Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Two Sides of the Same Coin

This is my second NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, and this time I'm in Heat 24, genre: Sci-Fi, subject: a new law, character: a tax collector.
Any feedback is welcomed and appreciated. Thank you and good luck to all my fellow contestants!

Claudia Schneider sat in the dining room with her right elbow on the table, grinding her teeth, her right hand supporting her forehead. There was a remote control in her left hand, which she was holding so tightly that her nails thrust into her palm. Her gaze was fixed at the vintage tablecloth, light green, with hand-embroidered yellow roses on the linen, and her pulse was counting seconds together with the ancient clock ticking in the dining room, about five feet away from where Claudia was.
The lock clicked, and the woman stood up at once. As she was pacing down the stairs, she saw her husband, Steffen Schneider, dressed in his usual golfing attire: baggy black trousers, white sneakers with teal stripes, a navy baseball hat, and a dark blue T-shirt with the name of his golf club, “Berlin Golfspieler.” Steffen had already removed his sweater and sunglasses and was heading to the bathroom located on the ground floor when he saw Claudia’s face, frowned; her forehead showcased all her wrinkles, and she was biting into her lower lip as if it was a juicy piece of steak. Steffen raised his eyebrows, and she said in a lowered voice, “Looks like you’ve just lost your job.”
None of Steffen’s facial muscles moved, but his lips trembled for a second. He observed Claudia, asking, “The law[1] was finally passed, wasn’t it?” She nodded, and he added, “I knew it was coming soon. When will it be enforced?” “In the beginning of next year,” said Claudia. “What are we going to do? We have a son in Universal Academy[2]. How are we supposed to pay for it?” “We’ll figure it out,” Steffen approached his wife and hugged her. “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll sell my aircar[3] and ride an automobile like all poor men do, and Dominick will come back home and go to a local school more suitable for our budget.”
Claudia sighed, “I guess. So there isn’t going to be any more cash next year?” “Nope,” Steffen replied. “It will be just a word soon. You’ll pay electronically everywhere by touching a payment-processing machine with your index finger.” “They also said on the news that we’d get paid electronically every day after work,” Claudia remarked. “That’s true,” nodded Steffen. “Listen, I don’t really want to talk about this right now. I’m tired and I’d take a shower.”
Eliminating cash and the whole banking system that existed on the Earth for hundreds of years, the new law was meant to make people’s lives easier moneywise; however, as far as Steffen Schneider was concerned, he was a tax collector, and he realized that he would be laid off as soon as the new law was enforced: the taxes would be deducted automatically at the same moment the salaries would be paid making his position useless. The law was no news for Steffen; on the contrary, he used to be its most passionate supporter. “But who knew it was going to happen so soon,” mumbled the tax collector to himself. “What do I do now?”
He went into the shower and let water trickle down his back washing off drips of sweat. The water was so cold that he felt as though his body was pierced by millions of tiny thin needles, which refreshed him and helped him collect his wits. “The first thing I have to do is to see how much money we have saved,” he pointed out loudly and sighed, “and then I will have to sell my antiques.”
Playing golf and collecting artifacts were Steffen Schneider’s two most favorite hobbies. His private exhibition held over a hundred of valuable objects, and amongst them were three he was especially fond of: a Kinetik[4] walkie-talkie used by the EMU[5] during the Alien War of 2090s, a Kindle, an e-book reader that had been in the family for over 200 years, and a Walkman audio cassette player of 1979. The tax collector knew the value and the historical significance of every antique he owned; Steffen even had his own authenticator, a device that took a picture of an object and then gave a brief note on its history and value, which one could print out and use as the item’s paperwork. “I can sell anything I want any time; there’s always a buyer for that stuff I have there,” he thought.
“Eureka,” he said suddenly. In a minute, he was out of the shower, in his robe and no underwear on, running to the living room jumping over two steps at a time.
“Claudia, are you there?” he asked anxiously, as he did not see his wife at once. “In the kitchen,” she replied. “I’m making you a turkey and mapleweed[6] sandwich.” “Yum,” Steffen licked his upper lip in anticipation. “I’ve just had such a brainwave; you must hear me out.”
“What is it, honey?” the woman asked impatiently. “Come on, I want to hear.” “I’m getting there,” Steffen was breathing with an effort. “God, why do we have such a huge house?”
“We planned to have lots of children, don’t you remember?” said Claudia, smiling. “Yes,” Steffen nodded. “What were you going to say?” insisted Mrs. Schneider. “Be patient,” he winked at her. “It’s top secret.” Mr. Schneider came near his wife, drew her towards him and whispered something into her ear. Claudia crinkled her nose and bit her lower lip. “Do you think it’s going to work?” she asked her husband. “Oh, I believe it is,” replied Steffen. “Anyway, hope’s all we got.”
 It was only five years later that Mr. Schneider’s business venture became known and applauded at all over the world. “When the financial reform devalued all our cash money, banks went bankrupt, and people were still confused by the new system of payments, one man, Steffen Schneider, wasted no time and made trillions of uces[7] in five years,” said Robert Donovan, the editor-in-chief of “The World Times[8],” to his assistant, Rebecca Lewes, leaning back in his office chair with his palms on the back of his head. “He’s the guy we need to interview for our next issue, and I want you to make sure it’s done as soon as possible.” “You can count on me,” said Rebecca. “I’ll look up his contact information and see when he’s available.” “That would be great,” nodded the editor. “Keep me posted.” “I will,” promised the woman and left his office in a minute.
