Art being rather the demanding mistress that she is, the life of an artist is never an easy one. The difficulties they face in their lives are especially problematic when the art in question is one of the less socially acceptable ones.
Dance, theatre, the physical mediums of sculpture and painting, all of these and others have their followers. They are all widely practiced and enjoy the benefits of healthy criticism. The field of study known as "performance art," though, that eclectic mix of the spoken word, musical and special effects, and props . . . well, it receives the criticism but little else. Performance art, in fact, is something of a bastard child among the arts. It receives little support, little attention, and little public acknowledgment.
Despite that, though, many would-be artists nevertheless find themselves irresistibly drawn to performance. Perhaps it is the challenge which attracts them, or perhaps it is just their shared opinion that performance art is the most dynamic of all the mediums available to an artist. After all, the intent of art is to convey a message, and in performance art the message is all that there really is. Sculpture works with physical mediums, paint with canvas, poetry with words, but performance . . . ? With no underlying substance to support it, the message is either successfully communicated, or it is not.
That was where the risk came in, and the excitement. Or so Jerry Bellisar thought as he finished up the last thirty seconds or so of his masterpiece performance "The Scepter." Tapping a remote control unit he had hidden up one sleeve, he activated the trolley system he had rigged up last night for his chief mannequin. The rhinestone-encrusted figure rolled across the dimly lit stage at his command trailing the beauty contestant sash he had just a few moments ago attached to it. A gaudy tiara topped its head, and in one hand it clutched a high school cheerleader's baton.
"The Scepter" had been Jerry's obsession for months. He wanted to show a piece that would reveal to all the world the utter dehumanization of beauty contests, of how they made women appear to be merely mindless, inanimate trophies, and how this attitude reflected life in the late 20th Century. We're all dehumanized, Jerry believed.
He let the audience get a good look at the dummy contestant winner before the curtains fell down.
He waited for the applause.
After a minute of dead silence, Jerry slowly and carefully stuck his head out through the closed curtain. Almost everyone he saw was leaving. A handful of people were still sitting in their seats, but they had puzzled looks on their faces, and they definitely weren't clapping. Something was obviously wrong.
Jerry's agent slowly walked up to him backstage.
"Uh, Jerry . . .?" he began. Then he just stopped. He didn't know quite what to say.
Jerry turned around to look at him.
"They didn't get it, did they, Charlie? All that work, and they didn't get it."
"Ah . . . I would say not, Jer. But look, it's not the end of the world. You can rework 'The Scepter' maybe, make it more, more . . . ."
"More commercial, right? More understandable to a banal audience? Is that what you're trying to say?" Jerry was almost shouting. All that work, all that time, wasted.
He wanted to hit something.
Slowly, even the few stragglers left in the theatre seats quietly left. The manager of the place came by and talked briefly with Charlie, both of them glancing now and then back to Jerry. Then he left and Charlie walked over again to his client.
"Sid wants us out, Jer. He says he can support the arts, but, well, there has to be limits. He lost money tonight, and he's mad."
Jerry just nodded. He was still furious. Not at Charlie or Sid or even the stupid audience. He was mad at himself. He had failed. Failed big time. "The Scepter" just wasn't what the public wanted to hear.
Charlie went back to talk to the manager and left Jerry to his thoughts. The problem, the performance artist saw now, was that his latest performance had a message no wanted communicated. No one liked being told they were being dehumanized. But people did like beauty contests. He had thought that by making the contestants mannequins the point would have been carried across, and maybe it had, but the audience wasn't buying. They had been too polite to boo, but they really didn't have to, did they?
Jerry could already see tomorrow's reviews in the newspaper.
"The Scepter" was a bomb.
His reputation was ruined.
"Excuse me, Mr. Bellisar? Mr. Jeremiah Bellisar?"
Jerry looked up and saw a young man standing there holding a briefcase. He was dressed in a dark conservative suit, and he looked like a lawyer.
"Yes?" he said tiredly.
"Hello, sir," the man said, extending a well manicured hand. "My name is Jonathan Avatar. I represent an organization interested in purchasing the rights to the performance piece you did tonight. My employers see much potential in what you've produced, and they would like to see that full potential realized."
Jerry only looked at the man. He wasn't sure he was hearing this right. "What?"
"'The Scepter', sir. My employers would like to purchase it and hire your services in connection. They would like to offer improvements, additional funding, and other advantages they possess which are right now, if you'll forgive me, not within your means."
"But it's a failure. No one wants to hear . . . .."
"Perhaps right now 'The Scepter'; is a failure, but that is only because of a lack of resources, Mr. Bellisar. Your message is a powerful one, sir, and it deserves recognition. My employers have experience in this. If you'll only talk with them . . . ." Avatar beckoned with his hand.
Jerry looked around to see if he could spot Charlie. He was nowhere in sight.
"A representative is waiting just outside, sir," Avatar said. "If you'll only come this way."
Shrugging, figuring he had nothing to lose at this point, Jerry did indeed go off with Avatar.
He had a most interesting talk.
And six weeks later in another city a slightly revised "The Scepter" was scheduled to re-open.
It promised to be a vast improvement over the last show.
* * * *
"So, tell me about the new book."
