Art being rather the demanding mistress that she is, the life of an artist has never been 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 these drawbacks, however, many would-be artists nevertheless find themselves irresistibly drawn to performance. Perhaps it is the challenge that attracts them, or perhaps it is merely their shared belief 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 in the performance
is either successfully communicated, or it is not.
That’s where the risk comes in, and the excitement. Or so Jerry Bellisar thought as he finished up the last thirty seconds of his masterpiece performance, “The Scepter.” Tapping a remote control unit he had hidden up one sleeve, he activated the trolley system he rigged up last night for his chief mannequin. The rhinestone-encrusted figure rolled across the dimly lit stage trailing the beauty contestant sash he had attached to it. A gaudy tiara topped its head, and in one hand it clutched a high school cheerleader’s baton. Everything was going well.
“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 mindless, inanimate
trophies, and how this attitude reflected life in general in the late 20th
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. To his shock, almost everyone
he saw was leaving. A handful of people were still sitting in their
seats, but they each had puzzled looks on their faces. They definitely
weren’t clapping, either. 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?” Jerry was almost shouting. “Is that what you’re trying to say?” All that work, all that time, wasted.
He wanted to hit something.
Eventually, even the few stragglers left in the theater seats quietly left. The manager of the place came by and talked briefly with Charlie. Both of them glanced now and then back to Jerry. The manager left, and Charlie walked up to his client again.
“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.” He ran a hand over his sweat-stained brow.
Jerry just nodded. He was still furious. Not at Charlie or Sid or even with the stupid audience, though. 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 in retrospect, was that his latest performance had a message no one wanted communicated. No one liked being told they were being dehumanized. But people did like beauty contests. Jerry had thought that by making the contestants mannequins, the point would have been carried across.
Maybe it had, too, but the audience didn’t buy it. They had been polite and hadn’t booed, but, then, they really hadn’t needed to, had they?
Jerry could already see tomorrow’s reviews in the newspapers.
“The Scepter” was a bomb.
His reputation was ruined.
“Excuse me, Mr. Bellisar? Mr. Jeremiah Bellisar?”
Jerry tiredly looked up and saw a young man standing there holding a briefcase. He was dressed in a dark conservative suit. He looked like a lawyer.
“Yeah?” the artist said in a fatigued voice.
“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 him 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, right now, if you’ll forgive me, are not within your means.” The lawyer had a serious, earnest look on his face.
“But . . but it’s a failure. No one want to hear . . . .”
“Perhaps right now ‘The Scepter,’ as you say, 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.” Avatar beckoned with his hand. “My employers have experience in this. If you’ll only talk with them, you’ll see what insights they can bring your work.”
Jerry looked around to see if he could spot Charlie. He was nowhere in sight.
“A representative is waiting just outside, sir,” Avatar continued. “If you’ll only come this way.”
Finally, shrugging, figuring he had nothing else to lose at that point, Jerry did indeed go off with Avatar. That afternoon, 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 performance.
“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 him more time figure out where to begin. He had kept his editor purposefully in the dark about this latest project, and despite their friendship, he was beginning to think Laura’s patience with him was running 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.
Owen shook his head. “Similar name, very different act. The Cirque de Artificiel, which 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 18th Century. There was a whole weird mix of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and other stuff that was real popular in the time. The occult was a big thing then, bigger even than now. You’ve heard of Alessandro Cagliostro or Casanova, haven’t you?”
“Casanova was the famous lover, wasn’t he?” Laura had no idea where her friend was going with all this, but sometimes it was fun just to listen to him talk.
“Yeah, but he was a famous magician, too. Or famous fake, if you prefer. People like him were quick to capitalize on all the occult happenings in Western Europe. So was the Cirque, apparently. They were the equivalent, you could say, of one of those Old Wild West traveling medicine shows. A little stage magic, a little arcane ritual thrown in, a lot of showmanship, and they were a natural draw.” He paused.
“Until the disappearances started, that is.”
Laura had been waiting for the catch. She had worked with Owen on four of his last five books sold through Generation Publishing, and they had all been about controversial, and often spectacular, true life mysteries. Murder, strange happenings, and celebrities caught in the act were Owen Greene’s bread and butter. Nobody else wrote about the subject quite as well. He was one of Generation’s, and Laura’s, favorite authors, and he and she had had a good working relationship for years.
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 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 body. Statues, waxworks, life-size dolls . . . that kind of stuff. They included these reproductions in whatever they were doing on stage. They convinced people they could turn their statues into real living human beings . . . and vice versa, of course.”
