Chapter 5: ProgressI don’t think I had a spare moment during the two weeks after that meeting. I worked long hours at the craft and music stores every day except Sunday, when I went to church with Uhjin and then used the afternoon to catch up on my share of the housework, cook something with enough leftovers to last me the week, look over the week’s findings in my investigation, and sometimes squeeze in extra practice on my instruments. Even on Sundays, however, evenings were as busy as the days. Some nights, Uhjin, stretching end-of-semester celebrations as far as they’d go, dragged me out to do something fun. Tuesdays I packed up my guitar and equipment and headed to the café to perform, and of course on Thursdays, I had practice with the worship band at church. But many of those nights I spent trekking across the city to meet with those on Jonathan’s list of people who might know something. Throughout the day, I checked every chance I got to see if people had responded to my requests to talk.
Some were eager to answer, eager to tell me why the official reports got it wrong. One bereaved mother of an intern broke down crying midway through her story and protested again and again that, yes, her daughter had struggled in some ways, but she never would have killed herself. A frustrated father ranted about how his son had been shaping up lately, pulling his life back together after going down a bad path, even getting a job at his uncle’s shop; the boy couldn’t possibly have gone back to drugs, and he couldn’t have gone back that much, not enough that it killed him. The man’s wife sat silently by, clutching her husband’s hand, their fingers entwined, as if he were all that stood between her and utter despair.
Others, I had to coax information out of. A group of teens, most just graduated from high school, admitted reluctantly that, yeah, their buddy liked a few drinks even if he was underage, and, yeah, sometimes he drank a little more than he should- but not that much. A single mother in one of the poorer sections of town demanded to know why I was asking so many questions and why it mattered what her son had been doing if he was already dead, and snorted disbelief at my claim that I was trying to uncover the truth so he could have justice. “Girl,” she said, “no one cares about justice for us. You should know that by now.” After that interview, I spent another two hours pacing the streets near her home, trying and failing to find some kind of trouble to stop, desperate to prove her wrong somehow. To show that someone cared. Even those who were willing to talk wondered why I wanted to know; after all, they’d already told the police everything. And next to no one had actual information on Welsh or on what might have really led to the victims’ deaths.
Despite this, I did notice a few common threads in the stories. Everyone reported the same thing I’d noticed about Lacey: the victim had acted off for a few days before their deaths. “Zombie-like,” some said; “out of it,” reported others. The victims had responded slower than usual, tired more easily, and seemed generally lethargic. More than one night, I lay awake, theorizing about what that might mean about how Welsh had killed them. If he had some kind of power to suck the life from people, like I guessed, and if he truly killed them three or so days before they seemed to “die,” which the presence of the Death Song that night years ago seemed to indicate, why were people still walking around a few days after? That they’d be tired and slow made sense, but it seemed to me that they should’ve been unable to do much more than lay in bed.
And I picked up another theme besides that. Not only had Welsh often picked off those who would hardly be missed, whose deaths could be explained away, many of his victims had claimed they’d gotten help, that their problems would be gone for good soon, a few days before they seemed to die— around the same time Welsh would’ve made his move. Some even seemed cheerful or quietly happy during those days, at least during the first day, said the friends and family I talked to. I couldn’t help wondering: how many of Welsh’s kills had been premediated; how many of his victims he’d lured into a position where they’d be easy prey. How many he’d promised he’d help so he could instead kill them.
Jonathan and I discussed these similarities at length during our three meetings in those weeks, but agreed that they weren’t enough. We needed solid evidence, or at least a testimony other than my own, but even as the list grew shorter, we still didn’t find one. Despite this, we emailed each other the day’s findings each night and met three times in those two weeks: once at Starbucks, once at the café, once at the park by the café, plus we made two excursions to interview people together. None of the meetings were especially productive, except that I grew to like Jonathan more and more as I spent more time with him, and especially as I watched him interview other people. Reporter or not, he had a good heart, and he respected people— not just his own sort of people, but all people. I still wasn’t about to tell him all my secrets, but I felt better about working with him.
With work and investigations occupying so much of my time, I had to fight to squeeze in practice on my guitar and violin. I dragged myself out of bed early each morning to play for an hour or so on each in preparation for my gigs at the café, both of which went better than I expected, though not as well as I hoped. I felt I was preparing for something else as well, though I wasn’t sure what. Maybe for an eventual confrontation with Welsh; when that time came, I’d have no weapons but my music and my knowledge.
By the third Sunday after I met Jonathan, we’d whittled our list down to the last half-dozen people, those who were still reluctant to talk to us or who Jonathan still hadn’t managed to track down contact information for. Uhjin was out of town that weekend, back home for her sister’s birthday, and she’d cleaned more than her share before she left to make up for the fact that she wouldn’t be able to help me at the normal time. And so, unexpectedly, I found myself with a free evening and less work than usual that afternoon.
