My first short story to be posted in a while, “It Pays” was written in about an hour. I don’t often try to spell out the influences on a particular story, but I think it doesn’t hurt an author to give some thought to the things that shaped his writing, both in general and in regard to specific pieces. At the very least, it makes us aware of our sources–and more important from a legal standpoint, whether we’re unintentionally plagiarizing something. This story, and in particular the character of the Redactor, drew some inspiration from Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of Hiro Protagonist in the early chapters of his excellent novel, “Snow Crash”, which I referred to in a recent post. As well, the setting–and I don’t want to give it away here–was drawn from numerous movies, most notably Liam Neeson’s recent “A Walk Among The Tombstones”. I should also note that this is a writing prompt story; the prompt appears early in the story as the Redactor’s line, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.” Read and enjoy, and tell me what you think!
All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!
There was a red dot painted on the concrete floor. It was the only color in an otherwise flat-grey room. Try as he might, the man in the chair couldn’t stop staring at it; his eyes darted back to it over and over, flicking away just long enough to track the movements of the other man in the room. It didn’t help that only his eyes were free to move, strapped into the chair as he was.
He was past the point of yelling. Though he remained ungagged, he knew not to scream. The first time he had raised his voice, a high-voltage current had coursed through him. It was not lethal, but the pain had been tremendous. After the second scream, the other man, the one in the long brown coat, had stopped in front of him, hunkered down, and touched a small stem that was just barely in view beside the head of the man in the chair. “Microphone,” he said. “The electricity is voice-activated. You can talk, but if you get loud, well…bzzzz!” Then he stood and kept walking, circling the chair, checking the devices that were warming up.
“Why am I here?” the man, whose name was Michael Flynn, said. He couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice when he said it. Still, it was a better question than how did I get here, which had only earned him a snort and an eye roll from the man in the coat. This time, the man stopped and regarded him.
“Come on, now,” he said. “You’ve seen the movies before, right? If you’re here, it’s because someone wants you here.” Seeing the look on Michael’s face, he raised both hands. “Oh, not me,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.” He paused, then added, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”
“And what do you do?” Stalling for time now, trying to get a glimpse of the machines that were humming just out of sight behind him. He had seen the movies. His fingers twitched against his will, and he couldn’t help noticing that the duct tape binding his wrists to the chair ended above the fingers. Would they be the first site of the torture? Were they going to be cut off, joint by joint? Wounds cauterized with a hot iron? He shuddered.
The man grinned. “You’ll find out.” He started to walk again, then paused. “They call me the Redactor. Or at least, I call myself that. It sounds cool, you know.”
Michael thought it sounded ridiculous, but now didn’t seem to be a good time to say so. “Kind of like a superhero name, right?”
“Sure.” The Redactor continued around the chair, made another adjustment to the machines. “Superhero. I like that. Not so sure you’re gonna like my superpowers though.” There was a click, followed by another, and then a long, raspy susurrus. Michael thought it was the sound of something, a cable or a rope, being unwound.
“The fact is,” the Redactor said, “you know some things.” He stepped back to the front, and squatted down, looking Michael in the eyes. “According to my employer, dangerous things. Things you’d be better off not knowing in the first place. And it’s my job,” he added, raising a finger for emphasis, “to get it out of you.”
“And how do you plan to do that?” Michael was sweating now, fear seeping into his eyes in liquid form.
He stood up and spread his arms. “Oh, I have my ways. A man has to take pride in his work, even if it’s not the kind of work you’d be proud of. You understand what I mean?” He glanced down at Michael. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter. It’d just be nice if, you know, somebody understood for once!” The machines—one of them anyway—let out a beep, and his face brightened. “There we are! Time to get started.” He hurried behind the chair again.
I’m gonna die, Michael thought. This man is crazy. Out loud, he called out—not loud enough for the electricity—“Hey! Can we talk about this? Wh-whatever they’re paying you, I’ll beat it! Just let me go!”
“I thought you might say that,” the Redactor said. There was another sound of cables unwinding. “They always do. But, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t do that. It’s bad for business! If I start breaking contracts, even for more money, it’ll take about half a day before I’m unemployable. And then it’s back to delivering pizzas.” He leaned over Michael’s shoulder. “And I hate delivering pizzas. It’s the smell. It gets into your clothes, your car—I could go the rest of my life without the smell of pepperoni and cheese, and it would be fine with me.”
He grabbed a handful of Michael’s hair and yanked, and Michael felt something cold and sticky against his scalp. He yelped involuntarily, but thankfully the current stayed off. Was this psycho pulling his hair out? And…and was that blood? “Sorry about this,” the Redactor murmured, and Michael felt another stab of quick pain and cold on the other side of his head. “These electrodes are going to pull some hair out when they come off later. But short of shaving your head, that’s the best I can do.”
The comment was so illogical, so out of place, that it took him a moment to follow it. “Wh…what?” He frowned, not understanding. “What kind of torture is this?” The words slipped out before he had a chance to rethink them.
Silence. The Redactor, still out of sight behind the chair, made not a move. Fearing the worst, Michael closed his eyes…
…and opened them a moment later as the Redactor stood in front of him. The man wore a look that was both incredulous and—weirdly—hurt. “Torture?” he said. “Is that what you think this is?”
Feeling surreal, Michael, glanced around, pointing with his eyes at the grey room, the dim lighting, and the chair with its bindings. “Well…you…kinda have the whole torture dungeon aesthetic going on here.”
The Redactor barked a laugh. “Aesthetic! I like that. You’re taped to a chair, and you still have the mind to use a word like that. That’s great!” He shook his head. “You really don’t understand all this?”
“I’m kind of at a loss here, yeah.” Especially with the turn the conversation was taking.
The man looked hurt again. “And here I thought my profession was finally getting some respect. Or at least some acknowledgement. Torture. How could you think that?”
“You said you had to get my knowledge out of me!”
“Right!” Seeing Michael’s blank look, he frowned; and then it dawned on him. “Oh. OH!” He laughed. “I said get it out of you. And that’s what I meant. Don’t you know what it means to redact something?” He put a hand to his forehead, as though it was painfully obvious. “I don’t care what you know. I’m not going to torture you to find out. My job is to make sure that nobody will know. Not even you! I take the memories away. My employer gives me a cue to look for, and I pull all the memories associated with it. The cables, the machines, the dot on the floor…you really don’t know how this works?”
Michael, whose jaw was hanging open, could only raise an eyebrow.
“Well, that’s just…wow. I thought everyone knew. Guess I need to do some of my own PR work. Hey, listen, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. You seem like a nice guy, and I have to say, you made me laugh. Not many people can do that! A job like this, it’s stressful at the best of times. Keep an eye on that dot, will you? Helps to have something to focus on. No, I’m really sorry about all that. I hate that this stressed you out so much, you know? Wish I could make it up to you somehow. Wait, wait, I got it! I can make it up to you! Of course. I’m not even thinking straight. Yeah, I’ll fix this for you.”
Michael felt a glimmer of hope. “You’re gonna let me go?”
“Nah. I’m just gonna take your memories of this, too. Still gotta get paid, remember?” There was the sound of a switch being thrown, and everything went dark.