Part ThreeOne sees them while traveling throughout the Midwest. They are common, those old, decaying farm buildings, usually barns or corrals but sometimes too small houses, outhouses, and other less identifiable things. They litter the wide prairies of the country’s interior like the discarded trash seen on a public beach. Occasionally referred to as “tornado fodder,” they seem to have no purpose other than to be targets for the elements. Their dilapidated roofs show exposed, waterlogged beams, and their ragged, unpainted sides are reminiscent of structures grown rather than built. But this is just a whimsical fancy, drawn by bored people driving by in climate-controlled cars and trying their best to avoid highway hypnosis. All of these old and abandoned buildings had a greater purpose at one time or another. They were the centers for homes, families, and businesses going back generations.
And then they died out, one by one. The people moved away, the land changed hands, and the buildings left over were simply forgotten about. County inspectors come by every few years and check them out. The buildings are properly condemned for being unsafe, and signs are posted to warn travelers of the danger, but more often than not nothing ever really happens to these overlooked relics. It would be a major undertaking for the government to tear down every abandoned and condemned building along the sides of those Midwestern roads. The states cannot afford the expense. The buildings remain, getting older and more dilapidated with each passing year. No one would ever notice, therefore, or really even care, if one of those antiquated piles had a visitor or three. Only a full-time observer, too, would notice if, for example, a large motorhome drove up to one of these old barns, parked beside it, and then carefully moved inside after some minor preparations and repairs were made to the outside. A driver going by would not see the black butcher paper used to cover the cracks and openings from inside. The shadows would be too dark, and the cars fly by so quickly. Any large open doors could be padlocked shut, and no one would care. Fences could be rewired and closed to traffic, and no one looking specifically for change would ever notice any. A person going to such lengths could have all the privacy he wanted, at least for a time.
No one would notice anything odd at all.
Carried out of the motorhome, Lily couldn’t help but stare up at the ramshackled ceiling above her. She couldn’t move an inch. She couldn’t even blink. She had been home in her apartment getting ready to go to work when she heard the knock at the door. She opened it, and a bright light had flashed in her face.
And she was paralyzed, just like that.
The barn’s interior was just a big open space. All the wood and other furnishings had been moved out a long time ago, and the motorhome fit inside perfectly. Lily’s captor, grunting like he was in pain, set her down on the bare earth floor and leaned her back against the vehicle. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. He was perspiring heavily. But he was smiling, too. Four other women had been taken out of the motorhome before Lily, and because they were still inside her limited field of vision, she could see them all. The closest was a blonde girl, like Lily herself, with an expression of fear caught on her frozen face. Her eyes were as blank as a mannequin’s, though. Lily could see no life in them, and she wondered if her own eyes were like that. Just beyond the blonde was a short brunette. She had been paralyzed in a bending down position, so Lily couldn’t see her face. A redhead, standing bolt upright, was the last in the row.
They had all been stripped naked.
The fourth figure Lily wasn’t entirely sure was a human being. Her abductor had moved her (it?) into the barn first. She too was a redhead, but her skin, if skin it was, was porcelain smooth and white, shiny in the reflected lights on top of the large vehicle. She looked like a china doll, this fourth captive. She was dressed in a short white toga, her long arms and legs exposed in fluid gracefulness, and she appeared to be dancing. Her eyes were opaque, totally without expression or feature.
A table from the motorhome had been set out just on the periphery of Lily’s sight. On it a pile of white clothes sat, and after a few minutes of forced scrutiny, Lily recognized them as togas similar to what the porcelain statue was wearing. She struggled to break the paralysis holding her, suspecting now what was to come. Perhaps if someone had looked carefully at her muscles, they might have seen some slight quivering.
Please God, don’t let him do this to me!
The man got up from where he was resting, breathed deeply, and put a hand to his hips grimacing. “Well,” he said, “time’s a-wastin.” He went back inside the motorhome for a moment and returned carrying an open bag full of what looked like spray cans. He set the bag down on the table and examined the four women lined up beside him.
Lily could do nothing but wait in horror. “Melpomene,” she finally thought she heard him say, softly. She didn’t understand what the word meant. He approached, and for a second Lily thought he was coming for her. No! No! she screamed inside hysterically.
He went to the other blonde instead. “I’m sorry, my goddess,” he muttered, lifting her away from the others. “We were interrupted in your ascension before.”
The captor set the woman down in a space he had spotlighted using the motorhome’s lights on top. The man went to his table, took one of the cans from the bag, and set it down at his feet. “You were Anne’s understudy in school, I understand, hmmm?” he said to her. He began adjusting her pose, putting her arms closer to the sides and adjusting the weight she carried on her feet. “Now you’ll surpass her in divine quality.”
After a few moments of positioning, the man stood back and appeared satisfied with his work. He then picked up the spraycan and began spraying the woman’s breasts.
