Hard Head sighed as he went into his small house and locked the door behind him. He tossed his Burger Princess hat onto his desk before flopping onto his bed, not even bothering to take off his work uniform. He groaned and, with much effort, rolled onto his back. The day had been more difficult that he'd thought. Four straight days of open-to-close shifts could really take the steam out of a pony.
As he laid there, he reflected on his misfortune. Ever since he'd been caught trying to scam half of Equestria, life had gotten... marginally better. He wasn't getting doses of the Royal Canterlot Voice for calling the wrong pony, so there was that.
A knock on the door brought him out of his thoughts. He sighed and stood up. He glared at the door as if the door itself was the one knocking on itself, or something like that. He grimaced and opened it up, revealing Princess Twilight Sparkle standing behind it. She gave him a smile that was far too chipper for his liking and grunted as a way of greeting.
"Hey there, Hard Head!" Twilight said. "How are you doing?"
Hard Head grunted.
"Sounds good. How is work?" Hard Head grunted again, causing Twilight's smile to falter ever so slightly. "You know, if we're going to be friends, you need to open up to me a little bit. I do actually care how you're doing."
"Uh-huh." Hard Head sighed and leaned his head against the door frame. "Fine, I guess. Nothing much going on. Bought a computer and phone the other day." He glanced up at Twilight and gave her a slight frown. "I haven't been using it for that kind of stuff. You don't need to worry about me."
"Oh, I wasn't worried about that," Twilight said with a wave of her hoof. "I think you're a good pony now."
"Uh-huh. Would rather you stay away from my computer, though."
Twilight grimaced and rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, you know why I did that."
"Yeah, yeah. Anyway, I gotta be up at eight for work tomorrow, so if you'll excuse me..."
"Definitely. I was just checking up on you to see how you were doing and if you needed anything."
"Nope. Talk to you later."
"Have a good night!" Twilight replied. She gave him one last smile before spreading her wings and taking off.
Hard Head watched her go for a few moments before grunting and shaking his head. He closed the door and turned to look at his telephone and computer. He felt a slight pang of unease go through his stomach as he walked up to them. The idea hadn't been that bad. It was fine. If he'd just called the right ponies he could have been rolling in bits. Instead he'd managed to call royalty. Four times. And another dimension. And also the god of chaos. And a baby somehow. He sighed and shook his head before trudging back to his bed. He just wanted the day to be over.
Then the phone rang.
Hard Head groaned and stomped over to the phone. "If this is my boss asking if I can come in on my day off, I swear..." He tore the headset off of the phone and slid it over his ears. "Yes? Hello? What do you want?"
"Yes hello, I am calling you from the offices of the Equestrian Revenue Service. We have been going through our records and we see that you have failed to file your income taxes for the last three years. Should you fail to pay, we will seize all of your assets including bank accounts, passports, and any property you may own. On top of all of that I have a warrant for your arrest that I will sign if you do not pay. Now, may I have your name, please?"
Hard Head blinked. "I... uh..." He looked around as if somepony would pop through his window and reveal that this was a prank. Maybe the pink one. "S-sorry, what was that?"
"You have not filed your income taxes, sir. You owe the ERS two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine bits and forty-two cents. Now, may I have your name?"
"Yeah, hold on, it's... uh... sorry, this is just all unexpected. Hold on." Hard Head sat down at his computer desk. He fired up his computer, then plugged in a cable connecting his computer to his phone. "Yeah, my name is... Legit Collector. Yeah, uh... I want to get this resolved, I guess."
"Good. Now, as I stated before, you owe the ERS two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine bits and forty-two cents. Failure to pay will result in a prison sentence of no less than five years in an Equestrian penitentiary."
"Right, right." Hard Head fired up a program on his computer. "I guess I'd better get this all settled, then. Sorry if I seem like I'm in a bit of shock. I, uh, didn't exactly expect all of this."
"Very well, Mr. Collector. I must now ask you if you have done this intentionally or if this is merely a simple mistake on your part."
"Definitely a mistake." The program booted up and the computer started making a light pinging noise as it began tracing the signal. "I'm just a simple law-abiding citizen of Equestria. I want to pay my income tax on time. I guess I haven't been filling out the right forms."
"That is likely the case. Do not worry, we can have this matter resolved very shortly. Now, I assume you have a Barnyard Bargains or some other manner of general store in your area?"
Hard Head closed his eyes and double facehooved, almost unable to comprehend what exactly was happening to him. It felt like a cruel joke that fate or the universe was playing on him. It made his brain hurt. He looked over at his computer which was still working on tracing the signal.
"I, uh, yes. I do." The pinging noise on his computer grew more frequent. "What exactly do you need me to do?"
"In order to resolve this matter quickly, we need you to go to the general store and enter the section for payment cards. I must warn you to not tell anypony who works there about what you are doing. If you do then they will either try to charge you a lot in taxes for the cards, or they will view you as a criminal and call the police to place you under arrest. When you are at the cards, you must purchase two thousand bit cards and two five hundred bit cards."
"Well, I think that I can do that," Hard Head replied. "Should I call you back or...?"
The computer made one final ping before the computer stopped tracing the call. The map zoomed in on a specific area and an address flashed up on the screen.
4385 E Celestial St, Baltimare, Equestria, 89004
"Sir? Are you still there? are you--"
Hard Head pressed the button on the side of the headset and hung up, still staring at the address on the computer screen. Either these ponies were just like him and were amateurs trying to make a quick bit, or they were a real scammer group. Ponies with the resources and drive to make a ton of money. Hard Head shook his head and turned to his telephone, reaching out to begin dialing Princess Sparkle. She would certainly want to know about this. Maybe she'd give him some sort of reward.
