Jeanette Armstrong, Melissa Kepler, and Lillian Carson.
They all graduated from Grammercy High School in Cincinnati seven years ago. One was a cheerleader, another was in the band, and the third belonged to no afterschool clubs at all. There was no evidence that they knew one another. There was no connection between them. They were just three ordinary American girls, pretty but by no means remarkable in any way.
Hiram closed up the yearbook.
And yet, he thought, here we are. Three women turned into three different types of statue.
The detective got up from his desk and went over to take a look at them again. They had been moved to his office until someone higher up in the Club made a decision on what to do with them.
In the meantime, they stood in a row alongside one waterstained wall.
First, there was Ms. Armstrong. She had stayed in Cincinnati after high school to become a secretary. Now, she stood a figure of solid white marble, her arms clasped together in a gesture of offering while holding a vellum scroll. She had high cheekbones. Her photograph from the yearbook indicated she had been a blonde. That didn't matter much now, though, of course, nor could one really tell anymore. As marble, she was bleached white, her hair arranged in a kind of bun, with her lithe but very solid proportions now hidden beneath a simple white gown.
Hiram thought she might be wearing a toga but wasn't exactly sure.
He'd have to check later, he reminded himself.
All three statues wore them. Melissa Kepler was granite gray, solid stone with veins of blue and sparkling silver here and there. She had been frozen in a sitting pose, her face bent down and caught apparently in study of the book she held in her hands. It was a copy of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hiram reached over to the scroll Armstrong held and tried to read it again, but the language was unfamiliar to him. He put it back in her marble grip and examined the third and latest member of the collection, Lillian Carson. She had been mannequinized, more or less, turned to gleaming plastic. She too held a scroll, equally unreadable. She also had a quill pen and a garland of flowers set around her forehead.
If it's a message, I'm not getting it, Hiram thought. I gotta get those works translated.
The problem, he observed, and not for the first time either, was that he didn't have a lot to work with. Information from his employers was scarce. They told him there was a problem, they pointed him in the right direction, but then they just let him work on it on his own. It didn't make sense. If it was that much of a problem, this "serial petrifier" for lack of any better term, then why didn't his bosses come down on the guy with more force? With all of the resources the Club had at its disposal, Hiram figured he could catch this psycho within hours, if that.
But no, here he was, working out of the same cheesy little office he had been in years. The detective stalked back to his desk and thought about the problem more.
Maybe it's all a joke. Makes sense in a way. Logical even. I mean, who else but G. Limited has the ability to turn people into statues and such? On the other hand, leaving the statues out in plain sight was stupid, something his bosses definitely were not. That was the kind of thing that attracted attention. The choice of girls wasn't particularly bright, either. These weren't runaways or prostitutes or people without close friends or associates; they were all well known within their own circles, and their disappearances would be noted. So, it's not a joke . . . which means exactly what?
A whole new crowd of suspects, that was what.
He held a great deal of sympathy for the three statues standing there. He took out his key, looked at it for a moment, then started twirling it between his fingers. He knew what it was like being transformed against one's will.
Ah, hell, he thought a few seconds later. I'm getting maudlin in my old age. It's time to get back to work.
He had just flown back from Cincinnati, but it had been a waste of time. No clues, no leads. Until the guy struck again, if he did (and Hiram was morally sure he would), all he had to go on were the statues he had and his ideas about his employers and their associates. He grabbed the yearbook and walked out of his office and down to his car.
He had suspects to talk to.
* * * *
"Excuse me, miss. Could you look this way for a moment?"
Ellen had been on her way back to her car with packages in her hands. She turned, and suddenly a bright flashing light was shining in her eyes. She winced and began to say something. Then she stopped.
She didn't have a say in the matter. She couldn't move. She stood there in the mall parking lot stiff and still.
A small bundle fell from the top of the stack she held. She paid it no attention. She couldn't. Her muscles locked, her eyes froze, and she became a living statue.
"Thank you, Ellen," the man holding the flashlight device said. He was a young man. His face was handsome but not threatening, unshaven perhaps, but still reasonably neat. He wore a brown trench coat. He put the Freezer away in a side pocket and casually stepped back inside his van. He turned on the engine, conscientiously looked both ways down the row of cars he was in, and carefully backed out and parked beside the immobilized woman. He slid the sidedoor open.