Owen shifted a bit in his chair both to get himself more comfortable as well as to give himself more time to figure out where he should begin. He had kept his editor Laura MacKay purposefully in the dark about this latest project, and despite their friendship her patience with him was starting to run out.
That was the main reason she had requested this meeting, and after a few polite sips of coffee it was the first thing she had asked him about.
She sat on the other side of her desk waiting.
"Have you ever heard of a group," he began, "that called itself the Cirque de Artificiel?"
Laura picked up her notepad and quickly sketched out the name.
"I've heard of the Cirque du Soleil," she volunteered.
"Similar name, very different act. The Cirque de Artificiel, which roughly means 'Circus of the Artificial'; was a traveling troupe of performers and artists who got their start around two hundred years ago in France and Belgium. They were magicians, actors, and they had a very peculiar reputation."
"How peculiar?" Laura asked.
"Well, for one thing they were linked to that 'underground kingdom'; of occultism that sprang up in the late 18th Century, a weird mixture of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and so on that was very popular back then in Western Europe. The occult was a big thing then, bigger even than now, and people like Alessandro Cagliostro and Casanova were quick to capitalize on it. So was the Cirque. They were the equivalent, you might say, of one of those Old Wild West traveling medicine shows. A little stage magic, a little arcane ritual, a lot of showmanship, and they were a natural draw."
"Until the disappearances started, that is."
Laura had been waiting for the catch. She had worked with Owen on four of the last five books he had sold through Generation Publishing, and they had all been about controversial, and spectacular, true life mysteries. Murder, strange happenings, celebrities caught under odd circumstances, these were Owen Greene's bread and butter, and nobody else wrote about them quite as well. He was one of Generation's favorite authors, and he and Laura had a good working relationship.
And not a half-bad non working relationship either.
Laura leaned back in her leather chair and let her eyes wander across the framed book covers she had decorating her office walls. She was already mentally making room for the next bestseller.
"Tell me about the disappearances," she said.
Owen knew he had her hooked.
"The Cirque de Artificiel had a weird act. They were obsessed with reproductions of the human form. Statues, waxworks, life-size dolls .. . . fetish stuff, really. Very erotic. They included these reproductions in whatever they were doing on stage. They convinced people somehow that they could turn their statues and waxworks into living human beings, and vice versa, of course."
Laura looked back at her friend.
"And this Cirque de Artificiel was accused of doing just that, turning people into statues and waxworks?"
Owen nodded. "Uh-huh. And dolls too. Wherever the Cirque went rumors would soon start flying about how they were kidnapping people to use in their shows, or tricking; em up on stage and transforming them there. Young people mostly, too, beautiful young women and handsome young men. I have a list of their names almost as long as your arm."
"You don't really think that's what this group was doing, do you? That's impossible."
Owen reached down into his tote bag and took out a notebook. He grinned and leafed through it a moment before stopping on one entry.
"March 10, 1792. The son of the mayor of small hamlet in France is reportedly turned into a bronze statue on stage in front of more than twenty witnesses. This same statue is now on display outside a museum in Sussex, England." Owen showed Laura the notation and a picture of the artwork in question.
"Do I really think they turned people into waxworks and such," he went on after a moment, "no, not really. But in the case of that mayor's son, he was never seen anywhere ever again after the Cirque's visit to his village. And everybody apparently thought at the time that the statue was a dead ringer for the boy. What do I think happened? I think the Cirque was involved in his disappearance and then made people believe he had been transformed."
"You make 'em sound like serial killers or something," Laura commented.
"Maybe. Probably even."
Laura made another note on her writing pad. "Even if they were, Owen, don't you think maybe this subject might be a little obscure for readers. After all, what'd you say, the Cirque de Artificiel did these things two hundred years ago? What's the interest now?"
"I was hoping you'd say that. May I see my notes again, please?"
Laura handed Owen back his notebook and watched him page through it again. As an editor she had to ask these questions. As Owen's friend, and on occasion his lover, she knew he'd never bring an idea to his publishers without covering all his bases first. He had something that would pique interest, she was sure.
"OK, despite the group's notoriety, or perhaps because of it, depending on who you ask, the Cirque de Artificiel lasted a good long time, well into the 1800's. My last recorded confirmed sighting of them was in 1847, in fact. If they did cause all these disappearances, we're talking about literally hundreds of people over a more than fifty year time span, and for all intents and purposes nobody has ever heard of them.
"But I have something else, too," Owen went on, "something you'll really like. I don't think the Cirque ever disbanded. I think they're still operating right now."
Laura blinked. "You're kidding."
"Nope," Owen said, shaking his head. "They're still around, or, rather, a group of a similar nature is still around, and maybe, just maybe, descended from the original. Look here." He pointed to another entry in his notes.
Laura looked. She read a name written there: Oberon Fip, followed by the name of a company, G. Limited.
"Oberon Fip was one of the Cirque's original players, one of the very few I could find any hard records on. It was the stage name for a former Shakespearean actor named Galen Bligh. He started touring with the Cirque in Ireland in the 1790's and vanished without trace in the 1820's. The interesting thing is, Laura, there's a man right now, very hard to get a hold of, but definitely there, using that same stage name."
