One hundred and thirty faces canted upward, staring at Stephen. Such smugness, he thought, such presumed entitlement while waiting for this odd little man to speak. An old woman topped with an obvious wig sat in the front row and stared raptly up at him. How much she looks like my mother, who never really listened to me.
“There’s no point in taping this, my recorded voice won’t convey what you’ll hear. I speak without a microphone to small groups because electronic amplification strips out the psychic flesh and leaves a shell of words.
“While you’re turning off everything except hopefully your ears, you’ll see me staring at you all. What I say is decided by who you collectively are. If my sing-song reaches through to you, you’ll at first be uncomfortable or uneasy, but shortly thereafter will soar. Just wait for the awakening.
“I gather that about a third of you have paid five or ten times the face value of the ticket to get in. I’m gratified by your presence, but ask that you not come more than twice a year. The waiting list is long.”
Your faces are shaped and colored like fruit—bananas and upside-down plums and pears. And so resigned to being produce, I’ll show you the wholeness behind your rinds.
Stephen stood in silence as the house lights dimmed. A single spotlight circled him and the rustling dwindled away. The over-ripe fruit faces dropped into dusk, but Stephen felt them more strongly in their vagueness.
And he began. His word rhythms surged in waves over one hundred and thirty human pebbles. He felt their thoughts rustle like shaken stones, and he unthinkingly tuned his own sounds into harmony with them. And once again, his consciousness washed away. When Stephen returned to self-awareness, forty-five minutes had passed.
The house lights rose on a demented scene. Perhaps sixty persons sobbed and wept, while another forty prayed aloud. Almost thirty people sat motionless, beatifically transfixed. And a half dozen stood up, cursing loudly, and left.
Stephen sighed at their departure. Their fruit already too rotten. And again I remember nothing. He glanced at Fenton, the stage manager, who nodded that, as always, his words had been recorded. Stephen would listen to these words as he had all the other recordings, but the replay couldn’t reveal the harmonics. I’m a drunken Hitler in a beer garden, too besotted to recognize what I’m arousing.
The old woman in the front row had a befuddled, bored look, and Stephen realized that she must have a hearing aid tucked under her wig. She’d listened only to words. I’m sorry, mom, you still haven’t heard me.
He stood in silence, still tuned into the audience, then started walking off stage left. The applause began raggedly, led by those already conscious, then palms pounded into a crescendo as the listeners came back into themselves. He walked back center stage to receive the skin-blistering claps and throaty roars. He bowed and left again, saying nothing, for he knew not what he’d wrought.
Fenton frothed at him as he walked backstage. “My God, I’ve listened to you thirty times, and every time, it’s like my first shot of heroin.”
The door to his dressing room was ajar. When Stephen pushed it completely open, he saw two men in dark suits sitting at his dressing table.
“Can I help you? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”
The taller and skinnier man held out a badge and ID. “We’re Connecticut state police, Mr. Allan. I’m Detective Sudvoy, this is Detective Cranz. We need to ask you some questions.”
“Okay, but I need my chair back so I can clean off the stage makeup.”
The two men stood and Stephen sat. “Mister Allan, several people attending your talks committed suicide a day or two afterwards. We’re thinking that you’re the cause.”
Stephen dropped his cleansing tissue. “I’ve never heard that. It must be a mistake. My talks are uplifting.”
Karen stuck her head in the still-open door, saw the two men, and walked on without stopping in. Stephen spoke from his chair. “Would one of you please shut the door?”
Cranz swung the door shut and turned back to Stephen. “You have a suicide occurring about every other performance, way out of line with chance. We think there’s something you tell these people that sets them off. Maybe it’s deliberate, maybe not, but we have to find out.”
Stephen took a closer look at the pair. They wore wingtip dress shoes and their suits looked expensive.
“That’s ridiculous. Did you listen to my talk?”
“No, we were waiting back here. Seventeen people that we know of have killed themselves. The circumstances are pretty clear, no one else was involved. Are you playing some kind of vicious mind game with your listeners?”
“Have you listened to the recordings of my talks? They’re milk and cookies, they’re vaguely like the Gettysburg address, uplifting, not Mark Antony’s incitement to riot after the murder of Julius Caesar.”
Mr. Skinny spoke again. “Yes, we’ve listened to them, and yes, they’re pretty bland. Are you using some kind of stage hypnosis?” He pulled a stack of head shots from an attaché case. “Look through these, please.”
Stephen was only halfway through the stack when Sudvoy spoke. “Recognize any of them?”
Sudvoy pulled a document out of the case and handed it to Stephen. “Until we figure this out, you’re under a cease and desist order. That means that you can’t give another performance unless we’ve cleared you. We have to put a stop to the suicides.”
“You can’t do that, we’re booked solid for the next three months. There’d be thousands of refunds and claims.”
“Watch us, Mr. Allan. If you give another performance in violation of the court order, you’ll be taken into custody. And we’ve notified the adjacent states to issue the same writ. We need to have you come in for questioning tomorrow morning. Would 9:30 be suitable?”
