Well, there’s a break in the pre-summer heat wave so I’m back to hot cappuccinos and coffee shop blogging. Yesterday, I was forced to prematurely install my very-New York air conditioning unit that hangs out a back window. Can’t sleep in 80 degrees.
This morning, my mind has been occupied with two important upcoming Big Apple conventions. The first is most near and dear because I have helped to create it! If you’re a high school sophomore or above and are planning to audition for a higher education theatre program—college, repertory, what-have-you—you need to check out Manhattan Tour and Travel’s first annual Aspiring Theatre Artists Convention:
I’m continually at a loss for words when I hear that students—those who consider a career in theatre arts a top goal—audition for their higher ed programs with little or no preparation. I almost fall backward, knowing, statistically, that most hopefuls bring monologues or songs that have never been voiced aloud or critiqued. Why in the world wouldn’t you bring you’re a-game—develop, hone, tweak, and polish your audition material when so much hangs in the balance of acceptance and rejection?
ATAC Convention is my brainchild that allows upcoming auditioners the opportunity to see what other students are bringing to the table, and get feedback from the same level of professionals who will be giving the all-important yea or nay down the road. I’m proud to say I’ve created a program where each student will receive written feedback after a mock audition in front of New York theatre professionals. This is a one of a kind experience AND you also get to come to the city of aspiring actors and see some Broadway while you’re here. What could be better than that?
The other convention that’s been taking up space in my yikes-it’s-coming-up-soon cortex, is Thrillerfest! Or, more specifically, the Pitchfest component of Thrillerfest, where debut authors like me are trying to convince literary agents to give their work a read—no easy task in a sea of budding novelists. Nelson DeMille, master thriller writer, will be a special guest, as will Scott Turow and Kathy Reichs.
An educational component to the festival is called Craftfest, where writers can attend lectures and classes of interest to mystery writers. How fun are some of these?: REAL LIFE CASTLE: WRITERS AND COPS WORKING TOGETHER, MEDICAL SCHOOL FOR WRITERS, and ADAPTING YOUR THRILLER FOR THE BIG SCREEN. Since I’ve been editing like a beast these past few months, and some of my sweet supportive tour participants have asked, here’s another, yet-unseen sample from my book now titled STRANGE TERNS IN THE HOTHOUSE. Doesn’t it just sing? I chose a selection that’s very New York!—obvi. …Enjoy.
Emily’s sleep was spotty, twice interrupted by the nightmare. She could hardly focus during Intro To Thermodynamics.
She walked briskly along the park, slicing through long and thin shadows cast by late afternoon sun. Dry leaves blew around in spiral gusts opposite the museum, which was closing soon. She crossed on the diagonal, past bronze Abe Lincoln, up eight short steps, and through central doors beneath the words NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, founded when hyphenating the city’s name was in vogue.
Up on the second floor, Emily stared almost blankly at an imposing stained glass window—something about Huguenots—which suited the puritanical tone of the reading room perfectly.
A waifish employee, assisting a woman in an ugly red sweater, was stationed at a small secretary’s desk. Glass cases displaying old books in their original bindings funneled visitors toward check-in. Clearly, the reading room was available by appointment only.
Emily’s eyes wandered. A wraparound level above was lined with bookshelves filled to capacity, row upon row of grey binders. She wondered if they contained any valuable trading cards: Topps rookie-year Thurman Munson or even a ‘52 Mantle. Oblong wooden tables, generously spaced by New York City standards, populated the main floor. Large windows looked out onto the treetops of the park—it didn’t feel like the city despite an interior dripping with urban artifacts.
Emily was not generally patient—she was a New Yorker, after all. Still, it had been some time since she’d found herself in unfamiliar territory. She generally patroned the same places, maintained the same routine—the type who’d only sign up for a Pilates class if she could get the number 5 spot on the floor.
The woman with the ugly sweater finally made her way toward the exit. Emily observed the guard searching her matronly bag on the way out.
“You have an appointment?” the receptionist inquired mechanically. Emily simply handed her the letter. After reading it, she said, “Oh, Darwin.” She pointed to a young man at a larger, more functional desk across the room. He was scrawny with black tousled hair pushed behind the ears and a style of dress that seemed well beyond his age; pants so tight and legs so thin, it was reasonable to assume he taught Bikram yoga on weekends. She made her way over to his station, holding out the letter in front of her like it was some all-access pass. Darwin took it with a curious look into slightly lost, pretty brown eyes.
He glanced down at the paper then at her. “Miss Gilbreath?”
Emily was taken aback. “Do I know you?”
“You’re listed as secondary contact for Mr. Knickerbocker. I left you a message. You’re an assistant?” He assumed she was Lillian.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be more helpful when Mr. Knickerbocker came by in person. Fall is an enormously busy time here at the Society and because of that, we are pretty strict about appointments for research purposes.”
“I understand completely.”
“Interesting guy,” said Darwin. Emily remained quiet. “Your employer, I mean… Quite knowledgeable, actually. Reminds me of an old college professor at Dartmouth—sort of recounts history as if he witnessed it himself,” he said with a chuckle.
“Yes, he’s a real character.”
“I have your file box in the back. I wish I could have come up with a more definitive answer to your question. I promise, it’s not from lack of trying.”
“Oh, really?” Emily was doing well so far, pretending that she had the vaguest idea what he was talking about.
“Let’s move to a table,” Darwin said, hitting a few keys. The computer randomly assigned research tables in an effort to prevent theft. “Have you viewed documents with us before?”
Emily hesitated. “No.”
“No problem. You’ll want to take a pair of these.” He pointed to a dispenser of disposable gloves. “Some of your material is older and we protect those from human secretions.” Emily giggled to herself—Bing would never let someone get away with using the word secretions in any serious context. “Normally, you can view the material as long as you like. Unfortunately, we’re closing in fifteen minutes.”
“Can I come back again if I need more time?”
“You can come back first thing tomorrow, if you like. You’re permitted to use a laptop—no case, a digital camera, and five pages of handwritten notes—each page has to be stamped by me. Any other personal items—like medications—can be placed in a Ziploc bag which must remain on top of the desk.”
“I don’t have any of those things.”
“That’s fine.” More casually, “I’m required to say all of that. If you need to make a copy, we have a scanner just there, safe for delicate materials. I’ll go fetch your box.”
Emily stood there, in a historical research library for possibly the first time, feeling judged by altogether different kinds of nerds. It also seemed like the portly security officer was watching her specifically. Bet he knows what Yankees memorabilia they have.
Darwin returned quickly, carrying a prepared box of files. He glanced at the computer monitor again, then led Emily to a table over by the windows. He motioned for her to sit then he put on a pair of white gloves that lived in his front shirt pocket before removing an acid-free folder from the box. He carefully mounted a yellowed newspaper on a large manuscript stand for viewing.
Glancing at the front page, “Here’s what is known about the obelisk or so-called Cleopatra’s Needle: it actually has nothing to do with the ill-fated figure of antiquity; it was already over a thousand years old in her lifetime. The obelisk was constructed at Heliopolis, commemorating thirty years of the reign of Thutmose III. I found one source stating that the obelisk was recovered in Alexandria very near a temple dedicated to Cleopatra—that could be the source of the misnomer but I can’t confirm it. You could try going across the street during the day.”
“Across the street?”
“Egyptology Department at the Natural History Museum.”
He carefully flipped to the continuation of the article. “I’m sure you’re aware that the obelisk is part of a pair; its sister structure was dedicated just three years prior in London, 1878. It remains there. Incidentally, that one was dedicated along with the burial of a time capsule, as well.”
“A time capsule?”
“If I understood correctly, the time capsule was Mr. Knickerbocker’s primary interest.”
