WSPS: Part 1

The Woman in Simon Park Station


Officer Escobar (a police officer in search of relaxation at any cost.)
The Woman in Simon Park Station (identity unknown.)
Larry (King of the Bums.)
Peter Hamlin (summer law clerk and amateur flautist.)
Louisa “Dizzy” Hamlin (aspiring jazz musician, film director, and criminal investigator.)
A number of other summer law clerks (probably not important.)
Officer Tang (a police officer in search of justice at any cost.)
Mom and Dad (two parents with unknown professions.)
Sourdough (a more sociable cat.)
Cicero (a less sociable cat.)
Rocky the Squirrel (an unwilling but plucky helper.)

Day 0:

Officer Escobar hated the subway beat.

He preferred policing places that had no obvious need of policing.  His normal route took him past the Dough-Re-Mi Café, whose only use for the men and women in blue was to have them drink its coffee.  Some officers might have believed that such a quiet place was not worth stopping at and moved on to more typical trouble spots.  Officer Escobar saw to it that the Dough-Re-Mi received the full benefit of local law enforcement, stopping in two to three times a day.

Subway stations, on the other hand, were problematic.  Things happened.  In Escobar’s ideal world, the only things that ever happened were visits from Rita, his favorite waitress, coming to ask whether his mug needed to be topped off, or if he wanted to try a free sample of their new Ebony and Ivory Chocolate and Vanilla Swirl Croissant.  Subway stations had fights, muggings, drug deals, and—God forbid—someone could even fall onto the tracks.  And they never had free samples of anything.

He braced himself for the smell as he walked down the steps into Simon Park Station.  The people of Crescenton took the “public” in public transportation to heart; they took full advantage of the space, safe in the belief that cleaning up was someone else’s (often, no one’s) job.  You could eat there if you were in a hurry, sleep there if it was too cold outside, go to the bathroom if you were really drunk, and engage in intimate relations if you were willing to risk someone recording it on a cell phone and putting it online.  When you combined the full range of human activity with the ventilation problems inherent to any underground location, you got a stink that could rival some industrial farms.

Simon Park was by no means the worst.  That honor belonged to Rittner Street, famous for the “Rittner Street Dash” people made to avoid having to take a breath before they were back in the open air.  But to someone accustomed to the mixed scents of baking, glazing, and frosting, it was agony.  Officer Escobar reminded himself once again never to agree to a shift swap until he knew all the details.

The station was quiet.  It was late, so the thunderous rumble accompanying a train’s arrival and departure only occurred a couple times an hour, and if there were any citizens currently treating the place like home, they were doing a good job of keeping it secret.  Escobar enjoyed the quiet.  It allowed him to focus on his thoughts, which were of his favorite café, rather than on his surroundings.  On that particular night, he might have expected more civil unrest, but then again he never had been good at keeping up with sports.  Luckily for him, most of the disturbances were above ground, because it is much more difficult to overturn a subway car than it is to upend a compact.

Officer Escobar felt that one of the most important parts of being a cop was to be adept at both seeing and not seeing.  Of the two, his more notable talent was the latter.  Escobar believed in the spirit of the law, not the letter, and he understood which crimes were best left unprosecuted.  When operating a speed trap, he was a natural at sneezing at precisely the moment when a car doing 59 in a 55-MPH zone drove past the radar gun.  He was legendary for the faith he put in obvious graffiti artists who said, “It was like that when I got here,” so long as he thought the new paint job was an improvement.  And the homeless were all but invisible to him.

He felt particularly strongly about this last point.  Everyone deserves a place to live, he thought, and those who could not afford a traditional residence had every right to look at rent-free areas.  So, when he walked along alleyways, through parks, and even in subway stations, he took no notice of people residing in areas that certain city ordinances considered off-limits.

Perhaps these feelings can explain why he tripped over a woman sitting on the ground as he walked past a concrete pillar.  Surely that’s the reason.  The idea that the woman simply had not been there an instant before was absurd.

Luckily Escobar was able to regain his balance, because the floor of the subway station was something he wasn’t entirely comfortable walking on, let alone meeting face-first.  As he turned around he dove into a standard cop apology, the kind designed to make you think the whole incident was mostly your fault.

The woman slowly lifted her head to look up at him.  She looked as dazed as if someone had just flung her off the subway without so much as a “No ticket,” so he had trouble telling whether what she said was a statement or a question: “Buckets of dead hair.”

Her words unsettled Escobar.  In his line of work—at least as it was conducted by officers with less powerfully selective senses—hearing a homeless woman muttering gibberish to herself was, sadly, not that unusual.  This woman, however, was not talking to herself.  Her wandering eyes had latched onto his face like he was the only man at a high school reunion with whom she had not had a messy breakup; she expected an answer.  And she was not muttering.  The woman spoke with perfect clarity.  Escobar wished she hadn’t, so that he could convince himself she had said something different.

Rather than attempt a response, he decided to take advantage of his new perspective on the woman’s face to get a better look at her.  His first impression was that she looked like an old witch, but not one who could afford ruby slippers, castles, or armies of simian aviators.  She had a face ravaged by age, though she lacked the warts and other skin diseases children come to expect from practitioners of the black arts.  Her hair, most of which was stuffed into a shapeless hood, could have been any color, especially under the unnatural lights of the subway station.

The rest of her was covered in filthy, faded, frayed garments that would make a fashion designer cry and a germaphobe gag.  Escobar could not tell if she was wearing one layer or many, and her figure was a total mystery (a mystery he felt was probably best left unsolved).

After sizing up his opponent, Officer Escobar took another, friendlier stab at conversation—making sure he hadn’t hurt her, asking who she was, why she was there, etc.

The woman’s eyes narrowed, as if it was finally dawning on her that what they had here was a failure to communicate.  “Satan’s zoo of bees?” she asked, this time in a decidedly questioning tone.

Escobar decided that this was as good a point as any to give up.  The woman was clearly nuts, but she seemed like one of the harmless ones.  After her second errant serve, instead of yelling or attacking him, she put her head back down and began speaking rapidly under her breath, like an orator who had gotten lost in the middle of a speech and was trying to find her place again.  Mere insanity was another thing Escobar believed did not merit police intervention; he himself had been known to lose it from time to time when he arrived at the Dough-Re-Mi only to discover that they had run out of their Minuet in Glee cookies (three quarters dark chocolate chips, one quarter white chocolate chips, one hundred percent sinfully delicious).

Still, something about the woman bothered him, and it wasn’t just her fondness for grim imagery.  He wanted to find out more, and if she wasn’t going to tell him anything useful, then there was only one place to go.

Officer Escobar gave Simon Park Station one last sweeping glance.  Satisfied that it was safe for another day, he set out to find Larry.

Though he had neither address nor phone, Larry was not a hard man to track down.  It just took a while.  So Escobar cut straight into Simon Park, skipping his patrol car, where he might have been distracted by reports of mild rioting near the university.  He strained his eyes until he spotted one of the people he usually could not see.  He inquired after Larry, and the man on the bench simply pointed north.

Escobar nodded curtly and followed the directions, looking for the next link in the chain.  It took all his focus to seek out those he had trained himself not to detect, so he remained oblivious to the shouts and the sirens—while still a far cry from Rome in 44 BC or Paris in 1848, Crescenton that night was a city of discontent.  But Escobar was single-minded.  Following the fingers of those who, like him, had much bigger problems than the ones who were making all the fuss, he went east, then southeast, then east again, then south, then east, then, aggravatingly, back west, until he found who he was looking for.

“Evenin’, Officer,” said Larry, though by that point it was closer to morning.  He was smiling broadly, but with Larry you could never tell if a smile was genuine.  The cap he was never seen without seemed designed to droop down and cover his eyes.

Escobar, out of breath after nearly an hour of walking, took a moment and then explained that he wanted information about a presumably homeless woman living in a subway station.

Larry chuckled.  “Whaddaya think I am, King of the Bums or somethin’?”

Larry, the self-proclaimed King of the Bums, was the leading expert on the city’s “free” population (he chose to refer to them by what they had rather than what they lacked).  He could tell you everything there was to know about the free people of Crescenton, unless of course you actually wanted information, in which case his normally overactive mouth snapped shut and could only be pried open by the careful application of money, foodstuffs, or spirituous beverages.  Since Escobar did not have any cash, baked goods, or booze on him, he resorted to Larry’s other favorite thing: flattery.

“I dunno . . . you say she’s in the subway?  I don’t go in much for that public transportation.  Not that I can’t afford it.”  Despite his steady business as an information dealer, he probably couldn’t afford it, at least not on a regular basis.  Though he never left the city, his job called for a considerable amount of travel.  “A man’s not a man unless he can get where he needs to go on his own two legs.”

This may have been a crack at Escobar, who was built much more like a shotput than a javelin, but he did not have time to crack back.  If Larry was in a philosophical mood, the conversation could last until sunrise.  Escobar repeated his query, and his faith in Larry’s omniscience, and this time he threw in a promise that next time they met he would be carrying a bag of goodies from his favorite bakery.

“Hmm.”  Larry stroked his beard.  The condition of the beard, like that of all the other elements of Larry’s appearance, was remarkably consistent: unkempt, but not dramatically so.  Like all kings, he spent a great deal of energy maintaining his appearance.  “What does she look like?”

Escobar gave the best physical description he could, which, despite the fact that he had been standing only a few feet from her, was not that good.  “And what’d she say?”  Escobar repeated the phrases, which, despite their seeming meaninglessness, he remembered perfectly.  “Eh, I’ve heard stranger, but not much.”

Larry flashed his ambiguous smile.  “I gotta say, I’m surprised.  I don’t think I know this lady.  And here I thought I knew everybody in our fair city.  Maybe she’s a visitor.”

This explanation did not ring true with Officer Escobar.  Something about her had made him feel that she was a fixture, a part of the station, that she could no more come and go than the pillar she was slumped against.  But questioning Larry’s judgment to his face was often an expensive move, so he did not share his misgivings.

“I can try to find out more if you want—as long as I’m compensated, that is.  You want me to keep an eye on her?”

Escobar thanked him for the offer but said that he would be taking care of that himself.

Day 1:

The next day dawned over Crescenton, chilly and overcast.  People got up, groaned, sampled their favorite hangover remedies, threw the newspaper away unread in a fit of anger.  Everyone agreed that it would be best to forget about the events of the previous day as soon as possible.

Everyone except Officer Escobar.

That brisk morning found him hustling down into Simon Park Station, clutching a bag of warm pastries close to his heart.  There were several reasons why he had stopped in to buy a bag of mini-donuts on his way to work.  One was as insurance, in case he ran into Larry again—the man’s ability to be across town when you wanted to see him and right behind you when you didn’t had led to speculation that he was not only a ninja but a ninja with a twin brother.  The second was as a gift for the mystery woman, who, presuming she has spent the night down there, would be in need of warm food.  The third, of course, was that resisting those deep-fried rings of soft, faintly crunchy, brown sugary goodness required feats of will of which Escobar was, quite frankly, not capable.

The station looked different in the morning.  In the eight or so hours he had been away, the place had woken up.  A steady trickle of passengers-to-be flowed past him, punctuated by the occasional surge in the opposite direction whenever a train arrived.  Shops had come to life, offering everything from coffee to coffee with sugar; the quality was poor, but the price—and, more importantly, the time investment—were right.  Officer Escobar, who had already had two cups of fine French Roast and was holding a bag containing more than his Recommended Dietary Allowance of sugar, ignored them.

Though the morning rush hour had passed, he worried that the sharp upswing in hustle, paired with the accompanying increase in bustle, would prevent him from finding the woman again.  Even more disturbing was the idea that she might no longer be there at all.  He could not say why he was concerned; the idea of her vanishing was just somehow unsettling.

After fifteen minutes of searching, near the end of which he half-seriously considered abusing his authority to evacuate the station, he spotted her.  She was sitting against the same pillar, on the same side, outside the primary flow of traffic but still at some risk of being stepped on (or tripped over).

Escobar approached.  Her head was down, just as it had been the night before.  For an instant he panicked, thinking that she had passed on, that he had left an old woman to perish all alone, and that it was only the mingled foul odors of the subway station that had covered up the corpse-stink and prevented her body from being found.

She was breathing.  Escobar shook his head.  He was not normally much of a worrier, a fact his wife reminded him of almost daily.

Since verbal communication had failed miserably at their first meeting, he tried a different approach.  Opening his bag, he waved it past her crooked nose.

No response.

Escobar was confused.  Surely only the most devout monks had powers of self-denial great enough to scorn that smell.  He opened the bag a little wider before making another pass, this time shaking it to emphasize the delicious rattling of excess sugar crystals.

Nothing.  The woman was unbreakable.  Far less breakable than Officer Escobar, anyway, who was forced to give in and eat one.  Then, because you don’t go to Paris just to look at the Eiffel Tower and fly straight back home, he ate two more.

As he licked his fingers, he stared at his indomitable opponent.  He wondered if she really was dead, but no, there was the breathing.  And it wasn’t just breathing.  She was muttering to herself.  Curiosity beat out concern for the woman’s privacy in a heartbeat, and he leaned in to catch what she was saying.

“Everyone could use a little adventure now and then . . . something to spice things up . . . something to let you break free of your daily routine . . .”

In some ways these words made a lot more sense than the ones she had spoken before.  In others, however, they were just as crazy, and maybe even a bit dangerous.  Escobar recalled a man from his childhood, whom the neighborhood kids called “Almirante Loco” because he generally looked like he had just fallen off a boat.  The Almirante had informed them that the moon was not to be trusted, that it had struck before, wiping out the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire simultaneously, and that it was biding its time until it was ready to come back and finish the job.

The woman frowned and shook her head, clearing her mental Etch-a-Sketch.  “Have you ever considered a career as a romantic fortune seeker?  The pay’s not always great, but there are fringe benefits . . . you get to set your own hours . . .”

But Escobar remained unconvinced that she was as crazy as she appeared.  These were not random, fevered mumblings; she was planning, maybe even plotting something.  Her voice, though soft, remained as clear as ever.  As he thought about it, he remembered that even the Almirante’s words had eventually found a sort of rhyme and reason, as he revealed that the only way to stop the moon was to donate to his Stop the Moon Fund.  Escobar had even given him a quarter once, and, in all fairness, the moon had yet to fulfill its cataclysmic ambitions.

It sounded like a sales pitch, though not a very appealing one.  A woman twice his age had no business using words like “romantic” and “fringe benefits.”

The woman seemed to agree, for she shook her head again, slapping it lightly against the pillar for inspiration.  Or perhaps not so lightly, for her voice picked up a few decibels as she said, “Don’t you feel that there’s something missing from your life?”

Officer Escobar decided to leave her alone.  He had other stations to check on, and she wasn’t in a conversational mood.  Besides, with a bag of donuts from the Dough-Re-Mi in his hand, there was nothing missing from his life.

As he leaned back and stood up, the woman said (possibly to him but most likely to herself), “Who am I kidding?  No one’s ever going to buy this.”

Day 2:

“Meet a man three different times and you will meet three different men,” may have been a famous quote by Ben Franklin.  Or Officer Escobar might have made it up himself.  He wasn’t sure.  Either way, he felt it was true.  In the morning, when baked goods are at their freshest, he was pleasant, cheerful, occasionally even buoyant.  Later on, typically around 8 PM, which just happened to be closing time at the Dough-Re-Mi, his mood tended to droop.

Wondering if it might be the same for the woman who uttered macabre gibberish late at night and practiced persuasive speaking in the morning, he decided to try hitting Simon Park Station in the afternoon.

The traffic was worse than during the morning rush.  Commuters on their way to work are tired, but they’re also orderly, trying to get into a business frame of mind before getting to the office.  People coming home are even more tired, and if you’re the only thing standing between them and the freedom to fling off their ties, kick off their shoes, dump their briefcases and plop down on the couch, you can hardly expect them to be polite.

Escobar waded through the eager crowd of people, most mere minutes away from blissfully mindless, television-induced inactivity.  Once inside, it took him only a few seconds to locate her pillar.  He appreciated consistency.  Whether they were perps, informants, or just persons of general interest, the easiest people to deal with were always the ones that never moved.

Naturally, as soon as he thought this, the woman stood up and strode purposefully toward the nearest pedestrian.

Officer Escobar was not prepared for this situation.  Unpredictable women, while fascinating, have the problem of being difficult to predict.  He had no idea what would come of the encounter.  He did not know if she would talk of bees, mysterious adventures, or both.  What he did know was that, as a cop, his patience and his tolerance for the weird were much higher than those of the average citizen.

Dying to find out what was going to come out of the strange woman’s mouth this time, he edged closer, positioning himself to prevent any disturbance.  Whatever she had to say, he doubted the commuter would be interested.  The only reason the average telemarketer doesn’t end the day with a broken nose is that you can’t punch someone over the phone.

Seeing her in motion for the first time, he noted that the woman was short, but not as hunched over as he had expected.  She moved quickly despite her awkwardly long and shapeless garment, quickly enough to catch up with the speed-walking man.  She reached out but stopped just short of seizing his jacket sleeve.  “Don’t you feel that there’s something missing from your life?”

She was loud enough to be heard throughout the busy passageway, but her voice appeared to have an effect on only two people: her target and Officer Escobar.

“Uh . . . no, actually,” the man said, after giving the question far more thought than Escobar would have predicted.  “No, definitely not.  I’ve got a great life.  I love my job, my beautiful wife, my three spunky daughters.  Here, I’ve got pictures.”

The man set down his briefcase, took the woman by the shoulder, directed her away from the line of traffic, and reached into his pocket.  A rookie cop might have thought that she was about to get mugged.  The woman might have thought the same, though the look on her face was more surprised than afraid.  Escobar knew better; the only thing that came out of the pocket was a cell phone.

He flipped around to give the woman a better view and promptly started pushing buttons with the eager glee of a child.  “This is Briana, our youngest.  Just turned two last month.  She’s a bundle of energy.  It’s all we can do to keep up.  Taylor, on the other hand, just started middle school, and I’m sure you remember what that’s like . . .”

Whether out of petty revenge for the attempt to waste his time or a genuine belief that she was interested in his family, the man proceeded to share his entire photo library.  The woman, trapped in a perplexed daze, could do nothing but nod politely at appropriate intervals.  Escobar waited, unsure if she should be laughing or trying to rescue her.

Thirty minutes later the slide show ended.  The man returned phone to pocket and picked up his briefcase, which anyone could have easily lifted if Escobar hadn’t been keeping an eye on it.  “Thanks so much, miss!  That’s just what I needed to cheer me up after a long week at work.”

The man departed, waving cheerfully.  The woman waved half-heartedly back.  Then, as though someone had just pulled a chair out from under her, she slumped to the ground.

Escobar wanted to go over and talk to her, to finally figure out what her deal was, but he refrained.  She looked tired, and after the ordeal she had just been through he couldn’t blame her.  Besides, how would that conversation go?  In his experience, “I’ve been watching you” is never a particularly good ice breaker.

The walk home was more troublesome than it should have been.  For the first time since his own experiences in the horrifying era we call middle school, Escobar ran into a wall because he was trying to figure out what to say to a girl.

Day 3:

After a night that involved much more thinking than he preferred to get into in a non-work environment, Officer Escobar decided that he was no longer going to try to approach the woman.  He had no reason to believe that she would say to him anything other than what he had already heard the past two days (thankfully she at least seemed to have given up on the dead hair).  Or she might react differently because he was a cop, and when there are two versions of a story, the one you tell to the police is never the more helpful one.  The best approach was to observe and be prepared to respond to new developments.

Escobar was not a fan of hands-on policing anyway.  He saw his job as mostly symbolic; his role was not enforcement but prevention.  Most people weren’t stupid enough to pull anything with a cop watching, and the ones that were often took care of themselves.  He could stop crime before it started, simply by existing.  He wore the badge so that he need never use it.

Since his beat still happened to be the subways, he chose to continue wearing his badge in Simon Park Station.

He took up a position leaning against his pillar—the one that afforded the best view of hers—and sipped his subway stand coffee, which was foul but hot (the Dough-Re-Mi was always mobbed on weekends).  It had not taken him long to figure out what to look for.  Whenever someone separated from the pack, the old woman would pounce, like an ancient lioness, who has to rely on strategy rather than speed.

Her current target was a young woman with a backpack, probably a university student.  She wore a sweatshirt with a picture of an improbably-proportioned woman holding a battleaxe and something written in one of those made-up languages where all the letters seem to come with dots.  “Don’t you feel that there’s something missing from your life?”

The girl turned toward her, eyes wide.  Like most of the old woman’s prey, she had not noticed her until she spoke.  Most of the time this stealthy approach caused mild irritation in the subject.  In this case, however, it led to excitement.  “Ohmygod I so do!”

The old woman, pleased that someone had finally responded to her question in the affirmative, took a moment to grin with satisfaction.  Allowing the girl an opening, however, proved to be her undoing.

“It’s like, all my life, I’ve felt that I was different, you know?  That I was special.  That maybe, just maybe, I was put on this Earth to accomplish something.  Something real, you know?  Not like being an actuary or a dentist or a mailman or a . . .

