A controversial talent show involving children is midway through taping when a man storms the television studio and takes over a hundred hostages. He’s armed with an explosive device, but expresses no motive and makes just one demand: an interview with journalist Thom Pegg. It’s a bizarre request, everyone agrees including Pegg. A disgraced former investigative journalist, caught fabricating sources, he’s down on his luck and working for a lad magazine in Los Angeles. Reluctant, but pressured by federal authorities, Pegg agrees to travel to the city in question and meet the hostage taker. In this passage, he’s just arrived and is waiting for his escort to take him inside the studio theatre.
THEY CHECKED PEGG INTO A HOTEL. A nice place. Crisp white lobby, staff liveried in chalk stripe.
His handler checked him in. Haden, that placeless man with his frog lapel pin. He walked him to the elevators. Then Haden said to Pegg: “Make yourself comfortable. Things have gotten a bit hairy and I’m not sure when we can get you in. Will call, yes?”
Pegg went to his room and lay on his back, hands folded behind his head. Tremendous bed, he thought. Then immediately he sat up, phoned Haden and asked to be picked up. He didn’t like the sense of being a payload in a silo, nice and cool and tuned up, ready to launch. Up there in the pressroom he’d feel more autonomously engaged with this thing, like he really was a journalist with a story to cover. Like he really was choosing to help.
One of Haden’s people picked him up and drove him over. They left him with the others in the press pool area, a conference room in another hotel just off the plaza, long since booked to the rafters with media. All the typical event squalor, Pegg noted. Stubbed-out smokes in coffee cups. Trampled paper underfoot. Cable and phones and open computers. The bank of newsreaders working their lines, twenty of them all looking exactly the same in their big blond hair and coral nail polish. Orthodontic perfection. Pegg had hit on one of them once, drunk in D.C. He thought she was the one sitting second from the left but couldn’t be sure because her mike with the network insignia was hidden from view. He rated the energy alive in the air as he passed people in the pit. Something registered, then reregistered. But nobody spoke to him. Nobody said: My God but they really burned you down to the ground, didn’t they? How’d that feel, the flames licking up around your ass?
Pegg walked and they moved their chairs. Faces he recognized, by name and by type. The writer from a news magazine he’d played cards with once in Saskatchewan. He wondered why they’d both been there, couldn’t pull it back. Then these two jokers: a couple of guys who must still have been in school when the personal shit hit for Pegg. They were checking him out.
Yes it’s me, Pegg thought. Yeah you heard correctly. I fabricated a source. But in service of the truth. Black sites, did I make that shit up? No I did not. Like none of them had ever published white lies before. That was why it was never a good idea to get any of them drunk. Or at least, never let them get drunker than you were at any given moment. Pure misery, listening to the disappointments and disillusions of the copywriting classes. God, give me an actor any day, Pegg thought. It was naked truth from actors, including the aspiration to celebrity, whatever he thought of that. They never denied wanting fame, prestige, status. It was all in the collective gaze for actors and they knew it.
Pegg was heading towards the far wall, towards a door where he was going to stand and wait for Haden to show up. Stand under the frame like there had been an earth tremor, with aftershocks to come. But Haden was nowhere.
Pegg made his way through the mess of chairs and tables. Body odor. Boredom. Give me a perfumed PR flack, he thought. Give me a junket interview and an L:MN name card, for Christ’s sake. Maybe he’d tell all this to Haden in the way of a confession. He’d tell Haden something like that and crack him open a bit, get him to talk. Get Haden to explain for real how the world had wobbled in its frigid arc such that Pegg was now involved in this business. Kids in a theater, crying. Was he supposed to feel grateful for this opportunity? He did not.
Because the hostage taker seems to be quite interested in you . He wondered if Spratley were somehow involved. There would be obscure reasons for these kinds of things. Haden trafficked in obscure understandings. All the myriad connections between things, commodity prices and rotten mortgage securities, central bank scheming and a storm brewing among the gang lords in the slums of Rio. A micro-burst over the Persian Gulf and soldiers were exploding out the backs of a hundred Bradley fighting vehicles in Bakhtaran. The rational brain demanded that these events all be related.
“Doing all right, Peggy? Just look at you here.”