But Hard Head's hoof just hovered over the phone. It would take ten seconds and he'd likely be rewarded if he turned them in.
On the other hoof, if he were to go to the address, he could... join them. Make real money. Real money that didn't do chaotic things if he tried to spend them. He'd be able to buy that house he always wanted. Live in a little luxury. If he was in Baltimare, he'd be out from under the hoof of Princess Sparkle, that was for sure. No more demeaning fast food jobs.
He put his hoof down. He grabbed a piece of paper and pencil, jotted down the address, then walked out the door.
Hard Head fidgeted on the train as it made its way to Baltimare. He ground his teeth together and watched the countryside go by as the train neared its destination. He took a deep breath and looked at his fellow passengers. None of them paid him any heed, though one young filly spotted him and waved. He forced a smile onto his face and waved back before looking back out the window. His hoof touched the small saddlebag at his side. It felt like the paper within was burning a hole through it.
He quietly growled to himself. Princess Twilight was getting into his head. If she could see him now, she'd probably give him a severe lecture... or throw him into prison.
He didn't move from his position until the train pulled into the station several hours later. The ponies around him stood up and began walking out of the train, chattering among themselves and gathering their luggage. Hard Head didn't even notice until he glanced over and saw the empty train car. He took a deep breath and slowly stood up to leave the train.
Hard Head dragged his hooves as he trudged in the direction of the address. Perhaps this pony or these ponies were far more successful than he was. Maybe they were rolling in the bits that came from poor, unsuspecting ponies. Either that or they'd succeeded about as well as he had.
Either way, they probably didn't call up princesses.
After another quick glance at the address and some directions, Hard Head walked closer to his destination. After a short walk, he saw a large gray building in front of him. Well, there were several large buildings. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. In fact, if he hadn't been looking for it, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. It was a perfect place to hide a criminal enterprise.
He took a deep breath and walked through the single door in the front of the building. The entrance was just as gray and unassuming as the outside of the building. Hard Head vaguely wondered if he'd gone into the wrong building.
A secretary sat behind a brown desk and looked up when she noticed him with a smile. He didn't smile back as he walked up to her.
"Hello, sir. How can I help you today?"
"Uh, yeah, can I talk to a manager or owner or something like that?"
"Well I don't know. Do you have an appointment or something like that?" she asked. "Is he expecting you?"
"I really doubt it," Hard Head replied. "But let's just say I have some information that would be of interest to him. If I have the right address..." Hard Head took a deep breath. "I suppose I'd like to apply."
The mare frowned and tilted her head. "Apply? Hm." She picked up a phone headset and slipped it over her head. "Just one moment, sir." The secretary waited a few moments as she waited for somepony on the other end to answer. Hard Head heard a slight click and the secretary picked up. "Hello? Mister Talker? Yes, there's a stallion here to talk to you. He said something about applying." Silence. "Yes. Yes. Yes I'll let him know."
The secretary pressed the call end button and placed the headset back down. "Mister Talker will see you. Just go up the stairs to the third floor. Second door on your right."
Hard Head nodded and went in the direction ordered. After a short walk up the stairs, he came to a doorway with the name "Fast Talker" emblazoned on the door. He paused for a moment before raising his hoof, but he knocked.
Hard Head pushed the door open and walked into the room. A middle-aged brown earth pony with slicked back black hair and a business suit was sitting behind a desk. The pony, whom Hard assumed was Fast Talker, smiled at him in a way that vaguely reminded Hard Head of a used carriage salespony.
"Well, hello there, my good sir!" Fast Talker said. "Come in, come in!" Fast Talker motioned to a chair in front of the desk. "Sit down. Make yourself comfortable."
Hard Head nodded and sat down at one of the chairs. "Er... thank you."
"Not at all. Always nice to meet new ponies." Fast Talker steepled his hooves and leaned forward. "So, what can I do for you? You said something about an application?"
"Uh, yeah," Hard Head replied. "So, I got a call from your company. I mean, you didn't say it was you, but I figured it out."
Fast Talker frowned and tilted his head. "Really? Do you even know what we do here?"
"You call ponies pretending to be the Equestrian Revenue Service and inform them that they owe thousands of bits to the ERS. You tell them that you'll seize their property and money if they do not pay, then tell them to go to a local general store to give you payment card numbers."
Fast Talker froze. His mouth flopped up and down for a few moments before an uneasy smile formed on his face. "Eh. Eheh. That's quite a theory, Mister. It's quite a story. Yes indeed it is."
"A true one, though," Hard Head replied. "I received one such call today and I traced it back to you. I will say that it was clever that you bounced your signal through different countries. Did the same thing myself."
Hard Head nodded. "Yes. Let's just say that I'm familiar with the way you do things. Like I said, I did them myself."
Fast Talker didn't speak. He just leaned back in his chair and studied Hard Head for a second. Finally after a moment of awkward silence, a small smirk crossed his face. "Well. Well well well. It seems we've been found out. Well done, sir. Really well done. So you said you did all of this yourself? Tell me about that."
Hard Head paused for a moment. He had stories for Fast Talker. He certainly did. Stories that would either make him laugh or cringe. Either way, he'd probably have a dim view of Hard Head's attempts. Hard Head cleared his throat and put a confident smile on his face.
"Well, I mostly centered my efforts around Ponyville. Lot going on there. Backwater town. You know the type."
Fast Talker nodded. "I certainly do. We've made some calls to areas like that, but Appleloosa isn't a huge market for that type of thing. So, how much did you make from Ponyville?"
"A million bits."
Technically not a lie.