“My psychiatrist says that I’m just using fantasy to explain why I was picked on so much as a kid.  But I’m all like, what the hell does he know about my destiny?  He’s just some moron who flunked out of med school and now gets paid a hundred bucks an hour to pass off his psychoses onto other people.  And anyway, I totally started learning Elvish before they stopped inviting me to their birthday parties, so really he’s just completely full of . . .”

At first the old woman remained calm.  She needed time to think—it was obvious that she hadn’t planned what to say if she ever got this far.  Once the tirade passed the five-minute mark, however, she looked more and more exasperated, waiting for any gap long enough to get a syllable in edgewise.  Eventually the patient lioness was rewarded when the flying gazelle stopped at a water hole.

“Good!  Good.  I can, uh, sense that your . . . spirit is ready for your quest.  But first I must ask: can you play a musical instrument?”

“Huh?  No.  Mom was always trying to get me to learn piano, but I was like, ‘No, Mom, I’m not going to be the perfect little girl you always imagined I’d be.’”

“Oh . . .”

Escobar was becoming an expert at recognizing when the old woman was disappointed.  This was no mere tropical depression: this was a full-blown Category 5 crestfallen.  “Well, in that case, I—I sense that your destiny lies elsewhere.”

The gazelle, spotting the lioness for what she really was, fled.  As she left, she made sure to get in a few parting shots.  “Okay.  I get it.  Fine.  You mystics are all alike.  You’re all like, ‘Sure, you’re special, but your destiny lies elsewhere.’  You know what?  My destiny does lie elsewhere.  And when I figure out where that is, oh man, you’re totally going to wish that I let you in on it.  You sylrehy-rydehk cyjyka!”

The lioness, wounded and perhaps upset at her own lack of good taste, limped back to her pillar to lick her wounds and wait for another unsuspecting antelope to pass by.

Days 4-6:

A sharply-dressed woman with a sharper eye: “I think the real question is: don’t you feel that something’s missing from your life?  See?  Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.”

Officer Escobar had originally planned to take notes on all the old woman’s conversations, with the idea that he might puzzle over them during his off-duty hours while savoring a cream-filled something.  But it turned out that he was no better at taking notes than he had been in school.  Besides, the kinds of clues he worked best with usually had less to do with the subtleties of language and more to do with people’s hands being a striking shade of scarlet.  So instead he just wrote down some of the more interesting responses.

A series of people carrying a variety of brightly-colored pamphlets and dressed in a variety of New Age garments: “No, but have you heard the good news of Althena/Farore/Yevon?”

He did manage to discover one thing, namely, why the woman fascinated him.  It was not sexual attraction, not that sexual attraction had ever been high on his suspects list.  Escobar was a happily married man, as happy as the next, which is to say that he could not imagine a reality without Mrs. Escobar.  He could come up with plenty of fantasies, but none of them ever felt remotely real.  In any case, if he was going to have an affair, it would be with a woman ten years younger, not thirty years older.

A desperate but seemingly harmless man: “I—I think my wife might be cheating on me . . . with my other personality!”

It was her voice.  He had picked up on it the first time he saw her; he just hadn’t attached much importance to it.  She spoke with a sweet clarity that you would normally expect from a singer or professional speaker.  You might think such a tone would feel out of place in normal conversation, but somehow everything that came from her mouth sounded perfectly natural (or it would have, if she weren’t talking about some magic quest).  All he wanted was to continue listening.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t the one doing most of the talking.

One of King Larry’s free people: “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong.  First of all, you want to avoid the subway.  People are in a hurry.  They don’t want to stop for anything.  Second, don’t try to persuade them.  When people plan to be charitable, they do it with an organization so they can deduct from their taxes.  You want to appeal to their most primal sense of pity.  Don’t ask questions; don’t give them a chance to say no; don’t speak.  Just look.”

Whatever power her words may have had over Escobar, they were ineffective in convincing anyone else to stick around.  As they days went by the woman appeared more and more depressed, and Escobar, feeling sorry for her, fell into a funk as well.  He had two options: step in to save her by answering her call or stop watching her.

Officer Escobar, the man in blue, one of Crescenton’s finest, chose the latter.

In his defense, he couldn’t play a musical instrument either.

Day 7:

The Week of the Swapped Shift was over.  Officer Escobar was free to return to his usual beat.  He had no work-related reason to visit Simon Park Station.  None at all.

To celebrate, he decided to mix up his routine a bit.  Rather than drive to work as he always did, he took the subway.  Because of his lack of familiarity with LCTA (Laragheny County Transit Authority) schedules, he chose to leave extra time for his commute.  Then, partway there, when he realized that he was on pace to arrive obnoxiously early, he got off the train to walk around.  The stop at which he happened to do so was Simon Park.

No one but an omniscient narrator could ever know that he had planned the detour all along.

Despite coming from a different direction than usual, he found the mystery woman’s pillar with ease.  For a moment he thought that, seeing him as a normal commuter rather than an observer in the shadows—in other words, seeing him at all—she would walk up and deliver her trademark line.  But it seemed she was dormant that day.  He found her with her heard drooped, as unaware of the world around her as she had been when he heard her working on her sales pitch.

As he leaned down to check on her, Escobar thought he heard something.  It sounded like, “Guess I’d better get used to being stuck here forever,” but that didn’t make any sense.  Surely no one outside of a folk song could get trapped in the subway.

A little later, the woman opened her eyes, looked around, and spotted a paper bag on the ground next to her.  An understated logo featuring a couple musical notes and some scent lines was printed under the words, “Dough-Re-Mi Café.”  Inside was a muffin.  Officer Escobar did not eat muffins; he considered them health food.  Since this muffin was the size of a boxer’s fist and covered in chocolate chips, caramel, and walnuts, it was about as healthy as cheesecake, but he believed she would appreciate it anyway.  No matter how good they are for you, broccoli and lettuce will not cheer you up.

Like most people who aren’t named Alice and don’t fall down rabbit holes, the woman knew better than to eat food that appears mysteriously.  After all that she had been through, however, something like that hardly qualified as mysterious.  And a hungry person will eat just about anything, even if it says “EAT ME” on it.  So she scarfed it down and was reminded that there is good in the world.

“It’s still too early to give up.”

Day 61:

Officer Escobar didn’t go back into Simon Park Station after that day.  Now that his colleague was back on the job, the subway tunnels were as safe as they needed to be.  Maybe too safe.  Anyway, for all he knew the woman had finally accomplished whatever the hell it was she was trying to do and was no longer there.  He could almost believe that (Escobar had once witnessed a starving man breaking a window to go into a house and take a loaf of bread.  When the man said he lived there, Escobar took him at his word, but this was just too much for him to swallow).

So Escobar, who got impatient on public transportation anyway, took the subway out off his regular route.

He did not, however, put the woman out of his mind.  Mrs. Escobar, whenever she would see his eyes glaze over, simply assumed he was daydreaming about baked goods again.  And, often, she was correct: though the images changed as the weeks went by—from Leftover-Halloween-Candy Bars to Cranberry Chutney Strudel and Pumpkin Pie Profiteroles to the incomparable Bûche de Noël—her husband’s thoughts never went long before wandering back to the Dough-Re-Mi.  But a man’s mind cannot live on cake alone, and so, every now and then, he semi-voluntarily turned his mind to the woman in Simon Park Station.

She was still there.  He knew this, and grew more certain with every passing day.  Until he saw her outside with his own eyes (even though they had once been called “the least reliable pair of eyes in the Crescenton Police Department”), he would remain sure that she was still underground, still leaning against her concrete pillar, still addressing her pleas to whoever happened to walk by.  He was also fairly confident that the pedestrians she spoke to were continuing to give her a variety of responses ranging from mild curiosity to just short of physical violence.

Because picturing her failing over and over again was almost as depressing as watching her do so, Escobar often switched to imagining what the person who finally answered her call would be like.  He had several competing theories.  Rescuer Mark I, the first to surface, was essentially a younger version of Escobar himself.  In addition to being in better shape than the policeman had ever been he was also a world-renowned pastry chef and had a considerably smoother way with words, but other than that they were very much alike.  Mark I played the French horn, because he had always thought they looked cool.

Rescuer Mark II was her knight in shining armor.  Literally.  The lance was a safety hazard, and the logistics of getting the horse through the turnstiles were nothing short of a nightmare, but hey, the classics are classics for a reason.  Mark II, who had a flair for the dramatic, was most often pictured charging down the entryway steps, knocking over at least one watery coffee stand, picking up the old woman and lifting her onto the horse in one smooth motion, and riding off into the sunset without even pausing to catch his breath.  The knight was too busy jousting to learn to play an instrument, but he had a squire who accompanied him everywhere he went and who performed regularly on the coconuts.  Coconuts are an instrument, right?

But it was the third iteration that became his favorite.  Mark III—whom, in a burst of creativity, he had decided to name “Mark”—was an older gentleman, but not too old, perhaps halfway between Escobar and the woman.  He always dressed stylishly but subtly, and his silvery black hair looked like the work of a laser-guided comb.  Mark was a man of the world in every sense; there was no great city he’d never visited, no notable figure he’d never met, no country in which he’d never narrowly avoided being deported.  He could talk for weeks about all the things he had seen and done, but mostly he preferred to listen.  Mark was proficient in any number of instruments, but his signature sound was playing soft, jazzy riffs on the clarinet.

The woman in Simon Park Station had considerably more free time to devote to this problem, so it should come as no surprise that she developed designs for dozens if not hundreds of potential saviors (she lost count after Mark XXVI).  Still, none of these prototypes bore much resemblance to the man who ended up responding to her plea—though, like all of Escobar’s inventions and the majority of the woman’s, he was indeed a man.  He was no master baker, wore no armor, and his range of life experience was about as broad as the latest cell phone model.  He did have one thing in common with the woman, which was that he also lived in a place where Officer Escobar never went: the suburbs.

At first glance it might seem that the suburbs would have been an ideal posting for the man who prefers to police areas in little need of policing.  True, the crime rates did tend to be lower outside the Crescenton city limits.  However, this was not due to there being fewer crimes committed but rather to their being less obvious.  The crimes of the suburbs are harder to define, harder to prove, and much harder to stamp out, but that does not make them any less wrong.

On this particular day, a crime against cinema was being perpetrated.

* * *

Some people think cinema is an exclusive domain.  If it’s not filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, if it’s not based on a bestselling novel, if it doesn’t have a special effects budget with at least seven zeroes and star actors you can read about in magazines, then it’s not a real movie.  For the purpose of determining punishments, however, the Universal Court of Good Taste has decided to adopt the broad definition: any clip recorded on a camera is a movie.  Any movie that someone else has to watch is cinema.

Much of it is awful.

The fancy trappings of a “real” movie, while not required, certainly do help.  Your chances of producing something watchable are much better on a soundstage than they are in, say, your basement.  It’s considered good practice to hire some actual screenwriters instead of having your mom write the whole thing.  You’re much more likely to impress with CGI than by throwing a faded old bedsheet over an even older bookcase.  And, while you don’t have to go to the A-list, you’re always better off not using an actor just because he has some spare time on his hands.

“And . . . action!”

Unfortunately, most directors disregard this helpful advice.  Fortunately for them, the Cinema Bureau of the UCGT can’t keep up with the pace of new productions any more than an aged tortoise with a broken leg has a shot at catching a bullet train.  In fact, they’re so busy recording crimes that they never get around to enforcement.  They work 90-hour weeks, spend their brief breaks staring at the wall because at least it doesn’t move, and liken the coming of YouTube to the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

“You don’t have to say ‘action.’  I can see the red light go on.”

“Apparently I do, because you’re still not in character.”

“Character?  I have a character?”

“A character that’s in danger of being killed off if he doesn’t show up soon.”

“Sorry.  He’s distracted, wondering why he keeps talking to some mysterious off-camera voice.”

“Oh, I’ll edit this out later.”

“Are you sure you can do that?”

“Just . . . read.”

The lead actor turned away from the director, got into his poorly defined character, and turned his gaze toward the camera.  In physical terms, this change of eye angle was very slight, but the psychological ramifications were huge.  Before, he was merely standing in the vicinity of filming.  Now he was on film.

People have many difference reactions to being on camera.  Some love it.  They live for it.  They feed off the energy of an imagined audience and become incandescent, transforming into someone they’d never before dreamed.  A recording device grants quickness to their words, grace to their feet, and a variety of mystical qualities to their hair.  They say the camera adds ten pounds—and for the true actor, it’s ten pounds of confidence.

Of course, there are others who do their best impression of Flick, the kid in A Christmas Story who got his tongue stuck to a light pole.

The camera is fickle.  It chooses the targets of its awful awkwardness-inducing powers at random.  The semi-willing lead in this production, for example, seemed competent enough.  He wore a suit, which—though slightly too broad at the shoulders and much too broad around the waist—had recently been ironed to within a thread of its existence.  His tie was done up in the rare Atlantic knot, which looks so silly that people only tie it to show off that they can.  Before he opened his mouth, at least, he appeared perfectly comfortable with a script in his hand.

There were other factors that didn’t show up on camera as well.  As captain of his high school debate team, he had gotten first place in both the Policy and Lincoln-Douglas Debate categories at the NFL (National Forensics League) National Tournament.  As valedictorian, he had given a graduation speech that a number of adults called the best they’d ever heard—to be fair, most of them saw his mother on a regular basis, and may not have been able to afford to say otherwise.  In college, he had stood up to present issues before the student congress so many times that he had been unofficially banned from their meetings.

In short, this kid was no stranger to the spoken word.  But in front of the camera, he delivered his lines with all the elegance of a man with a mouthful of ice cubes who was getting over a hangover while trying to impress a woman and learning to ride a unicycle.

He coughed into his fist, an awkward, contrived gesture that he had never before used in a public speaking situation.  “Good morning.  Or, um, if you’re watching this in the afternoon, then good afternoon, I guess.  And if you’re watching it at night . . . no, why would you be watching it at night?”  A not-so-faint groan could be heard coming from somewhere off-camera.

The cough was repeated.  “In any case, my name is Peter Hamlin, and I am here today to introduce my sister, Louisa.  She has been playing the trumpet since she was eight years—”

“Seven,” said the off-screen voice.  The number was delivered in a tone of exceeding obviousness; it was not the “seven” that was the answer to “In what year was Publius Quinctilius Varus appointed governor of Germania?” but rather the one that follows “What comes after six?”

“Right.  Seven.”  At this point the actor became flustered—well, even more flustered—and wondered if perhaps he should have spent more time—any time—memorizing his lines.  A more expensive camera (this one had been purchased for $35 at a garage sale) might have picked up the cold front of sweat that was forming along his forehead and preparing to rain into his eyes.  But Peter Hamlin was a fighter, so he continued his valiant but ill-advised struggle against the evil red light.

“She has performed in the Laragheny County Youth Band for four years, and was recently awarded the Most Promising Musician, uh, award.”  He looked up hopefully, but the light refused to wink out, meaning his trial was not yet done.  His script, however, was.  Peter Hamlin, who had once come up with a ten-minute speech on financial deregulation off the top of his head, improvised.  “Um, her parents are Paul and Joan Hamlin . . . her grandparents are—”

If this had been a full-scale feature film production, he might have heard a “CUT!”  Instead he got, “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Peter took the opportunity to collapse on a nearby ancient couch beyond the bounds of the impromptu film studio.  Free from the camera’s terrible gaze, he could relax, at least as far as a man in a suit and tie can relax.  “Let me go?”

“Oh no.  You’re not getting away until we finish this.”

A new character appeared on screen, her back facing the lens.  From that angle all that could be seen was a tremendous mass of curly red hair, hair so extensive it had not only its own personality but its own culture as well.  It resisted attempts to tame it like a cat resists being put in bath water.  It had been so long since this hair had felt the touch of scissors that it had forgotten what they were.

Other than that, this low-budget film’s leading lady was much shorter than her co-star, and while her clothes were more casual, her attitude was not.

She unsympathetically examined her brother.  Peter stared defiantly back.  You could see that already the healthy bond of mistrust that characterizes any great actor-director relationship was forming.  If the girl had been a more experienced director, she might have known that she would get much more natural speech out of the talent in this pose than when she stood him up like a condemned man in front of a firing squad.  Sadly, though the camera had been left on, it was out of negligence rather than as a cleverly candid approach to filming.

“First issue: wardrobe.  Who told you to wear a suit?”

As a man who hoped one day to be the one doing the asking, he took pride in his ability to hold his own under harsh questioning.  “A man doesn’t need to be told to wear a suit.”

“Translation: Mom said you should put it on.”

Peter skillfully dodged the question a second time.  “I have my interview this afternoon.  That’s why I’m wearing it.  Besides, suits look cool.”

Though she was facing away from the camera, you could still somehow feel the director roll her eyes.  “Suits look cool on some people, in some situations.  For example, they never look cool when the person wearing them is the son of the person they originally belonged to.  And since, unlike you, I’m not applying to be a bank manager—”

“I’d correct you, but . . . why?”

“—we’re going to go for a different look.  Lose the tie, lose the jacket.”  Peter did not make the demanded adjustments, though his facial expression left open the possibility that they would be carried out later.  “Unfortunately, the biggest problem isn’t how you look; it’s how you sound.”

“You do realize that people train for years in order to be able to sound normal on film, right?”

“Hmm.  If only there were someone in this house who had been practicing to be a public speaker since he was in elementary school.  Oh wait it’s you.”

“This is different.”

The girl shook her head, a dangerous maneuver.  The camera, fearsome though it was, narrowly avoided being struck down to the ground.  “Only different in your mind.”  The young director had already learned the first truth of her profession: actors know nothing.

Perhaps afraid that her brother might seize this opening to take the conversation off on a pointless philosophical tangent about the all-encompassing nature of the “mind,” she made a tiny concession.  “But we’ll worry about that in a bit.  Before we can work on how you say it, we need to take care of what you say.  Do you really think you’re here to read my musical résumé?”

Peter had very little idea why he was there at all, but admitting so would be showing a sign of weakness, so he fell back on the oldest weapon in the sibling warfare arsenal.  “I just read what Mom wrote.”

The girl was well on her way to becoming a great filmmaker, for it was clear she thought no better of screenwriters than she did of actors.  “There’s your problem.  Mom’s just playing the proud parent.  They don’t need to know that I won that award, or this trophy, or that I’ve been first chair since I was a freshman.  The music has to speak for itself.”

“So let it.”  Peter was new to the biz as well, but he still knew the first truth of the actor: always pretend you have something more important to do.  “Just say your name and start playing.  You don’t need me.”

“Okay, so it’s not just about the music.”  Then, because letting the talent think that they may have been right about something is often fatal, she added, “And thanks for reminding me that you got my name wrong.  This is for a jazz combo, not an orchestra.  I need to show them that I have character.  Give the genius talent a human side.”

Peter looked at his watch.  His interview wasn’t for a little while, but he didn’t want to have to dash over there because he had wasted time on this introduction.  He needed time to settle into the interview mood.  Ironically, it is this process of “getting in the mood” that causes many people to blow the interview, but Peter, like most people, did not know this.  “And Mom can’t do this because . . .?”

“You’ve already proven that Mom can’t do it by reading her script.  If I do it, it sounds unnatural, and if I get a friend, I’m trying too hard to seem cool.  Older brother is just about right.  A cousin might be better, but you’ve got to work with the tools you’re given.”

“This is the only tool I was given,” Peter said, raising the “script” unenergetically into the air.  He wondered if three barely legible sentences written on the back of a used envelope could really be called a script.

The director considered this.  She had not had time to vet the script; it had taken her most of the morning just to figure out how to get the camera to turn on.  As they say in the movie biz, and various other businesses, “You can’t get blood from a stone.”  You can, however, get blood with a stone, which is why the director must be prepared to play the role of peacemaker, especially when filming scenes on rocky seashores.

“Tell you what.  I’ll provide a sample, and then you can copy it.  But first you’ve got to do something for me.”

“And that is?”  Peter was the kind of guy who actually read the Terms and Conditions that popped up on his computer screen before clicking “I Agree.”

“Lose the suit.”

Peter, the skillful compromiser, removed his jacket, draped it gently over the back of the couch, and loosened his tie.  “What’s the sample?”

“Simple.  I’m going to introduce you.”  The girl spun to face the still-rolling camera that she didn’t know was still rolling.  Even from the front her most notable feature was the monstrous quantity of hair.  It overshadowed her small frame like a poodle standing over a chihuahua.  Were you to get lost in that hair, you would have to hope that you brought string or bread crumbs; otherwise you were never going to get out.

He eagerly waited for his sister to succumb to the same stupefying power of the camera lens, but it didn’t happen.  And here’s why: though they both had a lot of experience putting their talents on display in public, their styles were completely different.  Peter was an orator; when speaking, even when debating, it was all one-way.  There was no interaction between talker and listener.  He could give the same speech in an empty room that he could on the floor of the House of Representatives.

But his sister was a performer.  Music is not unidirectional—it bounces of the walls, it echoes, it reverberates.  The audience was as much a part of her playing as her trumpet or her lungs.  So when the camera drove home the fact that her performance had a potentially limitless audience, it didn’t faze her as it did her brother.