Thin purse of a face, high shoulders bent against invisible wind. Pegg had to think who this was, which meant he was from some very serious zone of print. One of the intellectual magazines with articles thousands of words long. Writers with war zone routines and jackets to match, all the patches and pockets. Gore-Tex boots. The name was coming to Pegg. The man was local originally, now a big name in London. Oh yes. Here it was. The man who’d put the last knife in when Pegg was going down. Right there on the Times editorial page. Pegg had every word etched in his memory, something no amount of drinking could erase... how even that pales in comparison to the damage Thom Pegg has done to the very victims his own column had ostensibly been written to aid and reinstate.
“Well hello, Loftin,” Pegg said. “Still going after the truth, I see.”
“Read about you. Your what is it, notoriety?”
“Yes, well, I gathered you did,” Pegg said. “I read your ruminations in the Times.”
Loftin smiled falsely. “Of course that all had to be said, Peggy. Even though it wasn’t a bad story except for the … you know.”
“The central character not actually existing,” Pegg said.
“Yes, that pretty much killed it,” Loftin said. “Shame, though, since it had within it...how to say this...DNA trace evidence of truth.”
Pegg looked away and smiled at someone he didn’t recognize. He knew Loftin wouldn’t haven’t crossed the room for the sole purpose of heaping scorn, so there would be more to come.
Loftin, finally: “But all that’s history now, hey? On your feet again, I see. L:MN Magazine, is that the one?”
“Yes, indeed it is,” Pegg said, trying for a tone of bright satisfaction. “Spratley and I were at Oxford.”
“Right, right. Spratley still...?” Loftin meant: is Spratley still rumored to be sleeping with Filipino boys? But Pegg only laughed through his nose and put a hand into his side pocket. There were no miniature vodka bottles there, he knew. He said: “So what’s the business here? All kinds of nonsense in the air. No money demands. No get the troops out of Iran. No organ-harvesting screeds. No Islamophobia. No Jew baiting, flights to Jordan, unmarked bills. It isn’t a side of architecture grads from Saudi Arabia or there’d have been a bloody big bang by now. And I thought of white supremacy wingnuts but only for about a second because they’re much too self-apocalyptic to take hostages. Wouldn’t you say?”
Loftin’s expression had been hardening over during each of the seconds that Pegg spoke. “Well, you make various good points. General confusion and speculation. Although I suppose you could say this is where we’ve been heading for some time. School shootings. People storming their own workplaces, labs, trading floors.”
Pegg nodded. “It’s in the breeze, so to speak.”
“If you’re mad enough to do it off the cuff, no reason not to wait for a few hours before starting.”
“Sure, sure. Wait for you and me to pull in.”
“Exactly. The international coverage.”
“Makes you wonder though, doesn’t it,” Pegg said. “Motives. The construction of the thing.”
“It does, Peggy,” Loftin said, muscles in his jaw working free each word. “Especially those of us milling around out here. Those of us dealing with the colonel. Those of us without the gilt-edged invitation.”
Pegg heard “guilt-edged” and thought for a moment that Loftin was being impossibly clever. Then he refit the word to the circumstances and something important came to him the same instant. The fact of his access was a story that had just broken. The inexplicable reality that it was he, Thom Pegg, who was going in. That explained the way people had been looking at him, moving their chairs to let him pass, averting their glances. They couldn’t believe what they’d heard: that it was Thom Pegg who’d gotten access. This dawning sense was like a private spring, only for Pegg. They were incredulous. And they were envious.
Envious. Sweet Jesus. The same people, like this jackass Loftin here, who’d so happily put the boots to him those few short years before. Here was something Pegg could savor about the moment. Not redemption. Payback. Quite different.
“What’d they say about the person inside, then? Who is he? What does he want?” Loftin was pressing quite urgently. He had canted in towards Pegg while Pegg had been skipping through the alpine field of his own delight. Loftin now looked distinctly, agitatedly curious to know if Pegg was going to share anything he’d learned about perpetrators, motives, modus operandi. And Loftin was anxious too, asking his questions. Because for all his skill with sources, for all his vaunted reputation, for all his money, it was pretty clear that Thom Pegg wasn’t going to tell him anything.
