Voice on the Radio
Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger
Table of Contents
Part 1: Trouble at Tracy's
"Huh? What's all that over there?" Bob Sparker asked, jerking a thumb towards the far end of the plaza. There was a huge crowd of people pressing near the windows of one of the department stores, milling around restlessly. "Something happening at Tracy's?"
"You've got me there," replied his companion. She was a tall, fair-haired woman in a light fur coat who towered over Bob, especially in heels. Any citizen of Electricopolis would have recognized her as Margaret King, daughter of Percy King, and it was rare that she didn't know what was going on. "Is there a promotion or something? I hadn't heard about it at all."
"Listen! Will you all just please listen!" came a sharp bark from near the center of the commotion. After a couple moments, the two could see a lady dressed in a clerk's outfit struggle to her full height, standing above the crowd with a bullhorn. "Your attention, please!"
"She wants our attention," Bob chuckled, nudging his friend. "Sounds like she means business."
The shopkeeper paused for a moment, mopped her brow with a handkerchief, then continued. "Now, I don't know where you people heard about some kind of sale today, but it's not true. We're closing for renovation, you see?" she said, flinging her hand out in exasperation at the notices plastered on the windows. "We've had these signs up for a week now!"
"Listen, we heard on the radio about a deal--" said someone in the crowd.
"Today only!" said someone else. "Everything in the store!"
"Well--well, you've been misinformed!" the attendant yelled. "Now shoo, go away! Shoo! We've got a lot of work to do and you all are blocking the road! How do you expect the trucks to get in here?"
Bob turned away from the commotion, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Hah!" he laughed. "A fake half-off sale! Isn't that something, Margie? Think it's a prank?"
"I sure hope so," she replied, standing up onto her tiptoes. "Last time I saw a store fumble a sale like that, there was a riot right in the streets." She turned away, pulling her coat around herself. "I don't wanna stick around to find out. Let's head back, okay?"
"You got it," Bob said cheerily, proffering his arm. "So, what've you got planned for tonight?"
The Top Tier Electric Co. building was only a few blocks away, and they talked as they strolled together through the streets of the city. Aside from the mess at Tracy's, the night was calm and cool, and there was a little bit of fog in the air that made the white lights of the city soft and diffused.
"No plans at all, actually," she said. "I'm totally, completely, 100% free tonight. Can you believe it?"
"Free?" he repeated, giving her an incredulous look. "As in, no photoshoots to show up at, no dance clubs to enrich with your presence, no dinner parties with stuffy old movie stars? Nope, I don't believe it at all."
"Me neither!" she laughed, throwing her head back. "I'm thrilled. I'm just going to sit back and waste away on my laptop tonight. That reminds me!" she said, stopping in her tracks and glancing behind her. "Say, that crowd we saw, over by Tracy's...you know what that could be..."
"Well, I've only heard rumors so far, but some people on the 'net have been talking about this weird sort of radio show. Have you heard about it? It's run by this lady who calls herself Miss Information?" Bob shook his head, and she continued. "What a name, right? Well, anyway, it's sort of like a gossip show, but it only airs after midnight. She talks about all these different things going on in town, like where to find cheap radio parts, or who clobbered whom in the clubs yesterday, and who knows what all about it is true. I guess maybe she's in the business of advertising stores now, huh?"
"Wait, so you're telling me there's some mysterious lady running a midnight radio show?" Bob chuckled, holding the Top Tier lobby door open as Margaret swept in in front of him. "That's a great story, Margie. Write it down and send it in to the paper, maybe you'll make a buck."
"Don't laugh! It makes perfect sense," she pouted, pulling off her coat and hanging it over her arm. "She's known for pulling pranks. I've been trying to listen to it, myself."
"No kiddin'?" Bob asked. "You always were one for that paranormal stuff. Any luck?"
Margaret sighed, giving her head a little shake as she pushed the elevator's call button. "Nah, not so far. But hey, maybe tonight's my lucky night," she said, giving Bob a little grin. "I mean, she'll probably talk about the fake sale, don't you think? Wanna stay up with me and see if we can catch it?"
"Well, now, as much as I'd like to stay up with the boss's daughter and listen to ghost stories..." Bob said, breaking up into laughter as Margaret gave him a shove. "Sadly, I gotta get my beauty sleep! Lemme know how it goes though, okay, Margie?"
"All right, all right. Wish me luck!" she said, giving him a wave over her shoulder as she disappeared up to her penthouse. "Night-night, Bob!"
Part 2: The Radio Show
It was true: the half-off sale had been a radio prank. From what the news stations were reporting, listeners had been tipped off about a "fantastic deal" at Tracy's from a radio show, and that was that. The news media didn't pay it any more attention until a few days later, when the police had to be called to drive away droves of people from a record shop in the Diamond District. Apparently, word had gone around town that rocker Maxie Midnight was going to be promoting a new single in the area, and a rather testy statement from their PR department had to be issued to convince everybody that not only had that appearance never been arranged, but Maxie's new single wasn't being released for a month.
The following day, two A-list movie stars stepped forward to refute an engagement that had never happened. The day after that, the city had to denounce a rumored construction project to rip down an orphanage, and the day after that, warnings were issued against announcements of a drag race in the valley outside town. The whole week passed by in a storm of press releases and news bulletins, and soon the entire evening lineup began to revolve around the rumor-mongering radio show.
The identity of the DJ and information about the show itself were scarce, since it wasn't listed on any of the official shortwave listening guides. "Which isn't very unusual," noted one of the town eggheads, who was being interviewed about it. "In the lower tiers, after all, there are hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of hobbyist radio broadcasters who aren't licensed or verified by the city. It's an incredibly active subculture. Who knows how many programs just slip through the cracks."
"So," asked the interviewer, "do you mean to say that this recent spate of radio pranks points to a fault in the government regulations regarding hobbyist broadcasters?"
"I didn't say anything like that!" the expert sputtered. "The important thing is to know when you're being fed a pack of lies! As long as nobody listens to this 'Miss Information'--I mean, the clue is in her name, for goodness' sake--we should be just fine..."
His voice disappeared into static as Margaret turned the dial slowly. "You don't want to listen to the rest of it?" Bob complained, leaning over her shoulder.
