Part TwoIt had started off as a simple missing persons case. He had been hired to find a young woman who disappeared after going to Hollywood. She had had big dreams. She had wanted to become a star actress, the new Jean Harlow or Louise Lorraine.
It shouldn’t have been a problem. Hiram had had lots of other cases just like it. In most of them, the girl he was looking for either had ended up working in some dive or had turned to prostitution to make end’s meet. Either that, or something else equally embarrassing. They changed their names because they didn’t want anyone from home to get in touch and see how far they had fallen. Only rarely had something worse happened, like murder, though even that would have been within Hiram’s field of experience. He had been on the beat in L.A. for fifteen years, ten as a cop, five as an independent operator. He had thought nothing could surprise them.
That had been in 1936.
Before the Prodigal.
Before the Cirque.
Hiram signaled right and got onto the next street’s turn lane. He took the exit and drove the rental into a residential neighborhood. This case is worse, he decided. If I don’t find my serial petrifier, I’m going to be losing a whole lot more than my “humanity.” I’ll be lucky if they don’t put me on display somewhere, maybe even right next to Dorothy Simmers, the girl who got me into this mess in the first place. Talk about ironic.
He started checking addresses on either side of the street.
No, he thought a moment later. I take that back. It was his own damn fault he was where he was, that he was the Cirque’s lapdog. It’s not as if Dorothy had asked to become a collector’s item. He grimaced. And it was my own decision, ultimately. It was the only choice I had left.
He saw he was on the wrong street, and he made the next left. The road was tree-lined, and the houses were upscale. Anne Willis had done well for herself since Grammercy HS. A well-to-do husband, two picture perfect kids, a house in the suburbs . . . it was the American dream. Hiram hoped it was undisturbed when he got there.
When the news had reached him that Ellen Hewitt nee Blaine had turned up a statue, the fourth victim of his serial petrifier, Hiram had immediately checked his list of potential victims. They had all graduated from Grammercy High School seven years ago. He had been methodical in his research - not recognizing any other connection, Hiram had decided to put a tail on each and every female graduate that year, hang the expense, starting with those in Cincinnati. He had met five so far that afternoon, and he still had another six to go before he would feel satisfied. Anne Willis, now Anne Montclair, was his next stop.
This is not going to be a repeat of the Simmers’ case, he resolved. It won’t.
The petrifier closed the door behind him.
He picked up Anne - his Melpomene - and, grunting a little with the exertion, carried her into her living room. He had been working out, preparing for his project, but even after her two kids, Anne was still a pretty light woman. Pretty, too. She took care of herself, which was good for him. He grabbed her under her armpits and lifted her over. She didn’t complain or scream or raise any objection at all to his cavalier treatment. None of them had. The immobilizing flash of the Freezer had been nearly the first thing Anne had seen when she opened the door, and it had left her somewhat speechless.
Not to mention motionless.
He put her in the middle of the room and took a look around. Expensive wall paintings, a home entertainment center complete with DVD, wall to wall carpeting . . . yep, the man thought, Henry Montclair was doing pretty good for himself. He was impressed.
The intruder closed the window shades.
He examined his model. She was in her mid-twenties, like himself. She had light auburn hair, green eyes (caught now in an expression of surprised recognition), and good cheekbones. And, like he had checked out himself a few weeks back, a body well-toned from regular workouts with a personal trainer. She was, in the petrifier’s humble opinion, more beautiful now than she had been back in high school.
He began stripping off her clothing. No, he thought, these would never do, removing first an ordinary blouse and then the white bra underneath. You must be better garbed for eternity, my dear. She was wearing tattered jeans, too, and these also for aesthetic reasons were quickly removed, revealing the woman’s good, strong, and smooth legs.
She would thank him, he truly believed, could she only speak. He took a small pair of scissors out of his coat pocket and snipped away her panties. You are about to become a goddess, Anne. I envy you, I truly do. You will know pleasures the like of which I cannot even dream. He rubbed his hands across her flat belly and down over her thighs, testing their firmness. Then he walked around her and did the same for her backside. The startled look on her face did nothing to express the range of emotions she felt underneath. She could not move so much as her little finger in protest.
The petrifier had brought his case with him, and from inside it he removed the fashionings for which his Melpomene would spend the rest of her existence. First there was the white gown, gossamer-fine, then the white tragedy mask, mirror opposite to the one he had fitted earlier with Thalia. He took off his coat, revealing the metal container and hose assembly he had strapped to his body. He sat down in a nearby chair and examined a notebook he had also brought. The petrifier had drawn diagrams of how he had wanted to pose Anne, but now that he was in her house he had grown undecided again. Did he want her to match his previous work in Thalia, like a pair of matched bookends, or did he want to try something else?