Pegg pretended to cast his mind back as if making sure no detail had escaped him. Then he shook his head firmly and smiled. “I just assumed it was a fan in there, you know. Someone who reads L:MN. ”
“Right, right,” Loftin said, flushed, hands into his pockets, wanting the conversation over. But unable to resist a comment. He tried. He paused for a second. Then he let it go, a poison dart in every word. “Always wanted to ask you one thing, though. What it stood for, L:MN. Like, Little Men, you know. Teenagers whacking off in their mother’s john over one of your famous spreads.”
It was a delicious turning point for Pegg. Something he’d never experienced previously. He said: “Have you always wondered that? I mean about the name?”
Loftin’s expression had gone hard and blank as a sidewalk.
“Because it’s quite fascinating really,” Pegg said.
“Yes, well there are those who say the one thing, right? And then those who say something completely different.”
The man’s eyes were dead slits. “Right,” he said.
Pegg plunged onward, gorging himself on a moment. “But really,” he said. “I’ve always tended to think, you know, that L:MN stood for Lick: My Nuts.”
“Thom, Thom. Come on now.”
This was Haden, finally at his elbow. Haden, whom Pegg had watched coming across the room while he spoke and not recognized until the very last moment. Stepping between chairs and through conversations without raising a single glance. He looked different than he had on the plane. Younger now in a sweater, wool cap and jeans. No frog pin either. He might have been the correspondent for the local campus paper. But more importantly, he was invisible. Seen by only those who had a need to see. Haden, it seemed obvious, was good at his job. Pegg wondered what that was exactly.
He took Pegg’s elbow and steered him out into the hall. Haden said: “Yes, yes. It’s out there. Some tabloid grunt has been given access. There are ways to handle the publicity that will make it easy and ways to handle it that will make it hard.”
“Tabloid grunt,” Pegg said. “You don’t offend me, if that’s what you’re trying.”
The conference room across the hall was still emptying. But already Pegg found his pleasure in the moment fading. Trumping the Loftins of this world, whatever. Loftin was a prig. Fucking puffed-up Loftin and his famous book. Six national magazine awards and a bunch of money. Wife and kids. Whoopie fact-bearing, bestselling, Episcopalian shit.
Haden guided him down the hall to a door, then through that and into the alley. Here, against the rank brick, he leaned a shoulder. Ten yards away, under the overhang of an entrance to an underground parking garage, a soldier trained his weapon on the pavement, looking back and forth. His eyes drifted over them professionally, lingered for the seconds required, then continued their steady patrol.
Haden shook his head before starting. “Try to keep it together. Things are only going to get more confusing here for a while.”
“You seem rather calm though,” Pegg said.
Haden’s expression went opaque and distant. He glanced down at his own shoes. This next bit, Pegg thought, is full-on bullshit.
Haden said, quite clearly: “Brass is worried that he’s started to kill the kids.”
Pegg hadn’t seen that coming at all. He swiveled sharply away from Haden and put his hands to his face, leaned into the railing. He could barely manage the words. “God,” he said. “I can’t do this.”
Haden didn’t answer right away. Pegg could hear the wind pick up, knocking a downspout against a wall somewhere nearby. He let his hands fall away from his face. He croaked: “Kill them, like what do you mean?”
Haden shook his head. “Like executions. Like he’s getting impatient.”
“Have released hostages been reporting this?”
“Nobody has been released in four hours and the idea is that this might have started within the past hour.”
“An idea based on what evidence?” Pegg said.
“Well, not much really. I never said I believed the story.”
“Fucking hell,” Pegg said, staring at Haden. “What’re you telling me for?”
“Just giving you the picture, Thom. It’s what people are saying. Best guess at numbers is under a dozen remaining now. And the thinking is that these situations work down to some significant configuration. Then they resolve for lack of material.”
Pegg breathed deeply, several times. “You are fucking with me.”
“I’m not. You’re here because the man asked for you,” Haden said.
“You know what I think?” Pegg said. “I think I was your bright idea.”
Haden nodded like he’d expected Pegg to say this eventually. “I’d like to say yes. I really would. As an idea, you would have been a good one.”
“He asked for the New York Times, didn’t he? He asked for the Washington Post. For the BBC World Service. And they all said no.”
Haden found a vial in a hip pocket and unscrewed the lid, extracted a tightly hand-rolled cigarette. Darkish paper. He lit up and offered it to Pegg, who shook his head but knew the sweet scent. Beedis. Pegg thought: Please may I one day know what kind of federal operative, what the fuck kind of gray-zone emissary smokes beedis on the job.
