Solomon had heard opera for the first time two months ago, in a terrible audioshop out in the cluttered misery of Oxon Hill, a ramshackle dwelling with filthy ’phones. His standards for audioshops had declined precipitously in only ten months, as he chased and chased after more and more music. The sound quality in that shop was totally inadequate, full of scratches and the background speech of long-dead bootleggers.
But the randomizer had gifted him with a heavenly sound: three men singing, in turns, bouncing from voice to voice, a devastating melody. Their voices were obviously more trained, more uniquely skilled, than any he’d ever heard, and they sang in one of the dead languages, a European one Solomon didn’t recognize. Later he learned it was Italian, that the name of the piece was Don Giovanni, and that the scene was about a descent into hell, a deserved penalty for sins unnumbered. That this form of music was called opera, and that the State considered it the most dangerous form of banned vocal activity.
The experience was staggering – the emotions that washed over him while he listened, and the instant desire to hear more. He revisited every audioshop he’d tried, searching “opera” in every redband archive he sat down to, allowing the search to envelop his life and his income even further. He asked the shop runners about opera, he asked fellow patrons about it (all of which was against the unwritten, unspoken rules of audioshops). Hastily spelled words took him to snatches of recordings: Lucia, Figaro, Tosca. He learned terms: tenor, aria, vibrato. He kept searching, kept asking questions, kept finding moment after moment of ecstasy in the stolen minutes when his eyes would roll back and his neck would slacken, just in listening, just in hearing. And one word kept making its way to the surface of his fevered inquiries: Callas.
Callas was a soprano from the middle of the 20th century, 200 years before the bacteria and the inception of the State. Her career was short, but her legend seemed unmatched. Fellow audioshoppers had read about her, had heard tell of her from third parties, but no one he met had ever heard her. She was not to be found in the archives. Solomon pursued her, asking more and more questions, less and less cautiously. Where could he hear Callas? What songs had Callas sung, and which were the best ones? He spied on the selections of other shoppers and struck up conversations with anyone he noticed listening to opera. Many of them had never heard of her.
Finally, Bicky, the proprietor of the greasy Oxon Hill audioshop where he’d first heard opera, had given him Capone’s name and set up a meeting. Since history was all the citizens of the State had after music and film had been forbidden, it shouldn’t have surprised Solomon that a street thug knew of a criminal as quaint as Alphonse Capone, but it did. Solomon had asked for a date a few weeks distant, to give him a chance to change his mind, and he spent that time trying very seriously to stop desiring music. He failed. And so, tonight, he waited for Capone at 14th Street and H, running his thumb over the smooth button that ejected his fingerboard from his sleeve. He wouldn’t use it at all that night, he’d decided. ISL only. Much safer that way.
Throughout this quest, Solomon felt increasingly as if he was the object of some shadowy scrutiny, as if something was chasing him even as he chased opera. Nothing he could put a finger on, like anonymous types following him down the street or glancing away from his eyes on the Metro. Just a general uneasiness. His doorbot using a voicebox to mention how late he was coming home, instead of signing to him. His boss asking why he rushed off after work every afternoon; had he met someone? Even his bank taking a few extra microseconds to process transactions on his home display. As if it was all being recorded for someone else’s ears and eyes. All along he had hardly used his fingerboard, cautious about monitoring bugs, but there were other ways to track him.
Perhaps he’d been reckless. The love of opera had consumed him, and he cared about little else aside from hearing more. Callas was his Holy Grail, and as he drew closer to her, he found more and more dissonant the structure of life under the State.
Fourteenth Street was still more or less deserted, and the next security sweep was a few minutes away. Solomon decided to duck into a small electronics store on the corner until the bots had passed by. Inside, he fiddled with a coffee table/display surface idly, spinning stock pictures in place, caroming framed videos off each other with small flicking motions. The surface was cruder in texture than he was accustomed to, even for home tech.