Lily watched in disbelief. A heat welled up from inside her, and she tried to ignore it as much as possible. Where the spray touched the other woman’s flesh, a thin crystal veneer formed. It was transparent but very glossy, and it had the effect of bathing the woman’s figure in a rainbow-hued glow, enhancing her physical attractiveness and making it seem much more unearthly. The man sprayed her breasts, starting at the nipples and working in a circular pattern down the swell and onto her belly. The can gave out after about five minutes, but he had plenty of others still waiting on the table.
He’s turning her into a statue, Lily cried inside to herself. He’s going to turn us all into statues! Again she struggled, but it was a totally useless thing. Her muscles were locked by a deep inhibition planted inside her brain.
The second can ran out just as the man was finishing off “Melpomene’s” backside. He went for more. The places where he had sprayed looked like they were hardening. The crystal layers were increasing slowly, building one thin glistening plate on top of another. The flesh underneath was turning pale, too, becoming more and more transparent, as if the woman underneath were actually turning into crystal.
The man had plenty of cans.
The spraying went on all afternoon.
The sign on the window outside read simply “Clock Repair.” Hiram, however, had been assured the little shop was the best of its kind in three states. He walked in, and a small chime attached to the door rang sweetly.
“Can I help you?” A middle-aged, slightly portly fellow stood behind a counter. He was wearing a green visor over his eyes, and he had on thick, magnifying-lenses quality glasses. A watch sat exposed on a black felt cloth in front of him. The walls of the shop, gray-paneled, were hung full of clocks, cuckoo clocks, and other mechanical timekeepers. A row of large and elegant grandfather clocks stood in a row along one wall. Hiram liked the atmosphere very much. The sound of ticking was everywhere.
“I hope so,” he said, approaching the counter. The detective had out a small sketchbook, and he laid this out on the table in front of the repairman. “I want to know if something is possible, and if it is, if you can do it.” He showed him several hand-drawn designs. Hiram had lifted them from the Prodigal a long, long time ago.
The repairman put his tools down and looked carefully through the book, leafing back and forth across the thin and yellowed pages. He frowned and asked Hiram some questions. The detective answered as best he could.
Finally, the storeowner shook his head. He said, “It’s possible, I guess, but I’d have to take a look at the real thing before knowin’ for sure. It’s a funny request, though, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.” He scratched the top of his head.
Hiram said, nodding, “Yeah, I know. It has to do with a case I’m on.” He raised his left hand and tapped the side of his head lightly. His eyes began to slowly rotate and glow. The repairman gasped and almost fell off of his chair before a soothing, peaceful expression formed on his face. “It’d really help me out if you could do it.”
The two talked for a few more minutes, then both of them walked behind the counter and into the repair room beyond.
The shop closed early that day.
“Melpomene” was finished in the evening.
The spraying had done more than just coat her in crystal. It actually had turned her into crystal. She stood in the same pose the man put her in before, only now she gleamed like a huge, multifaceted diamond. Her hair, her cheeks, the upturned curve of her breasts and thighs, all glimmered like a collection of pearl-white gems. The lights shown so brightly off of the crystallized woman, it was hard for Lily to actually see her anymore. The expression on her face was perceivable now only in terms of shadow, impressions hinted at only on a hardened, angular surface. The man, upon finishing, had clothed her again with one of the togas. He also carefully balanced a white mask in one of the woman’s outstretched palms, a caricature of a frowning man.
“Wonderful,” he said, gazing at his creation. “Splendid. A much better choice for a goddess.” He checked his watch and debated with himself . . . did he have time to do another? he seemed to be asking.
Lily desperately hoped that he didn’t. But her hopes dashed when the man began nodding his head. “The next one is quicker anyways,” he muttered to himself.
He approached her.
No! No! Lily struggled inside, tried with all her might to pull away from his touch, but looking at her no one would have noticed any change in posture. Her captor picked her up and carried her away from the side of the motorhome. His fingers brushed against her sex as he held her thighs, and Lily was ashamed at herself for the growing dampness she felt there, and the uncontrollable heat she was experiencing.
The man set her down and began posing her. Getting a firm hold, he widened her stance and bent her right leg forward, stretching out her left leg behind her. He patted her on the butt, and Lily shuddered in mixed revulsion and, dare she admit it, attraction.
He lifted her arms up and arranged them in front of her chest, outward. He tilted her head, and, with his thumbs, pursed her lips into a pouting expression. Finally, he stood back, admiring. If he hadn’t known any better, he would swear she were caught in the middle of an erotic dance.
Lily lost sight of him. She could only stare forward. Her muscles were locked, her motion frozen. The mien of her face and body were completely at odds with the emotions raging inside her. Then, suddenly, there was a cold sensation at the tip of her extended left foot behind her. Oh my God, ohmigod! she almost managed to mutter. It was so cold!
It was not what she had been expecting. It felt . . it felt . . . it felt good!
A heaviness filled Lily’s limbs. A growing wave of icy heat spread from her foot and on up her leg . . . a boiling ecstasy of sensory inputs. A little pain was felt, but the overwhelming pleasure was infinitely greater, and all of it was charged with an electrical coldness. Lily would have gasped had she been able. The sensation passed through her lower body, down her other leg, and up into her torso and head. Oh . . oh my, she thought. Oh my . . . it’s taking me, it’s taking me, IT’S TAKING ME!
