Grand Facade
by Fool

Chapter Four

Gail felt the hands on her long before she saw them.

She didnít know how long she had stood there wrapped in mummyís sheets. She suspected they had attached wires or something between her and the ceiling to help hold her up; the stiffness in her body had finally given way, but it had been replaced by such a sense of looseness that Gail felt it would have been impossible for her to stand up on her own. The tingling from the bandages had also faded away, leaving behind a comfortable warmth felt over every inch of her body. Gail suspected many hours had gone by.

Then she felt the hands. She was lifted up and carried to some soft, level surface nearby. She heard no voices; just as before, the work was done in silence. Gail felt them using scissors to gently cut away the strips of cloth binding her. She felt as helpless as a kitten. There was no strength in her limbs at all. It was only after they took away the bandages across her eyes that Gail saw the maids again, smiling and empty-eyed.

The man named Craig, her abductor, was standing off to the side. He held something in his hands. He too had a grin on his face, though his expression was far from a blank one.

"You bastard," Gail managed to whisper. It took all her strength. "What have you done to me?"

The kidnapper approached. Gail saw what it was he held, and immediately she tried to muster up the will to get away, or, at the very least, to keep her legs together. It was a pair of panties the man had, made of a bluish latex, and oddly designed. Two large protrusions, ribbed and patterned in strange outlines, were formed on the inside. They were dildoes, obviously, and just as obviously made to be inserted both front and behind.

"Not as much as weíre going to do to you, Gail," Craig answered. He handed the panties over to one of the maids. "Attach them, please," he instructed.

"No, no," Gail tried to scream, but her voice was still as soft and ineffectual as her struggles. The bandages had been cleared away, and it was impossible for her in her weakened condition to fight the five or six maids surrounding her. Two of the maids held her legs slightly apart as a third slipped the panties over her feet and up to her crotch. The latex seemed a size short but stretched to accomodate her waist; the dildoes slipped inside her with little trouble at all. A sense of fullness never before experienced made Gail shudder in mixed pleasure and fear.

They began vibrating inside her.

"Oh, ohhh." Gail began to moan in response to the increasingly potent throbbing. The dildoes were each vibrating, and the interaction between them sent a current of electrifying sensations passing through her nether regions. It was intensely erotic, unbelievably powerful . . . and it kept on building and building, becoming stronger and stronger with each passing moment. She climaxed almost at once.

And then again.

And again.

Over and over, each orgasm was more powerful than the last. Her hips rocked in an uncontrollable response to the excruciatingly mighty waves. Gail couldnít give voice to the sensations she was experiencing. Her low squeals were almost inaudible. Her muscles felt as loose as a ragdollís.

It was as if the panties were sending an electrical current right through to the pleasure center in her brain. It was bliss . . . a rocking, endless, earth-shattering mounting of sensation. It was almost immediately addicting.

The maids watched impassively. Craig took out a handkerchief and mopped his suddenly sweating brow. He always liked watching this part.

The lights remained unchanged, but to Gailís perception the room began to fade out. Her world narrowed down to twin vibrations. Nothing else was important.

Climaxing over and over again.

* * * *

Barbaraís heart was racing madly.

White marble! she thought.

She knew they could do it, could physically transform her into a marble statue. She had to get Samiís attention before it was too late.

Her mouth was still gagged, and she couldnít speak a word, but she tried. Barbaraís eyes pleaded. She dug in her heels and tried to slow her sister down, but Sami had become so strong following whatever Gregor had done to her. She didnít say a word; she just picked Barbara up and carried her along the hall to the central foyer. Samantha put her sister down there but kept both hands on her shoulders, preventing her from moving away.

A minute later Gregor and Viola strolled in, their new pets Jojo and Sasha trailing behind. Jojo kept sniffing and giving loving attention to his mistress, and the poodle-girl Alicia had become seemed to have taken a fancy to Gregor. When he stopped, she began nuzzling around his crotch looking very, very excited. He put one hand to her head scratched her nose, which she appeared to like a great deal.

Gregor held a glass vial in his other hand. It was filled with what looked like white paint. Three more maids came in and took positions around Barbara. They lifted her up and exposed her nakedness to his inspection. "What pose do you think would be most flattering for her, Vi?" he asked his wife. "It was your suggestion, after all."