Fast Talker let out an impressed whistle. "Wow, that's quite something. How did you manage that? Surely a town of that size doesn't have a pony that rich, other than maybe Princess Sparkle."
Hard Head shrugged. "There were some successes here and there, but one of the ponies there owned a Barnyard Bargains. It was one big score."
"Well, I am impressed. Very impressed indeed." Fast Talker leaned forward on his desk again. "So I guess the ultimate question is what you are after. Why did you spend all of this time and effort to get here?"
"It's simple: I want to join forces with you. Your operation combined with my... experience and tenacity could make a wonderful team."
Fast Talker perked up instantly. "Why, sure, my boy, sure! I think that would be a wonderful idea. When can you start?"
Hard Head shrugged. "Right now."
"Excellent! We're always in the market for new talent, and you seem like just the stallion!" Fast Talker stood up from his chair and beckoned Hard Head to follow him. "As I'm sure you can guess, our operation is on a larger scale than the one you ran. I'm excited about your success, but now that you're working with us you can fully utilize your skills!"
"I certainly hope so."
"I'm confident in the matter. Now..." Fast Talker opened up a doorway at the end of the hallway they had been walking down and stepped aside so that Hard Head could enter first. Once he was inside the room, he saw a line of cubicles filling the room. Around a dozen ponies were sitting at them, all with headsets on and talking to somepony. Hard Head could only just make out what a few of them were saying as they talked.
"--payment cards. If you want to..."
"--warrant for your arrest. Failure to..."
"--it will cost five hundred and ninety bits for a lifetime warranty..."
"Wow." Hard Head turned to Fast Talker with an approving nod. "You're doing well for yourself."
"We'd like to think so," Fast Talker said with a grin. "In all honesty, I'm actually surprised that you managed to get any money out of Ponyville. Between Princess Sparkle and the other heroes, I'd think that they'd let the ponies there fall for it."
"Well, uh..." Hard Head forced a smile on his face. "It's all about tenacity. You just have to find the right pony. It doesn't matter if you fail ten times if on the eleventh you get that big score."
"Absolutely correct," Fast Talker said, clapping Hard Head on the back. "It's going to be nice to have somepony around here who actually knows what they're doing. We don't even have to train you. Now..." Fast Talker walked down the row of cubicles until he reached one at the other side of the room. "You'll be here."
Hard Head reached the cubicle. It wasn't anything special. Just the three gray walls, simple brown desk, a phone, a stack of papers that looked like a script, a basic computer, and a notepad. He turned to Fast Talker with a raised eyebrow.
"Sure is," Fast Talker replied. "Obviously you can decorate it how you want. Pictures of the family or something like that. You see the script there that we tend to use. Pages one through eight are ERS, eight through fifteen are tech support, and the rest is all refund stuff. I'm sure you know your way around all of it."
"I do," Hard Head said as he sat down at the desk. "Seems pretty similar to the setup that I had back in Ponyville."
"Well, then I think you'll do fine. I'm expecting a lot of big things from you. For the moment..." Fast Talker motioned to the phone. "Show me what you got. That button there is the robodial. We've programmed it so that you won't get the same numbers as your colleagues. So... let's see what you can do."
Hard Head slid the headset over his head and cracked his neck. In an odd way it felt good to be going back to this. It would certainly be more dignified and rewarding than being a cashier at Burger Princess. He smiled, took a deep breath, and pressed the dial button. He glanced back and nodded to Fast Talker as the phone started ringing. This would be good.
The voice on the other end sounded like a middle-aged stallion. Not the easiest mark, but nothing impossible.
"Yes hello, my name is Legit Collector from the Equestrian Revenue Service. I am calling because our records indicate that you have not paid your income tax for the years of two-thousand and fifteen to two-thousand and nineteen."
"Uh... that doesn't make a lot of sense. I go through a tax company every year and they do my taxes."
"Regardless, our records indicate otherwise."
"Then why the heck have I been getting my tax returns?"
"Sir, I need you to listen to me: you owe the ERS two-thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine bits. Failure to pay will result in the ERS seizing all of your property, bank accounts, passports and anything else we need to pay off your debt to the ERS. On top of that, you shall spend no less than five years in an Equestrian penitentiary."
"You are a natural at this," Fast Talker muttered with a smile.
"Well, hang on, how do I know you aren't a scammer?"
"My ERS identification number is nine-three-one-zero-C-eight-five-two. Scammers do not have ERS identification numbers."
The stallion on the other end grunted. "Yeah. Right. So since I've obviously messed up on my taxes, I should come straight to your office, right? Or maybe I can take my money and shove it up your plot. You're an idiot, and you probably have a tiny dick that couldn't pleasure a mare with the aid of magic. Goodbye. Bozo."
Hard Head grimaced and looked back to Fast Talker who shrugged. "Can't get 'em all, I'm afraid. You just keep at it. I can already tell you know what to do. Read the script if you have any trouble, and let me know if you need anything. I'll see you at lunch at one."
With that, Fast Talker went back in the direction of his office, leaving Hard Head alone. Hard Head took a deep breath and pressed the button.
Hard Head yipped and jumped in his seat when he felt somepony put their hoof on his shoulder. He spun around in his chair and saw a stallion and mare, both in about their early-to-mid twenties smiling back at him. He chuckled uneasily and took a few deep breaths.
"Heh, sorry about that. You startled me, is all."
"Oh don't worry about that," the stallion replied. "Force of habit, I suppose. I mean, it's our job to startle them enough to the point where they can't think straight."
The mare rolled her eyes. "Oh for Celestia's sake, Charming, you're going to give the poor stallion a heart attack. He's not a mark; he's a co-worker."