"Oberon Fip?" Laura asked. "The same name?"
"Yep. Oberon Fip is supposed to be some kind of strange art dealer to the very rich and depraved, if you know what I mean. He sells erotic statuary. See the connection?"
"You've talked to this man?"
"No, like I said, he's nearly impossible to get a hold of. His company G. Limited isn't listed anywhere, but I've heard the name used in association with the very, very wealthy a number of times now. I can show you at least three different and separate sources who have given me information on this guy. He exists."
Laura wasn't convinced yet. "Anybody could be using this guy's name. It's not very definitive."
Owen turned a page. "This is, though. Right now, not thirty blocks away from here, there's a performance artist named Jerry Bellisar. He's doing a show called 'The Scepter' that's planned to go on stage tomorrow night.
"The show involves mannequins. It involves waxworks."
Owen unfolded a paper advertisement for "The Scepter" and showed it to Laura. Among the cast announcements and other lettering at the bottom, Owen pointed out a small line near the bottom:
Le Projet de Cirque de Artificiel
Laura met Owen's eyes.
"Busy tomorrow night?" he asked her. "Want to catch a show?"
* * * *
Melissa usually didn't do art pieces. As an actress, she was drawn more to commercial work and the occasional guest shot on one of the daytime soaps. But the offer about "The Scepter" had sounded so attractive over the phone, and she had bills to pay, far too many of them in fact. So she had accepted. Now she knew it had been a mistake.
It was a weird gig.
Melissa quietly slipped away from the other girls backstage and made her way back to her dressing room. She locked the door behind her and began collecting her things. In a few minutes she'd be out the door, and this place would be a memory. She just couldn't take it. There were too many weird people hanging around. Like Bellisar, for instance. He was drunk most of the time, and when he wasn't he looked like he wished he was. His eyes were haunted, and he gave the impression of being lost and miserable. Not the right image the director-writer of a major show wanted to project. And then there were his "backers," the freakiest collection of people Melissa had never wanted to meet. No, she was gone. "The Scepter" might be a big show, and it could be a real hit, it had all the right signs, but Melissa wanted no more part of it.
She took her sunglasses out of her purse, looked around a final time to see if she had left anything, and, seeing that she hadn't, made her way to the door.
The doorknob wouldn't turn.
Melissa twisted it again to unlock it, but it wouldn't budge. She was locked in. And what was that smell? An odd aroma, not sweet but strangely compelling still, filled the room. She had sensed it coming into the dressing room but had thought it was a perfume used by one of her cast mates. Now, struggling with the door, it suddenly filled the room. It was suffocating, overwhelming. She was sweating, and she was having trouble breathing. What's happening? she thought. I can't breathe. I can't ... move.
There was a feeling of sudden euphoria. Melissa stood at the doorway clutching the doorknob, her body shivering, glistening with perspiration. A look less of shock or of anger covered her face. It was more like unexpected bliss. She stood like a woman receiving an electrical current through the doorknob. Her thoughts scattered as a surge of indescribable pleasure passed up her slim, attractive form, with her long legs and auburn hair slightly disarrayed. The drops of moisture covering her body caused the bright lights in the dressing room to reflect off of Melissa somewhat, making her seem less like a living person than a waxen figure of one. Her limbs stiffened. A plastic sheen grew along her exposed skin. Her lips parted as air was expelled out of her lungs. Her eyes glazed. What had been a real live girl just a few moments before was now very much in appearance like a department store mannequin.
Melissa would not be leaving the show after all.
* * * *
"I can't believe you talked me into this!" Laura whispered furiously. "This is insane!"
Owen glanced back over his shoulder at his editor and grinned. He then turned his attention back to the lock he trying to pick. The two were standing in the alley just behind the theatre where "The Scepter" was scheduled to go on that night. He rarely saw Laura this excited. It had, in fact, taken quite a bit of convincing to get her to tag along on this outing. But the results would be worth it, he was sure. He was convinced he was right about the Cirque. They had to be behind this show. They had to be.
A small but very satisfying click sounded from the lock, and Owen withdrew his nail file and pick. "They come in handy in my line of work,"; he had explained when he had first taken them out a few minutes ago, when Laura had realized for the first time that he intended to really break into the theatre's backstage area.
He had checked first for an alarm. There was none. Owen opened the door slowly and peered around its edge. He looked back at Laura.
"The coast is clear," he said.
"Great. Just great." Laura kept watching the entrance to the alley. "This will not look good on my resume."
"Think of it as field experience. You getting to see how I write my books firsthand."
Laura wasn't amused. "You realize how dangerous this is, don't you? Even if you're wrong about these people, you're still breaking and entering . . . ."
"We're breaking and entering, dear," Owen interrupted, again looking inside.
"OK, we're breaking and entering. We could be arrested. Maybe you don't care about that, but I do. And what if you're right? What if these people are the . . . the Cirque? What then? You said it yourself, these are scary people." She sounded scared.
Owen didn't reply. Instead he eased past the door and beckoned for Laura to follow him. Closing her eyes for a moment, breathing a short prayer, wishing she was somewhere else entirely, Laura looked around a final time and then did exactly that. The inside looked dark and deserted. There was no noise at all, surprising considering all that was needed to put on a show beforehand, and if she hadn't known better Laura would have thought the place was deserted. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and then she saw Owen crouching behind an open crate beckoning to her again.
