General Tao was not an economist.
He had told them that from the start.
He was absorbed in remembering this when outside in the courtyard there was a sudden volley of rifle fire.
Tao did not wince, but wondered which of his staff it had been. They had been shooting members of the Committee for Currency Examination and Revaluation all morning. It started with the intern. Just before the sunup the guards dragged Yun from his cell. The young man had not gone quietly. He screamed that he was innocent, that he had only done what he was told and how mostly that had been to fetch tea for the senior Committee members. He kicked and wriggled and fought. Tao heard the clang of Yun’s prison issue shoes against the bars and the guards laughing as he soiled himself. Then the dull thumping of rifle butts against flesh.
The sound was a perverse comfort.
It reminded Tao of better times. Simpler times. Everything had made sense during the war. All the guns were pointed in the same direction. You could tell the enemy by the color of his uniform, the color of his skin.
One didn’t really need an economic background to head a Finance Committee, of course. Tao’s job was mostly to sign off on reports. Dozens of them. Sometimes hundreds in a few days — there were weeks where close to a thousand had crossed the General’s desk. Too many for an old man with arthritis. It wasn’t long before he was snowed under. Tall stacks of paper-clipped reports would pile up awaiting a skim, a hurried signature and a quick stamp. Once processed they would be shunted to some moldering corner of the Ministry of Finance — one or two might eventually loop back for a second look. It was the State equivalent of a circulatory system. It kept the bureaucratic synapses firing, ensured steady paying work for all the Party favorites. Availed them the use of big offices and attractive secretaries.
Tao’s wore her raven hair in a long ponytail that ran halfway down her back.
The General spent long mornings staring out his office window. The city sprawling out below him was an institutionally grim shade of grey. The buildings were nearly all concrete block and most mornings thick banks of fog lingered between them. There had been nothing appealing about the view until the first snow: fat white flakes like those that had fallen during the winter months on the front.
General Tao had been so taken with the snow he had the intern, Yun, sign and stamp some of the forms in his place.
As it happened, buried in the stack was a policy recommendation. It was the only one that had ever landed (and for that matter ever would land) on the General’s desk.
The recommendation was that the Ministry chop three digits off the value of the country’s currency to “curb” inflation.
Yun had not read the report. Tao had never even seen it. It went right back into the system like all the others: a loose fish thrown back in the river — another anonymous member of a larger school.
A second barrage of rifle fire in the courtyard.
Tao struggled to his feet.
His back ached. He was an old man after all and the freezing, drafty prison cell had brought out the worst of his arthritis. He shuffled to the barred window, back hunched, a dull hurt creeping up toward the base of his neck.
The window was a little higher than he was tall, and he had to stand on tip-toe to see outside. The pain in his back intensified. He gripped the window’s iron bars for support. They were iced over and the cold cut into his palms like knife-blades.
The courtyard was blanketed with snow.
At one end a row of five soldiers stood at attention, rifles at their sides. At the other was a high wooden post, only just thinner than a telephone pole. A young woman in tattered prison coveralls was tied with her hands behind it. She was slumped forward and the snow around her was freckled with blood.
Despite the striped prison fatigues Tao recognized the long pony-tail that ran halfway down her back.
A square-shouldered officer in a tan uniform stood next to the corpse, his sidearm pressed to her temple.
The smell of burnt gunpowder lingered in the air.
It was not until the riots started that the overlooked recommendation came back through the paper-trail veins of the Finance Ministry. The devaluation had wiped out millions of workers’ savings. The people wanted blood, and the People’s Revolution (ever sensitive to its domestic credibility), was more than happy to oblige. When the report finally got back to the General’s desk it was accompanied by an armed escort.
Tao inhaled deeply.
He welcomed the shot when it came — the scent of gunfire like incense against the crisp winter air.
Nick Lewandowski‘s fiction has appeared online at Every Day Fiction, hackwriters and Bewildering Stories. He is currently locked in a desperate struggle to sell his first novel.