It didn’t take long to find out everything about Steffen Schneider online, and in under half an hour a rookie journalist, who in just a few years leaped from the position of an intern to the job of Donovan’s personal assistant, called him up on her PSC[9]. “Mr. Schneider, I am Rebecca Lewes, a reporter from “The World Times” who’d love to interview you for our new issue,” the woman introduced herself. The person she was looking at on the screen of her PSC did not match her idea of what he should have looked like. He was a balding gentleman around the age of fifty with a plump face and a baby’s wide-open smile that exposed rows of straight snow-white teeth. “Would you be available to meet me for an hour some time this week?” she added filling in the pause she ignored while studying his features.
“Sure,” the man across the screen nodded. “When is the best time for an online conference with you, Miss Lewes?” “Actually,” said Rebecca pacing her words, “I was wondering if I could come to your office to talk to you and your staff. Would you mind if I did that?” “Not at all,” was the answer. “How about this Thursday?” “Thursday’s fine for me,” the woman agreed. “Give me the time and the directions.”
Two days later Rebecca was on her way to Berlin to “The Schneider House,” the office of the first in the world virtual pawnshop created and patented by Steffen Schneider in 2214 right after the Cash Cremation Law was enforced. She got into her aircar and punched in the directions into her operating computer. “2 hours 15 minutes till your destination,” the monitor informed. “I might as well take a nap,” thought Rebecca, yawning.
About two hours later, the reporter landed in the parking lot of an apartment building where she was told the Schneider’s office was. She looked around with journalistic curiosity. “Do people live in this building?” she wondered aloud. “Yes,” the answer was. “I own the whole building, and I rent apartments exclusively to young families and college students. From my experience, they always pay on time and never complain.” Rebecca turned around and saw Mr. Schneider in his dark blue suit with a light green tie. Gazing at the six feet tall woman in her mid-twenties with long dark hair in a ponytail and a large nose shaped as a bell, the businessman shook Rebecca’s hand and invited her to see his headquarters.
The office was the size of an old era two-bedroom apartment. There was a help desk with five customer service representatives, a cabinet occupied by the technical director, Louis Manning, who was in charge of displaying products in Schneider’s online store, and the office of the CEO where Steffen or his son Dominick, who had already graduated from the Universal Academy, managed money transfers and surfed the Internet for antiques to purchase and resell.
“We have a warehouse on the ground floor where we keep our goods,” explained Steffen, “and our shipping couriers work on call.” He paused for a second to see if Rebecca was listening, and then continued, “When a person wants to pawn or sell something that’s authenticated, they take a three-dimensional picture of the object and show me the paperwork through their PSC. If I approve, they mail it to me via the Light Speed Mail, and the product gets to my office within 24 hours from any destination in the world.” “Wow, that’s really fast,” nodded Rebecca. “Yeah, one of the greatest advantages of my business is that I always use the Light Speed Mail even if it costs me more money,” Mr. Schneider said with a proud smile. “When a package arrives and I confirm its delivery with my fingerprint, the customer gets paid, and the other way around if I sell an item.” “Cool,” Rebecca commented. “It’s an easy system made possible by the Cash Cremation Law. It had never been that simple to get money for antiques that were collecting dust in someone’s house.”
As her PSC was equipped with digital voice recorder and she knew that every random word he dropped might spice up her story, Rebecca let Steffen talk as long as he wanted. Being a reporter was her passion rather than a job, and the woman didn’t mind spending hours hunting an interviewee or sniffing out the details of a scandal she was investigating. Similar to a chef’s gourmet dish, Rebecca’s every article was flavored with meticulous knowledge of the subject, elicited details, eloquent quotes and the right proportion of her own judgment and objectivity. Eavesdropping was her professional skill, and thus, as she was passing by Linda Hoffman, “a senior customer representative,” who was on the phone with a buyer, she couldn’t help overhearing.
“We have a three-day window,” explained Miss Hoffman to a young woman on the screen of her PSC. “If you don’t like what you bought, send it back to us via Light Speed Mail, and as soon as we receive the item, you will be reimbursed for the money you spent including any shipping costs.” “That’s great,” said the woman cheerfully. “Then I’m definitely ready to order that chandelier I was asking you about.”
“Is there a large market for antiques?” wondered Rebecca when Miss Hoffman finished consulting the customer. “You’d be surprised,” the woman exclaimed. “It’s a great investment, especially that it’s impossible to fake an antique with all this modern day technology.” “I see,” said the reporter leaving the help desk and returning to Mr. Schneider. “I’d like to take a look at the warehouse if you have someone to show me around.”
Three hours later after wandering through the shelves of antiques about which she knew as much as their tags said and chatting with the technical director, who exhausted her with never-ending pictures of products “The Schneider House” had in stock, Rebecca admitted to Mr. Schneider and herself that she got all she needed for her story. “I’d like to ask you something before I leave,” she said. “Go ahead,” Mr. Schneider permitted. “Is there anything else you think I should know?” this was always her final question for an interview. “Yes,” said Steffen. “Despair is often THE road to success. Had I not realized that losing on the tails meant winning on the heads, I would have still been a tax collector everyone dreaded and hated, laid off, humiliated and deprived of my outstanding salary.”
Rebecca smiled at his pompousness and put a period at the end of his quote. It was going to be her first front-page feature article ever.