"Get down, please," he whispered sarcastically, mimicking her from before. "We don't want to get caught, after all." She closed the door behind her and joined him.
She went to say something to him, and he put his fingers to her mouth lightly. "Sshh . . . listen." First nothing, then after a moment she heard it. Wheels creaking. Someone was approaching. She pressed against the crate while Owen looked down the hall to where the noise from coming from. She felt sick to her stomach.
The theatre was a large one. The two of them were inside a back hallway with lots of crates and other equipment lying about. They were actually underneath and to the right of the main stage, Owen figured. He believed the dressing rooms and prop areas should be over to the left, lighting and building maintenance just beyond. They were in a storage area. Which means, Owen thought, that whoever is coming is either making a delivery or a pick-up. Either way, we have to move.
The sound of creaking wheels grew louder, and he looked up over the crate to make sure the guy wasn't there yet. "Come on," he said quietly to Laura, and he guided her over to the other entrance to the hall opposite where the sound was emerging. Laura was positively green with worry, and Owen began wondering if he maybe hadn't made a mistake with her after all. Then his attention was drawn to the people entering.
They were two men dressed in workman's uniforms, and they rolled a large metal rack between them, the type clothing at fashion shows is hung from. Only here it wasn't clothes being displayed. Instead, the rack held six or seven unclothed mannequins. Owen and Laura watched as the workers passed by, hidden behind the corner. The mannequins were of all types, each exquisitely crafted - four Caucasians, Owen saw, one African-American, and one Asian. There were seven after all. I've never seen an Asian mannequin before, he thought. Lovely work. They look almost real. Some of them had the strangest expressions on their faces, too. Like the one with the auburn hair, she seemed almost happy in a shocked and amazed sort of way.
Owen wondered about their true origins.
There was something odd about the workers, too, he saw. Their movements were stiff, almost mechanical. They moved like automatons would . . . or robots out of some science fiction movie. Their faces were pale, too. Too pale. Like their skin was made out of porcelain. Owen couldn't see their hair - both workmen wore caps - but he suspected it would look fused black like the hair of a doll. They didn't say a word as they moved toward the stage area. They didn't seem to be breathing.
They didn't seem to be alive at all, in fact.
Laura suddenly believed. She believed everything. The Cirque, the transformations, Oberon Fip, everything. The workers convinced her. Nobody could be that good an actor. Those weren't men. Those were machines . . .. living dolls. And they carried mannequins who had once been beautiful young women.
The workers passed the two intruders by less than three feet. Silently, they rolled their row of mannequins up to the stage. As soon as they were out of sight, Owen got up and started following them. Laura was scared to death .. . . and Owen was following them!
She grabbed his arm. "Are you crazy?" she whispered. "You saw them! They weren't human. They were robots . . . machines . . . something . . . ."
"We don't know that. It could be makeup. They could be part of the show."
"No," Laura said, shaking her head. "I want to go. I want to go now."
Owen patted her hand. "Stay here if you're scared. I'll be right back. Or go back to the car. But I've gotta see what they're doing. Whatever it is, I'm more sure than ever the Cirque is real and involved in this." He made as if to go down the hall.
Laura didn't know what to do. She didn't want to leave Owen, but she really didn't want to go any further, either. She had had enough. Seeing those mannequins and those workers . . . it had been enough to convince her. She wanted to go home. Yet, seeing Owen stalk down the hallway, she couldn't help but follow him. Just like all those stupid women in all those stupid horror movies, she thought. Here I am, just like them, following her man to the end. Stupid.
Perhaps, yet again, she followed.
The automatons had reached the stage. There, they began slowly unloading their cargo, carefully handling each beautiful form as if it were made of the finest crystal. Laura joined Owen in watching them; she found him near the stage entrance. They were close to the large curtain, and they hid within its folds, crouching low to the floor. The mannequins were lifted one at a time from the rack and placed on what looked like a trolley system built into the floor itself. Their feet were locked into place with clamps. When they were finished, the automatons stood back and waited. Within a few moments, as if upon detection of a signal, the trolley system activated. Chains in the floor rattled noisily, then smoothed out to an indiscernible hum. The mannequins rolled across the stage like the toy trains in a child's track set. They made a circuit around the stage, gliding across the floor like ice skaters, eventually completing a full figure-eight around the two motionless workers. Laura was chilled just watching them.
She felt Owen squeeze her arm gently. She looked over in the direction he indicated and saw an old woman coming down the main aisle of the theatre. She was small and white-haired. She wore a old-fashioned blue dress; it was straight out of an old Norman Rockwell picture. She had on pearls, weirdly reminding Laura of Barbara Bush for a moment. The old lady crossed the center gallery and went up the side stairs to the stage.
"No, no, no," she exclaimed, waving her arms about angrily. She had a British Cockney accent. "E'es making way too much noise. Get some grease on those gears, boys! Do I have to do everything meself?" One of the automatons went back offstage and came back a minute later with a grease can. He began coating the trolley track chains.