Sitting, he thought, or standing? Which would look better?
It was a real puzzler. If he had been using the same petrifying solution, there would have been no contest. A matched set of figures in green marble, Comedy and Tragedy, would have been too much of an ideal to ignore. But he had limited resources, and these had forced him to use a different technique for each subject. In individual cases that left him room for debate. Would a frozen Melpomene look better sitting or standing?
Or reclining maybe, he thought.
A knock at the door interrupted his musings.
The petrifier checked his watch. What, what? Who? The husband, the kids . . . ? No, they would not have knocked. Who, then? He took a deep breath, heard the knocking again, and tried to calm down. This had never happened before. He had never before been interrupted in the middle of his work. He didn’t know what to do.
Okay, okay, he thought quickly. Get a grip, Tony. Get a grip. Whoever it is, if they keep knocking, ignore it. They’ll go away. If they don’t, you still got the Freezer.
All he had to do was not panic. But he started sweating suddenly.
Did I lock the door behind me? He couldn’t remember.
The petrifier heard a rattle as the doorknob was tested, then a faint clicking sound. He heard the front door slowly open.
They broke in! he thought. They broke in! He raised the Freezer and stood by the entryway.
A man in a disheveled hat and coat came in, mid-forties or so and medium height. His eyes scanned the room and seemed to take in everything at once - the naked, motionless woman, the pile of clothes, the guy with the canister on his chest, the works.
The petrifier activated the Freezer. A blinding flash of light illuminated the room. The next thing he knew the newcomer was across the room and punching him in the nose. He flew back against the wall behind him, striking it hard enough to knock down the paintings and figurines above him.
What the hell? he thought confusedly.
Hiram saw stars from the flash, but that was about it. “That trick’s been done to me before, junior,” he said, “and it just don’t work no more. No more brainstem, you see.”
The detective reached down for his attacker, but the man awkwardly brought up the nozzle-gun before he could get him. Whoa! Hiram thought and dived for cover. The air crackled, and a pure stream of white crystal fluid shot out where his head had been a scant moment before. The stream hit the ceiling, and a sheet of nearly transparent and unbreakable ice formed across the surface. Icicles formed along the overhead fan and down the corners. The room’s temperature immediately dropped twenty degrees.
I should’a put more power in my punch. Hiram rolled behind the couch just before another white streamer hit it. It froze up in front of him like an iceberg. Again, the room’s temp took a nose-dive. In fact, I should’a taken his head clear off, he thought.
The porcelain figures and decorative dishes collected throughout the room all shattered. The ambient effect of the freezing fluid had instantly made the room a deep-freeze. Whisps of white mist emerged from the mouths of Anne and the petrifier whenever they breathed, though not from Hiram. He hadn’t breathed for a long time.
Anne’s intruder ran around the couch’s side and fired again. He was screaming incoherently, his eyes bulging in their sockets. Hiram dived around the other side, reaching inside his coat for his gun at the same time. The white stream passed over his shoulder blades and into the wall beside him. The house groaned in agonized response as the unnatural frost settled in. A thin layer of ice blanketed Hiram’s back. He had the gun in his hand, and then the freezing current passed right over it, congealing the whole front of his arm from his elbow down into one single block of ice.
Ah, nuts, he thought, grimacing from the pain. Instead of running away, which would have made him a better target, Hiram jumped back in the direction of the freezing gun. The petrifier squawked and fired again. Hiram dodged. The guy’s aim was terrible, though just enough of the beam hit the detective in the left hip to frost over that leg. His momentum still carried him into the man, however, and he got the satisfaction of hearing bone crack over the icy snapping in the air when he impacted him in the chest.
The petrifier hit the far wall again and bounced off into the kitchen. The container on his chest was hissing ominously, and despite the agony he felt he hit the buckle release, shuffling out of the harness as quickly as he could. White fluid dribbled over the linoleum floor, icing it over. The temperature in the house had dropped fifty degrees in under a minute, and cracks had formed everywhere in the superstructure.
Melpomene, he cried silently, then staggered to the backdoor.
Hiram tried to follow him for a moment, but he saw that the leaking container the man left behind would have frozen him to the floor had he continued. Besides, his left leg was useless, and his right arm had become a club. He had to let him go.
Hiram turned over and looked behind him at the living room. It had turned into a fantasy winter wonderland: icicles dangling from the ceiling, snow covering the carpet and furniture. Anne Montclair was turning blue. Miraculously, she hadn’t been hit during the fight, but she would still freeze to death if he didn’t do something about it quick.