"Let me help you with those," he said, and took the packages from Ellen and stacked them inside. Now she stood there with her arms outstretched holding nothing, suddenly looking for all the world like one of the store mannequins from inside the mall brought outside. He looked at her for a moment. She was a short woman, barely five and a half, dressed in a long wool striped coat. She was twenty-five but looked younger. She had dark hair and sleepy sloe eyes.
She would make a wonderful Thalia.
The man put his hands underneath her arms and lifted her into the van. Nobody was really paying any attention to them. Shoppers were walking back and forth to the entrances or to their cars, and anyone who would have noticed Ellen and her kidnapper would probably have just seen somebody helping his girlfriend inside his vehicle. There was no shouting, no trouble being made. It all seemed perfectly normal. Inside, the man bent Ellen's legs and body a little and put her in the passenger seat. She still wore a mixed expression of surprise and indignation. Beneath that exterior, her thoughts raced madly.
They left the mall and drove into the heart of the city.
* * * *
There was a pained expression on Avatar's face.
"Don't you think we'd have already considered that, Mr. Cross?" the old man said. "That it would have been our first consideration after the first statue appeared?" He looked at Hiram as if the detective had just told him that water was wet.
It didn't bother Hiram the least bit. He was used to getting pained expressions from Old Man Avatar.
"Hey," he said, "you gotta look at it from my point of view. G. Limited is in the business of turning people into statues . . . ."
"That is a small way of looking at things, Mr. Cross," Avatar interrupted.
". . .and," Hiram went on, "now we have a mysterious somebody going around and turning his high school sweethearts into statues. What's a person to think, Albert?" He sat back again in the plush chair. His crumpled suit and disheveled appearance clashed sharply against the clean elegance of Avatar's office.
Avatar got up from behind his desk and looked out of the wide window beside it overlooking the coast. The sea below was churning. "If it had been a purely internal matter, detective, we would have taken care of it ourselves. Our mutual employer is very good about such things, as I'm sure you would agree." He paused, then turned around to face Hiram again.
"There is no connection between the three unauthorized acquisitions and anyone employed in this company. Whether or not there is an involvement with someone in the Club is something you will have to discover for yourself. I dare say, though, that if there is such a connection, it would look very bad for you considering that you perform all background checks of prospective members."
Hiram smiled and shook his head. "Don't even go in that direction, Albie. I know my job. Not one of those rich deviants you cater to so much has ever set foot anywhere near Grammercy High School, nor anyone in their families or businesses." He got up and met Avatar by the seascape. "It's a leak. You know it, I know it, Fip knows it. So what do we do about it?"
Avatar looked down. His perfect composure slipped.
"I don't know," he said quietly. "I honestly don't know."
* * * *
Everything was ready.
He gave Ellen the injection and stood back and watched the transformation.
It started along the arm he had used the pneumo-injector on. A greenish splotch rose on the surface of her skin, somewhat like a bruise forming there if it were shown on time-lapse video. The color spread down her forearm and up past her shoulder, deepening in shade as it went, glazing the flesh and rendering it smooth and porcelain fine. The billowing white gown she had been changed into hid the process as it passed over her breasts and stomach, but it was short enough that her legs were left completely bare, and the man watched as they turned pale emerald and solidified. The whole metamorphosis took less than a minute to complete. Ellen's eyes, left wide open and gazing into infinity, turned milky smooth for a moment, then solid green without visible pupils. Her features, left in that charming expression of mild surprise from the parking lot, crystallized into utter perfection.
And then it was done. Where once stood a still though flesh and blood woman, now there stood a still figure of smooth green stone, polished and gleaming in the lights of the early evening stars. They were alone in the park, petrifier and petrified, and he looked upon his new creation with a complete air of satisfaction. The man went back to his van and picked up the last piece to be added to the tableau . . . a theatrical comedy mask, ivory white and smiling.
He put it in the statue's outstretched hand.
A few seconds later, under his breath, he muttered, "Good job," and then got in the van and drove off.
. . . to be continued
Read "The Arts, Part Three"
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