Darwin was attracted to her quirkiness. Too bad Emily didn’t recognize flirtation. “I found three credible listings—two articles and one book—that summarize, to some degree, the contents of the New York capsule.” He gingerly exchanged one newspaper for another. Referring to an inventory list, Darwin located the relevant passage. “Right here. The time capsule contains one copy of the 1870 US Census, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a Webster’s English dictionary, the complete works of William Shakespeare, a King James Bible and my personal favorite, A Traveler’s Guide to Egypt. And of course… the small unmarked box placed inside by Mr. Stebbins.”
“What was in the box?” Emily asked, intuitively.
“The million dollar question. Truth is, I can’t find a single source revealing what Stebbins put inside. I’m sure you already know something about the man—he was largely responsible for the procurement and transport of the obelisk. He could pretty much do whatever he wanted—he brought it here.”
“To New York?”
“Yes, but more important, to the east side of Central Park. Incredibly, it took almost four months to move the obelisk from the banks of the Hudson to its current location. They literally dragged it there on rolling wooden beams.”
“You would think technology had improved since the time of the pharaohs.”
“It’s puzzling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was granted that stretch of park along Fifth Avenue ten years earlier—in a sense, Stebbins chose a location where the obelisk would be largely hidden from view.”
“That is odd.”
“Take a look at another article.” He gently replaced the previous document with a new one. “Accounts from the time seem to suggest that the resting place of the obelisk was not revealed until the last moment. And then highly criticized for its remote location.”
“Why was it placed in such an obscure spot?”
“I got a sense from your employer that he already had some ideas. He mentioned Stebbins’ sister, Emma.” Darwin looked for a spark of recognition. “The artist who sculpted the famous Angel of the Waters statue? Which, in contrast, is very centrally located at the park’s Bethesda Terrace. That sculpture was commissioned little more than a decade earlier. Female artists rarely had work featured so prominently in city parks at the time—particularly on that scale. With that kind of influence—don’t forget, he was the one-time president of the Central Park Commission—it’s a wonder Stebbins couldn’t secure a more featured locale for the obelisk.”
“Or chose not to…”
“The rest of this folder contains what articles we have detailing Stebbins’ career—it’s a lengthy one: US Representative, three-time President of the Exchange, Colonel of the Twelfth Regiment… the one that featured in the Draft Riots, President of the Atlantic Railway and Commodore of the New York Yacht Club.”
“Wow, he wasn’t well-connected at all.”
Darwin smirked at the sarcasm. “We also have four books that deal with his life—at least, somewhat. I only skimmed them—sorry I didn’t have time to get through each one with a fine-toothed comb. I was hoping a passage or anecdote from later in his life might reference the time capsule.”
“The contents of his box?”
“No mention. At least, none that I could find.”
“Has anyone ever tried to dig it up?”
Darwin’s brows merged as he frowned. “This is not a Dan Brown novel. People can’t just go digging around historic monuments.”
“In that case, seems like a dead end.”
He paused, gears turning. “Maybe not entirely. Stebbins seemed adamant about the use of a lead box. I would assume the item—whatever it may be—is delicate, something not easily preserved.”
“I really wish I could tell you more. You’re welcome to look over the contents of this file box until closing. Then, if you could bring it back to me with the inventory list.”
Just as Darwin was about to walk away, he said, “The length of time the obelisk took to get into place…”
“Just a completely random thought, but… is it possible that Stebbins himself orchestrated the delay?”
“You mean, as if he were waiting for something?”
“Keeping progress at a minimum until he could acquire whatever item eventually went into that box.”
“Something he didn’t want found without considerable trouble.” Emily murmured, zoning out to faded print.
“Well, if you need anything, let me know.” Darwin started to go then remembered something else. “By-the-way, did Mr. Knickerbocker make any headway at Natural History?”
“The Egyptology Department?”
“No, the archives. I suggested he go over there. Stebbins, after all, was a museum trustee.”