Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Curtain

"Daring disbelief!" The swami's stool begins to rise slowly and smoothly into the air, suspended on clearly visible wires.

"So early in the night for these tests! We have told one fortune only – do you not wish for the show to go on?" The sage looks into the darkness of the audience and towards Cati's general area. Eyes twinkling, he coughs out a little laugh. "Daring lady, your is'lip is showing – and there is simply nothing else that we can reveal – regarding your undergarments." Someone in the audience sniggers.

Ramanuja now turns his attention to Thelonius, who is standing. The sage lifts his chin and looks down his nose at him. "This has all already happened, my brother," he announces grandly. "And these tests . . . I have never before passed. Please listen:"

He smiles sharply with his lips parted, teeth bared. " What searcher seeks the actor on the is'tage and the props behind? Who will see only what is obvious to us all: that the show is indeed a show? The really interesting question is what lies underneath – within – beyond." His eyes flit towards Cati and back to Thelonius.

"Or is it one who can disregard the rowdy lie in his face, who can appreciate the play of maya, our illusory existence, as such? We are but players in roles, and we go where the is'cript-writers of fate – Brahm, Vishnu, and Shiv – dictate.

"Yet, we can see the world with the third eye." He presents his open palm to the audience. He folds his little finger and thumb against it. "Will you see the births, the preservations, and the deaths of the tri-lok with the mind of the three-fold Godhead? Will you adore the worlds within and around you everywhere with the hearts of the divine brides, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Uma – the ladies of Knowledge, Luck, and Power?" Thrusting his palm forward, he continues. "You are right now thinking of the number three, but how could you not be?" He pauses.

"We know that this is not the right now that tugs at your heart." Ramanuja shuts his mouth tightly and stares silently at Thel for several seconds. Thelonius returns the stare. "You want from us the number 61344225," the swami announces as he withdraws his hand. He smiles again, baring his teeth. In the spotlight, they gleam as brightly as the sequins that line his collar. His countenance suggests the sordid grin of a street dog – or an idiot. "Brother, if you are truly daring, there will be portraits for you to preserve."

He turns his face away from Thel's direction. Ramanuja glares through the darkness hanging over the audience; his gaze passes over Henri and directly to the scarf-wearing woman sitting next to him, Millie. He locks his gaze on her for a moment. Millie slips her hand under Henri's. The bon vivant can feel the smooth flesh on the back of favorite model's hand tense into goosebumps. "It is just as well that the show be short," Ramanuja sighs. The sage's eyes pass from the pair; his gaze searches to the right, passing over the monocled Englishman, over Emma, and to Cati. Watching her, he pronounces, "And these, brother, are your models . . . but:"

His smile dissipates and his eyes roll back into his head. "Mistress, you will die!"

His head falls back and he rocks backward as if struck. "Wait!" he cries. "It is coming now! We have passed through! Ho! What time! What comes next!" He lifts his face dramatically into the stage lighting and his jaw slackens once again. He brings his hands forward and up into the beam of the spotlight. The swami looks as if he is grasping at dust motes. He exhales and coughs a little, then sags at the shoulders and leans forward again. Face ever skyward, Ramanuja's body folds and he tumbles chin-first from his elevated stool. The hard smack of his cheek against the floor echoes in the dark ballroom.

Three stagehands rush towards the fallen swami, followed clumsily by Mags in her heels. "Vikram?" she begs the swami. "Vikram!"

She looks out to the audience. "Is there a doctor? – Call for a doctor!" She kneels closer over Ramanuja's senseless body. "Shit!" Mags lifts his head onto her lap and turns his face towards the audience. "Don't choke!" A string of shiny drool falls from the corner of his mouth and onto her dress.

Of all the elements in this strange scene before him, the one that catches Thel's eye most directly is the mess on Mags' dress. Henri releases Millie's hand – he, too, notices Ramanuja's glimmering drool, and how very opaque it is, like mercury, or a sky brimming with shining stars.

The ballroom lights turn on, and the starlight disappears. Ramanuja coughs. The audience's eyes adjust to the new light.

As he rubs the folded edges of the bill in his hand, Thelonius sees the woman who echoed and amplified his challenge for Ramanuja, the very woman had who guided him into the ballroom. Cati is standing now; her hands are on the seat in front of her, bearing her weight as she leans forward with unabashed curiosity. Henri stands between them, peering at the swami's face. Except for these three, everyone in the audience is still seated.

