The Atonement Tango

By Stephen Leigh

The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years.

One act of terrorism changes the life of Michael “Drummer Boy” Vogali forever in Stephen Leigh’s “The Atonement Tango.” Now without his band, Joker Plague, Michael must figure out a way to re-build his life–and seek revenge.

Michael—aka “Drummer Boy,” aka DB, as most of the people who knew him called him—saw Bottom peering out through the rear curtains of the stage where their band, Joker Plague, was set up to play to the audience in Roosevelt Park. Through the thick velvet, they could hear people clapping and shouting impatiently. “Well?” Michael asked as Bottom let the curtains close.

Bottom glanced back at him: the head of donkey on a man’s body. The thick lips curled over cartoon-character teeth; he held the neck of the Fender Precision already strapped around his neck. Michael twirled the drumsticks held in each of his six hands. “It’s a decent crowd,” Bottom told him. “Nearly all jokers, of course.”

“A ‘decent’ crowd? You mean a mediocre one. Shit.” Michael pulled one of the curtains aside, looking out himself. The front of the stage area was packed, the audience there applauding in unison and pumping fists in the air, but the crowd thinned out well before it reached the end of the park’s field. When Joker Plague had played here during their heyday ten years ago, the crowd would have spilled out onto Chrystie and Forsyth Streets, which the Fort Freak cops would have closed off.

But that was years ago. The Joker Plague faithful were here, but…

They were rapidly becoming an ‘old’ band. While they could still pack the smaller venues, in the past they had played huge arenas to thousands—not just to jokers, but to crowds of nats as well. They still had fans, still put out the requisite new album every year or two, but their new material never got the airplay, coverage, and good reviews that their old stuff had, and the nats now paid no attention to them at all.

Playing music had been his refuge when everything in his life had turned to shit. Now he was losing that too. Even the jokers’ rights events where he’d once been so visible had mostly vanished, just like Joker Plague’s fame and days with the Committee. He was becoming “that old guy, whatshisname” that they dragged out on stage to give a few lines before the “real” talent appeared.

Washed-up and useless in his mid-thirties. Playing a parody of himself now. “Fuck.” Michael let the curtain close.

“What’s the problem?” Shivers asked. He was the guitarist for the group, who had the appearance of a bloody devil newly released from hell. Everything about him was the color of blood: his skin, his face, his hair, the twin horns jutting from his forehead, his trademark Gibson SG guitar. Shivers, like the other members of the group, didn’t seem to notice or care how they’d fallen. If they were no longer making the money they used to, money managed to come in and it was sufficient. “It’s showtime.”

S’Live—a balloon-like face gashed with mouth and eyes, thin and impossibly long arms protruding from his head like a living Mr. Potato Head—hovered in the air behind Shivers. The Voice, the lead singer for the group, was there as well: invisible but for the wireless mic that floated in the air near Shivers without any apparent hand holding it there. Their head roadie, a joker built like a two-legged, seven-foot-tall pit bull (and with the same breath), gave them a double thumbs-up at Shivers’ statement.

“Shiver’s right,” the Voice said in his mellifluous, rich baritone. “Let’s get on with it. There’s a couple chicks waiting for me back in the hotel room, getting themselves ready, if you know what I mean.” He laughed. The Voice lifted the mic, flipping the switch on the barrel. “Are you ready?” he bellowed, his voice amplified to a roar through the PA system, the echo from the nearest buildings bouncing back to them belatedly. A mass cry from the audience answered him. “C’mon,” the Voice responded. “You can do better than that! I said, are you ready?”

This time the response could be felt through the risers of the stage, throbbing with the affirmation. The microphone bobbed through the air to the curtains, and the Voice’s invisible hand held them open.

Michael clicked on the switch for his wireless throat mics and went through, tapping with his drumsticks on the rings of tympanic membranes that covered his bare, muscular chest, all six arms moving. From the openings on either side of his thick neck, the sound came out from the two throat “mouths” to be caught by the mics there: a throbbing, compelling drum beat, the lowest bass ring pounding a steady, driving rhythm through the subs of the PA system.