[1] the financial reform of 2214, commonly known as “The Cash Cremation Law” because it was followed by mass burning of cash by bankers who were left bankrupt by the new legislative act
[2] the most prestigious and expensive university on the Earth.
[3] a computer-operated vehicle, smaller and lighter than a jet, used for traveling by air invented in 2197 with wings similar to those of an airplane
[4] a brand popular in the late 21st century
[5] Earth Military Union
[6] a bitter-sweet plant imported from Forotinox, a planet controlled by the EMU since the end of the Alien War
[7] the Universal Currency of the Earth, which replaced all national currencies after the financial reform of 2103
[8] the federal online newspaper (with its headquarters in New York City) of the United Nations of the Earth, into which all countries of the world were blended by the law of 2100
[9] palm-sized computer, a modern version of the 21-century smartphone no bigger than a person’s hand


  1. Hey! I liked the premise of how something back leads to something good for Steffen but of course things get caught up to him in the end. You really had a clear vision of the future in this piece and it shows in the specifics and your footnotes. This definitely reads as sci-fi to me and futuristic because of the details you added, especially with the laws and other small items that convey this isn't present-day Earth necessarily. It can be hard to set the reader where they need to be but important and I think you do that well.

    My main suggestion would be to take out some of the more specifics for transitions to maintain the pace you have. Like when Steffen leaves the shower in the beginning perhaps just have him go straight to the kitchen and tell his wife his idea.

    Good luck! I hope the judges see how much you put into it with all the wacky elements NYCMidnight gave us as prompts. And thanks so much for your kind feedback! Means a lot!

  2. Great title. I love the premise of this and the imaginitive details of the future. My suggestion would be that in a piece this short, pick one character as the POV character throughout.

    Good luck

    Gr. 20 Horror/Starving/Garbage man

  3. Jennifer and Christopher, thanks a lot for the feedback, which is always the best part of the NYC Midnight competition for me. The ideas we have when we write a story often don't match the way the readers perceive the piece, and it's always wonderful to look at my own work through someone else's eyes.

    This time I decided to be more specific about the details and paint the picture instead of telling a story, which I am still learning how to do. That's why some of the scenes might be too descriptive, since I intended them to be so.

    As for the characters, I chose to have two of them to mirror the title once again. Stephen and Rebecca are two sides of the same coin, in a way: he benefits from the law and makes lots of money with his business, and his success gives the young reporter her first front-page story. They are also two people from different sides of the world affected by the same changes that took place on the Earth over the period of 200 plus years.

    Good luck to all the contestants. This is my second year in the competition, and I am once again impressed how talented the participating writers are. It's an honor to receive and give feedback from/to people like you.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Ekaterina Lalo