by P. Orin Zack
“Pardon me for asking, Mr. Welch, but you’re not having stage fright, are you?”
Feeling very alone in the empty limo, Evers Welch gazed through the darkened window at the big display over the row of doors across the street. People were still streaming into the concert hall, eager to experience his latest work. He caught the driver’s eyes in the mirror. “Maybe so, Jimmy,” he said, a bit perplexed. “That’s what’s so strange about it.”
The demand-pricing list on the display washed out to gray while the iconic photo of the disaster that had so traumatized the city years before faded in. It was followed by a series of rapid-fire overlays that turned it into the end-card from the trailer for the live cinema-cast of tonight’s performance. The stage in question extended well past the wooden one across the street.
“I haven’t had stage fright since the night I played my first song cycle in public. That was what, fifteen years ago?”
Jimmy nodded as the limo crept a few more feet. “The one about that Pinkerton guard in the Homestead Steel strike. I’ve seen the pirate video. You had stage fright? Could-a fooled me.”
Across the street, the giant end-card dissolved to the house concert photo of a twenty-something Evers Welch that had gone viral after that video was uploaded, and then to the cover art for the commercial release of the Pinkerton song cycle, which used it.
“Uh huh. I was petrified. Up ‘til then, I’d never laid my soul bare to tell a story. That was the first one I wrote about a real person. Before that, they were all made up. Fictional. Safe.”
“Then what’s different about tonight’s story? It’s about someone real, too, isn’t it?”
Evers turned away. “It was supposed to be,” he muttered.
“What was that, sir?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Look, just let me out. I’ll hoof it around the building from here.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Welch. I’ll be parked by the stage door when you’re through.”
Standing on the sidewalk beside the gridlocked limo, Evers stared up at his name again. It was unnerving. Still, it was just his name, and seeing it there was no different from the signs at any number of performances over the last few years.
“Evers Welch: Live!” he read to himself. It loomed over him, taunting him with the promise of wealth and adoration if only he played it safe, daring him to speak his mind and risk throwing away the success he’d had.
Well. Self-respect wasn’t that great a cost was it? All he had to do was turn his back on the inspiration that had consumed him for the past year, and disappoint every last person in the hall and in all those darkened cinemas. All he had to do was not perform the story they’d all paid to hear.
They’d forgive him, wouldn’t they? Besides, he could always fall back on one of his earlier song cycles, maybe the one about the tech who volunteered to help shut down reactor 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They’d enjoy that one, wouldn’t they? Sure they would. But would he? Could he live with himself if he didn’t go through with it?
Evers swore a silent oath to Euterpe for cursing him with inspiration and started across the street. He slowed in front of a taxi when he saw a young woman in a yellow jacket with a grin on her face and a spring in her step just stop cold. The people just behind her wavered briefly, but then veered left and right, leading the swarm of over-busy people to flow around her like she was a sunny boulder in a concrete streambed. The slender human boulder was clearly wrapped up in whatever had flooded her soul, because the fingers of her right hand danced over an imaginary keyboard. When the pattern of notes sounding in his head as she touched the invisible ivories settled on a key, he smiled in recognition — the melody she played was one of his.
The sudden juxtaposition between the vast, distributed audience he was about to face and this unintentionally intimate expression of the bond that one anonymous woman had with his music brought him back to the friendly confines of the house concerts he so missed playing at. It all seemed like another world now, a reality that fame had cheated him out of. Well, after tonight, he might be lucky to even play one of those again. The Muse of his craft, it would seem, was steadfast in her refusal to offer him respite from agonizing over this decision.
When he reached the sidewalk, he turned and joined the flow of pedestrians heading towards the entranced woman. But instead of continuing past her, he stopped a respectful distance away and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “I’d thought I’d lost my way.”
She looked at him quizzically, and then brightened to laughter when she recognized his face. She mouthed his name, and then said, “Thank me? For what?”
He glanced down at her hand. “For playing that melody just now. Someone once told me that the purest form of music is the kind that dwells in your heart. Anyway, I’d like to find out how you react to tonight’s show. My limo will be waiting by the back door after the concert. Tell the driver I said you helped me with my stage fright.”
“Stage fright? You? I don’t understand.”
“Private joke. But really, I do want to chat more with you later. Will you wait for me?”
She nodded. “Of course. And good luck… with tonight’s show, I mean.”