It’s gonna be tough explaining this, he thought, staggering to one leg. I wonder how much noise we made? Police on their way? That’d be all I need.
The detective limped over to the paralyzed nude woman. He couldn’t make out the expression in her eyes - he wondered if she were still sane after all she had just seen - but he made sure to be within her line of sight. He tapped the side of his head three times with his left hand. The sound was more hollow than it really should have been.
Hiram’s eyes began to rotate inside their sockets. A whirling blue, green, and red kaleidoscope formed inside them.
“Listen to me, Anne Montclair,” he said to her. “What you have just seen . . . forget it. Put it out of your mind. What was done to you by that idiot . . . forget that too. And that flash you saw . . . ignore it. You are calm, you are collected, you have absolutely nothing to worry about . . . and you can move. Do you understand me?”
Anne hesitated, then cautiously nodded her head. Her arms slowly came down to her sides, and a worried expression had formed on her face. She was still stiff, and she wasn’t completely buying his “forget everything” speech yet, but she was on her way.
“What I really need you to do right now, Anne,” Hiram went on, “is to go upstairs or wherever your bathroom is and put on a hot, scalding bath. Don’t use any cold water at all, and then help me to it.” He shivered. “I’m colder than I’m ever likely to get . . . and this is from somebody who thought he couldn’t even feel cold anymore.” He waited to see if she had processed this. “Can you help me?”
The woman nodded, then said carefully, slowly, “Yes. I can help you. Thank you . . . for saving my life.” Her voice was dreamy, unconnected. She would not be remembering the incident at all in a few hours. All she could see now were the pretty twirling lights the nice man had shown her. They made her feel peaceful and happy.
“No problem,” Hiram said. “You might want to put some clothes on, too. It’s gotten downright chilly in here, don’t you think?” She put her arm around his shoulders and helped him up the stairs. She nodded her head in agreement.
“And, say, you don’t happen to have any hot chocolate, do you?”
The petrifier, Tony, tried running back to his van, but then he saw the spreading stain of fluid underneath - oil, water, whatever - and knew that the man who had attacked him had been there first. So, in spite of the pain in his ribs and chest, he ran past as fast as he could, not stopping until he was shaking and gasping for breath several blocks away.
My god, my god, he thought, hysteria filling him. What the hell was that? The Freezer didn’t stop him. He kept fighting when he should have been frozen in his tracks.
Tony put his hands out and leaned against a lamp pole, trying to catch his breath. One, maybe two of his ribs had been broken, at least. He felt as if his chest had been caved in.
The Dancers must’ve sent him, he reasoned, dreading the thought. The Cirque. There was no other explanation. Whatever he had fought just hadn’t been human.
The madman limped over to a nearby bench and sat down wearily. His whole body was quivering, though whether in fear, pain, or exhaustion he couldn’t tell yet.
Then, after thinking about it for a while, he began to smile.
I got their attention. Again, after so many years. I got their attention.
And that was half the battle, he knew. If I can just finish the project, let them see the whole work, then they’ll just have to let me back in. They have to have the other four by now. That’s why they sent that . . . that thing.
But why would they have sent that machine after him if they approved of what he was doing? a black part of mind whispered. The Cirque might be angry with you.
No, he shook his head, refusing to acknowledge the thought. They can’t be mad at me. They’re just . . just . . . . Light dawned inside him. That’s it, they’re just afraid I’m being too public! I should have seen it before. I was blind. I just have to be more . . . more circumspect, that’s all. More careful.
It still hurt to breathe, but Tony’s thoughts were smoother again, his doubts vanishing. No more individual jobs, he decided, no more leaving my works in public places. That was stupid, I should have realized that from the beginning.
He got up from the park bench and slowly began walking down the street. Small bits of ice still dangled unnoticed from the edges of his coat. He began readjusting his plans and schedule. Too bad about Anne, he thought, but she wouldn’t have made a good Melpomene, I see that now. She was a . . a . . a mother, that’s it, he rationalized. No more mothers. Boy, I’ve been stupid. Mothers always make bad statues.
I’ll have to grab the remaining four all at once, he realized. And I have to find a new Melpomene. Store ‘em all someplace and then reveal them when they’re ready.
Problems of logistics filled his mind for the rest of the afternoon.
And when I’m done, when I’m completely done, they’ll have to let me back in.
He was sure of it.
“Which do you want first, Albie?” Hiram asked. “The good news or the bad news?”
He heard a sigh over the telephone. “Must you make a joke every time we speak, Mr. Cross?” The detective could almost hear the frown in Avatar’s voice. Needling the chief G. Limited executive was one of the few joys Hiram still had in life. “I assumed you had called to make a report, not engage me in a comedy routine.”