Another shudder passed through the girl, only now it was no shudder of revulsion.
Tony watched as the small metal sphere he put on Terpischore’s foot melted in. The liquid metal flew up her figure like lightning, and within seconds she was shiny all over, silvery, and metallic, totally converted.
He looked up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and breathed a thank you at the stars beyond.
When he looked back the transformation was complete. Where before Lily Hordendale had stood, now there was only Terpischore, Muse of the Dance, captured forever in alloyed loveliness.
An Art incarnate.
Tony sat down at the edge of the table. Polyhymnia, a fellow dancer, pranced eternally to one side of him, and Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, stood crystallized to the other. Terpischore stood in the middle. She wasn’t properly dressed yet, but he thought he might wait until morning to do that. He was tired.
He looked briefly at the two remaining women leaning against the motorhome.
He had so much more work to do.
The people of G. Limited worked strange hours.
The technicians broke the seal and carefully opened up the large glass capsule on the platform in front of them. Wearing protective gear, two of them reached in as the last of the amber-colored liquid vaporized off and removed the figure still held inside. She had been completely depilated, more hairless now after the mannequinization procedure than she had been at birth. Her skin gleamed like plastic under the hot lights glaring above, and for good reason. It was plastic. The technicians arranged her feet, and with the help of a support mechanism they stood her upright to dry.
A tall, thin man in a dark suit watched from the background. The chief technician, after checking the figures on his clipboard one last time, slowly walked up to the man and cleared his throat. “Sir, S-21 should be ready for training within the next few hours. This latest acquisition brings our numbers up to twenty-five for this fiscal year. If you would care to see . . .” He offered the clipboard.
His employer didn’t deign to notice him. Instead, Oberon Fip strolled forward and examined his new piece of merchandise. After a moment the technician nervously followed. He didn’t like being this close to the head man; like almost everyone else at the company, he took pains to avoid his glance. Considering the nature of their business, they were all intimately familiar with the story of Medusa and the gorgons. Fip’s gaze may not necessarily have been in their league, but not one of his employees like looking him straight in the face. That was too much like tempting fate.
The eyes were bad enough, but that grin . . . that constant, evil grin.
S-21 had been a lithe girl, probably around twenty or so at her acquisition. She had a handsome figure, and Fip especially admired the cheekbones in her face. They had an aristocratic quality about them. They reminded him of a duchess he had known many years before, a lovely woman in the court of George III. She had had the most delicate of features, and her hair had been the color of a summer’s sunset. It was a pity he had never acquired her. He had still been new to the Cirque then.
It any case, S-21 would make an excellent mannequin.
Fip turned abruptly and walked out of the preparation room. He pretended not to notice the technicians breathing a sigh of relief at his departure. He checked his pocket watch and noted the time. It was one a.m. He had a meeting with Albert at six, and he had very little to do until then. His long legs carried him swiftly to the front office, and his thoughts had to hurry to keep up after him. He could have spent more time with his new plaything, perhaps even saw to her indoctrination himself, but, truth to tell, he was starting to get bored with the mannequins. He could still tour his stock rooms and supervise the loading and unloading of merchandise for the auction coming up. Many established members of his Club were looking for new erotic collectibles in stone and metal, and he could have practiced his sales talk for them, but he didn’t.
Truth to tell, he was starting to get bored with them too.
And angry. Surprisingly, very, very angry. He entered his office and without turning on the lights strode rapidly to his desk and sat down. His manner was that of a petulant child who had just been scolded and banished to his bedroom. The master of G. Limited sat there and fumed, simply furious about the way things had so recently been handled.
He turned around and looked out the window to the seascape beyond. Fip had always liked the sea, and he had set up his company headquarters as near to it as possible. The moonlight glimmered over the thrashing waves. He had come a long way since his acting days in Ireland. A long ways. But what did he have to show for it?
Fip’s fingers clenched around the walking stick he habitually carried. Sure, he owned a large and profitable company that he himself had founded. Sure, he was still young while everyone he had grown up with were now dust in their graves. He was rich and powerful, too, and he knew the many ways in which the spirit and the flesh could be altered and transformed. He could have anything he wanted.
His teeth ground together audibly as his hallmark smile grew wider and increasingly bitter. It wasn’t enough, having the whole world at his feet. It wasn’t nearly enough. Had any of his employees seen their boss’s face at that moment, they may very well have been turned to stone. That, or at least to some other inanimate substance.
The others had warned him. They had told him not to become so obsessed with production, with mercantilism. They were artistes, they said, performers and not wholesalers. Business was mundane, practical, and not at all worthy of their attention. It wasn’t . . . artistic enough. But Fip had ignored them, and he had lived to see many of his fellow members of the Cirque fall by the wayside. They lost their focus over time, or they lost the favor of the Spokesman, which was almost equally as bad. He had survived where others had not . . . but he still felt looked down upon.