Fired with renewed purpose, he continued on towards the musician’s entrance. The usual assortment of fans, publicity hounds, staff and security littered his path to the green room, but he was too wrapped up in the pros and cons to pay them much mind. What did manage to break his funk was the sound of muffled voices from inside that room, one of which sounded angry.
The door flew open just as he was reaching for the handle. Craig, his bass man, sneered at him. “You’re nuts, Evers,” he spat. “How long have I been with you now? Don’t you freakin’ think you can trust me yet? How the hell do you think we’re going to play this gig like professionals if you can’t be bothered to let me know what the song cycle’s even about. Man, you can go out there and make a fool of yourself if you want, but I’m not going to have anything to do with it. I quit!”
Before Evers had a chance to respond, Greta appeared in the doorway, wearing the motion-capture getup she used to manipulate the media during the performance. “You know, I really don’t blame him. What’s with all the secrecy, anyway?”
Evers glanced over his shoulder at the gathering crowd. From the sound of it, they were already exchanging rumors about what might have caused Craig’s sudden exit. “Let’s… talk inside,” he said as he stepped in and closed the door behind him. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Most of them are no-shows,” Greta said as she plopped into a chair. “Kendrik sent a rude tweet. I think you’re going to be flying solo on this one.”
He paled. “You’re not backing out, too, are you?”
“Hell no. I may not know what the book is on this, but judging from the media you’ve collected for me to play with, we’re either going to torch a whole lot of people’s worlds tonight, or they’re going to yank the feeds and kill power in the house to keep you quiet. Either way, I’d hate to miss it.”
“Good. I don’t think anything I wrote would have the same effect if I didn’t have your touch on the media to back it up. Do you want to scan the lyrics and my notes for the talk-throughs?”
“Surprise me. I know what media’s in the mix. Besides, I think it’ll be more powerful if there’s more spontaneity, even if I flub some of the cues. In fact—.”
“Evers Welch!” Angus McClaran’s scratchy bellow was punctuated by the crash of the door slamming open. Flanking the venue’s manager were Ravi, the chief theater-cast engineer, and Earl, the performance bond company’s annoying site manager. “There’s a bucketload of money riding on this concert of yours,” McClaran said tightly, “and I just learned that your entire band has bailed on you. What the Sam Hill is going on here?”
Evers rose to face them. “You know me, Angus,” he soothed. “I came through for you last time, even with all the technical problems we had.”
“Bull! The only reason that performance wasn’t a total disaster was the fact that the recording crew ran a multi-angle shoot. We lost a bundle on refunds that night. It wasn’t you that came through, Welch, it was your editor. And it took the royalties on media sales to fill that financial crater you dug.”
“I assure you, that’s not going to happen this time. The tech we’re using is more stable than it was then, and we’ve got hot backups of everything, including power for the equipment, should it come to that. Now, if you’ll all get on with your own business, and let us finish preparing for the show…?”
“Since you’ve brought it up,” the engineer said, pushing past McClaran, “what is the focus of your story tonight? I’ve heard rumors that you’re not exactly honoring this city’s dead. And that’s not even touching on the political firestorm you could set off by maligning the patriots who risked their lives to comb through the wreckage of those buildings.”
“All right, Ravi,” Greta cut in forcefully. “I’ve had about as much that that guff as I can stand. I’ve been through all the media in tonight’s show, and there’s not so much as a whiff of taint against a single person involved in the cleanup. Come to that, if you know anything at all about Evers’ work, you know full well that he researches everything exhaustively. The people he profiles in these song cycles are real human beings. Nothing’s fabricated. Now get out of here, all of you. We’ve got a lot of prep to go over, and not a lot of time to do it. Scoot!”
“Not. So. Fast.” This time it was the bond manager. “None of you seem to grasp the value of what’s at risk here.”
McClaran bared his teeth at his supposed ally. “Something you’ve been keeping from me, Earl?”
“Nothing that shouldn’t be obvious to anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock.” His raised finger twitched scant inches from McClaran’s nose.
“Well, not everyone has your gift, Earl, so why don’t you do us all a favor and just get it off your chest.”
“Okay,” he said, turning his attention back to the performers. “The promos for your concert made it painfully obvious that you’re planning to dance on a lot graves tonight. That’s not a very wise thing to do. That building site is tantamount to holy ground now. Desecrating it will bring down the wrath of forces far more powerful than mere governments can muster.”
“Oh, please!” Greta turned away.
