there, bobcat, shrew, dragon, pissed off rhino, it don’t do no good to run away from it. We got to face it, whatever it is. Hell, I got half a mind to go down and get my shotgun. You cain’t leave me up in here by myself. It’s against the code, man.”
“Yeah, the code. Otherwise they take away your man-card an you ain’t allowed at the big boy table no more, you getting’ the drift yet? Once you start runnin’ away from stuff you become a scared rabbit all your life. You getting’ the drift yet?”
“I think so.”
Billy grunted his approval. He liked Malcolm. The city boy had potential. Texas’ll make him a man yet, thought Billy. Maybe.
“Good. Now you wait here in the doorway. I’m gonna see If I can’t find a way up there into the crawl space.”
He left Malcolm there to guard the doorway and entered the room. All Malcolm saw was a disembodied light moving erratically. Billy walked slowly, inspecting the room, and he started to hum a tune.
“…Oh don’t you go swimmin’ with bow-legged wimmin … they’ll drive you to drink … they’ll drive you ins-a-a-a-a-ne …”
Moments later Billy was inside a nook, shining the light up at the ceiling. It bounced back down, putting him in sharp relief from the reflection.
“Found something. A trapdoor.” He called. “Must be the way up.”
Billy stopped his movement. So did Malcolm.
There was a sound.
“You hear that?” whispered Malcolm.
“Can’t help but,” said Billy.
It was a snuffling, raspy sound, coming from the crawl space. Like someone trying to breathe through a clogged nose.
Billy left the nook with his flashlight trained on the ceiling’s wooden beams until he stopped. He stood there for a moment, staring up.
“What in the hell …?”
Malcolm started to walk over when Billy let out a loud curse and dropped the flashlight. The room was plunged into darkness, and from above a high-pitch squeal sent them both tumbling back into the hall where they collapsed.
“Lord a’ mighty,” said Billy, unsheathing his buck knife out of instinct in lieu of gun.
“There was …”
“What? What was it?”
“…There was something looking at me through a hole in the ceiling …”
“Something looking at you …? Said Malcolm, his own hackles now fully arisen. He had already decided to sell the house in that split second.
“An eye,” said Billy. From inside his vest he produced a .57 Magnum. He was on his feet and marching back into the room. “Look at me though a hole in the floor, you sumbitch?” he yelled. His army boots clomped as he made his way back over to the nook. Malcolm heard loud cursing and noise in the darkness as Billy tried to get up and open that trapdoor, and from somewhere above the awful thrashing noises again. Dragging sounds: Billy managed to find a trunk and jam it into the nook where he could finally reach the ceiling.
Well now, as soon as old Cousin Billy opened that door, something came down at him, knocking him clean off the trunk and onto the floor. It was clawing and biting at him and poor old Malcolm was beside hisself with fear. Next thing you know, Billy’s on his feet with this thing caught in a bear-hug wheelin across the floor. Malcolm just ran down the stairs, and he barely got out of the way when Billy come tumbling down behind him, with that creature attached. They was smashing up everthing; walls, banisters, photos hung. It was hissing and screeching, and Billy was a-punchin away at it but it done no good.
By some happenstance, Billy, blinded by blood and rage, found hisself out the door off the front porch where he gave the damn thing one last punch that seemed to stun it, and he kicked it off where it went reelin’ back into that old shark cage of Malcolm’s. Billy, instincts as good as anyone, applied his size 12 boot to the door and it locked.
By now Malcolm had sequestered his family in their Volvo and was standing by the passenger door with the baseball bat still held up. He staggered over to Billy who was crawling back to the porch steps, face bloodied, but still able to pull out a cigarillo and light it. He sat there, finally getting a look at the beast.
The thing was not of this earth; its skin was blackish green, it had large ears and large teeth and pretty much eliminated any local species. It also had large crooked wings that up to that moment had remained folded up – but as it was trapped now them things spread out and touched each end of the shark cage. It sat staring at Cousin Billy for the longest time before it leaped forward at the bars, gnawing, gnashing, beatin’ its wings. Spit flew and teeth flashed. For a moment old Billy was wondering if that thing would chew right through the aluminum bars.