"That's the end of the eleven o'clock news!" she admonished. "It's almost time for her show to come on. I didn't manage to catch it last time, but I'm positive we can get it this time. Um, thanks so much for letting me borrow this, Jam," she mumbled, a little embarrassed. "I guess my radio's not good enough."
"It's fine," Jam replied. The three of them were sitting in the parlor of the Kings' penthouse, where Bob had dropped her off the week before, and instead of Margaret's dinky little portable radio, their DJ friend, J. Jam, had lugged over the biggest, baddest, most sensitive piece of equipment he owned.
"Geez, this must have cost like a hundred thousand dollars!" Bob gushed, pulling up the antenna as high as it would go. "Jam, you can be a real stick in the mud sometimes, but I gotta give you credit, you come through in a pinch."
"Don't yank on it like that!" Jam snapped. "If you zap it and I have to replace the whole thing--"
"Shhh!" Margaret hissed, as the radio crackled and popped under her hand. "I think I'm getting it!"
The crackling on the airwaves started to subside, and after a moment, the radio spoke. "Good evening, night owls," crooned the velvety voice on the radio. "I hear everyone in town wants a piece of me today. Settle down, boys and girls...there's enough Miss Information to go around."
"That's her! It's her!" Margaret exclaimed.
"Now, I'm all for attention, but sometimes it goes a little too far, you know what I mean? Some people up top are saying some very, very mean things about your favorite midnight DJ." Miss Information purred out the words. "Some people are callin' me a liar."
All three of them fell quiet. Margaret sat in the middle, the radio in front of her, with Bob and Jam leaning in from either side.
"Well, all right, maybe I went a little easy on my homework." There was a creaking, like the sound of a chair leaning back. "After all, fact-checking can be such a drag. Just ask the news stations up top! They'll tell you the same thing," she laughed huskily. "Anyway, I'm turnin' over a new leaf. You all want to hear the truth so bad? Better run for cover, night owls, 'cause I've got a bombshell tonight. You all know about that hot new star Top Tier's grooming for their primetime domination, don't you? That hot little number with fire engine-red hair, Kiley Queen?"
"Never heard of him," Bob muttered.
"He's kind of a jerk," Margaret said. "I've seen him bullying the crew on set. He's got a really strong fanbase, so the studio's trying to wrangle him into a leading role. Throw enough money at it, I guess--"
"Well, it seems like one or two bad ideas made it through Mr. King's head, because I hear that this Kiley kid is planning to turn tail and head for Rubyred Networks!" Miss Information let out a raucous laugh, and they heard the thump of heels on a desk. "Can you believe that, night owls? Probably it's that weasel in charge of Rubyred who keeps luring TT's stars away with, I don't know, candy and flowers or something. Keep an eye on the hotels, night owls, and maybe you'll see Percy King standing in front of 'em with a boombox!"
Jam clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh, but not before Margaret swatted him on the head. "That's not funny!" she snapped. "At least, not the part about Kiley. We're spending millions of dollars on that dumb show of his! If it's true--"
"If it's true," Bob said quickly. "We don't know if it is! It might just be a joke like everything else, right?"
"I dunno," Jam wheezed, lifting up his glasses to wipe a tear from his eye. "Heh-heh--I mean, she did say she was turning over a new leaf. If she lied now, then nobody would take her seriously anymore." He settled his glasses back on his face and settled back into business mode. "I think she's playing it straight."
"Yeah, well..." Margaret let out a low growl under her breath. "She'd better not be, if she knows what's good for her."
"'If she knows what's good for her?'" Jam repeated. "Are you seriously getting more upset about her than Kiley? He's the one that's being a snake about this whole thing. You'd better check your priorities."
"What you should be checking is your attitude," Margaret snarled. "This lady's putting false information all over the airwaves, and you're laughing about it! I cannot be-lieve you, Jam! I mean, it's not just about the Kiley thing--well, it is, but--"
"Um," Bob said.
"--I mean, there was Maxie, and then those other two, and she's just invading peoples' privacy and spreading lies about them!" Margaret went on and on, stammering her way through her rant. "And like, don't you care about the company? Or my dad? Or me? This isn't a joke, you know!"
"Oh yeah, the poor company," Jam said, rolling his eyes. "Okay, listen, Maxie's single wasn't a big deal. The fake engagements thing, a little over the line, I'll admit that. But if this is true, it'll teach the company a good lesson about who they throw all their money at! Look at the big picture here, the long-term..."
"Guys!" Bob exclaimed, throwing his arm over the table to shut the radio off. "Can you two please not argue about this?" he pleaded. "Just calm down! Let's just wait it out for the next few days, okay? We don't even know if it's true!"
"Hell yeah, it's true!" Kiley brayed into the microphone a day later. "Not that I wanted it getting out, but whatever. If TT wants to keep me around, then they oughta stop wasting my time! I gave them so many chances and they just jerk me around like a rag doll. 'Wake up on time' this, 'get your butt to the set' that! Star power doesn't come cheap, you know!"
Bob had to practically wrestle Margaret away from the television. "I'm sick and tired of this!" she howled. "What's next?"
"C'mon, Margie, don't be like that!" Bob insisted. The telephone rang, sharp and piercing, and he turned to grab it as Margaret squirmed out from under his arm. "Oof, hello? Who's this? Oh, hey, Mr. Director," Bob said quickly. "No, uh, Mr. King's a little busy--well, where's the fire, buddy? Fine, I'll tell him! Get lost!"
He slammed the receiver down so hard that he fried it with a jolt from his hand. "Ow, ow!" he hissed. "What kinda secrets these people have, anyway, if they're so scared of 'em getting out? Right, Margie?" He looked up. "Margie?"
She was stalking down the hall, and Bob trotted quickly after her. Down at the far, far end of the penthouse hall, and after innumerable doors on either side, was the dimly lit hideaway known as Percy's study. Margaret pushed on the heavy wooden door and it swung open slowly, revealing Mr. King himself reclining in his desk chair, his eyes closed, the soft humming of a fan the only sound in the room.
"Dad," she said pointedly.
He raised a hand. "Shh, sweetie," he whispered. "I'm thinking."
Margaret planted her hands on her hips. "Well, you should be thinking about how we're going to teach Kiley Queen a lesson, because he's--"
"That's the least of our concerns," Percy murmured, slowly coming back up until he was leaning over his desk, his fingers laced under his chin. His eyes were still closed; even when he was hard at work, he often looked as if he were napping straight through a conversation. "Money is money," he continued. "Panic is what we really want to avoid."
"Got some bad news on that front, chief," Bob piped up, leaning against the doorjamb. "We just got a call from the studio. Marv's wondering what he's going to do with a lot full of hysteric stars. He wanted to talk to you about it--I told him to buzz off."
With slow, ponderous movements, Percy King stood up and flattened his palms firmly onto the desk. He opened his eyes and waved Bob and Margaret closer. "Call him back," he said, "and mind your manners this time. Tell him to clear out Studio A for a meeting tonight at eight. You too, Margaret," he said, nodding at her. "Call the mayor and Chief Howell. No reporters."
"Tonight?" Margaret repeated.
Part 3: Miss Info's Magic Spell
"All right, all right," Percy King said in a low, stern voice, tapping on the table in front of him. He was in the center of a long, long table set up in one of the studios at Zap! TV. On one side was Bob, Jam, Margaret, and on the other side were a few of the company's other high-earning stars. Assembled in chairs facing the table were the chief of police, the commissioner, the mayor, and a few other liaisons and celebrities from other departments and networks, muttering to each other nervously. Bob Sparker sat with his hands clasped together, fidgeting, while Margaret flipped through some pages of notes she'd brought. Jam mostly just looked bored.
Percy brought himself up, leaning over the table with a look that cast a blanket of silence over everyone assembled in the studio. "This meeting is called to order," he said slowly, fixing his stare on each person in front of him in turn, "about that radio show. The purpose of this conference is to come to a consensus on what exactly has happened, and what we can do about it."
"It's unacceptable," said Maxie Midnight, tossing their long silver hair. "I can't work like this. You saw the trouble she caused earlier in the week, didn't you? I had to issue a statement about it."
"Oh no, you had to issue a statement," groaned one of the two A-list lovebirds. "Is that all you can think about? That woman straight-up invaded our privacy! Isn't that libel?"
"I think that's actually slander," Bob offered.
"Will you all please be quiet," Percy seethed. He hadn't raised his voice (God help them if he had to), but they shut up so quickly it felt as if the pressure had dropped out of the room. "I want it to be absolutely silent in here until I say otherwise. Is that understood?"
He gestured with a short, clipped motion to the trio sitting next to him. "Margaret. You and your two friends--excuse me," he corrected, "Mr. Sparker and Mr. Jam--you three managed to listen in on the show in question, didn't you?"
"Um, yes," Margaret offered. "It was last night, around...actually, I think it was exactly at midnight. Right, Bob?"
"A few minutes before, 'cause you ragged on me for wanting to listen to the rest of the news," he said, giving a little chuckle. "But yeah, around midnight. We were all sitting around listening to that show on Margie's radio, and the DJ made a big deal about how everyone was talking about her. She said people were calling her a liar, and said she'd only tell the truth from now on. And then she dropped that bombshell about Kiley Queen leaving Top Tier for Rubyred, and here we are!" He leaned back, opening his hands. "Anything I'm leaving out, Margie?"
"Actually," she said, "it wasn't my radio, remember? I wasn't able to catch it on my little set at home, so Jam brought over this huge one he had. We actually brought it to the studio tonight, just in case." Jam disappeared behind one of the sets and wheeled out his audio equipment, checking it over before plugging it into one of the floor outlets. "We were thinking that probably means that it's coming from the underground, way down in the residential tier."
"Or even further," Jam chimed in. "I mean, there's a really slim chance it could be coming from the maintenance level. Plenty of nooks and crannies for a pirate radio host to hide out in."
"Did you check the registry?" the mayor suggested. "Even hobbyists have to register with the Communications Commission."
"We did," Percy responded, lacing his fingers together. "Nobody's registered on that frequency at that timeslot."
"That's what I figured," Jam continued. "So she's gotta be an amateur who got her stuff secondhand. It's pretty easy to do, honestly. That's how I started out."
The talk in the crowd grew into a discontented rumbling. "So anyway, that's what we think is going on," Jam said, raising his voice above the chatter. "All we have to do now is figure out who she is, right?"
"How long is that going to take, though?" Maxie asked, raising their hand. "It's already been a week, and I don't want to sit around and wait for her to invade my privacy again. Can't you do anything else in the meantime? Take her off the airwaves or anything?"
"Not unless we wanted to shut down all broadcasting from midnight to five in the morning," Percy said, drumming his fingers on the table. "And that's a risk we can't afford to take, given that we need a venue for emergencies. Still," he added, "Maxie over there has a point."
Bob nodded, which sent a spike of irritation down Jam's spine. "Yeah. I mean, detective work is great and all, but if we don't do something fast, she's gonna strike again. I mean, you could be next, Jam."
"First, I don't care what she decides to say about me," he said flatly. "Second, this is the sort of operation you want a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer for. If you aren't careful, you're gonna end up punishing a lot of innocent people for no good reason. I guess you could look at registered transmitters and see if anyone's been selling them off, but it's not like you can just march down the street and grab peoples' equipment--"
"Sure we can," Bob piped up. "We're Top Tier. We practically run this town!"
"That's not what I'm saying," his friend said, exasperated. "The vast majority of these hobbyist DJs aren't doing anyone any harm. Killing off amateur radio shows means killing off an entire avenue for up-and-coming talent!"
"Then just get rid of anyone who got their equipment secondhand! That's not so hard, right?" Bob retorted. "Besides, it's illegal to run a show without applying to the Commission in the first place!"
"Bob, did you ever stop to think about why those people got their equipment used?" Jam snapped. By this time he and Bob Sparker were nose-to-nose in the middle of the studio floor, arguing vehemently. "It's because they can't afford the hundreds and hundreds of dollars that it takes to get set up! By targeting people who aren't authorized, you're basically targeting the poor!"
"We don't have time to sit around and debate this! The longer we wait on this, the more dangerous this gets. This is an issue of public safety!" Bob shouted. "What's she gonna do next? I mean, it's like yelling 'fire!' in a public place, right? Right?" He turned towards the crowd, and to Jam's horror, a roar of approval went up from the celebrities in their seats. "The last thing I'm gonna do is stand by while Miss Information does whatever she wants--"
A hideous, high-pitched crackling sound ripped through the studio. Bob yelped and scrambled backwards, bumping into the table. Jam cringed and reached for the radio. "Hold on, sorry," he said, "I'll turn that off--"
"Gooood evening, Electricopolis," crooned Miss Information's smooth-as-silk voice through the speakers. "I missed you so much, I just couldn't wait until midnight."