"Yeah, yeah, Sweet," Charming grumbled. "In any case, we saw that you're new here. Fast Talker must have really liked you if he hired you."
Hard Head nodded. "Yeah, he, uh, was impressed with my work around Ponyville, so we decided to team up."
"Interesting that he has you in a cubicle, then," Charming said with a tilt of his head. "If you had success in Ponyville of all places, I'd think that he'd want to make you a junior partner, or something."
Sweet scoffed and waved her hoof. "And give this guy more money? I don't think so. In any case..." She turned back to Hard Head with a smile. "I'm Sweet Nothings and this is Charming Words. We've been here about a year now."
"Um, charmed." Hard Head extended his hoof for a shake. "I'm Hard Head."
"Nice to meetcha," Charming replied, shaking Hard Head's hoof. "You got some time? We'd love to give you a little tour around the office."
Hard Head glanced back at his desk. So far he'd managed to cross off one name. He shrugged and got up from his chair. "Sure. Why not?"
"Excellent!" Charming replied, clapping Hard Head on the shoulder again. "It's not too much, but it's enough to put food on the table."
Hard Head frowned as he began following his two co-workers. "You don't make a lot of money from this? I mean... isn't that kind of the point?"
"Well we're not on food stamps or anything," Sweet Nothings said. "It's definitely a better job than I had before. We're not millionaires, is all."
"So... what amount of money do we make?"
"About a tenth of what we catch, but that's not including all of the spiffs and bonuses and the like," Charming replied. "In any case..." Charming opened up a door on the opposite side of the entrance to the room. Charming stepped aside and motioned for Hard Head to go through. "I don't need to show you the cubicles. It's just several rows of cubicles. Nothing to get worked up over. In here is the break room. That's where you go to... have your breaks and such. We get one every five hours."
Hard Head walked into the room, followed by his to co-workers. He grimaced at the sight of the tiny room that would barely hold half a dozen ponies. There was a small table on the far side, and a fridge even smaller than the one he had at his house on the left. He cleared his throat and turned back to Charming and Sweet.
"It's... something alright. Looks like a normal break room."
"Yeah, but it's a good place if you want to catch up and get some tips and interesting stories." Charming grinned and threw a hoof around Hard Head's shoulders. "Every day there are interesting stories to tell! Bet you've got some good ones from Ponyville, even."
"I, uh, definitely do," Hard Head replied.
"You'll have to share some," Sweet said. "And speaking of sharing, you're going to want to put your name on anything you put in the fridge." Sweet walked over to it and pulled it open, revealing several stacks of Tupperware containers and paper bags. "Anything without a name..." Sweet grinned and snatched one of the containers out of the fridge. "Is fair game."
"Oh, uh... that sounds kind of not nice," Hard Head said.
Sweet shrugged and popped the lid off. "Those are just the rules. Gotta learn them now if you want to actually fit in here." Sweet's grin widened at the sight of the contents. "And some imbecile should have put their name on this. Looks like a stack of Donut Joe doughnuts!"
"Ooh, nice find," Charming said, walking up to her to take a look in the container. "Mind if I nab one?"
Sweet scoffed and shooed Charming away with a wing. "Back off. If you wanted one, you should have checked the fridge earlier." She plucked one of the doughnuts out of the container and shoved it in her mouth. "Mmm. Mmmmm!" She swallowed and grinned at Hard Head. "Delicious. Freaking amazing. Be the poor pony that brought this in is gonna cry. Oh well, guess he'll learn for next time."
"Guess so," Charming said, walking over to the fridge to check the other containers. After a few moments he grimaced and clicked his tongue. "Eh, nothing really. Oh well."
"Maybe I'll just run out for lunch," Hard Head said, backing away from the fridge."
Charming shrugged while Sweet started on another doughnut. "I guess you could. Gotta be fast, though. We only get half an hour, then it's back to it."
Hard Head frowned and tilted his head. "Only half an hour? You'd think they'd let us walk around for a bit. You know: stretch our legs for a little while after five hours on a chair."
"Eh, I don't think too much about it," Sweet said after finishing another doughnut. "Like I said: you just get used to it."
Before Hard Head could respond, the door opened, and two ponies walked in chatting with each other. When they saw Hard Head and his companions, they stopped and gave them all a wave.
"Hey, how's it going?" the first stallion said.
"Not too bad, not too bad, we're just giving the new guy a tour," Charming replied.
"Oh, so you're the new guy." The second stallion chuckled and lightly punched Hard Head on the shoulder. "Nice. You're the one who went after Ponyville, right?"
"Not an easy market." The first stallion scoffed and shook his head. "No idea how you managed to pull it off."
"A lot of perseverance and just calling the right ponies," Hard Head said. "Nothing too complicated, really."
"I'll bet." The second stallion punched Hard Head again. "But you've got Princess Twilight and the other Elements living there. Did you ever manage to call one of them?"
Hard Head lightly growled to himself and turned his gaze to the floor. "Yes. I called one or two of them. It didn't turn out too well."
"Well, they're national heroes, and stuff," Charming said with a wave of his hoof. "I guess it's okay if you don't get any money from them. That'd be pretty neat, though. Good notch on your belt."
"Oh for sure," Sweet said, tossing the empty Tupperware container into a nearby sink. "But you got money from the town in the end, so it wasn't a total loss."
"Speaking of, I just hit a big score!" The first stallion said, sharing a hoofbump with his co-worker. "I was just telling Sneak about it. I got a nice twenty-five hundred bit score from a pony in Manehattan."
"Nice!" Sweet said as she hoofbumped him. "Good little pickup. How long did that take?"