One of the videos was the Secretary-General’s latest mouthpiece, whose voice Solomon quite liked. Sonorous and toffee-textured on the ear, he was a big improvement on the screeching girl of three years ago, who, despite her position, hadn’t seemed used to the idea of speaking at all. Some of the other officials’ mouthpieces were nice, too, but the Secretary-General often had the best of the bunch, since he had to deliver more precious words than any other speechmaker. With mild curiosity regarding this week’s pap, Solomon selected the video and unmuted it.
“…continue to strike at the heart of our union,” the mouthpiece was saying. Since he’d started visiting audioshops, Solomon secretly wished that, just once, a mouthpiece on vid would break into a song of some kind, any kind. Of course, no one bred to be a mouthpiece would ever have done something so subversive, so it was a foolish desire, but it gave Solomon glee to imagine it. “We shall have to strike harder and faster than they if we wish to maintain our way of life. Starting next spring I will roll out a series of new measures intended to stamp out all subversive elements that threaten the State, from peddlers of dangerous cultural flotsam to purveyors ah– uk–”
The mouthpiece was making froglike sounds, jutting his chin and jaw forward as if choking on something. He put one hand to his throat and another to the podium, to support him as his body tipped forward.
“Is he hacking up a lung?” came flatly from Solomon’s right elbow. It was the speech of a fingerboard. A cheap one, by the sound of it, uninflected and metallic. Solomon did not respond. He was watching the vid, as the Secretary-General’s mouthpiece struggled.
“Ock,” he said. “Ock. Ock. Ock.” As if vomiting.
“He’s lost it,” said the fingerboard to his right. “His voice is gone.”
At almost the same moment, as if the mouthpiece, speaking in a studio somewhere in Central, had heard Solomon’s companion all the way from 14th Street, he ceased convulsing and stood straight and smoothed the front of his plain black shirt. I am finished, he signed. I’m sorry, Jenny. A security bot materialized next to the mouthpiece and escorted him away.
A young woman with a terrified expression accentuated by her slightly protruding eyes walked to the podium. She stood there a moment, and then opened her mouth. “I am…Secretary-General Carlos Al-Amin,” she said, a faint squeak on the second syllable forgotten by the camel’s-hair softness of the tenth. “Starting next spring, I will roll out a series of new measures intended to stamp out all subversive elements that threaten the State…”
“I’ve never seen that,” said Solomon’s disembodied neighbor. “Never seen a voice expire on vid before. Have you?”
Solomon turned to address his loquacious friend briskly (his fingers were poised to sign “leave me alone”) and found himself facing a short man, plump with wealth, wearing an absurd old-fashioned suit, two-toned shoes, and a weirdly sexy hat that Solomon believed was called a fedora. The dude grinned with half his mouth, and his fingerboard said “Guess not.”
You Capone? Solomon signed.
Let’s go in the back, the man replied in kind. He took Solomon’s elbow and hustled him behind the counter of the store, which was old enough to have been designed with staff in mind. Through a door, through a dim, grimy stockroom, and then the squat man held out an arm for Solomon to step into what looked like a tiny bomb shelter, a concrete box that could comfortably hold about 1.5 people. He stepped inside, and the man followed. A stark light from the ceiling illuminated the box as soon as the door closed (with a frighteningly permanent sort of sound).
I’m Capone, signed the squat man. The smell of a virile cologne was very strong in the small space. You’re Solomon, right?
Right, signed Solomon, something relaxing in his chest. He had half believed this was a setup, that the idea of meeting a fellow named Capone to find opera was the entry to a trap.
What’re you looking for? Bicky didn’t tell me much.
C-a-l-l-a-s, signed Solomon.
Capone did nothing for a moment, looking at his garish shoes. That’s serious shit, he signed at last. No joke finding it.
But you know where to find it, right?
Capone hesitated again. Can I show you something else?
C-a-l-l-a-s, Solomon spelled again, recalcitrant.
Sure, Capone replied. I got you. I just think I got something else that might turn your crank.
What is it?
You’ll have to wait and see, said the little man with a sidelong smile. What do you say? You got the funds for a little field trip?
Solomon had brought cash with him that he thought was sufficient for Callas, so he nodded.