Jam's hand froze on the dial. Slowly he pulled away, and, as one, everyone's eyes turned towards the radio. Miss Information's voice, full of self-satisfaction, sounded out clearly in the cavernous room:
"Now, you know I don't usually broadcast so early, but tonight's a special occasion. I hear the bigwigs up top are throwin' a great big bash all about yours truly. Too bad I wasn't invited, huh, night owls? I think it's mighty rude to throw a party and not invite the guest of honor. There's the King and his pretty little princess," she snickered, "and their top earner, Mr. Lightning Bug, and I bet Maxie Midnight and those two noncommittal sweethearts are there too. And the mayor, and the good chief of police...but not me."
"How the hell does she know I'm here?" said Chief Howell, standing in his seat. "This was supposed to be private!"
"It was private!" Margaret insisted. "I phoned you and the Mayor, and that's it!"
Miss Information laughed a cold and cynical laugh. "It's like Sleeping Beauty all up in here! Nobody ever wants to invite the witch, isn't that right? Well," she said, "if they're gonna treat me like a witch, then a curse is what they're gonna get. Get your charms ready, night owls, because I'm workin' some black magic tonight!"
A hush fell over the room, and in a low, sibilant voice, she continued. "You ready and listenin', folks? This is big, big, big. You all might have heard something about a lost episode of Mr. Lightning Bug's show...that's Bob Sparker's 'Shock 'Til You Drop,' for you dim bulbs out there..."
"What?" Bob rasped, his eyes growing wide. He pushed himself off of the table and drifted towards the center of the room, coming closer and closer to the radio. Like a tide, the people around him pulled away.
"Well, I did some digging, and I got my dirty little paws on a copy of the tape. Surprising no one, our friendly neighborhood super-sadist sent one of his contestants to the hospital!" Miss Information whooped. "I'm only surprised it took so long to happen! But it wouldn't be much of a bombshell if the story ended there," she said. "I have it on good authority that Mr. Sparker actually went to St. Celestine's later, to check in on his victim...but he wasn't the only one there."
Percy King pushed his chair back with a grinding sound and stood up, jabbing a finger in the radio's direction. "Turn that off, Jam," he said. "We don't need to hear this."
"I hear that Mr. Sparker's employer was right behind," Miss Information giggled, her voice pulsing with excitement. "That's right, night owls, your boss and mine, the King himself. I hear he walked into the hospital," she said slowly, "waved his hands, and chanted a magic spell..."
"I said turn that off!"
"And lo and behold," Miss Information cackled, "he made that poor contestant disappear!"
Bob Sparker stood in the center of the room, his face drawn and pale as a sheet. He seemed to sway on his feet for a second or two, and then he whipped around, staring at Percy King with an expression of wide-eyed disbelief. "You told me you'd take care of it!" he exploded. "You told me she would be fine!"
Part 4: The Press Conference
The next day, Bob Sparker was trotted out into one of the Top Tier studio lots in front of what must have been a thousand people. In the dense August heat, his hair clung to his forehead with sweat, and there were deep bags under his eyes, like he hadn't been able to sleep all night. Jam and Margaret were standing a little off to the side, crowded with a few other executives for moral support.
Jesus, Jam thought. They may as well be leading him to the gallows. He flinched--even with his dark glasses on, the glare of a hundred bulbs flashing in the crowd made him squint.
He leaned over a little to whisper to Margaret. "Did your dad tell him to say anything?"
"Not much," she responded quietly. "We were up all night trying to keep him calm. He'll be okay," she quavered, and Jam noticed that her eyes were heavy-lidded and sad. "I know it."
The chatter of the crowd died down, and Bob leaned over the podium and the pointed cluster of microphones attached to it. "To an--to answer the questions on everybody's minds," Bob Sparker ventured carefully, adjusting his tie, "I have it on good authority--"
He glanced off to the side, past his friends. Tucked at the end of Bob's small entourage was Percy King. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded. Go ahead.
"--Good authority," Bob continued, "that Miss Lang, my contestant during the episode that was going to be aired on April 23rd, is safe and sound. It, uh, it's true that we had a little mishap during the recording," he said quickly, as a couple hands shot up in the air, "but I took care of it. The crew took her to the hospital, covered the costs, everything. It's all been taken care of," he added.
From where she was standing, Margaret surreptitiously gave Bob's arm a small squeeze with her hand. That's good, it meant. That's enough. Bob began to turn away from the microphone with a look of abject relief.
Some chatter sprang up from the crowd. "What about Mr. King? Will we have a statement from him?"
"Shh," Margaret whispered to him. "Just turn and go."
"You said you have it on good authority?" said someone in the front, raising their voice up. "So you don't know for sure about the safety of the contestants on your own show?"
Bob jolted in his path like he'd stepped on a needle, then wheeled around to face the crowd again. "I absolutely know!" he shouted, and Margaret cringed as she saw the color come back into his exhausted, angry face. "Listen, I bend over backwards to make sure everything's locked up tight as a drum. She's fine," he insisted, "and I've got that straight from Percy King himself! So if you've got anything else to say, then maybe you oughta--"
"Oh my god, no!" Margaret said, jerking Bob further away from the podium as the reporters started to surge forward. "Bob, just shut your mouth!"
Jam watched as the two went past him and disappeared into the heaving crowd, Margaret's hand locked tight around Bob's elbow, and Bob himself red-faced, red-eyed and spitting furiously at the reporters who pressed around him. It was a hideous, ugly scene, and Jam tried to swallow as his throat tightened and a chill crept over his shoulders.
He backed away from the crowd and ducked under the rope at the end of the lot. Nobody had noticed him leave, and even if they had, it would have been hard to get to him: he was already walking quickly along the dark shadows of the buildings, as far as he could from the crowd. I wonder if they're gonna call the cops, he thought, and the idea made his stomach lurch. That's the last thing we need.
Jam stopped at the corner to catch his nervous breath. "Ugh," he groaned, fumbling at the buttons of his long-sleeved shirt. His discomfort and the oppressive heat had made him sweat like a pig, and he pulled off his overshirt and tossed it over his shoulder. His apartment was five or six blocks away from the entertainment district, where the floodlights of the studios and shops petered out into spots of white and yellow in the dark. He fanned himself with his hand and started walking again, trying to tune out the roar of the distant crowd.
