"Must you make a joke every time we speak, Mr. Cross?" The detective could almost hear the frown in Avatar's voice. Needling the G. Limited executive was one of the few joys Hiram still had in life. "I had assumed you had called to make a report, not engage me in a comedy routine."
Hiram smiled. "Pick."
Sigh. "Oh, very well. The bad news first."
Hiram shifted inside the bathtub, steam rising in a thick cloud around him. The water was hot enough to raise welts on exposed skin, though of course that didn't mean much to him anymore. Anne Montclair stood waiting in the hall outside with a towel. Her eyes were still blank and unfocused. She had brought him the phone and helped him upstairs and into the tub.
"Well, I'm sorry to say our suspect got away. Again. I had Ray and Les check on the license plate from the van I smashed, though. Belongs to a man named Anthony Huer. You know him?"
"Anthony Huer, you say?" Avatar asked. There was a pause. "No. No one by that name was ever employed here."
The detective shook his head and chuckled. "Nice to see you got your priorities straight, business first and all. Never mind that he's a psycho . . . it's just a good thing he isn't our psycho."
"As I remember, Mr. Cross, it was you who originally brought up the concern that our 'serial petrifier,' as you call him, was an ex-employee of our company. I should think that you would be glad he isn't associated with us."
"I didn't say that, Albie. I still think we're involved. We have to be. Who else do you know can turn people to stone or make freezing-guns or what not? And you didn't ask me about the good news."
"By all means, Mr. Cross, please go on."
Outside, Mrs. Montclair began to moan slightly. As Hiram had determined earlier, the woman really wasn't planning on remembering much about what had happened to her that day. Even without his help, from the sheer shock value alone, she might have developed hysterical amnesia. Enough of the experience was left, though, to give her nightmares.
"The good news is that the police won't get involved. I guess the sound of Huer's freezing gun wasn't as loud as I had thought. Nobody called the cops, and nobody will at this point. The ice is melting, and I'll convince the Montclairs that they burst a water main or something in their house. The evidence will support that."
A thousand miles away, Avatar glanced briefly at the inventory sheet on his desk in front of him. "That may not be necessary. Since Ray and Lester are already in the vicinity, it would be an easy matter to salvage the situation. We have an auction coming up, and you could .. . . ."
Hiram sat up abruptly in the tub, scalding water splashing about him. "No, absolutely not."
"I'm only saying . . . ."
"No." Hiram was suddenly furious at the man. How dare he even consider . . . . "These people have had enough grief in their lives, and I will not be party to anything else happening to them. It's bad enough they were targeted by Huer. We don't have to go after them next." Memories of Dorothy Simmers went through his mind, and he shuddered.
"I only raised the suggestion because . . . ."
"No. Mrs. Montclair'll have nightmares enough over what happened to her no matter what I do to make her forget, but I want to make sure she's left in a condition capable of having nightmares. So let me make this totally clear - Anne Montclair is not to be touched, nor any other member of her family. Period."
The executive sighed . . . again. "Very well, Mr. Cross. We'll accede to your wishes. Is there anything else?" His tone made it clear he hoped there weren't.
"As a matter of fact. Make sure all the female Grammercy graduates still have those tails I put on 'em. Huer might still go after them." Hiram lifted his right arm out of the near boiling tub. Even with the heat, his hand was still frozen around the gun. His leg wasn't doing much better either. "Oh, and send someone down to my office. I need a new right arm and a new left leg. They can find them behind my filing cabinet."
He beckoned for Mrs. Montclair to come in and help him out.
"And don't forget to bring a screwdriver, too."
* * * *
Avatar hung up the phone and looked across the desk at his boss.
Fip was smiling . . . but then he was always smiling. His grin reminded Avatar of a shark's.
"That was great, Albert," the former actor said. "Absolutely great. You're a natural." The man was dressed in a tailored pitch black suit that still managed to hang on his emaciated form like the coat on a scarecrow. His eyes twinkled behind smoked wire-rim glasses, and altogether he looked like a character brought to life from a Dickens' novel.
Avatar cleared his throat. "I'm not sure what I understand what's going on, sir. We don't want Huer stopped, you say, but we sent Cross out anyway to do just that?"
"Oh, that's all right, Albert," Fip said laughingly. He stood up. "It's not important that you understand." He looked down at him.
His eyes were like little pieces of glowing coal. "Understand?" he asked.
The other man gulped, looked down, and nodded silently. The head of G. Limited gave his employee another blinding grin, turned around, and started walking out of the office. He stopped at the doorway, though.
"And those agents Hiram wanted following the acquisitions," he said after a pause, ". . . make sure they keep their distance."
Avatar nodded his head again. "Yes, sir."
* * * *
Tony nervously eyed the house with the motorhome in front of it. He put a hand inside his shirt and hitched up the bandages wrapped around his chest a little tighter, grunting softly with the pain. His other hand held a sealed Tupperware bowl.
This part of the plan had to work, he knew, or the whole scheme was finished. His resources were dried up. It had taken all his courage to go back to his apartment and get his stuff, but then he had had to. There had been no choice. Everything he had had left over from his days with the Cirque had been back there. He had gone immediately following the attack at Anne's, and he counted himself lucky that he hadn't been caught. That . . . that thing was still looking for him, and he needed his equipment.
His van, though, had been a total loss, which was why he had to get Sarah today. Originally she had been the eighth woman on his list, his Polyhymnia, but he needed that motorhome now. There could be no more mistakes. He could no longer leave his works in public, at least not individually. He needed both transport and a place to keep them all before the big unveiling, hence the necessity of moving Sarah Norton up to the top of his schedule.
