The Price to Pay

A short story by Fletcher Kovich

Price to pay

For seven years I denied myself the basic pleasures in life, though they sang to me, siren-like. Connie, my partner, was saving for our dream house. Week in, week out, I watched the office clock counting off the seconds of my life, until I could take it no longer. I spent one hundred and forty pounds on a designer shirt which extravagance was more than Connie could bare, so she left me.

That weekend I was a free man. I liberated my four pristine credit cards and my spree began. My appetite was a bottomless pit. Into it I poured the aristocracy of technology; I was a baronet, a viscount, a lord; I could see more pixels and at a faster rate than anyone who had not shopped in the past few months. I clothed myself in designer labels and holidayed in designer locations until my credit cards, with whom I was now married, withdrew my right to spend—and once again I was imprisoned.

Our honeymoon was over and I returned to monitoring the progress of the office clock. Nine months passed, each week only seeming to nourish my growing debt, as if my heavy heart were fuelling its growth. Money and soul. Neither seemed tangible, so perhaps they shared the same currency and one grew stronger at the expense of the other.

“You’re always so cheerful,” said Jessica, who sat at the desk opposite mine.

It was true; I was now a happily married man. I was married to my debt and had decided to put on a brave face.

“Yes,” I said, “What’s there to not be cheerful about?”

“Wish I knew your secret.”

I looked back to my screen and carried on working, an apparently content employee. By now I had even stopped watching the office clock and my face remained fixed in a smile for hours at a time, until a passing comment would remind me to adjust my expression. Life seemed to endlessly amuse me—for, after all, I was now a happily married man. And my humour knew no bounds. Only last week the Department conducted their annual staff psychometric testing. In answer to every question I ticked the most untrue box and floated out of the room with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Jessica said, “You’re at it again; you can’t stop smiling.”

Two days later, Herbert Singer called me into his office to discuss my test results. He closed the door and turned the key in the lock. Somehow this amused me. He had imprisoned us both in his small office. I looked to his window, expecting to see bars. In the distance, there was a descending shard of sunlight glimpsed through parting clouds, which then quickly extinguished the shard, as if discovering their mistake.

Herbert’s pale and sullen face told me, “You achieved the highest score under ‘emotional detachment’ the Department has ever seen. Under some circumstances you could have become a psychopathic killer.” Then he added, “That is, if you’re not one already—”

I had never before spoken to Herbert Singer and was not used to being called a psychopathic killer, so no ready reply came to me. After a pause, I realized my face had remained fixed in a smile since the start of the interview, so, by way of a response, I simply changed my expression.

He seemed more pleased with my new expression. He slowly nodded, as an undertaker nods at a compliant relative, then looked down, opened my file and said, “The management have decided to call in your loan. They have given you two full weeks to repay it.”

Three months previously, my debts, seeming to have acquired a life of their own, had transformed into an obese monster. There was never any realistic hope of me constraining the monster, let alone slaying it; once I had welcomed it into my life, it seemed inevitable it would one day consume me. And it ate and ate until I seemed empty and my shell trembled with the echo of fear. I was about to grasp the lifeline of “bankruptcy” when the Department, apparently valuing my continued employment, granted me a low-interest loan of one whole year’s salary, which I could repay over the following five years, on the condition my employment continued. I was given a one week holiday, by way of a honeymoon, then I returned to work, and for three whole months I remained faithful and smiling. On some deep level, I knew this was for life. I had finally found Miss Right. What was there to not be cheerful about?

I watched Herbert Singer’s pale face as he announced the management’s intentions and, to me, his words seemed to be saying: “We want a divorce.” I again had no ready response, so all I could do was watch him in stunned silence.

Herbert’s trembling hand lifted his glass of water; he drank and said, “But I have a proposition to put to you.”

I was still too stunned to reply.

He said, “There is a consortium who work with the Department. They will repay your loan for you, but in return you must perform some tasks for them.”

I heard myself saying, “Tasks?—what tasks?”

He said, “They will contact you.”

I, of course, had no choice but to accept. It seemed I was again spoken for. First, I had given myself to Connie, was then enticed into a marriage with a monster, had then accepted the Department’s hand, and now I belonged to this anonymous “consortium”. Somewhere along the way I had forfeited my freedom, though I knew not where.