“Hear me out!” he thundered. “What happened that day changed everything! It was the galvanizing shock that brought this nation together against a common enemy. Policies changed overnight. Government agencies were reorganized. The armed forces were mobilized for action, and this country led the world into battle. It was a moral imperative underwritten by the economic strength of the free market, against a shadowy force that refuses to identify itself with any one nation.”
“And what,” Evers said calmly when Earl stopped to breathe, “does any of that have to do with a song cycle about a human being who was caught up in that maelstrom?”
“Just this: there are a lot of people watching what you do tonight, and not all of them are your fans. Get out of line, and having hell to pay will be the least of your troubles.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. Now, could you all get out of here so we can get ready for the show? You do want to give your paying customers a show, don’t you?”
Evers fell into fits of laughter the moment the door was closed. “You know, Greta,” he said once he caught his breath, “you’re in this up to your ears, now. But that crack about honoring the cleanup crews, that was genius.”
She shrugged. “I figured it was a safe bet, considering how much of the media focused on the rats who made off with the loot. I wouldn’t be surprised if that cretin Earl had a stake in the profits himself. But now you’ve got me curious. Who is your focus on this one?”
He was silent for a time before responding, and when he did it was in very subdued tones. “You know how I approach these things, how I lay out the events and interactions like they were a frog on the dissection table?”
“Sure. That signs-and-string trope you favor has been used to death in procedurals and conspiracy dramas. Like that indie flick where the obsessive schizo fills a room with dysfunctional personality fragments arguing over what went down that day.”
“Well, when I started work on this project, I went through all that looking for whoever it was that was at the critical turning point. The thing was, it didn’t break down that way. The patterns were all over the map, like there were a number of overlapping games being played out.”
“So what did you do?”
“Punted. Everything I’d laid out had to do with the events that happened that morning. The ones we could see, at any rate.”
Greta nodded. “But you can’t really see fortunes being made.”
“Exactly. And yet that’s precisely what happened. Big time.” Evers turned and started pacing from nervous energy. “Hedge funds took huge short positions on stocks guaranteed to drop. Millions of square feet of vacant office space were demolished, with the cleanup at government expense. To military contractors it was like manna from heaven. All of the records from a hundred massive fraud investigations, wiped out under the rubble of a building that crumbled from sympathy pains. And who knows what else. The legislature rolled over as easily as the people did, because they were all either in shock or in cahoots. Well, after I finished laying out all those strings, I knew I had to change the focus of the piece.”
“That explains a lot of the pictures you loaded for me,” she said, “but I still don’t see how you could boil it down to one critical point, to a single person faced with a horrendous choice, like you did with the first man to volunteer to suit up to work on reactor 4.”
Evers stopped pacing and walked towards her. “Neither did I. Not at first. But then I had a brainstorm. Even though a lot of people collaborated on this, I don’t think anyone was really in charge. It was more like a mob thing, a madness that people just played into because they could personally benefit, or their company could. My focus for this performance isn’t a person at all, it’s a mob.”
Greta held up a hand for pause. “Hold on.”
“That’s it,” she said, grinning happily. “That’s why the specter they’ve been using to frighten us all with since that day isn’t a specific person, some leader of another country for example. It’s just an ill-defined ‘enemy’ that we’re told can never be defeated, only fought in an endless war. They’re projecting.”
“We’re of one mind then,” he said solemnly. “Look, what we’re about to do is going to make a lot of people very uncomfortable, including Earl’s masters.”
“Amen to that.”
“But because we’ve got such a dedicated audience, if they kill the show, a lot of people are going to want to know why. People like a woman I met on the way in here. Which reminds me, I asked her to stay around after the show to chat. She’ll be waiting by the limo. Anyway, we’ve got a particular kind of audience: curious people who can think for themselves, and are interested in what’s not covered in the news. It’ll be obvious to them that we were cut off because of what we were saying, and that will drive a lot of them to do some digging on their own.”
“There’s one more thing that makes tonight’s audience different, Evers.”
“Uh-huh. They’re aggregated. Sitting together in theaters all over the place. And they’ll talk. I hope they’ll do more than that, but I’m pretty sure they’ll at least talk about what happened if we get shut down.”
Welch extended his hand. “Either way, we’ll never get another chance to shine a light on those roaches. If we don’t survive this, it’s been a pleasure working with you.”
“Same here. Let’s go torch the night.”
Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack