Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Vanishing Skyscraper

It was 20 stories tall, solid steel frame clad in concrete, and the man in the glass box had promised to make it vanish.

That’s why the people had turned out in throngs, even at nearly 4 a.m. on this bone-cold November morning, when the fine, barely palpable wetness of the air seeped through the thickest coats into your marrow. They lined the opposite side of the river that cut through the city, jostling and hugging themselves and stamping feet against the cold, and followed the spotlights that cut through the predawn sky and illuminated the Riverside Tower. They were waiting for it to disappear.

Forty years ago, the Riverside Tower was hailed as the latest wave in truly mod living. Now it was a weirdly angled, moderately beloved eyesore, its cheaply built interiors at least a decade past their prime. The new property owners hungered to tear it down and build newer, shinier, even more exclusive condos in its place.

They’d already cleaned out the area around it, fencing it off and parking the bulldozers and steam shovels. But a phone call from Los Angeles, a few hundred thousand dollars, and the promise of truly outstanding promotional opportunities stayed their hands, at least for a week. Because OMG wanted to use it for his latest trick.

The news crews waited at the back of the crowd, cameramen shivering and drinking coffee, on-air talent savoring the opportunity to be imperfect and human -- at least aside from their hairstyles -- before the red eye of the camera opened on them once again. The Channel 9 guy, a third-stringer fresh from Akron, tried to chat up a young woman waiting disinterestedly at the back of the crowd in fishnet stockings, and got shot down so epically that he might as well have actually been on fire. The news crews waited because there was no news. Just the Riverside Tower, still very much visible, and the live feed coming from the Jumbotrons set up on either side of the crowd, showing the bald man in the box.

OMG must have been a magician, the joke went, because he’d come out of nowhere. Young guy, good looks, spooky intense eyes, and that signature indigo scarf that was starting to get writeups in the fashion magazines. He didn’t give interviews, he didn’t do publicity; he just did magic. On the street, in train stations, in hotel lobbies. He made hats and gloves vanish and reappear all the way across the room, without moving. He made decks of cards sprout like flowers from purses and briefcases he’d never touched. He nodded intently at fortune cookies, and the messages inside became personalized for their owners.

And like magic, he was on magazine covers, TV specials, the sides of buses. He was the calm center of a publicity hurricane, coordinating whole storm systems of publicists and flacks to do his talking to the media for him. He just hung back and preserved the mystery, and people loved it.

OMG had 100,243 MySpace friends and climbing.

Riverside Towers was his latest feat. Last week, just before he’d entered the building and sealed himself in the six-foot-by-six-foot glass box in what had once been its penthouse -- all on video, all broadcast 24/7 on the Internet and the Jumbotron screens for even the sweatiest, least-otherwise-occupied basement-dwelling nerds to squint at and scrutinize, in silent hopes that they’d be the ones to spot the trick -- he’d promised to make it disappear after a week of intense fasting and meditation. Well, the press release had said that. He’d just mumbled something quietly, smiled, nodded, and had the workmen seal him in and drill the airholes.

For days now, he’d been up there in the lonely concrete tower, in the exact same spot in one corner of the glass cube, like a modern art project. Not moving, not eating, not visibly sleeping, not relieving himself, even. They hadn’t even put in a bucket. His head would move every now and then, and his hands and feet would shift in random and barely perceptible ways, and even the Internerds, through the grainy wash of streaming video, could see the steady rise and fall of his shoulders that showed he was breathing.

People had tried to break into the building, of course. To prove it was all a trick, to tap on the glass box, or just to wave to the cameras and feel million invisible eyes on them, warm like sunlight. But fame had given OMG resources, and between the phalanx of off-duty members of Chicago’s Finest -- well-fed and better paid -- and his small army of private security men, each with biceps the size of small bowling balls, no one hopped the fence and crossed the no-man’s-land of dirt to the concrete tower beyond.

So the people waited, some jeering, some snickering, but all secretly hoping to see something amazing. To see the building crack off its foundation and fly brick by brick into the air; to see it shimmer and vanish; to see an indisputably solid and tangible thing enter the realm of the unreal.

A woman in the crowd saw it first -- a junior consultant and A&A, out late and growing sober after a long night’s drinking with clients, drawn to the lights and crowd when she should have been home in bed -- pointing to the video screens.

OMG’s head had lifted. Within the glass box, he slowly nodded. And smiled.

The camera guy from Channel 9 was the lucky one; he happened to have his camera on, getting B-roll footage of the crowd and the building, and he got it all. The explosions began at the foundation of the Riverside Towers and moved up, smoke and concrete bits and roiling clouds of dust billowing outward level by level. The video screens cut out, flaring white static that lit up the faces of the crowd. The building swayed drunkenly and fell in on itself like a bad souffle, and dust billowed out across the river like some searching tendril.

No one was looking east, to the lake. No one saw a brief flash in midair, a strobing flicker like lightning, a reflection off something immense and silver. Everyone was watching the building die.

The cops on guard around the perimeter of the fence, who had no idea this would happen at all, much less at this particular moment, were all huddled in the cars to which they’d hastily scrambled, peering out through the haze of dust. They would later realize exactly why they’d signed those complicated waivers indemnifying themselves against shock, emotional distress, or injury.

On the far side of the river, the crowd screamed, or whooped, or cheered, or something in the middle of the three. They weren’t sure whether or not they’d just seen a man die, but they knew for sure that they’d just seen something huge explode, implode, and collapse, and it plucked some base chord in them that wanted to cheer and ask for more.

The spotlights swept down to the pile of rubble where the building had been, as the cloud of dust and debris finally began to clear. There was a figure standing atop the mass of concrete. People in the crowd squinted, stared through binoculars, tried to cup their hands around their eyes as if it might help them see better. The Internerds, in a thousand dorm rooms and basements and one-bedroom apartments, cursed the inadequacy of their connection speeds.

The dust cleared. OMG, now all but gray with plaster dust, his indigo scarf swung rakishly around his neck and draping down the front of his once-black turtleneck, stood atop the huge, jagged, broken concrete slabs that should have crushed and consumed him. He waved.

The crowd roared. Even the cops cheered. The members of the media among the onlookers began piecing together leads in their mind, dipping into internalized thesauri for words like “stupendous” and “remarkable.” The TV reporters let their minds go blank, and prepared to start speaking.

At the back of the crowd, the woman in fishnets, her lank, dark hair bobbed with razor precision around her angular face, passed a silver dollar coin one-handed back and forth along her knuckles, like her grandfather had taught her, and his grandfather had taught him. She worked for OMG, if only in the sense that when they’d met, he’d been a talented but ambitionless sleight-of-hand man working the Santa Monica pier, and she’d been coming out of grad school with a master’s in media management and absolutely zero luck in the Great Resume Lottery, and she’d needed some project to latch onto if she didn’t want to end up working at the Barnes and Noble like half her classmates.

She’d coordinated the early appearances, got him local TV gigs, put him on the magic circuit. She’d arranged for OMG to just happen to bump into that producer on the street, and get his cell phone -- dead battery and all -- to call the person he’d been thinking of calling without leaving his hip pocket. Abracadabra, they had a national TV deal.

That was the thing about magic. Nobody wanted to know how it was done, really; they came away feeling cheap afterward, and a little guilty. People wanted the illusion, the mystery. No one needed to know that the mysterious OMG was Oscar Myron Gimble, burnout son of wealthy rug importers from Palm Beach. No one wanted to know that he gave no interviews because he rarely had anything worthwhile to say, besides noticing that wow, the sky was so incredibly blue today, or hey, were you going to finish those fries? No one wanted to know that his small army of dedicated and secretly envious accountants had informally calculated that about ten percent of his gross income went to high-quality weed specially imported from Stockholm. The woman in fishnets knew it all, and often quietly wished she didn’t.

She’d been planning this trick for months. Getting the property owners on board was cake; hiring the demolitions experts to prewire the site for demolition, under the guise of a final site inspection, a week before the first press release even dropped was almost as easy. The fake OMG in the box, breathing and twitching animatronically in ways that had to skirt the edges of the Uncanny Valley without falling in, had been a little bit trickier, but she’d called around a year ahead of time and found some mechanical braniac who did rigs for the local haunted houses. She’d had an effects studio in Hollywood digitally scan OMG’s face under the guise of mocap for his upcoming next-gen console game, Feel The Illusion, and sent the data to the braniac . Her assistant said he was a nice guy on the phone, about which she could care less. Three months later she’d opened up a crate to see another OMG sitting inside, breathing quietly on battery power, and most definitely not asking if anyone had any candy bars he could borrow. She liked this one better than the real thing.

After that, it was just a matter of coordinating the split-second signal glitch, mere moments after the workmen had sealed up the box and left the room, from the real OMG in the box to the dummy on a sound stage in a warehouse back in L.A. that exactly replicated the inside of the penthouse, down to the laser-measured inch. The dummy, hooked up to a power source coming up from under the floor, sat there breathing realistically for a solid week, while light sensors wired around the penthouse in Chicago sent data back to the lighting system in the soundstage, replicating the lighting down to the passing shadows of clouds.

Keeping OMG holed up and out of sight had been the toughest part, more in the “keeping him holed up and out of sight” part than the actual logistics. He’d been in a construction trailer on the edge of the condemned property the whole time, a very well-stocked trailer full of his favorite video games and truly amazing leaf and plenty of snacks. And his girlfriend, a very sweet and earnest aspiring model with a great whistling vortex of nothing between her ears, to make sure he didn’t go outside or call for a pizza or anything too terribly stupid. To make sure he was sober and awake and not in the middle of an online deathmatch when the building went, so he could dash off through the dust cloud and climb to the top of the rubble and be there to wave to the crowd.

It cost a pretty penny, sure. But the endorsement deals were already rolling in, and Hollywood would want him for sure after this, and the woman in the fishnets got 10% of everything OMG made, which worked out to a whole hell of a lot of not working at Barnes and Noble. She talked to all the reporters, made all the crucial calls, wrote all the press releases, and no one knew or cared who she was. Exactly as she wanted it.

She also wanted a cigarette, and about a day’s worth of sleep, and a longer skirt, and a heavier coat that went down to her ankles and kept her legs from feeling like ice. But the trick had worked, and the crowd was still buzzing, still cheering, four solid minutes after the building went down, and the thing she’d never admit to anyone was how much she loved to stand at the edge of crowds just like this one and soak that feeling in.

Sully Wells rolled the coin across her knuckles again, smooth and reflexive, and thought about misdirection, and sleight of hand.

Which was kind of inadvertently apt, really, since she and the dozens of other assembled people were staring so intently at the demolished building and the semi-phony magician standing atop it, in the spotlight’s glare, that the men swathed in black silk were able to grab Sully, gag her, and drag her kicking into the back of their van without anyone else even noticing.

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