Short Story: “Prices to Pay”

This series began with “Riffing the Life Fantastic“.

“Prices to Pay”
by P. Orin Zack
(7th of a series)
[02/25/2011]

“I told you,” Phaeron Huxley said angrily as he backed into his partner’s vacant desk, “I’m not going to go hang out in a goddamn forum just to clean up that bastard’s mess!”

Majgda Brourske, the fractured partnership’s overworked office manager, took a deep breath and tried to calm herself, but failed miserably. “That ‘bastard’, as you call him,” she said, still shaking, “was responsible for making this business a success.”

“A success? My god, woman, haven’t you been paying attention? Alluis Benoit single-handedly turned whatever success we had into a laughingstock!” He glanced away disgustedly, and then glared at her in contempt. “That moron crapped all over our customers! And you think I should defend him?”

Both turned as one when the roar of a tractor-trailer rig flooded through the suddenly opened doorway. Ben stood there, backlit by the bright Kansas sky, with one hand on the handle and the other splayed at shoulder-height in greeting. He’d opened his mouth to say something, but never got the chance.

“Ben,” Majgda said, relieved, “I’m glad you—.”

Phaeron rose and shouldered her aside. “Shouldn’t you be talking to the cops just about now? After all, you did steal my ride, totaled it god-knows why, and then fled the state.”

Ben grimaced. “I will. But I wanted to talk to you first.”

“You want to talk? Why? So you can fast-talk your way out of the charges? I’ve seen you in action, buddy-boy, and there’s no way I’m going to get suckered in by another one of your been-there-done-that so-called memories of the future.”

“But they’re real… well, at least they were!”

Majgda shook her head in confusion. “What? What are you two talking about?”

“My motorcycle,” Phaeron said, tapping the side of his head. “You know, the one I rode to work every d—.”

“Not that, the memories.”

“Oh, right,” Phaeron said lightly, “we hired you on afterwards. Dipwad here claimed that the reason he looked me up at the college was because of a memory he had of a business deal we were going to luck into to get our initial funding.”

She swung around towards Ben. “Is that true?”

“About the memories? Yeah, but like I said, that’s over with now. Besides, the last one that had anything to do with this business was about giving our customers upgrade credits for referrals, and that idea worked out just fine.”

Phaeron nodded once, but caught himself. “Hold it right there, Sherlock. If awarding credits for referrals was your last memory of the future, then what about our in-game credit sales? You told me it was a sure thing!”

Ben stepped inside and let the darkened-glass door swing shut behind him. “And it was. You can’t argue with that.”

“I might not,” Majgda said, “but you’d probably get an argument from players who were so hot on upgrading their weapons and treasures that they didn’t notice the new in-game credit purchase icon. Customers don’t like being tricked into buying.”

“Hey, come on,” Ben said defensively, “they did have to click through the change to their contract terms.”

“Oh, give me a break,” Phaeron said, shaking his head in disgust. “I told you that changing the logic from no-sale for insufficient game points to an automatic credit card deduction was a bad idea.”

“Maybe so,” Majgda said lightly. “But you thought it was a pretty sweet deal when I handed you that bonus check.”

He frowned, crossed his arms, and plopped into one of the guest chairs.

“In any case,” Ben said, “I wanted to explain what happened before turning myself in to the police.”

She thought for a moment. “Why? What’s so important?”

“Well, for one, I want you both to know that I feel bad about leaving you in the lurch like that.” He was quiet for a beat, and then added, “Especially when you hear why I did it.”

“Let me guess,” Phaeron said, “another memory?”

He nodded. “It was the hardest one I’d ever tried to live through, too: me crashing a motorcycle on the highway.”

“Crashing…?” Majgda said, astonished. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Did you think I wanted to risk my neck? I was never so scared in my life. But I had to. I had to. I remembered it happening that way, just as clearly as I remembered getting hurt on a swing when I was in grade school. Only that time, I hid.”

“That’s crazy! If you were smart enough to avoid getting hurt when you were a kid, why did you rush right into it this time?”

“Because of what came after. Look, that incident at school taught me to pay attention to my memories of the future. When the events in my life started to catch up with my memories of them, I began to realize that the important parts of those memories were what happened after the crisis. I found that if I could make it through the hard parts, I could get the prize. So I knew I had to crash a motorcycle, because I wanted that reward.”