Two thousand? Capone persisted.
He nodded again. Small change.
Let’s go on the town, then, signed Capone.
The two men took a bicycle rickshaw from 14th Street, for which Capone apologized with the tinny voice from his fingerboard. He had drivers, he explained, but he thought it would be better all around to stay anonymous on this one. Solomon wondered if Bicky knew more about Solomon’s job, family, life than he’d thought, and if Bicky had passed on that information. The cyclist pulling the rickshaw looked Tajiki, maybe, but anyway didn’t seem the type to answer anyone’s nosy questions about her route that night. Solomon fingered the eroding velvet of the seat under the shadow of his thigh. They glided several blocks in silence.
A high-projected vid became visible between buildings: the mouthpiece, choking on his own dead larynx. Unlike Capone, Solomon had seen it before. In a restaurant. A woman kneeling, asking the woman in the opposite chair to marry her for then and always. Her voice, the only one, rang through the room. She got through the proposal, got through the happy acceptance and the tears, and her voice broke and ended mid-syllable when she tried to tell her new fiancé she loved her. The fiancé paled, grew stricken, as the woman coughed flatly.
Even before Solomon had become obsessed with music, he had had a perverse interest in the world before the bacteria. He had read as much of the literature as he could get his hands on, which, with his clearance at The Agency– its business so secret it didn’t have a distinguishing name– was plenty more than the general population could. A lot of it seemed fragmentary, as if it was a puzzle that had been jigsawed and then shoved back together with half of its pieces discarded. There was an astonishing amount of conversation, in any case. People seemed to chatter endlessly in these records, using their voices for the most trivial things. They talked on telephones, they talked (or shouted!) at parties, they talked with their mouths full. A ceaseless ribbon of conversation from birth to death. Solomon knew they had no idea how precious a commodity a voice could be, having mostly not had to do without. But still. Didn’t they realize how wasteful it was to expend such a resource on words that mattered so little?
Capone prodded the rickshaw cyclist in the back. She nodded and hit the brakes.
They had traveled southeast, to an even shabbier neighborhood than before. Some of the architecture on 14th Street and H had been converted to billbuildings whose screens were now dark or snowy, no longer advertising the latest tonics and gadgets. Here, the conversion hadn’t even taken place. The buildings were blank stone or brick, their textures rough and strange. The streetlights had a sick orange cast. Capone and Solomon disembarked and it took ninety seconds of Capone standing still and gazing across the street at nothing before the penny dropped and Solomon pulled out his wallet to pay the cyclist, who pedaled off directly.
All right, come on, signed Capone. He cocked his head in a slick gesture and walked off. Solomon followed. They went about a block and a half, and then Capone turned down a narrow driveway between buildings. His two-tone shoes crunched against pebbles on cracked, wet pavement. Solomon began to fear more than slightly for his safety; there was really nobody around, just dogs barking here and there (they lost their voices much more quickly than cats) and the strange muddy dark of the backyard Capone was leading him into. It must have been a sort of small preserve at one time, with a curving path created by splotched, discolored paving stones, once a manmade stream leading to a little pool. The overgrowth all around was sagged with this afternoon’s rain. The empty pool was wracked with weeds and there was a nest of some kind in its corner. Rats, likely.
The house that abutted this little ruin was boarded up and decaying. The fence to the west of the property had missing planks and Capone was already crawling through it. Solomon followed. A terrible shack had been erected in the neighboring yard. Warm light shone through gaps in the boards and dark smoke drifted from a steel cylinder on the roof. There was a potent chemical smell.
Capone rapped on the shack’s door, which leaned, hinge-free, on the structure. He ejected his fingerboard and said “Lenore!”
Something stirred within. The door tilted open and a woman emerged. She had layered bags under her eyes and hair that expressed utter surrender to frizziness. She wore a shapeless nylon garment without sleeves. It may have had a prior life as a tent.
She carried an early-model fingerboard, a clumsy thing without a wrist harness. It even boasted a delay between her birdlike typing and its alien speech. “Why’d you bring someone here, Capone? Why didn’t you call me to come there?”