Viola considered the matter seriously. Barbara stood a trifle shorter than her sister Samantha did, perhaps five foot eight or so. She also had a smaller bosom, though that was not necessarily a bad thing for a statue. It made the contours smoother sometimes. Her best features were in her legs and buttocks. They were thin but athletic and firm.

"Head down, I think," Viola finally said. "Subservient. And put her arms behind her back, wrists crossed above her ass. Straighten the legs." Gregor nodded thoughtfully, and the maids began positioning Barbara accordingly. Sami helped.

"The problem, of course, is going to be her expression."

"Not a worry," Gregor said. He indicated the vial in his hand. "The solution has an ecstatic effect. Weíll end up with an extremely happy figure, I assure you."

He popped the vialís cork and moved forward.

Barbara put all her strength into one last effort. This was her last chance. Her muscles groaned with the strain, but it proved futile.

The maids were just too strong. Their hands felt like steel. One of them, perhaps even Sami herself, grabbed the back of Barbaraís head and forced it down.

Gregor, walking carefully so as not to spill any of the solution on himself, paused in front of Barbara. He took a moment to admire her struggle, then poured the white liquid over her hair. He knew it would soak in quickly, and that within moments there would be a marble statue standing there. He stood back to watch.

And waited.

Barbara felt the wetness in her hair and despaired. She waited for the transformation, wondering what it would be like to be made of marble.

The dampness spread to the back of her neck.

Now, Gregor thought. Now it will start.

He waited.

And waited.

Nothing happened.

Gregorís smile faltered. Viola raised an eyebrow and made a questioning noise. The fur between Jojoís shoulder blades began to stand on end.

Finally, "Well, Gregor? Shouldnít she be changing now? Did you get the right stuff?"

"Yes, dammit!" he yelled at his wife suddenly. She took a step backwards with a surprised look on her face. "Yes, I got the right stuff, and she should be a marble statue by now. Somethingís gone wrong."

Neither of them heard the sound of the elevator opening, though Barbara did. Iím not going to transform! Somethingís gone wrong, finally, finally, she thought.

Viola grabbed the vial from her husbandís hands and checked the label. "I donít understand. The solutionís foolproof. It always works."

"Maybe," Gregor sputtered, ". . . maybe itís too old. Like wine, maybe itís gone bad."

"Your brain has gone bad, idiot," Viola remarked caustically. She looked really upset for the first time to Barbara. "No, that canít be it," she added after a moment. "Age is irrelevant. Time is meaningless to the Cirque."

"Then . . then what?" Gregorís expression had turned pasty.

"Perhaps we should . . . ," Viola began, then stopped when she finally heard someone approaching. The elevator doors had dinged softly.

"Hello guys," the newcomer said calmly. He walked into the foyer sedately.

It was Stan.

Smiling.

It was a comic scene. The large room, Gregor and Viola arguing, a naked Barbara being held down by a bevy of beautiful maids, all of them gathered in one corner, and on the other side of the chamber Stan Lockridge, smiling like he had just won the lottery.

The Andolinsí expressions should have been caught on film.

"Stan . . ." Gregor began, and Viola interrupted. "What did you do?" A cold suspicion had dawned inside her.

Stan held his hands out open-palmed. "Why . . why nothing really." Two other figures stepped out of the still-open elevator behind him. "I just made a better deal, thatís all."

The uncertainty on Violaís face was replaced by a look of dread. "Get her out of here," she hissed at her maids, grabbing Barbara by the arm. "Get her out of here now!"

"What . . ?" Gregor said. He was stunned, almost as blank now as his maids.

"Tisí late, Viola," a voice from behind Stan said. "Tisí too late. You done did a stupit thiní."

Barbara looked past the Andolins to where her saviors were standing. They were a strange-looking pair, but it had to be true. Gregor and Viola both looked terrified.

One of them was a stocky man. He was nondescript, medium height, brown-haired. His suit was rumpled and looked out of fashion. His companion was an older woman . . . much older, short and white-haired. She looked about a hundred years old to Barbara, all bone and gristle wearing an old-fashioned flower-print dress. She wore pearls, too.

She had a wicked grin. "Gotcha, didnít I just," she said, leaning on a black cane, her other hand up and finger pointing at the Andolins. She had an odd accent. It wasnít just foreign, it was an exaggerated foreign. "Eíes got caught and nows you pay the price."

