“Transactional Costs” by Joseph Devon

TWA 77 Joe-01

Roger Coleman was thrown into the cell. His hands were bound behind him and he had a sack over his head. He stumbled as he was shoved forward and took a nasty spill onto the floor. The bag was ripped off of his head and he struggled to scream out to his captors through his gag as they turned, faceless, and left the cell.

Time passed and his gurgling cries abated. He looked around and took in what little detail there was. The cell was small: four cinder block walls; a metal cot; a bucket. He was in trouble, but he had trained for this. He would give them nothing. They would never even get him to admit that they had the right guy, that he knew the access codes. He was confident of that. They would get nothing.

His arms were sore, they had been tied behind his back for what must have been hours now. His aching arms gave way to aching legs as sitting in the same general position on a concrete floor finally caught up to him. He may have dozed off. It was hard to tell.

With a bang that made his aching muscles clench, the door opened. There was yelling, a lot of yelling, and a lot of color as a man dressed in a flamboyant, but elegantly cut, suit entered the cell. He barked orders like he was in charge, and men sprang into action removing Roger’s gag and freeing his wrists. A folding table and two folding chairs appeared in the center of the room and the man in the too-sharp suit sat down as Roger was manhandled into the chair opposite him.

“What did I say?” The man yelled out, his voice accented and somehow more melodic than you might expect from a man commanding others.

Roger moved his aching arms around and the sensation, the ache deep in his bones, was jarring enough to cause a stifled groan to erupt from his lips. It embarrassed him, but he chose to use it and, as if this groan was some sort of sign, he immediately began pleading with the man across from him. “I don’t know why I’m here or what you think I have of value, but please, I have a family, a wife and kids. My daughter, her name is Jenny, she’s probably waiting for me to pick her up from soccer even right now. Why are you doing this?”

The man across from the table seemed surprised at the question. “Why, for the access codes of course.”

”Access codes?” Roger asked back blankly.

The man sitting across from him smiled. He had sharp features, his nose and chin were both especially pointed, and his smile and tousled straw-like hair framed a pair of deep blue eyes. He reached into his suit coat pocket and withdrew a notepad and pen. He set them down in front of him and then folded his fingers together, covering them both as he again smiled at Roger.

“I do apologize for how you’ve been treated, I must say. Leaving you tied and gagged when you’re secure here in your cell…” He shook his head and glanced with disgust at one of the guards. “Who does this, eh?!” he shouted at the faceless goon. “That is crude. Crude and amateur.” He sighed, and then looked around the room for the first time, taking it all in as if he were admiring a friend’s kitchen. “My name is Fitzroy, by the way. And, as I said, you are here because my employers want the access codes. So how about it, no?”

Roger shook his head, his face a wall of confusion. “What access codes? What are you talking about? I don’t know you, I don’t know who you are, I don’t have any access codes! Please you have to help me I don’t know why I’m here and…”

Fitzroy set his lips in a prim line, as if he was offended at not receiving an answer to his question but still wanted to retain his composure. He nodded slightly as Roger talked, but his hands were picking up the pen and note pad and putting them back into his well-cut but garishly colored suit. He continued nodding as if he were the most rock-solid of confidants as he stood up and walked out of the cell leaving Roger alone and babbling.

—–

Roger sat in the darkness. There was light coming in through a small meshed glass window in the door and he looked around at the empty room yet again. He was hungry. They had left him a canteen, but he hadn’t had food in…his head went dizzy and he had a hard time concentrating enough to even guess how long it had been. His stomach was a constant ache and lying down to try to sleep had only allowed him to concentrate on his hunger even more.

The bolt on the door opened and Roger struggled to sit up and pay attention. He saw Fitzroy walk into the room and again a folding table and chairs appeared and to Roger it felt like a snooty maître d was ordering a table to be set up for a special guest, and Roger couldn’t stop thinking about the taste of crispy chicken skin.

“Very well,” Fitzroy said, taking a seat in his chair as the other men left the cell. “My employees have asked me to try again. Will you give us the access codes?”