"About an hour and a half, so it took a little work. Not too much, though," the first stallion said. He snorted and shook his head. "You should have heard it. Old mare. She completely freaked out when I told her that I was from the ERS, and she was under investigation for tax evasion."
"Freaked out" Hard Head glanced over at Charming and Sweet. "So what does that mean? How did she freak out?"
"Oh, you know, begging, crying, insisting that she was innocent, that kind of thing. Could barely understand her sometimes."
"Huh. How often do you get that kind of call?" Hard Head asked.
"Eh, you know, those are the only kind of ponies that actually fall for it. I've gotten more money from freaked out old mares than anything else," Charming replied. "If somepony calls and they sound like they're eighty... heh, cha-ching!"
"You should know that," Sweet said. "I mean, come on: you got a bunch of money fro Ponyville, right?"
"Well yeah, but that was mostly small-town hicks and stuff like that," Hard Head said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I got money from them because they weren't smart enough to know better. Bet some of them had just gotten a phone."
"Makes sense," Sweet replied with a nod. "Maybe we should start calling places like Appleloosa, then."
"I dunno, I don't think they have stores with payment cards or anything like that," Charming said. "Could be something to look into, though."
"I mean, yeah, you gotta check every avenue you can," Hard Head said. "'Cause... you never know what kind of pony you'll call."
"For sure, for sure." Sweet stretched out her wings and jerked her head in the direction of the door. "We should probably get back, then. Gotta see who we'll call!"
"Looking forward to see what you can do," Charming said. "Be sure to let us know if you nab anything today. You know, we can compare notes and stuff like that."
"Oh, definitely," Hard Head said as the three of them walked out of the break room. "I guess I'll get back to it, then. Thanks for the..." Hard Head looked around. "Tour."
"You're welcome," Sweet said. "Alright... good luck."
Hard Head sat back down at his desk and put his headset back on. He poked at his headset and stared at his phone. Everything would be fine. He was fine. Everything would be fine. He was going to make his real money here. He shook his head and pressed a few buttons.
"Oh, you know, begging, crying, insisting that she was innocent, that kind of thing. Could barely understand her sometimes."
He grimaced. He'd get used to it. Pulling down a ton of money would make everything okay. Worth it. Princess Sparkle would never find out, and nopony would really get hurt. Nopony he knew, anyway. He just had a few nerves, that was all.
"You're being dumb," Hard Head muttered to himself. "It's going to go better than in Ponyville."
Hard Head looked down at the list, took another deep breath, and reached to his phone.
"Hey! Who the heck ate my doughnuts?!"
Hard Head rolled his chair back and looked in the direction of the break room where a stallion was holding the empty Tupperware container previously containing the aforementioned doughnuts. He shook his head and went back to his phone.
"Uh, did you put your name on the container?" another pony said.
"I just... I thought I did!"
"Well if you didn't, that's your problem."
Hard Head tried to tune out the laughter as he began pressing the buttons.
Just punch in the next number. Just punch in the next number. It'll be easy. No problem.
Hard Head quietly groaned to himself as he looked at the latest number on his list. The last nine calls hadn't been successful in the slightest, but that was to be expected. None of them had been as disastrous as his calls to Ponyville and Canterlot. Most of them just hung up on him, with one or two yelling. No lawn mowers, though, so that was an obvious improvement.
Hard Head took a deep breath and slowly started typing in the numbers for the latest call. He twitched slightly when it rang. He'd get past the nerves eventually. He just needed a good score to show that everything was going to be fine. Once he was comfortable in his job, he'd be good at it. The best, even. Then he could put Ponyville and all that baggage behind him.
The phone rang a few times before Hard Head heard the click of somepony answering the phone.
"Hello? This is Happy Day, wishing you a happy day yourself. Who am I talking to?"
Hard Head grimaced. From the sound of her voice, she was an older mare. Probably had a gray mane and baked cookies for her grandfoals when they came over on the weekend. Hard Head couldn't shake the image of his own grandmother as he cleared his throat and glanced down at his script.
"Er, yes, hello. My name is Legit Collector and... and I'm calling you from the offices of the Equestrian Revenue Service. According to our records you have not paid your income tax for the past three years. As such, you owe the Equestrian government three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-five bit and forty-five cents. A lawsuit has been filed against you, and failure to pay will result in your arrest, as well as the seizure of all of your assets including bank accounts, passports and property in order to pay off your debt."
Hard Head didn't hear a response for a few moments. Only silence came from the other side of the phone line. Hard Head opened his mouth to keep talking, but he was cut off when Happy Day finally spoke.
"Wh... what?" she croaked. "I don't understand. I haven't had a job for nine years! I'm a retired elementary school teacher. I always made sure to pay my taxes on time."
Hard Head's jaw tightened. "I... yes, well, our records indicate that the discrepancy happened during the years when you were still making an income from your job. I must ask you if this was a deliberate action on your part to defraud the Equestrian government, or if you merely made a mistake in filing then during the years of two-thousand and ten to two thousand and twelve."
"It must be some mistake! I always made sure to file my taxes right on the first of the year, and I never got anything saying that I'd misfiled, or anything." Hard Head's ear twitched when he heard Happy Day start to sniffle. "I never wanted to steal or anything. Honest to Celestia, I've spent the past sixty-three years being the best pony that I can be!"
"Yes, well, even the best of us make mistakes. It is good that you haven't done this intentionally. However, intentions do not change the law. You must still pay your income tax."
Hard Head's heart started beating a little faster. This was it; the call he'd been trying to get for his entire scamming career. A scared old pony who was willing to pay anything to stay out of trouble. The perfect mark. He just needed to tune out his conscience screaming at him that he was being a horrible pony. Things would get easier after the first time.
