The fifth to break your heart
It was the jiffy-bags, the landlady said, which convinced her to call the police. The young man on the second floor wasn’t the sociable type, but if you were around mid-mornings for the postman, you’d see him scramble down to the hallway, nod a greeting, then head back upstairs, stuffed envelopes tucked under his arm.
Now there was a pile of them, each the size of a slender paperback, perhaps a dozen for the week. She’d never paid much attention till now, pointing them out to the two officers who showed up late: handwritten labels, no return addresses; exotic stamps, postmarks scattered around the globe.
There was a master key, she said, so no need to break it down. Knocks and shouts drew silence. The sergeant turned the handle and leaned against the door, holding his breath in expectation of a stench that never came.
A flimsy curtain filtered the morning light into the room. The bed was bare, the floor carpeted with open packages, layers deep. An area had been cleared in the middle, a few feet wide, like a rodent’s nest. Within that space, stacks of compact discs surrounded an open laptop, its hard drive softly whirring over the hush, a pair of headphones plugged into the side. No sign of life.
As the sergeant called the station, struggling to be heard over the landlady’s chatter, the constable tiptoed through the mess, crouched down in front of the laptop, and tapped the space bar. The screen woke from sleep, showing a single running program, the CD player. She popped open the tray: a home-burned disc, the title written in permanent blue. ‘This one should work.’
For the rest of the day, the landlady watched the vehicles come and go outside. First, the men in protective suits who arrived in an unmarked van and left with filled boxes; then the ones in crumpled pinstripes who waited for the police to clear the gathering crowd before getting out of their car; then the men in dark suits and darker glasses who seemed to have no car at all. As she offered cups of tea in the hope of some explanation, each apologised for the inconvenience, thanked her for her patience, said nothing more. Just before midnight, she closed the door on the last officer, after confirming the details she’d repeated all day. A quiet person, yes, but always polite. Paid his rent on time, never had friends around, if he went out, well, we never saw him. And when she looked in the room, it was quite bare, and smelled of carpet glue and fresh paint, as if it had never been lived in.
The Analyst was tapping out a badly-syncopated drum pattern on his desk when the Man From The Ministry walked in uninvited, a manila folder in his hand. ‘You’re serious?’ he asked, wafting the folder between thumb and clenched fist.
‘I’ve never heard of such a thing.’
‘Neither had we, until we found it.’
‘Didn’t deny it. We’re taking that as a yes. The Chinese, as well.’
‘Blame it on rogue elements. Hard to believe, now we know where to look.’
The Man From The Ministry tossed the folder onto the desk and pulled up a chair. ‘Five songs, you say, and—’ He flashed his palms, miming an explosion.
‘Five pieces of music,’ the Analyst said. ‘At least, from what we gather. It could be songs, string quartets, Gregorian chant, gamelan dances…’ He trailed off, with a shrug. ‘You can understand the difficulties.’
The Man From The Ministry shook his head. ‘Ending sieges. That, I’ve heard of.’
‘Noriega? Yes. Guns n’ Roses, wasn’t it?’
‘Forced confessions. Calming riots.’
‘All very crude. This, on the other hand, is so precise, it’s never been considered practical. The effects aren’t unusual, at least, on a small scale. But in the correct combination…’
‘The ultimate designer weapon.’
‘I prefer to think of it as the perfect break-up tape.’
It all unravelled so quickly. The explosion in Zaozersk, with its footage of teenagers dragged out from the wreckage, some still clutching instruments as mangled as their bodies. Separatists, the headlines read: heartless bastards targetting an academy created to train child prodigies for the state orchestra. That it was located in a closed military city went unmentioned.
Next came the Silicon Valley startup. When the founders of one streaming audio site exchanged their rail passes for Porsches, a few industry bloggers congratulated them on finding a publicity-shy private investor: personalised music was about to make it big. The weekend after the Russian blast, both cars were found abandoned on the Pacific Coast Highway. A Chinese programmer was detained, then classed as an enemy combatant.
Beijing went public. There was nothing to lose.
Millions had switched off the music stations even before the shutdown orders were issued. In their place came talk-radio hosts, broadcasting ever-wilder rumours. Every Chinese-made MP3 player, one said, had a ‘death shuffle’ mode just waiting to kick in. Paranoia grew into panic, and panic into silence.
He had been ready to give up on the project. There had been close calls, and the collaborators were learning from his responses. Now it sounded like some of them were hiring performers, even composing original pieces. Give me five perfect songs, he’d asked: the fifth, to break your heart. In a smooth, well-practised motion, he tore open the package, tipped out the jewel case, flipped out the disc and slotted it into the laptop’s tray, glancing at the scribbled label as he slid the headphones over his ears. ‘Let’s find out, then.’
By Holgate, 1 March, 2006; direct link.