Roger swallowed and blinked and stared at Fitzroy. He was dizzy from hunger and the pain in his stomach made it very easy to not pay attention to anything that was being said.

Fitzroy didn’t react to Roger’s listlessness, he seemed flustered and perturbed himself, although his silk shirt was smooth and his gold cuff links, a little too outsized to be in good taste, hung crisply on his sleeves. He shook his head, obviously upset. “They interrupted me during dinner, if you can imagine. The nerve of some people. No respect,” he huffed.

Roger was muddled, confused as to why, and even how, this particular conversation was the one that was taking place.

“Ah,” Fitzroy said, looking up as one of the guards came into the cell with a tray. No, not just a tray, it was a platter, a dinette set. What was set down in front of Fitzroy was a meal as fully flamboyant as he was, there were even tiny salt and pepper shakers and a miniature bottle of Dijon mustard. There was a chop of some sort, Roger guessed possibly veal, with crispy golden potatoes on the side and it was impossible to not imagine what each beautifully cooked element might taste like. The fries were especially enticing, thin strips of potato with salt crystals sparkling on them.

Fitzroy cut into the chop, it was pork, Roger could tell it was pork, it was glistening on the inside and there was barely a hint of pink, so that it was safe to eat but perfectly moist.

Roger could actually hear the meat being chewed by Fitzroy and saliva filled his mouth. His head started pounding. Fitzroy sat and ate. There were no sounds in the room except the knife scraping occasionally against the plate as Fitzroy cut another succulent piece of chop, and then him chewing. He smiled at Roger as he ate, like he was a late guest in Roger’s house and it was very polite of Roger to sit with him. After a few bites, Fitzroy reached for his glass of water too quickly and knocked a number of the french fries off the tray and onto the floor. He looked flustered as he glared down at them, like they were insulting his manners.

“Damn,” he swore, as he took a drink of water. Then his face soured entirely and he leaned over and spit all over the floor. “Tap water!?” he yelled, aghast, as he poured the rest of the glass out onto the floor.

He looked physically hurt by this, by having been served tap water, and his entire facade crumbled. He no longer seemed at ease. He looked unable to compose himself and as he tried to cut another piece of pork he shook his head angrily and slammed his utensils down. “That’s all I can taste now. It’s completely destroyed my palate, that clay filled slop! You!” He yelled at the guard. “Take it away,” he seethed. The man jumped to obey him and the meal was cleared before Roger’s eyes.

“Nothing?” Fitzroy asked, and Roger slowly realized that he was being addressed.

Roger just stared dumbly at the door where the guards had taken the food. He could still smell it, especially the potatoes, and he suddenly realized that the spilled potatoes were still on the floor. He struggled to remain impassive and not look at them while willing this meeting to come to a close, for everyone to leave, he could taste them in his mouth and he swallowed dryly as his stomach made his head pound.

“Wonderful,” Fitzroy said bitterly. “Let’s go,” he yelled to the guards, and like a magic trick the table was removed and Roger was shoved, not too roughly though, out of his chair and onto his bed. Fitzroy walked towards the door past the guard.

“Oh,” he said, from the doorway. “And clean up that spilled food. We’re not running a hostel here.” He spat the word hostel out like it was a low-class term, something degrading and beneath him. And Roger watched as one of the guards stepped forward and swept every last spilled morsel of food into his hand before leaving him alone on the bed once again.

—–

Roger stared at the door, his face a grimace of pain. His lips were chapped and his mouth hung open in heavy raspy breathing. He still hadn’t eaten since he had been brought into the cell. He had a canteen of water, and whatever he could drink when he was hosed down for cleaning, but that was all.

When the door opened he didn’t flinch, his only reaction was a puzzled turning of his head towards the sound. Fitzroy entered and the table and chairs were set up. Roger was lifted by a guard on each side and carried into his chair like a sack of potatoes. He raised his slumped head and looked at Fitzroy.

Fitzroy gave a gesture with his hands, lifting them and opening them above the table. Look at this, he seemed to say. What is this?

