Franklin Hyde Brown
Judy glanced at the clock when the phone rang, confirming her suspicions. 5:15, just like every other night. The bastards were nothing if not regimented.
She picked up the phone and muttered a greeting into the receiver. This game grew more tiresome by the minute.
"Yeah, is this Mrs. London?"
"No, this is Miss Langdon. Can I help you?" These idiots got it wrong more often than they got it right. Already this week she'd been called Logdom, Lannon, and Lunmun. Now London. One of these days, she promised herself, she'd cast courtesy aside and give the poor soul on the other end an earful.
"Um, I'm calling from the Owens Debt Consolidation Center, and we'd like to tell you about a special offer...."
"Thanks but no thanks. I'm not interested. And please take my name off your list."
"But Mrs. London..."
"Have a good night," she grumbled through clenched teeth as she placed the receiver back in its cradle, resisting the temptation to rip the phone off the wall and toss it out the window.
"Who was that, Mama?" The sweet, angelic voice of her baby boy floated in from the living room.
"Just a salesman, Billy. Just another salesman."
She was halfway through the dinner dishes, scraping a mass of charred meatloaf off the bottom of a pan, when the phone rang again. It was the fifth time in an hour and a half, all courtesy of her friends in the telemarketing industry. She had dismissed two politely, hung up on the third, and simply set the phone down on the counter when the fourth individual repeatedly ignored her refusals and launched into sales pitch after sales pitch. The line had been dead when she checked a few minutes later.
"What?" Her commitment to civility had expired for the evening.
"Good evening, ma'am. Could I speak with Judy Langdon, please?" The voice on the other end was pleasant and friendly, a dead giveaway that it did not belong to a telemarketer. Maybe someone from Billy's school; a classmate's father or PTA contact person, someone along those lines.
"This is Judy Langdon. Who is this?"
"Hello, Miss Langdon. My name is Martin Coffey, and I am a representative for the Donnelly Order of Directive Management. Have you heard of our organization?"
"No sir, I'm afraid I haven't," she sighed. Another used-car salesman, a wolf in sheep's clothing camouflaged by a veil of pleasant and respectful conversation. "Look, if you're trying to sell something..."
"Pardon me for interrupting, ma'am, but could I ask you a question? Are you experiencing any problems with unsolicited sales calls, especially during the evening hours?"
"You mean like this one, Mr. Coffey?" She couldn't resist the jab.
Martin Coffey responded with an amicable chuckle. "Yes, ma'am, I suppose I am referring to calls such as this."
A brief silence ensued, each waiting for the other to reply.
"Well, Miss Langdon, we here at Donnelly know how inconvenient those repetitive interruptions can be. We, too, have families and hobbies and interests we like to pursue that don't involve sparring with an autodialer, so we have developed a product that is guaranteed to rid you of these evening nuisances."
Judy stifled a laugh. "Let me get this straight, Mr. Coffey. Your company is using telemarketing to sell a product that prevents telemarketers from calling potential customers?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, a measure of pride evident in his voice.
"Don't you see the irony in that? You're selling a product over the phone that's designed to eliminate telephone sales. How in the world did you sneak that one past your investors?"
"I know it sounds a little strange, Miss Langdon, but if you would spare me a minute to explain our system, it will become very clear just how...."
"While I appreciate your candor and kindness, Mr. Coffey, I don't think I'm interested. But good luck just the same."
She found herself shaking her head and smiling as she hung up the phone. A telemarketing service that stops telemarketers. What will they think of next?
"Another salesman, Mama?" More inquiries from her peanut gallery.
"Yes honey, another salesman."
"That one must have been nicer. You talked to him for a long time and you didn't even make the grumpy sound when you hung up."
Judy marveled at how perceptive her six-year-old was becoming. "Yeah, baby, I guess he was..."
Her admission was cut off by the ringing of the phone.
"Good evening again, Miss Langdon. It seems as though we were disconnected a moment ago before I had the opportunity to explain how our product works."
Judy was amazedthe man's tone had not changed despite the fact that she had hung up on him. A consummate professional. Probably salesman of the month.
"I don't want to waste any more of your time, Mr. Coffey. I'm just not interested in your service. Thank you anyhow."
"But Miss Langdon...."
"Goodbye, Mr. Coffey."
She hung up the phone again. It rang again.
"Mr. Coffey, I've tried to be patient with you...."
"Do you value your son's life, Judy?" His voice had suddenly taken on a razor's edge.
"Excuse me?" she replied incredulously, her heart gathering steam.
"You heard me, Judy Langdon. Do you value little Billy's life?"
She sputtered, straining to sound more authoritative than she felt. How the hell did he know her son's name? "Listen, Mr. Coffey, I don't know what...."
"Such a precious little boy, your Billy. So full of life. It would be a shame if he had an accident, wouldn't it?"
Horrified by this wild turn in the conversation, Judy left the kitchen and went into the living room. She hoped she was out of Billy's earshot as he colored a picture on the linoleum floor, not wanting him to hear the fear in her voice.
"Shame, shame, everyone knows your name," he continued in a singsong voice. "Maybe his ball bounces into the road and he's hit by a car. Or a stranger with a puppy lures him into a secluded area. Or maybe...."
"Are you threatening me and my son, Mr. Coffey?" The authority was all but gone; Judy hoped she was camouflaging the worst of her terror.
"Not you, Judy Langdon. Your son, well, he's another matter entirely. Maybe something simple, like a broken tire swing or a rusty teeter-totter. You know how he loves to play on the teeter-totter. Playground accidents happen all the time, you know."
"You sick freak, stay away from my son or I'll call the police."
"Yes, ma'am, accidents happen all the time. It's really a shame, too. They always seem to happen to the people who deserve them the least. What's that saying about children paying the price for the sins of their fathers?"
