Lunchtime in the Service

Toby Frost

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After doing several favours for a dubious interplanetary agency, Richard Cleaver has been formally made a member. It's his induction week and he has already met Heather Biscuit and Gordon Barrow, two jaded but loyal agents. This is early on, but not the start of the story. The favour Cleaver agrees to do at the end kickstarts the main plot. The tone is slightly tongue-in-cheek, although not outright comedy.



At lunchtime, Heather Biscuit appeared at the end of Cleaver’s desk. “Come with me, tiny grasshopper.”

Ah, he thought, this sounds promising. “Where are we going?”

“Into the depths of Service HQ. You’re going to see the nerve centre, the place where all the important decisions get made: the canteen.”

They walked out of the main office and down a staircase. Around them, employees hurried about their lunchtime business, carrying wrapped sandwiches and lunchboxes. Cleaver raised his voice over the rumble of the stairwell.

“What’s the canteen like?”

“Like a sports hall in a nuclear bunker. Left at the bottom.”

They headed down a long white corridor that smelled of new carpet. There were doors on either side, with numbers above them. Cleaver knew that it was pointless to wonder what was inside, but he wondered anyway.

“How’re you fitting in with the others?” Biscuit asked.

It struck Cleaver as an odd question. “I can’t really tell. Am I fitting in?”

“I think so. The boss once told me that if you want to work for Five, you need precision. If you want to work for Six, you need charisma. And if you want to work for the Service, you need your head examined. It’s not true, of course. In reality, nobody wants to work for us, partly because they don’t know we exist.”

“Really?” said Cleaver. “How did you end up here, then?”

“Chloroform.” She didn’t break stride. “Bad luck and chloroform.”

Biscuit stopped walking, and Cleaver stopped beside her. They looked back down the corridor. It seemed to go on for half a mile. How big was this place?

“Important lesson,” Biscuit said. “Never follow anyone you don’t know down an empty corridor. I could strangle you here and nobody would find your body for a month.”

He swallowed. “Thanks.”

“Now then, let’s go to the canteen. I bet you’re hungry by now.”

Cleaver thought about his own throttled corpse, slowly decaying in a forgotten corridor deep in the bowels of the Service headquarters. “Famished,” he replied.



They left the stairwell, headed down the corridor and passed through a pair of doors into a concrete hall. Biscuit had been right: it looked and smelled like a brutalist tennis court. About thirty people sat at trestle tables down the length of the hall. Their conversations echoed, mingling into a jumble of indistinguishable noise.

Biscuit pointed to a row of vending machines. “Take your pick. They’re all equally awful.”

Cleaver purchased a bacon roll and a cup of tea. They sat down at the end of an empty table.

“So,” he said, “what can I talk about here?”

She looked puzzled. “How about the poor state of the vending machines? The horrible architecture is also a good conversation-starter.”

“I meant in terms of secrecy.”

“One table per conspiracy. Most people can lip-read. Otherwise, there are no cameras or anything like that here – none that you’d need to know about, anyway. I’d tell you to use your common sense, but if you had any you’d already have left to work for the private sector. Or gone into organised crime. Both are quite popular exit routes.”

“It seems that I’ve already done the crime bit.”

“To be honest, you’ll probably be back in the organised crime before long, just as soon as we’ve organised it for you.” She took out a thin sandwich and looked at it wearily.

Someone moved at Cleaver’s shoulder. With a rustle of brown overcoat, a man sat down beside him. It was Gordon Barrow. “Alright, everyone. Mind if I join you?”

“Sure,” Biscuit said, and Cleaver felt slightly disappointed. “I thought you were dealing with the old bastards?”

“They’ve gone to a pub for lunch. More accurately, a different pub. They only meet in pubs. Really bad pubs. The last one was all cream plastic on the inside. I felt like a fly trapped under a toilet seat. I feigned illness and, trust me, it didn’t take much feigning.”

“Lordy.” Biscuit glanced at Cleaver. “Gordon has been infiltrating right-wing organisations frequented by persons of a certain vintage. Which, I assume, is why he currently reeks of beer.”