“This is silly, Mister Coleman. My employers are not gaining anything and they are growing impatient. You are not gaining anything and you are slowly starving. This is a very simple situation. You give my employers what they want and, in exchange, you will be granted certain amenities. They have nothing against you personally, you understand, except that your person is where your organization has stored the access codes. So to speak.”

Roger swallowed thickly and said nothing.

“Right. Probably not much for talking at the moment. So here is what I suggest. Let me help you. Give me something, anything, and I will take that to my employers and in exchange I will get you…a meal.”

The word “meal” rang hollowly in Roger’s head, like a distant but familiar phrase. He barely reacted. It meant very little.

“I believe I can manage to bring you,” and Fitzroy paused, forming out the next words carefully as if they felt foreign to him, “a BLT?” There was a question at the end, as if he wasn’t sure he was saying it correctly.

The word immediately conjured up a thousand different memories for Roger, all of them containing crisp lettuce and perfectly toasted bread. His mind elevated every slice of bacon he had ever had into a perfect morsel of deliciousness, and the acid-sweet juice from a thousand ripe tomatoes filled his throat and he was lost, entirely lost. Food had represented sustenance for the past few days, it had been an abstract idea, something he needed in order to keep his body going, to fend off death, but now it was everything.

“Ah, yes?” Fitzroy said. “I was told that was one of your favorite meals. So,” he held up his hands again, “let me get one for you. Yes? It will be simple. You give me something to bring back to my employers, and I get you a…BLT.” Fitzroy smiled as he said the unfamiliar phrase again.

Roger looked like he had been physically beaten, his face was so torn. “Even if I give you the codes,” he said, pleading, “there are still other fail safes to keep you out.”

Fitzroy’s face lit up with joy. “Ahhh excellent. No more of the games. You are admitting that you are who we say you are. This is perfect. This I can sell. They’ll want the actual code in due time of course, but no more of this foolishness with starvation. It is a crude measure.”

Roger stared at him, his head slowly wobbling back and forth in the chair.

“Good,” Fitzroy said, as if in response to something Roger had said. “And do not worry about these fail safes as you say. My employers want what they want. Do they have a way around them? I do not know. I am simply here to get the information they want from you to them. What either of you can or cannot do with it I am not to say. So, you are Roger Coleman and you have the access codes and now I will be off to arrange for a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich for you. Excellent.”

Roger barely noticed being removed from the chair and the clearing of the room. When he lay back on the bed he closed his eyes and then, when the cell was empty, he finally wept.

—–

Roger tried to eat the sandwich slowly but he wolfed it down almost immediately, causing him to gag halfway through. It was an actual bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, made with all the pompousness that he might have expected from Fitzroy. But it could have been peanut butter and jelly or a slab of whale blubber for all he could tell. It passed through his mouth and into his throat like he was drinking it instead of eating it. There was so much solid matter to swallow that it hurt and he took another huge gulp from the glass of water that accompanied his meal. He slammed the glass back down on the table in a rush to get back to the sandwich and caused it to slop over and spill onto the table.

Fitzroy was sitting across from him and he sat up erect in his chair and snapped his fingers at one of the guards, who immediately came over to mop up the spilled water before it got anywhere near Fitzroy’s suit.

Roger was pressing his finger against the plate, trying to mash together and pick up all the stray crumbs that had fallen.

Fitzroy looked somewhat ill as he watched this. “There’s no need to act like a pig, Roger,” he said, the reality of the situation completely ignored in favor of strict adherence to table etiquette.

The strange queasy feeling in Roger’s stomach now that he had food after a long fast gave him energy and confidence, if not overstimulation and hubris. “You keep me locked in here for days and then feed me a sandwich and complain that I’m too eager to eat?!” he yelled.