A pair of elderly walkers passed him on the sidewalk, and he smiled and returned their wave as they crossed in front of him. One of them, a woman of about seventy, looked back over her shoulder at him as she left. Great, the neighborhood watch, Tony thought. He blinked. I gotta do this now before too many people see me. Suburbs like this are dangerous.
He looked both ways across the street, then hurried over. Tony had maintained a loose observation of his targets for several months, and he knew their comings and goings almost by heart. Sarah was home and would be for a couple more hours, but unfortunately so was her husband Jack. That was a problem, but hopefully not a serious one.
The contents of the plastic container sloshed back and forth.
Behind the motorhome he saw the Nortons' garage door was open, and inside there was the husband working on his car. He was a salesman, and he liked to putter around as an amateur mechanic. He didn't see Tony approach until he was almost right next to him.
"What the . . ?" he started to say, and then the flash of the Freezer caught him open-mouthed, a look of surprise and rising anger painting his features. It would be several hours before the paralysis effect wore off, and by that time Tony would be long gone.
Good, Tony thought. That was easy. He strapped the electronic gun back underneath his coat and walked up to the sidedoor into the house. He could hear a television set going on inside.
Breathing deeply (but not too deeply because of his broken ribs), Tony put on a pair of rubber gloves he took out from a coat pocket. He put the Tupperware bowl down first, then slowly drew the latex on, interlacing the fingers together carefully so there was a tight fit. Of all the strange materials he had acquired from the Chemical Dancers, the one he was going to use next was the most volatile. If so much as a single drop made contact with his bare skin . . . well, then the Cirque would be getting another sort of tribute from him, he guessed. A very personal one.
He picked up the bowl and cracked the lid. Delicately, slowly, he poured the contents into his covered palm. The gloves he was wearing were bright yellow - he bought 'em from a discount convenience store - and the small semi-liquid, china-white blob now sitting in his right hand contrasted sharply with the thick material. It flowed in and out of the tiny rubber creases like mercury. Cupping it at his waist beside his long coat, Tony used his left hand to open the door, then reached for the Freezer again.
Inside was the kitchen. Something was simmering on the stove, a soup it smelled like, and the place had been done in a kind of Western outdoors motif. Tony remembered from high school that Sarah had always liked cowboys and westerns, and he guessed that passion hadn't dimmed yet. There was an open arch into the dining room area, and to the side of that another into the living room presumably. That was from where he heard the sound of the TV.
"Jack," Sarah called from inside, and Tony suddenly froze. She must have heard the door open. "Would you stir the pot for a moment and tell me when it starts to bubble?" Tony looked around for a second to do just that, blinked again, and remembered where he was. He made his way to the living room entry and peeked inside.
Sarah was ironing some clothes in front of the TV and had her back to him. A bag of laundry sat at her side.
Sure enough, it was a western showing.
Tony took a brief moment to admire his future Polyhymnia. Sarah was a tall girl, redheaded, and athletic-looking. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, no shoes. Her legs were lovely and firm. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon.
Beautiful, he thought, got a little closer, and tossed the glob of whiteness at the back of her neck.
She stiffened immediately, as anybody would having something cold and wet tossed on them unexpectedly, and turned around. "Jack! What the hell are you . . . ?" And then she saw it wasn't her husband standing behind her.
She started to scream, and he put his hands to her mouth to prevent her, dropping the Freezer as he did so. It didn't matter, that. He couldn't have used it on her anyway. It wasn't compatible with the plastifying gel he had just used on her.
Sarah kneed her attacker in the groin, and he groaned and fell away from her clutching at himself. She recognized him almost at once. Tony Huer, all the way back from Grammercy HS. She'd last seen him taking photos of the Choral Club for the yearbook. She got ready to scream again, and that's when the muscles in her throat seized up.
Suddenly, she couldn't speak.
She couldn't breathe!
The plastifying gel that had struck her neck expanded outward rapidly, flowing over and around her skin like wildfire. It streamed down her throat and along the cleavage exposed by her t-shirt, turning her pink and excited flesh a porcelain pureness instead. Tony, eyes squeezed nearly shut in pain, watched the transformation go forth. A snowy grip had embraced Sarah, slowly turning her into a life-size porcelain doll. The pale flow rushed down her legs and locked them into position. Where the material covered her, it did so so tightly and completely that it was impossible to tell it was a covering. The gel had within seconds become a second skin, and Tony knew that that was only the beginning. Within the next few hours the transformation effect would work inward, converting everything about her into a pure-white, smooth, and totally unbreakable argillaceous substance.
He watched it work on her face. The gel worked more slowly there, so that while the rest of her body had already been converted, the immaculate purity of the porcelain had only barely graced her lips so far.
Her eyes were wide and frightened.
The tide froze first her mouth, then flooded over her nose and ears, passed cleanly over her forehead, and, only at the last, streamed into her eyes, which became milky and opaque. The hair on her head had been left untouched, though Tony knew everywhere else now she was completely bare.
The petrifier struggled to his feet and crashed into the nearest chair. The plastifying gel would still be volatile for another several minutes, but after that there would be a short interval during which it would both be safe to touch her and to pose her. Then, after about two or three hours, she would set permanently and never budge again, save perhaps only with a jackhammer.
Then, after moving her to the motorhome, he and his Polyhymnia would strike out and begin recruiting her remaining four sisters.
It would be the start of a whole new adventure.
. . . to be continued
Read "The Arts, Part Six"
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