“Hi.  This is my brother Pete.  He’s all dressed up because he’s applying to be a summer secretary—”

“Law clerk.”

“—at some big firm downtown.  He recently renewed his driver’s license even though he hasn’t driven a car since he was eighteen.  He was on the golf team in high school.  No joke: golf.”

His sister’s “interesting tidbits”—some might have called them accusations—were intended to be insulting, but that did not make them any less true.  The first was easy enough to explain: the driver’s license was an all but indispensible form of ID, and the car was an expensive, unnecessary (at least where he lived) hassle.  As for the golf team, well, it hadn’t been his first choice.  He tried out for basketball and soccer also, and they offered him a spot . . . on the junior varsity teams.  Peter wasn’t interested in playing anything he couldn’t excel at.

At first he let the abuse slide, channeling the Buddha as he sank slowly into the creaky old couch.  As the slander went on, though, he felt more need to interject.

If it was the director’s intent to motivate her actor by lighting a fire under him, she was doing a good job.

“He used to pretend he was allergic to foods he didn’t like so he wouldn’t have to eat them.”

“That was years ago.”

“And it took you years to figure out that you couldn’t have anything that had those foods as ingredients, either.  Too bad you can’t be allergic to cake and eat it too.  What else . . .?  His favorite movies are Disney films and chick flicks.”

The Princess Bride is not a chick flick.”

“But Love Actually?  What’s that?”

“It’s British.  It’s . . . different.  And you’re worse.  You refuse to watch anything other than indie films.”

“Independent cinema is the only true cinema.”  (As has already been pointed out, this isn’t true, but some people never listen.)  “Only outside the system are you free to make movies about real emotions, real people.  All Hollywood cares about is appealing to key demographics.  And speaking of appealing . . . my brother’s last girlfriend—”

The tiger was finally roused.  “I think I get the picture,” he said, rising from the couch and stepping back into the line of fire.  His sister returned to her position behind the camera and eyed him warily—had she gone too far?  “Let’s get rolling.”  Thankfully he was unaware that the camera had been rolling the entire time.

“Hi.  I’m Pete, and this is my sister . . . okay, you’re going to have to give me a minute.  Our mother named her Louisa, but then halfway through her life she suddenly decided that she hated that name, and she started insisting that we call her Miley.”

“After Miles Davis,” the off-camera voice noted, as if this was a sore point.

“Right.  But then a few years later that Hannah Montana show became popular, and she decided she didn’t want to be Miley anymore.”

“Can you blame me?”

“So she changed her name again, this time to Dizzy, because she falls down a lot.”

“It is an homage to Dizzy Gillespie.”  It would not, however, be unfair to say that Dizzy was not a skilled athlete, or even a skilled walker, nor would it be incorrect to add that even an Olympic gymnast might have trouble balancing with that much hair.

“Yeah, and I’m sure he got the nickname by being a paragon of grace and coordination.  But enough about him.  My sister is the only member of our family for at least three generations to fail a class in high school.”

“Not bad.  No one likes an overachiever.”

“She despises machines, or they despise her; we’ve never been able to figure out which.  Either way, it’s not a healthy relationship.  Maybe things would go better if she used the normal method for dealing with computers or cars or calculators that don’t work, but she won’t.  My sister refuses to swear.”

“It is because—”

“Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the ‘because.’  The common swear word has been overused to the point where it has lost all meaning.”

“Exactly.  If I’m going to curse something, I’ll use words that have plenty of meaning.”

He could have argued, as he had many times before, that a sharp, senseless expression of pure frustration is precisely what is called for in some situations, but he was running out of steam.  The annoyed feeling that had driven him to overcome his camera frigidity was fading fast.

“I could go on about her obsessions, compulsions, and neuroses, but someone told me you were looking for musicians, not mental patients.  So from here on I’ll let her introduce herself.”

Dizzy, as satisfied as a director can be with the performance of a mere human actor—when will they perfect android technology?—emerged from behind the camera once more.  She nodded to her brother, pumped the keys on her well-worn trumpet, coasted easily through a couple blues scales, and charged straight into her audition piece.

Peter had his own audition to go to, and an important one at that.  Of the dozen or so law firms to which he had applied, Huston and Thomas was the only one that had called him back.  Crescenton had no shortage of law students looking to get their names out there, and a lot of them had fathers who “knew a guy,” so competition was fierce.  But when he heard his sister start to play, he plopped right back down on the old couch to listen.

This was yet another reason why he had trouble understanding the need for an introduction: whatever her personality might have been, he didn’t see how anyone could deny his sister’s talent.  Though he would never admit it, her playing always moved him deeply, and it takes a lot to pluck the heartstrings of a man who decided he wanted to be a lawyer at age ten.

Just as she avoided the cheap thrill of the four-letter word in her speech, her music did not rely on the simple attention-grabbers.  There were no blaring fanfares, no blindingly fast technical riffs (not that her technique was lacking); Dizzy’s specialty was smooth lyrical passages that carried the human soul as irresistibly as a river in flood season.  One moment he was almost choking up, and the next he was grinning inanely, and if you asked him why he could only say that it was all in the music.

But perhaps there was another reason.  Maybe listening to his sister play called up old memories, evoked nostalgia for . . . but that part of his life was behind him, and it was all for the better, probably.

Of course, it was only after she finished that they discovered that Dizzy, unaware that the camera had continued to record while she introduced her brother, turned it off when she meant to turn it back on.  This discovery led to a thorough examination of the camcorder, a veritable tempest of 100% original profanity, and a repetition of everything they had thought they accomplished.  The delay did not make Peter late for his interview, but, luckily for him, it did keep him from arriving until just before it started.  Sometimes all the preparation in the world is no match for a good old-fashioned adrenaline rush.

Day 229:

Two outs, runners on first and third.  Parr coming to the plate.

Rivers has thrown thirty pitches already this inning.  Does he have one more out in him?

No one warming up in the bullpen.  That’s showing confidence in your closer.

Here’s the pitch—


“Easy out.”

Hang on . . . this could be trouble.

The wind’s carrying it out!  Castillo’s not going to be able to catch up!

“Oh you have got to be kidding me.”

Johnson, playing a deep right field, charges—

“C’mon, c’mon.”

Runners off at the crack of the bat.  Rogers has already crossed home plate, and the speedy Ricardo rounding third—




“Unbelievable.  No way Johnson gets to that ball in real life.”

Slowly, the two competitors returned to “real life.”  Controllers clattered on the desk.  The TV winked out, and the brilliant blue and green of the ballpark were replaced by the dull brown and gray of a cubicle.  They were no longer ballplayers, nor were they spectators; they were summer law clerks, doing what summer law clerks do best: killing time before lunch.

They were well-prepared for the noonday meal, and had been for much of the morning.  Ties loosened?  Check.  Sport coats removed and ready to be slung over shoulders?  Check.  Boss consulted to make sure they wouldn’t miss anything?  Well . . . they had cell phones in case he really needed them.  It wasn’t like they were firefighters or some other profession that needed to leap into action at a moment’s notice.  All that remained was to decide on a destination.

“The Lime?”

“The Lime.  Hey Pete, we’re going to the Lime for lunch!  You wanna come?”

One cubicle over, Peter Hamlin was staring at another screen, a far less entertaining one.  “No thanks.  I’ve got to finish this.”

The first half of his response was not unexpected.  Peter did not dislike his coworkers, nor was he anti-social, nor was he opposed to a little drinking in the middle of the workday (not for a job like this, at any rate); he was opposed to the price.  Daily dining in downtown Crescenton, especially at places like the Lime of the Ancient Mariner, was beyond the financial capability of someone who had only a summer law clerk’s salary to support him.  Someone who, say, did not have parents who bought him a European sports car for his sixteenth birthday.  Someone who knew of trust funds only as distant, abstract concepts, in the same way that a Siberian may have heard of “summer.”  Not that he was bitter.

The second half of his answer, however, was positively startling.  His colleague regarded him with a face that was three parts shock to one part pity, well-stirred.  “You have work to do?” he asked, as if work were buried pirate treasure or the Loch Ness Monster.  Admittedly, buried pirate treasure is rarer than work for the 12th floor at Huston and Thomas (often referred to as the “Clerk Cage.”)  On the other hand, people actually go looking for buried treasure, so the two end up being found about equally frequently.

Peter had not had any delusions about standing in front of a jury and arguing a case as a mere summer clerk.  He had, however, been under the mistaken impression that he would spend his time doing research and other inglorious but necessary tasks.  The problem was that Huston and Thomas determined annual bonuses by how many hours its employees billed, so the regular associates were reluctant to pass on even the more menial assignments.  There were the bigwig partners, of course, for whom bonuses meant little, but they were never given the menial assignments in the first place.  Their primary duty seemed to be going out to lunch, work that was difficult to delegate.

But a few of them had a soft spot for the clerks, possibly because they too spent much of their time sipping mixed drinks at the Lime or sampling seasonal ales at the Danny Boy, so every once in a while something trickled down.  “It’s just a proofread for Victorino,” Peter explained, holding up a gold doubloon so encrusted in grime that only the most desperate treasure hunter would be excited to see it.

His coworker made a face.  “Yikes.  I don’t know what’s worse: his pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-style punctuation or his misuse of ‘than’ and ‘then.’”

“At least it’s not a Wachowsky,” said the other clerk, having returned from the bathroom.  His tie was adjusted to the perfect balance of casualness and self-importance.  “Can you imagine proofing something he wrote?”

“Wachowsky’s aren’t that bad.”

“I don’t believe it.  Have you heard the man talk?  It’s like a machine gun mated with a thesaurus from the 19th century.”

“Wachowsky dictates everything to his secretary, and she’s been doing it for fifteen years, so she’s the world’s foremost Wachowsky-to-English translator.”

“That’s not the only thing she’s been doing for fifteen years, if you know what I mean.  You ready to go?”

“Yeah.  Keep fighting the good fight against Victorino’s grammar, Pete.”

“What else are us clerks good for, right?”

What is the purpose of a summer law clerk?  Peter devoted much of his time to trying to answer this question, at least when he wasn’t on YouTube or playing Minesweeper.  “To gain experience,” his academic advisor had told him.  It sounded good on paper, but the primary field in which he was gaining experience was wasting time, and, as a typical American suburbanite, he had been an expert in that field since high school.

Mr. Abrahamson, a partner and the official supervisor of the summer clerks, said it was all about schmoozing.  The only way to get ahead in business is through your connections, so a clerk’s most important job was meeting people.  Peter did meet people, at dinners with clients or at Happy Hour on Fridays.  Unfortunately, these events typically involved free drinks and old bombasts like Wachowsky, who eclipsed lesser personalities like a heavy metal concert next to a poetry recital, so he couldn’t be sure how many of the people he met remembered him.

Mostly he interacted with his fellow clerks, and he didn’t even know them that well.  They carpooled every day, but it wasn’t the best opportunity to strike up a conversation.  Driving in downtown Crescenton during rush hour is a harrowing experience, comparable to skiing a double black diamond course on a mountain made of pure ice, without skis.  It requires full concentration.  Other than that, his main opportunity to get to know them was in the regular baseball tournaments, and baseball wasn’t Peter’s game.  He didn’t like to lose, and he especially didn’t like to lose when the bet was that you had to buy the winner’s lunch.  Peter couldn’t even afford one Surf ‘n’ Turf Special; two was out of the question.

To be fair, he had only been doing the job for two weeks.  Presumably any hidden meaning would not reveal itself until he had been there for at least a month.  Still, he felt unsatisfied.  And on this particular day, he chose to voice his dissatisfaction to the empty Clerk Cage: “I feel like there’s something missing from my life.”

There was one person in the city of Crescenton who would have been overjoyed to hear those words.  Unfortunately, whatever other fantastic talents she may have possessed, being able to understand softly spoken phrases from three miles away and through layers and layers of concrete was not one of them.  And, after all she had been through, it was amazing that she still bothered to listen to anyone at all.

* * *

Officer Tang had a problem.

Unlike her colleague, Officer Escobar, she had no talent at not seeing problems.  Nor was she a person who could patiently wait around for problems to go away of their own accord, no matter how often other members of the LCPD told her that it really does happen.  Problems, she firmly believed, exist to be solved.  And when an unsolvable problem came along, one that stared her in the face every single day, it created an imbalance in her universe that was far beyond the power of baked goods to right.

As is often true of impossible situations, this one could be blamed on an old, dead white guy.  When the illustrious Bartholomew Phineas Taylor—tycoon, philanthropist, and all-around character—had finally died, his will specified that his Crescenton Subway System should be left, “to the people of this fine city, in perpetuity, to use as they see fit.”  Some historians argued that this was his most generous act, while others liked to cite a quote of dubious origin in which he stated that he had done it because he “never understood the point of the whole damn thing.”

Numerous legal precedents had established that, as the subway belonged to the people, just about anything they did in it was permissible, so long as it did not interfere with the running of the trains.  The standard joke was that you could get away with murder, which was appropriate, for there was an urban legend that old B.P. Taylor had originally had the tunnels dug so he could discreetly bury some of his competitors.

Officer Tang had no intention of letting anyone get away with murder, or any other act that could definitively be called a crime.  Loitering, sadly, did not fall into this category, not even when it persisted for weeks or months.  She did not blame the homeless for their predicament; she knew that most had no other choice.  But that did not make it any less wrong.  “A place for everything and everything in its place,” was one of her mottos.  People belonged in homes, where they had addresses and phone numbers and could be kept track of.  Just as pigeons belonged in parks, though if she had her way, there wouldn’t be any pigeons, either.

The fact that the woman had become something of an attraction added insult to injury.  It was only natural that she drew attention to herself.  Her presence raised so many questions: Who was she?  Where had she come from, and why?  Could she be exploited like some sort of sideshow freak?  One group had tried having her predict the outcomes of football games, but they gave up when she said the Cleveland Browns would win the Super Bowl.  She never answered any personal questions—and, perhaps out of reciprocity, no one ever gave a satisfactory answer to the questions she asked.

But to Officer Tang it just seemed like they were showcasing her failure.  She went on vacation for one week—one measly week!—and by the time she got back the Old Woman of Simon Park Station had shown up.  And, until the woman violated a freaking commandment, there was nothing she could do about it.

It would not have comforted her at all to learn that the woman would have liked nothing better than to leave, that she was, in fact, devoting every effort to getting away.  These facts would only have irritated the officer further, although she would have been hard-pressed to tell you exactly why.

As it was, Officer Tang walked her normal beat, driving injustice out of dark places and defending the innocent travelers on Crescenton’s underground rails.  Perhaps she was a little harsher with the criminals she could actually arrest, and perhaps she paid a little bit more attention to the old woman than was healthy.  She would have said that she was merely doing her duty as one of Crescenton’s finest.

Day 230:

Despite legal obstacles, Officer Tang did not relent.  It is said that the early bird gets the worm, but the persistent bird learns the worm’s entire life, comes to know it inside and out (not that the inside and the outside of a worm are all that different).  In the end, the worm all but catches itself.  Of course, it is also said that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, but Officer Tang was not after flies.  She wanted that worm.

The woman’s situation had changed over the past few weeks.  As with all celebrities of her type, she was a flash in the pan, and her fame had been destined not to last from the instant the first wannabe journalist had mentioned her in his blog.  Besides, it was summer now, and people had lost interest in indoor attractions.  If she had been the Old Woman of Morrison Park she might have stood a chance, but she was in a subway station, where the air would only turn fouler as June became July became August.

Officer Tang hoped that her disappearance from the public eye would lead the woman to slip up, so she observed her at every possible opportunity.  She took very detailed notes.

Suspect continues to approach passersby with odd questions. (In her notebook she always referred to the woman as “suspect,” even though she had no idea what she suspected her of.  As soon as she figured that out, there would be no more need for the notebook.)  Can this be construed as a form of harassment?  Negative.  Those who want to leave can do so freely; those who want to listen stay.

Investigate: conspiracy.  Does she ever talk to same person on multiple occasions?  Need more observers.

Citizen approaches.  Suspect begins usual speech.  Citizen reaches into pocket, tosses handful of change in suspect’s face.  Does not stop, speak, or look at her.  Suspects sits quietly, does not pick up coins, looks dazed.

Investigate: money laundering.

Day 231:

After long stakeout, have concluded that suspect does nothing before commuters arrive in morning. Sleeping? Possibly. Thinking? Plotting? Likely.

Consult department psychologist for profile. What could she be planning?

Beginning study of how suspect chooses targets. Possible factors:
1. perceived vulnerability
2. receptiveness to her aims
3. walking speed

After extensive observation, have concluded that factors, with possible exception of #3, are irrelevant. Sampling appears to be random.

On occasion, citizens approach her instead. Following dialogue recorded for later analysis/submission as evidence:

White male, age 7-9, walks up to suspect. “Are you a princess?”

Suspect responds slowly. “What?”

White male: “I think you’re a witch, but my sister says you’re a princess.” Male looks back. White female, age 4-6, can be seen hiding ineffectively behind nearby pillar.

Suspect sighs (regretting the past? Or the atrocities she is about to commit? Gun out of holster, safety off, cocked). “I am not a princess.”

Male turns around, grinning. “I told you she was a witch!”

Female leaves hiding place, runs furiously up to male. “Nuh-uh! Nuh-uh! She has to be a princess, because, because Mr. Bear said so!”

Male: “Mr. Bear’s just a dumb stuffed animal.”

Female: “No he’s not! You’re dumb!”

Male: “Shut up!”

Male strikes female in arm. Female begins wailing piercingly. White male, early 30’s, approaches rapidly. “What did you do?”

After brief silence, suspect realizes question is directed at her. “I didn’t do anything.”

Young male: “She’s a witch, Dad! A real-life witch!” Wailing increases in volume.

Adult male picks up female, seizes young male’s hand. “You just stay the hell away from my kids, or I’m calling the cops!” Walks away quickly, looking concerned, perhaps frightened.

Investigate: child abuse. Will parents press charges? (unfortunately, having witnessed entire scene, cannot in good conscience accept father’s version of events as true. Remember: vigilance always has a price).

Day 232:

Interviews complete. No conductor has ever seen suspect on a train. No LCTA personnel have ever sighted suspect in another station. Does suspect never leave Simon Park? How long has she been there? How does she survive?

Investigate: theft.

Further incidence of citizen-initiated contact. Should citizens be warned? If no one comes near, evidence of suspect’s wrongdoing will be difficult to find. Other lines of inquiry proving unfruitful. Must continue to rely on public’s unwitting cooperation for sake of justice.

Record of contact follows:

Asian-American male, late teens, walks rapidly away from suspect after standard rejection interaction. In three days of close observation, have seen 137 rejections. Where does suspect find will to persist despite repeated failure? (Officer Tang’s keen eye was considered matchless by the other officers of the Crescenton Police Department, but since she never used it while she was looking in the mirror, she was not able to detect that, perhaps, she and the woman in Simon Park Station had one thing in common.)

Investigate: drugs.

African-American female, late 30’s, approaches suspect. Female seems to have been listening to previous conversation. She squats near suspect, easily within attack range (Gun out of holster, safety off, cocked).

Female: “Excuse me. I’m a telemarketer, and I just wanted to let you know that I feel your pain. No one listens anymore. All I’m doing is offering them something. I understand that not everyone wants to buy what I’m selling, but the least they can do is find out what it is. Most people just hang up after, ‘Would you be interested in—’ . . . so, in my head, I usually end it with, ‘—purchasing a solid gold house for the low, low price of $1.99?’”

Investigate: real estate fraud.

Suspect, at first perplexed, scowls out of agreement (?) or general villainy (!) “Don’t I know it! Everyone just loves to think that they’re too busy to deal with me, as if their time was so valuable that simply paying attention to me for thirty seconds would be some kind of colossal loss. A lot of these jerks say, ‘Sorry, not interested,’ and then they go over there and stare at the wall for five minutes while they’re waiting for the damn train to come!”

Female appears close to tears (effect of a chemical weapon?) “I-it’s just so dehumanizing . . .”

Suspect in similar state (weapon misfire?) “Sometimes . . . I feel like I can’t go on . . .”

Suspect and female burst into obnoxiously loud wailing, hug. Subway passengers regard pair warily, give wide berth. Crying persists for several minutes.

Female: “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to be interested in buying a subscription to—”

Suspect: “No way. But, don’t you feel that there’s something missing from—”

Female: “Nothing I’d expect to find in a subway station.”

Suspect and Female release, regard each other fondly. Female: “Sorry about that.”

Suspect: “I know. Just had to get it out of the way.”

Investigate: public indecency?

Empathy was not Officer Tang’s strong suit, in much the same way as elephants are not known for their delicacy, but she had some skill at reading suspects. She hadn’t the foggiest clue as to their motives, but she could generally tell when they were about to run, pull a gun, etc. The vibe she was getting from the subway woman was loud and clear: she was nearing the breaking point.