“He’s not here for the usual,” said Capone. “He’s a Muesli customer.”
Muesli? Solomon signed.
They aren’t programmed with the word m-u-s-i-c, the woman signed to him with furious fingers, then typed again. “I won’t do that work anymore.”
“Just this once,” said Capone, with a slimy wheedling expression that would have convinced Solomon to do exactly nothing.
“Just this once until the next time.”
“No way. He really wants something special, is all. I promise he’s the last one.”
Lenore sighed, dropped her head, pushed her hand into the tangled pelt of her hair. “All right,” she said.
She said. With her own voice. Solomon nearly took a physical step back, it surprised him so.
She lifted her chin and opened her mouth.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,Mama’s gonna catch you a mockingbird.
When that mockingbird don’t sing,
Mama’s gonna buy you a brand new thing.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna catch you a mockingbird.
It was her own voice, and it was singing. Right there outside the pile of shabby boards she lived in, here in the murk of southeastern DC. Solomon heard her with his own ears.
A tear slid down her face. Her voice was a cracked, broken thing. The song barely resembled anything Solomon had heard in the audioshops over the past year. If every song he’d yet heard was a flag in the wind, hers was the torn and muddied banner of a lost battle.
“That was terrible,” said the dead whine of Capone’s fingerboard. Its synthesis was even more unbearable against the real vibrancy of Lenore’s real voice, sad as it had been. “Really lousy.”
She dropped her fingerboard on the ground and signed frantically. I did what you asked. I want my money.
“Why should I pay you for that? I brought him for Muesli, not garbage.”
Please, she signed. Please. And again and again. Please. Please.
“I gotta go,” he said. “Get a new dress, okay? You should be ashamed.” He began to walk away, and she grasped his arm, below the elbow, her eyes flashing with need. He shook her off and headed for the open fence.
Lenore put her face in her hands and seemed to shrink. “Oh,” she gasped, one more word.
Solomon fingered the obscene wad of cash in his pocket and looked at the frizzy halo of her hair, trembling as she wept. He cleared his throat and swallowed some saliva. She was taking no notice of him and Capone was gone. He’d never been so aware of the fineness of the fabric that covered his body.
He extracted a hundred from his pocket, came closer to her, and placed his hand on her thin shoulder. He could feel her bones, thin and brittle like a sparrow’s. She lifted her head, her expression clearly anticipating a blow. He pressed the bill against her hand and she took it with a small whiffed breath.
“Thank you,” he said, with his voice.
She met his eyes for another moment, and then her face crumpled and she brought her hands, cash and all, up to her sobbing again.
There seemed nothing else for Solomon here, so he removed his hand from her shoulder and took a cautious step away. He did not look back after he went through the fence.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Capone said from his fingerboard right away when Solomon had caught up. “She was raised to be a mouthpiece. In a clean farm somewhere. They tossed her when they caught her singing to her baby.” He shrugged. “I wouldn’t have thrown out a sweet deal like that.”
Babies born in families like Solomon’s, where money wasn’t a desperate topic, were hushed to silence upon their first babbles and shipped off to certified clean nurseries. The bacteria had somehow been flushed out and kept out of those facilities, and some people were born, lived, and died in them, taking vows of vocal preservation to raise innocents far from the worst areas of concentration. Depending on their aptitudes, these children were groomed for various vocations. They were taught ISL and how to use a fingerboard before they could hold a stylus, the better to preserve their voices for what mattered, whatever it turned out to be. Solomon himself had shown few talents aside from his poker face, so he’d been shunted into intelligence programming.
If he’d had a winning smile and a talent for acting, he might have been chosen as a mouthpiece, at which time his voice would have officially belonged to the State. Just as Lenore’s had, if Capone had her story right. Singing was a bad enough crime, Solomon knew. Singing for herself, or for the enjoyment of a creature from whom she could reap no profit, was a violation calling down the scorched-earth life Lenore had obviously lived since then.