The crowd erupted as a spotlight found Michael and the stage lights began to throb in time with his drum beat. Then Shivers came through with a single, killer power chord that screamed from the Marshall amps at the back of the stage. S’Live glided through the air to his bank of keyboards, and Bottom strode to the other side of the stage, thumb-slapping his bass in a funk pattern to complement Michael’s beat, his ass’s head bobbing.

They let the song develop and grow in volume as fog machines began to throw out mist colored by the stage lighting, through which there was sudden movement: the Voice stepping forward to the front of the stage, visible only as an emptiness within the fog. His powerful vocals throbbed from the speakers as he began to sing “Lamentation,” the title song from their latest album:

Rivers etch the stones and die in sand

Spires carved by unknown hands cannot stand

A storm cloud stalks the sky alone and emptied

From a place where nothing goes and nothing ever comes

Even as the group kicked hard into the chorus of the tune, Michael could feel the dissatisfaction of the audience. Increasingly over the years, their audiences had only wanted to hear the old hits from their first three or four albums. They seemed to tolerate the new tunes, but the crowd only screamed their approval when they played the old stuff. The walls of the sound system hurled their music out over the crowd, and the front rows danced, but there was a sense that they were mostly waiting for the song to be over and hoping that the next would be one that they recognized.

Frustration made Michael pound all the harder on himself as he prowled the edge of the stage, as Shivers’ guitars shrieked in a blindingly fast solo, as they came back into the chorus once more, as the song thundered into the crescendo of the climax. Applause and a few cheers answered them, and someone near the front of the stage bellowed out “DB! Play ‘Fool!’ Play ‘Incidental Music!’” Both were songs from their first number one album.

Michael grimaced and flexed his six arms and the scrolling landscape of complex tattoos crawled over his naked torso. He shrugged to the others. “Sure,” he said into his throat mics. “Whatever you fuckers want. That’s why we’re here.”

A roar of delight answered him as Shivers began the intro to “Self-Fulfilling Fool,” finally hitting the power chord with S’Live that kicked the first verse. Michael began to play, his hands waving as he struck himself with the drum sticks, his insistent drumbeat booming, his throat openings moving like extra mouths as he shaped the sound. He walked to the east side of the stage, playing to the crowd there, who lifted hands toward him as if in supplication. The Voice began to sing:

You want to believe them

You don’t want them to be cruel

But when you look in the mirror

What looks back is a self-fulfilling fool

The blast came on the word “fool.”

The sound thundered louder than the band. The concussion tore into Michael, lifting him off his feet and tossing him from the stage in a barrage of stage equipment, tumbling PA speakers, and shrapnel.

The world went dark and silent around him for a long time afterward.

The light was intense, so much so that he had to shut his eyes again. His ears were roaring with white noise. He could barely hear the voice speaking to him over it. “Mr. Vogali, glad to see you’re back with us.”

He managed to crack open one eyelid. In the slit of reality that revealed, a face was peering down at him: a dark-haired woman with a gauze mask over her mouth and nose and a large plastic shield over her eyes. At least from what he could see, she was a nat. Not a joker. So this wasn’t Dr. Finn’s Jokertown Clinic. “Where…?” he started to say, but his throat burned and the word emerged strangled and hoarse.

“You’re in Bellevue Hospital’s ER, Mr. Vogali. I’m Dr. Levin. Do you remember what happened to you?”

“The others…” he managed to croak out. He tried to grab at Dr. Levin’s arm with his middle left hand, but the motion nearly made him scream from pain. The doctor shook her head. “Please don’t move,” she said to him. “You’ve a badly-injured arm, broken bones that we need to set, and we’re still assessing any other possible injuries. We’re taking good care of you, but…please don’t move.”

“The others,” he insisted. “You have to tell me.”

Dr. Levin glanced away, as if trying to see through the curtains around them. “I’ll check and see if they’ve been brought here,” she said. “Right now, I’m only worried about you and what we need to do…”

He still didn’t remember, a week later.

Michael sat at the window of his penthouse apartment on Grand Street, a specially-designed, six-sleeved terrycloth robe wrapped around him. His right ankle was locked in an immobility boot, his left leg casted to mid-thigh. Two of the left sleeves were empty, the cast on the middle arm taped to his body underneath the robe. The left lower arm…well, that arm was missing to above the elbow; too badly mangled to save, they’d told him.