She tittered.

"Mrs. Paddock, please," Gregor quickly said, hands out in front of him. He looked back at his wife. "What . . what can we do for you?" His pasty expression had turned green.

The man in the rumpled suit sighed, then strode forward rapidly past Stan. He brushed past Gregor and casually slapped him out of the way. The blow didnít look like much to Barbara, but Gregor fell back as if he had been shot. He hit the floor hard.

The man just looked at the maids. "Let her go," he said simply, and they did so. He took off his tan jacket and wrapped it around Barbara gently and helped her to her feet.

Gregor, still on the floor, said through a mouth full of blood, "Itís . . .it was all her fault." He pointed at his wife. "She made all the decisions."

Viola had simply been standing there looking stunned. Now, she spun and flung herself at Gregor. "You bastard!" she screamed. The old woman, Paddock, kept laughing softly.

"Pardon me," the man who had helped Barbara said softly to her. He stepped around her and crossed between the married duo. With one hand on Gregor and the other on Viola, he pushed them apart and held them. Viola kept fighting, apparently wanting nothing more now than to scratch out her husbandís eyes. Gregor looked defeated.

The man in the rumpled suit just stood there impassively.

Barbara, freed from the iron hands holding her, took the gag out of her mouth. "Thank you, thank you, whoever you are. They were going to . . to turn . . . ."

"We were going to turn you into a marble statue, Ms. Carter," Viola said suddenly, twisting around in the manís grasp. She looked furious. "Theyíre not going to help you, dear. Youíll probably still end up decorating somebodyís garden, if youíre lucky." She seemed calmer now, though still defiant.

"What . . I donít understand," Barbara sobbed. She turned back to Mrs. Paddock. "Please, theyíre crazy people. Evil. They turned my sisters . . my brother-in-law . . . ." She started crying. "Please help me."

Stan laughed, and Paddock gave him a stern look. "Dearie, please be quiet for a moments, will you," the old woman said, not unkindly. She tapped her cane on the tiled floor three times. "Thereís importants business to be conducted."

The chambermaids, who had all been standing around since the intrusion like puppets that had had their strings cut, suddenly seemed to come back to life. Two of them moved past Barbara. One grabbed Gregor, the other Viola. The couple were pulled apart.

Gregor started to cry.

Sami and another maid continued to stand behind Barbara. Paddock nodded, and again an iron-gripped pairs of hands fell on her shoulders. They just rested there, not pressing down or holding, but just resting. The man in the rumpled suit came and stood by her. He leaned down and whispered in Barbaraís ear. "Youíre still in danger. Not a word till spoken to." She looked at him, and he had a worried expression. He had kind eyes.

Barbara began shivering again.

Paddock looked at Gregor. He had collapsed utterly in the bare minute or so she had been there. The worst thing about it was that it had happened so quickly. Her mouth wrinkled in distaste.

"Youíre a poor excuse for a man, you knows that?" she said to him. "But weíll take care of ya, donícha know." She gestured, and Gregorís maid took him still crying back to the elevator. Barbara was disgusted but had absolutely no sympathy for him at all.

Viola was brought before the old woman. "You affected the petrifying solution," she said, not asking. Paddock nodded. "How did you find out? We were careful."

Paddock just shrugged. "Ya knows, I believes you husbands, I do. Eeís gutless but too stupitís to lie. Why didnícha just follow the rules we set. Youíd still haíbeen in charge."

Now it was Violaís time to shrug.

Barbara began to have a bad feeling about this. Her "saviors" werenít turning out the way she had hoped.

She looked back at her sister, Sami. Her expression was still blank and smiling.

"Sami, can you hear me?" she whispered. God, please, please . . . .

"Yes, I hear you, maíam," Samantha replied.

"We have to get out of here, please. Help me."

"Iím afraid I canít do that, maíam. I have no orders."

"I says to be quiets over there!" Mrs. Paddock roared. She waved her cane about, and the other maid holding Barbara suddenly grabbed her tightly and put her smooth hand over her mouth. Sami helped in holding her down. It was useless to fight.

"Mrs. Paddock," the man in the rumpled suit said, alarmed. "I didnít know that there was a . . ."

"I said be quiets!" the old woman continued to shout. "That means you toos, Hiram."

The man clenched his fist and grinded his teeth. He looked angry but helpless.