Malcolm sat down beside him.
“What is that thing?”
“Damn if I know.”
They sat there for a bit while Billy smoked his cigarillo. Malcolm’s wife came over an said she was takin’ the kids to a local motel and that she wasn’t settin’ foot in that house ever again. The beast stopped its hissy fit long enough to listen to all this as if it understood. Mal’s wife hustled back to the car and they was off, leaving them two fellahs a sittin’ there.
“Now what?” said Malcolm.
Billy shrugged. “Dunno. I could use a beer though.”
“I mean, about this … thing?”
Billy smiled broadly, and mixed with his wild scruffy face and caked-on blood, made him look a little nuts. His ear had almost been torn off. “I have a feeling that this sucker’s days are numbered.”
“Billy, your ear … you probably need a doctor.”
“Nah. Just a scratch. About that beer though …”
All the while this thing thrashed and carried on, alternately hissing, barking like a dog, screeching like a cat, as if it was trying out different ways to get Billy to let it out of the cage, until it finally got tired or something and just stood there with its claws wrapped around the bars and it’s little grotesque face between them, staring. It was coming on the blue hour, just before dawn.
“Stare all you want, you sumbitch,” said Billy.
They stayed that way until daybreak. Malcolm had curled up behind Billy on a welcome mat, cradling that Louisville Slugger like a Teddy Bear, and the thing, well, it continued its staring contest with Billy, until the first hint of the coming sun showed itself. They both turned to look east, cowboy and monster, where the sky was becoming lighter, and the thing began its most furious rage – spewing, thrashing, rattling the cage an almost tipping it over. Harsh barks and shrill screams. Malcolm woke up clutching the bat, eyes wide and scared.
“What’s happening?” he said sleepily.
“The sumbitch don’t like sunlight, I reckon.”
The sun was on its way, and now the thing decided to take giant runs at the cage door almost like a linebacker tackling a dummy, and as the sun got closer it took to throwing itself around the cage like a panicked budgie.
“My uncle tole me he seen something like this once. Dunno if it was truth or bullshit. But he said one day he was cleaning out the barn and up in the hayloft was a creature that he’d never seen before, a creature with large wings and teeth like a bobcat and claws like a lion. He shot it dead right then and there, but when he drug it out to the barnyard, well …”
“What was it?” asked Malcolm.
“He called it a Texas Harpy,” said Billy, finishing another cigarillo and tossing it on the ground. “I always figured he was full of shit. Sorry ‘bout that, Unc. And here I thought you was just a miserable lyin’ drunk.”
When the first beam of sunlight hit the floor of the cage, the ‘Texas Harpy’ stopped all movement. It gave up, I believe, or it knew that it’d been bested by Billy, so it just stared at him through the bars with that mean little face and its long claws and it’s orange teeth, until the sun come up and it burst into flames and issued forth a hitherto unheard of screech like Billy had never heard before, like it was giving birth to hell itself, until it disintegrated into a pile of ash that the gentle morning breeze blew out across the way and into the morning air.
Malcolm produced a couple of beers and handed one to Billy.
“By the way, I only accept cash, son,” he said, taking a generous gulp. “I’ll write you a receipt if you like.”
That was Billy’s last job.
Nobody was ever able to verify Billy’s story. That Malcolm fellah and his family went back east to Connecticut without looking back and no one ever heard from them again. They only sent a moving company to pick up their belongings. As for Billy hisself, he passed on 10 years later, a shell of the man he was – frail and sick. Half his face was paralyzed by infection and doctors couldn’t help him, since all they heard him tell was he was bit by a Texas Harpy, and of course that only made him sound crazy as a bag of hammers. In the end, he fell asleep on the front porch of his ranch one day and never woke up.
He often tole me he didn’t know if he imagined the whole thing, or it really happened, or whether he dreamed it all. Either way, the Harpy got him in the end, I believe, by biting him on the ear and sending lord knows what into his bloodstream. Yes, I believe his story. He was Cousin Billy and I loved him like hell an I believed everthing he ever said, even when he said he was bit by a hideous winged creature that poisoned him 30 years ago.