Through her makeshift veil, Millie looks up to Henri and takes his hand in her own. She pulls the borrowed scarf completely off with her other.

"For God's sake," Mags weeps, "close the curtain!"

(Thelonius and Henri passed spot hidden checks.)


Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

M. Henri reaches out with his free hand and touches the sleeve of the rumpled man with the camera.

"A photograph, quickly, before the curtain is closed," he mutters urgently. "His mouth, his face, quickly, please."

Thelonius Jones said...

"Ectoplasm," Thelonius muttered as he stared at the silvery tendril issuing forth from the mystic's mouth.

Hearing Henri's plea, Thelonius quickly snatched up the Leica and snapped a shot in the hopes of capturing the 'ectoplasm' on film.

He nodded to Henri, "I think I got it. I'll only know for sure after I develop the plates."

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

"Merci, mon ami," said and patted the man's arm. Then he glanced down at Millie still holding his hand. He gave her a tight smile he hoped was comforting and then turned back to the photographer.
"What is 'ectoplasm'?"

Thelonius Jones said...

"It's..uh....a term spiritualists use for a shimmering, ethereal substance that the claim comes from the spirit realm." Thelonius whispered to Henri.

He settled back down in his seat and continued his explanation in hushed tones.

"It's often found issuing forth from a medium's orifices. Mouth, nose, ears, etcetera. Of course every reported case of ectoplasm has been explained away as a parlor trick. Bits of silk secreted in one's mouth, for example."

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

"That did not look like silk to me," Henri said dubiously, then managed to smile. "Pardonnez-moi, I am Monsieur Henri DuMonde. You know about these" he waved a vague hand toward the stage " these things magique?"

Thelonius Jones said...

Thelonius nodded, "Yeah, name's Thelonius Jones. I guess you could say I know a fair bit about stage magic. I'm a photographer."

He said the last line as if that explained everything about his knowledge of spiritualist methods.

"And I didn't say that what we just witnessed was silk cloth, I'm not sure exactly what that was. Hopefully the photograph will provide more evidence as to the nature of the ectoplasm."

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

M. Henri pulls a small folding fan from inside his evening jacket as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He snaps it open. It is plain black. He fans himself idly.

"This interests me. It is most ├ętrange," he says with a sigh. "I was in fear it would be silly, non? Yet this is most interesting. You take pictures of these things often? Do you think he is real?"

He snaps his fan shut and points at the stage with it.

Teresa said...

Cati sat slowly back down in her seat, wide-eyed. She watched as Jones whispered with another fellow in the audience and as he raised his camera and snapped a photo. Things seemed to be moving in slow motion.

"Models?" Cati said quietly to Emma. "What does that mean? This is all an act... right?"

"Cati!" Emma whispered fiercely. "He said you're going to die!"

Cati frowned slightly. "Well. We're all going to die someday. He was just being dramatic." She cast a worried glance at her friend and asked again, "Right?"

da solomon said...

"Hmmph. Right," Emma replied. She settled down a bit and, seeking to recant her earlier exclamation, continued. "Well, I dunno. He might've been talkin' about that other girl that he gave the evil eye to." She looked over towards Millie. "Mm, or the bird on the stage, even.

"Hey, don't worry. You an' the photographer really set him off into that whole sham about - about whatever he was going on about. He was probably just annoyed."

Thelonius snapped one well-aimed picture, and then took a few more for good measure as the curtain began to move. Mags wept as it closed.

Immediately, a stagehand emerged from behind it. "Please, don't worry, a doctor has been called," he assured the crowd. "We hope that you've enjoyed tonight's free performance. But the show cannot go on . . . uh . . . Madame Whitcombe and the staff of the Audubon wish you a good evening, and we hope that you put Master Ramanuja in your prayers tonight." He began to bow, but caught himself and disappeared behind the main curtain.

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

"Do you think," M. Henri said thoughtfully to the photographer "that his reference to models was supposed to have anything to do with you and your camera, mon ami?"

He slid the fan back into the pocket of his jacket and drew out a small silver box. From the box he took a card and passed it to Mr. Jones. It bore M. Henri's name and address as well as his personal telephone number.

