Authors: Richard Bowes
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Rosalin Quay, the set and costume designer, stood in a bankrupt Brooklyn warehouse staring at the rewards of a long quest. Inside a dusty storage space were manikins. Stiff limbed, sexless ones from the early 20th century stood alongside figures with abstract sexuality (which is how some described Rosalin) from the early 21st.
But the prime treasure of this discovery was dummies from a critical moment of change. Manikins circa 1970 were fluid in their poses, slightly androgynous but still recognizably male or female. The look would be iconic in the immersive stage design which she had been hired to assemble.
The warehouse manager, Sonya, was tall, strong, and desperate. Rosalin, who had an eye for these things, placed her on the wrong side of thirty but with a bit of grace in her movements. Sonya brought up computer records on the palm of her hand. The owner of the manikins had stopped paying rent during the crash of 2053. The warehouse would shut down in two days and was unloading abandoned stock at going-out-of-business prices.
A pretty good guess on Rosalin
s part was that Sonya came to New York intending to be a dancer/actor, had no luck, and was about to be unemployed: a common tale in the city everyone called the Big Arena.
“These pieces are for my current project,” Rosalin said, and sent her an address. “I consider finding you and the manikins at the same moment an interesting coincidence. It would be to your advantage to deliver them personally.”
She believed she saw a bit of what was called
in the younger woman.
Jacoby Cass awoke a few days later in the penthouse of a notorious hotel. The Angouleme, built in 1890, had stood in the old Manhattan neighborhood of Kips Bay for a hundred and seventy years. Its back was to the East River and sunlight bounced off the water and through the uncurtained windows.
Cass rose and watched tides from the Atlantic swirl upstream. Water spilled over the seawall and got pumped into drainage ditches. In 2060, every coastline on earth that could afford floodwalls had them. The rest either pumped or treaded water.
Like many New Yorkers, Jacoby Cass saw the rising waters as a warning of impending doom but, like most of them, Cass had bigger worries. None are as superstitious as the actor, the director, or the playwright in the rehearsals of a new show. And for his drama
Sleep Walking Now and Then
, which was to be put on in this very building, Jacoby Cass was all three.
Weeks before, his most recent marriage had dissolved. She kept the co-op while he slept on a futon in the defunct hotel. Most of his clothes were still in the suitcases in which he'd brought them.
All was barren in the room except for a rack holding a velvet-collared frock coat, an evening jacket, silk vests, starched white shirts and collars, opera pumps, striped trousers, arm and sock garters, a high silk hat, and pairs of dress shoes sturdy as ships. He was going to play Edwin Lowery Nance, the man who had built this hotel. And this was his wardrobe for
Cass's palm implant vibrated. Messages flashed: Security told him a city elevator inspector was in the building. His ex-wife announced she was closing their safe-deposit box. A painting crew for the lower floors was delayed. His eyes skimmed this unpleasant list as he tapped out a demand for coffee.
An image of the lobby of The Angouleme popped up. The lobby looked as it had when he'd run through a scene there the week before. Relentless sunlight showed the cracks in the dark wood paneling, the peeling paint and sagging chandeliers. The place was bare of furniture and rugs.
Then an elevator door opened and Cass saw himself step out with two other actors. The man and the woman wore their own contemporary street clothes and carried scripts. Cass, though, wore bits of his 1890s costumeâa high hat, a loosely tied cravat. He was Edwin Lowery Nance showing wealthy friends the palace he'd just built, where he would die so mysteriously.
“My good sir and lovely madam,” he heard himself say, “I intend this place to be a magnet, attracting a clientele which aspires to your elegance.” They played out the scene as he'd written it, in that shoddy space devoid of any magic. The other two actors were still learning their lines. But Cass found his own rendition of the lines he'd written flat and ridiculous.
Irritated, wondering why this had been sent to him, Cass was about to close his fist and erase the messages when he heard Rosalin's voice, with its traces of an indefinable (and some said phony) European accent.
“Not an impressive outing. But I believe if you try again this evening, you will find everything transformed.”
Rosalin and Jacoby Cass had worked together over the years without ever becoming more than acquaintances. But Cass found a ray of hope in the message and decided to grasp it.
His coffee was delivered by the new production assistant, a tall and tense young lady. Cass noted her legs in pants down to the shoe tops, though autumn fashion had decreed bare legs for women and long pants for men. Quite a reverse of the styles of the last few years.
He could imagine her life in the Big Arena with multiple aspiring artists/roommates all scraping by in a deteriorating high-rise. This was Rosalin's protÃ©gÃ©. He thought her name was Sonya but wasn't positive. At the outset of his career, almost forty years before, he had learned to be nice to the assistants, because one never knew which of them would end as a huge name. So he smiled the smile that had made him a star and took the coffee into the bathroom.