"I don't know how I can pay," Happy Day moaned. "I'm on a fixed income, and I need that money for things like medication and doctor's appointments. If I pay the full amount, I won't be able to afford things like that."
"Ma'am, which would you prefer? If you don't pay your income tax then you won't get your medication in prison, but if you, then you'll be out of prison and can maybe have ponies around you help pay for your medication and doctor's appointments."
"Maybe... is it possible that I can go on some sort of payment plan? Maybe twenty or thirty bits a month until I can get it paid off."
Hard Head quietly sighed, a small ball of pressure slowly building up in his chest. The hopeful tone she had at the payment plan idea wasn't helping matters much. Hard Head briefly considered it. Twenty bits was better than nothing, and he wouldn't have to destroy this mare's life. But no, if she had family, then they would take care of her. Maybe... maybe she could even get help from Princess Celestia or somepony like that. They had to have... something for her. Yes. Certainly. Hard Head adjusted his headset and took a deep breath.
"Ma'am, I'm afraid that I cannot do that. Our policy forbids that for the purposes of making sure that suspects do not default on their payment plans. Besides, even we did set up a plan, there would be an interest rate of between thirty-six and fifty-five percent based on the individual case, compounding, I'm afraid, and given your situation, I am of the belief that the number would be closer to the fifty-five. I'm sorry, Ma'am, but we need the full amount."
Hard Head only heard crying on the other side of the headset, and the ball of pressure increased. He cleared his throat and began rubbing it away while waiting for her to calm down. He waited for a solid five minutes before Happy Day finally calmed down enough to speak again.
"So..." She sniffled again. "So what do I have to do?"
Hard Head tightened his jaw. "Er... firstly, do you have a Barnyard Bargains around? Something that... that..." He quietly groaned. "Er... I'll be right back. I must remind you that if you disconnect the line then we shall send the warrant to your local police department to have you arrested for tax evasion."
"O-okay. I won't move, I promise! I'll be right here. I'm a good pony."
Hard Head pressed the hold button and slid the headset off. He glanced around at the ponies in the cubicles around him. They were all in the middle of their own scams. They were smiling as they went about ruining ponies' lives. One or two of them were even standing behind a co-worker high-hooving each other at her successes. They all looked so happy; like this was some kind of a game to them. Fast Talker was walking down the rows giving his support and encouragement.
As he watched, the feeling of needing to take a good, long cold shower started creeping up.
There was still a pony on the line.
Hard Head sighed and put the headset back on before turning the hold button off. "Er... Miss Happy Day?"
"Yes?" Happy Day said weakly.
"I have been talking to my manager about your case, and... and... youdon'toweusanythinghaveagoodday."
There was a pause. "I'm... sorry? What did you say?"
"I said..." Hard Head glanced back. Fast Talker was coming up to his cubicle. He had to work fast. "I said that I've been talking to my manager... and we've decided to forgive your debt so you don't owe us anything and you never really did, but--"
Happy Day gasped and began crying again, but this time Hard Head heard joy in it. "Oh, oh Celestia bless you, sir! Oh, you have done a great thing for an old mare."
"Uh-huh," Hard Head muttered.
"You're so kind and generous. It warms my old heart to see ponies like you and your generous manager as well. You are a good pony."
"That is incorrect now never accept a call from this number again."
With that, Hard Head pressed the button to hang up just as Fast Talker reached his cubicle with that oily smile of his. Hard Head's desire for a shower was increasing.
"Hard Head, my boy! How is it?" Fast Talker slapped Hard Head on the back. "Thought I heard you say to never call us back."
"Er, yes, scambaiter," Hard Head said with a forced smile. "Completely gave me the runaround for a few moments, but it didn't take me too long to figure it out." Hard Head pressed a button on his phone. "Just blocked the number so nopony else here can call her and we don't waste time."
"Yeah, we get those every now and again," Fast Talker said, a scowl crossing his face. "Some of them are really good. Disgusting, is what it is. We're working hard and they're mocking us! We have better things to do with our time."
"Uh, I can think of worse things to happen during calls besides scambaiters," Hard Head replied, glancing at the floor. "Much, much worse."
"Well, in any case, back to it," Fast Talker said, motioning to the list. You're on for another seven hours, so there's a lot of money to be made!"
"Oh, of course," Hard Head said, forcing a smile on his face. "I look forward to bringing you my results at the end of the day."
"As do I," Fast Talker said, slapping Hard Head on the back hard enough to knock the wind out of him for a moment. "Let us know if you need anything."
"Yeah..." Hard Head tightened his jaw and wheeled his chair back to watch Fast Talker continue going down the line. He went back to his desk and looked at the next number. Maybe it wouldn't be a frail old mare next time.
Hard Head stared at the list as his conversation with Happy Day replayed in his head over and over again. Surely they wouldn't all be that weepy. Maybe there were even some ponies who deserved it. He'd be... using their ill-gotten gains for better things. He wished that he could also get the names and information of the ponies he was about to call. Then he'd know who actually deserved it. Kindly old grandmothers didn't deserve it. Not at all.
"I don't know how I can pay. I'm on a fixed income, and I need that money for things like medication and doctor's appointments. If I pay the full amount, I won't be able to afford things like that."
Nothing else for it. He'd find somepony. He'd be able to tell who was an old pony and give up on them instantly. No need to ruin lives. He just needed to type in the next number. 814-555-1974. Easy. He slowly reached his hoof toward the dial pad.
No, that was a Ponyville area code. He meant to type in the Baltimare area code on his list.
