The intercom’s tiny LED light beamed a healthy green, but nothing came through the ear-ensconcing headphones that clasped his head. He had turned the intercom console’s volume knob to its lowest level, an irritant dealt with.
The display’s versatile segments flashed an urgent red reading ‘ON AIR’, the microphone dutifully relaying the crackling silence. The microphone arm hung stiff and contorted into a flourished vee sign, an inanimate apparatus in its talon. The sound of faint breathing barely nudged the level meters along the green-to-red signal chain.
His breathing was slow and deep and every time he exhaled the next inhalation became unbearably conscious. The sound-proofing cans blocking him from the world bounced his own pulse back at him worsening the deliberation.
The leather pads on each side of his head felt like a pincer’s ends, squeezing with more force and vigour the more he tried to ease his anxiety. He felt warm, then hot, sweat beads developing around his ears, then his forehead, gradually building volume for punishingly unhurried trickles.
Muted thuds laboured to filter through the thick, multi-layered studio door. The surviving sonic residue did not register. He glanced through the triple-glazed window and saw concerned eyes staring back, some congruously matched to petrified mouths. Some of them appeared to be screaming something he did not care to listen to. He had long decided that he would rather let an ocean of silence fill his empty lungs rather than reach for the raft of their hollered concerns. The salty staccato of a steady tide carrying him away from them.
His toes curled inside his shoes. They then pressed down firmly against the sole, keeping the tip rooted to the floor, while he slowly lifted his heels. He felt his toes crack, all except the big one. He repeated this movement several times until no clicking could be detected. Each time his heel lifted he pondered on how sticky the floor was, how it resembled a bar late into the next morning, after many a drink has been spilled by careless patrons.
No alcohol had soaked the floor there, however. He did not lower his head but could visualize his sneakers and regretted that they would need cleaning. Red stains on white leather would be a tough task. Perhaps some boiled water and baking soda and a thick-bristled toothbrush would be enough.
The blood from the unconscious body next to him had slowly pooled and began to coalesce around his feet. He thought that if he lifted his chair he would see five clean imprints made by the chair’s black plastic wheels. He checked to see if the body had stopped twitching.
It had been about two hours since he entered the studio and hit Mario Michael, more commonly known to his listeners as ‘DJ Turnal’, with an old Roland audio interface. The first blow caught him off-guard, knocking him to the floor and dazing him. The pummelling hits that followed cracked his skull open in two places. The long coiled chord of the radio DJ’s headphones extended along with him as he fell, but it had reached its end when his head touched the floor and now tugged back, putting his head at a slight angle.
He felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. The text read: “George, why are you doing this? Please come out. We can help you.” The message hung in his thoughts for a few seconds before fading away, its provisional charity methodically dismembered by resentment. George assumed that his brother was not aware of the full picture yet but would be soon. He knew that the offer for help would soon be retracted.
He picked up a piece of paper from the floor. The heading read “Approved Song Pool - Genres: R’n’B, Hip-Hop, Urban”. There was a logo of a radiant yellow heart setting over a navy blue horizon, the words ‘Kardia Media’ stencilled in white-on-crimson under it.
Kardia Media owned the radio station, along with several others, two TV stations, a handful of popular online video channels as well as other online media. A few years ago, an advertising corporation had purchased the media group in a leveraged buyout. It proceeded to align every entity owned by Kardia broadly under the same strategy.
Articles became shorter and more numerous, visuals took precedence over words, artists talked about during shows became increasingly younger and fresh-faced, and the songs chosen for airtime were dictated by the music labels the advertising corporation had an interest in keeping on side. This meant that a radio DJ’s say in what they could play was akin to that of a dog when deciding what kibble it would first chow down from its bowl every day.
He decided to call a sister station and make a song request. It would be funny, he thought, in a decay-affirming sort of way. A cartoon image of a distressed animal frightfully looking at a lit stick of dynamite inside its own stomach through an Acme-branded X-ray machine flashed in his head.
“Hello caller, this is 98.7 Zest FM, the number one music station on the island!” An explosion sound effect followed the effervescent declaration. “How can Zest FM make your day today?” He struggled to choke down the bile that bubbled up his throat but he managed a polite request. “That’s a terrific choice but a little bit on the old side, don’t ya think?” The song had come out 5 months ago. The radio DJ chuckled, the artificial, long-practiced laughter there to confirm his own rhetorical question. “Tell ya what, I’ll see what I can do for you. Thanks for calling!”
The people on the other side of the glass didn’t know who he had called or what he was saying. They appeared to have grown more numerous since he had last looked up towards them. He noticed someone from the crowded room pushing people away, trying to get to the front. A man half his age. Tight jeans ripped at the knees, a white t-shirt on a wide but lean torso, dark brown hair cut short at the sides with the rest of it slicked to the side and back.
The man pounded his fist palm side down against the studio glass, performatively mouthing “in-ter-com! in-ter-com!”. George enabled the intercom system again and waited. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”, the man outside said. “Who are you?” “I’m the radio station director.” Of course you are, George thought, before replying. “Director. Not exactly a christian name. How’d your mother convince the priest to go along with it during the christening?” “What are you on about?” “Maybe there’s some long-forgotten saint called Director, the patron saint of tasteless dickheads.”
George’s eyes were two halves of the same trickster god, transgressing boundaries, prodding and poking, desperate to push your composure to breaking point. His monotone delivery only heightened the irksome effect of his replies, his apparent calmness clashing with the heightening chaos outside the booth. The director’s anger flared, blistering rage visible on his face and body language before subsiding into exasperated confusion.