Solomon considered the potential shape and texture of such a life for a moment, and was silent.
Then he again signed C-a-l-l-a-s.
“Look,” said Capone. “I know I let you down on this one. I thought Lenore could do better than that. Last time she did a lot better.”
Solomon was already signing, trying to interrupt. It doesn’t matter how well she can s-i-n-g a regular s-o-n-g, he said. That isn’t the point. She’s not an o-p-e-r-a s-i-n-g-e-r. No one is. I want audio. I want C-a-l-l-a-s.
Capone sighed. “You’re really breaking my balls, man.”
Solomon kept his hands folded.
C-a-l-l-a-s? signed Capone.
How about next week?
How about NOW?
“Shit, man,” said Capone’s fingerboard. “No need to lose our tempers. I know Lenore was a bummer, but…”
“Right.” Another sigh. “Okay.” He pulled out a tiny smartpad, the size of a business card. His fingers flew over it for a moment. “You go to this address. Flash the back of this at the front door. Show this page—” he let Solomon see a crude, pixelated smiley face with eyes that rolled like a sick dog’s “—at the VIP room, and tell them what you want.”
He handed Solomon the minipad. Will they have—
“You’ll see when you get there,” Capone smirked.
Solomon read the address – a posh corner very far from here – and swiped over the screen to make sure he could call up the scornful smiley. He turned the pad to look at the back, and saw a red fingerprint embossed in the polymer. What do I owe you?
“Finder’s fee is five thousand,” said Capone, his eyes steady on Solomon’s. He was aiming much higher than he expected to get, Solomon intuited. “They’ll probably charge you twice that for what you want.”
Lenore, signed Solomon. And my trouble. You could have saved me half an hour if you’d just given me this – he waved the minipad – back in Northeast.
“Four thousand,” said Capone. There was sweat on his upper lip.
A long moment, in which Solomon wondered if the little man had it in him to murder Solomon right here in this ruined backyard and take his entire store of cash. He guessed yes, but that Capone was calculating the hassle of such a move as opposed to how much Solomon probably had on him.
I have to get more cash uptown, too, added Solomon. It’s a hassle to go so far into Central this late at night, and I live out of town. There wasn’t a grain of truth in any of this.
“Thirty-five hundred,” Capone repeated, after another tense pause.
Solomon nodded and reached into his chest pocket, where fifteen thousand-note bills were stowed. He peeled out three, handed them to Capone, and took five hundreds from his pants pocket.
“For my trouble?” Capone said, smiling like a crocodile.
Solomon took out his wallet and threw a tenner at the little man. It fluttered to the antique paving stones, and Solomon walked away as Capone dived after it.
It was after one when he arrived at the Slow Club, which was the building that corresponded to the address on the minipad. The signage for the club was minimal, just twelve-inch white cursive letters a few feet above street level. There was no one outside. No bouncer-bot. No windows. Solomon fidgeted with the smooth net of his pocket lining.
Feeling silly, he knocked on the door, or what he assumed was the door. It was a door-sized black slab situated on the diagonal corner of the building, but it seemed impenetrable aside from its four edges.
A circular area at eye level shifted and transmuted until a processor bot was gazing back at Solomon. A very high-end processor bot, the kind Solomon was not yet experienced or trusted enough to write code for at The Agency.
Solomon fumbled the minipad out of his jacket and held up its reverse to the transparent oval in the door. The processor bot emitted a tiny red light and the fingerprint on the back of the minipad glowed slightly in response. The bot did not acknowledge Solomon, and its oval faded back to sheer black. In just a moment more, a series of servo noises sounded around the edge of the door, and then it opened and a brief but powerful vacuum drew Solomon inside the Slow Club.
The first thing there was to notice was music. Song. The quality was fuzzy, the recording old, but that somehow added to its charm. A man was singing, his thin, reedy voice floating over the untidy mutter of expensively modulated fingerboards.