He knew what they called him behind his back. The Salesman, they said, as if it were an insult. Fip looked upon it as a badge of honor.
The greatest art of all was the art of the deal, to quote from one of his contemporaries. He sold to the rich, and he had become rich himself, and it was his money that ultimately funded so many of the Cirque’s projects nowadays, like the new casino being built in Las Vegas. He had proven his point time and time again. This is the modern age, dammit, he thought, so why don’t the others act like it? We have the power. Why don’t we use it?
The ebony walking stick was beginning to crack under the pressure placed on it.
It was the Spokesman’s fault, Fip knew. The others - Paddock, the Prodigal, Her Radiance - they all drifted in and out of the good doctor’s presence the way planets orbited the sun. Dr. Carnelian - as their leader chose to call himself now - preferred the ways of the past to the present, and the others followed his example.
Which is why, the Salesman thought to himself, the Cirque’s leader has to go.
He had to be embarrassed. When the Spokesman had abandoned poor young Anthony Huer a few years back, Fip knew then it was his opportunity. His golden opportunity. Carnelian used young artists up by the dozenload, but Huer had still possessed a little spark of personality left after the experience. Fip had set Huer back up, put him in business, encouraged subtly his dream of the Nine Muses incarnate, and then he had let him go. He had even set the Prodigal’s clockwork detective to investigate the case.
Fip had known that when Cross found Huer, the trail would eventually lead back to the Cirque’s leader. He would naturally be blamed for bringing so much unwanted attention to them. Moreover, it would be a personal humiliation for the Spokesman to find out that someone he had thought completely burned out was capable of so much mischief.
Dr. Carnelian would lose his credibility. He would lose his respect.
He would naturally go on one of his extended sojourns . . . alone.
And, so, Fip would take over. A brilliant plan. Simple, yet effective.
His walking stick finally snapped in two.
If only Cross were a little less efficient, Fip viciously thought, or Huer so damned incompetent. The detective wasn’t supposed to have found out Huer’s name until it was too late to do anything about it. Fip had done his best to forestall Cross’s investigation, but the detective wasn’t solely his toy. He was the Prodigal’s, and that meant he couldn’t just remove him now from the picture.
Cross had recently disappeared. Fip had no idea where he was.
The president of G. Limited closed his eyes suddenly and leaned back in his velvet chair. He tossed the remains of his stick over his shoulder.
It doesn’t matter, he thought. There was nothing Cross could do to him now anyway. I might not know where he is, but I’m sure he doesn’t know where Huer is either.
The plan was still secure.
Fip let himself dream. He didn’t sleep much anymore and hadn’t for a long time, but he still dreamed on occasion, and he smiled wickedly at thoughts of what the world would look like when he was the new Spokesman for the Cirque de Artificiel.
They would no longer need to hide, for one thing.
It would be a thoroughly artificial world.
Tony took his time about getting up. For over an hour he just lay curled up in one of the motorhome’s bunks, lightly dozing, musing about the special day ahead. Today’s the day, he thought. The divine project would be finished today. He just had two more Muses left, Euterpe and Urania, and then all would be done!
He could barely contain himself. He giggled like a schoolgirl.
Finally, Tony looked over at the alarm clock on the mantel. It was almost time to get started. Moving slowly and deliberately, his cracked ribs still paining him, Tony peeled the bedsheets back and sat up in the bunk, swaying back and forth slightly. The place where Sarah Norton (No, he thought, Polyhymnia) had kicked him remained swollen too, and his stomach hurt as well. His body had become a textbook of aches, and as much as he enjoyed the holy work he was doing, he would be glad when it was all over.
A sudden stomach cramp paralyzed him for a second as he tried to stand up. Tony fell to the floor gasping and lurching, for once all thoughts of Muses, patrons, and petrification wiped from his mind. He felt like he was dying.
The cramp passed away eventually. Tony got up - slowly, slowly - and limped out the door into the barn. The first thing he saw was the three goddesses he had already manifested, standing like the paragons of frozen beauty they had become. Polyhymnia, Terpischore, and Melpomene - immortal statues of porcelain, silver, and crystal. However much pain he was in, Tony realized, it was more than worth it for the opportunity to bring such beauty to fruition. He felt sure that Sarah, Lily, and Megan felt the same way, though of course now they would never answer. They had reached a more elevated plateau of existence. Tony turned his head to the right slightly and examined his two remaining subjects, Ruth and Louise Maybe he could ask them?
A casual observer might have thought them a display from a men’s magazine - two nude girls leaning against the side of a motorhome, posing seductively for an invisible camera. Tony had reinforced the effects of the Freezer last night; the two girls remained that morning as still as the statuary they would soon become.
And then there would be Nine. God, he wished he could see them all posed together . . . but such was not to be.
