RAPHAEL MEDRICK listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he'd recorded it during last winter's Super Bowl — MCXIV? — sung by a nervous girl pop singer with excessive tremolo, an unsteady grasp of key, and not much upper register; cool. His fingers moved on the control panel, adjusting the gains, and the middle range faded, taking with it much of the ambient crowd noise, leaving mainly the aggressive brass sounds, both high and low, like sturdy lines of cathedral columns, with that frightened little voice vaguely wandering among them, a little trapped bird. Nice.
Stop; set coordinates; save; set aside; move on to the Beatles' "Hey, Jude." Strip away high and low, leaving a broody midrange with tatters of a barely recognizable voice and an obsessive baritone rhythm section pulsing forward like a predator fish, eyes flicking left and right, tail flashing behind.
Reset «Jude»; sync with «Banner»; play both. «Jude» had to be speeded up just a bit to blend with the «Banner» tempo, which served to lift the notes of «Jude» just a fraction so that they became dissonant with any melodic line played anywhere in the history of the world. The two treated themes weaved discordantly through each other. Now the ruined cathedral columns were underwater, the forlorn «Banner» singer clearly the dinner the predator «Jude» was hunting for.
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Raphael said aloud, hearing his own voice not through his ears into his brain but first through his skull into his earphones — an effect he was used to by now. Too bad he couldn't mix that doomy sound into the soup. But now he had one more minor adjustment in" tempo to be completed before moving on to the next phase, and a shadow crossed the control panel.
He barely registered it at first. His task here was to complete the match of the first two elements before adding the stutter-stop Gregorian chant he'd already assembled on another CD. But then, as «Jude» and «Banner» approached maximum synchronicity, like a space shuttle docking at the station, memory and observation within Raphael's own brain coalesced, and he thought: Shadow. Moved across the control panel. In my living room.
When he lifted his head, yes, there were people in his room, and no, he'd never seen any of them before. A lot of people — four, in fact — all male and all looking at him, all somehow seeming to disapprove. Why?
I'm not on probation any more, he thought.
Can these people be from Mikey, he wondered?
No, he decided, I can't take time for this, not just this second. I'm at a crucial intersection here, I can't let my concentration be disturbed.
Thus, he held up one finger, showing it to them all: wait. Not being rude, not saying no, I won't talk to you, not saying, I don't see why you have to cluster in my living room, whoever you are, but merely saying: wait.
Upon which he bent over his control panel once more, a scrawny nerd of twenty-four with a pitiful goatee, barefoot, dressed in cutoff jeans and Mostly Mozart T-shirt, whose contact lenses glinted in the light to make him look blind. Over the next seven minutes — though it barely seemed like twenty seconds to him — hunched here in the living room of his tiny underfurnished house at the dead end of a poky side street in remotest Queens overlooking Jamaica Bay, he laid in the Gregorian chant. Since he listened to his work strictly through the earphones, these strangers wouldn't hear any of it, except possibly some faint cricket noises floating up from beside his head. Not that he cared; deeply involved in his collage, he barely remembered he had company until he was done.
There. Finished. At least, the first assemblage of the basic idea was finished. After that, of course, it's easy.
Earphones off, briskly massaging both ears with the palms of both hands because they tended to itch and feel all crumpled after long sessions like this, he at last dropped his hands into his lap, shook his head like a dog coming out of water, looked at his unexpected guests, and said, "Good morning."
"Good afternoon," one of them said — a carrot-haired, edgy-seeming guy, who said «afternoon» as though there were something wrong with afternoons and as though Raphael were to blame for it.
Before Raphael could ask him what was wrong with afternoon, another one, a slope-shouldered, depressed-looking fellow, said, "You are Raphael Medrick, aren't you?"
"After all this time," added a third, a sharp-nosed, impatient type.
"Oh, sure," Raphael said.
The depressed fellow said, "You own the O.J.? The O.J. Bar and Grill?"
Raphael lit up. "Sure," he said, and smiled in relief, because now at least he knew the subject. It wasn't every day you had four complete strangers suddenly in your living room, so it was nice to have some idea of their reason for being here. "Did Mikey send you?"
They looked at one another. The one who hadn't spoken yet, a huge man similar to several Raphael had seen during the Super Bowl — JXQVIII? — with a head like a Darth Vader lunchbox, said, not to Raphael but to the others, "He wants to know did Mikey send us."
"I heard that," the sharp-nosed one said, and nodded, and in a very pleasant way said to Raphael, "Why would Mikey send us? What would Mikey want to send us here for?"
"I dunno," Raphael said. "I just thought."
