A Day, A Deal, and a Bargain

by Chuk Kittredge

The artist, hard at work The artist, hard at work

So there I was, feet propped up on the desk, typing away madly. A cigarette smoldered in the sauce pan cum vehicle for spaghetti cum ashtray, and my coffee was piping hot. The windows, long since blacked out in the war on Vitamin D, were caked with the grime of a year's neglected ablutions. The clock by my bed - some might say nest - told me it was 3:26 in the am. Things were perfect.

The phone rang. I wouldn't have known it, as I had the techno cranked loud enough to vibrate my tibia. But this phone, one of the new office models with two lines and a voice-activated pizza-ordering system, took no prisoners. It worked on not one but two of my sensory inputs; a little LED jackhammered to life every time someone called.

I paused, took a drag on my cigarette, let the phone ring, tore off my headphones, put on some underwear, and finally came to rest next to my bed. The phone rang again and again, shrilly, gobbling like a turkey. I ignored it for as long as I could, but finally, against my better judgement, I picked it up.

"Mr. Kittredge?" The voice on the other end was throaty, smoke-roughened around the edges, and sweet as syrup.

"Speaking..." I ventured. I was cautious with this instrument of doom, the phone. It was nothing more than an entrance for creditors. I held it out away from my head a little ways. Just to be safe.

"Mr. Charles Kittredge? At 18 Picaresque Lane?" I mumbled something in the affirmative.

"Mr. Kittredge, before we begin I'd just like to identify that this is really you." The line crackled and hummed and I lit a cigarette. Even after I blew out the match, the room reeked of sulphur.

"So, Mr. Kittredge, I'm going to read off your bank account number and Social Security number, and would you tell me if I got them right?"

"Wait, you're what?" My dazed mind refused to compute what was happening. "How - who - what's going on here?"

"This will only take a moment, Mr. Kittredge. May I call you Charles?" The voice on the other end chuckled quietly, and my blood froze in my veins. Must be those pesky college loan people again. But before I could speak, I was hearing my bank account number read implacably to me, and then my social security number. Following these was my bank routing number, and then the number on my passport, birth certificate, and driver's license. I had just been tinkering with Photoshop, and darned if that girl wasn't right about the passport number. The old one, at least. I was still waiting for the ink to dry on the new one.

"And, let's see here, now - looks like you've got a second passport here - " the woman tssked gently into the phone "- capital offense, you know, but that's 483194406, right?" I gulped and double-checked her. Spot on, she was.

"Now hold on a minute!" I cried into the receiver. "You just hold your goldang horses, lady. And wha - I mean, who - just exactly what is going on here, anyways?"

"Just one more number," she replied with equanimity. "Looks like your PIN number is, uh, let's see, 6666, right?" She waited for an answer.

"Well - I - it's three in the morning! Who in the Sam Hill do you think you are? Wait a minute." My eyes narrowed and my breathing sped up. "Are you from that collection agency keeps calling me?"

"The name's Lucy, Mr. Kittredge. Lucy Fehr. I'm with the Falananjahl Corporation."

"The who?" I cried.

"We're out of Bangladesh, Mr. Kittredge. We do content management, and we're the ones controlling your domain." Oh. My domain. I had a moment of icy panic.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with my website," I told her. "In fact, I was just working on it before you called." I tried to sound placating, but my voice was pitched to a shrill whining.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with it, per se, Mr. Kittredge - " Lucy paused to take a breath, and I paused with her. I stubbed out my cigarette in an empty Ritalin bottle. " - but there might be something wrong with it pretty soon," she finished.

"Pretty soon? Whaddya mean, pretty soon?" I was starting to get angry with this woman. Anyone can get a bank account number, after all. I had picked up a few hundred in my cyberspace travels.

"I've done nothing wrong," I told her, huffily. She was silent for a moment. "Lucy? You still there?"

"Still here, Mr. Kittredge." Her voice was like a whip on my cringing soul. "Just looking through your usage records for the past thirty days."

