I ended up never finishing Red Tape, and as I was putting this post together I realized again why: the whole setup was just too complicated for a short story. My goal was to have it be between 5,000 and 7,000 words (about 25 pages long), but with the various plot machinations going on and all the infodumping that needed to be done, there just wasn't enough space to get it all in there. I could have made the story longer, pushing into novella territory, but the material was just too grim for me to really enjoy writing about it at length.
The back story for this particular scene is as follows: the narrator is a low level bureaucrat (he runs the state ballet) who has managed to get some compromising images of a high-level power broker fooling around with one of his ballerinas. He's planning on using these as blackmail as part of a power play, however the secret police (the 'ISG') don't want him to succeed...
Gelo R. Fleisher
It had been a good fifteen minutes since I had arrived in the opulent office and I was still all alone. I slouched deeper into my plush red chair, and booted up a game of solitaire on my communicator. I was a few games in when I finally heard the sound of one of the ornate wooden doors being cracked open.
I sat up in my chair, craning my neck to see who had just walked in. A pale, sickly-looking man clutching a briefcase was holding the door open for an old man. The old man was dressed inconspicuously enough, with a tailored black suit poking out from under a drab brown overcoat, but I immediately recognized the face.
The old man was Kaspar Chernopov, head of the ISG.
My heart started beating faster as I jumped up out of my chair to greet him. Did he know about the ballerina and the blackmail? How could he know? I hadn’t told anybody. The Federacy’s chief spymaster walked towards me, flanked at a respectful distance by two aides wearing black wrap-around visors. The sickly man with the briefcase closed the door, and remained standing next to it.
My lips started flapping before my head had thought of something to say. “I...uh...now...”
Chernopov ignored my yammering and settled into one of the large, plush chairs, gesturing for me to take a seat. Everyone had heard stories about the old man, of people who had crossed him and were dragged down to the interrogation pits, of his spies infesting every nook and cranny of Federacy’s bureaucracy, and of the old-fashioned file cabinet in Chernopov’s office that was supposed to house the deepest secrets of people from all walks of life.
As I dropped back into the chair, my eyes flitted to the two aides who had marched in with Chernopov. They were still standing, one a few feet from the old man, and the other a few feet from me.
So these weren't aides at all, but bodyguards, probably pumped with so many nano-chems and reactives that they could snap my neck before I’d even known what I’d done wrong, and without breaking a sweat as they went about it. They stood impassively, their twitching eyes hidden behind black visors, their fists resting loosely at their sides. I slid my gaze over to the sick-looking man with the briefcase standing at the door. I had no clue who, or what, the hell he was. I could feel the collar of my uniform squeezing against my neck and a damp sweat forming on my skin.
Chernopov cleared his throat. I jerked my eyes towards him. The spymaster looked his seventy-eight years, with a slightly gaunt face that was carved deep with wrinkles. A crown of white hair hung to the back of his skull, ringing a bald pallet that made his forehead seem larger and more broad than it was, like some bizarrely intellectual Neanderthal. He looked at me through two thick-rimmed glasses perched on his blunt, hooked nose. I wondered what information was being projected on the back of the glasses into those piercing blue eyes, made no less clear by the age that seemed to be tugging at the rest of his slender frame.
I flinched back into my chair as he lifted up one of his bony arms.
It took me a second to realize that he’d stuck his hand out towards me, like he wanted me to shake it. Not knowing what else to do I gripped the extended palm with sweaty hands, pumping it up and down profusely. “Sir, this is a great and unexpected honor!” His grip was stronger than I was expecting, and I felt my knuckles crack as he squeezed. I let go. Chernopov smiled thinly and folded those taut fingers against his chest.
He began speaking in crisp, clear tones, a cyrillic accent adding a lilting quality to his words. “It is good to meet you Colleague Barents. Would you like some tea? Perhaps a cookie?”
I stared at him stupidly.
Chernopov waved at one of the bodyguards. “Did you say you wanted a cookie?”
“Oh why yes, how kind of you.”
One of the bodyguards soon materialized besides us with our drinks and cookies, and for the next fifteen minutes we had one of the most boring conversations of my life. Chernopov asked about next month’s performance season and commiserated at how tough it must be to keep all those artsy prima donnas in line. After seeing my share of ISG jackboots stamping around, arresting ideological offenders and turning their brains into tomato soup, I would have thought Chernopov would have been a bit more on the crude side. But no, the guy knew his classical ballet; Vaganova, Cecchetti, the whole nine yards. He even laughed at my bad jokes and clinked my coffee cup in a toast to my managing this important facet of the Federacy’s cultural heritage.
I have to admit, by the time I excused myself (I did have the blackmail material to drop off after all), I was downright flattered. And just a little bit confused too. If this wasn’t about Hanzer and the ballerina, then what? I mean, did the head of the secret police normally have high tea with nobody pencil-pushers like me?
As I walked towards the ornate wooden exit of the room, the sick-looking man with the briefcase tugged the door open for me. Nodding to the man, I turned around to wave goodbye to Chernopov when a sudden dizzy spell that washed over me. I felt my knees buckle as I toppled forward, I could feel bile rising in my throat like and wanted to vomit. The sick man helped right me as I lurched out the door.
I stood there doubled over in the hallway outside, taking deep breaths as my senses slowly returned to me. From behind, I heard the door click shut.