The first thing Jam did when he returned home was to turn on the radio. The second thing he did was turn it off. The cops had been called, it turned out, but by the time they had gotten there, the Top Tier execs and assorted celebrities were already gone. That was all Jam needed to know: by this time, Percy, Margaret and whomever else were probably back at the company headquarters. (Bob, too, probably; he spent enough time over there to consider it a second home, and his own apartment certainly wasn't anything to crow about.)
Knowing Percy King, he probably didn't care too much about Bob passing the buck in front of the crowd. The whole affair was something he could sweep under the rug with little effort. What was more important was the fact that Top Tier's #1 primetime earner was out of commission, probably going to be playing catchup with his PR department for an entire awful week. So what now?
Jam chewed on it as he paced around and around in his apartment, stepping over piles of notes and half-finished songs. Margaret was fiercely protective of her best friend, and after she got done chewing Bob out for losing it in front of the crowd, Jam was sure she'd turn right around and demand Miss Information's head on a platter. If Percy wasn't angry enough to raid the underground before, he sure would be now, and he wouldn't need much convincing. The only question would be whether Top Tier would be able to pressure the police and the municipal guard into it...
Sure we can, Bob chirped, in the back of Jam's brain. We practically run this town.
Jam let out another exhausted, world-weary groan and slumped into a chair. Sparker had been right all along, of course: they could do it, and if the city was very, very unlucky, maybe they already had. The only way to divert it would be if he could get to Miss Information before Top Tier or the cops did, and he had no idea how he was going to manage that.
He turned to his work desk and did what he usually did when he didn't have any ideas: he grabbed a paper and a pen, and he began to write.
-Ask around? Do I know anyone who could tell me who she is? He crossed this one out--he knew a lot of pirate radio hosts, but the detective work involved would take up way too much time.
-Online? Probably online. Probably posts on Tiernet. I'd check if I could. It was a good idea, but Margaret was the only person he knew with a laptop, and he never went on Tiernet himself. He would have no idea where to start.
-Transmitting. Radio. Check records again? No dice. If the Communications Commission hadn't turned up anything, he probably wouldn't.
-Call in somehow? Leave a note in the paper? -Graffiti? -Radio message? He stopped, and turned to look over his shoulder. His own in-home transmitting setup was over in the corner, gathering dust. He hadn't used it in ages. It would be easy to get it up and running again, but what kind of message would he even send? And why should Miss Information, anonymous and clearly looking out for herself, trust him enough to respond?
Frustrated, Jam turned back to his paper. Okay, then, he thought, tapping his pen onto the paper. Do it the other way around. What would get her? What does she want?
He stared blankly at the paper for a moment before shaking his head with a grin. Offering her money over the airwaves would be suspicious as hell, but it was pretty clear Miss Information would never turn down attention. He slapped down the pen and turned to rifle through the pages of a thick, well-worn notebook. "I think I've got just the thing here," he murmured to himself.
Part 5: "Voice on the Radio"
"Scott Sharp, that's radio czar Scott Sharp here," rumbled a low, rolling voice, "and who may I ask is demanding my precious time?"
"It's Jam, the guy who made all that money you're busy filling your mattress with," said Jam pointedly, crossing one leg over the other as he cradled the receiver between his head and shoulder. "I need a favor, Scott. It's important."
"Oh. Oh!" Scott fumbled. "Oh! Hey! Jam! Jam. What, uh, what's up? Sorry about that."
"It's fine," Jam said reflexively. "Listen, I got a song for you. It's a pop song. It's kind of shitty, but I need you to play it tonight, everywhere, the more the better. Cram it down peoples' throats if you have to."
"Did you make it?"
"Yeah, just now."
For a moment, there was a skeptical silence on the other end of the line. "Pal, aren't you the one who keeps railing against playing favorites and calling in favors?" Scott replied. "Jam, buddy, I like you, and I'll do it, but I am appalled."
"No, no, it's not that!" Jam exclaimed. "Listen, I'm not doing this for any stupid showbiz reason. It's because...well, I can't really talk about it," he said hurriedly. "Just imagine that the entire fate of the town is resting on my shoulders, and I'm gonna fight against all the odds to make sure Electricopolis doesn't implode on itself in a blaze of riots and class warfare and shit like that."
"And this is to get me to play a pop song."
"Yeah," Jam said, and then corrected himself. "An important pop song."
Scott chuckled a low, smug chuckle. "Mr. Hipster wrote a pop song," he said. "Okay, whatever. Get your ass over here, Jam."
Sharp's recording studio was pretty much the way Jam had remembered it: cramped, uncomfortable, and infused with the smell of cigarette smoke and fast food. It was the kind of place he thought he always hated, but he settled in as easily as he had all those years ago. "You get in that booth," Sharp said. "Lemme hear this thing."
It's only ever after midnight
When I hear her voice
I can hear her smooth as silk, that voice
That voice on the radio
It's only ever in the dark
That I hear her voice
I can hear her cut through all the noise,
All the noise on the radio
Baby, I can hear you
I can hear you loud and clear
I'm here, I'm here
I'll do anything, anything
For that voice on the radio...
As Jam sang, his eyes flickered over to Scott's and he could see him grinning knowingly. "I see what this is now," said Sharp. "You're gonna catch her. Spider and the fly-like."
"Do you think it'll work?"
"With a tune like that? If she's anything like she sounds, yeah, it'll work. But you better be careful," Sharp chuckled. "I bet a bunch of other sneaky girls are gonna be goin' around bragging that they're her, you charmer."
"Then the police are gonna have their hands full," Jam replied, and they laughed together until the joke dissolved into an awkward, solemn silence.
Scott Sharp leaned forward, rolling his cigarette around in his mouth. When he spoke, it was much quieter than before. "If she calls in, what do you want me to do?"
"Give her my number," Jam said. "Tell her I want to meet her."
"What if she says no?"
Jam ran his hands over the keyboard, playing a few idle notes. "I'm pretty sure she won't."
Scott leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowing heavily over his eyes. "And what are you gonna do once you've got her?" he asked, giving his protegé a sidelong glance.