Day 233:

A lot of the world’s more fantastic coincidences end up being blamed on the common alarm clock.  You know the story: if the alarm hadn’t failed to go off, then Person X would not have been at Location Y at precisely the right time to meet Person Z or experience Event, uh, Omega.  The idea is that the balance of our lives is so delicate that even the most minor rescheduling can have drastic consequences.  People like to think of their lives in this way, because otherwise they would have to stop wasting time daydreaming and get some actual work done.

One particular alarm clock, however, despised this view.  It had, on several occasions (often after consuming one or two beers), argued that it was a double standard.  How could it be fair to place all the blame on the clock?  “It takes two to tell time!” it would yell, the tipsy alliteration driving its friends to cautiously back away from the conversation.  “One to display, and one to read!”  Yes, the clock is at fault, but the human bears some of the responsibility as well, for accepting what the clock says without question.  How can timepieces be held to standards of perfection greater than those of their makers?  The idea is ludicrous.  And laughable.  And . . . hey, where’d everybody go?

After growing tired of trying to express his point with words (and of always having to take a cab home alone at the end of the party), the alarm clock decided to try a demonstration.  It would go off not one minute early, not ten minutes early, but several hours early.  The world would still be dark.  No other humans would be awake.  If the human realized the error and went back to bed, then it would definitively prove the Dual Burden of Temporal Responsibility Theory.  And if he didn’t, well, then he was just a hopeless idiot.

The other explanation as to why the alarm clock went off at 3:44 AM on that Friday morning is that Peter Hamlin—who happened to own this particular clock—simply screwed up when he set it the night before.  As a matter of fact, that makes a lot more sense.  That first explanation was downright silly, don’t you think?

Then again, you have to wonder: why would he be resetting the alarm at all for a morning that, at least up until the previous night, was not supposed to be significantly different from any other?

What Peter’s clock failed to realize is that humans thrive on routine.  Sure, there are a few eccentrics who live life without a schedule, but there are also clocks without numbers.  You know, those analog ones that only have hands, where you just have to guess what time it is?  It takes all kinds to make a world.

Anyway, the point is that regularity defines most people’s lives, and any irregularities can upset them with ease.  Humans are given cues and respond as they have been trained to.  Show a Days of Our Lives actor the teleprompter from Star Trek and he’ll read it, no matter how inappropriate the lines may be (actually, the effect may be an improvement).  Alarms are just another cue: they go off, we complain, we get up.  That’s the way it goes.  We are Pavlov’s dogs, except we never got a treat in the first place; we’re simply salivating for work.  Pavlov’s dogs got a sweet gig.

A scholar of logic, like the alarm clock, might reason that a person woken earlier than necessary would simply go back to sleep.  Anyone familiar with the human condition would not be at all surprised to learn that as soon as the alarm rang Peter bolted into the shower, or that thirteen-and-a-half minutes later he was sitting at the table with a spoonful of cereal in his hand, looking out the window and thinking, “What the hell?”

Sadly, not all cues have a programmed response.

As he had slept for less than five hours, it took Peter almost a full minute to figure out why it was so dark outside and why the clock on his microwave insisted it was not yet 4 AM. The spoon slowly descended, granting the Triple-Grain Honey Rings a reprieve as they rejoined their brethren in the bowl. Like the golden orb inching its way up past the horizon—something it was currently doing out in the Atlantic Ocean—a thought crept into his brain: “What do I do now?” It seemed more and more likely that the reprieve would become a full pardon.

A depressingly small number of ideas suggested themselves over the next ten minutes. Go back to bed? Tempting, oh so tempting, but impractical. He had already showered, he was already wearing his suit, he had already “made” breakfast—though at the rate he was eating it, he wouldn’t be done until dinner time. Peter didn’t think he could stand going through the painful ritual of waking up twice in one morning. Read a book? Watch a movie? These were simply code phrases for “go to sleep fifteen minutes from now rather than right away.” Catch up on work? He laughed. It was a harsh, gravelly sound. His voice cracked. Not good.

Peter shook his head. If he went back to sleep, then the clock would win. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, but if all that resulted from the early awakening was that he was robbed of half an hour of sleep, then victory was definitely on the side of the vile alarmbringer. Peter didn’t like to lose. He didn’t like being awake a four in the morning, either, but he especially didn’t like to lose. He was going to do something productive. He was going to work on the Speech.

With this thought in mind, he sprang—er, he lurched up out of his chair, put on a pot of coffee, and went to grab his notes. When he returned to the kitchen clutching a hefty stack of papers, he seized the pot and poured it directly into his cereal bowl. Not good.

“. . . because we’re panicking and he’s not. That’s why,” he muttered to himself, staring down at the soggy mess. He took a deep breath and hardened his gaze. “Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other!”

He snatched the spoon and shoveled the curious concoction into his mouth. The texture was awful and the taste was worse. But he ate another spoonful before flinging the utensil dramatically into the sink. He didn’t need food. He didn’t need caffeine. He was running on adrenaline now.

“Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh? This could be the greatest night of our lives! But you’re gonna let it be the worst!”

The Speech was an idea that Peter and his debate team friends had cooked up back in high school. It was inspired by a dramatic win in the state tournament, a late-night victory party afterward, an unhealthy quantity of IBC Root Beer and a conversation about the theory that a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters could eventually reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare.

“—but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day. Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words—”

The concept was simple: by combining lines from the most famous orations of history, literature, and film, one could create a speech so powerful, so moving that it could stir even the laziest, most apathetic slug to rise up.

“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand!”

The execution, however, was considerably more difficult. The words of the world’s great speakers could not simply be slapped together like letters clipped from various magazines on a ransom note. How to integrate the words of Cicero with those of Mandela? Was it even possible to seamlessly blend the orations of Bismarck and Gandhi? Churchill and Pericles? Bailey and Blutarsky? Despite having nearly the same name, the speeches of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. blended about as poorly as French Roast and breakfast cereal.

“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

His friends had all given up on the project, saying that it couldn’t be done, or that it was a waste of time, because even if you did come up with the perfect speech, what the heck would you use it for, anyway?

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

But Peter kept the dream alive. Every now and then, he would open his desk and pull out the stack of loose-leaf sheets he had been using to record the Speech since he was in high school. He would read it, cutting out a line here or adding one in there. Often he ended up undoing—and sometimes later redoing—changes he had made years earlier. Since he never gave the Speech in public, it was hard to tell what was an improvement and what wasn’t.

“Hear me for my cause; and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honor, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom; and awake your senses, that you may the better judge . . . no, that’s too wordy. Needs more punch . . . how about: The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones . . .”

Even Peter didn’t exactly “believe” in the Speech. He did it because it was good practice. As any good orator knows, it’s all in the delivery. The problem with the Shakespeare-Monkey-Typewriter Theory is that yes, given the random nature of the universe and an unlimited amount of time (and a plentiful supply of replacement monkeys), those thousand primates would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. But they would never be able to perform them. For the same reason, you could have the greatest speech in history in your hands, but if you didn’t know how to say it, you might as well be reading out of the phone book.

“I guess this is just another lost cause . . . All you people don’t know about lost causes . . . He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor.”

As a matter of fact, this was the first time Peter had ever practiced the Speech before sunrise, and he read it at the same volume he always did, or maybe even louder, in his desperation to keep himself awake. Either way, his neighbors couldn’t have been too happy about it.

But that was only because they couldn’t make out the words through the wall. Though it may not have been the greatest in all of history, the Speech that Peter had cobbled together over the years was a damn fine one, and nobody knew how to read it like he did. If his neighbors had been able to hear it properly, they would have been mad, they would have been riled up, they would have been screaming for blood—but not his blood. They would have gone after whoever he pointed at.

“So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

It was so moving, in fact, that even Peter himself tended to get rather carried away when he was practicing it, especially near the end. He forgot himself, forgot what was going on around him, forgot everything except the task of delivering those words to his imaginary audience. He imagined he was up against the wall, trapped, surrounded by enemies on one side and the abyss on the other. But he would never give up.

“We shall go on to the end . . . we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”

If the Speech had a weakness, however, it was length. He typically added more than he subtracted, and as a result it had grown to be more than three hours long. And once he had gotten a third of the way through, there was no stopping him until he reached the end. Even then he could not be reached by reality for at least of couple of minutes, as the awe of the Speech continued to wash over him.

When Peter regained his senses, he noticed two things. The first was that his neighbors—to the left, to the right, above and below—were pounding on the walls, floor, and ceiling. The second was that the microwave clock, which he just happened to be staring at, read 7:48.


You might not think that being late to a meaningless job is anything to be concerned about.  This is probably because you do not know a few key facts about Alexander Abrahamson, Esq.

The first is that Mr. Abrahamson was a morning person.  He had been an early riser for as long as he or his parents could remember—in fact, some believed that he had actually once gotten up before 4 AM on purpose.  He was the first to the office in the morning, which his colleagues often thought meant that he simply loved work.  This was not true.  Mr. Abrahamson loved getting work out of the way; to him there was no better comfort than finishing everything you have to do for the day before the sun has even started to think about setting.

The second is that Mr. Abrahamson, in his role as official supervisor of the summer clerks, was responsible for finding a way to evaluate their performance.  How do you rate the work of those who don’t do any work?  There were many possible options, including interviews, exams, mock trials, and bribes, but all of these involved going down to the 12th floor and spending time with the clerks, time he could be using to get his own work done.  So Mr. Abrahamson chose a method of evaluation that could be gotten out of the way quickly and early in the day: punctuality.  If you were in the office by eight, you were alright in his book.

The third is that Mr. Abrahamson, despite possessing a grandfatherly demeanor, was not someone you wanted to upset.  These days he spent little time in the courtroom, but the other partners loved to tell stories about how he had been the most feared prosecutor in the city in his youth.  Mr. Wachowsky had once told Peter that he was nicknamed “The Floodbringer” because of his ability to reduce witnesses, from widows to lifetime thugs who cracked heads for the mob, to tears in cross-examination.  The combination of alcohol and a very thick accent might have caused Peter to doubt this statement if it hadn’t been immediately—and somewhat fearfully—confirmed by everyone else sitting at the bar.

Peter didn’t have to check his phone for messages to know that his carpool was long gone.  Calling them at this point would be pointless.  Downtown Crescenton was a tangled web of  one-way streets that seemed like they had been designed to confound invaders rather than promote the flow of traffic.  Trying to turn around during the morning rush hour was like trying to reverse the rotation of the Earth by tying one end of a rope to your waist, the other end to a rock, and pulling.  He would have been better off trying to walk, though he would have had to have been an Olympic sprinter to have a chance of getting there by 8:00 on foot.

Fortunately, Peter was not in any mood to sit around and lament his fate.  He was still fired up from giving the Speech.  It was time for action.  Consequences could be considered later.  Looking could be done after the leap.  He was going to do something he had never done before.

He was going to take the subway to work.

Peter dashed back to his bedroom, seized his briefcase—which contained two legal pads, one blank and one full of largely regrettable attempts to compose poetry on the subject of boredom—and was out the door an instant before the digital microwave clock flipped over to 7:49.  His alarm clock, meanwhile, was learning something that has been true since the time of the ancient Greeks: those who try to mess with fate inevitably (and often circuitously) become those who carry out its will.

“A charging rhino may be felled by even the smallest pebble.”

Were these the words of Aristotle?  Confucius?  Locke?  Or was it just one of those perplexing fortune cookie messages, the kind where you stare blankly at it for a few seconds while you try to figure out if it’s a good fortune or a bad one.  And then you throw it away because it’s not funny when you add “in bed” to the end.

Whatever their origin, these words were not running through Peter Hamlin’s mind in the slightest.  He was focused on one thing only: forward motion.  He was not thinking about tiny pebbles.  He was not even thinking about larger, more boulder-like obstacles, of which there were more than a few between him and his destination.

The first was the stairs.  Despite living on the seventh floor, he decided to skip the elevator, because he was in no mood to stand around doing nothing.  Peter’s apartment complex had been constructed in the early 1970’s and was designed to withstand riots, tornadoes, alien invasions and the like.  The staircase, however, appeared to have been put together in the Dark Ages by a man (or possibly an even less efficient team of men) who had never seen stairs but had heard of them from a foreign guy he talked to in a bar once.  Because everybody took the elevator, management saw no need to update them with modern innovations, such as the ninety-degree angle.

But Peter flew down those stairs.  This description is especially apt because his feet actually spent more time in the air than they did in contact with the steps themselves.  In fact, considering the staircase’s less-than-admirable sturdiness, this may have been the safest method of descent.

The danger, however, did not stop there.  After exiting his building, he still had to cross the street.  He lived in an area that was outside the boundaries of true downtown, but all that meant was that cars could actually move instead of just sitting there waiting for the sun to die.  Rather than go out of his way to make use of the crosswalk, he simply dashed across directly from the building lobby—like all good citizens of Crescenton, he knew the golden rule of pedestrian street safety: “When you jaywalk, at least cars can only come at you from two directions.”  Of course, most people would still recommend that you look both ways first, but he did not have those milliseconds to spare.

Upon entering the station, he had another set of stairs to deal with.  The subway stairs were made of concrete and would probably still be there even if the city was bombed down to the ground, but that did not mean they were safe.  The lighting was poor, and things that were dropped or spilled had a tendency to stay there for weeks or even months.  One wrong step and you could lose a shoe, and then that would be the least of your problems.  The stalwart impenetrability of a concrete staircase is significantly less comforting when you are falling down it.

But he got past that too, again by relying primarily on the always dependable acceleration due to gravity.  Despite having been captain of the golf team—that’s right, the golf team—in high school, Peter was actually a fairly natural athlete; he simply didn’t have the right body type to really excel in a sport like basketball or football.  In a situation like this, however, he could cruise, turning corners with ease, racing past the coffee stands, and soaring over the turnstile as he leapt past (even though the subway was free, all stations still had turnstiles, after the Ohio State Supreme Court had ruled that depriving citizens of the chance to jump over them was “cruel and unusual punishment” in the case Oates v. Laragheny County Transit Authority).

As he got closer to the platform and could see that there was no train there at the moment, he began to relax.  He had done all he could.  Slowing down, he decided that he could finally risk losing a second or two to look at his watch.

Except he couldn’t.  Something was holding on to his arm.

See, if I was the rhino, I wouldn’t be looking out for pebbles.  I would keep my eyes peeled for the crafty, desperate lioness.

Still in Action Mode, Peter’s first reaction was to pull.  He pulled hard, hard enough to remind his fevered brain that bones can break, shoulders can be dislocated, and that maybe charging ahead without analyzing the situation wasn’t the best way to get ahead in the long run.  After all, if he had somehow managed to get wedged between a pillar and a garbage can, all the pulling in the world wasn’t going to help.  But when he turned his head, he saw that what was holding him in place was nothing more than a human hand . . . a human hand employing a full-force Greco-Vulcan Death Grip that would have put an industrial vice to shame.

Now in Analysis Mode—but still suffering from lack of sleep and feeling dizzy from jumping down all those stairs—his brain immediately leapt to the conclusion that he was being mugged.  He had thought that this was something that typically happened at night, but then again, what did he know?  Having grown up in the suburbs, he didn’t know much about being mugged, other than that it was “something that happened to other people” and that it was “undesirable.”

He might have been able to accept a morning mugging, but, as his eyes adjusted to the lighting, the identity of the mugger was nothing short of dumbfounding.  She looked like she could use the money, but was this little old lady really capable of such a crime?  Was that really cold determination he saw in her crinkled eyes and her thin mouth, or was it simply a trick of the unpleasant subway station lights?  And how in the hell was she strong enough to have him trapped like that?

The Old Woman of Simon Park Station had not expected this turn of events much more than Peter had.  The morning rush was entering a lull; the last train that could get people downtown by eight o’clock had already departed, and it would be at least fifteen minutes before the nine o’clock crowd started to pour in.  She had been all prepared to settle down for a brief rest when she saw the young man come dashing in, all by himself.  When he started to slow down right next to where she was sitting, she just reacted instinctively.

“Don’t you think . . .”

She stopped.  She had started to ask the question automatically, just as she had approached the man automatically when he passed her pillar.  But what was the point?  No one ever listened.  He was just another guy in a suit, rushing to catch a train.  She had seen tens of thousands of them in the time she had spent in Simon Park Station.  She had really believed that eventually someone would come along, someone who would listen to her little speech, someone who would help.  But the law of averages had failed her.  This strategy wasn’t going to cut it.

The realization that you’ve wasted months of your life in a pointless exercise can lead to a wide variety of emotional reactions.  Some people are overjoyed; they find it quite liberating to discover that there’s no longer any point in going through the normal routine.  These people, though, are not by any means typical.  A much more common response is to sink into despair, to lament the loss of precious time, to wonder how you can possibly go on when everything you thought made sense suddenly doesn’t.

The old woman opted for a third option.  Her grip tightened.  “No, you don’t think, do you,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper so that the following crescendo could be all the more dramatic.  “You people never do.  Your minds are fixed on one thing: get to the train, get to the train.  Drop your hat?  Leave it behind so you can get to the train.  Spot an old friend walking the other way?  Lower your head so you can get to the train.  Get interrupted by a woman with a simple question who only wants someone to stay and listen for a minute or two?  Ignore her.  Get to the train, get to the train, get to the goddamn train!

“I sit here every day and I watch people go by and you know what I see?  I see a thousand people standing within ten feet of each other, each in her own separate world.  You wear headphones so you don’t have to listen.  You stare at your phones so you don’t have to look.  You cover your mouths and noses—even though it doesn’t smell that bad—so you don’t even have to breathe!  You love your routine so much that you seal off your senses, just in case there might be something out there that could shake things up!  It seems like your sense of touch is the only thing you haven’t figured out how to shut off.  And if physical pain is the only way to get through to you people, then that’s what I’m going to have to use!”

You might find it odd that Peter Hamlin, who had never met a situation he couldn’t argue his way out of, would sit there in silence while this little old lady rained abuse on him.  You could say it was because he was still half-asleep.  You could blame the fact that part of his brain was still operating under the impression that he was being mugged (he certainly hadn’t come up with any more likely theory to take its place).  Really, though, he was simply stunned.  He was learning—as was the woman—that all the prepared speeches in the world are no match for an extemporaneous tirade driven by an overflow of genuine emotion.

“All I’m asking for is a few minutes.  You all think that a few minutes of your time are more precious than anything!  That just a couple minutes’ delay would upset your schedule, throw your ‘harmonious balance’ out of whack, and ruin your day.  A couple minutes!  Do you have any idea how long I’ve been down here?  Two hundred thirty-three days!  You’d better believe my harmonious balance is out of whack!  I’m starting to forget what the outside world sounds like!”

Speaking of the music of the underground, the woman’s voice—despite its phenomenal volume—could not drown out the noise of the train pulling into the station.  Amidst the sea of confusion, dotted with islands of desire to apologize for offenses he had never committed, a beacon shone out in Peter’s mind: get to the train.  It blasted through the clouds of guilt formed by doing exactly what this woman (This crazy woman, the beacon corrected.  This raving lunatic who doesn’t know what she’s saying) was complaining about.  He was still operating under the mugging hypothesis, so rather than giving one last, desperate, pointless tug, he reached down with his other hand and pulled out his wallet.

Wrong move.  The woman slapped it away so hard you could see it spinning through the air—at least, you could have if you were able to pull your gaze away from the two orbs of rage in the middle of her face.  “ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?  I’m not asking for your money!  I’m not looking for spiritual salvation, I don’t want to be psychoanalyzed, and I couldn’t care less who wins this year’s World Series!  I want freedom! I WANT TO GET OUT OF HERE!”

This declaration was punctuated not so much by an exclamation point as it was by the woman’s wrinkled palm, which struck Peter’s cheek with a SMACK that reverberated so loudly it surely must have registered on the USGS seismometer in Morgantown, West Virginia.

She never would have slapped him if she wasn’t so worked up.  For one thing, she was not a violent person by nature.  For another, if she hadn’t been motivated by the all-consuming wrath that had developed from being ignored for weeks and weeks, she might have remembered to do her math.  One hand to knock the wallet away.  A second to smack him in the face.  No hand left to hold onto his arm.

Peter was off and running.  The woman sagged.  The demon of anger slowly left her.  She once again understood that slapping people around is probably not the best way to get them to help you.  As one final meaningless gesture, she called after him half-heartedly: “You’ll be back!”

The young man, unlike ninety percent of the people she encountered in Simon Park Station, actually took the time to respond.  “Not likely!” he shouted back, just before jumping onto the subway as the doors were closing.

The woman leaned back against her pillar, ready to sink down and await the next rush.  Except she couldn’t.  This time, someone was holding onto her.

She turned, and the first thing she saw was the smile.  It was a smile of triumph—no, it was more than that.  It was a wicked smile.  It was a smile that should not be allowed.  It resembled nothing more than the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, just before their faces started melting.  The woman couldn’t remember whether or not she had seen that movie, but anyone who had could have told her the description was perfectly apt.

It was only after taking in the awful smile that she noticed the uniform.

“Now that,” said Officer Tang, who was only able to restrain her giddiness because of her years of training (and even then she didn’t do a great job of it), “was Assault.”

* * *

As Peter dropped down onto the subway seat, and the doors slid roughly shut behind him, he could not shake the feeling that not all was right with the world.  Being woken up against one’s will at four in the morning is a crime that no just, caring universe would permit, but he thought that there might be more than just that.