Pegg said: “I’m having a hard time placing you, to be frank. In the scheme of things.”
Haden inhaled the clovey smoke and held it, nodding. He released the lung-load while talking, his words sculpted in gray eddies and whorls. “My line is more creative than it used to be.”
“And what line is that?”
“Think like human resources.”
“You mean I could hand in my letter of resignation?”
“You could but you won’t,” Haden said. “You’ve been in that pressroom. You’ve seen the envious looks. The Washington Post said no? What are you, out of your mind? There isn’t a paper on the planet that wouldn’t kill for what you have right now. Right in front of you.”
Pegg glanced away again. The soldier near the entrance to the parking garage was gone.
“You’ve got the whole thing read,” Pegg said. “Simple, simple.”
“I didn’t say simple. I see a situation here that is many sided.”
“Do you really? I sort of see it having only two sides myself. Some lunatic threatening some other people who are probably not lunatics even if they are KiddieFame contestants.”
Haden pressed out the cigarette on the sole of his shoe. “I’d be the last person to try and dissuade you in a moment of moral clarity. But you’re really a spectacularly arrogant prick, aren’t you?”
Morality between the garbage bins. Talking to a guy who got trained up at some private farm in rural Virginia or in the lake country outside of Regina. Knows fifteen ways to kill a man with a safety pin or a gelato spoon. Running down this line of reasoning, Pegg had a thought. The guys in the pressroom, the ripple of awareness when he’d entered. The galvanizing flash of his own resolve on sensing that he was the center of an envy field, his situation profoundly desired by all those arrayed around, arms hung over the backs of chairs, phones flipped open, screens flickering a thousand news feeds from other parts of the world, an endless loop on Meme Media. Whose eyes in that moment had just swiveled onto him, onto Pegg. Who never questioned why they all wanted it so much, the rare chance to go verbal with the real thing, the man with death on his mind, yours and his. They all wanted that. It was the thing coveted above all.
He asked: “Why tell anyone that I’d been given access?”
Haden looked at his watch and then the lowered sky. He said: “We set the information free. I mean, either that’s the answer or: does it matter anyway?”
The drops of rain began to strike the alley garbage and the sheet lids of the dumpsters and Pegg himself. He does his job well indeed, Pegg thought. Haden calls the rain down. Haden darkens the mood. Haden pulls something small from his inside pocket that he wants carried inside.
“You must be joking,” Pegg said.
“It’s not a weapon,” Haden said. “It’s a voice recorder.”
“I know what it is. I have my own, thanks.”
“Of course you do. This is your own.”
Pegg took the tape recorder and rolled it in his hands. Japanese mini-disc, ten years dated although it still worked well. Omnidirectional mike and a dozen hours’ recording time on long play. Pointless to ask how Haden had gotten it. The fact was he had gotten it. Although nothing looked jigged or souped or tricked-up about it. Pegg paged through the storage folders, all empty as he had left them, except for Folder D. And there it was. The single recording that had survived all purging. A snip of audio that had traveled with him and lived on this machine while it recorded other voices in Bel Air haciendas and Park Avenue triplex palaces, in warehouse lofts on Queen West. And before that, in places where the real victims had been. In poisoned lives and toxic landscapes. This thirty-second clip had comforted him before sleep in an uncountable number of hotel rooms before his fall and since.
“Record your conversation with the man,” Haden was saying. “He’ll expect that.”
Pegg’s thumb brushed the buttons.
“Then at some point, when the moment seems right,” Haden said, “play your little clip there.”
Pegg looked up at him. “Like a signal.”
“The man is wearing night-vision, we believe,” Haden said. “We’d like you to confirm that, perhaps at a moment when you and the man are separated from the others by some distance. Night-vision, Pegg. If yes, hit Play.”
“And you’ll hear me.”
“As long as you’re carrying that device, we’ll hear you loud and clear.”
“And what will happen?”
“Something sudden, Thom. But you mustn’t be frightened. Wait for that critical moment. Then hit Play.”
Pegg’s eyes returned to the silver surface of the voice recorder, the places worn gray where his thumb had so many times carried out its fractional movement. He pressed Play, right there, like a practice run, releasing the warbled voice into wet air. Three years old when the recording was made and an impressive grasp of fundamental things for a kid that age. He knew how to sell a punch line, that kid.