"Get the costumes, you lunk," the old lady said to the other worker. "We can't have 'ese maids strutting aroun'; bollocks naked, can we? E'yll think we're a porno show." The robotic servant went off to do as she bid passing dangerously close to Owen and Laura as he did. They cowered beneath the heavy drapes when he returned.
With the old woman supervising, the two automatons quietly dressed the seven mannequins and rearranged their poses. They were put into one-piece bathing suits with beauty contestant sashes drawn across their fronts. Each was set so that one arm was lifted skyward palm out with the other arm bent inward so its hand rested on a hip. Their legs were partially crossed while still standing to help complete the pin-up image. The mannequins had such blank expressions of joy on their faces, in a way it really was like watching a beauty contest. They had the exact same sort of smile. The old lady continued haranguing the automatons until everything was to her satisfaction. When they turned on the trolley system again, the mannequins movements across stage were as smooth as they were silent. The illusion of a real beauty contest intensified.
The trio on stage left shortly thereafter. The English woman harshly beckoned to her two servants, and they followed her down the stage into the gallery again. Owen and Laura lost track of them there, unable to get a closer look at what they were doing without revealing themselves. About a minute later the two again heard noises from the main theatre lobby, and a few seconds after that a large group of people came into view. Thank God, they look normal . . .. most of them at least, Laura thought. They better fitted Laura's idea of what theatre people looked like. They talked and sounded normal, too.
"Those are the actresses and stage men, I'll bet," Owen said quietly. "And that's Jeremiah Bellisar, the guy putting on this show." He sounded exited.
It was a group of about eight or nine women, all dressed either in robes or one-piece bathing suits just like what the mannequins wore, and about five or six men, Bellisar included. Bellisar looked sick, Laura observed. He had dark patches under his eyes as if he hadn't been getting any sleep lately, and his hair was straggled and uncombed. The group came up on stage, and, under one of the stagemen's directions, the ladies took positions close to and adjoining the mannequins already placed there. They took their poses from the model set by the plastic figures beside them. "Dim the lights," someone said, and they were adjusted accordingly. From a viewpoint in the audience, very few people would be able to tell the mannequins from the real live girls . . . which seemed to be the whole point. The actresses complained good-naturedly about how stiff they were becoming, asked about how much the mannequins were being paid, and so on. The stagehands joked right alongside them while moving props and other equipment into place. The stage was slowly being set-up to resemble the very thing it was intended to mimic, a beauty pageant. Only Bellisar said nothing. Everyone else was having fun or just going about doing their job. Bellisar looked like he was at a funeral.
"We have to get out of here," Owen whispered to Laura. She couldn't have agreed more, but then instead of doing the sane thing and leaving out the back the way they had come in, he hurried them over to a metal ladder. "Climb up. We'll get a better view from up there. It'll be safer too." Laura didn't have time to argue; one of the stagehands was coming their way. Moments later the two were high above the stage.
The actresses were all set. Bellisar had put on a loud sports jacket, iridescent green, and, taking a microphone from a stand in front of him, began doing a passable Burt Parks imitation. His appearance as death warmed over even seemed to help. "Ladies and gentlemen . . . allow me to present to you the most beautiful women in the world." He waved his arm, and the actresses began walking slowly. Beneath them, the trolley track hummed. The mannequins kept pace, and together the group of living women and plastic figures, in this light barely distinguishable from one another, perfectly performed another classic figure-eight.
"They've come to our land representing their homes and their own ways of life," Bellisar continued, " . . . but only one will win our coveted prize. Only one will get to be our grand prize winner." The contestants, the live ones and the plastic ones, stopped on cue. Taped applause filled the room. It was a surreal scene.
Owen began creeping along the narrow catwalk. "Where the hell are you going now?" Laura whispered furiously.
"Check something out," he said. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
"No," she snapped. She reached out and grabbed him. "We're leaving now!"
"Quiet, they'll hear us." He unhooked her arm from his shoulder and knelt beside her there among the rafters. "I have to check this out."
"Why?" she pleaded.
He looked her straight in the eye. "What you said before . . . about those workers . . . I agree with you. They weren't human. Everything I said about the Cirque de Artificiel is true. You know what that means, don't you?"
"I don't care. I just want to go."
"It means," Owen said, not listening to her, "it means that they've got secrets no one else even suspects exists. They can do things no one else can. And I've got to see. I want you to wait here. I'll be right back."
"No. Absolutely not." She wanted to leave.
Owen straightened up. "Stay."
He went out into the darkness.
"Owen!" Laura hissed. "Owen!"
She couldn't leave without him. She could try to get out on her own. She felt she could do it. The door to the alley was right there . . . but what if something happened to Owen?
Softly, quietly, she began to whimper.
Owen, meanwhile, made his way down another ladder to the main floor. He tried to make as little noise as possible. Maybe, he thought, I could pretend to be one of the stagehands. We're dressed about the same. I can get closer to Bellisar, question him about what's going on, and then . . . . He crept down a set of stairs backstage. The theatre was larger than it had initially looked. Everything was still very dark, but he could still make out some of the murals painted on the walls, scenes from plays and performances now long since confined to the past. He could hear voices, people talking, laughing. I'll just blend in with the crowd, I'm good at that, and then . . . .