The encounter with the woman was unsettling but not entirely unexpected; as his father liked to say, you can’t have a city of a million and a half people without getting a few unusual characters thrown in.  And it seemed like he had made a clean getaway.  But as the train pulled out of the station, he couldn’t help but wonder: was it an escape, or a retreat?

Peter Hamlin did not run from a fight.  Even on days when he hadn’t spent hours giving a speech persuading people to charge the Black Gate of Mordor or march on Washington or turn their car into a cake, he liked to think that he did not back down from a challenge.  He really didn’t understand the woman’s situation; after all, she hadn’t done a very good job of explaining her problem and was probably crazy to boot.  He had no idea whether he should be fighting against her or the people who wronged her, whoever they were.  In either case, it was hard not to see leaping on the subway just as it was leaving as a way of avoiding the issue rather than facing it.

He told himself that the woman had nothing to do with him, that she probably gave that same crazy speech to everyone who walked through there.  You have to pick your battles, and he had gone for the one he felt had much more to do with his own future.  Peter finally took the glance at his watch that he had first attempted when the woman snagged his arm.

7:56.  He wasn’t going to make it.

No wonder the train was so empty; ordinarily he shouldn’t have been able to sit down, much less have a bench all to himself.  He was going to have to face the wrath of Abrahamson.  He had no idea what it would be like, because none of the clerks had dared to be late before.  His lack of information, however, did not stop him from imagining what fate awaited him when he got off the elevator on the 12th floor.  A lifetime of service as a chained oarsman on an ancient Roman galley?  Or worse, a life sentence to be spent proofreading everything composed by Misters Victorino and Wachowsky?

It would be safe to say that his lack of sleep was affecting his judgment and preventing reality from getting much involved in his imagining the potential punishments.  Sulfur and brimstone may have even made an appearance.

With a groan he dropped his head into his hands—so forcefully, in fact, that it hurt, at least on one side.  He held his left cheek, which still stung a bit from the slap.  That little old woman sure packed a wallop.  His ears were even ringing.

Or was it just ringing?  Between the sound of his own thoughts and the rattling of the train on the tracks, he thought he could just recognize a tune echoing softly.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum, bum ba da dee-da deee, dee-da deee, dee da ba buum

He looked around to see where the sound was coming from, but he couldn’t spot any obvious source.  The itinerant musicians and obnoxious stereo-toting teenagers didn’t usually start to ride the rails until later in the day.  The car was so empty that it would have been blatantly obvious if someone was singing, whistling, or even humming, but the other passengers were just as sullenly inactive as one would expect on a pre-8 AM train ride.  It certainly wasn’t being produced by the PA system, which only ever spat out things like: “MFYXT (static): BRRPON BEEEEEEEEEP” (NEXT STOP: THIRD AND WALKER).

If it wasn’t coming from outside his head, then there was only one other possibility.  It didn’t seem very likely either, because Peter couldn’t think of any place he had ever heard the tune before.  He supposed that was often the way when you get a song stuck in your head, but no matter how hard he thought about it, he couldn’t identify its origin.  It wasn’t from a movie.  It wasn’t a song that regularly came up on the radio in the carpool.  It wasn’t the annoying jingle from an even more annoying TV commercial.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum, bum ba da dee-da deee, dee-da deee, dee da ba buum

The tune itself wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but it was short, and it kept repeating over and over again, and the more he heard it the more it got on his nerves.  Where did it come from?  Peter was positive he had never heard it before, not even as the background music from a cartoon he had watched in elementary school, which had  lain dormant for the past fifteen years before suddenly reappearing that morning.  He did another, more thorough check for external sources, looking out the windows, under his seat, into the creepy room at the end of the car that seems like it should have someone in it but never does.  He even searched the other passengers (from a distance—thankfully he wasn’t that out of his mind) for headphones, thinking it was possible that someone had turned them up to an eardrum-rupturing, blood-vessel-bursting volume that could be heard across the car, but no luck.

And as he searched, he could swear that the tune was getting louder.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum, bum ba da dee-da deee, dee-da deee, dee da ba buum

He tried humming another song, otherwise known as the Escalation Method of Song Unsticking.  The ones he tried were real doozies, too, tunes so horrifyingly catchy that it would be inappropriate to repeat them here.  But no matter what he tried, the moment he stopped humming, the mystery tune came back, louder than before.  He wasn’t even sure how a sound that was only inside his head could be louder or softer, but it was definitely louder.

After a couple minutes he gave up.  The only way to get a song out of your head, he decided, was to think about something else entirely.  So he stopped humming other things and focused on baseball: a depressing topic for a Crescentonian, but also one that it was really easy to get worked up about.  Surely, with his mind distracted by thoughts of how terrible the Gems were, the unknown tune would eventually work its way out of his system, right?  Right?

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum, bum ba da dee-da deee, dee-da deee, dee da ba buum

Though some people don’t like to admit it, there are actually a lot of problems in life that can be solved by ignoring them.  If your car gets buried in snow, you don’t need to spend hours digging it out; just wait until spring and you can drive again, as long as you don’t mind having severely rusted brakes and a steering wheel so sluggish you could kill it with salt.  The dumpster outside your house doesn’t have to be emptied every week; eventually one of your neighbors, unable to stand the sight and the smell, will do it for you.  As you can probably imagine, these solutions tend to lead to a whole new set of problems, but the point is that the original undesirable situation was fixed simply by not thinking about it.

Peter’s dilemma was not this kind of dilemma.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

Despite Peter’s trying to focus all his thoughts on baseball, wheat, or anticipatory repudiation, the mystery tune remained stuck in his head for the entire seven-minute, forty-two-second duration of the subway ride (staring at his watch was yet another way in which he had tried to distract himself).  All the while, it kept getting louder.  It also seemed to be getting lazier, for around the four-minute mark it stopped repeating the whole six-second sequence and started “skipping,” playing only the first seven notes over and over again.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

It was a good thing that the few available spaces left in his mind were crammed full of numbers and times, because that was the only way he could have known when to get off the train.  The blaring music made it impossible to make any sense of the stop announcement—not that it would have made any sense on a normal day, either: “MFYXT (static): MREEPARONI PFAZZZZZZ.”  (NEXT STOP: DIPAOLI PLAZA).

The tune was not entirely without its advantages.  It came in very handy when he stepped off the elevator, which he only did because the person next to him nudged him sharply and said something that might have been, “This is your floor, right?”  Or it could have been, “Have you seen my frog suit?”  As a life-long debater, he had always been better at speaking than listening, but that morning his comprehension skills were so sub-par that he was ready to chuck his putter, his driver, and the whole rest of his bag of clubs into the water.  This childish but satisfying mental image tantrum—along with everything else that had gone wrong since he entered the subway—distracted him from the Par-4, 500-yard, double dogleg 18th hole ahead: an outraged Mr. Abrahamson.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

It wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.  Or, to put it another way, Peter had no idea how bad it was.  Mr. Abrahamson did not shout, scream, snarl, spit or flail his arms around like he was boxing an invisible kangaroo.  That was not his style.  He could take apart a mind much more subtly, like a safecracker.  A seemingly gentle phrase here, a possibly meaningless question there, and before you knew it you would be bawling like a baby and agreeing with anything he said, admitting that you killed Jimmy Hoffa, that you were Jack the Ripper, that you murdered Julius Caesar.

Of course, that was all dependent on you being able to hear a single word he was saying.  To Peter it just looked like he was being calmly lectured by a man with a vaguely disappointed look on his face, every once in a while taking a step to the left or the right, now and again fixing him with a piercing stare that was rather unsettling even though he had no idea what he was talking about.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

“I’m sorry, Mr. Abrahamson.  It won’t happen again.”

Mr. Abrahamson, nodding in mild satisfaction tinged with regret, said, “See that it doesn’t.” (Or possibly, “Word to your mother.”)  After the old man had retreated to the elevator, Peter’s coworkers, who had watched the entire thing from various unsuccessful hiding positions, approached with looks of wonder.

“Dude, that was . . . brutal.”

“I’m surprised you’re still standing.”

“You sure you’re feeling okay?”

“You need a shot of something?  I’ve got a bottle of the good stuff in my cube.”

“It’s no big deal,” Peter said modestly.  “You just have to think of yourself as a rock on the beach and let the waves wash over you.”

That is, that’s what he would have said if he had been able to hear them.  Instead he nodded and smiled, looking like a person with a mild concussion trying to convince everyone that he’s fine.  He said his Hellos and his Good Mornings and quickly worked his way to his cubicle.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

He hadn’t expected sitting down in his cube to cure him, or to make him feel any more comfortable; in fact, the tune was at its loudest yet.  But in his cube there was a computer, and the computer could be used to do research.  He had expected to use it for that purpose every day, but this was his first significant online investigation at work since Wachowsky had told him to look up some information about “tortes.”  Because he had plenty of spare time, and because he thought there was at least a small chance that Wachowsky had actually meant to include the final e, Peter did the project twice, once about breaches of civil duty and once about cakes.  However, worried that the latter could be interpreted as a crack about the partner’s weight, he only turned in the former.  For whatever reason, Wachowsky had never since asked him to do research.

It was rough going.  He Wikipedia-ed “Song stuck in your head,” but it wasn’t very helpful.  He learned that the phenomenon can be called earworm, music meme, humsickness, repetunitis, or tune wedgy, and that it is more likely to seriously bother women than men, but he found these facts somewhat less than helpful.  The entire article contained only one sentence on cures: “The best way to eliminate an unwanted earworm is to simply play a different song.”

Peter had tried that.  He continued to try it, blasting random songs he found on the internet at volumes that must have pissed off his fellow clerks.  Presumably they only let him get away with it because they felt that an Abrahamson thrashing was more than enough for one person to be put through in a day.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

It didn’t work.

Web MD was also a bust.  He actually found an article on the topic, which was more than he had expected, since as far as he knew getting a song stuck in your head wasn’t considered a disease.  Unfortunately, the conclusion was the same as everywhere else: no known way to improve the situation, and definitely no cure.  The article did include a list of the Top Ten Most Stick-able Songs according to a 2003 study.  On any other day, reading this list would have been a nightmare and destroyed his already limited productivity.  Peter tried to use them as ammunition; surely one of these awfully invasive jingles, TV themes, and one-hit wonder hits would be strong enough to defeat the one that was currently occupying his mind.  But even the worst that the Baha Men, the Village People, and Disneyworld could offer wasn’t enough to dislodge it.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

After that his “research” became increasingly less directed.  He looked up several hallucinogenic drugs but was distressed to find that, by most accounts, they made music more intense.  He went back to Web MD in search of information on lobotomies, such as how much they cost and whether the aftereffects were really as bad as they seemed.  He considered contacting his old high school band director before deciding that even after giving the Speech he was not up to writing the most awkward email of his life (“Dear Ms. Lackland: How have you been?  So, there’s this song stuck in my head . . .”).

He also tried downloading some free composition software.  Listening to music had failed to solve his problem, but what about writing music?  He tossed a few notes onto the page and played back his new piece, which he had titled: “Ode to a Clear Mind.”  It sounded something like this:

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

After that, he spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling.  He thought about sleeping, since the “Go to bed and feel better in the morning” school of medicine had often served him well in the past.  He certainly wouldn’t have been the first summer law clerk to incorporate nap time into his “busy” schedule.  But what if he dreamed?  After all, dreams reside in the subconscious, and wouldn’t it make sense to think that this is also the lair of the vile Earworm?  What if the tune took over?  What if he never woke up?

Of course, because of his severe lack of sleep the night before, even this horrifying possibility was not enough to prevent his eyelids from sliding shut.  Perhaps fortunately, the mystery song was annoying enough to keep him from ever drifting into actual sleep.  Instead he drifted into an unrestful stupor, the kind airline passengers often find themselves in when they are flying over the Pacific Ocean at 1 AM local time (not that “local time” has any meaning for them at that point).

Shortly before noon the daily baseball game ended, as usual (Pilots 3, Racers 2- a showdown between National League Central Division gutter teams).  As usual, his coworkers came over to invite Peter to lunch, though a bit more hesitantly than usual—after the way he had stood up to the wrath of Abrahamson, some of the other clerks had wondered if he was really human.  As usual, Peter did not accept.  Unlike usual, instead of providing an excuse, he simply said no and made a difficult-to-interpret head motion.  He also said, “Have lunch,” which was probably supposed to be, “Have a good lunch,” but for once in his life Peter was not paying attention to what he was saying.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

Some time later, Mr. Victorino got off the elevator.  At first it seemed like he might have simply pushed the wrong button; other than Mr. Abrahamson, the only partner who ever came to the clerk cage was Mr. Brandon, who used to have an office on the 12th floor and had trouble remembering that he was now on 10.

But Mr. Victorino, it seemed, was in the right place after all.  Rather than staring around in bewilderment for a few seconds before turning right around and hitting the elevator button, he began examining the cubicles, hunting for whatever clerks might happen to be around.  There was only one for him to find.

“Peter!” he exclaimed, trying to look as much like Santa Claus holding a sackful of toys as a lawyer can.  “How would you like to sit in on a drafting meeting?”

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

Actually, Peter understood him perfectly well.  Having failed in every attempt to rid his mind of the offensive noise, he had spent the previous hour or so watching subtitled videos on YouTube in the hope of teaching himself how to read lips.  He was pleased—and, frankly, a little startled—at his success, but his excitement was significantly dampened by the fact that, unless he could find some way to get the tune out of his head, this could be the only way he would ever be able to understand anyone again.

Speaking of dampened spirits, a drafting meeting is not the kind of treat you would like to wake up to on Christmas morning.  It’s not even something you’d like to have at the end of a long Thanksgiving, simply as a break from watching football and eating turkey and playing football and eating more turkey and watching more football.  Every job has many aspects that may seem boring to people who don’t understand them, and every job usually has at least one thing that’s a little boring even when you know what’s going on.  Drafting meetings had been known to put to sleep people who were dosed up on speed.

Then again, Peter had already tried the interesting stuff, the things that are supposed to distract you, the things that are designed to make you forget what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, and which decade it is.  None of it had helped to get the song out of his head.  He didn’t really think it would work, but without any better ideas, he decided to give extreme tedium a shot.

“Sure,” he said, lying through his teeth.  “Sounds like fun.”

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

The elevator ride was awkward, but only a bit.  Peter’s newfound lip-reading talent was next to useless when he wasn’t looking at the person head-on, so Victorino’s explanation of the brief they were going to be drafting was lost on him.  But Mr. Victorino, like most of the partners, was perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation all by himself, so at least it was only awkward for one of them.

For Peter it was just painful.  He didn’t care much for the elevator music.

Bum ba da da dee ba buuum

They got off on 19, and Peter, who was starting to feel disoriented and could barely keep putting one foot in front of the other, followed Mr. Victorino to a large conference room.  All the bigwigs were there: Abrahamson and his all-penetrating gaze, Wachowsky and his prodigious mustache, Brandon and his deer-in-the-headlights look.  Fortunately they were all focused on a screen, half of which was displaying a document and the other half the just slightly too-close-for-comfort image of the face of one of their associates from another branch.  They hardly even noticed Peter and Victorino’s entrance, which Peter appreciated, especially when he tried to sit down in his chair and missed.


There was no mistaking the fact that the tune was now louder than ever.  Peter felt like his whole body was vibrating, as though he were sitting a few inches away from a speaker at a heavy metal concert.  He kept reaching up to touch his ears, certain that they were going to start bleeding at any second.  Even if the brief they were discussing had been the most fascinating document in the history of the legal profession, Peter would not have been able to pay attention; you might as well have asked him to listen to their conversation from the far side of the moon.


Eventually a sensation got through to him.  One of the lawyers was tapping him on the shoulder.  He looked up.  Victorino appeared to be asking his opinion on something.  He had no idea what.  He was too far gone to try to read lips.  He didn’t even think he could read period.

Peter tried to come up with some plausible response, but he just couldn’t overcome the noise.



Everyone stared at him.  Only Wachowsky, who was blessed with the considerable inertia owed to a man who consumed more tortes in a week than most people did in their entire lives, was able to take the outburst in stride.

“The kid’s right,” he grumbled in his usual, semi-comprehensible manner.  He gestured at the screen.  “This damn fool doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about!”


At that moment a voice pierced through the rapidly hardening concrete sludge that was filling Peter’s mind.  It did not replace the music, nor was it louder than the music, yet somehow he was able to understand it.  He looked around the room to see who commanded this magical voice, but no one was talking to him; they were all arguing with Wachowsky, who was arguing with the man on the screen.

In a moment of clarity (or insanity, depending on how you look at it), Peter realized that the voice belonged to the woman who had attacked him in the subway station.

“This is it?” the voice asked.  “This is how you spend your time?  Sitting in a room listening to rich old men bickering about what words to use in a document that you don’t know anything about?  This is what’s so important that you’re too busy to help me?”

Peter, now convinced that he was losing his mind, gave up.

“Excuse me,” he said, standing up quickly and not even noticing the pain when he slammed both his knees into the thick mahogany table.  “I need to go home.”

He exited the room as quickly as possible, taking three tries to find the door handle, and pinwheeled dangerously back through the hallway to the elevator.  He hit all the buttons, unable even to guess which was which, and collapsed into the car, hanging onto the railing as if it was the only thing preventing him from plummeting into the Grand Canyon.

Peter wasn’t sure how he got out of the building without being stopped by security.  He had no memory of the process.  He wondered if this was what it was like to be on drugs.  The only comparable experience in his life—the day he got his wisdom teeth removed—patterned similarly.  His first memory was of gradually regaining awareness, accompanied by a slow realization of dull, throbbing pain, this time in his knees as opposed to the back of his mouth.

Then he heard a loud sound: “TZAMON BOG, TZAMON BOG.  EXADON YULITE.”

He was on the subway.  And he was home.

For about a second, Peter thought that having been able to get from Millbury Tower, across Dipaoli Plaza, and onto the subway without getting himself killed was the most amazing thing that had happened to him all day.  Then the ramifications of the fact that he had actually heard the subway announcement hit him.

The world was no longer simply a whirlwind of hateful noise.  The strange tune was not gone, but it was significantly softer and less menacing.  As he stepped off the subway into Simon Park Station, it grew softer still.

A wave of euphoria washed over him.  He felt like skipping all the way home—that is, until he remembered that his legs still felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to them.  Even so, as he limped through the turnstile and toward the exit, he relished the diminishing of the music that had nearly melted his brain with every step he took.  When it was gone completely, he stopped, took a deep breath, and let out a shout of pure glee.

He heard a noise to his right, presumably in response to his outburst.  Since being able to hear things again was still something of a novelty, he decided to check it out.  Then he froze like a man who has just realized he is about to step on the third rail.

Peter was staring at the old woman.  He was standing in the exact same spot where she had grabbed him several hours earlier.

A curious blend of emotions was running through the recently decongested paths inside Peter’s head, so when he said, “You did say I’d be back,” he probably looked about the same as he did when she had slapped him.

The woman stared back, looking just as shocked as he did.  “Yeah,” she finally got out, “but I didn’t believe me.”

Any good lawyer knows that the ordering of your questions is crucial.  The exact same set of responses can, when arranged differently, tell a completely different story, or no story at all.  Usually you have to build it up, starting by setting the scene with mundane facts until arriving at the climax, sometimes tossing in quiet harbingers of things to come among the seemingly meaningless trivia.  Anyone who says cross-examination isn’t an art isn’t doing it properly.

But preparing this sequence of questions takes time.  Even veteran trial lawyers spend hours and days directing the flow of information like a pack of engineers preparing to set a river on a new course.  If you try to wing it, as the rookies so often do, you end up telling the wrong story, or your story doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes you even repeat yourself, which can be used as a technique to trip up a not particularly bright witness for the other side, but it’s not recommended for general use.

Peter was in no mood for a slow build-up.  He was in no state to spend time preparing.  He wanted an answer now.

“What the hell did you do to me?”

The woman, on the other hand, was quite well prepared to answer.  She had spent much of the morning thinking about what she had done, what she could have done differently, how it had affected her already bothersome existence.  She hadn’t even been asking people the Question.  It was an unusual day for her.

“I yelled at you and I hit you,” she replied calmly.  As a matter of fact, they were both calm, though one was a before-the-storm calm and the other an after-the-storm calm.  “But that doesn’t seem to explain why you’re back.”

In court, people swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Most people assume that two out of three ain’t bad, and if they’re going to skip one, it might as well be that one in the middle.  Peter had been familiar with this popular strategy since long before he started law school; anyone who grew up with a sibling knows all about it.  He had employed it himself, and he definitely knew when it was being used on him.

“I’ve been yelled at before, and I’ve been hit before.”  Not often, but two can play at the lie of omission game.  “I’ve never been through anything like this.”

“So tell me about it.”  It was nice for once not to have to be the one trying to lead the conversation.  She found it strangely comforting, a nice reprieve in a life that had given her so many sources of discomfort lately.