“Me?” Fitzroy asked, fingers plucking a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. He handed it over to Roger, a hint strongly implied that Roger should use it to clean himself up because he was disgusting looking right now, and then burn the damned handkerchief rather than give it back to Fitzroy. “My employers want information, they’re ready to do whatever they need in order to get it. They hired me to be their point of contact. That should give you some idea of how much they’re willing to spend.” He eased back into his chair and watched Roger, whose blood sugar was spiking as he breathed heavily and leaned his head on the table. “Now,” Fitzroy said. “You see how this works, yes? You give me something, and my employers give you something. It’s a simple exchange. No need to complicate things. I think you see now. So you will agree to let me cut off your pinky finger, yes?”

Roger sat up and stared at Fitzroy, bewildered.

“Not right now, Roger,” Fitzroy said, as if that was the only concern the other man could possibly have. “And not me, of course. It will be done in a sterile room with the proper instruments. We are not savages, after all.”

Roger looked wearied trying to keep up with this line of reasoning and he remained staring, saying nothing.

“This seemed like a simple decision to me,” Fitzroy said, easing into his words, genuinely confused. “You do not wish to give up the access codes. That would be ridiculous. Yet my employers want more from you. They have already given you a sandwich, so you giving them nothing at this point is not an option. Negotiations have been entered into. Therefore they are going to insist on bodily harm. The pinky finger is the obvious choice. It’s not terribly useful, it is easily separated from the rest of the body…” he nodded slightly and smiled, his point having been perfectly outlined in his head.

Roger blinked and sat back in his chair. He turned his head and looked at Fitzroy from the sides of his eyes, as if this would somehow separate the two men. His heart was beating faster as visuals of his pinky being removed flooded his head.

“The other option is the access codes,” Fitzroy said, his face perfectly empathetic with Roger. “I do believe that this is not an option that you will take. So I think we agree on the pinky finger, yes?”

Roger only stared away from Fitzroy, his eyes no longer taking in the other man but staring with all energy at the floor to his side.

“Very well,” Fitzroy said, happy. He lifted a hand and snapped his fingers.

—–

Roger lay curled on the cot in his cell. He was in the fetal position, his bandaged hand cradled against his chest. There was a throbbing underneath the meticulously wrapped gauze that covered most of his hand like a sterile mitten. He was staring straight ahead, his eyes were dull but watery and his face looked, more than anything, confused. It was hard to concentrate through the ache that came from under the bandage, and any movement, no matter how slight, gave the distinct impression of something very wrong, namely that a finger he had once had was no longer there.

He could remember the surgery in strange flashes, like a series of photos that he had been standing apart from. No anesthesia, no threats, no dawdling. Part of him choked out a laugh at how strangely similar it had all been to getting a shot at your normal doctor. “This won’t hurt a bit. This will all be over in a second.” Fitzroy hadn’t even asked any questions. Roger had been forced into a chair, his arm strapped down, a stainless steel device out of his nightmares had appeared. He had looked to Fitzroy, expecting some interrogation, and then his pinky had been removed and the stump had been bandaged. Fitzroy had taken his finger away with him in a cotton lined box, no doubt to go see his employers and let them know that progress was being made.

Progress. They hadn’t even asked him anything. This was some strange sort of series of trades that Fitzroy was negotiating to make everyone happy regardless of what anyone wanted. Did he get paid by the day? He could drag this out for weeks, months. What kind of sick lunatics hired a man like that? What kind of sick lunatic was a man like that?

—–

Roger wince as the bandage was removed by one of the guards. Fitzroy, sitting across from him, winced as well, sucking in his breath in anticipation and empathy. The wound looked clean and well healed and the guard took care to redress and re-bandage it carefully.

“Here,” Fitzroy said, taking a pad and pen from his suit jacket pocket. He slid them over to Roger and beckoned with his chin. “Why don’t you try using that hand?”

Roger, apprehensive, reached out slowly and picked up the pen. It felt strange, firstly because of the bandage, and then the obvious weirdness of his missing finger. But when he set the pen to paper he found it easy enough to write a shaky version of his name.

“See?” Fitzroy said, almost excited. “What did I tell you? A pinky is hardly anything to give up.”