Laura looked at her friend. “And this Cirque de Artificiel was accused of doing just that, turning people into statues or waxworks or whatever and making them disappear?”
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 trickin’ ‘em up on stage and transforming them there. Young people mostly, 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 into his totebag and brought out a notebook. He grinned and leafed through it a moment before stopping on one entry.
“March 10, 1792. Pierre Sussand, the son of the mayor of a 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 in a museum in Sussex, England.” Owen showed Laura the notation and a picture of the artwork in question. “Everybody knows the legend. The statue’s one of the museum’s most popular pieces.”
He leaned back. “Do I really think they turned people into waxworks and such,” Owen went on after a moment, “no, not really. But in the case of that mayor’s on, he was never seen anywhere again after the Cirque’s visit to his village. And everybody apparently thought at the time that the statue was a deadringer for the boy.” He paused dramatically. He had a great flair about these sort of things. “What do I think happened? I think this Cirque de Artificiel was involved in his disappearance and then made people think they had transformed him into a statue.”
“You make ‘em sound like serial killers,” 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 is 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 ask me that. Can I see my notes again?”
Laura handed Owen back his notebook and watched him go through it. As an editor, she had to ask these questions. As his 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. But she had no idea what it might be.
“OK, despite the group’s notoriety, or perhaps even 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 sighting of them was in 1847, in fact.” He found what he looking for in the book. “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. That’s the first thing.
“But I have something else, too,” Owen went on, “something you’ll really like.” He waited a long moment to build up suspense. “I don’t think the Cirque ever disbanded. I think they’re still operating right now, in America, at this very moment.”
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 apparently, G. Limited.
“Oberon Fip was one of the Cirque’s original players, one of the very few I could find any hard records on. Fip 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 any number of times now.” He tapped his notebook. “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 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 glance.
“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. So she had accepted. Now she knew it had been a mistake.
It was a weird gig. A very weird gig.
Melissa quietly slipped away from the other girls backstage and made her way to the 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 strange people hanging around. Like Bellisar, 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 Melissa the impression that he was lost and miserable.
It wasn’t the right image the director-writer of a major show wanted to project.
Even worse, though, were Bellisar’s backers, the freakiest collection of people Melissa had never wanted to meet. Like the old woman, or the thin guy in the old-fashioned clothes who smiled all the time, or that other guy with the deepest green eyes she had ever seen. Spooky, the whole lot of them.
No, she was gone. “The Scepter” might be a big show, and it could be real hit, it had all the right signs, but Melissa wanted no more a part of it. She was definitely leaving.
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, had suddenly filled the room. Melissa had sensed a little of it coming into the dressing room but thought it merely someone’s perfume. Now it was everywhere.
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 sudden anger covered her face than that of unexpected bliss. She stood like a woman receiving an electrical current through the doorknob . . . a very pleasant current.
Her thoughts scattered as a surge of indescribable pleasure passed up her arm and through her slim, attractive form, with her long legs and auburn hair slightly disarrayed. The drops of moisture covering Melissa’s body caused the bright lights in the dressing room to reflect off her, 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 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 was trying to pick. The two of them were standing in the alley just behind the theater where “The Scepter” was scheduled to play that night.
Owen rarely saw Laura this excited. She wasn’t into this sort of thing on a personal level. It had, in fact, taken quite a bit of convincing to get her to tag along. 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 nailfile and pick. “They come in handy in my line of work,” he explained when he had first taken them out a few minutes before, when Laura had realized for the first time that he really intended to break into the theater’s backstage area.
He had checked first for an alarm, but there was none. Owen opened the backdoor slowly and peered around its edge. He looked back at Laura.
“The coast is clear,” he said finally.
“Great. Just great.” Laura kept watching the entrance to the alley. “This will not look good on my resumé.”
“Think of it as field experience. You’re getting to see how I write my books firsthand.”
Laura wasn’t amused. “Do you realize how dangerous this is? 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 herself and then followed. The inside of the theater looked dark and deserted. There was no noise at all, surprising considering all that was probably needed to put on a show that evening. If she hadn’t known any better, Laura would have thought the place was deserted.
It took a few minutes for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She saw Owen crouching behind an open crate and beckoning to her.
“Get down, please,” he whispered to her, sarcastically mimicking her tone from before. “We don’t want to get caught, after all.” She closed the door behind her and joined him.
She started to say something back, but he put his fingers to her mouth lightly.