"Iíve wanted to say something to you for a long time now," Viola said to Paddock, not paying attention to the disturbance behind her. "Youíre a real hag, you know that?"

The old woman just nodded. She smiled a little even.

"Locks Ďem in the cellar," she finally ordered the maids. "And gets these animals out oíere." She pulled her hand away viciously from Sasha, who was trying to sniff it. Jojo just looked confused.

The maids complied. Viola and the animals began to be dragged away.

The brown-suited man, Hiram, walked over to Paddock. "Free the woman. She has no part in this. Iíll blank her memory." The maids pulled Barbara over closer.

"No," Stan Lockridge said, coming up to stand beside the old woman. He looked at her. "We have a deal." Hiram looked at him in disgust.

"Thaís right," Paddock said, ignoring Hiram. "We haves ourselves a deal." She brought her cane up and leveled it across Hiramís chest. He looked as if he were getting ready to tear into Stan. "And youís behaves yourself, or Iíll send thee to the trashheap."

Her eyes glimmered warningly.

Barbaraís world began to shatter . . . again.

Stan knelt down beside her. The strength had left her legs, and she had fallen in a heap on the floor. "Oh, donít be like that Barbara. Iím glad to see you too."

The maid had released her mouth. "You . . ," Barbara said, realization hitting like a hammer. "The trip, the whole thing . . . ." She was crying. Nothing was right anymore. "It was all you from the beginning."

She tried to slap him, and he grabbed her hands and twisted her around so that her back was to him. Hiram leaped forward, and Paddock brought the end of her cane up to within an inch of his face. A whisp of smoke emerged from it. He stood there glaring.

"Yep," Stan continued on, cheerfully. "There was a plan. The Andolins were bored. Iíd bring Ďem four new playthings, Iíd get two, and theyíd get to keep two. Neat, huh?"

He stood up.

"But then I an even better offer from Paddock." He towered over the short lady.

"Take her," Paddock commanded. "Put her with the others." The maids dragged Barbara away while Hiram stood there futilely. Stan laughed.

It was all too much.

Barbara fainted.

* * * *

Gregor was terrified.

His self-control had totally deserted him. He knew he was making a spectacle of himself, knew even that that was probably going to make things worse for himself, but he couldnít help it. Things had gone wrong so quickly. And Paddock had a reputation for being spiteful. If it had been the Prodigal who had caught them instead, or Fip maybe before he had disappeared (Cross had something to do with that, he had heard), maybe then heíd have had a chance.

The Grand Facade had a strict mandate.

No playing with the guests.

Period.

No drawing in of guests from the outside, either. They could play, but only with the toys already given them, or those they recruited through normal channels.

It was Violaís fault, he thought viciously. She was the one who just had to have them.

But how did Paddock find out? They had been so careful!

And why was it getting so cold?

* * * *

"Release the girl, Mrs. Paddock. Itís the right thing to do."

"Eeís too late for that, dearie. You knows that. Now run along and plays."

"I can blank her memory. The Andolins broke the rules. We can free her."

"And whys woulds I wansí to do that?" Pause. "Jusí thinks of the potentials there."

"Itís not fair. Itís disgusting." Pause. "Carnelian would have set her free."

Paddockís voice raised stridently. "And the Doctorís no more hereís, is he? Now gets out of me face before I loses me temper! Remember your place, mechanical man."

The sound of footsteps walking off.

And joints popping as fists are clenched tighter and tighter.

* * * *

"Get up, Gail."

Gail opened her eyes. A burst of pleasure. She looked around and saw the mirrored room, two of the maids, and Craig. Another burst of pleasure shot through her.

"Oh, oh God," she muttered, helpless. The waves were more subdued now, but no less potent somehow. The vibrations continued on as before, sending a continuous stream of pleasure into her brain, but she could hear . . . she could see and respond.

At least a little bit.

"Upsie daisy, Gail," Craig said, looking bemused. "Come on, girl, donít disappoint me. You wouldnít want to do that, believe me." He motioned for the two maids to help her, and together they sat Gail up on the velvet couch she had been put on before.

The fullness inside her, the constant vibration . . . it felt natural, in a way. Gail shuddered, though whether the motion was in reponse to the immediate sensations she was feeling or to the thought that they might end eventually she wasnít sure of. There was no sense of rejection, no sense of something foreign trapped inside her body. The latex fitting was extraordinarily comfortable, and incredibly rewarding.