Tony went over to the table and examined his materials. The fight with that . . that thing . . had almost ruined everything. He had wasted his precious supply of freezing solutions in trying to get the false Melpomene, and for a while he had thought he wouldn’t have enough stuff left to finish his quest, that he would only have enough for eight statues and not the perfect Nine such perfection demanded. But he had lucked out. Tony picked up the tightly sealed jar in front of him. He estimated there were just enough flakes inside that, with some careful division, he would have just enough for two more transformations. The symmetry of his project was ruined - he would just have to accept that his two remaining Muses would look almost exactly the same - but there was nothing he could do about that. And, after all, Tony commiserated, Persian rug makers always included at least one tiny flaw in all their wares, to remind themselves that perfection was reserved only for God, or the gods, in this case.
Tony was mortal. He would leave perfection to those beloved peers whom he worked so hard to please. Tony put the jar down and went back into the motorhome to dress.
He had a very busy day ahead.
It was just past three a.m. when Fip heard the door to his outer office softly open. He opened his eyes, broken from his reverie of a world of mannequins and playthings, and held his breath listening.
No one, absolutely “no one,” at G. Limited would have dared to enter Fip’s office at night. Most would gladly have slit their wrists before trying. That at least would have been a cleaner form of suicide. So, to say that Fip was curious was a bit of an understatement. Fip got up quickly and silently from his chair, his movements as smooth and effortless as a cat’s, and slipped behind the drawn curtains of the window. He waited, his eyes probing the darkness with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.
There was a click, and the inner office door gradually opened. Hiram Cross crossed into the nearly pitch-black room, a small penlight in his hand. Behind the curtain, Fip smiled. He watched the detective approach his desk. Looking for clues, my mechanical friend? he thought. How delightfully ambitious you are sneaking into the lion’s den. How very brave . . . and how incredibly ignorant.
Fip’s eyes gleamed with an evil light.
Cross must have seen it or heard the owner of G. Limited moving. “Crap,” Fip heard him say softly, and then the detective dived forward, not back toward the door he had come through but towards the desk and beyond it to the window where Fip himself was standing. Fip ducked with inhuman speed, and Cross’s fist smashed through the plate glass window instead of connecting with his now laughing face. He dived to his left and rolled out into the center of the room, his every movement as graceful as a professional dancer’s. It’s the thespian in me, Fip thought amusedly as he bounced to his feet.
The window completely shattered, the pieces falling in jagged chunks around Cross, some as large as his head, and all as sharp as razors. The detective paid them no mind. He spun around, changing his momentum just enough to avoid falling through and into the sea beyond, and grabbed the desk now in front of him. Without a murmur of protest, his arms and legs pistoning forward, Cross picked up the heavy oak frame and hurled it at Fip. It flew through the air like an Olympic shot-put.
It didn’t even come close. Fip was ancient before Cross had even been born; his speed and dexterity had been built up over generations. The desk crashed where the Salesman had been a half-second before with such a resounding noise it was heard all the way down in shipping and handling. The detective was strong, but he was an ox compared to a gazelle. Still laughing, Fip grabbed the pieces of his cane from the floor and fit them back together. They fused instantly into a single, unbroken whole. The silver tip at the end glowed with inner fire, balefully red.
Cross stampeded forward, and Fip poked him in the chest with the cane’s glowing tip. Instantly the detective stopped. His mouth opened, and a buzzing, crunching noise came out of it. It sounded like a car’s engine when the gears were being stripped. A look of total amazement was frozen on Cross’s face. His eyes bulged. He froze.
Fip straightened up and slipped his cane underneath his hand again, leaning on it, its glow rapidly fading. Cross remained how he was, unmoving. A thin whisp of smoke emerged from the socket in the back of his neck.
“Unwound, my friend,” Fip said delightedly. “Unwound, and unwound, and unwound.” He started laughing louder then, louder and louder, and when his employees came in response to the crash, they backed away, pale and sweaty.
It sounded like the laugh of the devil himself.
A single drop of sweat slowly inched its way down Tony’s forehead. He felt it sting his eye and quickly wiped a forearm across his face. He blinked a couple of times to clear his vision, then bent back down to the layout in front of him. His fingers, tightly wrapped around a small pair of tweezers, were starting to get numb. He was holding on to them too tightly, he knew, but it was delicate work - painstakingly precise - and tightness gave him better control. Besides, he was almost finished.
One . . . two . . . three . . . . The tweezers, almost surgically small, gently squeezed out another tiny blackish flake. Each was little more in size than a single grain of sand, but they were each also angularly precise, each a perfect little square or triangle. The key, Tony knew, was to get just the right proportion of each. He had only so much, enough certainly for one life-size subject, but only barely enough for two. Four . . . five . . . one tiny square . . . one tiny triangle . . . six . . . seven.
The work was monotonous, time-consuming, and Tony had spent a whole day at it, carefully sifting his last petrifying formula into two jars. His mind wandered as his cramping fingers worked. Euterpe, he thought. Muse of the flute and Dionysiac music. He remembered Ruth in high school, the way she had played in the band, the way she had held her piccolo while practicing in the gym. Tony had known even then that she deserved immortality. The music she had played had been so beautiful. And Louise, lovely Louise, once head of Grammercy’s Star-Gazing Club . . . she would make an excellent Urania, her head soon to be tilted back to look at her beloved sky forever. They were both waiting for him now, standing by the side of the motorhome. They were still, compliments of the Freezer, but not as still as they soon would be, their beauty preserved for eternity in metal-hard stone. He knew they were both eagerly looking forward to it.