Phaeron huffed. “Well, that clears everything up then, doesn’t it? You had no choice but to steal my bike just so you could destroy it and get a power-up. Where do you think you live, Ben, inside a videogame? I’m sure the prosecutor’s going to really love that one.”

“If it means anything to you, my memory didn’t play out this time. What was supposed to have happened was that a guy in a Passat stops to see if I’m okay, and then gives me a ride. Then, out on the highway, he gets a cell call that puts me onto my next business deal.”

Majgda looked puzzled. “No cell call?”

He shook his head. “Not even the guy in the VW.”

“None of which solves the problems that you left us with,” Phaeron said caustically. “Did you have some delusion that we were going to be happy to see you?”

“No, but maybe there’s still something I can do to help.”

“Sure there is. Leave. Turn yourself in. Or better yet, get me a new motorcycle. They’re not cheap, you know.”

Ben was still stewing when the phone rang. He glanced quickly at Phaeron and Majgda. “Should I… should I get that? After all, customer service was my responsibility.”

“It was,” Majgda said uncomfortably. “But you did walk out on us.” She nodded to Phaeron. “Go ahead. You’ll be all right.”

Ben relaxed a bit while the company’s software genius put the call on speaker and reeled off the standard greeting. He silently echoed their well-practiced boilerplate, and then shifted his gaze to the speakerphone when Phaeron asked how he could help. There was no voice, just the sound of ragged breathing.

“Hello?” Phaeron said irritably. “Is anyone there?”

After a sob, a very timid female voice said, “I… I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Ma’am, I’d like to help you, but unless you tell me what’s going on, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do. If you’re having some kind of emergency, maybe you’d better call 911.”

“Well…” she said hazily, “the way things are going, it might just come to that.”

Majgda silently encouraged him, and nodded her confidence that he’d be okay.

“What happened?”

“Ohh…” she moaned, “it’s everything. First the mortgage check bounced, and now my home improvement loan’s been kicked up to thirty-five percent. We were just squeaking by as it was, and now everything’s gone to hell.”

“What’s that got to do with us? Are you sure you don’t need to talk to a credit counselor?”

Just as Phaeron was saying ‘credit counselor’, Ben had a visionary flash like the one he’d had in Chicago the day after his crash. That time, he saw the tragic alternate futures of a woman approaching an abortion clinic, and chose to intervene. This time, he glimpsed the futures of their caller. In one of them, after speaking with Phaeron, she flew into a rage and nearly killed her son. In the other, she fell into depression and eventually took her own life. And just like in Chicago, neither of them led from an intervention on his part. But with choices that gruesome, he decided to act.

“Huxley,” he stage-whispered, drawing his finger across his throat. “Let me take over.”

Phaeron stabbed the mute button and glared at him. “Why? Isn’t she in enough trouble as it is?”

Majgda stepped between them. “Stop it, both of you.”

“I just saw where this is headed,” Ben said quickly, “and it ain’t pretty. Look, I know I’ve alienated customers in the past, but I’ve changed. Really. All I know for sure is that no matter what Huxley says, she’s screwed. I don’t know why, but I’ve got to handle this myself.”

“You’re sure?”

He nodded and unmuted the call. “Ma’am, ma’am,” he said excitedly, “I’m sorry we had to cut out like that. I think I understand what you’re up against. What I need to know is how it got that way. Now, you said this all started with our game. Is that correct?”

Getting her to focus on the cause of the problem helped her to calm down a bit, so he decided to backtrack some. “I’m sorry ma’am, but in all the excitement, I forgot to get your name. And just to make sure we don’t really get cut off, could you give me a phone number I can call you back on if I have to.”

“Sure. I’m Beth Coney. My son’s name is Arthur. Oh, and you can call me at…”

He mimed to Majgda that she copy down the names and numbers, so he could focus on the call. “Now then, Beth,” he soothed, “how exactly did Arthur playing our game come between you and your mortgage payment?”

Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, they figured out what had happened. During that time, Ben alternated between asking relevant questions and engaging Beth in small talk whenever a tinge of anxiety crept into her voice. Majgda watched with increasing interest as Ben continued to walk that fine line. At least twice, she smiled and nodded at a choice he’d made. Meanwhile, Phaeron busied himself tracking down offending bits of code to be changed, and researching other things that surfaced during the discussion.