Water pressure wasn't good, and the pipes were rusty, but like the building itself, the pipes and wiring pretty much worked. Twenty minutes later, shaved, showered, purged, and scented, he donned modern underwear then got dressed from the costume rack: a starched shirt minus the collar, trousers held up with suspenders, an unbuttoned vest, and slippers.
A palm message told him the elevator inspector was waiting. He opened his bedroom door and walked into the big skylighted room that had once been the office/den of Edwin Lowery Nance, whose unproven murder haunted the Angouleme Hotel.
In Nance's lair all was old wood and brass and it had not aged well. For scores of years The Angouleme had followed a downward path before being seized by the city. Bright sun streamed down and highlighted the scarred desk and worn rugs. After dark and in the low glow of early electricity, all would have to appear mysterious, rich, and rotten. Everything depended on that.
Down a very short corridor lay the bedchamber of Evangeline, daughter of Edwin Lowery Nance, and more famous in her time than Lizzie Borden. Through the open door Cass could see the curtains on the canopied bed parted to display a beautifully dressed Parisian doll. Legend demanded it. Just as Lizzie will always be the harridan with the axe, Evangeline Nance was the sleep walking child with a doll under her arm.
Jacoby Cass's career had high points which many in this city remembered. His
was set in an abandoned seminary where audience members could pick flowers with Ophelia, help dig graves or secretly poison swords.
he staged in the Frick Museum was a week-long twenty-four-hour-a-day drama built around an antique television show. Customers took tea with aristocrats, spied on lovers, searched closets and dresser drawers for clues and scandal. It ran for years and rescued the bankrupt museum for a time.
Once, Cass was spoken of as a theatrical giant: Barrymore and Ziegfeld combined. But at the moment he was coming off flops on stage, screen, and net. He'd recently been approached to take the film role of a hammy older actor. He'd turned it down. But the backers of
Sleep Walking Now and Then
were not a patient crew, and in his bad moments he wondered if he'd regret not taking the part. This show would click fast or die fast.
Cass inhaled deeply and stepped out of Nance's sanctuary:
sanctuary he reminded himself, as he stood straight and walked down the hall to the private elevator. The public elevators had all been upgraded many times over the years. But this one stood with its door half-open. The original machinery had been replaced, but the car with its golden cage and faded 18th century silhouetted couples in wigs and finery still remained.
Cass intended this to be a central motif of his drama. It was here that the first death had blackened the Angouleme's name and begun its legend.
The story was well known. Deep in the night of April 12, 1895, Nanceâdrunk, distracted, or bothâthought he was stepping onto the elevator. Instead he went through the open door and fell nine stories to his death at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Rumor had it he was in pursuit of his daughter. Most accounts now considered it a murder.
The city inspector, a small, neatly dressed man, was in the elevator car examining the control panel. As Cass approached he caught the eye of Ms. Jackson, head of security for
. She gave an almost invisible nod and he understood that Inspector Jason Chen had accepted a green handshake.
By reputation Chen was honest and would stay bribed. But he was also smart enough to be quite wary of a major scandal wiping out his career. “Let's talk,” he said, and Cass led the way back to the lair.
They sat in Nance's old office with Cass's lawyer linked to both. The inspector said, “Jackson tells me that twice a night you're going to have that door open and the cage downstairs.”
Cass smiled and explained, “The car will only be a few feet below the floor so as to be out of the audience's sight. Other than that it will just have regular usage.”`
“I want Ms. Jackson and her people here every minute the door is open and the car is in that condition. And I want it locked every minute it's not in use by your production while there are customers in the building. We will send observers.”
“I'm playing Nance,” Cass told him. “I'm the only one who'll go through the door with the car not in place. And at my age I don't take risks.”
The inspector shook his head. “It's not you I'm worried about. I'm concerned about some spectators who have so little in their lives that they decide to become part of the show. We all know about them! My wife's Spanish. She talks about
âthe ones who used to jump into the ring during bullfights and get maimed or killed but became famous for a little while. People get desperate for attention. Like that one who torched himself at the
“Something like that happens with the elevator and they fire me, shut you down forever, and we're up to our necks in indictments. Now let's take a look at your insurance and permits.”
As he authorized documents with eye photos, Cass remembered an old show business joke: âA play is an original dramatic construction that has something wrong with the second act.' His second act was the murder of the designer/performer Jacky Mac on these very premises. It happened seventy-five years after Nance's death and was even more dramatic. What his play still needed was a third act.
Chen departed; the lawyer broke contact. Cass, half in costume, sat behind the huge, battered desk which Rosalin had found somewhere. His New York was the Big Arena, a tough city with a sharp divide between rich and poor, between a cruel, easily bored audience and the desperate artists. It seemed more like 1895 than not.