That loss was something he would feel forever. The doctors had talked about a prosthetic down the road, but…He could still feel the arm and the hand. It even ached. Phantom limb syndrome, they called it. A fucking disaster, it felt like to him. All of it, a fucking disaster…

The rips and cuts from the flying wreckage and the ball bearings the bomber had packed into his bombs were beginning to heal, but his face and his body were still marred by blackened scabs and the lines of stitches. His left ear was ripped and scabbed from where its several piercings had been forcibly torn out. Three of the six tympanic membranes on his chest—his drums—had been rent open. The surgeon at Bellevue who’d sewn the fleshy strips back together and taped them said he was “fairly sure” they’d heal, but didn’t know how potential scarring might affect their sound. His left tibia had been fractured, resting now on a footstool in front of his chair; his right knee’s patella had been cracked after he’d been thrown from the stage and landed on blacktop; his face and his arms—five of them, not six now—looked as if someone had taken a belt sander to his skin. His hearing was still overlaid with the rumbling tinnitus that was the legacy of the explosion, though thankfully the in-ear monitors he’d been wearing had blocked most of the permanent damage that might have occurred.

He was alive. That, at least, was something. That’s what they kept telling him, over and over, during those first days in the hospital.

S’Live had also been brought to Bellevue; he’d succumbed to his injuries while in surgery. Shivers had been DOA on arrival. They hadn’t even attempted to revive the Voice, who had been nearest the explosion; regrettably for those responsible for cleanup, his invisibility hadn’t survived his death, either. Bottom was still alive, taken to another hospital, though he’d lost his right arm, right leg, and right eye, among other less severe injuries.

Thirty other people nearest the stage had also died, with more than a hundred wounded, some in critical condition, which meant that the final death count would be higher.

This is all over the news,” their long-time manager, Grady Cohen, had said in an almost cheery voice back in the hospital. It’s been twenty-four hours non-stop on all the channels all day. No one’s talking about anything else. All this has the label planning a new Joker Plague retrospective double album; they’re hoping to release it in the next few weeks, to take advantage of the publicity.” At which point DB had told him to get the fuck out of his room.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the blast. Fox News was openly speculating that it was most likely Islamic terrorism, citing Michael’s involvement in the Committee interventions in the Middle East a decade ago and talking about how this might be retaliation; CNN was less certain, but certainly dwelled a lot on Michael’s time with the Committee, flashing old footage over and over. The FBI, SCARE, and Homeland Security were heavily involved in the investigation, supposedly.

But the explosion was no longer the front page, featured story. A week later, other events had pushed it aside, and after all, most of the dead and injured had only been jokers.

Only jokers. The marginalized ones.

In another week, Michael knew, the entire episode would all be old news, only revived if something new and provocative was uncovered or if they caught the bomber. Already, the requests for interviews were beginning to dry up, judging by the thin stack of notes his hired caregiver had given him this morning, and coverage on the news networks had dwindled to a few minutes’ update on the hour, and then only if there was some small new development.

A cup of tea steamed on the table alongside his chair, near the closed Mac Air there. Michael reached over with his upper right hand to grab it; the motion pulled at the healing scars and muscles in his chest, and he grimaced, groaning involuntarily. That caused his caregiver for this shift—a nat Latino man named Marcos—to poke his head around the corner. “You OK there, Mr. Vogali?”

“Yeah. Fine,” Michael told him.

“OK. Give me a few minutes and I’ll be in with your meds.” The head withdrew.

Michael sipped at the tea and stared out the window over the roofs of Jokertown, the ghetto of Manhattan where most of the jokers lived, just to the east. He knew that if he went to the window, he’d see, a few stories below on the street, a nondescript black car parked in the NO PARKING zone. Since the bombing, it was always there, with two tired-looking plainclothes cops inside from the Jokertown precinct, Fort Freak, watching his building.

Michael had caretakers he’d hired—people who would take care of him because he paid them. He had a few groupies—people who came to see him because he was still marginally famous and they hoped some of that glamor might rub off on them. He had this apartment and a London flat that he rented out. He had Grady Cohen, whose living was largely dependent on Joker Plague concerts and memorabilia sales. He had the cops who’d been assigned to watch him in the wake of the bombing. But beyond that…

He had no family. No wife. No girlfriend. No children, at least none that he knew of. He couldn’t even call the other members of Joker Plague true friends, though he’d inhabited the same studios and same stages with them for years. He nearly laughed bitterly at that thought: all of them dead now except for Bottom.