Now, I don’t work Sunday afternoons, no matter what. My parents raised me better than that. But busking isn't work, and the day was a pretty one. There’d be plenty of people out and about, which meant I might actually make some cash, something I could always use. So, after church, I rushed through cleaning, tossed chicken in the crockpot for the week ahead, packed a sandwich and a half-dozen water bottles for that night, grabbed my violin, and headed downtown.
When I arrived, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to decide today was a perfect day for street performances. A guitarist had already set up in the spot I wanted, just outside the fence around the city courthouse. I huffed and walked to my second choice, a modern art installation several blocks and two turns away. There, under a tree at the edge of the half-circle of brick surrounding the statue, I set up: laid my violin case open in front of me, stowed my water and lunchbox behind the tree, ran resin along my bow. I took my time tuning my violin, trying to attract a crowd. And then, finally, I raised my bow and started to play.
Now, I’ve played plenty of pieces and plenty of places since Grampa first put a violin and bow in my then-eight-year-old hands. I’ve performed Christmas carols in candlelit services at my church back home and classical concertos with the college string quartet in the echoingly huge auditorium. I’ve played old folk songs and spirituals and hymns with Grampa and Gramma in their cozy living room and pop music in school talent shows in dim school auditoriums. I’ve experimented with mixing melodies and styles in the privacy of my own room, and even dabbled in jazz so I could jam with my junior year boyfriend, a sax player, when I came over to his house.
My favorite place to play, though? Right where I was: out-of-doors on a brilliant, breezy spring day. Playing indoors meant being careful. It meant keeping a close grip on the music I played and, more importantly, its effects. Just about any song I played contained at least a few other songs in it— the sort of song that let me do stuff like trap a mugger’s feet in concrete. Sometimes those other songs were barely there, and then I could relax, but that was rare. And my favorite songs to play were often the ones that carried the most power, which made them the most dangerous to play indoors, especially in front of people. Usually I could keep the weirdness under control: suppress what I could; channel what I couldn’t suppress into things like making the lights a little bit brighter, the breeze from the fan a little bit harder. Sometimes I lost control, though, and had to step carefully for weeks afterwards for fear that someone would realize that I’d been the one who made all the sprinklers in the auditorium go off or who caused the power surge that knocked out electricity for an hour solid.
Outdoors, though— that was another story! Outdoors, I could play what I wanted, whether it was Paganini or pop; spirituals or Lindsey Stirling; and never mind what other songs those might include. I could use them; turn them into a thrum in the ground like feet stamping to the beat of the song, breezes brushing through the hair of passersby, dots of circling light like fairies or fireflies, or whatever was appropriate to what I was playing. None of it couldn’t be explained away by natural causes, or as a trick of the light or the ears or the mind, but all of it attracted passerby attention and enhanced the experience for both me and my listeners.
And there’s another reason I love playing outside: the ways people react. Some people— most people— didn’t seem to notice me at all, just kept walking past at the same quick pace, chatting with friends about shopping and dinner and gossip. But others slowed as the song caught their ears, picking up the tune in their pace as they passed. And still others stopped altogether, shutting their eyes and swaying to the tune and cheering when I finished the song. One grandpa and his grandkids stopped to listen for a solid seven songs, at the end of which the old man handed each of the kids a five and a couple crumpled ones and nudged them forward to toss the money into my violin case and say thank you.
And, yeah, a few people tossed rude comments my way as they passed, sometimes catcalls, sometimes outright insults. One woman even stomped up to me and ranted in my face about how I was “wasting taxpayer dollars” by “making trashy music instead of getting a real job”— never mind that I was playing classical music at the time— interspersing insults about my race and my parents’ relationship, employment, and work ethic or lack thereof to make her point. But those people were a minority, and, well, I’d heard worse.
Except for a quick break to eat my sandwich and use the restroom in a nearby shop, I didn't stop playing until blue twilight shaded the streets and shadows stretched between the golden circles of light from the streetlamps. Only then did I wipe down my violin and scoop the coins and bills out of my case so I could put away my instrument. I didn't count the money, but I could tell that my listeners had been generous, so much so that I guiltily wondered if I had accidentally played the peoples’ song— though surely I'd know if I had.
I kept a defensive song on my lips as I hurried down the darkened streets, my wallet and coin purse heavy in my jacket pockets. I knew enough to avoid the worst parts of the city, but the part between me and home still wasn't the best once the sun went down. A girl like me— alone, carrying a violin case over her shoulder and a lot of money in her pocket— looked like easy prey to plenty of people out here. I'd had more than one close call before.
But I wasn't the one the predators were after that night.