“What did the skeleton say when he walked into a bar?” asked the boy. One beat. “Give me a beer. And a mop.”
And there it was. The sound of his boy laughing. Micah Swenson Pegg. A delight, a joy. There was nothing else. And you could hear it in Pegg’s laughter too. Booming in the background. Pegg a hundred years younger than he was now. A hundred shades lighter. Pegg laughing with his boy. Jennifer looking in through the door from her office, a half smile on her face.
Had they been happy? They had been ecstatic.
PEGG HAD AN ERRAND. Twenty minutes, Haden told him. No longer.
The Pig and Python. Typical turnkey bar that belonged to the international Celtosphere. Pegg knew it was there. He had no idea how he knew. He was sure he’d never been there before. But as he forded the rivers of rainwater and floating garbage, found the alley mouth and surveyed the street, he sensed it just to the corner and left. Fake gold leaf. Fake red velvet booths. Fake fiddle music. Fake cheer. The place was perfect. They outdid the Irish in every respect and that’s what the Celtosphere demanded.
Irish whiskey, he thought, as a matter of gratitude and respect. One slender half-pint pocket bottle for each side of his long overcoat, which was too hot for his situation but which he found himself unwilling to remove. Sweating in place at the bar, leaned in over a triple for the road. Neat. No ice. He was perspiring and palpitating, struggling to keep his breathing non-critical. He was gulping at the whiskey, waiting for its cauterizing magic in his middle regions, a certain slow calming of the troubles there, the shifting allegiances and betrayals of his inner works and yards. All the while his eyes were locked on the three white swallows that adorned the label of the bottle that had been poured. Their shapes lithe and perfect, flitting around one another in a rosette of purity, making sense of the universe with play, with a circular arrangement of their spotlessly iconic selves.
Pegg struggled with emotion, sipping. Then sipping again. Unfamiliar feelings and his movements to deal with them were not grooved by practice either. Swarmed by. . . what was this? Some kind of sorrow or grief, as if he had already done something for which an avalanche of guilt had been released. He swallowed and coughed, choked, then fumbled out a handkerchief to cover his face. After a few seconds, face buried in this scrap of once-white cotton that hadn’t seen the laundry in many months, he made to blow, but had an epiglottal misfiring doing so, a loud and messy effect. He produced a throaty blatt and left a rivulet of snot across his lip and chin. Agh. Damn. Wiped away. Glances now from the college-aged bartender, who had questioned the triple with an eyebrow spasm and an involuntary look at the clock over Pegg’s head. Whose glance now had no resting place, bouncing around the room and checking his brunch crowd for reaction. English tourists. Little jars of jam with toast and porcelain pots of tea.
Pegg gulped down the last of his drink, then exited to the street and found his corner, his fetid alley mouth. He entered and passed a dumpster he had somehow not noticed when heading out. A typical metal bin, reeking and sordid, but which someone had artfully postered over to make it look like a piece of Louis Vuitton luggage. Must have taken hours getting all those sheets of paper lined up, getting the seams just right. Hours certainly to get that perfect-hued effect. Magnificently in place while being out of place, luxurious pebble-grained leather against the muck.
Onward. No time to linger on the seething streets in this most seething town. He was past and moving on towards the back door of the hotel. Steeling himself, by the step. Unused to the procedure, but wondering if his display of emotion back at the bar might have been useful, in its way. He was done with the self-pity now, Pegg thought, his mind flickering forward to what nobler spirit must now be stockpiled in preparation for the events ahead. Which was a line of self-talk that might well have continued—-Pegg was nothing if not susceptible to his own reasoning—-if half a dozen steps farther down he hadn’t been stopped by what the alley wall next threw up for his consideration. A large poster had been mounted on the brick. Eight feet high by five feet wide. Styled as if after a thirties-era election poster, all face and slogan, black and white. The double jab of a political rhetoric aimed at those with guards held low.
Under a picture of what looked like two small figurines of circus strongmen, barbells aloft, the slogan: Ignorance Is Strength. And plastered across the center, a new picture, recently appended to the whole: a not particularly flattering photo of Thom Pegg.
He was now awake in a different way than he could remember being for a long time. Ripped off a website, scanned out of an issue of the magazine, candid maybe, although it had to be said, however the photo had been obtained, Pegg himself was looking just a shade less well than he would have hoped to appear in print. A bit bruised under the eyes. A bit florid and blossomy across the cheekbones.