Thelonius Jones said...

Thelonius glanced at the business card, then casually slipped it into his jacket pocket. After a few moments of fumbling around in his own pocket he produced a shabby card that listed his name and telephone number as well.

He handed the card to Henri, "I don't know what he was going on about Mr. Dumonde. For all I know he could have been making a reference to fashion models."

He shrugged, adjusting the camera strap to keep it from digging into his skin.

"I have yet to encounter a real mystic. At least any one who could provide proof of their powers. I think I'd like to have a word with our entertainer. If you'll excuse me sir...and ladies."

Thelonius nodded good byes to Henri and the women. He started making his way out of his seat, politely trying to slip past patrons in his row as he slid out towards the aisle.

da solomon said...

The crowd was stirring now. Though others stood up, no one but Thelonius seemed to be sure enough to move. Someone in the audience asked, "So that's it?" Another commented, "That was short."

Cati allowed Thelonius to pass. As she did so, Emma touched her arm. "So . . . ?" she asked.


Emma hushed herself and waved Cati closer to her mouth. "So . . . what kind of underwear are you wearing?"

"I'll tell you later . . ." she said as she followed the photographer down the row.

No one stopped Thelonius and Cati from entering the backstage area. Though this was not the hallway that Cati had seen before, it was easy enough to figure out which door was Ramanuja's, what for the crowd of stagehands and waiters.

Cati wedged her way into the room. Mags Whitcombe sat on the floor with her legs folded beneath her. She cradled her swami and rocked him. Her lap was soaked from drool. From behind Cati, Thelonius stood on his toes to snatch another look at the swami's face.

A uniformed police office pushed between them, followed by one of the stagehands. "What happened?" he asks. "Did you call an ambulance?"

"Yes," Mags weeps. "I" – sob – "think he's been poisoned. Help him, help him. Oh, don't die, Vikram . . ."

The swami didn't respond to her. His eyelids were limply shut, as though he was just sleeping, drooling on his pillow. There was now a huge brown bruise on the left side of his face, down to his chin. Thelonius noted that there was nothing strange about his saliva. Not in this light, anyhow, he thought, remembering the way that the sparkling effect had vanished once the lights in the ballroom had been turned on. On Mags' dress, however, the stain: to Cati, it seemed not unlike the shimmer of silk, but to Thelonius, Ramanuja's drying discharge had a visually gritty quality to it, like the faint glint of silica in dark sand.

"Poisoned? Ma'am, how was he poisoned?"

"I don't know – I don't know that it's poison – I don't know!"

The young cop searched the faces in the room for any help. There was none: the stagehands stood dumbly in the corners of the dressing room and Mags seemed unable to do anything but hold her swami. Apparently she had not invited any doctors.

Finally, determined to do something, the cop raised his hands. "Okay, okay, nobody needs to be in here except me, the lady, and the magic-man." He pointed to each one individually, just to make his point extra-clear. "Got it? All'a youse out." He stepped around Ramanuja and directed the stagehands to the door. They shuffled out, past Thelonius and Cati.

The policeman turned to Thelonius: "You. Mister reporter. Out." Then to Cati: "C'mon. Let's take it in the hallway, lady."

In the hallway, one of the wait staff placed his hand on Thel's shoulder. "Buddy," he began nonchalantly, "was that your number?"

(Written with input from Teresa (Cati). Thelonius passed an idea roll. Thelonius and Cati passed spot hidden checks.)

Thelonius Jones said...

Thelonius nodded absently to the waiter, "Mmmmhmmm.."

He all but ignored the waiter, craning his neck to get another look into the dressing room before the door was shut.

"If you'll excuse me..." he muttered as he pushed his way back towards the dressing room door.

Thelonius produced a leather billfold from his jacket pocket. He flapped it open to reveal valid New York City press credentials.

He called out to the policeman as he waved his press pass "Thelonius Jones,reporter. Officer, the public has a right to this story."

He continued to force himself back into the dressing room, though he planned on stoppping if things looked like they were starting to get physical.

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

After lingering thoughtfully for a few moments, M. Henri patted Millie's hand again and then released it. He walked toward the door he saw the photographer pass through to backstage, trailed by one of the girls he'd come in with, the one with the saucy suggestions.