I didn't like where this was going. "Now Lucy," I told her, "I had this hellacious research project - "

"Let's see," she cut in. "Where do I begin? Two weeks ago we counted thirty - six hits - in a single hour, no less - at www.homeopathichoneys.com."

"Oh, that." I chuckled nervously. "Just looking up a - a good carpal tunnel remedy. See, I've, uh, I've got really thin wrist - "

"And the next day it was www.filthyfarmgirls.com."

"What was that?" I tried to keep my voice level. "That doesn't sound ri-"

"And then we have over three hundred hits in two days at www.lacto-firm-ladies.com," she said, quietly, "and - wow, Mr. Kittredge - somewhere between four hundred fifty and five hundred hits at www.organicorgas-"

"Lucy," I almost shouted into the phone, "Lucy, something here is not right. I mean, I've got this roommate, real weirdo, y'know, and he's always on my comp-"

"Mr. Kittredge." Her voice cut me off mid - sentence. "Mr. Kittredge, I'm not fooling around here." A bead of sweat ran into my eyes, and then another. "You see, Mr. Kittredge, I know how to make your life very unpleasant."

"Lucy, I've had about enough of this." I nervously lit another cigarette. "I don't know who you are, or what you want, but don't think you can just threaten me over the phone. I - I know people, lady. I'm somebody. I'm not, like, some rookie pencilneck you can push around."

"Oh, really?" Her voice was dripping with sarcasm. "We'll just see about that, Mr. Kittredge." I heard a faint clacking sound, like hitting keys, and suddenly something went very wrong. I looked around uncertainly - something was different. Something was - what was the matter? - my computer. My computer was turned off. I hadn't turned my computer off.

"Lucy - "

"Do I make myself clear, Mr. Kittredge?" Lucy sounded very patient.

"Look lady, I don't who - " My computer had just turned back on. I watched it happen. I hadn't touched a thing. Phone clutched to my ear, I raced to the computer, felt its screen, stroked the tubby box underneath the card table. I checked the powerstrip, the cords, the USB cables spreading like tentacles across the room. Nothing. Everything was as I had left it.

"Lucy, the weirdest th - Dear sweet God!" My computer turned itself off again. Right in front of me. Like someone had sliced the power cord in half.

Lucy chuckled, a deep and throaty chuckle. "Actually no, Mr. Kittredge, other side of the equation, really." Her voice hardened again and she was all business. "Do you understand now? Do I have to do this to make you understand?" Smoke suddenly began seeping out of the back of my hard drive.

"Lucy!" I cried. "Lucy, I'll - I'll do whatever you want, just please leave my computer alone!" The minute I said it, the smoke went away. Lucy began to sound very pleased.

"We're going to be renegotiating your contract, Mr. Kittredge. We're using this new encryption technology, you see, so we'll need your signature in something a little more permanent than ink."

I gulped and nodded. "Lucy, of course I understand - how couldn't I! - but I've got this big project coming up."

She was silent on the line, and I rushed on. "There's this bunch of farmers, see, and they want me to do this website for 'em, and, I mean, there's some - I mean, there's - well, you know, what with the websites I've been visiting - for research, like I said."

"Am I to understand, Mr. Kittredge, that you're looking to meet some - what was it - lacto-fir-"

"Lucy," I told her, "Lucy, just leave my website alone, okay."

"Certainly, Mr. Kittredge. I'll be sending four of my associates around immediately with a new contract."

"Right. Good. Thank you, Lucy. I'll be waiting."

"Good day, Mr. Kittredge." And with that, Lucy Fehr broke the connection.

I flung my cigarette to the floor. It smoked for a moment in the paper shavings from my new birth certificate, and then expired. I sat down, head in hands, techno beats vibrating the computer screen every few moments, and wondered about these four associates I would soon be meeting.

Suddenly, I heard a whinny, then another and another, and opened the door to look with horror up at my new business partners.

Why, I thought, cowering in the doorway, why oh why had I gotten lured in by a cheap service provider?