Peter recounted the tale of his day thus far, trying not to think about the fact that it was only half over.  He continued to omit certain facts that other people might have considered especially relevant.  She didn’t need to know about his rude awakening.  She didn’t need to know about the Speech.  It was a tale of trials and tribulations, but he had narrowed it down to the ones that he felt he could link directly to her.  Given more time, he might have been able to come up with a way to pin the alarm clock on her as well, but he was doing this on the fly.

As he delivered his saga of woe, he kept close attention on the woman’s face.  It is a common rookie mistake to only watch witnesses when they’re responding to your questions, thinking the most important thing is to try to tell whether or not they’re lying.  An experienced lawyer, however, knows that most witnesses have practiced their speeches before coming in and have been coached about how to deliver them without showing signs of falsification.  It is in their responses to what you say—the part of the script they haven’t heard before—that they are most likely to let something slip.

Listening to the story of the maddening mystery tune, the old woman first registered shock, and then she shifted to a look of understanding.  At the end of the tale, her face showed mild bemusement.  This told Peter . . . not much of anything, actually, but keep in mind that by this point he was very tired.

The woman couldn’t help but smile.  Like everyone else, she didn’t like to admit it, but, like everyone else, she was helpless to resist the power of schadenfreude.  “You’re under the effect of the Beherrschunglied.”

Every lawyer must prepare for the situation of a witness spouting out something that seems to mean nothing at all.  The best reaction is to pretend that you understood completely and move on as if nothing unusual has happened.  Other possibilities include making it seem as though what they said is unimportant or even accusing them of using words that an ordinary person—such as the ordinary people on the jury—couldn’t possibly be expected to be familiar with.

Peter chose to sit down.  The floor was as nasty as you would expect, but the station was all but deserted in the early afternoon, so at least there was little risk of being stepped on.  The glorious joy of escaping from the evil tune was slowly being replaced by a vague dizziness, and it didn’t seem like things would be getting better any time soon.  “What did you say?”

“It’s German.”  He had guessed that.  Though he had never studied, Peter had the basic American’s understanding of European languages: flowing, pretentious-sounding words are French; long, angry-sounding words are German; words that are fifteen letters long and contain no vowels are Welsh.  “It means ‘Song of Mastery’ or something like that.”

It was at this point—and also at numerous other points later on—that Peter seriously considered leaving.  He had never gotten the pleasure of meeting Almirante Loco, but he was well aware that there are people in the world who, for whatever reason, say a lot of things that don’t make sense.  Sometimes such people can be amusing: if they seem harmless and respect your physical space, it’s okay to stick around and listen.  But when they ask for money, or turn violent, or rattle off bizarre, fantasy-esque terms as if they actually mean something, then it’s time to walk away.

But he couldn’t walk away, because if he did, the song—the Bearhairshunglead?—might come back.

Still, he decided to tread lightly.  She had already hit him once, and that time he hadn’t even done anything.  He did not want to think about what she might do if he started questioning her beliefs, no matter how crazy they may have been.

“So, when you say, ‘under the effect,’ you mean . . .?”

“It’s simple.  You pretty much just described it.  If you hear the Beherrschunglied, you’re bound to the will of the person who performed it.  Basically you have to do whatever they want.  If you don’t—if you resist, or try to run, or fight it—then the song gradually takes over your mind.  It grows louder, more insistent, blocking off anything else you try to focus on.  It shouldn’t drive you completely insane, because then you wouldn’t be any use to anyone, but, like you said, it’s not exactly pleasant.”

Peter tried to pretend he was at the doctor’s office.  After all, doctors (like lawyers) use lots of words that don’t seem to make any sense, and their explanations are, if you think about it, kind of unbelievable: “If you don’t swallow this mystery object that has god-only-knows-what inside, then millions of tiny things floating around inside your body are going to kill you.”  He asked the only question it makes sense to ask a doctor: “Is there a cure?”

“Sure.  Just follow orders.”

“Hang on a second.  I don’t remember ever hearing this thing.  It just sort of appeared in my head.”  Denial: the first stage of grief.

The woman frowned.  It was not a good look for her, though she wasn’t terribly nice to look at in the first place.  “That’s the part I’m not sure about.”

“But it was you, right?  You’re the one that hit me.  It didn’t start until after that, and then it went away when I came back.”  Stage Two: Blame.

The frown deepened, turning her wrinkles into great valleys of consternation.  “But it’s the Song of Mastery.  I didn’t sing anything.  I wasn’t trying to put this on you.  You can’t force a guy to do what you want just by hitting him.  The world would be a much simpler place if that was true.  Not a very nice place, either.”

“Whatever.  The details aren’t important.”  Stage Three: Bargaining (the lawyers are best at this one).  “You said that if I do what you say, it’ll all go away?”

She looked up at him.  Months of making her pitch and constantly getting rejected had caused her to seriously doubt her ability to judge people, if she had ever had much of one in the first place.  Was this kid any different?  The only way to find out was to try him.

“Seems that way.”

“Great.  You’ve got a deal.”  He extended his hand, knowing full well that a handshake is as legally binding as an unsigned contract or a pinky swear.  He wasn’t actually planning to be ordered around by a madwoman; he would simply play along until a better option presented itself.  Much to his chagrin, Peter was having a great deal of trouble thinking up better options.

The woman smiled but did not take the hand.  Peter retracted it awkwardly.  Then he told himself that he probably didn’t want to shake hands with someone who appeared to spend all her time sitting on the floor of a subway station.  “What do you want me to do?”

“It’s simple,” she lied.  It was an obvious lie, one that Peter would have recognized even if he hadn’t been training for the legal profession or grown up with a younger sibling.  “Get me out of here.”

Peter looked around.  No forbidding iron gates or barred doors had appeared in the station since he was last there.  Could it be that the woman couldn’t walk?  No, she had been capable—more than capable—of moving around that morning.  He rolled up his sleeve and saw that there was a definite mark where she had seized his arm.  If she was enfeebled, then he had all the muscular strength of a gelatin mold.

“I don’t understand.”

The woman continued to smile.  “I don’t understand it completely myself, but I can tell you that it’s going to involve at least two steps.  The second one will be a bit . . . complicated, but the first part should be pretty clear-cut.  I need you to get me out of these.”

She shifted uncomfortably around and gestured toward her back with her chin.  Peter noticed for the first time the she was sitting not only next to a pillar but also right up against a garbage can.  The “can” was not really a can at all, but simply a bag ringed by a framework of long metal bars.  In between the bars—and, at either end, around the woman’s wrists—someone had placed a pair of handcuffs.

* * *

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”

Officer Tang had mixed feelings about the Miranda Rights.  It had never been successfully explained to her why criminals had any rights at all.  If they wanted rights, they shouldn’t have broken the law.  In general, she paid very little attention to the post-arrest stages of criminal procedure, which she often found confusing and/or unsatisfying.  In her ideal world, you got the bad guy, and that was it (Officer Tang was one of the few people whose ideal world still had bad guys in it).

On the other hand, reading an arrestee her Miranda Rights was a symbol of victory.  It was a way of showing you had won, like saying “Checkmate!” or hearing your country’s national anthem or dumping a barrel of Gatorade on the coach.  Every time she got to say, “You have the right to remain silent,” it was a reminder of another job well done.  So she relished the delivery of the lines, even if the philosophical background behind them made her somewhat uneasy.

Most of the time she did not care whether or not they waived their rights.  It didn’t matter to her if they said anything compromising—that was all for the detectives to take care of.  In fact, she generally preferred that her arrestees keep quiet; after all, what had they done to earn the privilege of talking?  Officer Tang was not the first cop to reinterpret, “You have the right to remain silent” as meaning, “You have lost your freedom of speech.”

But this time she wanted something.  She had to know.  What had the woman been doing down there for all those months?  The mystery had consumed her like no previous case ever had.  She had the assault charge, and that was enough to bring the woman in, but it was not enough to satisfy Officer Tang; it was just an excuse.  You could hardly say that Al Capone’s great criminal act was failing to pay his taxes.

“Thought you could get away with it, didn’t you?”  Lacking experience actually talking to suspects instead of just reciting at them, she was forced to rely almost exclusively on clichés.  “Well, you might have somewhere else, but not in my town.  You didn’t reckon with the Crescenton Police Department!”

The old woman was in no mood to respond.  She had arrived at Grief Stage Four: Depression.  She was never going to get out.  No one was ever going to listen to her.  She would die in that subway station, and it would most likely be several days before anyone even noticed.  And, because apparently that wasn’t funny enough for the universe, it had decided to throw this disagreeable police officer at her as well.

“I bet you’re wondering what kind of sentence you’ve got to look forward to for what you did,” Officer Tang continued.  She certainly was.  “Five-to-ten?  Twenty?  Life?  I hear there’s a proposition in the legislature to get rid of the death penalty here in the state of Ohio, but I wouldn’t count on that to save you.”

“I’m already serving a life sentence.”  She didn’t want to talk to the police officer.  Then again, she couldn’t remember the last time she had done something because she wanted to.  If it was her lot in life to be toyed with for others’ amusement, she might as well play along.  Stage Five: Acceptance.

“So you’re a repeat offender!”  It was all coming together now: a hardened criminal spends decades digging an escape tunnel with spoons stolen from the prison cafeteria.  One night she jumps in, claws her way to undeserved freedom and finds herself in the subway system.  That explained why she had just been sitting there for months.  She was laying low until the whole thing blew over.  “Where were you doing time?”


Officer Tang faltered, but just for a moment.  She couldn’t possibly mean here here.  She must mean, “in the state of Ohio.”  “Well then, you’re in luck.  We can put you back where you belong in no time.  Just need to run you by the station to do a little paperwork and you’ll be on your way.”

The woman laughed.  It wasn’t funny, really; it was just . . . fair.  For the first time, her situation was going to cause problems for someone else instead of just for her.  “If only it were that easy.”

“What?”  She tightened her grip on the woman’s arm.  “Ma’am, you’re in enough trouble as it is.  You don’t want to add resisting arrest on top of it.”  Officer Tang didn’t want any complications, and she certainly didn’t want to have to beat an old woman into submission.  She just wanted the intruder out of her station.

The woman kept laughing.  It hurt her throat, but she couldn’t stop.  Sometimes all you can do is laugh—it’s not one of the stages of grief, but maybe it should be.  “I’m not resisting.  Believe me, I would love to go with you.  But like I said: it’s not that easy.”

Officer Tang was starting to feel very uncomfortable.  The people she arrested did not usually laugh.  Cartoon supervillains laugh.  Real criminals don’t laugh.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

The laughter finally subsided.  “You’ll see.”

Tracy Tang had had more than enough of these cryptic mind games.  She wasn’t in the CIA; she was a police officer.  The life of a police officer is supposed to be simple.  There is right, and there is wrong.  You stop one and defend the other.

She cuffed the old woman and took her by the arm, just as she had done a hundred times before and just as she would do a hundred times again.  The routine was comforting while it lasted.  It lasted as far as the stairs.

At first she thought that the old woman had tripped her.  She regained her balance and spun around, ready for the chase.  But the woman wasn’t running.  She just stood there calmly with an awkward smile.  “See what I mean?”

Officer Tang ignored her.  She grabbed the criminal’s arm and pulled.  Nothing happened.  The woman clearly wasn’t exerting any effort at all, but suddenly she was harder to move than if she was made of lead.  Officer Tang tried using both arms.  She wouldn’t budge.  The officer got down off the stairs, went around to the woman’s back, and pushed.  Nothing.  She tried pulling in the opposite direction: easy as pie.  But when she went back to pushing, the woman went right up to the edge of the first step, and then it was like she had hit an invisible wall.  No amount or type of exertion on the part of Officer Tang—and believe me, she got creative—could get her up the stairs.

“I’m stuck here,” the woman said, without a trace of her former smile.  “Neither you, nor the army, nor anybody else can get me out.”

But Officer Tang was not beaten that easily.  There was more than one way out of the station.  She had the woman do an about-face and brought her back through the turnstile, past her pillar, and onto the platform.

“It won’t work,” the old woman said sadly.

“You have the right to remain silent,” Officer Tang reminded her.

A train pulled in a few minutes later, and the officer spent every instant of the twenty seconds the doors were open trying to force the woman on.  She might as well have tried to push a jumbo jet up the Grand Canyon.  A number of subway passengers watched curiously.  A few who wanted to board through the door she was occupying expressed their displeasure.  “Official police business!” she bellowed, and she kept on working at it until the doors slid shut.  In fact, she was so absorbed in her effort that she continued to try even after the train was gone.  Luckily for both of them, the mysterious force preventing the woman from getting on the train also stopped her from being knocked onto the tracks.

After failing to get the woman out through two different maintenance tunnels, even Officer Tang was ready to admit that she would not be able to bring this perp in on her own.  It was time to call for backup.  In fact, it was time to go ask for backup in person, because she wasn’t sure she could explain the situation effectively over the radio, if she could at all.

But what about the criminal?  Could she really leave her there alone among all those innocent citizens, leaving them at risk of being slapped to within an inch of their lives at any moment?

“Stay here,” she ordered, looking around wildly in the desperate hope that another officer might happen to be walking by at that very moment.  “Don’t think you’re getting out of it because of . . . whatever this is.  I’ll be back to arrest you properly soon.”

The old woman was smiling again.  She was sore all over, but it was nothing compared to what she had done to herself in her own attempts to get past the unfathomable barriers blocking every exit.  “Like I have any choice.  I’ll try not to commit any crimes while you’re away.”

Officer Tang’s wandering eyes settled on a nearby garbage can.  “Oh, you’d better believe you won’t.”

As she sat there attached to the waste receptacle—a new low in a life that had set the bar underground since Day One—she decided that the handcuffs were a punishment for her being amused by the officer’s distress.  She made a promise to herself to never again take pleasure from another person’s misery.  It was a promise she kept for almost five hours.

* * *

“Let me get this straight: you want me to get you out of those handcuffs.”

“For a start.”

Peter frowned.  You never get a good answer when you start with “Let me get this straight.”  “And how would you suggest I go about doing that?”

Though she hadn’t done it in a while, in the early days of her captivity the old woman had spent some time imagining who her rescuer might be.  They came in a variety of sizes and colors, but one thing they all had in common was that they were heroic.  In her mind one of the defining characteristics of heroism was the ability to take charge of a situation.  Heroes do not need to be led by the hand every step of the way.  But after two hundred thirty-three days, she was not about to start looking gift horses in the mouth.

“The most basic way would be to go at them with some kind of saw, I suppose.”  She had spent many hours planning exactly how to direct her champion, should he ever appear.  It seemed perfectly in keeping with her luck that when he finally did, the first problem they would have to deal with would be something that hadn’t come up until that very morning.  “But it sounds like you’re having a pretty jittery day, so I don’t think I trust you with sharp objects.”

Apparently, if you ordered me to use the saw, my mind would be crystal clear.”  Sarcasm: also not an official stage of grief, but useful nonetheless.

“No thanks.  You’re just going to have to get the key.”

“The key.”


“The key to the handcuffs.”

“That’s the one.”

“The key to the handcuffs, which is in the police station.”

“That’s where I would keep it if I was the police.”

“And that’s exactly where they’d want to keep me if I tried to steal it!”

Peter didn’t like the idea of trying to get a job at a law firm with an attempted theft from a government building on his record.  He didn’t like standing around discussing the crime with someone whom the police had already tried to arrest once that day and were probably coming around to get a second time.  He didn’t like her explanation of the song in his head, which he only believed because it happened to stop when he was near her.  He especially didn’t like that he was essentially rewarding this woman for smacking him in the face—lawyers know all about setting bad precedents.

“Forget it,” he said.  “I’ll take my chances with the earworm.”  He turned around and walked toward the exit.

Around them the daily routine of Simon Park Station continued as ever before.  The regular passengers had gotten used to the old woman and her bizarre habits a long time ago.  She sat on the floor, and sometimes she talked to people.  Sometimes the people talked back—both in the neutral sense of “talk back” and the negative sense.  They always walked away in the end.  From their point of view there was nothing new going on.

But the woman saw something different.  She saw a person who listened to her proposal, considered it, and then gave an answer that proved he had actually been paying attention.  She saw a man who chose to fight the Beherrschunglied because the alternative went against his principles.  It was kind of heroic, when she thought about it.

Of course, she might have only seen these qualities because the alternative was watching the best chance of getting out she had found in eight months of searching walk away.

“And what about after that?” she shouted.

The angry approach hadn’t worked—well, technically it had, but not in a way that seemed possible to duplicate.  So she fell back on the usual.  It had never worked before, but there’s a first time for everything.

“You want to go home and forget about everything that happened today?  After the way you described it, I suppose you probably would.  And maybe you’d be happy, for a while.  You’d get back in your routine, go to work every day—you look like someone whose job doesn’t change much.  You could live a life without risking being arrested, without crazy old women telling you what to do, without angry German music stuck in your head.  But what would you have instead?”

Peter stopped.  He couldn’t tell you exactly why (then again, considering the day he’d had, you’d be lucky if he could tell you his own address or phone number).  Maybe the woman’s words struck home; maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of spending the whole rest of the summer killing time in the Clerk Cage knowing that he gave up the chance to do something else.  It could be that he remembered that the reason he wanted to be a lawyer was not simply to show off his speaking skills but also to help others.  Of course, it’s also possible that, as he approached the exit, the faintest hint of the tune began to reverberate at the back of his mind again.

He walked back to where the woman was seated and squatted down, trying to ignore the smell of the garbage can.  “Look, I’d like to help you.  I don’t know what you did to get in trouble with the police, but whatever it is, I’m sure you don’t deserve to be locked up and then abandoned here.  But you’re asking me to go into a building full of cops and steal something that belongs to them.  I don’t think you’ve got the right man for the job.”

We’ll find out for sure in a minute, the woman thought.  “And if you could get someone else to do it for you?”

“I don’t see how that’s any better.  You’re just adding a conspiracy charge on top of things.”  Still, his curiosity could not be denied.  “What are you talking about?”

“The Beherrschunglied.”

“Can’t we just call it by the English name?”

“Fine.  The Song of Mastery.”

“The song that you used on me—”

“Not intentionally!”

“—to force me to do what you want.”


“But I don’t know it.”  This was only one of many problems with her suggestion.  It was the most obvious, however, so he felt he might as well start with it.

“I can teach it to you.”  She took a deep breath.  This was it.  “Can you play a musical instrument?”

“No.”  But, on this one occasion, as he watched her head sink gloomily onto her chest, he felt compelled to tell the whole truth.  “I mean, not anymore.”

She immediately perked up as though buoyed by a mysterious muffin left by an unknown benefactor.  “What did you play?”

He hesitated a bit.  “Flute.  But I haven’t touched it since high school.”

“I bet you could still play if you tried.”  She sat up straighter.  Her eyes were bright.  She had found him.  After asking thousands of people, she had finally found the one who was going to get her out.  His only qualifications were that he had answered “I used to” to her second question and given an inconclusive response to her first, but she had lowered her standards considerably since she started.  She certainly wasn’t going to let the guy get away just because he was a little out of practice.  “Do you still have it?”

“Not with me.”  The flute he used had once belonged to his mother.  He couldn’t imagine that she had sold it.

“Go get it.”

“Now wait.  I haven’t agreed to anything yet.”

Despite its surprising success the first time, the woman was doing her best to keep herself from resorting to slapping him again.  But she was excited, more excited than she had been . . . ever, as far as she could remember.  With very great effort, she reminded herself that, unlike her, he was new to the whole situation and would need time to absorb it.

“I’m not asking you to do anything other than get the flute.  You don’t have any problem with that, right?  It’s what I want you to do, so you should be able to leave without being bothered by the Beherr—I mean, the Song of Mastery.  Just run the errand, take some time to think about everything, and come back here.  I’ll be waiting.”

It sounded simple enough.  Like most people with common sense, he had a deep distrust of things that sound simple.  But he did want to help the woman if he could, and he didn’t have anything else he needed to be doing.  After the ridiculous display he put on, he thought it was best not to try going back to work.  Hopefully the weekend would give him time to come up with an explanation for his behavior.  He did not expect this explanation to contain the word “Beherrschunglied.”

“You could be waiting a while.  I’m not sure where it is.”

She sighed, but she was smiling afterwards.  “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting,” she said, forgetting that she had screamed the exact amount of time into his face earlier that day.  “I can wait a little longer.”  She tried to lean back and smacked her head against the garbage can.  “But don’t take too long, okay?  This really isn’t as comfortable as it looks.”

Peter walked up the stairs slowly, one at a time, but not because he realized just how dangerous his earlier descent had been.  With every step, he worried that his mind would once again be assaulted by that hateful tune, but it never came.  The preposterousness of the woman’s explanation was gradually being outweighed by the fact that the behavior of the earworm was completely consistent with what she said.

Perhaps the strangest thing about it was that he couldn’t remember what the song sounded like.  His usual experience with music stuck in his head was that any related thought would trigger a relapse.  Even when he worried about it returning, something that would usually guarantee that it did, it didn’t come.  He had heard it hundreds of times that very day, but now when he tried to hum it, he couldn’t figure out the notes.

Peter did not find this reassuring.