Someday, when I’m awfully low
And the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight
The lighting was so dim that Solomon couldn’t see much detail, only the sense that he was surrounded by murmuring gray statues. He looked around as casually as he could. People were passing books back and forth, to his astonishment; real paper books. And strange shiny disks, too, of what purpose Solomon did not know. Nearly everyone had a beverage.
There was a small sign on the opposite wall: VIP . He went that way, shouldering suits and dresses with scents that tantalized and textures he could have happily smothered in. He looked at chins, so as not to be rude enough to recognize anyone.
Presently, he faced another impassive black wall. No transparency materialized after a moment, so he swiped to the leering cartoon face on the minipad and held it up next to his own. The door dissolved in amoebalike patches, revealing a black booth with a chair and a vid display. Solomon entered and sat. The door reassembled itself and Solomon had the sensation of swift movement, as if the room was an elevator.
The display activated itself and a very pretty Uncanny appeared. She smiled. “What can I do for you tonight?” she asked.
Solomon hesitated. Despite his parents, his high-security job, all the societal perks he’d had access to – and despite his crawl through every seedy audioshop in the greater Washington area over the past year – he had never been anywhere like the Slow Club, so redolent of money and secrecy in equal parts. He feared he would be outed as a fraud any moment, that it was all an elaborate trap.
But he was here. He had a pile of cash. He had come so far into forbidden territory, had fitted the last of his savings into two pockets, had tangled with Capone. It was now or never, this or nothing.
C-a-l-l-a-s, he signed at the vid.
The Uncanny smiled some more during a few seconds of processing time, and then she said, “I have one record for that request. Would you like to experience it?”
One record, thought Solomon, damn. Callas had been so famous in her day that he’d expected to be able to choose from a selection of recordings.
Still. This or nothing. He indulged himself with one more moment of dithering, and then signed Yes.
“Please insert twelve thousand seven hundred notes.”
Dear God. He hoped the door charge for the Slow Club wouldn’t be more than he could pay. He slipped the cash into a square depression that had formed in the table, where it vanished.
The Uncanny smiled a little more broadly. “Please enjoy your selection.”
The vid faded to black, and white words appeared. Verdi. Otello. Piangea cantando. Maria Callas, 1963. Nicola Rescigno. The lights eased down. Solomon lifted his hand, but could hardly make out its lines, or the dark button below the root of his pinky finger, by the light of the white letters on the display. Then the screen faded and all was blackness.
He waited for a minute, two, three. No ’phones appeared. He had just begun to wonder whether something had gone wrong – the word “trap” flitted into his mind once more – when it began.
The music emitted from all around him, as if the black booth was itself a set of ’phones. After barely twenty seconds of instruments– Solomon still hadn’t memorized which were the reeds and which were the strings– the voice began. It lifted quickly into song, made itself known, speared Solomon to his seat, and then emitted so soft and quiet a phrase that he leaned forward to hear it better. Later, he would realize that this was one of the clearest recordings he’d ever heard, but at the moment he was so urgently listening that his breath came in miniature sips.
The voice lamented. Wept. It repeated a word over and over, in threes: “sull-chay,” or something like it. Italian again. At times, drawing out “sull” so long and so quiet that it seemed a whisper, fearful or shy or both. The word could have meant anything. Its actual meaning was irrelevant, since the sound communicated everything the listener needed to know.
The voice rose and fell, expanding in glory and retreating in sorrow. It cried for everything, for every sin and injury in the history of the universe. It was the most beautiful thing Solomon had ever known.
No other opera compared to this. Nothing on earth compared to this.
By the end, when the voice pierced the sky in a vibrating note that seemed to last a week, his face was streaked with tears and he was gasping as quietly as he could (to hear, oh, every single note). It had seemed over, before that note, and then, after more of the instruments, it seemed like it wasn’t finished.
But it was. The lights lifted gently and the Uncanny appeared on the vid again. “I hope this experience met with your satisfaction,” she said, her simulated voice a corpse twitching with electricity next to what he’d just heard. “Would you like another selection?”