Mustering her courage, she hissed, "Don't ever call this number again," and hung up.
The phone rang again.
She didn't answer.
"Phone's ringing, Mama!" Billy lending a helping hand from the other room.
"It's probably a wrong number, honey. They'll hang up in a second."
It wasn't stopping; if anything, each ring screamed longer and louder, threatening to intensify until they pierced her sanity and drove her mad.
A trembling finger clicked the "Talk" button twice, then she slammed the receiver down on the end table.
She hung up on him again.
RING! The phone shrieked at her.
She couldn't take it; this had to stop. Whatever path she took now would be wrong, but she had to choose. The age-old question, fight or flight?
Judy picked up the phone and opened the line.
He beat her to the punch. "As I understand it, Billy and his grandfather are quite fond of each other. Isn't that so?"
Her heart fell even further.
"Indeed, from what I can tell, Granddaddy Milt and his little Buccaneer Billy are very nearly inseparable. Isn't that so?"
How did this sonofabitch know their pet names for each other?
"Now, I'm no psychic, but I'm guessing that losing Billy just might destroy the old man, especially given his heart condition. What do you think about that, Judy Langdon?"
Her mouth had dried up, tongue swollen with fear.
"Two birds with one stone, eh, Judy Langdon?"
Somewhere deep inside, trapped between panic and her soul's core, she found her voice. "What do you want?"
"Simple courtesy, Miss Langdon. That's all. Now really, when it comes to the well-being of your son, not to mention the man who gave you life, is that too much to ask?" He had shifted seamlessly from psycho-stalker back to cordial salesguy in an instant.
She knew he was lying and that the question would be pointless, but she asked anyway. "That's all I have to do? Listen to your stupid spiel? Listen for two minutes or ten minutes or however long you wanna ramble and you'll leave me and my family alone?"
"Yes, ma'am, all I ask is that you listen with an open mind. If you do that, I am confident you will come to the appropriate decision and we can conclude our business right away."
"All right, I'm listening." She was suddenly exhausted, the terror having sapped all her energy, willpower, and resistance. The feeble response was all she could muster.
"Very well, then, Miss Langdon, I will proceed. As I mentioned previously, we offer a product that will eliminate those harassing phone calls from telemarketing services. Essentially what we have designed is a software program that will remove any record of your name, address, phone number, indeed your entire existence, from any contact database in either the public or private domain. We guarantee those calls will cease within ten days of activating your account, and we offer a rebate for every call received subsequent to that ten-day window. Do you have any questions so far?"
She said nothing. He interpreted her silence as understanding and pressed on.
"Very well. Now, we offer this premium service on a subscription basis. The terms of the initial contract dictate that you remain a client for a period of twelve months with a no-termination clause. Following this twelve-month period, you have the option to renew your subscription on a quarterly basis. Do you understand?"
Again there was silence on the line. He continued.
"Ok, we'll proceed to the payment breakdown. This premium service is being offered for a limited time at a drastically reduced price of ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents a month. That's right, for less than a hundred dollars a month, you can recapture your free time and your peace of mind. Why, you probably spend more on fast food and lottery tickets than that. But don't delaythe price is slated to increase in the very near future."
She wanted to scream obscenities, spit in his face, and kick him in the groin, but none were viable options. Instead, she asked a question. "Is that it? A hundred bucks a month and no more calls? Is that the once-in-a-lifetime offer you're so hard up to sell that you're willing to murder my family if I say no?"
Undaunted, he proceeded. "Well, we haven't discussed the payment options, but I believe I've covered the basics. We accept all major credit cards, money orders postmarked prior to the first of the month, cashier checks...."
Judy spoke in measured tones to avoid setting the lunatic off, praying that he would accept her dismissal and leave her alone. "Sorry, but I don't want it. It's a great product and all, and I might reconsider in the future, but I don't think I can find another hundred dollars a month right now. Not with a son and a sick father to care for."
"While I understand your concern, Miss Langdon, I don't believe you've given our offer adequate consideration. Perhaps if I give you a more detailed explanation."
Judy swallowed her pride and accepted his condescension, hoping the sacrifice would protect her loved ones. "I appreciate your willingness to help me understand, Mr. Coffey, but I just don't have room in my budget. If you ever run a sale or a discount, then feel free to call me back and I'll reconsider."
The switch flipped again. "Tsk tsk, Judy Langdon, tsk tsk. It would be a shame if the pharmacy made a mistake the next time they filled Granddaddy Milt's prescription for his blood thinner, wouldn't it? Maybe inadvertently double the dosage? Triple it? Or cut it in half? That couldn't possibly be good."
Another sucker punch that sent her reeling.
"Yes, an undermedicated father is just as good as a dead father, eh Judy Langdon? How would you like to spend the rest of your days staring in the mirror, knowing your son's granddaddy died because you're a tightwad?"
Falling to her knees, she felt broken, busted, used up. The magnitude of the evil she was confronting overwhelmed her. It defied all logic and reason, but she saw no way out; the walls had closed in too far, too fast. She simply couldn't jeopardize the safety of her family. Maybe they couldn't harm her father or her son, but maybe they could. And maybe she couldn't stop them if they tried. She wouldn't take that chance.
"Okay, okay, whatever you want. I'll take it, I'll buy it, whatever I have to do. Just give me your word you'll leave my family alone."
She had spoken the magic words and the switch flipped back. "I'm so glad you've reconsidered, Miss Langdon, and I guarantee you'll be very happy that you did. Now how would you like to pay for your subscription?"
"Credit card," she replied, stepping over her son to retrieve her purse.
"Fantastic, Miss Langdon. I'm sure you will be very pleased with your decision. Now while I have you on the line, allow me to explain the various upgrade packages we offer."
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM