It shouldn't have been a problem. Hiram had had lots of cases just like it. In most of them, the girl he had been looking for had ended up working in some dive or had turned to prostitution to make end's meet or had done something equally embarrassing and had just changed her name because she didn't want anyone from home to get in touch with her. Only rarely did something worse happen, like murder, though even that would have fallen 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 him.
That had been in 1936.
Before the Prodigal.
Before the Cirque.
Hiram signaled right and got onto the street's turn lane. He took the next 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's my own damn fault I'm here, that I'm their lapdog. It's not as if Dorothy had been looking to become a collector's item. 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 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 carried her into her living room. He had been working out, preparing for his project, and besides, 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 she had seen when she had 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 white carpeting . . . yep, the man thought, Henry Montclair was doing pretty good for himself. I'm impressed.
The intruder closed the window shades.
He then 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 instructor. 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.
You would thank me, he believed, if you could still 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 of which I cannot even dream. He rubbed his hands across her flat belly and down over her thighs, testing their firmness, then walked around her and did the same for her bottom and backside.
The startled look on her face did nothing to express the range of emotions she felt underneath. She could move not 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 his Thalia model. 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 taken out of his case. He had drawn diagrams of how he had wanted to pose Anne, but now that he was in her house he had become undecided again. Did he want her to match his previous work in Thalia, like a pair of 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 wouldn't knock.
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 got the Freezer. Don't panic.
He started sweating suddenly. Did I lock the door behind me?
He couldn't remember.
He heard a rattle as the doorknob was tested, then a faint clicking sound.
The petrifier heard the front door open.
They broke in! he thought. They broke in! He raised the Freezer and stood by the entryway.
A man in a disheveled-looking 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 had seen 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 anymore. No more brainstem, you see."
The detective reached down for his attacker, but the man awkwardly brought up the nozzle-gun he wore 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 forming along the overhead fan and down the nearest 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, and 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 groaning 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 its superstructure.
Melpomene, he cried silently, then staggered to the backdoor. Hiram tried to follow him, but the leaking container the man had left behind would have frozen him to the floor if he went any further. Besides, his left leg was useless, and his right arm had become a club.
The petrifier escaped.
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 Hiram 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, too? 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 he was 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 started 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?"
She hesitated, then cautiously nodded her head. Her arms had slowly come down to her sides, and a worried expression had formed on her face. She wasn't completely buying his "forget everything" speech yet, Hiram saw, but she was on her way.
"What I really need you to do right now, Anne," he 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. I'm colder than I'm ever likely to get . . . and this is from somebody who thought he couldn't feel cold anymore. Can you help me?"
She nodded, then said carefully, "Yes, I can help you. Thank you for saving my life." Her voice was dreamy, unconnected. She would not be remembering the incident in a few hours. All she could see now was the twirling pretty lights inside the nice man's eyes. They made her feel very 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 was helping 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, despite the pain in his ribs and in his 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 he? The Freezer didn't stop him. He kept fighting when he should have been frozen in his tracks.
He 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. No other explanation. He just wasn't human. Whatever he was, he just wasn't 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 yet tell.
Then he thought about it for a little while, and he started smiling.
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 would they have sent that machine after him if they had approved of his project? a black part of his mind whispered. The Dancers might be angry with you.
No, he shook his head, refusing to acknowledge that 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 . . 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 began slowly walking down the street. Small bits of ice still dangled unnoticeably 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'll all 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.
. . . to be continued
Read "The Arts, Part Five"
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