Hiram grinned. “Pick.”
Sigh. “Oh, very well. The bad news first.”
Hiram shifted inside the bathtub, steam rising in a thick cloud around him. The water was hot enough to raise welts on exposed skin, though of course that didn’t mean much to him anymore. Anne Montclair stood waiting in the hall outside with a towel. Her eyes were still blank and unfocused.
“Well, I’m sorry to say our suspect got away. Again. I had Ray and Les check on the license plate from the van I smashed, though. Belongs to a man named Anthony Huer. You know him?”
“Anthony Huer, you say?” Avatar asked. There was a pause. “No. No one by that name was ever employed here.”
The detective shook his head and made a sorry chuckle. “Nice to see you got your priorities straight, business first and all. Never mind that he’s a psycho . . . it’s just a good thing he isn’t our psycho.”
“As I remember, Mr. Cross, it was you who originally brought up the concern that our ‘serial petrifier,’ as you call him, was an ex-employee of our company,” Avatar said. “I should think that you would be glad he isn’t associated with us.”
“I didn’t say that, Albie. I still think we’re involved. We have to be. Who else do you know can turn people to stone or make freezing-guns or what not? And you didn’t ask me about the good news.”
“By all means, Mr. Cross, please go on.”
Outside, Mrs. Montclair began to moan slightly. As Hiram had determined earlier, the woman really wasn’t planning on remembering much about what had happened to her that day. Even without his help, the sheer shock value alone might have been enough to give her hysterical amnesia. Enough of the experience would be left, though, to give her nightmares, probably for the rest of her life.
“The good news is that the police won’t get involved,” Hiram said. “I guess the sound of Huer’s freezing gun wasn’t as loud as I’d thought. Nobody called the cops, and nobody will now. The ice is melting, and I’ll convince the Montclairs that they burst a water main or something. The evidence will support that.”
A thousand miles away, Avatar glanced briefly at the inventory sheet in front of him.
“That may not be necessary. Since Ray and Lester are already in the area, it would be an easy matter to salvage the situation. We have an auction coming up, and you could . . .”
Hiram sat up abruptly in the tub. Scalding water splashed around him. “No. Absolutely not.”
“I’m only saying . . . .”
“No.” Hiram was suddenly furious at the man. How dare he even consider . . . “These people have had enough grief in their lives. I will not be party to anything else happening to them. It’s bad enough they were targeted by Huer. We don’t need to go after them next.” Memories of Dorothy Simmers went through his mind, and he shuddered.
“I only raised the suggestion because . . . .”
“No. Mrs. Montclair’ll have nightmares enough no matter what I do to make her forget, but I want to make sure she’s left in a condition capable of having nightmares.” He was holding the telephone hard enough to leave indentions in it. “Let me make this totally clear - Anne Montclair is not to be touched, nor any other member of her family. Period.”
The executive sighed . . . again. “Very well, Mr. Cross. We’ll accede to your wishes. Is there anything else?” His tone made it clear he hoped there wouldn’t be.
“As a matter of fact. Make sure all the female Grammercy graduates still have those tails I put on ‘em. Huer might still go after them.” Hiram lifted his right arm out of the near boiling tub. Even with the heat, his hand was still frozen around his gun. His leg wasn’t doing much better either. “Oh, and send someone down to my office. I need a new right arm and a new left leg. They can find a stack behind my filing cabinet.”
He beckoned for Mrs. Montclair to come in and help him out.
“And don’t forget to bring a screwdriver, too.”
Avatar hung up the phone and looked across the desk at his boss.
Fip was smiling . . . but then he was always smiling. His grin reminded Avatar of a shark’s.
“That was great, Albert,” the former actor said. “Absolutely great. You’re a natural.” The man was dressed in a tailored pitch black suit that still managed to hang on his emaciated form like the coat on a scarecrow. His eyes twinkled behind smoked wire-rim glasses, and altogether he looked like a character brought to life from a Dickens’ novel.
Avatar cleared his throat. “I’m not sure I understand what’s going on, sir,” he said. “We don’t want Huer stopped, you say, but we sent Cross out anyway to do just that?”
“Oh, that’s all right, Albert,” Fip said laughingly. He stood up. “It’s not important that you understand.” He looked down at him.
His eyes were like little pieces of glowing coal. “Understand?” he asked.
The other man gulped, looked down, and nodded silently. The head of G. Limited gave his employee another blinding grin, turned around, and started walking out of the office. He stopped at the doorway, though. “And those agents Hiram wanted following the acquisitions,” he said after a pause, “. . . make sure they keep their distance.”