Roger wrote his name again as Fitzroy’s encouragement made him smile. Then Roger scribbled, “The quick brown fox jumps over the two lazy dogs,” his dexterity with the pen already improving with that tiny amount of practice.

“Okay, very good then,” Fitzroy said, reaching over and plucking the pen out of Roger’s hand.

He sat back in his seat and was about to put the pen away but then he hesitated, as if a thought had just occurred to him. He waved the pen ever so slightly in the air and studied Roger. “I don’t suppose you care to write anything else down? No?”

Roger stared at him dumbly.

This earned a rebuking sigh from Fitzroy, like Roger was a petulant child that was not playing along. “The codes. The access codes,” Fitzroy said. “My employers are going to ask for them again. I bought you some time with your pinky but that has run its course. ‘Where are the codes?’ they keep saying.” And Fitzroy did a strange mimicking voice, mocking these people. “’What does he say when you ask him for the codes?’ And on like that.”

Roger swallowed and flexed his fingers. There was now a constant itch where his pinky had been, a strange tingling numbness like his finger was still there and trying to force itself back onto his hand.

“Well,” Fitzroy said, as if Roger has refused his request. “Then you’re going to have to work with me, Roger. They’re going to want something from you.”

Roger’s eyes were scared and sad as he stared back at Fitzroy, like a beaten child.

Fitzroy was taken aback by this look. “They need something from you, Roger. I’m only here to broker this exchange. And I get it. These codes, the…what do you call them the access codes? You don’t want to give them up. Good for you, I say. Yes? Who could live with themselves giving in to bullies like my employers? But you will have to give me something to take back to them. They aren’t keeping you here for your health, no?”

Roger stared down at the paper. He had to give them something. He had to give them something. Otherwise Fitzroy would return to them empty-handed and that wouldn’t work, would it? That would be ridiculous. He laughed at this thought, a half-hearted cough of a laugh. No. He would have to give them something. Another finger? They already had one, they would need something larger. His foot maybe? Could he sell them his foot? Or the names of the other fail safes? He could give them that. That would be a nice piece of information for Mister Fitzroy to bargain with. The other men with the other codes. He could give them that first and hold a foot back in reserve for later.

Roger smiled. He could give them the other names indeed. And he was still not giving them what they wanted.

 

 

 

 


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IMG_4358Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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3 Comments

  1. This is a strong story that I have a number of small but irritating issues with.

    At first, I couldn’t decide whether there was meant to be some form of contest between Fitzroy and the prisoner. It’s lines like “he barked orders like he was in charge” that suggest, even if it’s only in the privacy of his own head, that Coleman thinks he’s in control of the situation. And had there been a situation where Coleman and Fitzroy had engaged in a battle of wills, it would have made the ending – which is pretty bleak and damned effective – even more so. It would have been a “Brazil” ending, instead of what we have. Which is nearly brilliant.

    I’m also a bit baffled by some of the description early on. Fitzroy has a flamboyant suit, but we’re not told how flamboyant. Much later on, we find out at least one of his suits is garish but not why it’s garish. Fitzroy is the one item of movement and colour in the room, surely his sartorial quirks are worthy of more note?

    And then you go and describe a BLT so well I can taste it, which is frustrating because that’s what I want from the rest of the story too!

    To sum up, then, a really strong story effectively told that left me wanting you to submit another draft and give us more sensory detail, that so nearly blew me away with the ending.

  2. A really interesting read and certainly a dark and unexpected ending. There are some great and rather intense descriptions – I really felt the main character’s hunger – within this piece that I enjoyed. However, I did also find that in some places I felt like I had half a painted picture. I wanted to know more about Fitzroy, he was flamboyant sure, but I wanted more detail! What did the cell look like? I wanted to know more about who our main character was too and why he had the access codes. Who were Fitzroy’s employers, if he even had any!? It is, however, often difficult to explore such things in great detail when restricted by a word count and the points I raise are, of course, very small and pernickety critique, for what really was a well written and interesting take on the prompt.

  3. Pingback: TWA 77 – Life of a Salesman – JUDGEMENT – The Writer's Arena

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