"Can I help you with something, Mr. Greene?" a voice asked.
Owen jumped and almost fell down the rest of the stairs. He caught his balance, barely, and looked around wildly. A figure was standing in the shadows above him. He couldn't make out the features, but it seemed to be a man in a suit.
"I'm, ah . . ." he started, trying to think.
"Yes, Mr. Greene?" The voice had an accent he couldn't place. Foreign, but strange.
"How . . . how did you know my name?"
"Your reputation precedes you, sir. Besides, few events ever really escape our notice."
That sounded ominous. The figure made no motion to set Owen at ease, and the writer began to feel a little like a mouse cornered by a hungry cat. The voices from downstairs had ceased abruptly he noticed for the first time. It was a lure, he realized. They knew we were here from the beginning.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. "Are you the Cirque de Artificiel?" he asked.
He heard a brief laugh. "That is a name we once used a long time ago. I am honored that you choose to use it."
"Are you . . . the leader?"
There was amusement in the voice. It didn't make Owen feel any better. "Your suggestion would imply a hierarchy among us, Mr. Greene, where none exists. We are all artists, performers. Some of us are more privileged than others, true, but that is the nature of art, is it not, sir?"
Owen licked his lips. This was it, then. This was the moment he had been waiting for.
He took a deep breath.
"I want to join," he said simply.
There was a pause. Maybe he'd succeeded in surprising them finally.
"I'm not sure I understand, Mr. Greene," the mysterious figure eventually replied. The tone in his voice had changed somehow, but Owen couldn't tell if that was good or bad. He could just barely see the man, in fact. "Would you care to explain your request?"
"I've read everything there is to know about you, about your group. There's not a lot, granted, but what there is, I've seen it. You're old. I mean, you, personally, you're old, aren't you?"
Owen continued. "If you're who I think you are, you're hundreds of years old. You founded the Cirque in the first place. You recruited the others. Well, I want in, it's that simple. I want what you've got. Immortality, longevity, whatever you want to call it."
Still no reply.
Owen didn't want to sound desperate. He knew the danger he was in, but he had to be bold. "I brought the woman for you. She's a gift. She thinks I'm here to write a book. I was, maybe, at the beginning, but that was years ago. I want to buy my way in."
"Buy your way in, sir?" the figure asked coldly.
Owen grinned sheepishly. "OK, maybe not the best choice of words. Laura's special. We've been together a long time. I brought her . . . I wanted you to know, all of you . . . I wanted you to know I was willing to do anything to join you."
The figure shifted at the top of the stairs, moving for the first time since Owen had seen him. "You are an unusual man, Owen Greene," he finally said. "Very well. We shall consider your offer with all the attention it deserves. You may go."
Owen laughed shortly, relieved. "Thank you, thank you sir." Whatever else, he was going to get out of there alive.
"Come back tonight. Witness our performance. You will have a better idea of what we want then. And then we'll talk, you and I. We'll talk about your admittance."
"Thank you, you have no idea . . . ." Owen had been making his way back up the stairs, but then he stopped short. The figure before him had disappeared, melted away into the darkness as if he'd never been there in the first place. He thought briefly about Laura still hiding up there in the rafters, then dismissed her from his mind. She was his price of admission, he knew, even if the Cirque didn't choose to call it that. He had been planning this a long time. It had taken years to track the Cirque down. He had rehearsed what he was going to say a thousand times. He had fumbled a bit at the last moment, but overall he felt he had done pretty good. They both wanted the same things, after all.
Laura would just sacrifice hers for his.
It was that simple.
* * * *
It was the first thing she was aware of struggling out of the darkness.
Then, memory. She had been waiting for Owen, crying softly. Hands had come out of nowhere, grabbing her, holding her mouth. A cloth had been pressed close against her face. She had lost consciousness. And now a shining, overwhelming light shone down upon her, blinding her, dazzling her while simultaneously helping her wake.
Laura squinted her eyes and tried to get her bearings. There was a flat surface beneath her now, both harder and wider than the wooden catwalk she had been taken from earlier. It felt like marble, cool and smooth to the touch. Too cool, actually . . . almost as if she were lying upon it without clothes. She started, suddenly shocked. Her jacket, her skirt and blouse . . . they were gone! She had been stripped! Laura looked down at her body, felt with her hands the outfit she had been changed into. Her vision adjusted slowly to the overpowering glare above her. She wore a white, gossamer dress, so fair it was almost transparent, and cut so that her arms and legs were fully exposed by it. It was a dress more revealing of her body than actual nudity would have been. It highlighted, tantalized . . . scandalized, even.
She looked around. She was indeed reclining upon a marble platform, white with veins of shallow blue. Beyond it and the circle of light upon which she was centered was absolute darkness. "Owen?" she cried softly. "Owen?"
A voice, but not a voice. It came from everywhere and nowhere. "What?"
Stand, please. And pose.