Avatar nodded his head again. “Yes, sir.”
Tony nervously eyed the house with the motorhome in front of it. He put a hand inside his shirt and hitched up the bandages wrapped around his chest a little tighter, grunting softly with the pain. His other hand held a sealed Tupperware bowl.
This part of the plan had to work, he knew, or the whole scheme was finished. His resources were dried up. It had taken all his courage to go back to his apartment and get his stuff, but then he had had to. There had been no choice. Everything he had had left over from his days with the Cirque had been back there. He had gone immediately following the attack at Anne’s, and he counted himself lucky that he hadn’t been caught. That . . that thing was still looking for him, and he needed his equipment.
His van, though, had been a total loss, which was why he had to get Sarah today. Originally, she had been the eighth woman on his list - his Polyhymnia - but he needed that motorhome now. There could be no more mistakes. He could no longer leave his works in public, at least not individually. He needed both transport and a place to keep them all before the big unveiling, hence the necessity of moving Sarah Norton up to the top of his schedule.
A pair of elderly walkers passed him on the sidewalk, and he smiled and returned their wave as they crossed the street in front of him. One of them, a woman of about seventy, looked back over her shoulder at him as she left. Great, the neighborhood watch, Tony thought. He blinked. I gotta do this now before too many people see me. Suburbs like this are dangerous.
He looked booth ways across the street, then hurried over. Tony had maintained a loose observation of his targets for several months, and he knew their comings and goings almost by heart. Sarah was home and would be for a couple more hours, but unfortunately so was her husband, Jack. That was a problem, but hopefully it was not a serious one.
The contents of the plastic container sloshed back and forth.
Behind the motorhome, he saw the Nortons’ garage door was open, and inside he found the husband working on his car. He was a salesman, Tony knew, and he liked to putter around as an amateur mechanic. He didn’t see the petrifier approach until he was almost right next to him.
“What the . . ?” he started to say, but the flash of the Freezer caught him open-mouthed, a look of surprise and rising anger painting his stilled features. It would be several hours before the paralysis effect wore off, and by that time Tony hoped to be long gone.
Good, he thought. That was easy. He strapped the electronic gun back underneath his coat and walked up to the sidedoor into the house. He could hear a television set going on inside. Breathing deeply (though not too deeply because of the broken ribs), Tony put on a pair of rubber gloves he had taken out of his coat pocket. He put the Tupperware bowl down first, then slowly drew the latex on, interlacing the fingers together carefully so there was a tight fit. Of all the strange materials he had acquired from his former masters, the one he was going to use next was the most volatile. If even so much as a single drop made contact with his bare skin, well, the Cirque would be getting quite another sort of tribute from him, he supposed. A very personal one.
He picked up the bowl and cracked the lid. Delicately, slowly, he poured the contents into his covered palm. The gloves he was wearing were bright yellow - he had bought them from a discount convenience store - and the small, semi-liquid, china-white blob now sitting in his right hand contrasted sharply with the thick material. It flowed in and out of the tiny rubber creases like mercury. Cupping it at his waist beside his long coat, Tony used his left hand to open the door, then reached for the Freezer again.
Inside was the kitchen. Something was simmering on the stove, a soup it smelled like. The place had been done in a kind of Western outdoors motif. Tony remembered from high school that Sarah had always liked cowboys movies, and he saw that the passion hadn’t dimmed yet. There was an open arch into the dining room area, and to the side of that another into the living room. That was from where he heard the sound of the TV.
“Jack,” Sarah called from inside, and Tony froze. She must have heard the door open. “Would you stir the pot for a moment and tell me when it starts to bubble?” Tony looked around for a second to do just that, blinked, and remembered where he was. He made his way to the living room entry and peeked inside. Sarah was ironing clothes in front of the TV and had her back to him. A bag of laundry sat at her side.
Sure enough, it was a western showing.
Tony took a brief moment to admire his future Polyhymnia. Sarah was a tall girl, redheaded, and athletic-looking. She was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, no shoes. Her legs were lovely and firm. Her hair was tied back with a black ribbon. Beautiful, he thought, stepping forward. He tossed the glob of whiteness in his hand at the back of her neck.
She stiffened immediately, as anybody would having something cold and wet tossed on them from behind, and spun around. “Jack! What the hell are you . . . ?” She stopped when she saw it wasn’t her husband playing tricks with her.
Sarah started to scream, and Tony put his hands to her mouth to prevent her, dropping the Freezer as he did so. It didn’t matter anymore, anyway. He couldn’t use it on her now. The flash wasn’t compatible with the plastifying gel. He stepped forward even closer, and Sarah suddenly kneed her attacker in the groin. Tony groaned and fell away from her, clutching at himself at once.