That still hadn’t sunk in. Bottom, Shivers, S’Live, the Voice: these were the people with whom he’d spent nearly all his time for the last two decades. At least Bottom had family: a wife (Bethany? Brittany? Michael wasn’t sure) and two kids Michael had seen in pictures but also couldn’t name, somewhere in Ohio in a suburb of one of the C-cities (Columbus? Cincinnati? Cleveland?). Bottom had called Michael four or five times in the last week—at least Michael had seen his number on the missed calls list of his cell phone. He hadn’t returned any of the calls. He wasn’t sure what to say. It was easier just to pretend he hadn’t seen the calls.

The only person (other than the well-paid Grady Cohen) who’d visited him after the explosion, who had actually come to see him while he’d been in the hospital, was Rusty: Wally Gunderson, or Rustbelt, the joker-ace who had been on the Committee with Michael, and who had been with him for the disaster in the Middle East that had led to DB’s angry resignation. No one else from his old American Idol days had bothered to do more than send a card or useless bouquets of flowers. Not Curveball. Not Earth Witch. Not Lohengrin or Babel or Bubbles or John Fortune or any of the other Committee aces or American Hero alumnae. That, if nothing else, showed DB how he was considered by them: somebody they knew, not somebody they loved.

It was 4:00 PM. Michael snatched the TV remote with his middle right hand. CNN flickered into life, with Wolf Blitzer’s sagging, white-bearded face filling the screen. “…latest on the bomber’s letter—a manifesto is perhaps the best description of this long, rambling missive—that was evidently delivered to the Jokertown Cry the day after the explosion, but not released by the authorities until just this morningThe writer claims responsibility for the Wild Card Day blast in Roosevelt Park, and also claims that he intended to die in the blast himself. A reproduction of the letter filled the green screen behind Blitzer, with some of the text highlighted. Michael turned up the volume. “Let me read just a portion of this communication allegedly from the bomber. ‘The bleeding heart liberal scum of America, who are best exemplified by Joker Plague’s Drummer Boy, who preach that we must tolerate and accept those who bear God’s marks of sin, can no longer be tolerated, not if we are ever to cleanse the earth of their filth. The wild card virus is God’s punishment on the human race and all jokers will inevitably be purified in the cleansing fires of hell. I will purify myself with them. What I have done with my action is to set God’s plan in motion.’“

Blitzer paused as the letter vanished from the screen to be replaced by footage taken after the blast. So the bomber died in the blast—but who was the fucker? Michael saw blast victims being treated by EMTs and jokers staggering around with blood running down their misshapen faces—video he’d seen a hundred times already. “If this unsigned manifesto is indeed from the bomber, then we are, according to the experts I’ve spoken with, in all likelihood dealing with a homegrown terrorist. Let’s bring in the head of the UN Committee on Extraordinary Interventions, Barbara Baden, to talk about this…”

“Bitch.” Michael flicked off the TV. He scowled, looking out through the window once more at the Jokertown landscape. A “homegrown terrorist.” A joker hater. Someone who specifically hates me. And he’s killed himself too, the bastard.

I want to know who this son of a bitch was, and I want to know if someone helped him with this.

All five of his hands curled into fists, but he thought he could feel the missing sixth hand do the same.

“Thanks for meeting me, man,” Michael said to the imposing joker across the table from him at Twisted Dragon, a restaurant set in the indefinable border between Jokertown and Chinatown, a once-famous place to meet now clinging desperately to vestiges of its fame under the latest in a long sequence of hopeful owners. Rusty had brought back two massive plates heaped with offerings from the lunch buffet; Michael had settled on chicken fried rice and a bowl of wonton soup.

Michael’s plainclothes shadows had followed him in, taking a table near the door. One was Beastie: seven feet tall with bright red fur and clawed hands, about as unobtrusive as a velociraptor dressed in a tutu. Beastie’s partner was Chey Moleka, an Asian nat, her black hair pulled back into a tight bun under a knitted black beanie hat with the Brooklyn Dodgers logo stitched in front. Despite being in regular clothing for this assignment, her appearance still screamed “cop.”

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