He had told them what he was going to do for them. They hadn’t replied - they really could not reply - but Tony was certain they understood and approved.
After all, who wouldn’t want to become a god or a goddess?
There . . . almost finished. Tony picked up the last tiny flake and settled it into the secondary pile. He carefully sealed both jars, and then he fell back into his chair, exhausted. He flung the tweezers away, no longer needing them, and heard them rattle somewhere after landing in the barn’s rafters. He gently rubbed his fingers to get the soreness out and turned around to look upon his two remaining subjects.
I envy you, he thought. You are joining a great and noble pantheon, and I’m nothing but a mere mortal. Tony laughed. But I’m the one who made you. And long after I’m dust, you will remember for me . . . and so I too will become immortal.
It was a warm, comforting thought. He looked at his watch and saw it was almost evening. Tony debated for a few seconds about whether he should wait for the next day before beginning Ruth and Louise’s ascensions, but he knew in his heart he couldn’t. He was almost done. Despite every hardship, despite his rejection by his masters, the Nine Muses were almost manifest. The petrifier shook his head.
He would take a shower, take some aspirin for his fingers, dress for
the final occasion, and then . . . then he would witness history.
He checked the seals on the jars one last time and limped his way into
The image hung in front of Fip’s cane for another moment, caught in a whiff of grayish smoke. He saw Huer enter the motorhome and let his gaze linger on the two immobilized women leaned up against the vehicle nearby. Anthony has taste, the Salesman thought. They’ll bring in an excellent price, either individually or as part of the whole set. He idly began thinking about a pricing range for his Nine Muses.
Fip waved the softly glowing cane through the smoke, and the image it made drifted away in the dimming light of the sunset. He motioned for Ray and Les behind him to come forward. They unloaded the truck and began walking up to the barn, huffing softly under the load they were bearing. The locks Huer installed were not a problem, nor any of the other precautions the madman had taken to secure his privacy in that Midwestern purgatory. Fip touched his cane briefly to the large padlock hanging on the barn door, and it eagerly popped open. The door itself opened as of its own accord.
Neat and simple.
The Salesman examined the metallicized Terpischore as his assistants wheeled Cross into the barn. The soft, almost liquid curves of her body had been rendered perfectly exquisite in the flowing silver. Fip again mentally congratulated Huer on his sense of taste. The plaster Polyhymnia and crystal Melpomene were equally outstanding. He felt it was a real pity that such a great artist as Huer would have to die soon, but there was no helping that. Les would shoot him on his orders; he had the gun with him now. It was a mundane weapon, Fip knew, but it fit in so well with his plans.
He walked over to Cross. Ray had just finished unstrapping the detective from the mover and quietly backed away as his boss approached. The clockwork man was frozen in mid-charge, his hands still outstretched as though to grip Fip’s neck from the night before. His face was fixed in a most charming look of utter surprise.
I probably fused his gears beyond repair when I unwound him, Fip speculated. It was a very damaging thing to do to clockwork mechanisms. He shrugged, not really caring. That too had been part of the plan. Fip could just picture what his associates would think when they finally came upon this scene - five more additions to the Nine Muses; Huer dead, shot obviously by the detective Cross after he had tracked him down; and Cross himself permanently disabled, obviously damaged in his confrontation with the notorious serial petrifier. Ray and Lester would come upon the scene later, following in the detective’s trail on his orders. There would be no one left to dispute anything. There would just be an embarrassing mess, all of which would eventually be laid down upon Anthony Huer, who had once been their dear Spokesman’s artistic disciple.
Ultimate blame for everything would of course have to fall on him. Dr. Carnelian was a very prideful man. The humiliation would drive him into seclusion, not an unusual thing for him. And, during the interim, Fip would become the Cirque de Artificiel’s new Spokesman. Mr. Fip’s constant grin grew even wider. Ray and Lester will have to go, too, in a few days, he thought. That too was a pity.
Good help was so hard to find these days.
The door to the motorhome flung open, and Huer stumbled out, one hand clutching his stolen Freezer. The trail for that would lead back to Dr. Carnelian, too.
Ah, good, Fip thoughts raced. Showtime at last.
“Anthony,” he said softly. “Surely you remember me? We, of course, all remember you.” His grin continued to expand, and Ray and Les crouched back into the shadows.
They’re here! They’re here! Tony dropped the Freezer and fell to his knees in worship of his beautiful masters. The Chemical Dancers had arrived! They had come. All his work . . . all his effort. “I . . I knew you would come,” he bleated, the sudden pain in his ribs forgotten. He had hurt himself in his excitement. A trace of blood stained his lips.
“Of course we came, my boy,” Fip purred, standing in front of the wretched creature. Carnelian hadn’t left much to him even before Fip got to him; his manipulations had only further aggravated the man’s madness. “And I must say, we are impressed. Your work has won you not a little fame.” He snickered.