"Pay attention, girl," Craig said, this time his voice sterner. The panties pulsed more rapidly for a second, and Gail stood and turned toward her abductor without even thinking about it. "You have a show to get ready for."

A show? "A show, sir?" Why did she suddenly call him sir?

Craig nodded. "The revue starts in just over an hour, and youíre in the chorus line." He put his hand out and gently cupped one of her breasts, unbound, the nipple perky in response to the eroticism of the situation. At his touch the panties sent another rapid pulse of pleasure through Gail, and she moaned uncontrollably. Craig began stroking the nipple, making her kidnapping victim seat all over in ecstatic reply.

"Donít worry about practicing," he said, enjoying the look of bliss on her face. "The Controllers will tell you what to do. Theyíll pulse when you move the right way, fade out a little if you do something wrong, and eventually your body will pick everything up automatically." He gave her one last good squeeze - Gail almost fell to her knees in rapture - and then added, "If you do well, you may end up joining the cast permanetly."

The two maids behind Gail took her by the shoulders and turned her toward the couch again. She was sat down, and the tray of equipment still standing nearby was brought over. One of the maids opened up a lower drawer and pulled out a plate of cosmetics. They began applying the makeup to Gailís face.

"Iíll see you later this evening," Craig said. He tipped his hand to her, gave her a wink, and then walked out. The door behind him closed - each of the mirrors in the room apparently had a door on the opposite side - and for the first time since she had been unwrapped Gail saw her refelction.

She gasped, and this time it wasnít in response to the panties.

She was flawless . . . utterly flawless. Her complexion had been made perfect somehow. The bandages had treated her skin . . . all of the tiny freckles, birthmarks, her appendix scar, all of them were now gone, and in their place was smooth, milky-white flesh, so clean and pristine it almost glowed. Her hair too shined in a way it had never had before; it bounced, and each strand was perfect and without split ends. Gail had always thought herself was pleasing to look at, had been proud of her features, but now she was simply gorgeous .. . . there was no other word for it. She was gorgeous.

And ecstatic. The latex Controllers, as Craig had called, continued to send wave after wave of pleasure through her body. Gail watched as the two maids perfected her face, gave her the highly artificial glamour of the Las Vegas showgirl, with accented cheekbones, rubied lips, and heavily mascaraed eyes, and was amazed as her new, seemingly unearthly beauty was made even more lovely. It became hard for Gail to think beyond just the moment; in point of fact, it was a chore to her then just to remember she had been kidnapped. Her willpower had completely been submerged.

One of the maids pulled open another of the mirrored-doors, revealing a closet behind. From it she removed a short, skimpy costume - a Grand Facade showgirl costume - and for the first time spoke. "Put this on, maíam. The show starts soon."

Gail simply had no choice. With help from the two maids, she put on the sequined bikini briefs over her Controllers, the black garters and fishnet stockings, the pasties over her nipples, leaving her breasts open and exposed. They attached the long feathered cap behind her with matching headdress and escorted her out of the changing room, down through long underground corridors and to the backstage area of the revue. The maids gave her to the stage manager, whom, when he asked, the maids replied to together, "A new showgirl, sir. She just came in today." Around them a dozen similarly clad women prepared to go up on stage. They all looked blissfully happy.

Were they all Controlled?

"All right," the stage manager said, and he took over. "Join the others, girl." The Controllers sent another throb through Gail, directing her movements, her responses.

"Yes, sir," she replied timidly. Already she could hear the music playing. The vibrations in her groin began to beat in response.

And then she went on stage.

* * * *

Eight of them ended up locked in the basement. They were all put into the same sideroom. The maids stood around looking confused - they had lost their blank and happy expressions after being herded together - and Viola stood apart staring at the gray stone wall.

Barbara launched herself at Viola as soon as the door was closed. She meant to rip the bitchís eyes out.

The older matron turned and struck Barbara on the chin instead. It felt like a thunderclap. The force of the blow threw her up against the wall. For a moment everything turned black, and the world spun. Barbara literally saw stars.

"Mind your elders, Barbara. Iím very fit for my age." She laughed ruefully.

"What . . what the hell are you? What is this place?"