What he did find reassuring was the sunlight, and being outside again, and the fact that Simon Park was pleasantly quiet.  It was as hot as you’d expect of an afternoon in late June, and he was still wearing his suit, but a little sweat was nothing compared to what he’d been through.  For a moment it was just another Friday, and he was simply going home early from work.

But, like most moments in the sun, it didn’t last.  This was no ordinary Friday, for so many reasons.  For one thing, he was going home because he had a job to do.  For another, the home he was going to was not the usual one.

As he crossed Simon Park—which did not take long, because it was really more like a glorified courtyard—he thought about the woman.  He asked questions that many people had asked before: Who was she?  What was she doing there?  He was, however, only the third person to give serious consideration to the answers.

She was a suspicious character, and not just for the obvious reasons.  He may not have been having his best day, but Peter still did his best to size up his opponent (or co-conspirator, or boss, or whatever she was); he had been trained by a father whose work constantly reminded him that surface explanations are not always (or even often) the most accurate.

First, her description of the magical “Song of Mastery” was surprisingly undetailed; one would ordinarily expect a magician or other con artist to have a more elaborate tale to support her tricks.  What did she have to gain by feigning ignorance?  Or was it feigned?  Second, the little “mission” she had assigned for him was tossing him right in the deep end.  Everyone knows that if you’re trying to gain someone’s confidence, you start with little things and then work your way up until the mark is so tightly bound to you that he can’t escape.  You don’t throw the cub off the cliff right off the bat and expect him to crawl back to you.  Third, she wasn’t a great actor.  Although she was famous as . . . that is, famous on the internet as . . . well, she was once mentioned on a blog with more than a hundred followers as “The Old Woman in Simon Park Station,” but it didn’t feel right.  She looked old, but she didn’t act old.

After weighing the information, Peter laid out the possibilities: she was a very bad confidence trickster (50% chance), she was an advanced confidence trickster who knew the usual methods won’t always work (35% chance), or she was on the level (15% chance).

All skepticism aside, though, she seemed to be in genuine distress.  He figured it would take serious commitment to handcuff oneself to a garbage can in a subway station, and he didn’t see what she could possibly gain that would make it worth it.  Maybe her aim was to use him to distract the police, but he doubted that he could occupy enough officers for long enough for someone to accomplish much of anything.  And if she thought he might actually succeed, then she was less intelligent than he had given her credit for.

His assessment was put on hold when he reached the other end of the park and had to cross the street.  One more block of brisk walking in the summer heat brought him to the entrance to the Carmine Street Station.  As a matter of fact, Peter had been riding the subway about once a week since the beginning of the summer.  Simon Park was the closest station to his apartment, but he had never been in it before that day; it was on the Green Line, which could only take him downtown or out east.  If he wanted to go out to the western suburbs, he needed the Red Line.

As he walked down the treacherous, poorly-lit stairs, Peter wondered if any of this would have happened to him if his family lived in, say, Forest Heights instead of Park Prairie.  If he was a regular Green Line rider, then he might have met the woman before.  Maybe he would have learned to avoid her.  Maybe he would have a car and not need to ride the subway, since everyone knew that all the kids from Forest Heights were cake eaters whose parents bought them anything they wanted.

He strolled through the station—keeping a careful eye out for any mystery women who might be lurking around the pillars—and got on a westbound train.  Since there wasn’t much else to do on the seventeen-minute ride, he spent the time wondering what it would have been like to go through middle school never being taunted by the kids from other suburbs for living in “PP.”

The door to the old Hamlin place creaked open, seeming to move almost of its own accord.  A strange sound rang out from some distant inner room—it could have been laughter, and if it was, it definitely wasn’t someone laughing with you.  A thick layer of dust coated the floor; no one had crossed that threshold in decades, except . . . were those footprints?  Hoofprints? A small shadow darted past the open door.  It was probably just a cat.  That’s it, just a cat.  Please let it just be a cat . . .

It would be difficult to explain why exactly Peter envisioned his return home—something he did almost every week—as though he had been triple dog dared to step inside the rotting mansion on the hill at the outskirts of town.  Suffice it to say, his imagination was running wild.  Thinking realistically hadn’t served him all that well so far that day.

The door did creak a little, but it certainly didn’t move of its own accord.  Peter had to put his shoulder into it, just as he had done every summer for as long as he could remember.  He stutter-stepped, hopped automatically over the three or four pairs of shoes that were inevitably lying right in the middle of the entryway, and skidded to a halt just before crashing into the inconveniently positioned coat tree.  It wasn’t the most subtle entrance, but Peter was pretty sure that no one was home, much more sure than he would have been if he was really walking into a house where no one had lived for generations.

Mom and Dad both started work early and left early, so on any other day of the week they would either already be back or be arriving shortly.  But Friday was Mom’s grocery shopping day, and she was one of those people who refused to buy anything premade and insisted on inspecting every purchase thoroughly, so it was a very time-consuming activity (often involving multiple stores).  Dad stayed late at work for extra-curricular activities.  Dizzy, being a teenager, was never in the house unless she was contractually obligated to be, especially during the summer.

So Peter was alone, and he was quite glad to be.  He sure as hell didn’t want to try to explain why he wasn’t at work.

Well, not entirely alone.  Shortly after regaining his balance, he was greeted by Sourdough, the more sociable of their two cats.  He rubbed up against his leg, consented to be petted for a few seconds, and then returned to his windowsill perch to get back to more important matters: scanning the backyard for birds, chipmunks, and other dangerous invaders.  Peter assumed that Cicero was down in the basement, because Cicero was always down in the basement.  Cicero only emerged at feeding time, when guests who were allergic to cats came over, or during thunderstorms—though in the last case she only came up so she could hide under his parents’ bed.  Mom liked to say that she was so shy because she was a girl who had been given a boy’s name, but Dad stubbornly insisted that they had agreed to each name one of the cats, and he wasn’t about to change anything now.  If the cat couldn’t handle being named after one of history’s greatest orators, well, that was his problem.  Err, her problem.

But Peter was not there to get reacquainted with his pets.  He was on a mission.  It comforted him to think of it as a mission, because the alternative was admitting that he was running silly errands for a crazy homeless woman in order to avoid joining her in madness because of an annoying song.  Yes, “mission” was definitely the better option.

He had told the old woman that he wasn’t sure where the flute was, but really, he could think of only one place it could possibly be.  Peter made his way to the master bedroom, hesitating only slightly to enter a place that for so many years of his life had been presented as the domain of his parents, well beyond the realm of children.  Of course, Mom and Dad did still sleep in the room, but Peter was too old to feel nervous just because of that . . . right?

To the right of the door was a closet.  He pulled the door open and was greeted by a rush of wind, smelling of things that are too old to touch.  The closet was dark and expansive; god only knew exactly what had accumulated there over the centuries.  In the center, however, a shaft of light fell from an opening high above, a tiny hole far too distant to see.  All around were innumerable treasures, ranging from the dimly lit to the completely invisible, but Peter saw only the light.  He stepped forward carefully, looking now at his feet, now at his destination, knowing that the slightest misstep could spell doom.  The walk felt like an eternity.  The further he got from the door, the dimmer the light from the exterior became, until eventually it was only him and the pedestal that stood in the column of illumination.

Peter stood there, his goal within arm’s reach, for quite some time.  This was it.  This was what he had come for.  But he was afraid.  Afraid of what?  He couldn’t tell you—though in the murky depths of the ancient temple, being afraid of everything was always the safest bet.  He closed his eyes and thought of his mission.  Reaching down blindly, moving as gingerly as a safecracker, he traced the edge of the stone pedestal, and then his fingers spiraled inward, slowly advancing until they reached the hard plastic case.  With easy familiarity he flipped open one latch, then the other, then he gently lifted the lid.  Then, though they felt as heavy as one of the temple’s great stone doors, he raised his eyelids.

There it was: the flute, glimmering in the beam of light like a treasure worthy of an ancient king.  Before he really knew what was happening it was in his hands.  A tune started to play, seemingly from nowhere, starting softly but growing as he raised his prize up to eye level, and then climbing in a triumphant crescendo as he thrust it skyward, as if the flute could somehow carry him up the beam of light to safety.

And then he turned around and saw a huge boulder rolling toward him.  Yeah, right.

As before, Peter’s fantasy was based on a hint of truth: in this case, the amount of time it took him to search the closet.  It was nowhere near as spacious as an ancient temple chamber—either real or imaginary—but you could still have hired a professional treasure hunter to dig through it and felt that the expense was justified.  Mom and Dad’s opinions differed on many subjects, including cat naming, but one thing they agreed upon was organization.  They agreed it was overrated.

He eventually located it on a shelf, hidden behind a very old sport coat.  He decided to carry out any further investigation elsewhere, because the room still made him a little uncomfortable, partly because it was the place where (presumably) his sister had been conceived and partly because of thoughts of poison-tipped darts shooting out of holes in the wall.  He walked cautiously out of the closet, watching out not for differently colored stones that would trigger traps but trying to make sure he didn’t trip over any shoes or old tennis rackets.

Peter went out to the kitchen.  Sourdough turned his head around to watch.  Sourdough had a curious nature, but he also was smart enough to know what happened to curious cats, so he did his best to act like he wasn’t.  He relocated from the windowsill to the back of the couch and promptly pretended to fall asleep.

Peter opened the case, not as slowly as he would have if he had really found it on a dusty stone pedestal, but not as quickly as when he had been playing it every day, either.  It seemed to be in pretty good condition.  Knowing Mom, she probably dug it out once a month or so to polish and maybe even try a few notes.  Then she would return it to the mysterious morass of the closet.  He wondered how long before she noticed it was missing.

His concern, however, was not with the condition of the flute; it was with the condition of the player.  He hadn’t even touched the thing in six years.  Peter had no idea whether the forgetting curve for instruments was more like the one for bicycle riding (pick it up twenty years later and you’re still fine) or the one for calculus (stop doing it for a month and forget everything you ever learned).  His fingers found the appropriate keys quickly enough, and he raised it up, resting the instrument above his chin and just below his lower lip.  Then he blew.

About the best thing you could say for the performance is that it didn’t cause Sourdough to yowl, leap up, and run down to the basement to join Cicero.  It took him four tries to get any kind of sound out of it at all, and when he finally succeeded the noise was feeble and grainy.  He tried a couple renditions of “Hot Cross Buns,” which was the only tune for which he could remember the fingering.  It sounded like “Hot Cross Buns” always sounds, which is to say, pretty bad, because the only people who ever perform “Hot Cross Buns” are ten-year-olds who picked up their instrument for the first time less than three weeks earlier.

He stared at the flute accusingly, then turned to his audience to see the reaction.  Sourdough stared back, as inscrutably as you would expect a cat to do.  Possibly to himself, possibly to the cat, or possibly to the flute, Peter said, “This isn’t going to work.”

But with the possibility of inquisitive family members returning at any time looming—not to mention the Beherrschunglied—he packed it up and took it with him back to the subway station.

* * *

“Don’t you just put your lips together and blow?”

“I think that’s whistling.”

“Isn’t it basically the same?”

“No.  Have you ever played the flute?”

“Not that I can remember.”

“Then why are you giving me advice?”

“You look like you could use it.”

Simon Park Station was getting busier.  The people who took off early on Friday afternoons—who made up a significant portion of the downtown workforce—were streaming through, hoping to refresh themselves before going out again or to fall asleep watching TV.  Not a one of them was interested in the conversation between the old woman and a young man holding a flute.

“You could say that again,” Peter told her.  He liked to get things done on his own if he could, but he was not opposed to asking others for advice.  So far that day his only advisors had been the old woman, a variety of semi-reliable websites, and a sleep-deprived Peter Hamlin.  It was no wonder that things had gone so poorly.

“So, can we get started, then?”  The woman shifted awkwardly to remind him that she was handcuffed to a garbage can.  She didn’t see how anyone could forget something like that, but the boy hadn’t yet proven himself to be all that bright.

Peter didn’t answer right away.  He was still thinking about advice.  Unfortunately he couldn’t spot anyone around who looked particularly helpful.  He wished there was a police officer around who could tell him what the deal with this woman was, but there was none to be seen.  Shouldn’t there have been someone on duty?  For that matter, what about the cop that had handcuffed the old woman?  Where had she gone?  Why hadn’t she come back?

He sighed.  “No, I don’t think we can.  I just told you that I can’t really play this thing anymore.”  He looked down at the flute and felt a pang of guilt—guilt for not being able to help the woman, or guilt for losing a skill he had once had?  “And anyway, I don’t like your plan.  I’m not going to force someone else to break into the police station for me.  That’s despicable.”

“You’re going to give up now?  When you’ve done this much already?  You can’t back out!  You’re in too deep!”

“I’m ‘in too deep’?  What are you talking about?  You make it sound like I’m working for the mob.”  He briefly considered the possibility that the woman was part of the mob, which just goes to show how messed up his thought process was.  “What have I done?”

“You stole that flute!”

“I borrowed this flute—which I used to own—from my mother.  I don’t think they’re going to send me to prison for that one.”

The woman groaned.  “God, I’m bad at this.”

Peter moved to sit down, but then he remembered where he was.  The woman may have been fine sitting on the subway station floor, but she wasn’t wearing a suit (also, she was handcuffed to a garbage can).  He felt bad for her, though not yet as bad as he felt for himself.  He had nothing else he needed to be doing, and that song was still in his head . . . somewhere . . . probably.  He figured he might as well listen to what she had to say.

“I’ve been here for seven months.  All this time, I’ve been trying to get people to go on an adventure.  And you know what I’ve finally realized?  People don’t want to go on an adventure.  No one in this crowd does, anyway.”  She indicated the stream of subway passengers with her nose.  “It’s like I’m a beer vendor, and it took me more than half a year to realize that I had set up shop outside an AA meeting instead of at a baseball game.”

“Yeah, I can think of much better places to look for potential adventurers.”  Space Camp.  The first day of an Introduction to Archaeology class.  Wal-Mart.  “Why didn’t you try asking for help in a more normal way?”

“Because I have an abnormal problem.  And I don’t know if you noticed, but apparently I’m not very popular with the police.”  She rattled the cuffs.  “And how about you?  Are you an adventurer?”

Saying “no” would have felt like a betrayal of the Speech he had given that morning, so Peter did what any good lawyer would: he didn’t answer the question.  “I’m still not convinced that what you’re selling is an adventure.  Waltzing into the police station and trying to make off with a key doesn’t sound like much of one to me.”

“I know.”  She groaned again.  “This just came up today.  Now I don’t even have the thing that no one wants.  That crazy policewoman confiscated my beer and replaced it with week-old fish.”

“But it wouldn’t have been that different, would it?  It still would have involved this . . . crazy music stuff?”  He couldn’t help but be somewhat intrigued by the suggestion of adventure, so long as he wasn’t the one that had to go on it.  For a moment he was slightly glad that the only thing he could use his flute for at that point was to inspire pity.

The old woman eyed him carefully.  Despite her months of practice, she was not at all good at manipulating people.  She was no better at working angles than she had been in high school geometry class.  But even the guy batting .167 gets a hit now and then.  “You don’t believe, do you?  You were actually under the spell of the Beherrschunglied, and you still don’t believe.”

Like 82% of Americans, Peter was not comfortable discussing his beliefs with strangers (those who are, though they make up only 18% of the population, occupy 95% of the volume).  “If you keep saying things like ‘under the spell,’ I’m going to believe it even less,” he replied awkwardly.

“No,” she pressed, all the while thinking, Don’t screw this up don’t screw this up don’t screw this up.  “You’re not the type to be convinced by words.  You need to see it in action.  That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.”

An alarm went off in the back of Peter’s head.  He hadn’t had very good luck with alarms that day.  Or with things at the back of his head, for that matter.  His eyes narrowed.  “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing despicable.”  She shrugged, demonstrating that shrugging is yet another thing you can’t do comfortably when you’re handcuffed to a garbage can.  “I’ll teach you the song, and then you can go out and try it.  If it doesn’t work, then I’m a crazy old woman and you don’t have to worry about anything I say.  If it does, you can command the person to do something completely harmless like wave at you and be done with it.  No keys or police stations involved.  What do you say?”

Peter said nothing.  It sounded like a trick.

“I’ll bet you spent most of the morning trying to figure out what was going on,” she continued.  “Doing whatever you could to find out what had been done to you.”

“I was looking for a cure.”

“You were looking for an answer.  And you won’t be satisfied until you get one.  Suppose the song just disappeared right now and never bothered you again.  Would you really be okay with that?  Being better but having no idea why, or even what was wrong in the first place?”

“Fine,” he snapped.  The woman’s pressing was starting to get almost as annoying as the earworm.  Of course, he could have just walked away, but then he would be taking the risk of having the vile tune return.  More important even than that, though, was the fact that walking away without saying anything would have been equivalent to admitting that he had lost the argument.  Peter Hamlin did not like to lose, and the thing he hated to lose above all others was an argument.

The woman didn’t even smile.  The experience with the police officer had taught her that gloating brought nothing but trouble.

“But how can you teach me, anyway?  You just said you’ve never played the flute.”

“I can sing.”

“That’s it?  You’re just going to sing it to me, and then I’m supposed to play it back?”

“It should work, if you’re any good at listening.  Now, I shouldn’t even have to do that, because you think that you’ve heard the song many times already.  But you can’t remember it, even if you try, can you?  Gee, that’s awfully mysterious, don’t you think?”  As it turned out, the woman was not as good at not gloating as she thought she was.

“Hang on.”  Peter turned around to look at the crowd of subway passengers, which he had all but forgotten were there (they had been ignoring him, too, so it was all fair).  “What if they hear you?  Will they be . . . affected?”

She shook her head.  “It doesn’t work like that unless you’re doing it intentionally . . . uhh, most of the time,” she added when Peter gave her a dirty look.  “And I wasn’t singing that time, anyway!  I just hit you.”

“Yes, that continues to be a very comforting thought.  Let’s just get this over with.”

The woman took a deep breath.  Peter expected to hear an angry, violent noise, like a cross between the buzzing of a swarm of hornets, cannon fire, and a traffic jam’s worth of car horns, but what the woman sang was calm, gentle, even beautiful.  He began to suspect that her claim of “I can sing” had been a significant understatement.  Still, the tune was immediately recognizable as the one that had nearly driven him mad that morning.

“Now you try.”

So he did.  What he played was the Beherrschunglied, in the same way that a toddler can pile a bunch of yellow Legos in a vaguely triangular shape and call it the Great Pyramid.  The woman, who had never been a music teacher, did a poor job of concealing her disappointment.

“I told you this wouldn’t work.”

“No, no, you’ll be fine!” she said, in the voice of someone who knows a project has to succeed only because she has invested too much for it to fail.  “You just need a little practice, that’s all.  Just, uh, try it a few more times until you get the hang of it.  But . . . maybe you should do it outside.  You know . . . there are fewer people out there, so . . .”

Peter walked off, saving the woman from having to come up with a logical ending to her suggestion that didn’t involve telling the truth, which was: “I don’t want to listen to you anymore.”  He glared at the flute.  “I used to be able to play you,” he muttered grumpily as he went up the stairs.

The woman watched him go.  Her spirits, temporarily raised by the thought of actually getting out of there, were slowly sinking back down below ground.  The boy was right, of course; there was no way this plan could work.  The Beherrschunglied was a fearsome weapon, but it was only as good as the person who wielded it.  For example, an above-average rendition would be required to control Peter Hamlin, at least on a day when he was well-rested and in full possession of his mental faculties.  Legends spoke of the song’s ability to sap the will of entire armies, though such a feat would require a performance the likes of which had never been heard on Earth.  The way he had just played, she figured he would be lucky to get a couple of blades of grass to bend.

* * *

Simon Park was not much of a park.  It was roughly the length of a football field and surrounded on all sides by five-story apartment complexes.  It had most of the things a park was supposed to have: grass, trees, benches, paths.  Sometimes the benches were even located beneath the trees.  But it was so blatantly artificial that it failed to create the image of nature springing to life and standing against the harsh wilderness of the city; instead it felt more like they had simply painted the concrete green.  It was not a place you would go to take a walk on a weekend afternoon or sit down and read a book in the gentle breeze—it was the place you took your dog to do its business, the extra block you had to walk to get to the subway station.

But people did go there, even if only out of necessity, and so, like all public spaces in the city, it had street performers.  The saxophonist and the guitar player with their open cases.  The infinite number of different kinds of drummers.  The raving lunatic who gets his clothes from the dumpster, his news from The Onion, and thinks that standing on top of things and shouting like he’s in a war zone makes him smarter than you.  All the truly talented artists went to Hayes or Morrison Park, where there were larger crowds and annual festivals (the only holiday regularly celebrated at Simon Park was Day After Monthly Dog Waste Pickup Day).  But they weren’t terrible, either—depending on whether or not you thought the lunatic was funny—and people occasionally tossed them a dollar out of common decency.

Peter was giving these performers a bad name.

He found himself frequently wishing that he had no audience.  On the one hand, this would mean that he would have no way of testing the efficacy of the Song of Mastery and that the entire exercise would be pointless.  On the other hand, he was 80-90% convinced that his performance was pointless anyway, and if no one was around, at least it would be less embarrassing.