She recognized him. Tony Huer, all the way back from Grammercy HS. Sarah had last seen him taking photos of the Choral Club for the yearbook. She got ready to scream again, but that’s when the muscles in her throat finally seized up.
Suddenly, she couldn’t speak.
She couldn’t breathe!
The plastifying gel on her neck expanded outward rapidly, flowing over and around her skin like wildfire. It streamed down her throat and along the cleavage exposed by her T-shirt, turning her pink and excited flesh a porcelain pureness instead. Tony, eyes squeezed nearly shut in pain, watched the transformation work. A snowy grip had embraced Sarah, slowly turning her into a life-size porcelain doll. The pale flow rushed down her legs and locked them into position. Where the material covered her, it did so so tightly and completely that it was impossible to tell it was a covering. The gel had within seconds become a second skin. Tony knew that was only the beginning.
Within the next few hours, the transformation effect would spread inward, converting everything about Sarah into a pure-white, smooth, and totally unbreakable argillaceous substance. He watched it work on her face. The gel worked more slowly there, so that while the rest of her body was already mostly covered and converted, the immaculate purity of the porcelain had only barely graced her lips so far.
Her eyes were wide and frightened.
The tide froze her mouth first, then flooded over her nose and ears. It passed cleanly over her forehead. Only at the last did it stream into her eyes, which became milky and opaque. The hair on her head was left untouched, though. Everywhere else the gel would completely denude her, but her lovely red hair would join her in preservation.
The petrifier struggled to his feet and collapsed into the nearest chair. The plastifying gel would still be volatile for another several minutes, but after that there would be a short interval during which it would be safe to touch and pose her. Then, after about two or three more hours, Sarah would set permanently and never budge again, save perhaps with a jackhammer. Then, after moving her to the motorhome, he and his Polyhymnia would strike out and begin recruiting her four remaining sisters.
It would be the start of a whole new adventure.
The motel room was dark and shabby, just like Hiram’s mood. He flipped through the covers of the Grammercy HS yearbook for what seemed like the hundredth time.
If he were to admit the truth to himself, though, it was really closer to two hundred. He sighed. Even before his association with the Cirque de Artificiel and his involuntary transformation at their hands, Hiram had always been considered a methodical person. It was a trait that had helped immensely in his career as a detective; he took baby steps during an investigation, one at a time, finishing one before starting another. “Slow but sure” his cop friends had called him. Where others might skip a clue in their rush to judgment, Hiram found that by taking his time, he usually came out ahead. Not this time, though. He knew he was taking too long on this case. He had been sloppy. Taking Huer down should have been easy and accomplished days ago.
He was disgusted with himself.
The detective closed the book he held, closed his eyes, and took his special key out of his pocket. Inserting it in the hole in the back of his neck, he began winding slowly, little ratcheting sounds accompanying each turn. He sat back and thought.
Slow but sure. From the beginning.
Item: the serial petrifier’s name was Anthony Huer. Tony to his friends, of which he didn’t have many. He was not a member of the Cirque nor was he an employee of G. Limited, the company more or less founded by the Cirque. Hiram had been told this by Albert Avatar and had checked it out himself just to be sure. Huer was not a member of the Club either, the very exclusive group of millionaires to whom G. Limited sold its goods. Huer was, in fact, virtually a pauper. Hiram had checked his bank and credit records for the last seven years, and at no time had he ever come into serious money. His apartment, cleaned out by the time Hiram got there, was worthy of being condemned.
Yet, for all that, he had resources which could only have come from the Cirque. Petrifying formulas and ice-throwers were not something a person could buy at the local supermarket.
Item: Huer was a graduate of Grammercy High School here in Cincinnati. So were all of his victims. All were beautiful women, and all had been transformed into statues, each of a different type. Unfortunately, aside that the women were all beautiful and from Grammercy, they had nothing else obvious in common.
Hiram didn’t think his petrifier’s choices were entirely random, though. Huer had shown a great deal of planning in his madness. Jeanette Armstrong had been turned to marble and posed holding a vellum scroll. He had checked the writing, but it was gibberish, mere decoration. A fellow graduate, Melissa Kepler, was now a granite statue, frozen in study of a history text. Lillian Carson was a mannequin holding an old-fashioned quill pen. Ellen Hewitt had been turned to green marble, and a comedy mask was put over her face. Each of them had also been put into white togas. There was obviously a connection - a presumably Greek or Roman connection - but only one of the victims had been in a Greek-letter sorority. Hiram just wasn’t getting it.