No, this wasn't right!
Hard Head gulped as the phone began ringing. Maybe nopony would pick up.
"Hello, this is Twilight Sparkle. To whom am I speaking?"
"Uh..." He grimaced. He hadn't meant to answer before he had built up the nerve. There was no going back now.
"Hello? Who is this? Can I help you?"
Nothing for it.
"Er... hello, Princess Sparkle."
"Hard Head? are you okay? I haven't heard from you for a while." A brief pause. "Why are you calling from Baltimare? Is everything alright?"
"No, Princess Sparkle. Things are not alright. I..." Hard Head poked is head over his cubicle wall to make sure nopony was listening. Everypony seemed to be engrossed in their own calls. He likely wouldn't be heard. He sat back down and leaned in closer to his desk. "I received a call from a scammer--"
Twilight snorted. What was that like, I wonder?"
"Oh, go put your head in a vice. Anyway, I traced the number and I found a huge scamming ring." He leaned in farther and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm at their location now. There have to be a hundred ponies here. I infiltrated, so I know what kind of ponies they are. They're not like me. They're..." He growled quietly to himself and said his next word through gritted teeth. "Competent."
Twilight didn't speak for a few moments after that. Hard Head heard her breathing, so he knew she was still on the line. Doubtless she was trying to figure out the next step. Both of them knew that this ring needed to be brought down. Hard Head couldn't fool himself about that anymore. Finally, Twilight spoke up.
"Okay. I guess we'd better do something about that. Yeah, definitely. So you say you're in their office now?"
"Yes, I've seen them doing everything. They're at 4385 E Celestial St in Baltimare. So, I guess we need to... I dunno. What do you want to do?"
"I'm on my way."
"Oh, well that's good," Hard Head said with a slight smile. "When?"
"Now." I'll be there in an hour or two. You call the castle if you have any updates. Spike will be here and he'll get any relevant information to me."
"Roger. I'll be sure to do that. They're mostly just sitting around and calling ponies."
"Alright. Keep note of anything else they're doing, and I'll be right over."
With that, Twilight hung up the call, leaving Hard Head to his thoughts. He looked back down at his list. There were probably close to a hundred numbers on them. Each one of his soon-to-be-ex-coworkers had similar lists in front of them. Thousands of ponies that they were trying to scam the money from. Every success brought a little more misery to Equestria, and for what? Just a few bits. For the first time, Hard Head felt the small ball of pressure in his chest slowly start to fade away. Maybe, for the first time in who knew how long, he could do something... positive for Equestria.
With that, he typed in the next number, but before actually calling it, he pressed the number to block it. Maybe something would go wrong and they'd just bring their lists and equipment to other buildings, allowing them to keep calling. If so, then then blocking the numbers of these ponies would help them out. Maybe it wouldn't. Maybe if they moved locations then they would just use different systems, but if not... if that wasn't the case, then he'd be helping. It felt good to do, at any rate.
Maybe bringing something positive to the world wasn't such a bad thing after all. It certainly felt better than scamming. Even the moment when Prince Blueblood had fallen for his scheme didn't feel this good.
Although, that might have been because he didn't actually get any of the money. Draining Blueblood's accounts would probably feel better. He'd never know now.
He was about three-quarters of the way through the list before he heard it. The doors to the call center broke down and royal guards began flooding through, yelling at everypony to stay in their seats and to not try anything funny. All around him ponies were laughing and muttering with each other, this was a stupid prank, that was for sure. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't, and the mildly amused laughter turned into panic as the scammers fully realized that they were toast. A second door broke down, fully preventing anypony from leaving the room. Hard Head slowly stood up, and a quick glance at the windows showed dozens of guards flying outside to prevent any pegasi from escaping.
He swiveled his ears when he heard Twilight Sparkle's voice, followed by that of Fast Talker. Might as well see what that was all about. He pushed past a few of the trapped scammers to an emptier spot on the floor where Fast Talker was backing away toward the window, a group of guards, Princess Sparkle, and, of all ponies, Tempest Shadow were closing in.
"I don't know what this is all about, but you have the wrong ponies!" Fast Talker snarled. "You stay away from me! This is a legitimate business! You don't have a warrant!"
Twilight smirked and lit her horn, sliding a piece of paper out of a thin saddlebag at her side and showing it to him. "Don't I? Look, this doesn't need to get violent, sir. Just come quietly and we can sort this all out."
"Don't listen to her," Tempest said with a chilling grin, electricity crackling around her horn. "Resist arrest! Resist arrest!"
"Tempest, we talked about this," Twilight said, putting a hoof on Tempest's shoulder. "If you're going to be in my personal guard, you need to calm down and do things by the book."
"Yes, yes, that's true!" Fast Talker said. "By the book is the best. And since the book says that you don't have any grounds to do that, that warrant is probably a fake anyway, I'll just be heading on out of here." Fast Talker inched toward two of the guards, trying to slip between them to escape. "Nothing to see here. I don't even work here. Just came to drop off a package."
"So you're resisting arrest?" Tempest replied, her grin widening.
"Tempest, by the book!" Twilight growled.
Tempest scoffed and wheeled around to face Twilight. "Oh? And when has the book truly helped anypony?"
It was right then that two things happened.
Fast Talker, seeing that everypony was distracted by this madmare, pushed past the two guards before anypony could stop him. He was moving at a fairly impressive speed, actually. However, before he made it more than five steps, a book smashed through the large window and slammed into Fast Talker's head. He instantly collapsed in a heap on the ground.
"Huh," Hard Head muttered to himself.
"That doesn't count," Tempest said through gritted teeth.