“Deep cover,” Barrow said. “Look, Heather, I’m getting somewhere with these wrinkly old alien-haters. I just need a few more evenings. Helen should be coming back to the spaceport tonight, with a shipment of freight. Is there any chance you could get one of your crew to pick her up instead of me?”

“I’ll do it,” Cleaver said.

“He’ll do it,” Biscuit added.

Barrow seemed to weigh this up. “Alright. There’s a lorry you can use. It’s muffled for talking, in case you and Helen want to swap war stories.” He drummed his ugly hands on the table. “Right then, what’s chef’s special today?”
 

tinkerdan

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I enjoyed reading this.
Not much to say, since it is more into the story.
Not much happening. Biscuit is quite a character.
I did find it interesting that after Biscuit's poor opinion of the atmosphere and the food in the 'canteen'; and after Barrows bashes the bad pubs that Barrows seems interested in the food in the canteen. Either the pubs are really awful or perhaps Barrows isn't really that fussy about what he eats.
 

The Big Peat

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First off, and as a caveat to all following remarks, this isn't quite my preferred style to read as it lacks interiority i.e I don't get much of a sense of what Cleaver's thinking. And that's a personal thing so mostly *le shrug* just this is where I'm coming from. Besides, for all I know, there's been a lot of thinking before this and this is something of an interlude. However, I do only say 'mostly' because I think there are some expectations to spy stories and one of them is a heightened sense of awareness, which imo goes hand in hand with interiority.

Second, I don't think there's enough going on. There's a bit of world building and tone setting which I like, but I think you could afford to ramp that up as that's really the main flesh of what's going on until we get to him kickstarting the main plot. Maybe add more details about Cleaver, or one of the other agents.

So those are my two main things. It's pleasant and competently done but it doesn't have that pop or sense of something building which would get me eager to turn the page. Which might be due to a difference in personal tastes anyway. Few bits and bobs about specific lines below, mostly of the minor and mildly pedantic variety.

...

They walked out of the main office and down a staircase. Around them, employees hurried about their lunchtime business, carrying wrapped sandwiches and lunchboxes. Cleaver raised his voice over the rumble of the stairwell.

This might be the most pedantic thing ever, but who's using stairs over lifts in a time of interplanetary travel?

Even more pedantic thing that might be me misreading but my general experience of office environments is people go outside to eat, or they've stuck something in an office fridge in the eating area to heat up. Sandwiches (although these could be people carrying stuff back in) and lunchboxes doesn't ring quite right. I guess maybe you're aiming for a throwback 70s vibe and this has already been introduced?

...

“Chloroform.” She didn’t break stride. “Bad luck and chloroform.”

Biscuit stopped walking
, and Cleaver stopped beside her. They looked back down the corridor. It seemed to go on for half a mile. How big was this place?

This side by side looks odd to me - maybe a different way of expressing the former "didn't miss a beat"?.

...

“Deep cover,” Barrow said. “Look, Heather, I’m getting somewhere with these wrinkly old alien-haters. I just need a few more evenings. Helen should be coming back to the spaceport tonight, with a shipment of freight. Is there any chance you could get one of your crew to pick her up instead of me?”

“I’ll do it,” Cleaver said.

“He’ll do it,” Biscuit added.

Barrow seemed to weigh this up. “Alright. There’s a lorry you can use. It’s muffled for talking, in case you and Helen want to swap war stories.” He drummed his ugly hands on the table. “Right then, what’s chef’s special today?”

The logic could feel more watertight here - if he just needs a few more evenings, then why does it have to be this evening? If it has to be this evening and that's commonplace, why have they got him doing something else to begin with? Playing it up as some emergency grand chance makes more sense.

Incidentally, right now, you could delete Barrow from the scene and I don't think you'd lose anything. Biscuit could relay that an agent was held up. I'm guessing Barrow is here because he's got a future purpose, but the scene would be stronger for there being something of Barrow in it that only Barrow could be
 

msstice

200 words a day = 1 novel/year
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We're friends right? It dragged on a bit.

It does nicely look like the start of something where we're getting introduced to people and a place, but there is a little bit of pace missing. I like the humorous dialog and some types of writing have as their primary humor and motivation the digressions. However this had too much and not enough digression at the same time.