It was hypnotic, that voice. Impossible to resist. Laura stood. Her hair, long and straight, honey brown, curled over one bare shoulder as she rose. It had been bound coming to the theatre, she remembered, but the same people who had changed her dress had also apparently rearranged her hair. Thoughtful of them, she thought. On her feet again, the light shining down on her, Laura lifted her head and turned it partially to her left. She bent her left arm in the same direction, resting the hand on her thinly-clad hip. Her other arm lifted as if of its own accord, elbow parallel to her head, her hand coming down as if to adjust her hair. She settled her weight on her left foot. The other bent out to her right. What I am doing? she thought. I'm posing for them. She would cry, shout for help, say something, but she couldn't somehow. It wouldn't be . . . proper. Dignified. Suitable for her pose. It was a strange consideration, but true.
She wasn't in control. Her body moved according to the dictates of another power. Laura felt that she should be terrified, and on one level of her mind she was, truly terrified beyond any normal measures of sanity, but at the same time there was a certain feeling of excitement in her utter helplessness. Pleasure. It was thrilling somehow, knowing that all she was, all she ever could be, was now singularly devoted to another's purpose. To be shaped, owned, mastered even . . . horrible, unthinkable, but attractive nonetheless. No cares, no responsibilities. Only pleasuring and being pleasured. It was giddy, that feeling, wonderfully erotic, and while a portion of Laura screamed in horror at her situation, the larger part of her surrendered blissfully and uncomplainingly to the commands being given her.
Thank you, Laura. It's time.
She understood. She wouldn't resist now even if she could. A warmth swelled up from within her. The flow of blood beneath her skin increased. Her muscles locked imperceptibly, not disturbing in the least the grace and beauty of her fluid curves. Her tongue lightly touched her upper lip for the last time, her mouth opening partially in a gasp of perceived ecstasy. Her eyes remained wide and open. The transformation started everywhere at once. The color of her skin paled at first, then began to take on a light yellowish cast. A wave of immobilizing coolness showered down upon her. Her pulse slowed again, then crawled, and then finally ceased. Her fingers tightened yet held nothing. A curving smile remained fixed on her face. The tension in her muscles eased as they hardened and froze, better able now to hold a permanent form.
Laura's breathing stopped. There was no discomfort felt in this. There was only pleasure in the knowledge that she was becoming eternal . . . a work of art for others to gaze upon and touch forever. Owen was nothing to her now.
The yellowed skin lost its softness. Like the muscles and the tissues beneath, it became firm and polished, glazed and sparkling with reflected light. Laura's hair fused in a long line along her shoulder. The yellow became gold, though not metallic. It became almost transparent, like a hard acrylic plastic, perhaps, or very dense glass. Laura's consciousness was narrowing, fixating on the one moment as her body and mind were transformed. Darkness closed in on her in spite of the spotlight's glare.
And was that . . . applause?
* * * *
The audience's reaction was stunning. They clapped and clapped and clapped. Owen was shuddering in his third row seat, his hands beating together almost uncontrollably. Tears streamed from his eyes. My God, he thought. How beautiful. How wonderful. It's . . it's beyond belief. Laura's transfiguration on stage had been breathtaking.
She stood on a pedestal in the center of the stage. A light wind, no doubt the product of some carefully hidden machine offstage, spread the gossamer gown she was wearing, making the new statue of her almost angelic in its appearance. It was light enough to show the narrowness of her waist and thigh muscles, the contours of her lifted breasts. The white cloth contrasted strikingly with the shining golden glossiness of her. Laura's transformation had been witnessed by hundreds of people, all awe-struck and wondering. But it was the beauty of the statue that drew them in now. The spotlight was poised just right. It shadowed the right side of her body, filling in the left with increased tone and revealing all the utter gorgeousness of her frozen form.
People were standing in their ovation. The man sitting next to Owen cried out, "How'd they do that? That's incredible!"
A voice, amplified and coming from behind the stage, said, "It has been said that Life is short and Art is long. We disagree. As you can see, the two are intertwined. Life is a canvas, and we All worship at the Altar of Beauty."
The applause continued. Owen knew he had made the right decision. The Cirque was going to welcome him into their number tonight. He knew it.
Laura's pedestal slowly drew back, and the thick curtain fell down before it. From off to the sides beauty contestant figures glided into view. No one in the audience could tell whether they were alive or not. They could all have been living women or mannequins. There was no difference at all in their movements. Owen watched fascinated.
The crowd stilled.
They wore high heels and one-piece bathing suits. Their hair was sprayed and set. Each of the contestants wore perfect cosmetics. Whether they were real or mannequin, they were all beautiful. The lights above the stage began to pulsate. In-between the flashes there were moments where one figure looked real for a second, then obviously artificial the next. They posed with one hand in the air, the other on their hips. Their legs did not move and were extended in a classic pin-up pose. They glided, mannequins on parade, the sound of the trolleys beneath them imperceptible to the crowd.
It was all within his grasp.
Laura had been a good friend, but choosing between her and the Cirque had been no choice at all. Owen wanted to live forever. That was the only thing that mattered.
Jeremiah Bellisar, in a green sequined tuxedo, came out on stage. His makeup hid the fact that he was sick almost to death. He held the mike close to his lips and cried, "And the winner is . . . !"
He held a scepter in his other hand.
The audience quaked with delight.
Lights flashed. Darkness. And then, a voice:
". . . Does it really matter? We are all Artists . . . Performers . . . ."