"No way," said Millie, to the thought of being left behind and got up and went after him. "What are we doing?"

"Looking for the gentleman with the camera, douce. I want to see if he learns something new. He is... different."

"What do you mean 'different'?" Millie asked. She seemed nervous and anxious to leave.

M. Henri gave a long, languid Gallic shrug.

"I do not know, ma belle. Simply different. Come, I will take you to a taxi and wait alone, yes?"

Millie nodded, looking relieved. Henri walked her to the curb, hailed her a cab and saw her into it. He paid the cab driver in advance and then made his way through the confused, milling crowd back into the Audubon.

Teresa said...

As the policeman began ushering her out the door, Cati said, "Excuse me, sir, but I've known Miss Whitcombe here for several years. During this time of tragedy, I believe she could use a friendly face in the room for support. After all, you don't expect her to go through this all on her own, do you?"

Then, continuing to ignore the policeman's directions, she went straight to Mags' side, knelt down beside her, and put a sympathetic arm around the woman's shoulders. "What can I do to help, honey?" Cati said, looking again at the swami and the mess he was leaving on Mags' dress.

da solomon said...

Millie waved to Henri through the cab window.

Thelonius, lone representative of the press on the scene, shouldered his way into the dressing room. "H-hey, I said –" It was not lost on the cop that he was being actively ignored. He tried to reassert himself – "I said – hey! You!" – but Thelonius was already aiming his camera. The poor schmuck's verbage drained from him. "Ah, ah, ah," he clucked, and then sighed, " just give him some room – okay?"
Encouraged by the success enjoyed by the social stowaway, Cati pressed her way back inside as well. "I believe she could use a friendly face . . ."
"Wha-at? I'm not friendly?" protested the cop, but he didn't so much as stand in socialite's way. "Fine! But everyone else listens to the police." He threw the dressing room door shut.

And there Henri was, looking hardly anything like a waiter, but with the door slammed in his face all the same.

Cati knelt down and offered Mags her comfort. Margaret just looked at her and moaned, "noth-hi-ing . . ." So Cati remained as she was, and did nothing.
Ramanuja coughed and gurgled. Finally taking time to breath, Mags gasped. "Swami? Vikram?"
"Loo. We need . . ." Eyes still shut, he formed an O with his mouth and gave a horrible heave. His tongue protruded, as bright red as his face. In her profound sympathy, Cati's esophagus remembered the strain and burn of one vomitous evening not many nights ago.
Searching the room, the cop grabbed a handy pail that had been stashed behind the door. He threw out the mop, passed it to Cati and said, "Here. Be sick here." Ramanuja wrenched his face into a knot of lines and reddened flesh. He grimaced and clenched his fists. "Oh, shit, he's gonna shit!"
"Idiot!" snapped Mags, but the cop's impression, at least, had been right: The swami – bareheaded, straining, flushed – looked constipated in a most terrible way. Twisting on Mags' lap, he first rolled onto his back and brought his knees into the air, but then he fell over onto his side again. His head rested on Mags still, but the swami's face was now on Cati's leg. His lips touched her knee. "Ng – ning – oh," he groaned, ever adding to the appearance of a hellish bowel movement. "Oh – pah – mm – ning." Mags tried to hold onto him, but she failed.
Distinctly unsure of what to do for the man writhing in pain on the floor, the cop sputtered, "ah, I'm – I'm gonna make a way for the docs." Unsteadily he opened the door, and began shouting at the crowd. "Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Make some room."

As the officer emerged from the room, Henri caught a glimpse of what was happening inside. Ramanuja laid partly on the floor, and partly on Mags Whicombe and the tart with the mysterious underwear. Crouched like a predator considering his kill, Thelonius Jones stood over the pile with his camera at the ready. The swami was positively shining with sweat.
The policeman shut the door behind him.

Ramanuja's armpits shone with sweat through the heavy cotton weave of formal kurta. He was undeniably drenched. His pant leg clung to his calf, and Cati could feel a warmth soaking through her dress, sticking to her thigh. Ramanuja was burning up.

Two men in white rushed in through the front doors. They carried a stretcher. One brushed by Henri, who felt that the push was unnecessary even under the circumstances. He was already well out of the way. The men quickly passed the stagehands in the space made by the cop and went inside the dressing room. This time the door was not shut.