The Salesman waved abstractly to the three statues already finished and to the two potential statues to be. “The others sent me as representative to witness the final culmination of your dream.” He took Tony’s outstretched hand.
“Will . . will I be allowed . . to come back? To work with you again?” Tears streamed down his face. “That’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.” He fell forward to Fip’s shoes as though he wanted to begin licking them. Out of sight, Ray and Les looked on in disgust.
“Certainly, certainly,” Fip assured the madman. He began talking faster, falling naturally into his old theatrical rhythms. “Now, please, to your feet, Tony. You have work to do, schemes to finish, great plots to fulfill.” His smile blazed. “The world will soon be yours again, or you will be the world’s again, or something like that.” He spun around, laughing. His actor’s voice rose in solitary performance. “All manner of things, great and small, shall be at your command. Would I lie?” He laughed like a demon.
Tony felt his master put an arm under his shoulder (He’s touching me, he thought, feeling blessed. I’m back, I’m back!) and help him to his feet. Mr. Fip turned Tony toward Ruth and Louise, and that’s when he first noticed the monster he had fought standing there.
Tony screamed in fright. He backed away, tearing out of his beloved master’s embrace.
“Him!” he yelled, terrified. “It’s him! The thing . . the thing!” He fell behind Fip, and the Salesman had to haul the petrifier to his feet again. “Yes, yes, you’re right, Tony, you’re absolutely, positively, certifiably correct. It is certainly him”
Fip kept on laughing, enjoying Tony’s discomfort. “I assure you, though, I guarantee you, promise and salute you, that this monster is of no further consequence to you.” He spun around and looked Tony in the face. Looking at his grin, the petrifier’s terror only increased. “I brought him here myself, personally I did, to reassure you that nothing but your work is of any lasting importance.”
Tony fell back to the motorhome. His eyes were wide in fear. That . . that monster had almost ruined everything. It had, in fact. It had ruined the perfect symmetry of his project, forced him to waste his icing solution. Why does he have to be here? he whined inside. Cross just continued to stand there, impartial. Paralyzed.
“Don’t you trust me?” Fip asked Tony. He walked forward slowly. “I think you’ve forgotten our strengths, my boy. Perhaps you need a reminder.” He stepped to the side of the motorhome and tapped his cane gently against it. The silver tip at the end glowed redly, and a grayish smoke rose from the barn floor, light and ghostlike.
The light, which had been dimming toward night, dimmed even further. Ray and Les huddled forgotten in a corner. Tony’s eyes widened, and Fip’s grin grew fatter.
“You don’t want Calliope to think you a coward, do you, Tony?” And the image of the Muse appeared before her petrifier, a figure of white marble, her arms upward and offering him a scroll to read. Tony remembered her only vaguely as Jeanette Armstrong, once the Literature Club’s president at Grammercy.
“And what about Clio?” Fip went on, and the Muse of History joined her sister. “Surely you want her to record you as the brave man you are?” Her granite gray form, head down in contemplation of the book she read, began to renew Tony’s confidence. He had actually dated the former Melissa Kepler once. The evening had not gone well, but he had known even then what her future would bring, and he had been satisfied.
Thalia and Erato appeared next, the first in green marble, mask in hand, the other in plastic serenity. She, like Calliope, held a scroll in one hand. Tony remembered how he had worked with them both, transformed them and made them into immortal goddesses.
His master was right. What did he have to fear?
He saw now all of the Nine Muses in one place, his ideal dream. His dream was real! It was happening! Calliope, Clio, Erato, and Thalia took their rightful places besides Melpomene, Polyhymnia, and Terpischore . . . statues of marble, stone, plastic, crystal, metal, and unbreakable porcelain. The Arts . . . the Immortal Arts!
He need only finish the last two. Ruth and Louise, soon to be forgotten, and in their places forever, Euterpe and Urania. I’m done, Tony thought. I’m almost done. He got up, limped to the nearby table, and grabbed the two jars waiting there.
What an easily manipulated fool, Fip thought, watching, his smile a dark radiance. He turned and walked over to Cross. “And so were you, my friend. Just a plaything, to be used and then discarded. Just like everyone else in the world.” The detective just stood there, his eyes bulged out, his hands outstretched to grab. Fip stood beside him and tapped his cane against the detective’s hollow head. He watched as Huer approached the two remaining women. Within minutes they would be joining their classmates in eternity.
The Salesman cocked his head to the side and stage-whispered in Cross’s ear. “You know, the real reason I brought you here was to have you watch this moment.” He gave a mock frown. “You never did approve of what we do. You were always so predictable.”
And at that moment the clockwork detective turned. He winked at the Salesman and said to him distinctly: “Like you should talk.” And almost faster than the human eye could see, Cross grabbed Fip’s cane, which for the first time was easily within his reach.