On my way home that evening I arrived at the underground station. There were two turnstiles with a queue at each and a man was stood between them, apparently undecided which queue to join. Until he decided, no-one behind him could proceed. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Which queue are you in?” but he said nothing. I took the right-hand queue, which now seemed to be moving, and he turned to me, pointed his finger and said, “Don’t you touch me like that!”

I stepped forward in my queue, saying, “Just pick one and go for it. You were holding everyone up.”

He was now trembling with rage. He fiercely jabbed at the air between us and warned: “Don’t you touch me like that!”

As I boarded my train, I was thinking about him. I recognised the person who dwelled behind his wild eyes. It was myself. I knew he was just as desperate as I was three months earlier and I thought perhaps that was the explanation for his behaviour.

The following evening as I was leaving the Department, I became aware of a shadowy figure standing nearby. He tailed me along several streets. I stopped and he stopped. I changed my route and so did he. I turned, by mistake, into a blind, darkened alley. As I was retracing my steps I came face to face with him. His hands disappeared inside his overcoat and he smiled wryly, glancing round at the alley, and said, “How appropriate.”

I was again speechless and could only watch him and await my fate.

He said, “I am Benedict, from the consortium. You are expecting me?”

I slowly nodded.

Benedict told me I would need ten “credits” to clear my debt. These credits were earned by performing certain tasks. Some tasks earned more credits than others. “You see,” he told me cheerfully, “the Department employs us to generate funds using—” he raised his eyebrow— “imaginative methods. We pursue any avenue that generates disproportionate returns, and due to our colossal returns, we are indispensable.” He watched me while slowly repeating this word, “In-dis-pens-able,” then continued. “It is only our methods than enable many firms to exist. Without us, the financial realities would cripple them. Anyway, that’s us. Now, to you. Your tasks will be screened live on a certain website. I will tell you more later.”

“My tasks?”

“I will come to your house tomorrow evening.” He told me the name of the website and his parting words were, “Be prepared.”

On my journey home, the substance seemed to be seeping from my body. I had no thoughts, except for this awareness of my body gradually becoming more hollow. It seemed as though space were being made for—something—something beyond my imagination.

I was powerless to avoid viewing the website. It contained a gallery of stills from some of the previously screened tasks. Each of these stills seemed to pour in through my eyes and down into this hollow that was me, and their presence there terrified me.

The following evening I waited at home, watching through the window. And the rain poured, heavy, probing, inescapable. I looked out across the square and saw three figures walking my way, a blur through the rain. I undid the latch on my front door and waited for the knock. I watched the floor and imagined their progress and in my mind I could only see them as a blur, even as they came near, as though my mind were incapable of comprehending what was about to happen. And then the knock sounded. I opened the door and saw only two of the figures. Benedict entered, carrying a black suitcase. He removed his overcoat and hung it in the hall. His companion removed his coat and I saw it was the angry man from the underground. His rage had now escaped him to leave a washed-out expression, as though he were suffering from hypothermia. Benedict placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and gently guided him into my living room, as though he had been here before and knew what to do.

He noticed my large-screen television and said, “Perfect.” This TV had been the last straw in my financial ruin and I came to loathe it, sitting there in my living room like a giant, malicious goblin which, having been invited into my life, refused to leave. I had not switched it on for the past three months, yet still it seemed to possess a life of its own as it sat there watching over me.

Benedict pushed my coffee table aside, opened his case and placed a large plastic sheet over the floor, whistling merrily to himself as he then began laying out his tools. We both watched as he pulled out a piece of cord, a large mallet, a butcher’s clever, a chopping board and then a long, thin knife whose sharp edge glinted like a precious jewel in the blue light of my freshly awakened TV screen which he had switched on. He set up his laptop and a camera, then the TV screen came to life, displaying the plastic sheeting and the tools. I thought I could hear the goblin within it screeching like an excited chimpanzee.

Benedict rubbed his hands and explained, “We will soon go live. It’s very simple. The website has over twenty thousand subscribers who pay a large annual fee. In return they are guaranteed one weekly act of live mutilation or a fatal accident.” He looked at me and slowly said, “This is guar-an-teed—one or the other.” He went on, “Of course, you are both volunteers and do this of your own accord. It will be as if I am not here.”

End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.


10 October 2008

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