“Your name, director. What is your name.” “Andreas. My name is Andreas.” “Have you ever had a bad performance review, Andreas? Because you’ve been doing a fantastically lousy job.” The director stared back, his mouth agape. “I’ve been listening. Praise be to my patience oh have I been listening. Song after song, playlist after playlist. A betrayal to aesthetics, balance, honesty, variation, the whole damn lot.”
A few moments of dead air followed before George began to laugh nervously without actually smiling, taking a moment to pinch the bridge of his nose, straining to breath a long uninterrupted breath. The intense focus that had been propping his apparent equilibrium was quickly abandoning him. “A fucking embarrassment, Andreas!”, George’s voice exploded through the system.”
The intercom crackled for a few seconds and someone’s voice came through, all trepidation and timidity . “Mr. George, the ambulance is here. They need to access the studio. Please, that man needs medical attention.” George saw the two medics on the other side of the glass, their all-white uniforms standing out among the people staring back. “I think they can wait a little while longer”, George replied, his eyes vacantly looking at the body.
Andreas came back on the line. “The police are on their way. There’s nowhere for you to go, nowhere to crawl to.” The station director’s glee at this imminent enactment of justice was hardly hidden. “Do try to put that smile away when they come, Andreas”, George said, before continuing. “You wouldn’t want to seem joyous so close to a crime scene.”
Before a reply could be formulated George put the intercom system on mute. He’d gotten tired of the exchange. Besides, he had another call to make. “Good afternoon, friend, this is The Golden Hour on 98.6, Limassol’s last independent radio station. We hope the heat’s treating you better than us.” The host waited for acknowledgement but none came back. “Any songs you’d like to hear?” George put the same request he had before. “I’m not sure I know that particular song, friend, but we’ll do our best.” The call ended.
The station janitor turned the volume up and readjusted his earbuds. He craved a cigarette. The mop was wet and grimy, had to be replaced soon, he thought, as he began rolling his equipment cart towards the stairs. He could light one up in between floors, technically not allowed, but management paid no mind as long as the cleaning was done.
He opened the fireproof door using his right shoulder and body weight, his two hands holding the grips of the cart. The cart was left just a few feet away from the door while he walked a few steps down to the intermediate landing platform. He leaned against the wall, looking out of the window, while his hand fumbled in his fanny pack for the cigarette pack and lighter.
Just as he lit the cigarette in his mouth he heard a door slammed open followed by an increasing level of commotion at the bottom floor, the building’s hollow spine filling with noise. He peered down the rectangular spiral and saw several police officers in tactical gear rushing up the stairs.
The Golden Hour host let the music take over and put his own microphone on mute. Turning to his producer he used the internal audio system to ask her a quick question. “Hey, Dimi, do we even have the song that guy requested?” “It kinda rings a bell but it’s a weird request anyway, you can ignore it if you like?”. “Nah, there’s something stale about the show today. Let’s see if we can find it, switch things up a bit.”
The police were almost there, only a couple of floors below the janitor, steadily pacing upwards. The janitor’s first thought was about how well-conditioned they must be. Carrying all that equipment with them and being able to move like that. He felt winded just by thinking about it. He didn’t even begin wondering why they were called for until a few seconds later. His shift was far from over and he just hoped that nothing messy had happened. He had enough work on his hands as it was.
After a few searches resulted in dead-ends, Dimi thought of trying something different. She typed the name of the song using Latin characters, rather than its native Greek, a trick that she had picked up during the internet’s nascent file sharing days. She smirked and gave the host a thumbs up without interrupting.
The police were outside of the main studio area. They began to clear the room, funneling the the gathered crowd to the corridor and then the staircase. They were all instructed to leave the building.
George had removed the headphones connected to the console long ago. He had also taken a tiny portable radio out from his pocket. He turned it on and tuned into 98.6. He let the show provide the sonic background to the scenes unfolding on the other side of the glass. The station manager was the last of the civilians in the room. George saw the police reiterating something and it was clear that they wanted the station manager to vacate the studio area. He appeared to be refusing or delaying his exit and actually walked back a few feet towards the glass and tapped on it. His lips seemed to be saying “You are fucked now.”. The station manager did not wait for a reply and just smiled, slowly walking backwards. His smile seemed wicked to George, who remained expressionless. “He’s learned nothing”, he thought.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Golden Hour, thank you for sticking around. We hope we’ve made this muggy afternoon a bit more bearable. The next song is for first time caller, George. Took us a while to get this, George, but here you go. Hope the next time you call you pick something easier to find!” The host laughed. “Just kidding, George. Enjoy your song.” The host faded the current song out and raised the volume on George’s request.
“Come out, there’s nowhere to go. We need to access the room. That man needs urgent assistance.” The tactical unit leader repeated the same lines as the people in the room had done earlier, only with more authority and conviction. Unconvincing and pointless, George thought. “You have two minutes to unlock this door. When those two minutes run out, we come in. And you don’t want that to happen. I promise.” George smiled and thought that the menace in his voice was becoming slightly more believable.
The song was in the middle of the first verse when the police breached the door using metal blades stuck between the door and the frame. “Impatient pieces of shit”, George thought.
The policeman holding the blades was covered by the wall to the side and wasn’t visible from inside the studio. Two officers in tactical gear rushed in and shot George three times. Two bullets went in and out of his shoulder and arm. One lodged into his abdomen. The small radio dropped from his hand and onto the hardwood floor. The black plastic flexed but didn’t crack.
The song was now moments away from its chorus, where the corresponding audio effect would kick in to artificially split the singer’s vocals into two distinct parts, detuning and delaying one of them, to give it the feel of more than one person singing.
“Dimi, what’s the chorus say?”, the radio host asked his producer. He learned some Greek after having moved to the island from London four years back, but it was rudimentary at best. Dimi waited until the chorus began repeating for a second before translating each bar as it was being sung. “It says: let the earth, tremble to its core, when they play, my song.”