Jam tapped his sheets together neatly. "I don't know," he confessed, casting his eyes down. "Talk to her. Convince her to pull her show. I just don't want the cops to get to her first."
The other man chewed on this for a second, then exhaled a puff of smoke that made Jam turn away. "Yeah, well..." he murmured, "don't do anything dumb."
Jam spent the evening in his apartment, holding his breath. He paced, ate, tried to read or nap, anything to pass the time. He almost turned on the radio, but stopped himself. His stomach tied itself into knots at the idea of hearing his own song, or even anything at all. The only sound in his apartment was the hum of his fan.
At one point his cell phone rang and nearly gave him a heart attack, but it was Margaret, and at the risk of getting chewed out later he put her on ignore. The idea of her having anything to call him about sent a shudder down his spine. Though he hated to admit it, and other people would deny it if he did--he could be a real wimp sometimes.
His phone rang again a few minutes later, from a number he didn't recognize. He picked up and listened breathlessly to the silence. "He...llo?" he said.
"Uh," came a voice from the other end, and then a relieved chuckle. "Oh good. Someone's there." Her voice was buttery smooth, and a little younger than she sounded on air. "I was worried that Mr. Sharp was giving me the runaround."
"Is this--" Jam swallowed and cleared his throat. "This is Miss Information, right?"
"Yeah," she said. "I heard that tune you wrote about me." She sounded warm and earnest, almost self-effacing. "You wanted to talk, right? Let's talk."
Jam reached over for his notebook and a pen. "Yeah, I do," he said. "I wanna meet you. Can I?"
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, so long that Jam started to worry that she'd hung up on him and he missed it. "Hello?"
"Yeah, that's cool," she suddenly said. "You wanna come over now?"
Part 6: Deep Below
The address she gave him was down, down in one of the darkest parts of the city, near one of the business districts on the very lowest residential tier. As Jam threaded his way through the crowded streets and dark alleys, he distantly wondered if he were being set up. Even though he was expecting himself to worry, he felt oddly calm about the entire thing. Something just rang true about her, at least on the phone.
Tier 1, the lowest level of Electricopolis' neighborhoods, was someplace Jam had been only two or three times in his life. Because it was so far underground, it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This was one of its few saving graces, as it was dirty, crowded, and suffered constant brownouts otherwise. Candles and torchlights were set up in the windows and along the streets, and it gave the entire level a warm glow that was very unlike the sickly fluorescent lights he was used to. He found himself having to take off his dark glasses and stick them in the pocket of his jacket, and he kept reaching up to feel the ridges where they'd pressed into his nose.
He made his way down to the south side of town. It was filled with rows of tenement buildings pressed up against each other, and her address was in one of the buildings tucked right up against the perimeter wall. No wonder she'd been hard to find, he thought. She was in what was practically the deepest, darkest corner of the town, if you didn't count the workers' tunnels.
He knocked on the door. No response. He knocked again, louder this time, and suddenly it flew open in his face. She was taller than Jam, though she looked at least four or five years younger. Her hair puffed out in a frizzy afro that she kept pulled back in a ponytail, and she was dressed in a tank top and shorts that looked worn at the edges. It looked like he'd interrupted her in the middle of cleaning up, and Jam pulled back from the door.
"Hey there!" she said cheerfully, and although she wavered a little, he could hear Miss Information in her voice. "C'mon in, c'mon. Sorry it ain't nicer," she said briskly, turning around, "but I guess it doesn't matter when you're on the air, right?"
They stepped over piles of laundry and coiled-up cables as she led him through her apartment. She hardly had to even look at the floor, but Jam stepped gingerly over what looked like a decade's worth of old tapes and frayed cables. "You want something to drink?" she continued. "I just got soda and water, but that's something, anyway..."
"Just water's okay," Jam mumbled. "So this is your place?"
"Uh, yeah. Sorry it ain't nicer," she repeated, disappearing into an alcove in the other room. "You're from up top, right?"
"Yeah," Jam replied. Miss Information came out of the nook with a can of soda in one hand and a glass of cloudy-looking water in the other, and he tried to apologize as he took it. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it."
"It's cool," she said breezily. "Is it nice? Up top, I mean."
"Not really," he confessed. "Too many people, for one thing. I don't like it much. That and showbiz."
She gave him a skeptical look. "Huh," she said simply. "Well, I oughta go up sometime and see. Oh, by the way." She knelt down to grab a pile of notebooks off a chair, and slid the chair towards him with a little kick. "Here you go."
"Thanks." The water was a little metallic-tasting, but not that bad, and Jam took a long drink of it before something occurred to him. "Wait a second," he said. "You've never been up top?"
"Nah." She leaned back and propped up her feet on the small stack of books. "Buses cost too much way down here, and forget walking. Closest I've ever been is the TV," she said, and Jam turned to see a tiny 12-incher on the end of her table, propped on top of a VCR. He'd nearly missed it under the clutter. "Love that thing. Could maybe get a bigger one if I wanted, but I don't have any place to put it."
"Where's your radio?" Jam asked, leaning forward.
"You looking for my setup?" asked Miss Information, and she grinned from ear to ear. "Well, it ain't here. It's too noisy. But I can show you how I do it." She took a drink of her soda, then shot him a charming, toothy grin. "You wanna help me with tonight's show?"
"If you're looking for gossip, I'm not gonna give you any."
"Aw, nothin'? Not even a little bit?"
Miss Information stared at him, blinking, as if she honestly couldn't believe it. "Ah, well," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "No big. I'll improvise."
"So, lie, right?" Jam said flatly. "Because that's pretty much all I've been hearing on your show."
Miss Info sat back and glared at him like he'd slapped her in the face. "Excuse me," she huffed. "I play a couple pranks once in a while, but I'm in the business of tellin' one-hundred-percent true dish now, you know that? After all," she said, "I broke the story on Bob Sparker's big screw-up, didn't I?"
"Did you?" Jam replied dryly. "Y'know, in the real world, we usually have to provide something called evidence."
Miss Info laughed at that and waved his question away with a thin hand. "Aw, is that all you're worried about? Okay, okay, I'll show you the goods, since you were nice enough to come visit me an' all."