He had saved Anne Montclair before she was iced - literally - but he still couldn’t see the connection. None of the women were friends with one another, they each had different interests, and they each hadn’t even seen one another since graduation.
Item: the yearbook. Huer himself, Hiram had checked, had actually been on the yearbook staff. His name was in the credits. He had been a member of the photography club. There were no incriminating photos of his in the yearbook, unfortunately, no group shot of all the victims together that would have made Hiram’s life a good deal easier.
Hell, maybe Huer was choosing them at random.
“Crap,” the detective muttered. He finished winding himself up and opened the yearbook again randomly. The case was going nowhere. He had tails on all the female graduates, and so far no reports had come in, but he was still wasting time. Maybe if he . . .
Hiram stopped. The yearbook had fallen open to Melissa Kepler’s entry. Her photo showed a serious-looking teenager with dark hair. A list of accomplishments and the clubs she had belonged to sat beside it. Hiram had read them before, but something . . .
Library Preservation Society (volunteer)
Back when she was still a teenager, and a human being, Ms. Kepler had been one of a group of volunteers leading an effort to get their school library recognized as a historical site. Hiram had read about it before. In fact, there was a photo in the book that showed those volunteers at a fund rally. Hiram, virtually having memorized the damn thing, turned through it quickly and found the page he wanted. Melissa was in the front row.
Had Huer taken the picture? The book didn’t say.
Library Preservation Society, Hiram thought. History. Why not just say History Club and be done with it? And if that was the case . . .
Oh, it can’t be that simple, he thought just a moment later. It can’t be. But he leafed through the yearbook anyway just to make sure.
Armstrong had been a member of the Literature Club.
Carson had been in no clubs, but her bio in the yearbook mentioned her fondness for cheap romantic novels. Erotic poetry? Hiram speculated.
“I’m an idiot,” the detective said aloud, softly. “It was in front of me the whole time, the togas and everything.” His tone was incredulous, aghast at his blindness.
Ellen Hewitt had been in a comedy play the high school had put on, The Catbird Seat. Anne Montclair had been in a tragedy, Hamlet. She had played Ophelia.
“Crap, crap, crap, Crap, CRAP!” Hiram picked up the phone and
hoped it wasn’t too late.
“Smile!” Tony said. The Freezer flashed brightly.
Ruth Meyers had been out walking her dog, a short-haired terrier. The effect of the immobilizing device took both of them at the same time. Ruth was a slight girl, brown-haired and freckled slightly. She was wearing a warm jacket. She looked up, and suddenly she was paralyzed in the process of cleaning up after her pet: body bent over, head sticking up, and a piece of dog crap sitting in her gloved hand.
It was nauseating and not the preferred pose Tony would have had her in, but his ribs still pained him, and his balls ached from where Sarah had kicked him earlier that morning. He just wasn’t up to any hard fighting. He would take his opportunities where he could. As such, Ruth was caught leaning forward to the sidewalk, one arm extended down while the other held her dog’s leash. Her eyes, cocked up at an odd angle, were frozen in an expression of total surprise. Inelegant, perhaps, but efficient.
Tony had parked Sarah’s motorhome right next to the sidewalk and waited for Ruth to come by. The tree had been a favorite of the mutt’s. He had checked. Tony bent down - groan - and unleashed the dog, which now resembled a stuffed animal. It fell over on its side, and Tony didn’t bother putting it upright again. Then, straightening up again - another groan - the petrifier wrapped his arms around Ruth’s upturned waist and carried her over to the door. Breathing heavily, he opened it and began struggling to put her inside. He had begun to think he might end up wearing a truss before all this was over.
“Hey, what’re you doin’ over there?”
Before he had a chance to look up, somebody grabbed Tony’s shoulders and pulled him back sharply. He fell to the ground, and Ruth, her pose unchanged, fell on top of him.
Great, Tony thought. Just great. A passerby. Good Samaritan.
It was an older guy, a woman behind him. “Call the cops, Lucy!” he yelled at her.
This can’t be happening! Tony screamed inside. He scrambled for the Freezer, but it was caught somewhere between him and the frozen body on top of him. The older guy, gray-haired and granite-faced, pulled Tony aside by his coat and abruptly kicked him in the stomach. The air rushed out of his lungs. The petrifier fell back against the motorhome, the world spinning out of control.
The other lady was backing off, looking at her husband-boyfriend-whatever as if he had gone crazy. The Samaritan kicked Tony again, and he fell into the gutter, blood streaming out of his mouth. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He was getting mugged.
