Settlement by Edward M. Lerner
Settlement by Edward M. Lerner
Have you ever had a sense of presque vu, the feeling that a familiar place or situation isn’t quite what it seems? The dream started like that.
My company integrates websites. We buy web servers, database management systems, e-commerce packages, and add customer-specific content. I’m not getting rich, but it’s a living.
I was in my office—but it wasn’t my office. My metal desk had been replaced by an expanse of mahogany; my plain carpet by a hand-knotted Persian over pegged oak planking; my souvenir trade-show posters by framed oils. The room dwarfed my real office. Across the table, a frowning presque vu customer leafed through paperwork, scribbling on a legal pad.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Gray?”
“How did the total get so high? It was only an upgrade to my DBMS.”
Leather creaked as I leaned back in my chair. “Only? It’s a complicated process, I assure you.” Before he could formulate a response, I added, “I’m sure we discussed this.”
Gray squirmed in his (cloth-covered) seat. “You mentioned the upgrade itself and an installation fee. Now these other charges appear.”
“I’m sure we discussed it,” I repeated soothingly. “These are all customary items.”
He fidgeted with the handle of his briefcase. The ID tag held a business card for “Gray & Associates.” He opened his mouth, then thought better of it.
We reviewed page after verbose page, mostly boilerplate. He questioned the need for most of it, and the associated charges; I responded glibly, in the most unctuous and condescending of voices. It was poor sport: my dream self had parried such queries many times before.
“Yes, an upgrade is $200, per line 1022 of the Software Installation Reconciliation Form. Naturally, we also have the documentation fee of $150 and notary fees of $50.” Of course, I couldn’t do the work without completing the necessary papers, there was no benefit to notarizing them, and my receptionist was a notary. “You’ll want a copy of the papers, hence the xerography charge.” At a dollar a page.
More closely resembling his name with each passing second, Gray rallied to ask, “And these ‘Items Payable In Connection With Transaction?’”
“Those are charges from SoftSell, the distributor providing the upgrade.”
“But the database is already listed.”
“SoftSell incurs expenses retrieving a package from inventory and ordering its replacement. They must confirm that you’ve licensed the Version 2 application before authorizing an upgrade to 2.1. Naturally they bill for preparing their papers, itemizing their charges, and so forth. You’ll notice,” I volunteered helpfully, tapping a $30 item with my platinum pen, “the fee for couriering their papers to my office.”
From his eponymous hue, Gray turned an equally unhealthy red. “A courier? What about mailing the papers? For $30, I’d have dropped them off.”
I smiled. “You’re not bonded, Mr. Gray.” Neither was my son, who’d delivered the package.
“Why two courier fees?”
“SoftSell receives a copy of the executed paperwork. It’ll be couriered back.” Bobby frequented the next-door music store; his share would buy a CD.
Steam appeared to issue from my customer’s ears. “And this tax-service fee?”
In my dream, otic vapors seemed a normal occurrence. “SoftSell owes $10 for sales tax on the transaction. The $40 covers preparation of their tax filing.”
The nightmare wouldn’t end. My squirming customer heard, without enlightenment, about a pest-inspection fee (I ran a virus checker), a site survey fee (I ran a directory command—yes, an operating system was installed), and a credit report.
Total charges for the $195 upgrade and my $200 installation fee came to $1106.95. Wearily, Gray took a checkbook from his briefcase.
“Ahem,” interrupted my dream self, “For amounts over a thousand dollars, I must insist upon a cashier’s check.”
His pen stopped. “You ran a credit check on me—and billed me for it. Why do you need a cashier’s check?”
“Company policy,” I shrugged, although I’m the company for all intents and purposes. “Would stopping by tomorrow be an inconvenience?” I added a day’s interest to the total as he stared.
* * * *
I woke up screaming into the night at the rapacious monster that I’d somehow become.
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