The synapses in my brain stared firing, throwing out all sorts of crazy scenarios, all of which were most likely true. What an idiot! I should have ran out of that room as soon as Chernopov walked in. Of course they knew about the ballerina. I had been so flattered that a bigshot like Chernopov was paying attention to a nobody like me that I hadn’t bothered thinking what exactly I was doing. I’d just met with the head of the secret police and his goons had probably been filming the whole thing. Right now they had to be sending cute little snapshots of the meeting to Secretary Puzo. I was sure there would be a real nice shot of us clinking teacups.
Puzo, that paranoid crank, would think I was going behind his back, trying to get cozy with his enemies. He’d abandon me and without his protection, the ISG could bring me down to their dungeons without anyone complaining. Hell, Puzo might even be the one who gave the order. I could feel the sensation of the ISG men shaving my head, getting ready to screw in the brain scorchers. No! I had to, call Puzo and explain what happened, and fast.
I reached into my pocket, grabbing for my communicator. My hand came back nothing; my pockets were empty, the communicator gone. The sick man with the briefcase, he must have taken it off me when I bumped into him.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
I wheeled back to the ornate door, yanking at the handle, but the damn thing was locked. I banged on door with both my hands, shouting for someone to open it, but remained shut. Still faint with delirium, I staggered down the hallway, looking for someone, anyone I could grab a communicator from. I banged on doors as I ran down the corridor, my hands raw, the knuckles soon bleeding.
I stumbled about, banging helplessly against the interminable hallway of locked doors, my fate at the hands of Chernopov’s goons growing larger and larger in my mind. I’d confess immediately when they brought me down for interrogation, sign anything, give them every name, anything to stop them from putting me under torture. But it wouldn’t matter, they’d make an example of me for all the other upstarts who tried playing with the bigs. They’d have to get some bruises on me first, for everyone to see. Punch me around a bit, maybe run my fingers through a vice one by one, and then they’d start getting creative, cerebral. They’d inject liquid fire into my veins, the nano-chems hooked up to a control panel so they could cause my my nerve endings to start firing pain signals into my head as they played them like a piano. Then they screw in the brain scorchers and rewire my neural pathways by force, making me see all sorts of hellish images as my grasp on reality fell apart at the molecular level. And after they’d had their fun and I was a walking vegetable, it would be my turn to be trussed up for public execution and have my brains liquefied in front of my colleagues.
The images swirled about me, colliding in a feverish terror. The world was spinning, I was panting, my lungs burning as my chest heaved. I dropped in a heap on the ground. I lay there, sprawled out on the floor, my body frozen with fatigue and panic. Tears welled up in my eyes. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
But as I sat there, a miserable, shivering pile, I saw the outline of an orange jumpsuit out of the corner of my eye. It was a janitor, walking out of of of the offices. He stopped when he saw me. “You alright?”
I pushed myself back onto my feet, wiping my face in a pathetic attempt to hide my miserable state. “I, I need your communicator.” I hated how desperate my voice sounded.
The janitor looked at me warily. With my suit disheveled, my hair a mess, with tears and snot smeared across my face, I would have avoided me too.
“Please give me your communicator.”
He looked at me, blinking in confusion. I dropped back down on on my knees, grabbing his jumpsuit with trembling hands. “Please. See, I’m begging you. Please. Give me your communicator. Please.”
“Sir, it’s against regulations, I could lose my job if...”
My head was pounding, I didn’t have time for these excuses. “Who do you work for?”
“Vice Director of Maintenance Halloway.”
My voice had a hysterical edge to it as I started shouting at him. “You want his job? You can have it! Don’t want to work anymore? I’ll retire you and your family on an early pension. Whatever you want! Just give me your communicator!”
Still looking at me warily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, black pad.
I grabbed it greedily with shaking fingers, dialing Secretary Puzo’s number. After an interminable pause, I heard his voice on the other end of the line. “Who is this and how did you get this number?”
At the sound of Puzo’s nasal voice, a sensation of palpable exaltation flooded out of every pore in my shaking body.I found myself unable to speak as the words choked in my throat. Tears threatened to pour down my face for a second time, I’d never been more happy to hear another person’s voice in my life. I leaned shakily against the wall. My voice trembling, I spoke “Hi, I...” my voice choked up. Coughing, I tried to continue. "I...I landed a meeting with Kaspar Chernopov, you know the head of the ISG”.
“I know who he is.” I could hear the deep tinge of suspicion in his voice; he was probably looking at the photographs already. “Yes, and I think we need to meet right away, in person, this line isn’t secure. He told me something about you and his plan to replace the General Secretary.”
Puzo was quiet. “You’d better not be shitting me Barents.”
“No sir, never sir.”
“Fine. You’ve got half an hour to get your fat butt up here.”
“Oh thank you sir. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have know idea what this means.”
“You had just better not be wasting my time.”
“No sir, never sir. I’ll be right over sir.”
As he hung up, I heaved a sigh of relief. I was saved! The sensation was eurphoric, but fleeting. As the bliss of my salvation faded, a burning anger began to course through me. I could feel my face and hands growing red. I wanted revenge. I accessed my home database and immediately cancelled the monthly ballet tickets of every ISG employee under the vice-ministerial level. Yes it was petty, but I was pissed and this was the stick fate had given me. That done, I lurched back down the hallway, furiously thinking about what the hell I was going to do next.