“Sshh . . . listen.” At first Laura heard nothing, but then after a moment it was there. The sound of wheels creaking. Someone was approaching. Laura pressed against the crate while Owen looked down the hall to where the noise was coming from. She felt sick to her stomach.
The theater 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 far left, with lighting and building maintenance just beyond. They were in a storage area. Which means, Owen thought, whoever is coming is either making a delivery or a pick-up. Either way, we have to move.
The 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, he saw, and Owen began to wonder if he hadn’t perhaps 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 was 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 almost seemed to be 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 as they came nearer. Their movements were stiff, almost mechanical. They moved like automatons would . . . or robots out of some science fiction movie. Their faces were pale as well. 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. Neither of them said a word as they moved toward the storage area. They didn’t seem to be breathing.
They didn’t seem to be alive at all, in fact.
Laura, seeing the same thing, suddenly believed. She believed everything. The Cirque, the transformations, Oberon Fip, everything. The workers had 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 began 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 just 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 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 bitches in all those stupid horror movies, she thought. Here I am, just like them, following her man to the end. Stupid.
Perhaps, yet she followed.
The automatons had reached the stage. There, they began slowly unloading their cargo, carefully handling each beautiful body 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 complete 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 theater. She was small and white-haired. She wore an old-fashioned blue dress; it was straight out of an old Norman Rockwell picture. She had on pearls, weirdly reminding Laura of Barbara Bush. 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 noises. Gets some grease on those gears, boys! Does I have to do everythings 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.
“Gets the costumes, you lunk,” the old lady said to the other worker. “We can’ts be havin’ ‘ese maids struttin’ 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 left. They cowered beneath the heavy drapes until he returned.
With the old woman supervising, the two automatons quietly dressed the seven mannequins and rearranged their poses. Each was put into a one-piece bathing suit with beauty contestant sashes drawn across their fronts Each was set so that one arm was lifted skyward palm out while the other arm bent inward so hand rested on hip. Their legs were partially crossed 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 smile. The matron 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 strange trio left the stage shortly thereafter. The English woman harshly beckoned to her two servants, and they followed her down into the gallery. Owen and Laura lost track of them in the darkness, unable to get a closer look at what they were doing without possibly revealing themselves. About a minute later the two again heard noises from the main theater 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 theater people looked like. They talked and sounded normal, too.
“Those are the actresses and stagemen, I’ll bet,” Owen said quietly.
“And that’s Jeremiah Bellisar, the guy putting on this show.” He
Bellisar led a group of about eight or nine women, all dressed either in robes or one-piece bathing suits just like those worn by the mannequins. There were about five or six men, too, all in workmen’s clothes. 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.
“Dim the lights,” someone said, and they were adjusted accordingly. From a viewpoint in the audience, Owen suspected, very few people would be able to tell the mannequins from the live girls, which was probably 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 attending a funeral.
“We have to get out of here,” Owen abruptly 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.” He started climbing.
Laura didn’t have time to argue; one of the stagehands was coming their way. Within moments the two of them were high above the stage looking down.
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 with the image.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . allow me to present to you the most beautiful women in the world.” Bellisar waved his arm, and the actresses began walking slowly. Behind and beneath them, the trolley track hummed. The mannequins kept pace, and together the group of living women and plastic figures, in the dim 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 creeped along the narrow catwalk. “Where the hell are you going now?” Laura whispered furiously.
“I want to 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.” The writer unhooked Laura’s 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, “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.” He took her hand and wrapped it around the catwalk railing. “I want you to wait here. I’ll be right back.” He stood up.
“No. Absolutely not.” She wanted to leave.
Owen turned away. “Stay,” he said over his shoulder.
He went 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, Laura began to whimper.
Owen made his way down a second 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 . . . . Planning, he crept down a set of stairs backstage. The theater was larger than it had initially looked to him. Everything was still very dark, but Owen could 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 . . . .
“May 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 Owen couldn’t place. Foreign, but strange.
“How . . how did you know my name?”
There was a sudden spark from a lighter, and Owen caught a glimpse of the deepest, darkest eyes he had ever seen. Fragrant smoke filled the air from the man’s cigarette. “Your reputation precedes you, sir. Besides, few events ever really escape our notice.”
That sounded ominous. The man made no motion to set Owen at ease, either, and the writer began to feel a little like a mouse cornered by a hungry cat. The voices from downstairs, he noticed too, had ceased abruptly. 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.
Owen heard a faint chuckle. “That is a name we once used, among others.”
“Are you . . . the leader?” He had to speak to the leader.