“You’ve fixed it so I’ve got nothing better to do.”
Karen had been lingering outside the room and walked up next to him as soon as the two men left. “They look like IRS accountants, Stephen. Everything all right?”
He nestled his hand on her abundant bottom. She was his anti-muse, an affectionate reality principle that kept him balanced. “No, K, it’s definitely not. I’m being shut down.”
“They can’t do that!”
“This court order says they can. I’ve got to call Murray and tell him to start refunding money. Worse, I think we’re stuck for the cost of the theater rental.”
“That’s horrible. How can they do that?”
“They said I was killing people, K, driving them to suicide with my talks. It can’t be true. I feel their elation, their joy.”
“Ridiculous. I’ve listened to you a dozen times. All I do is happy-cry.” She paused. “Do you want to get drunk and laid?”
Stephen smiled wryly. “Enticing, but not tonight.”
She held him and said, “I know this can’t be true. I’ll do some checking, but the idea is stupid.”
By the time he left, his mood had darkened with the theater. Yes, there are the ones that leave in a rage. But how can I be responsible for their insanities? Doing this is who I am—Fenton and I would have cold-sweat withdrawal without our fixes.
Karen called him the next morning after he’d left the interrogation. “Are you still a free man?”
“Yeah, but they don’t like my answers. I kept telling them that I never remembered what I’d said or how I’d said it, and they kept telling me that I was a liar who was hiding something, that nobody could affect people like I do and not know what was being said. They’re going to come after me hard, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I did some checking, and they’re at least partly right. I’ve identified eight people thus far that killed themselves within two days of attending a performance. Different ways—gas, razor, head-on collision. They mostly didn’t leave any explanation, but the one that did said he wasn’t worthy to continue living.”
“Jesus. Did you ever feel like killing yourself?”
“No, but neither have most of your listeners. I hate to say it, but it looks like some people go off the deep end after your presentation. If you can’t control what you say, maybe stopping for a while isn’t a bad idea.”
“I don’t think I can do that, K. I’m hard wired into it now.”
Nervous tension bunched up his muscles, and Stephen started walking, clumsily at first, then more easily once he found his pace. I can’t prescreen the audience…maybe insist they sign waivers? No, that would only advertise that the families of the deceased should sue me. Move to England? Not likely. But how can I live without sensing their emotions? It’s my nectar and ambrosia. Without it, like the gods, I’ll just decay.
Pain. My feet hurt like hell, and my calves are cramping. Stephen realized he’d been walking for three hours in uncomfortable dress shoes. His toes and soles smarted from blisters that he suspected had already opened up and oozed. He hailed a taxi and went back to his apartment. K was waiting for him.
“Stevie, I’ve located another five deaths.”
“Yes. It’s not surprising they’ve figured you’re the cause…”
“I’m not the cause!”
“Sorry, but if this goes any further, you’ll be prosecuted or sued, or both. Right or wrong, you’ve got to quit.”
They stood three paces apart. “I can’t quit, K. I’m hooked.”
“I’ll help you. You can go back to teaching…”
“And have one of my students off himself? No, I’d have to become a night watchman or janitor, and we wouldn’t have nearly enough to live on.”
“You could go back to school.”
“I can’t, I haven’t saved anything. And I’d hate it if I could.”
“Stephen, you have to quit pitying yourself. People change jobs all the time. They do what they have to.” K left without touching him, facial muscles clenched.
The theater canceled the next day’s performance, refunding tickets at the box office. Stephen spent the day in his apartment, in his underwear, talking with his lawyer, his agent, and the theater manager. They all used ego-stroking words to say the same thing—you can’t speak again until the accusation is cleared.
Karen called. “Can I come over?”
“No, K, not today. I’ve worked myself into a major bout of that self-pity you dislike. I’m not fit company.”
Stephen put her off for another week, three more theater cancellations. She banged on his door that Saturday afternoon. He answered the knocking in his underwear.
“Stevie, things can’t go on like this. I want to get you through and past this, finding something else, but you’re rejecting me.”
“Not here, K. Let me get some clothes on and we can go out for a drink.”
Once boothed in at a bar, she started again, her expression sad. “Stevie, Fenton just relapsed. I don’t know where he is. Are you okay?”
“Fenton, Jesus. I’ve got this big hole in my life, K, and no matter what I fill it with, it’s still gaping. I get the shakes when I’m awake and the cold sweats when I’m asleep.”
“Let me in, I can help.”
Stephen waited several seconds before speaking. “Would you be okay with it, if I could figure out a way to start speaking again?”
Karen’s glass thudded onto the table top. “No… Why… How… You can’t do that, people kill themselves after hearing you.”
“I know, but I also know that I’m only really alive when I hear their feelings.” He paused again. “You’ve only known me since I’ve been speaking, I don’t think you’d be happy with who I was, what I’d have to become again. We need to take some time apart, K, not least because you think I’m a murderer.”
“I never said that!”
“Not exactly, no. I’ll call as soon as I’ve sorted myself out.”
Karin stood up, her face red. “No rush,” she said, and walked out.