That sounds familiar, Owen thought. It was the voice of the figure he had been talking to earlier. The leader of the Cirque, though he didn't claim that title. The oldest.
"We make of Ourselves the Art of which we Are."
The lights came on again, all of them this time. Everything on stage was clearly revealed. The beauty contestants . . . they were all mannequins, each and every one. Their smiles and their poses were identical.
A fantastic trick.
Bellisar was bowing on stage. He seemed to be crying.
Owen would have clapped, would have shouted an ovation, but he suddenly found he couldn't move. His hands were frozen together almost as if in prayer.
No one clapped.
The theatre was as still as a grave.
Again, the amplified voice: "We make of Ourselves the Art of which We Become."
Owen could hear with his inner ear the crackling sound of his flesh turning to plastic. A smile was glued to his face. He could see a lifeless sheen creep over the skin of his hands, the hairs disappearing, the pores fading into smooth beige. It was happening to the guy sitting next to him, too, and the woman in front and her companion. Mannequins to the right of him. Mannequins to the left of him. Mannequins forward and backwards. An audience of dummies, literally. All plastic and wood and cheap cosmetics.
We had a deal, Owen screamed inside, an amazed grin still fixed on his face. I gave you Laura! This wasn't supposed to happen to me!
Bellisar looked out across a silent theatre. He remained flesh in a roomful of plastic figures. Tears streamed down his face. When he had made his deal with the Cirque, this hadn't been what he'd intended. No amount of alcohol could help his shame.
A tall, thin figure in black came out from backstage and walked up to him. He was the man whom Avatar had reported to. His name was Fip.
"Outstanding show!" he exclaimed. "Outstanding! Sir, you are a genius!"
Jerry was dazed. He muttered, "We're all dehumanized . . . ."
"Yes, exactly right!" Fip said. "You hit it right on the head. That's why we chose you, Jerry. Your message . . it's a brilliant one! Beauty contests dehumanize humanity, elevates everyone to art." The former actor beamed at Jerry. "Simply brilliant!"
"But . . but . . . they're all mannequins."
Fip put his arm around Jerry's shoulders. "Ah, don't worry about it, Jer. For most, the effect will only be transitory. They'll wake up soon with no actual memory of the experience. They'll only retain the emotions they felt . . . your message in its purest form. Again, sir, you're a genius."
Jerry pushed Fip away from him, angry, confused, and sick at heart. Fip just continued smiling and laughing softly. He was having a ball.
The voice from the loudspeaker, the voice of the Cirque's most honored member, the man who called himself in this time and place Dr. Carnelian, spoke from the audience. It was cultured, foreign, and, in a manner Bellisar could not entirely comprehend, utterly inhuman. Fip and Mrs. Paddock and the others were bad, but him . . . .
"They will awaken carrying with them that message which you yourself so desperately wanted communicated, Mr. Bellisar. There is no need for shame. We have all been dehumanized to one extent or another by the modern age."
Jerry spotted him in the third row. He was standing near the man (mannequin!) they had pointed out to him earlier, the person who had provided them their star of the evening.
Fip came to stand next to Jerry again. "Have you decided on what we'll do with the treacherous Mr. Greene yet, doctor?" he asked.
Carnelian shook his head. "No. The specifics of his final form are too challenging to make on the spur of the moment, I think. Perhaps in a few weeks, after the tour . . . ."
Jerry snapped his head up. "Tour?" he said.
Fip took the artist by the arm and began leading him backstage. "Yes, didn't we tell you? 'The Scepter' is going on the road. We'll hit all the major cities."
Jerry started shaking, and Fip had to hold him up. "No . . no . .. . ." he stammered.
"Oh, don't be bashful, Jerry. I'll be fun! Just like old times." They reached the foyer, and there was Carnelian again suddenly, appearing out of the corner as if by magic.
"Please, don't concern yourself with the details, Mr. Bellisar," he said. "The Cirque will take care of everything. In the meantime, we have a proposition for you which we would like you to think about. An invitation, really." He led the two of them downstairs to discuss the details. And with slowly dawning horror, Jerry realized then that the real performance had only just begun.
* * * *
"The Scepter" nationwide tour achieved new and totally unprecedented records of success in performance art. Jeremiah Bellisar became a celebrity, his high status unaffected even by the low profile he consistently kept throughout the show.
At its one hundredth performance, "The Scepter" producers wanted to do something to celebrate the milestone. They donated one of the crystalline acrylic statues they used in the show to a museum of modern art. "Eve and the Serpent" they had entitled it: a female nude of glistening and polished semi-transparent plastic, amazingly lifelike. A photographer from Generation Publishing who had been sent out to shoot it remarked to a friend later that it looked remarkably like their old editor, what'shername, the one who had disappeared with Owen Greene a year or so ago.
The figure was posed with her right arm just barely touching her hair and her left arm bent at the elbow and resting on her hip. She had a look of absolute bliss on her face. Although they wouldn't explain why, "The Scepter" producers had made it a semi Biblical scene. They had wrapped a red acrylic snake around the statue's waist, an obvious reference to the Garden of Eden story. The snake had been designed as lifelike as the Eve, and it just oozed a sense of treachery.
But, then, all snakes do, don't they?
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