Viola sat down in a corner and looked up at the ceiling. "Youíre at the Grand Facade, my dear. I thought I had explained that to you already."

Barbara pulled herself up and shook her head to clear it. Violaís punch had been like a kick from a mule, and she could a huge bruise rising. She staggered over to where Sami was standing with the other maids.

"Sami," she began. "What have they done to you? We . . we have to get out of here."

Her sister looked back at her with a befuddled expression. It might have been funny under different circumstances. "Do I know you?" she asked.

Barbara blinked. "Iím your sister, Iím Barbara. Youíre Sami, oh please, youíre my sister!"

"Sister?" The former maid looked dazed. "Okay, thatís nice. You have pretty hair."

She reached up and held a lock of it in Barbaraís face.

"Sami!" Barbara grabbed her sister and shook her. "We have to get out of here!"

"Why?" She appeared honestly curious. The other maids looked at them abstractly.

Barbara just looked at her dumbfounded. "Weíre in danger. Theyíve done something to your mind."

"Oh," Sami said. "Really?" Pause. "Thatís nice." Another pause. "You have pretty hair."

Viola laughed out loud.

"They canít help you, dear. Gregor removed most of their personalities when he trained them. Right now, without a guiding influence, they have the combined IQ of meat."

Barbara spun and got ready to go at her again.

"Careful, Barbara," Viola warned. "I have at least three or four times your strength and stamina. You wouldnít stand a chance, trust me." She had a devil-may-care look on her face.

Barbara stalked up to her regardless. "What the hell are you, then? No more jokes, no more half-assed answers. Tell me whatís going on now or I will tear your throat out, your goddamned strength or not." Her fingers clenched and unclenched wildly.

"If you want," Viola said. "It doesnít matter anyway. Iím a retired circus performer, thatís what I am. So was Gregor. We worked for something youíve never heard of, the Circo Posticcio. The Cirque de Artificiel. And it was a long time ago."

"How long?"

"Oh, well, the Cirque mostly retired from public performances around 1850, or so I recall. Aside from a show here or there, I suppose. Gregor and I retired in 1879."

Barbaraís raged drained out of her, replaced by a numb coldness. "Thatís impossible."

"Look around. Nothingís impossible here, especially for people like us. I was a hundred and sixty-two on my last birthday. Not that I was counting or anything."

Barbara sat down abruptly on her heels beside Viola. Her legs would no longer hold her up. Her breath started to come in short gasps.

Viola didnít appear to notice. She was reminiscing now. "They slowed our aging. It was a perk, you see, a fringe benefit of the job. The Cirque had two circles at that time, understand, an inner one and an outer one. And when it retired, the inner circle set up all sorts of projects for those of us who were in the outer. A place where we could enjoy our last years together."

"And why . . why did you capture us?" She was crying. "What were we to you?"

Viola looked at Barbara and grinned. "Thatís what the Cirque did, darling . . . what it continues to do. They want to prove that artifice is everything, that the body and spirit are infinitely malleable. They want to show the triumph of the artificial over the natural. Once you know that, fully understand that idea, and once youíve held that kind of power, itís just hard to give up. We were supposed to, aside from a few toys they left us, that is, but we couldnít. I couldnít."

"And . . and Paddock . . ?"

Viola looked back at the ceiling. "The outer circle were just hangers-on. The Dires, the whole Avatar family, a couple others. Us. Bit players. The casino was given to us to run. It was a way to move the Cirque into the next millennium now that traveling shows are as dead as vaudeville. It, like we are, weíre mortal."

She closed her eyes.

"But Paddock," she went on after a moment, "the old hag, sheís one of the Spokesmanís chosen few, the elite. There are only five or six of them, I think. Iím human, and maybe Paddock and the others were too once, a long time ago, but some of the others in the Ďrealí Cirque de Artificiel . . . ." She shook her head. "I donít think so. Not even remotely."

"Wha . . what are they going to do you?"

That rueful grin again. "Something terrible. That should please you."

"And what about me, and Sami, and the others . . ?" Barbara stammered the last part out.

"Depends on their mood. Things havenít been going well lately." Viola opened her eyes and met Barbaraís stare. "You may have a shot, dear, but really, Iíd give up any hope of you leaving here the same way you came in."

She began to laugh then, and what remained of Barbaraís anger was submerged behind was was coming to be an altogether too familiar shroud of fear.