The one with the Darth Vader head extended his right hand. Even though his middle finger was bent, with his thumb-tip pressed against that finger's nail, Raphael had no idea what he planned to do until all at once, like somebody flicking an ant off a picnic table, he pinged the left side of Raphael's skull above the ear. Just, in fact, above the part that had been covered by the earphone.
Interesting reverb. How to get that on disc? Not by getting yourself pinged in the head a lot. As Raphael rubbed the now-burning part on the side of his head, the big man with the pinging finger remained in a loomed position above him, saying, "Pay attention to us."
"I am paying attention."
"You own the O.J."
"I already said so."
"So since you're the owner of the O.J.," the looming man went on, "we come to talk to you about the O.J."
"Oh, come on," Raphael said, grinning, forgetting the sting in his skull to look in surprise at the big man. "That's just a joke," he said. "Everybody knows that's just a joke."
They exchanged another enigmatic look. The big man stepped back a pace, and the sharp-nosed one, whose manner was much more pleasant, took his place. "Just a joke, Raphael?" he asked. "Didn't your uncle sign the place over to you?" Turning his head, he said to the gloomy one, "How long ago?"
"But that doesn't mean anything," Raphael said. "I mean, Uncle Otto gets all the money. Don't you know the deal?"
"Tell us the deal, Raphael," suggested the sharp-nosed one.
"Uncle Otto is old," Raphael explained. "I mean really, really old. He had to get to Florida before it was too late, but nobody wanted to buy the bar because the neighborhood changed."
"Wait," said the big man, holding up his pinger hand. "You're gonna talk for a week, we need a place to sit down. You got a living room?"
"This is my living room," Raphael told him.
They all swiveled their heads around to study his living room, and he supposed it did look different from most living rooms. Most living rooms had chairs and sofas and things, but he had only this one chair that he was sitting in, that he could swing around to watch the television over there, if he wanted to watch television. Otherwise, the room was mostly electronic equipment on tables, and lots of open storage cabinets around the walls, so that what it mostly looked like was a recording studio. Which, in addition to being his living room, it was.
The gloomy one now said, "We don't have to sit. You say nobody wanted to buy the bar."
"It's too down-something," Raphael said. "The lawyer told me. Market!"
"So," the gloomy one prompted, "the uncle sold it to you.
"Well, I signed for it — the family made me do that — but I pay him a mortgage, which is just about everything the place makes, so I basically ignore it."
The sharp-nosed one said, "Who are those guys in there, running it? Not Rollo, the new ones. Friends of yours?"
"Maybe friends of Mikey's," Raphael said. "I don't know, I only ever saw the place just that one time."
"Maybe," the gloomy one said, "it would help if we knew who this Mikey was."
"I met him when I was on probation," Raphael explained. "He was on probation, too."
The big pinger man said, "What were you on probation for?" as though he couldn't believe it.
"Well, downloading," Raphael said, and gestured at his equipment.
They frowned at him. They were all very blank. Raphael saw the pinger finger twitch, and hurriedly said, "Taking music off the Web. You know, sharing files. Some big German record company came after me, me and a bunch of other people, even some kids, and said we were doing felonies."
The sharp-nosed one said, "You were on probation because you were listening to music? This is a crime?"
"They said so," Raphael said, "so I guess it is."
The gloomy one said, "Was Mikey downloading music, too?"
"No, I don't know what he did," Raphael admitted. "I think maybe he knows some real criminals."
"You mean," the edgy, carrot-haired man said, "people even more dangerous than music bandits."
"Uh huh. I know his father has a bunch of restaurants and bars in New Jersey and Long Island," Raphael explained, "so when my family made me take over the bar so Uncle Otto could go to Florida and die in the warm instead of up here in the cold, I told Mikey about it, and he said he'd take care of everything, he could use the practice for when someday he'd go into his father's business. So I signed a paper that says he's running it, and now I don't have to worry about anything any more."
They all sighed, all four of them. The big man turned to the others and said, "You know what I want to say to this nephew?"
"You want to say good-bye," the gloomy one suggested.
"I do." The big man nodded at Raphael. "Good-bye," he said, and they all left.
Gee, Raphael thought, I wonder what that was all about. I hope Mikey isn't making trouble up there in the city.
Well, what did it matter? The important thing was "Phaze," the piece he was constructing here. This was where he made his money, not some bar, now that he understood you could charge for music on the Net. Put it out there, avant garde fusion, let them sample, but before they download they have to pay, all major credit cards accepted. He had more customers in Japan and Norway than in the United States, but all currencies are good on the Net.
The O.J. Bar Grill. Who cared? That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.