"Heart attack?" asked the first.
"Stroke," replied the other.
As they laid out the stretcher, the one closest to the swami's head asked, "Can. You. Breath?"
"Yes!" Mags answered for her swami. "Yes, he can breathe, can't you hear him gurgling?"
"What happened to him?" pressed the second.
"He was poisoned!"
"With what?" asked the first.
"I don't know! He was on stage and he went kaput in the middle of his act."
"What kind of act?"
"He's a mystic! – What does it matter!"
Lifting him onto the stretcher, the first rephrased his question. "Bed of nails? Fire-breathing?"
"Uh, anything hazardous?" added the second.
"No! 'He knows the future! He commands the beasts!'" poor Mags wailed, repeating some headline. Cati squeezed her shoulder a little, ever curious, ever comforting.
"A monkey!"
"Was he bitten?"
"Is he allergic to anything?"
"No – I don't think – no!"
"Okay, then heart attack?" asked the first.
"Still a stroke," replied the other.
The first guy pointed to the policeman. "Help us out of here, chum."
"Okay – Hear that everybody? Clear the way!" But the way was already clear.

(Cati passed a fast talk check. Not all rolls have been revealed.)

da solomon said...

The two men carried Ramanuja out of the ballroom. As they did so, he writhed and rocked on the stretcher, as if wretching or crying without a voice. He was carried outside and into a waiting ambulance - a white van marked only with a red cross. Mags brushed Cati aside and chased after the two men. "I must come too!"
"There's no room, ma'am."
"Of course there is!" she cried as she forced her way into the back of the ambulance alongside her swami.
The medics looked at one another, climbed in the back after her, and closed the doors.

The crowd mumured and began to dissipate.

(End of episode. Cati's spot hidden skill increased (40+8=48). Thelonius has increased his occult skill (75+5=80).

Actions outside the Audubon should pick up in player's blogs. Action taking place at the Audubon may continue in this post, and will be counted toward the next episode.

Deborah and Teresa will receive prompts in a day or two. Dan, you probably already know what you can write about - there are pictures to be developed. If players would like to collaborate on a post, please let me know and I'll put you in contact with one another.

Please refer to the recent post in the Ghosts & Time blog for notes on sanity awards and skill progression.

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

As Mr. Jones passed by him, M. Henri put out a hand, touching the man on the arm.

"Do not forget to contact me when you have developed those photographs, mon ami. I am most curious of your opinion, non?"

Teresa said...

Cati overheard the Frenchman's request and said to Jones, "Count me in, too, fella. I want to know what you were able to see through that camera of yours." She smiled charmingly and added, "After all, I got you in in the first place, didn't I?"

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

M. Henri turned to the young lady and gave a nod.

"You are interested too in the ├ętrange? How fascinating. I am very pleased to meet you. I am Monsieur Henri DuMonde."

M. Henri slid out his case and fetched out a business card which he held out to her.

"Monsieur Henri's Parisian Fashion House," he said, smiling. "You must come and see the latest silks and tell me stories of magique."

Teresa said...

Cati took the card and said distractedly, as she watched the ambulance make its way down the street, "I'm more interested in finding out who's gonna be left holding this bag."

Then she glanced at the card, smiled, and went on, "Charmed. I'm Cati Predoviciu. So you carry undergarments at this fashion house of yours? That Oriental magician seemed to think I'm in need of some!"

Monsieur Henri DuMonde said...

Henri laughed. He quite admired her forwardness.

"Oui, of course, mademoiselle, undergarments embroidered by French nuns of which even a swami could not disapprove. So why do you say there will be a bag held? Do you think, as Madame seemed to, that he was poisoned? Perhaps there is somewhere we can go and talk, hm?"

(if she says yes, should we take this to another blog or something? i'm not sure what's correct here.)

Thelonius Jones said...

Thelonius nodded tersely to both Henri and Cati. "Don't worry...if I captured anything, we'll be talking." With that, he breezed out of the theater, back to the Manhattan streets.

Teresa said...

Cati looked around. To Henri, she said, "I'd love a good chat, but I seem to have misplaced my friend. I've got your card. Why don't I swing by your shop tomorrow? We can talk bags and underwear then."