Pegg was trying to deal now with new currents and fluxes within, adrenaline, random synaptic firings. Someone in the press pool, the jealous bastards. But an old dread was coming again to life. Pegg knew exactly what the feeling was: the dread sense of being watched, followed. Pegg felt targeted. And he longed for home just then, staring at this thing. This gag. This taunt. He ached not just for the city where he lived, with its hot breezes, palm trees, tanning lotion, exhaust, Mexican food, reefer, public-beach porn. He was longing even for his own cramped apartment with the crushed furniture and the empty refrigerator. Three hundred and fifty square feet of gobbed Kleenexes and spent pizza boxes. Kitty litter. Empties. A ceramic model of a Chinese lady holding a lantern. She had a cork in her head, had once held liqueur. And thinking all this, Chastity came back to him, but only for the briefest moment before Pegg chased her from the room of his recollection. Not now. Not even that.
No time to linger. Pegg was now being spoken to from close, with urgency. Haden was there. Two other men. Then a fourth man in uniform, who would take Pegg the final distance. Helmet, face gear, black fatigues. He had a weapon that suggested a great deal by its completely unfamiliar shape. What trickery was there in this tiny rifle that seemed to mount itself to the man’s arm, a slender, serpentine thing that glinted blue in the failing light? What evil had we here, Pegg wondered, what elegant and hidden industry of malfeasance in that smooth shape?
“Ready,” someone said. Not a question. A radio squelching quietly in behind the sound of water trickling in the sewers. They crossed the street and into another alley running parallel to the plaza. Around a corner to a dead end. There were loading bays and various men in blue arrayed about. They didn’t take their eyes off the rear door of the theater as Pegg approached. None of them but one man standing facing the other way, circling and scanning the rooflines, rifle raised.
The soldier guiding Pegg had his hand on Pegg’s arm, holding him back. He motioned and Pegg leaned close to listen. Through these doors he would find a warehouse with another single door at the far end. Through that second door was a hallway. Through that hallway was the foyer of the studio theater. The only door into the theater that wasn’t locked would be right there at the top of the foyer. Announce yourself, loud and clear. Then go inside. Pegg would be on his own at that point and in blackness.
Pegg felt the pressure of the soldier’s hand change as this information was transferred. The hand went from holding Pegg in place to pushing him forward, first gently and then with frank authority. Go now. So Pegg was walking. Moving forward. He was entering the shadows of the loading bay. And since nobody said good luck, he said it himself. Good luck. His voice at a trembling whisper. To the door and through it. Down the hallway and into the empty foyer. His blood moving in coarse surges he could feel in his neck and his temples. Good luck, Thom. Through the silent foyer and lobby, past the empty leather benches there. Hand to the surface of the heavy wooden door, fingers shaking violently. Quivering, dancing, shimmying just over the polished surface before they steadied on contact with the wood.
And into the blackness, blind and gagging. Pegg entered the theater and the latrine stench of a closed space rolling towards its second twelve hours. His throat convulsed and he groped to cover his mouth and nose.
“Hello?” he tried, muffled through his fingers. He felt his heart rate spike, his hands shaking again, his whole organism polluted with adrenaline and anxiety. Around him there was no light at all.
“Hello?” he said again. And hearing the sound around him shifting now too. Some snuffled breathing from far away. Then a voice. But close. It might have been inches. It might have been inside his own ear.
And a hand on his arm again, but this time closing over his bicep in a firm grip.
Pegg screamed. That’s what his body threw back at the moment. A torque of the shoulders, a strangled call. His belly inflamed and his back in spasm with the sudden touch and sound.
He went to his knees. And from there he fell, toppled sideways and lay. He felt tight carpet grain at his cheek, smelled industrial glues and cleansers and the spreading mystery of building materials. Concrete, rubber.
And it was only there—-laid out, blind, exposed—-that Pegg heard himself in place, for the first time among them. Through the black space around him, a sprinkling of human sound, scattered scrapes and tiny voices. And the truth of it crushed Pegg flatter still. KiddieFamers, children. In their tiny individual fidgets, a constellation of sound: shoe shuffling, nose blowing, low moans. And crying. All around him, issuing forth from hidden souls, the steady trickle of invisible tears.