Twilight scoffed and rolled her eyes before walking up to Fast Talker and picking the book up in her magic.
"Interesting. Complex Theories on the Nature of Ballistic Literature. Cadance has been looking for this." She flipped it open to the first page and frowned. "Wait... this is Cadance's copy. What in the...?" She shook her head and turned around, finally spotting Hard Head behind her officers. "Oh, you're still here, good."
"Yeah, I figured that I could... I dunno. Help somehow?"
"You've been a wonderful help already," Twilight said with a smile as the guards got to work securing the other scammers. "Without your help, these ponies would still be scamming innocent ponies out of their bits."
"Like he tried to do," Tempest growled. "How can we be certain that he didn't come here to join them, then grew a conscience?"
"Uh, yeah, that's totally what happened!" Sweet Nothings called out from behind the guards. "Plus, he stole somepony's doughnuts and ate all of them!"
"No, that was you!" Charming Words yelled out.
"We'll get all of that sorted out later." Twilight took to the air and began directing the guards and the scammers out the door where several dozen police wagons were waiting for them. Tempest gave Hard Head an "I'm watching you" sign with her hoof, then followed the guards out of the room. After fifteen minutes, only Twilight and Hard Head remained. Hard Head didn't make eye contact with Twilight, and flinched when he heard her coming up.
"So, is Tempest right? I mean, I've had similar thoughts myself."
"I, uh... well I mean..." Hard Head sighed and rubbed his temple. "I guess so. I guess I got caught up in the idea of success at this, but I didn't make it more than a few calls before I called you. I didn't actually succeed in getting any money from anypony, though."
"Hm." Twilight pursed her lips in thought. "Well, can't exactly say that there isn't going to be some kind of repercussion for that. You did technically participate in an illegal activity. I'll have to talk to the other princesses and get their opinion on it."
"So are you going to load me into one of the police wagons, then?" Hard Head said glumly. "I guess I do technically deserve it."
"Well, we'll talk about that later. I..." Twilight motioned outside. "Have a lot going on right now. We have to figure out everything that they've been up to, what exactly to do about it, do a lot of paperwork..." Hard Head saw Twilight's wings flutter happily at that last one.
"So should I just go back to Ponyville or should I follow you?"
"I guess Ponyville for the moment. I'll have one of my guards escort you. We still have some stuff to talk about."
* * * *
The next day found Hard Head laying on his bed in his home. The morning paper had mentioned something about a huge ERS scammer bust, with an interview with Twilight about how it was one of the biggest scammer busts in years. Hard Head only skimmed it for any interesting details. As far as he could see, his name had been kept out of it, but there was no reason for it to be there anyway, unless Twilight had deliberately brought it up.
Hard Head stood up and was just about to start boiling some water for lunch when he heard a knock on the door. He sighed and turned the stove off before walking over to the door. Opening it up, he saw Princess Sparkle standing on the other side. He grimaced and beckoned her inside. As he stepped aside, he heard Twilight say something to the guard next to the door, but couldn't make out what it was.
"Hey there, Hard Head," Twilight said as she walked in. "How are you today?"
"Chugging along," he replied, going back to the stove and turning it on. "How are things on your end?"
"Well, it was a pretty successful bust," Twilight said with a smile. "All told we arrested eighty-nine ponies who had scammed over ten million bits out of ponies over the course of the last three or four years. You did a lot of good by bringing it to our attention."
Hard Head gave Twilight a weak smile. "Well, I'm happy to help. So I'm not going to be thrown in jail with them, right? I mean, I didn't actually ever scam anypony, uh... ever."
"Well, you still did join a criminal organization with the intention of joining them in their operations," Twilight replied with a small frown. "That's still a crime, Hard Head. Princess Celestia and I had a long talk about what to do about that."
Hard Head groaned and sat down on a nearby chair, putting his head in his hooves. "Ugh. I know I shouldn't have done it. I know. Do I at least get a few years off since I blew the lid off of it?"
Twilight used her magic to pull up another chair and sit across from him. "Well, we're not going to do it that way, but you are going to make some restitution." Hard Head looked up at Twilight with cautious optimism. "You first got tangled up with them because you traced their call back to their headquarters. That's actually pretty impressive. We have a lot of skilled techs who have problems with that."
"Yeah, it was a lot of trial and error," Hard Head admitted, waving a hoof in the direction of his computer. "When you know how to block or hide a signal, you know how the components work. A little reverse-engineering takes care of the rest."
"Well, in lieu of prison time, we would like you to come work for the Equestrian government to help take these ponies down," Twilight replied. "You and I both know that the group that we got yesterday was just one part of a larger problem. There are groups all across Equestria, and probably in other countries, too. With your help, we could make a big dent in their operations!"
Hard Head raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "So... you're asking me to help you catch scammers."
"You're absolutely right except for the 'asking' part!" Twilight replied happily. "Given your record, you can pick this or two years of prison time. Considering what the rest of them are getting, I'd pick the one that helps ponies."
Hard Head gulped and scooted his chair a few inches away from Twilight. "So, uh, when do I start, then?"
Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, the phone rang. Hard Head motioned to it, and Twilight nodded. He stood up from his chair and put the headset on.
"Hello? Who is this?"
"Yes, hello, this is Tax Law from the Equestrian Revenue Service. I am calling to say that a lawsuit has been filed against you for tax evasion."
Hard Head blinked. "Uh... I see."
After pressing the speakerphone button, he walked over to his computer and turned it on as the scammer rambled on about tax evasion penalties. Once he'd fired it up, he plugged a cord from the computer into his phone. He looked back at Twilight, who was grinning at him. He returned it with a weak smile before turning back to his computer.