There was a hint of well-cultured amusement in the voice. It didn’t make Owen feel any better. “Your suggestion implies a hierarchy among us, Mr. Greene, where none actually exists. We are all Artists, solely, and Performers.” The figure drew on his cigarette. “True, some of us are more privileged than others,” he admitted a moment later, “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 up,” he said simply.
There was a pause. Maybe he’d succeeded in surprising them after all.
“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 still only barely see the man. “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 of it, I’ve seen it.” Owen paused. “You’re old. I mean, you, personally, you’re really old, aren’t you?”
Owen continued. “If you’re who I think you are, you’re hundreds of years old. You formed 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. Laura. 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 smoking figure at the top of the stairs shifted, 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 leave.”
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 of you 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 he stopped short. The figure before him had disappeared suddenly, melted away into the darkness as if he’d never been there in the first place.
Owen thought briefly about Laura on his way out, still hiding up there in the rafters. Then he 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 group down. He had rehearsed what he was going to say to them a thousand times. He had fumbled a bit at the last moment, but overall he felt he had done pretty well for himself. They both wanted the same things.
Laura would just have to sacrifice hers for his.
It was too bad, but that was life.
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, really . . . 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 theater, she remembered, but the same people who had changed her dress had also apparently rearranged her hair to match. Considerate 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 am I 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, knowing that all she was, all she could ever 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, a much greater 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 inside 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, 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.
Her yellowed flesh 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 a 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 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 awestruck 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 gracefully 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 mannequins, 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 talked to earlier. The leader of the Cirque, though he hadn’t claimed that title. The Spokesman.
“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 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 theater was as still as a grave.
Again, the amplified voice: “We make of Ourselves the Art of which We Become.”
Owen could hear in 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, their 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 theater. He remained flesh
in a roomful of plastic figures. Tears streamed down his face.
When he made his deal with the Cirque, this hadn’t been what he’d
intended. No amount of alcohol could drown his shame.
A tall, thin figure in black came out from backstage and walked up to him. He was the man to whom Avatar had reported. His name was Fip.
“Outstanding show!” he exclaimed. “Outstanding! Sir, you’re a genius!”
Jerry was dazed. He muttered, from script, “We’re all dehumanized . . . .”
“Yes, exactly right!” Fip clamored excitedly. “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. You turned them all into 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.” He screamed with laughter and devilish humor.
Jerry pushed Fip away from him, angry, confused, and sick at heart. Fip just continued smiling and laughing hysterically. He was having a ball.
Then the voice from the loudspeaker, the voice of the Cirque’s Spokesman, spoke again from the audience. The voice was cultured, foreign, and, in a manner Bellisar could not entirely comprehend, utterly unhuman. Fip and Mrs. Paddock and the others were bad, but Dr. Carnelian was the worst. He was the perfect hypocrite.
“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 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 snake yet, doctor?” he asked.
The doctor - the Spokesman - shook his head.
“No. The specifics of his final form are too challenging to make on the spur of the moment. Perhaps in a few weeks, after the tour is properly underway.”
Jerry snapped his head up. “Tour?” he asked, a sick feeling growing in his stomach.
Fip took the artist by the arm and began leading him backstage. “Yes, didn’t we tell you? There must’ve been an oversight.” He laughed again. “’The Scepter’ is going on the road. We’ll hit all the major cities.”
Jerry started shaking, and Fip was obliged to hold him up. “No . . no . . .” he stammered.
“Oh, don’t be bashful, Jerry. It’ll be a blast!” They reached the foyer, and suddenly Carnelian was there, appearing out of nowhere as though by magic. Fip looked at him and giggled. “It’ll be just like old times.”
The doctor took held the door downstairs open. “Please, do not concern yourself with petty details, Mr. Bellisar,” he said. “The group will take care of everything. In the meantime, we have a . . . proposition we would like you to think about. An invitation, really.” The Spokesman led the two of them downstairs to discuss the details.
And, with slowly dawning horror, Jerry realized 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 tour.
At its one hundredth performance, “The Scepter”’s producers wanted to do something to celebrate their 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 entitled it.
The “Eve” was lovely: a female nude of glistening and polished semi-transparent plastic, amazingly lifelike. A photographer from Generation Publishing sent out to shoot it remarked to a friend later that it looked amazingly like their old editor, what’shername, the one who had disappeared with Owen Greene a year or so earlier. 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 decided to make their donation 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 perfectly lifelike as the Eve, both a tempter and a seducer.
It just oozed a sense of treachery.
But, then, didn’t all snakes do?