Samaritan couched down beside Ruth, now lying on her side, one arm still outstretched to collect doggie dew. No movement yet, obviously. “Hey, you all right, lady? What’d he do to you?”
Tony somehow found the Freezer. He brought it up. “This, you idiot,” he muttered and pulled the trigger. The guy looked right into the muzzle.
His woman screamed. Once. Tony aimed the Freezer at her next.
It took Tony almost a minute to get to his feet again. A fuzziness was creeping into the sides of his vision, and he bit his tongue sharply to keep from fainting. He staggered over to Ruth and pulled her upright. He began dragging her to the door.
Full daylight, he thought. Someone’s sure to have heard the scream. He looked over at the Samaritan’s girlfriend and thought briefly about adding her to the collection. She was pretty enough. No, he decided, too much of an unknown.
Besides, with Ruth, he had everyone he needed now.
It had been a busy day. Inside, instead of collapsing the way he wanted to, Tony closed the door and went up the narrow aisle to the driver’s seat. Behind it, in the little kitchen nook, two young women sat around a table, both staring forward blankly. The expressions of each face differed. The first, a blonde, looked angry. The second, also a blonde, and a last minute replacement for Melpomene, looked bewildered and scared.
In one of the bunks a third woman lay on her back, also staring forward blankly. She was a redhead. The expression on her face was simple surprise.
Each was as still as a mannequin, barely breathing.
Polyhymnia was in the bathroom, her porcelain-white doll’s flesh still hardening into eternal perfection.
Ruth’s the last one, Tony thought again, turning the ignition and trying his best to ignore the sick pain welling up from his stomach. He drove away quickly. Now I can get started on the final tableau. It’ll all be worth it in the end.
The motorhome cruised off leaving behind it a dog on its side, a man staring forward stupidly into the street, and a woman caught frozen trying to scream.
It would all make a truly fascinating police report later.
Ray was a long-time G. Limited employee. He knew who Cross was and didn’t like him very much, but he wasn’t afraid of him either. That attitude changed suddenly, though, when, sitting in a bar, the detective came up behind him and grabbed him by the throat.
“Hi, Ray,” Hiram said. “We need to have a little talk.” He laid a roll of bills on the counter in front of the bartender and dragged the little man into the rest room. The bartender made the money disappear quickly. The rest of the bar’s patrons conspicuously began looking elsewhere.
The rest room was empty. Hiram easily lifted Ray’s barely five-foot frame up with one hand and held him against one of the stalls. He let his grip loosen enough that the little weasel could breathe. His feet dangled six inches off the linoleum floor.
“What’ver I did, it’s not my fault!” the man said desperately, wheezing. “I didn’t do it!”
Hiram’s voice was calm. “Like breathing, Ray? I know I used to, once upon a time.” He tightened his grip slightly and gave him a shake. “Someone helped me go cold turkey, though, once. Unless you want me to help you do the same, you might want to explain why you’re not watching our petrifier’s potential victims.”
“I . . I don . . I don’t know what you mean,” Ray sputtered. He was a bad liar.
The detective reached out with his other hand, took hold of the nearest stall door, and exerted some pressure. Its hinges groaned. The metal creaked. A second later there was a loud pop, and the door crashed to the floor.
“What was that again, Ray? I don’t think I head you right.”
Ray shook. “It . . I . I had orders. From the top.” His eyes bulged in terror. “They said to pull off . . pull off the tails.”
“Because someone wanted the petrifier to get to his victims,” Hiram finished for him. He snarled. His first thought at the beginning of the case had been right. It was all a game of some kind. The Cirque was playing another one of its tricks. He shook Ray again. “Who gave the order? I want a name.”
“It . . it came from Avatar, but . . but . . .” He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Everything Avatar did, he did because Oberon Fip told him to do it.
Fip owned G. Limited. But he didn’t own Hiram.
Behind them, the rest room door slammed open. Ray’s partner Les came barreling in, roaring furiously. He was a big man, easily a good 250 or 300 lbs., very few of which was just fat. Hiram had seen him fight once before. He wasn’t all that bad.
Hiram pivoted sharply at the waist, making almost a full 180 degree turn on his internal pivot. He threw Ray at Les in the same motion with blinding speed. The impact knocked the big man to the floor. The detective pivoted forward again, turned around normally, and landed a soft kick to the man’s head. He used nowhere near the level of strength he could have, but it was more than enough to put the bodybuilder out like a light.
Technically, Hiram did work for Fip and Avatar, but Fip wasn’t the man responsible for his transformation. Hiram didn’t like the Cirque - hated it really - but he was forced to go along with their eccentricities. This was different, though. Something was going on.
And he sure as hell was going to find out what.