She turned and slapped the tape that was sticking out of her VCR, and with a rattle it disappeared into the machine. The television fizzed and crackled before settling on a black-and-white image of a place that Jam recognized as the set of Shock 'Til You Drop, circa a few months ago. "Sorry I don't got a fancy color TV to put it on," she said, "but Your Honor'll forgive me, won'tcha?"
The film had been recorded from a camera somewhere on stage right. It got a really good view of the contestant--Alice Lang, he guessed, that shy-looking girl--walking in from stage left, and Bob warmly shaking her hand, greeting her, and then turning to face the audience.
"All right, I'm gonna skip ahead," said Miss Info, leaning forward and mashing the fast-forward button on the machine. "It takes forever to get to the good part. You know how much of this show is filler?" she rambled. "Like eighty percent probably...though I just made that up."
"No," Jam said mildly, trying to keep his voice steady even as his eyes were glued on the screen. "That's pretty close."
"Really?" Miss Info said, her eyebrows shooting up in surprise. Then she pumped her fist triumphantly in the air. "Miss Information does it again! Oh wait, wait. I missed it."
She went from fast-forward to rewind. For a brief moment Alice Lang was twisted in the chair, slumped over, and Bob Sparker's hand was on her shoulder. His head was turned towards her, away from the audience, and his look of sudden terror was suspended in an endless moment. Then the tape started to reverse, melting his expression into a blissful grin, and Jam's gut twisted in pain.
"No," he said, reaching over to shut it off. "That's enough."
Miss Information jumped in her seat as the image flickered to a small dot and then nothing. "Okay, okay," she said, embarrassed. "You get the point."
Jam ejected the tape and looked at the label. SHOCK, 5/14/2013, A. LANG, written in black permanent marker. The handwriting was remarkably uniform with large, slightly curved block letters. He didn't recognize it. "How'd you get this?"
"Friend of mine," Miss Info mumbled. "An associate. Not sayin' who." She grabbed the tape out of his hand and shoved it back into the pile on her desk. "C'mon, let's do something more fun," she said, standing up and grabbing Jam's wrist. "Wanna see where all the magic happens?"
Part 7: Where the Magic Happens
She led him out of her apartment and down through the winding roads once more. "This way," she said, taking his hand and guiding him through narrow corridors and dark alleys. "We're almost there."
"Where is this place?" Jam asked. "We must be a mile away from the tenements."
In response, Miss Information just jabbed a finger upwards, and Jam looked up towards the huge ceiling of the lowermost level of the town. Not too far away, rising above the tops of the apartment buildings and clotheslines, was the steam stack of an enormous factory. Some of its windows were cracked and dark, but on the far side of the building, light still flickered beyond them.
"They shut down half of it," she explained, as they wound their way closer to the chain link fence that surrounded the building. "But we can still get in. They don't watch it too closely."
A door in the fence was already open, and gingerly Jam pushed it aside. It swung open with a gentle creak, and he and Miss Information slipped easily inside. He tried not to be too astonished at it: it was common knowledge that there were plenty of abandoned or half-abandoned businesses in town, ghostly places that lived in the blurry, ambiguous corners of the city.
They went inside, into what used to be an enormous sewing room, with rows of old machines gathering dust while, in a room beyond, faint whirring and clicking could be heard. "You don't have to creep," Miss Information admonished, as Jam caught himself tiptoeing over bolts of cloth. "There's nobody here."
Her "studio" was on the roof of the factory, near the maintenance room at the base of the steam stack. It wasn't much--just an oldish transmitter she kept tucked behind some milk crates, and a microphone that looked like it'd been rescued from a mid-level pawnshop. "I got this from my ex," she explained as she plugged the transmitter into a nearby outlet. "She used to do pirate radio, though she fell off of it after a while. She's real cool."
"Does she know? That you're Miss Information, I mean?"
"Probably," she replied, smiling. She knelt down to stack the milk crates on top of each other, making a makeshift chair. Jam pulled one close with his foot and sat down across from her. "Be kinda nice if she tunes in and recognizes me." She turned on the transmitter and cleared her throat, and Jam found himself leaning over, holding his breath.
"Good evening, Electricopolis," she purred into her mic, and it was her. "It's your favorite neighborhood radio star, and it's about, oh..."
She made a watch-checking motion, and Jam glanced down. "Twelve-fifteen," he said.
"Twelve-fifteen," she repeated, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other. "And yes, sweetheart, you did hear right. I've got a very special guest on my show tonight. That's why I'm running a little late," she chuckled. "Me and my gentleman friend may have gotten sidetracked." She gave Jam a wink and a grin that edged ever-so-slightly into a sneer, and Jam squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. "But before I go on about that, I do believe I have some talking points first."
She reclined against the steam stack and twirled the cord of the microphone around in her fingers. Her notebook was open in her lap, and her eyes would flicker down to it every so often as she talked. "So I hear there was quite a commotion on the morning news," she snickered. "Big props to Mr. Sparker for coming out in the sweltering heat like that. And even bigger props to my girl Margie King," she said, her voice dripping with insincere sweetness, "for showing him her mean right hook. Golly, folks, this girl wishes she coulda been there.
"And hey," she continued, "I got a hell of a lot of publicity out of the entire thing. I'm sure you'll have heard my one-and-only single coming out, right? My collaboration with the eminent DJ Jam?" She sat up in her seat, squirming with pride. "Oh, I can't lie, I gotta give credit where it's due. I didn't have anything to do with that one. I guess Mr. Jam is just such a big fan of mine," she purred, "that he penned 'Voice on the Radio' just for my own sweet self."
She turned towards him, her eyes bright. "And you wouldn't imagine who I have in my studio right now."
"That's right, cats and kittens," she purred, leaning over to give him a bright-eyed, triumphant look. "I've got myself an ex-clusive interview with some of the hottest talent in town. Care to say a couple words?"
He clammed up and shook his head, putting up a hand. Don't go there.
"Well, that's no fun," she groaned, and her voice dipped down into a sound that crept into Jam's bones. Here, practically a mile up in the sky, surrounded by the dusty roofs of the town and the dark of the underground ceiling, she was sizing him up with hungry eyes.
"But, you know," she said, "there are plenty of things we can do on the radio."
Jam's hand darted out and smacked the transmitter right in the power switch, sending it toppling over onto the ground. "Hey!" Miss Information yelped, jumping out of her seat, and again she was her breezy teenage self. "Rude! What was that for?"
