Your call will be answered in the order in which it is
Life, they say, was simple once.
When Man first appeared, none of the older and wiser animals would have bet a well-chewed bone on him to rule the world one day. He wasn’t as strong as the gorilla, or as sociable as the chimp, and the orangutan was much more handy with his feet. You would never notice this new kind of ape in a mug line, unless you happened to spot the crude wooden club clutched in his hand. A mere detail, said the older and wiser animals. Why, it wasn’t even part of him, not like fangs or claws or a good set of running muscles. How could carrying a silly stick help anyone take over the world?
It was at that moment that Man came up behind the older and wiser animals, swung his club, and smashed their brains into jelly.
As strategies go, this was an all-time winner. In a blink of the cosmic eye, Man conquered the earth. Oh, the club was upgraded a few times along the way, replaced by the knapped flint, the spear, the M16 rifle. But the hand that controlled the tool stayed just the same, and the brain that controlled the hand—well, it could still just about cope with the finer nuances of, ‘Swing club. Smash head. Repeat as necessary.’
Nowadays, life is far too complicated. But the ape with the club is nothing if not an optimist, and still hopes to find some grand theory that will explain everything and make it simple again. Science, religion, philosophy, daytime soap operas, all were created to meet this primal need: the craving to feel that we understand. But of course we don’t understand. So we think there must be something more—a conspiracy, perhaps. There must be someone out there who pulls every string, rigs every game; someone who breaks every gadget the day the warranty expires, and turns every neat square knot into an unsolvable granny. Someone we can’t see; someone very, very powerful. And someone, alas, who doesn’t seem to like us very much. If only this conspiracy could be unmasked and defeated, life would be good, the world would be our playground, and everything would just make an amazing amount of sense.
By a remarkable coincidence, the ape with the club is the only species of animal that gets locked up in mental institutions.
Like most club-carrying apes, Stuart Leal had moments of weakness when he almost believed in an all-powerful conspiracy. But he was far too sensible to take the idea seriously; he preferred to blame this feeling on too much stress and too many reruns of The X-Files. It would take a diabolical intelligence to organize such a thing; and humans, if anything, were diabolically dumb.
But every man has a breaking point, a place where paranoia turns from a sickness to a survival skill. Stuart was unusually strong; for him, it took five major disasters in one day. Even then he might have recovered if it weren’t for the letter from Azrael Smith. It wasn’t addressed to him; he had obviously received it by mistake; but it referred to him by name, and listed nearly all the events that made his life an instant wreck. This time, someone really was out to get him.
The letterhead had a local address; Stuart went there by taxi. It was a plain brick building in a decaying warehouse district, no signs outside, no ground-floor windows. The front door opened; a few gray, lifeless men and women shuffled out, staring blindly in horror at the sunlit world. In that building they had faced the worst thing in the world, and it had broken them. Was it aliens? Torturers? Mind-control beams? Little red devils and a lake of fire? ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here,’ Stuart muttered, and strode grimly through the door.
Inside, it looked like a big-city Department of Motor Vehicles on a Saturday afternoon. Acres of floor space were swarming with people, all bleached gray under the fluorescent glare. People standing in line, people taking numbers, people in roped-off mazes and waiting areas. Not all the people were gray. Some had blue uniforms and red faces, and spent most of their time yelling at those luckless souls who had blundered into the wrong line. At the dim far end of the floor was a long counter, divided into about twenty wickets, of which maybe five were open. On the high wall behind them, an enormous sign proclaimed:
End User Issues Dept.
‘Your Worst Screw-Ups are Our Greatest Product’
Near the entrance was a machine labeled GENERAL INQUIRIES. A large green button said helpfully, PRESS TO TAKE A NUMBER. Stuart pressed it. Nothing happened. He tapped out ‘Shave and a Haircut.’ A numbered slip of paper stubbornly refused to appear. Finally he sighed and wandered away, vaguely looking for someone to complain to. Before he had gone thirty feet, the wide blue bulk of an usher blocked his path. ‘Can’t you read? Take a number!’
‘The machine isn’t working.’
The usher flexed his unibrow into a formidable scowl. ‘No number, no service. Company policy.’
‘I did try. It’s not my fault if your number dispenser ran out of numbers.’
‘Look, buddy. It’s no use blaming the equipment. Either take a number or get out.’
The ape with the club does not give up easily, and Stuart had inherited a stubborn streak that was sometimes mistaken for courage. ‘I’m not leaving till I get what I came for.’
‘Is that so?’
Neither of them moved for an uncomfortably long interval. ‘Look, buddy, you’re getting on my nerves. Not that I care, but what did you come for?’
‘To see Azrael Smith.’
The usher’s face turned the color of old aluminum. ‘Got an appointment?’
‘Not exactly.’ Stuart took the letter out of his inside pocket and waved it. ‘But he sent for me personally.’
The usher turned even paler. ‘All right, then, just this once. Follow me.’
He marched Stuart right up to the head of the longest line. ‘Next!’ said the clerk behind the counter, a mousy woman with glasses like wire-rimmed marbles. The usher blocked the next person in line and motioned Stuart forward with a jerk of his thumb.