“What?” the thin rake just weakly managed to sputter before Cross’s other hand savagely gripped his throat and lifted him bodily into the air. The cane’s red tip snuffed abruptly out, and the false images of the four additional statues in the barn winked out like the blown-out candles on a birthday cake. Tony, jars in hand, had his attention immediately diverted. He turned around and saw a nightmare come to life.
“Nooo!” he screamed. Blindly, the petrifier rushed to his beloved master’s rescue.
This can’t happen, Fip thought weirdly, unbelieving. This can’t happen to me. I’m Oberon Fip. Then the pain struck, and he suddenly realized it was happening to him, Oberon Fip or not. Cross’s hand clenched tighter around his throat, cutting off his breath.
“How?” Fip almost managed to croak out. His feet dangled in the air. Hiram pushed his former boss hard enough against the motorhome to cause something inside it to crash. The cane fell out of Fip’s hand and snapped in two in the detective’s fierce hold.
“There’s this little old man in Cincinnati,” Hiram began. He saw Huer running towards them and spun to meet him. “Oh, wait a second, willya?” The look on Fip’s rapidly bluing face was one of complete incredulity. It was the look a small kid would have after just having been told the all-day sucker he was licking had been given to the dog first.
For the second time that week, Hiram threw one person at another to make that other person stop. This time, though, the detective threw his makeshift weapon a good deal harder. Fip crashed into Huer, and bones crunched in the impact. Both men continued to fly back several yards even after their brief contact. They fell together into a bloody and tangled heap. Hiram started after them at once. Fip was fast, he knew, and he was strong, but he was also mostly still human. He had to make sure .
“Like I was saying,” he continued as he approached the pile, “there’s this little old man in Cincinnati.” The detective reached in and pulled the two men apart, each one moaning in pain. His critical eye noticed that the jars Huer had been holding had each shattered. “Owns a clock repair shop. Really experienced, especially in doing custom work. Did you know it was possible to reverse the gears inside a clock? Say, that if someone unwinds it suddenly or tries speeding it up, he might only be winding it up?”
Hiram pulled Fip to his feet. “I know I sure didn’t.”
The Salesman was no longer smiling. He kicked at Hiram, punching deeply into his stomach. The detective gave a low grunt but wasn’t especially hurt. Fip stood apart and put one hand out to steady himself against the motorhome.
“You bastard,” he managed. “You tricked me.”
Fip tried to move forward, his intention clearly to tear the clockwork man down to his component pieces, but stopped. He found, much to his surprise, that he suddenly couldn’t move very well. The Salesman looked down at himself. There was a creeping, crawling sensation building in his chest, expanding in a chilling wave from where Huer’s jar had impacted. “No,” he softly whispered, unbelieving.
He raised his hands in front of his face.
They were turning to stone.
Black, metal-hard stone.
“Noooo!” Fip screamed and again tried lunging at Hiram. Hiram kept his distance and watched in utter fascination as the owner of G. Limited sampled his own medicine.
Fip’s pale features darkened in steadily mounting degrees. His movements slowed to a crawl and then stopped altogether. His skin, where it was exposed by his torn suit, gleamed like polished ebony. “I . . Am Fip . . . This . . Ca . n’t . . .
He never finished the sentence.
Now, who would’ve thought? Hiram thought. A real example of poetic justice.
The detective heard a noise behind him. He saw Ray and Les come out of hiding. The bigger man was holding a gun, he saw. Both looked positively green.
Hiram just looked at them. He didn’t say a word.
Les abruptly dropped the gun, and both he and Ray turned on their heels and ran out of the barn. Hiram didn’t blame them a bit. He walked over and picked up the gun.
Huer was still human, he saw coming back . . . almost. The other jar had broken here, too, and he was petrifying as well. He lay on the ground in front of the detective, whimpering. He tried to get away as he saw Cross approach but couldn’t. Even if he hadn’t been turning to stone, virtually every bone in his body had been broken.
“You . . ruined . . ev . ery . . thing,” he said.
Hiram had thought about what he would say when he finally got this close again to the petrifier. Something profound, he had hoped, just before punching his lights out. But he saw now it would have been a useless gesture. Huer was a wreck. Rather than feeling angry at him, the detective was surprised to feel something almost like pity. Almost.
Then there was a second ebony statue in the barn.
Hiram looked at his watch, then remembered the two women still standing paralyzed behind him. No longer capable of blushing, he went into the motorhome to find them some clothes. Some hypnosis, a little selective amnesia, and they would get back to their lives none the wiser. They would have nightmares, he supposed, but at least they would have normal lives.
The other three women in the barn, and the four before them, Hiram would take care of personally. He would not let them be sold to some deviant, nor displayed in some museum. He would try to make life comfortable for them.
And Fip and Huer? Hiram thought he might bury them somewhere in
the middle of the desert. Let them contemplate the arts underground
for all eternity. Maybe a muse would inspire them to learn what Hiram
himself had learned a long time ago.
Human life was the greatest of all the arts. Living a normal life
was its greatest technique. God knew he wanted his own humanity back.
Perfection was an illusion, beautiful as it might be. Even the gods