The next week, Stephen’s agent helped him find a job in a library that dripped just enough life support into him to stay warm, dry, and adequately fed. I’m shrinking into subsistence. A half-life for half a man. No, worse, a phantom pain from an amputated part of me.
Four months later, in the fall, two men approached Stephen as he left the library. Black dress shoes, dark, expensive suits. “I haven’t given any talks.”
“We know. Come with us, please, Mr. Allan, we need to discuss something.”
Stephen realized his fists were clenched. “We can do that here in the parking lot.”
“Play nice, Mr. Allan. We have a way for you to resume your calling.”
“Not likely, you’ve already destroyed what I had.”
“Get in the car, please, Mr. Allan. You’ll get an explanation at the end of the drive.”
The car was a Ford Explorer that, judging by the ride and the engine noise, had been significantly beefed up. The trip ended at a low-rise office building and a door that read Global Expediting. The lettering looked new, the office furniture inside looked rented, used.
“Sit down, Mr. Allan.”
The speaker was a pudgy, sweaty man whose expensive suit was rumpled. “Mr. Allan, you can call me Nobbs. I’m going to make you an offer.”
“You’re not the state police, are you?”
“No. What I’m about to say is confidential. If you blab anything about this, you’ll face confinement and reconditioning, maybe even disposal.”
Stephen felt the swirl of Nobbs’ emotions. “And the last two guys weren’t state police, were they? You set up this whole thing! But the cease and desist writ is legal, according to my lawyer.”
“It’s real. The state police were about to serve you when we intervened. We’ve done some investigating of our own and are prepared to make you an offer.”
Stephen hesitated. “I can’t do that anymore.”
The round man waved his arm dismissively. “You have a talent that we can put to ongoing use. You’re able to diddle with the minds you chant to, we don’t know how yet, and the weaker, more flawed minds break under your spell.”
Stephen jumped up. “That’s never been proved.”
“We both know it’s true, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Those people were defective and would eventually self-destruct without your help. Look at it like cancer research that uses animals and the terminally ill for experimentation that lets others live.”
“Maybe, but you’ve thought that, haven’t you? Your schedule had been three, ah, performances a week. We want you to hold two sessions a week rather than three, during the working day, and will pay you what you were making from the admissions for the three shows.”
“You put me out of business, why would you be willing to do that?”
“We hire thousands of persons for sensitive intelligence work. Despite stringent testing and profiling, about twenty hires per thousand turn out to be flawed, security risks that in the worst cases become double agents. We believe that putting the problematic candidates through your screening will greatly reduce that risk.”
Stephen resisted the urge to jump up. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because, Mr. Allan, about a year and a half ago, we started sending suspect candidates to attend your talks. The ones that didn’t kill themselves proved to be reliable employees. The others, well, you know about them.”
“Wait, the people that died were actually planted by you?”
“Not all, most.”
“So you people are the ones that really killed them. If you quit sending me your culls, I could get my life, my meaning back.”
“You’re still guilty of manslaughter, Mr. Allan, just not quite as many deaths as you’d thought. You’ll never be allowed to perform in public again. But we could see the pleasure you took in your on-stage mind songs, how addictive it was, how much it fulfilled you. We’re offering to give all that back to you and pay you well.”
“But all the deaths?”
“Were inevitable anyway. They’ll be discreetly tended to. You’ll never even read about them. And you’ll be doing a commendable service for your country. You’ll have a suitable cover story and alias, of course.
“This is a lot to absorb, I know. We’re not monsters. If you decline, we won’t bother you, just keep a continuing monitor on you to ensure your silence. But if you accept, think, Mr. Allan, you’ll have your inner voice back, and provide most of those listening to you with an immense spiritual experience. I know, I was one of those attending, and you overwhelmed me.
“Take a day to think about it. We’ll pick you up the same time tomorrow.”
The interior of the Explorer seemed blacker on the return trip. I can’t kill people any more, can’t mind chant them into insanity and death. But they kill themselves anyway, don’t they, one way or another? Is theirs a necessary trial by spiritual passage, satori, or suicide? Am I just a voicing of something outside myself? God help me, I so want to sing to their souls. God help me.
The small auditorium had been built for corporate meetings, with all sorts of audiovisual equipment that would go unused. Stephen, now documented as Ralph Wise, looked down at one hundred and twenty faces whose names he would never know.
“I’ve asked for and been given authorization to tell you that there’s a lethal risk to your listening to me. If you feel unsure about the risk, or unsure about your present condition, I encourage you to get up and leave right now, before I start. There’s no shame in recognizing a limitation and acting on it. Please, please do what is best for you personally and not for your presumed career.”
The faces remained stoic, the bodies motionless in their seats. All of them.
No one ever leaves, and one in ten dies. Their veneers of self-confidence are brittle, but too thick for my warning to shatter. And they’re young, always so young. My song for many of them will be a todes tanz, a riding song of the four horsemen. Perhaps I can’t hear my singing because it would also kill me.
His word waves began rushing over the pebbles, dislodging the least secured and slowly washing them away.
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