What they learned from talking to Beth was that the change of terms from game-point based upgrades to game-point-or-paid upgrades had run afoul of the way purchase restrictions were implemented on the phone and with the cell service she had. So when Arthur tried to upgrade something that took more game points than he had collected, instead of blocking the transaction, the app was able to put it through. Arthur thought he was okay, because his mother had set up a purchase block, and so he just kept going. The first she knew of the problem was when the credit card bill arrived, but by then it was already too late. To cover Arthur’s collected overlimit transaction, her credit union had made an electronic payment from Beth’s checking account, and that in turn dropped the balance below what she’d needed to cover the mortgage. Having the interest on her home improvement loan jacked up wasn’t the end of it, either. It was an event cascade of the worst sort.

The problem was what to do about it, especially since it was a systemic issue that had undoubtedly tripped other people up as well. For the moment, though, helping Beth to resolve her problem was their primary objective, and they had begun to approach it as a team, something they hadn’t done for some time.

“Okay,” Ben told her after a wordless exchange with Majgda, “since this was all really our fault, I’d like to try to reset the whole mess. The first thing we’re going to do is reverse the charges that Arthur incurred.”

The speaker let out a small gasp, followed by a whimper.

Majgda bent over the unit and gently said, “Are you all right, Beth?”

Their customer struggled for breath at first, but managed to croak an affirmation. “You’re going to… oh, thank you, thank you. But what about my loans? Isn’t it too late to…?”

A broad grin spread across Ben’s face as the incomplete vision he’d had earlier finally dropped the other shoe, just as it had in Chicago. In a much gentler flash, he saw that what he had just started would open out into a vastly improved life for both Beth and her family.

While Phaeron shook his head and went back to picking through code, Majgda turned her palms up in a silent plea for explanation.

Ben closed his eyes and nodded happily at her, then looked at the speakerphone. “Beth,” he said, “could you give me the details about your checking account and the two loans? I want to speak with your credit union and the lenders about putting you back on track.”

The door opened again while Ben was copying down account numbers. This time it was the police. Majgda hurried to speak with them so they didn’t disturb Ben’s fragile relationship with Beth. “This is about Alluis Benoit, isn’t it,” she said, and glanced back towards him.

“Yes ma’am. He seems to have caused quite a stir in a number of places. Greyhound alerted us early this morning that he’d boarded a bus to Topeka. He has a sister there, and she said he’d taken her car and headed west out I-70. We figured he’d end up back here at some point.”

She turned and studied him for a moment. “He didn’t steal it, did he?”

“Well, she claimed he didn’t, but she is his sister after all, and considering the fact that there was already a charge against him for stealing Mr. Huxley’s motorcycle, we thought we ought to follow up on the possibility. We’d like a word with him, if you don’t mind.”

“He’s busy helping a customer at the moment, but I’ll see if I can take over for him.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Phaeron was smirking at Ben’s turned back when she headed back across the room. “Finally caught up to him, did they?”

Majgda gave him a stern look and motioned for him to get back to whatever he’d been doing. Once he complied, she leaned over to whisper in Ben’s ear.

He straightened, nodded, and swiveled his chair towards the door. “The rest of this is rote,” he said quietly. “I’ve got all the details, now. So if you can chat her up for a while to make sure she’s good, that’d be great. Once she’s calmed down and off the line, start plowing through the fallen dominos and see if you get them all stood back up again. You’re a great admin, by the way. This place would have been toast a long time ago without you.”

She grabbed his wrist as he rose to go. “Listen,” she said, “I’m going to talk to Phaeron, try to get him to drop the charges. His insurance covered the loss, and truth be told, he’s been lusting after a newer one since Christmas. So, in a way, you did him a favor.”

“That’s sweet of you, Majgda,” he said, smiling, “but I’m good either way. My life has changed a lot as a result of that mistake.”

“You don’t have to tell me. What you just did for that woman was so unlike anything I’d have expected you to do before you left, it’s like you’re a totally different person.”

He laughed. “I am. One who isn’t a slave to his past… I mean his future.”

 

THE END

To be continued…?

Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack

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