Again, was on the tips of his fingers. But he couldn’t afford it, most practically, even aside from the problem of sincerely wanting to do nothing but listen to Callas until he starved to death in this little black box. He couldn’t gather the wherewithal to reply properly in ISL, so, without thinking, he pressed the button that ejected his fingerboard. “Just give me a moment,” he managed, his voice, too, a dundering parody of a human sound.
“Take as long as you need,” soothed the Uncanny. “I am available when you wish another service.”
The voice danced above and around his thoughts, shimmering like a trembling lamp. He kept hearing that last high note, the way it shone out in a ray, slicing into his heart, a shock that raised every single follicle of hair on his body.
He had staggered out of the Slow Club without looking up much from the muffling carpet. A voice at the door had gently urged him to come again, but he had not had to pay any more. He had concentrated most intently on not listening to the music burbling over all else in the club so he wouldn’t lose every nuance of Callas.
But it slipped away even as he flogged his mind to repeat it. The melody was leaving him, the exact shape and color of the notes. Ephemeral, momentary: the only thing that remained was the strong sense that more Callas would save his life, just as continuing to subsist without Callas would end it.
There was no more Callas. Solomon tried to wrap his mind around it. He did not have twelve thousand notes to spend every week to keep himself sane.
Maybe I should just… He thought of the GW Bridge, the ugly gutter of hardpack that ran below it. He thought of the pistols on the belts of security bots, easily grabbed for one fatal moment. He thought of turning himself in for his treachery, asking for swift justice against a subversive such as himself.
He glanced at the street signs. He’d been walking for half an hour, tormenting himself with the fading miracle in his head, not trusting himself enough for the Metro or a taxi. Nearly home.
Nearly home. I’ll sleep on it and see if it looks different in the morning. It’s just one voice, and there are plenty of audioshops. Lots of songs yet to hear.
Just one voice.
Solomon thought again of Lenore, of the broken wing of her song. Doubtful that the paltry sum he’d given her would do much good, but it might have meant one night she could have stayed in without answering when Capone knocked for her with a customer.
Then self-pity washed him again. He’d taken measures to preserve his voice for 24 years, hoping to say something once that mattered. No one could predict how much could be had from one voice, whether you’d lose it after three sentences or a lifetime of soliloquy. You could predict certain things; in the thickest urban forests, New York, Chicago, DC, you’d surely be able to say less. The warfare, the bacteria, had been concentrated there, hadn’t cleared so successfully as it had done over the Great Plains and its flat horizons. The less said about Los Angeles– where the bacteria clung to the drapery of smog and feasted heartily on vocal cords with every last breath– the better. But in general, every person was different, every life a different possibility. Solomon didn’t want to take any risks. He wanted to get married, say “I do,” tell his children he loved them. But now it all seemed so pathetic, so pointless. When voices like Callas’s had existed in a world before the bacteria, why save his paltry words for a day that might never come?
Forgoing the elevator, he trudged up four flights of stairs. Why indulge in elevators? The world was dying anyway. He took a moment to roll his eyes at his own melodrama before thumbing open the door to his apartment.
Solomon dropped the roll of remaining bills in the bowl by the door and hunched over the hall table, peering in a mirror at his own eyes. Dark circles ringed them. The relentless chase of music had drained him of so much – money, energy, good reputation – and it had been a year, now, since the start of this thing.
“Now what?” he said aloud. He dared to laugh, a short, ugly bark.
The recessed lighting over the sofa came to life, illuminating a slim man sitting in the living room with his legs crossed. He was clad in black and had a handsome, forgettable face. Solomon startled backward and knocked over the bowl by the door. The wad of bills bounced out and came to rest in plain view of the man on the sofa.
Unremarkable as he was, Solomon recognized him. He was greeted at The Agency by Solomon’s superiors with broad goodwill, a hum of fear underneath. He brought in more violators than any other tracker in the District. Just give me a moment, Solomon thought with a sickening thud. Only five words on his fingerboard, but enough to smoke him out, to trace his path.
“Mr. Solomon,” the man’s fingerboard said, and he smiled pleasantly. “You’ve had an interesting evening, I trust?”