"What the hell were you trying to do?" he snapped. "You think that's funny? You think it's funny to drag me all the way up here and then creep on me--"
"I wasn't creeping!" she whined, pulling her transmitter up off the ground. "I was just playing with you! Jesus! My radio show..."
"It doesn't matter if you were playing or not!" Jam shrieked, and his voice echoed unnervingly in the vast empty spaces above the town. "This is exactly what I came here to talk to you about! For Christ's sake, can't you see what you're doing?"
Miss Information, or the girl who played her, stared at Jam, wide-eyed. Maybe it was anger, maybe it was fear, maybe it was something else entirely--he'd never exactly been good at reading people.
He turned away for a moment, rubbing at his eyes, trying to catch his breath. Creeping was right. What she'd done had left an uncomfortable wrongness clinging to his arms and legs, weighing him down, and he tried to shake it off. One breath, two breaths.
"Listen," he started again. "I'm gonna level with you. If you don't do something tonight, Top Tier is gonna seize all the unregistered equipment down here. All of it," he said, "and it's not gonna stop there."
Miss Information looked down at her scratched transmitter. She pulled her knees up to her chest and sat there for a long, quiet moment, and she didn't look much like any kind of criminal like that. After a long moment, she looked up at him. "You gonna turn me in?"
Jam waited for a long, long moment. "No," he replied. "Not if I can avoid it. You're just a kid."
Miss Information blinked, then turned her head and looked somewhere off to the side, over the dark rooftops of the buildings. "I don't know why everyone's taking it so seriously."
"It doesn't matter," Jam said, trying to keep his voice under control. "It doesn't matter if it's serious or not. It's hurting people, and if you don't stop it, it's gonna hurt a hell of a lot more. And like--I get it," he explained. "I get it, they're--we're--celebrities, we're supposed to be able to take it. But what you did just now...and messing with Sparker's head..."
Miss Info's head darted back like a whip. "Bob Sparker?" she said. "You know him?"
"Yeah, and I can't stand him," Jam admitted. "And I'd be here even if it were anyone else."
Miss Information put her head back down on her knees and sighed a long, deep sigh. "Okay," she said, "okay. I'm sorry for creeping you out." Jam nodded. "I guess...maybe I just got too into everything."
Well, he thought, that's one thing you have in common with Bob.
"I'm gonna turn it back on," she said quietly, looking up at Jam. "And I'm gonna tell them it's over. Okay?"
There was a long moment of hesitation before she reached over and turned the transmitter back on. "Sorry 'bout that, folks," she said, and her voice, though smooth as butter, sounded strained. "I just got myself a piece of breaking news."
She pulled away from the microphone for a moment and took in a breath.
"Sorry to say, but it looks like time's up for my midnight radio show. Maybe y'all know this already, but a whole lot of people have got a whole lot of plans for Miss Information. Maybe you'll hear me somewhere, sometime," she said. "Keep those eyes peeled and those ears burning, night owls."
She smiled. "And one more thing, Electricopolis...good night." With that, she turned off the radio.
The two of them made their way back to her apartment in silence. Before Jam left, Miss Information stopped him, holding out something for him wrapped in a bunch of brown paper.
"It's my transmitter," she said quietly, "and the tape. I was gonna keep it as a souvenir, but I figure if the cops bust down my door I don't wanna be holding it."
"Yeah, I was about to say," Jam said, taking the parcel and tucking it under his arm. "Thanks. I think with these I'll be able to call off the guard dogs. If I can't," he said, "I'll let you know."
"Thanks," replied the girl in front of him, who couldn't have been more than nineteen or twenty. "And, uh...tell Mr. Sparker I'm real sorry about all that trouble. I dunno anything about Alice, but I hope she's doin' okay."
"Will do," Jam said, smiling. "You know, if you wanted, I could introduce you two."
"No thanks," Miss Info laughed, and Jam felt himself relax for the first time that night. "And hey...thanks again. In the end, you know...I think you're a pretty cool guy."
Part 8: Epilogue
A day later, Jam had, successfully, called off the guard dogs. Percy was happy enough with the transmitter, and was wise enough not to ask how he got it. Margaret had calmed down by now and was mostly satisfied that Miss Information was off the air, and Bob, well... Jam was going to wrap up that loose end right away.
"Here," he said, handing Bob the parcel wrapped in brown paper. "I think you should have this."
"Aw, and only a month late for my birthday," Bob joked, unwrapping it. Jam watched as he picked up the tape, looked at it quizzically, and read the label. His face began to pale. "Jam," he said shakily, "What the hell is this?"
"That was all she had on you," he explained. "She knew about the show, but she just made up that bit about Alice not getting out of the hospital."
Bob leaned back on his sofa and rubbed at his eyes with one hand. "Yeah," he said, and his voice sounded hoarse and quiet. "They found her yesterday. She's fine, just moved. Had no idea what happened...she said that a doc had been making her house calls ever since that day we botched the show."
"You gonna go see her?"
"Yeah, I think so." Bob sniffed and wiped at his eyes. "In a day or two, maybe. You're lucky you weren't here yesterday," he laughed, "because I decided to charge up a little, fork in the socket kind of deal, but I was still kind of weepy and it was just a huge mess. That'll show me, huh?"
"Man, at this point going to the hospital would be an improvement for you," Jam chuckled. "You feeling any better now?"
"Like a million bucks. Thanks, Jam," Bob said, grinning. "You're a pal."
"Yeah, well." Jam shrugged and tried feebly to hide a grin of his own. He had to admit, even if just to himself, that despite Bob Sparker's general Bob Sparker-ness, he was sort of a nice guy to have around. He had a heart, which was more than you could say for most of the people in show business, and there was probably some hope for his oblivious view of the world.
"Oh, yeah," Jam added. "If it means anything, Miss Info says she's sorry for all the trouble she caused."
"Yeah?" Bob said skeptically. "Means as much as the rest of what she said."
Jam shrugged. "Maybe. Anyway, that's my good deed done for the day. I'm gonna go take a damn nap. I've earned it."
"That sounds pretty good right now," Bob agreed, nodding as the other man stood up and walked to the door. "Hey, Jam--"
Jam stopped in the doorway, turning. "Mm?"
"Did you watch..." Bob started, glancing down at the tape. "Uh, you know what, never mind. Go have that nap," he said, giving his friend a wave. "You look like you've been up all night!"