‘Account number?’ the clerk asked sourly.
He read it off the letter. She tapped her computer keyboard with pudgy fingers. ‘Name, last name first?’
‘Leal, L-E-A-L. Stuart with a U. I’m here to see—’
‘We have no account under that name.’
‘I know. I received this bill by mistake.’
She deigned to squint directly at him. ‘Everything’s by mistake around here. What makes you so special?’
‘Special?’ Stuart said bitterly, trying to keep himself from shouting. ‘That’s a funny word for it. Yesterday, my car literally fell apart on the freeway. My laptop and projector both fried, causing me to blow the most important presentation in my life. My business partner quit, my accountant ran off with all my money, and my ex-wife broke in and trashed my apartment.’
‘Aren’t you mistaking me for someone who cares?’
‘And then,’ said Stuart, slapping the letter down, ‘I got this. It was sent from this office. Do you want to read it, or shall I?’ Without waiting for an answer, he read it aloud:
LEX MURPHIA, INC.
Delinquent Accounts Office
TO: Customer Service Dept., Dragonstar Computer Corp.
ATTN: R.K. Overthwaite
RE: Delinquent a/c #3733-0166640-05
Our records indicate that your firm’s account is over 180 days in arrears, with a debit balance of $48,275.50. Your payment history suggests an imperfect understanding of your contractual obligations.
Note, for example, the section of the enclosed statement headed LEAL, STUART J. Your firm supplied this individual with several defective products, to wit, a laptop computer and replacement battery, an LCD projector, and via a third party, an EFI module and other electronics for his vehicle. Scheduled effects include multiple critical failures to the vehicle and the computer, with consequent loss of income, probable business failure, and a 95% chance of major stress-induced illness. Please bear in mind that your account is charged for all services; we do not bill the end user.
Payment in full is due at once. We regret that we are unable to provide further interventions until this matter is resolved.
Azrael B. Smith
General Manager, Collections Dept.
‘You weren’t supposed to see that,’ the clerk said tonelessly.
‘I’ll bet. Nearly everything that happened yesterday was in that letter, and Dragonstar Computers is being billed for it. Can you explain that? Because I can. It looks to me like Dragonstar put out a contract on me, and you took it. What’s next? Make it look like a heart attack, or just rub me out?’
The clerk licked her lips and blinked several times. ‘Mr. Leal, it isn’t like that. We don’t do that kind of business at Lex Murphia.’
‘No? Then why do you take money for it?’
The clerk sighed. ‘You’ve never dealt with us before, have you?’
‘Never heard of you till yesterday.’
‘Then I’d better explain. I’m not supposed to, but this’—she tapped the letter—‘isn’t supposed to happen either. Brace yourself, Mr. Leal.
‘Lex Murphia, Inc., holds the exclusive patent rights to Murphy’s Law. You know Murphy’s Law?’
‘Do I ever,’ Stuart muttered.
‘ “If something can go wrong, it will.” That’s ours. Every time something goes wrong, we get a nickel in royalties.’ Her hands flew over the keyboard. ‘Ah, here you are. You’re earning us a fortune—if we can ever collect it. A balky computer makes more mistakes per second than a human can in a year. Isn’t technology wonderful?’
‘Just grand,’ Stuart agreed drily. ‘So is that your job? Wait for things to go wrong, and just rake in the money?’
‘Certainly not! We handle all sorts of business. Parkinson’s Law is one of our biggest divisions—keeps outgrowing its offices. The Peter Principle brings in a lot of revenue, but Head Office can never find anyone to run it properly. Krasinski’s Law is a big profit center—’
‘Krasinski’s Law? What’s that?’
‘It’s why men always get spam for bust-enlarging creams, and women get spam for Viagra. The fee per unit isn’t much, but it adds up fast.’
The clerk was scandalized. ‘Really, Mr. Leal! We don’t touch that kind of business. There are two kinds of stupidity: inadvertent and malicious. We only deal with the inadvertent kind. Company policy.’
‘So you didn’t make any money when my ex wrecked my apartment?’
‘No, that would be an Epidence account. Malware, home invasions, road rage, software manuals—if it’s deliberate malice, it’s Epidence’s nickel.’
Stuart put the letter in his pocket and backed away slowly. ‘Thank you, miss. You’ve been . . . helpful.’
‘Now, now, Mr. Leal. I understand this is hard for you. After hearing what you just heard, most people question their grip on reality.’
‘My grip on reality is just fine. It’s reality’s grip on me that I worry about. No wonder all these people look like the living dead. You’re making billions out of their misery.’
‘We don’t cause the misery,’ she said almost kindly. ‘We just profit from it. And when people can’t take it anymore, they come here, and we give them someone to complain to.’
‘And that makes it better?’
‘No. But it’s all we’re allowed to do. We can’t even apologize for the inconvenience. Company policy again.’
‘Mr. Leal, I have clients waiting. If you have any further questions, I suggest you take them up with our Special Services Office.’ The clerk stood on tiptoe and handed Stuart a business card. ‘Better luck, Stuart. Next!’
9 November 2005