I am probably misjudging it because I don't see the material before and after, but I wonder if this can be condensed down a lot, and some of the humor scattered elsewhere.
 

Toby Frost

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Thanks guys. That's interesting, as one of my main questions was "Does this go on too long?" (I wasn't going to ask, in case doing so made it too obvious). I imagine the dialogue as being delivered pretty quickly and off-hand, but that doesn't really come across on the page. It's a rather new sort of dialogue for me, and it might need to be toned down slightly.

Incidentally, Peat, when I press the "Spoilers" button, I can only see the first couple of lines of your comments. Not sure what's happened there.
 

The Judge

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I'm not sure how to make it appear in TBP's post and I don't like to edit the post to remove the spoiler, but I've copied and pasted his comments here. Can you see this?

They walked out of the main office and down a staircase. Around them, employees hurried about their lunchtime business, carrying wrapped sandwiches and lunchboxes. Cleaver raised his voice over the rumble of the stairwell.

This might be the most pedantic thing ever, but who's using stairs over lifts in a time of interplanetary travel?

Even more pedantic thing that might be me misreading but my general experience of office environments is people go outside to eat, or they've stuck something in an office fridge in the eating area to heat up. Sandwiches (although these could be people carrying stuff back in) and lunchboxes doesn't ring quite right. I guess maybe you're aiming for a throwback 70s vibe and this has already been introduced?

...

“Chloroform.” She didn’t break stride. “Bad luck and chloroform.”

Biscuit stopped walking
, and Cleaver stopped beside her. They looked back down the corridor. It seemed to go on for half a mile. How big was this place?

This side by side looks odd to me - maybe a different way of expressing the former "didn't miss a beat"?.

...

“Deep cover,” Barrow said. “Look, Heather, I’m getting somewhere with these wrinkly old alien-haters. I just need a few more evenings. Helen should be coming back to the spaceport tonight, with a shipment of freight. Is there any chance you could get one of your crew to pick her up instead of me?”

“I’ll do it,” Cleaver said.

“He’ll do it,” Biscuit added.

Barrow seemed to weigh this up. “Alright. There’s a lorry you can use. It’s muffled for talking, in case you and Helen want to swap war stories.” He drummed his ugly hands on the table. “Right then, what’s chef’s special today?”

The logic could feel more watertight here - if he just needs a few more evenings, then why does it have to be this evening? If it has to be this evening and that's commonplace, why have they got him doing something else to begin with? Playing it up as some emergency grand chance makes more sense.

Incidentally, right now, you could delete Barrow from the scene and I don't think you'd lose anything. Biscuit could relay that an agent was held up. I'm guessing Barrow is here because he's got a future purpose, but the scene would be stronger for there being something of Barrow in it that only Barrow could be
 

Droflet

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I quite enjoyed it and would read more. Flow is good and the language appropriate for the setting. Well done.
 

Wayne Mack

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I felt the scene felt overly long and the dialog did not seem to be a natural discussion. There seemed to be too many ideas thrown out that were never followed up on. For example, the canteen is described as where important decisions are made. I would expect this could lead to quite a digression into past decisions, but the canteen discussion seems to get immediately curtailed. Later, the strangulation statement just comes out of the blue and feels arbitrary.

I imagine the dialogue as being delivered pretty quickly and off-hand, but that doesn't really come across on the page.
I think the pace of the dialog could be helped by making it pure dialog and eliminating the tags and descriptive text. Also avoid multi-sentence monologues. The Five, Six, Service statement could be rewritten as a back and forth series of questions and feel less like an info dump.

Similarly, the same could be applied to the discussion at the table. Make it pure dialog. Break multi-sentence outbursts into shorter back and forth questions and answers.

I suggest keeping the focus on the dialog and that might make the scene feel less long for the reader. There are some interesting turns of phrasing that seem to get lost with embedded descriptive text.
 

The Big Peat

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Well that's an odd thing! I can see a click to expand button when I look at it on my phone but on my computer, I have the same problem. Thank you for fixing it TJ.
 

FreshIce

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Jan 17, 2021
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I really liked your story! Very well written i love the "it didn't take much feigning" :ROFLMAO:
 
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