Unfortunately, he never got his wish.  The afternoon was growing later, and the thousands of people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the overblown courtyard were emerging from the station in a steady stream.  Approximately half of them passed by where he was standing.  Most ignored him.  Some made a sour face.  A few even flipped him a dollar, though at least one woman seemed to be indicating with her expression that she was paying him to stop.  Not a single person stopped suddenly, turned toward him with a dazed expression, and asked, “What is thy bidding, my Master?”

He kept on playing, perhaps for over an hour.  Most of the time, however, he was not doing it for the old woman; he was doing it for the flute.

For eight years Peter Hamlin had played the flute.  He first picked it up in fifth grade, almost by accident; most of his friends at the time decided to join the band, and flute was the only instrument that the Hamlin family happened to already own.  Despite this whimsical beginning, though, he kept at it, and from middle school to high school there was not a day when that flute case was not in his backpack.   He practiced an hour . . . okay, half an hour a day, took weekly lessons, joined all the various musical extra-curriculars like Marching Band and Orchestra Winds.  He got pretty good at the flute.

But he was never great.  Throughout his musical career, it was clear to Peter that he was above average but not sensational, a distinction that was made all the more clear when his younger sister picked up the trumpet and took to it like it had always been there.  He was in the top band at every level but he was never first chair.  And Peter Hamlin—especially Peter Hamlin the high schooler—had no interest in devoting his energy to an activity where he could not be outstanding.  Music looked good on applications, but he saw no future in it.  So, when he went to college, he dropped the flute and never looked back . . .

. . . until that afternoon when he had stood in his kitchen and struggled to get through “Hot Cross Buns,” a song so easy that you could leave your flute outside on a windy day and it might get played by random chance.  Peter knew that he had never really excelled at the flute.  No one had ever told him—even jokingly—that he should make a career out of it.  But he had been better than this, for god’s sake.

It was not the most annoying thing that had happened to him that day.  It was not even the most annoying music-related thing.  But it bothered him.  So he stood there and played the Song of Mastery over and over again, not because he was trying to manipulate anyone’s mind, not because he was trying to rescue the old woman, but simply because he wanted to get better at it.

And he did.  The eight years’ worth of memories hadn’t been erased; they were simply buried and took time to dig up again.  Gradually it came back to him: the flow of his fingers, the positioning of his mouth, how and when to breathe—soon he was doing these things almost as naturally as, well, breathing.  After an hour or so, he even began to think that maybe the song was good enough to take over someone else’s head—in a crazy, alternate fantasy universe, that is.

Completely out of breath from his first extended performance in six years, Peter lowered the flute and looked up.  It was getting late: only an hour or two left before the sun started to sink behind the roof of Simon Park Village.  A quick scan of the park showed that no one seemed to be suffering from the effects of his song, though he realized that even when the old woman had done it, he had been a ways away before picking up the horrid tune, and presumably she was better at this than he was.  He decided to pack it up, go back down to call the woman’s bluff, and then, with any luck, go home and get some sleep.

And he might have done just that if he hadn’t happened to look down and see the squirrel staring up at him.

Being watched by a squirrel was nothing new to Peter.  He had been observed by many before.  He had even once in college gone squirrel fishing, which is a lot like regular fishing in that you drink beer and don’t catch much.  But the look in this squirrel’s eye was different.  Peter didn’t even know that squirrels could have looks in their eyes.  It was staring so intensely, so fixedly, refusing to be distracted by anything else.  It was, Peter thought, waiting for something.

“No . . .”

He walked toward the subway station entrance.  The squirrel followed him.  He stopped.  It stopped.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Peter glanced around to make sure no one was watching.  Then he bent down and whispered to the squirrel, “Run up that tree.”

The squirrel turned around and bounded up the tree like it was being chased by a rabid dog.  It settled on a low branch and looked back at Peter with that same focused stare.  It was almost eerie, like watching a swarm of gnats fly in a single-file line.

He refused to be convinced by this demonstration.  Running up trees was something that squirrels did all the time.  It was entirely possible that it had decided to race up there on its own, and that the timing was a mere coincidence.  In order to prove it, he would need to convince the squirrel to do something it would never do normally.  Since Simon Park already had one resident who had made a name for herself shouting at trees, Peter chose to think his next command rather than say it out loud: Sing the alphabet song.

The squirrel did not open its mouth and start belting out, “A, B, C.”  It simply continued to stare at him.  It may have just been his imagination, but he thought he could see it shaking its tiny head slightly, as if to dislodge a pesky insect . . . or piece of music.  But the test was a failure.  Peter assured himself that his mind was simply running wild, and that he had no ability to command small rodents to do his bidding.

Unless, he thought, now playing the devil’s advocate’s devil’s advocate (as only a lawyer can), it just can’t obey commands it can’t comprehend.

Peter wrestled for a while with the idea of a command that would be meaningful to the squirrel but still be something it would never do on its own.  After rejecting a number of possibilities as too cruel, he noticed one of his fellow street musicians a little ways along the path.  He was a saxophonist, but at the moment he was taking a food break instead of performing.  The man was eating a large sandwich and making an extremely slovenly job of it: scraps of lettuce and other vegetables, bits of bread, and slivers of meat were scattered around, in, and on his open case.

Run over there, jump into the case, and bring back a coin—one of those shiny metal round things, Peter commanded, before he even really knew why.

As the squirrel dashed off, he realized that there was probably more to the order than a subconscious desire to commit petty theft.  No ordinary animal, he reasoned, would ever run into a veritable feast like that and come back bearing one of the few items that could not possibly be construed as food.

He watched the squirrel—which he had decided to name Rocky—race over and leap into the case.  The musician was distracted trying to negotiate his way through a large meatball and noticed nothing.  A moment later Rocky bounded back, bearing in his (or her—Peter had no idea how to tell with squirrels) mouth a small, shiny metal round thing.  He reached down.  It was a nickel.  He felt a little sorry for the musician.

Then Peter laughed.  What a joke!  The song worked exactly as the woman said it would, but he was so bad at it that it only worked on small animals.  “What am I supposed to do?” he muttered.  “Have this squirrel break into the police station and—?”

It was then that Peter had the stupidest idea he had had all day.

He had had plenty of bad ideas so far, ranging from the inconsiderate (practicing the Speech before sunrise) to the harmless and silly (looking up old annoying commercial jingles on YouTube) to the downright suicidal (running across busy streets without looking), but none of those had been quite this stupid.

It started with a simple thought—They can’t arrest a squirrel—and ended with an image of Rocky bounding toward him, holding a key just as skillfully as he had held the coin a moment earlier.

Even stupider, however, was that he decided to go for it.  Those that knew him—family, friends, less-tipsy coworkers—would have never expected such as decision out of Peter Hamlin.  Then again, maybe it wasn’t really Peter Hamlin calling the shots.  After all, the real Peter Hamlin slept on a normal schedule, worked eight-to-four (three on Fridays), and was a law-abiding citizen.  This man, on the other hand, was manipulated by sounds that existed only inside his head, fraternized with undesirables who got in trouble with the police, had already broken several laws (most of them traffic laws) that day, and commanded the loyalty of squirrels.  Perhaps the stupidest idea of all would be thinking that these two were, in fact, the same person.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Peter—or someone who looked a lot like him—set off for the police station.

The saxophonist had finished his late lunch/early dinner and promptly returned to plying his trade.  He did not even bother to rinse his mouth first, causing woodwind teachers everywhere to wince at the damage he was doing to his reed (they may or may not have been comforted to learn that the reed was already well past its prime and smelled strongly of baloney).  While his attention had been elsewhere for the food break, during the performance his eyes were fixed on his case, which was why he saw a squirrel run up, drop in a coin, and sprint away.

“Damn,” he said, pausing in astonishment.  “I’m even better than I thought.”

* * *

He’s taking too long.

Peter was not looking at his watch, so he did not know that it had taken him less than five minutes to decide that the hastily laid scheme of squirrel and man had gone awry.

He was standing across the street from the station, trying to look nonchalant, and therefore assuming that he looked like he was plotting a crime no less serious than high treason.  Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds earlier, he had arrived outside the building and thought at the squirrel: Go inside, get the key, and come back here.  He even imagined a key as he thought it, just to be sure, though it was only after sending in Rocky that he realized he had no idea what a handcuff key looks like, or whether it would bear any resemblance to the common house key he had visualized.

Now he was plagued by regret, that uniquely horrifying blend of remorse and anticipation known only to a secret admirer who has dropped a letter with his name on it into the mailbox and immediately afterward starts trying to jam his arm into its depths, desperate to take it back.  He tried willing Rocky to return, but the squirrel would not appear at the open window where he had originally darted in.  Maybe he was out of range.  Or maybe . . . something worse.

“They can’t arrest a squirrel” was sounding dumber by the second.  He wondered what he might do if he stumbled on a small animal stealing his keys.  And what if they weren’t just keys to a house or an apartment, but something far more important?  What if the squirrel evaded capture and was out of reach?  What if I had a gun . . .?

Peter wasn’t about to run off and join PETA, but he still would have felt bad if the squirrel came to harm and it was his fault.  He felt a strange bond of kinship with the rodent; they were both being manipulated by the same evil song.  And then, there was always the risk that the cops would see Rocky and think the same thing Peter did: that no normal animal would come in to steal keys if it was acting on its own free will.  And then they would look out the window and see the guy across the street, with his hands in his pockets, whistling, as if whistling could make a person look innocent anywhere outside of a 1930’s cartoon . . .

His mind was made up.  He was going in after him.  Leave no ma—no squirrel behind.

The man at the front desk inside was thoroughly distracted by the telephone and might not have noticed Peter even if he shouted.  Peter considered this a stroke of luck.  He did not want to talk to anyone, because he could not imagine that conversation going well (“Excuse me, have you seen my squirrel?”)  He crouched down, both to avoid being seen and so that he could get a better view of the station as Rocky would see it.  Where could he have gone?

He crept past the desk and into a hallway, already preparing the defense that there were no signs explicitly telling him that he couldn’t go that way (at least, none that he could see from his squirrel’s-eye-view).  He may have been talking to himself.  When you’re sneaking around the police station looking for your lost squirrel, there really isn’t any point in pretending you’re not insane anymore.

A human can imitate a squirrel’s view of life by bending the knees and leaning forward, but he can only go so far.  The vast differences in stature remain.  Because it is small, a squirrel can be low to the ground and still look up.  Peter was all but forced to look down in that position, which was probably why he crashed into a pair of legs only a minute or two into the search.

After noting the unmistakable dark blue of the uniform pants, Peter looked up, past a respectable gut, into a wide, light brown face with receding black hair and a rather unruly mustache.  The face looked neither enraged nor pleased; it was simply weary.

Well, Peter thought, the 5% of his brain that wanted to remain optimistic somehow drowning out the 95% that wanted to run, at least that solves one problem.

“Does this belong to you?” the officer asked.  He was holding a frantic Rocky by the tail.

* * *

Officer Escobar was not having a great day.  Started too early.  Not enough donuts at the station (and those that were there were of criminally poor quality).  Too many actual crimes.  Not enough down time.  Too much heat.  Not enough fans.

Officer Escobar was not having a great day, but he was willing to admit the possibility that other people were having worse ones.  Take Officer Tang, for example.  She had burst into the precinct mid-morning demanding assistance in arresting someone.  That was astonishing in and of itself, for Tang never asked for anybody’s help for anything, but then when she started describing the situation, it got downright ludicrous.  A person that physically could not be moved from the scene of the crime?  Come on.  No one believed her, but that wasn’t about to stop her.  She tried to convince anyone and everyone she could find—sergeants, lieutenants, the captain, the coroner, homicide detectives, ballistics specialists.

Escobar, luckily, was lowly enough to escape her notice, so he spent much of the morning watching her running around the building yelling at people.  Last he heard she had gone off to the courthouse to try to get the judge to order her arrestee to be removed.

Then there was this kid.  Escobar had taken him into an interrogation room—not because he wanted to scare him, but just because that was where there was space—sat him down, and asked him to explain himself.  Finally Peter was in a position where he felt he had to tell the whole truth.  And I mean the whole truth.  He told him about pouring coffee in his cereal, the muted wrath of Mr. Abrahamson, accidentally stumbling on a couple of sites that may have been pornographic when searching the term “earworm,” being silently mocked by Sourdough for the decay of his musical talent, and stealing a nickel from a saxophone player.  Officer Escobar had heard of bad days before; he had participated in a number himself.  But this one stretched the boundaries of the imagination.

And yet he believed every word.  When the boy mentioned the old woman in the subway station, on the outside, Escobar simply nodded.  On the inside, he jumped out of his shoes.  He had kept his vow to avoid Simon Park Station all those months, but he had never truly forgotten the old woman.  So she had found her champion.  He looked like kind of a mess.  Escobar, in one of his more philosophical moments, supposed that real champions often do.

Even more shockingly, Officer Tang’s story all of a sudden made perfect sense.  In her frantic ravings, she had somehow neglected to mention the age, gender, or location of the person she was trying to apprehend.  If she had, she might have secured assistance sooner.

Escobar wanted to find out more about the woman, for the bits of information he picked up from Tang and the kid really raised more questions than they answered.  And he wanted to let the kid go.  He hadn’t done anything seriously wrong.  But there were some crimes that even Officer Escobar could not overlook.  If you did something to a fellow citizen, he might glance the other way—hey, maybe that person deserved it.  But if you did that same thing to the police, then you would be introduced to justice of the biblical variety.

He wasn’t big on revenge, really.  He just respected the System.  The System was what allowed him to get away with doing as little work as he did.  The System meant that the men and women in blue represented authority, and if you crossed them, then it was your funeral.  So people didn’t cross them . . . at least, not much.  But if you found a squirrel trying to scamper away with a set of police keys, and then, shortly afterward, a boy trying to catch up with it, and you let them go without punishment, then the System would start to break down.  If the System broke down, Officer Escobar’s job would get a lot harder.

“Sorry,” he said, and he truly was.  “But I’m going to need to take down your name.”

The boy sighed, as if he had been expecting this ever since he had been led into the dull yellow brick room with the fairly obvious two-way mirror.  “Peter Hamlin.”

Escobar froze.  It had been a day of remarkable coincidences already.  Could this possibly be one more?  “Is your mother . . . Joan Hamlin?”

The boy raised his head.  He had the look of someone who has told himself he isn’t going to let anything else surprise him that day but has just failed to not be surprised.  “Yes . . .”

Escobar became a scale.  In each hand, he held something that he believed he could not do without.  For a long minute, the hands remained in balance.

The scale tilted.  “You’re free to go,” Officer Escobar heard himself say as he passed the squirrel across the table.

The System was all well and good, but he could never cause Joan Hamlin to suffer.

Peter took the panicking squirrel and stood.  He walked to the door slowly, as if he thought one misstep could land him in trouble deeper than he had ever imagined.

“Wait,” said Escobar.

The boy’s eyes closed regretfully.

Escobar really wasn’t trying to be cruel; he was just wrestling with the decision.  He knew that it was against regulations.  He knew that Officer Tang might very well murder him for it (she would say it was justified).  But he saw an opportunity to truly help someone in need, and those don’t come along very often, no matter what your job is.

“Now . . . is there anything I can help you with?”

* * *

“My hero.”

Peter grinned sheepishly.  “I think real heroes don’t need a police escort when they rescue the damsel in distress.”

“I was talking to the police officer, actually.”

“Oh.”  The grin disappeared.

Officer Escobar, standing at the same respectful distance from the woman as he always had, had not grinned sheepishly since he was fifteen years old.  Nor was he known as much of a blusher.  And, in fact, he did neither of these things.  But he still turned away, just to be safe.

CLICK.  The handcuffs were off.  The woman stood up, her unpleasant garment brushing past Peter’s face.  She stretched, causing her body to make a series of unpleasant-sounding SNAPs and CREAKs that were not entirely different from the noise it had made when Peter turned the key in the tiny lock.  No matter how painful the stretch sounded, however, the old woman appeared to enjoy it immensely.

Peter snatched key and handcuffs from the ground.  He wanted to be rid of them as soon as possible, and it wasn’t like he was busy being showered with praise.  He brought them over to where the policeman had posted himself and deposited them in his hands.  “Thank you.”

Escobar nodded gruffly.  He wanted to stay longer, to see what the woman would do.  But it appeared that she was fully occupied savoring her newfound freedom, and it didn’t look like she was going to do anything of interest for a while.  Besides, he had other things to take care of, such as figuring out how he would explain—or, preferably, not explain—the role he had played in setting loose the woman Officer Tang had called, “the Arrest of the Century.”

He tipped his cap, said, “Ma’am” in perhaps the most business-like voice he had ever used in his entire life, and departed.

Peter would have liked to take off, too, but he had no choice.  There was something he had to find out.

He returned to the pillar, where the woman was doing some kind of victory dance.  “So, you’re free.  Am I?”

The old woman stopped spinning and took a couple moments to regain her equilibrium.  “You’re talking about the song, I assume?”

“Of course.”

“Well, let’s find out.  Run into that wall.”

He stared at her.  She stared back, seemingly watching for some kind of response.  She didn’t get one, though; he simply stared right back, wondering when his life would start making sense again.

The old woman broke the silence.  “Hear anything?”

“No . . .”

“Then I guess you’re free.”

He searched the corners of his mind, but there was no trace of the Song of Mastery.  Then, unable to restrain himself, he raised his flute to his lips, and there it was again—not a series of notes but a series of breaths and finger patterns.  He lowered the flute, and once again it was gone.

“There must have been a better way to test it than that.”

She shrugged.  “I still don’t know how it got you in the first place.  How am I supposed to know when it wears off?”

“I’m not really free, you know,” she said, while Peter was still trying to come up with an appropriate farewell.  “I’m not handcuffed to a garbage can anymore—and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for that.  But I’m still stuck in here.”  She lifted her hands to encompass all of Simon Park Station.

“Show me,” Peter said, before his brain could catch up with his tongue.


“Show me that you’re really trapped here.”

“You’re seriously asking a fragile old woman to throw herself against an invisible wall?”

It did sound cruel.  She had caused him a fair amount of suffering that day, but he wasn’t interested in revenge.  The woman was right: he had to see it to believe it.  “Just once.  And anyway, you just told me to run into a wall.  It’s only fair.”

“If I do, will you agree to help me?”


More often than not, it is the shortest words that are the most life-changing.

They walked over to what Peter considered the “entrance” but the woman could only think of as the “exit.”  The station was once again all but deserted—too late for most people coming home from work, too early for people to be heading back downtown for dinner.  While Peter scanned the area for anything unusual—trip wires, lasers, trick stones that trigger poison darts, ghosts—the woman retreated about twenty steps.  Then, with a “Here goes nothing,” she raced toward the staircase as fast as she could.  Peter was shocked by her speed.  And, for approximately four seconds, that was the only shocking thing about the run.

Most people think that Newton invented physics—or, if not him, the Greeks—but humans have always understood physics to a certain extent.  Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in our instinctual reactions when we see something violate the laws of nature.  One instant, Peter saw the old woman barreling forward with at least enough momentum to knock over a fruit cart.  The next instant, she was standing perfectly still.  In between, she had struck . . . nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The whole thing lasted less than a second, but it still gave Peter a headache, and thirty seconds later he was still trying to figure out what had made her stop.

“You see?” she said, dizzier than when she had been doing her victory dance.  The woman appeared dazed but uninjured (another fact that made Peter’s brain wince).  “So,” she said loopily, “should we get started?”

“Not tonight.”  All good things must come to an end; Peter was hoping the same was true of bad things.  Though it seemed to be ending on a high note, he could not recall a worse day, at least not in the past five or six years.

“Okay.  Go home and get some sleep.  You don’t look so good,” she said, pointing about a foot to the right of where Peter was standing.

After he left, the woman returned to her pillar and sat down, adopting a position not that different from the one she had been trapped in for so many hours.  She let out a sigh of relief that had nothing to do with physical discomfort.  The search was over.  She wasn’t excited, exactly—seven-and-a-half months of waiting will do that to you—but she felt . . . something.  She felt like she was reading a series of books, and the first had been fascinating, but the second was a struggle to get through.  But she read the whole thing, driven on by the promise of wonder suggested by Book 1.  Now she sat there, staring at the cover of Book 3, unsure of what to expect when she turned the first page . . .

Peter walked up the stairs, crossed the street, opened the door to his apartment building, and realized that Rocky was still following him.  Since the woman had given him no helpful advice on how to end the effects of the song, he just shouted, “Be free!”  A fellow resident, on his way out, saw this curious communication and stared, but Peter didn’t notice.  He was too busy watching his former servant dash across the street and return to his unnatural habitat.

He took the elevator up, barely having enough energy to push the buttons.  He unlocked his door, pushed it open with the weight of his body, stumbled through the kitchen, and somehow managed to collapse on his bed before he simply collapsed.  He sank immediately into blissful, refreshing sleep.

Less than an hour later he was woken up by a telephone call from his mother, who demanded to know: 1. Why he wasn’t at dinner when he said he would be, and 2. Whether he knew anything about what had happened to her flute.