Even before his association with the Cirque de Artificiel, or the Chemical Dancers as they sometimes liked calling themselves now, and his involuntary transformation at the hands of their Prodigal, Hiram had always considered himself to be a methodical person. It was a trait that had helped out in his career as a detective; he took baby steps during an investigation, one at a time, finishing one before starting another. "Slow but sure" his cop friends had called him. Where others might skip a clue in their rush to judgment, Hiram always took the time to find everything. And it usually worked.
Not this time, though. He knew he was taking too long on this case. He should have long ago been able to track down Anthony Huer and bring him to justice . . . or vengeance, as the case was.
The detective closed the book, then closed his eyes, and took his special key out of his desk. Inserting it in the hole in the back of his neck, he began winding slowly, little ratcheting sounds accompanying each turn. He then sat back and thought.
From the beginning.
The serial petrifier's name was Anthony Huer. He was not a member of the Cirque, nor was he an employee of G. Limited, the company more or less founded by the Cirque. He had been told this by Albert Avatar, the acting head of G. Limited. Huer was not a member of the Club, either, that very exclusive group of millionaires to whom Avatar sold his goods. Huer, in fact, was virtually a pauper. Hiram had checked his bank and credit records for the last seven years, and at no time had he ever had any serious money. Yet, for all that, he had resources which could only have come from the Cirque.
Petrifying formulas were not something you could buy at the local convenience store.
Huer was a graduate of Grammercy High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. That was seven years ago. Now, he was going around and turning other selected graduates of his class into statues, each of a different type. All of his victims were beautiful women, but aside from that and the fact that they all graduated together, they didn't have anything else obvious in common.
Hiram didn't think that it was random, however. Huer had shown a great deal of planning in his madness. Jeanette Armstrong had been turned to marble and posed holding a vellum scroll (the writing on it was gibberish, mere decoration). Melissa Kepler was now a granite statue, frozen in study of a history text. Lillian Carson was a mannequin holding an old-fashioned quill. And Ellen Hewitt had been turned to green marble. A comedy mask was then put over her face. Hiram had saved Anne Montclair before she was iced - literally - but there was still no connection. None of the women had been friends with one another in high school, they each had different interests, and they hadn't even seen each other since their graduation.
So, what was the link? Each of the statues had been put in a white toga, too, but did that mean anything? It was a Greek and Roman thing, but only one of the victims had been in a Greek-letter sorority. Was that the connection?
Stop speculating, Hiram told himself. Just review the available evidence. Something will come up.
Huer himself, he had checked, had actually been on the yearbook staff. His name was in the credits. He had been a member of the photography club. There were no incriminating photos of his in the yearbook, unfortunately, no group shot of all the women together that would have made Hiram's life a great deal easier. Maybe he was choosing them at random.
Huer had disappeared for five years after high school. No traces at all.
"Crap," Hiram muttered and opened his eyes and the yearbook again at the same moment. This was going nowhere. He had tails on all the female Grammercy graduates, and so far no reports had come in, but he was still wasting time. He . . . .
The yearbook had fallen open to Melissa Kepler's entry. Her photo showed a serious looking teenager with dark hair. A list of accomplishments and the clubs she had belonged to sat beside it.
Library Preservation Society (volunteer)
Ms. Kepler had been one of the volunteers leading an effort at her school to get their school library recognized as an historical site. In fact, there was a photo elsewhere in the book - Hiram turned through the pages and found it quickly, having virtually memorized the damn thing - showing those volunteers at a fund rally. Melissa was in the front row.
Had Huer taken the picture? The book didn't say.
History. Why not just say History Club and be done with it? he thought.
Oh, it can't be that simple, he added a second later. No. But he leafed through the book anyway, check to make sure.
Armstrong was a member of the Literature Club.
Carson had been in no clubs, but her entry in the yearbook emphasized her liking for cheap romance novels.
"I'm an idiot," Hiram said aloud, softly. "It was in front of me the whole time, the togas and everything." His tone was incredulous, disgusted with himself.
Ellen Hewitt had been in a comedy play the high school had put on, The Catbird Seat. Anne Montclair had been in a tragedy, Hamlet. She had played Ophelia.
"Crap, crap, crap, Crap, CRAP!" Hiram picked up the phone and hoped it wasn't too late.
* * * *
"Smile!" Tony said. The Freezer flashed brightly.
Ruth Meyers had been out walking her dog, a short-haired terrier. The effect of the immobilizing device took both at the same time. Ruth was a slight girl, brown-haired, freckled slightly. She was wearing a warm jacket, and she had been paralyzed while in the midst of cleaning up after her pet. It was nauseating, perhaps, and not the preferred pose he would have had of her, but Tony's ribs still hurt, and his balls too from where Sarah had kicked him the day before. He just wasn't up to any hard fighting. He took his opportunities when he could get 'em.
Ruth was leaning forward to the sidewalk, one arm extended down while the other held the leash. The hand on the ground, gloved, was also wrapped in a plastic bag. Her head was cocked up at an odd angle, the result of hearing her name shouted and a command to 'smile.' Her eyes were frozen in an expression of total surprise.
Tony had parked Sarah's motorhome right next to the sidewalk and waited for Ruth to come by. The tree had been a favorite of the mutt's. He had checked. Tony bent down - groan - and unleashed the dog, which now looked like a stuffed animal. It fell over on its side, and Tony didn't bother putting it upright again. Then, straightening up again - another groan - the petrifier wrapped his arms around Ruth's upturned waist and carried over to the motorhome's door. Breathing heavily, he opened it and began struggling to put her inside. He thought he might end up wearing a truss before all this was over.
"Hey, what are you doing over there!" Somebody grabbed Tony's shoulders and pulled him back sharply. He fell to the ground, and Ruth, her pose unchanged, fell on top of him.
A passerby. Good Samaritan. It was an older guy, a woman behind him.
"Call the cops, Lucy!" he yelled.
This shouldn't be happening! Tony thought. He scrambled for the Freezer, but it was somewhere between him and Ruth. The older guy, gray-haired and granite-faced, pulled Tony to his feet by his coat and hit him suddenly in the stomach. The air rushed out of his lungs, and he fell back against the motorhome, the world starting to spin uncontrollably.
The other lady was backing off, looking at her husband-boyfriend as if he had gone crazy. The Samaritan hit Tony again in the mouth, and he fell into the gutter, blood streaming down from his mouth. What the hell!?
Samaritan crouched down to Ruth, who was now lying on her side, one arm still outstretched to collect some doggie dew. "Hey, you all right, lady? What'd he do to you?"
Tony brought the Freezer up. "This, you idiot," he muttered and pulled the trigger. The guy looked right into the flash.
His woman screamed. Tony aimed the Freezer at her next. Flash!
It took him almost a minute to get to his feet again. A fuzziness started creeping into the sides of his vision, and Tony bit his tongue sharply to keep from fainting. He staggered over to Ruth and pulled her upright. He began dragging her to the door.
Full daylight, he thought. Someone's sure to have heard the scream. He looked over at the Samaritan's girlfriend and thought briefly about adding her to the collection. She was pretty enough. No, too much of an unknown. Besides, I got everyone now.
Once Ruth was inside, Tony didn't dare collapse the way he wanted to. Instead, he closed the door and went up the narrow aisle to the driver's seat. Behind it, in the little kitchen nook, two young women sat around a table, both staring forward blankly. The expressions on each of their faces differed. The first, a blonde, looked angry. The second, also a blonde as well as a last-minute replacement for Tony's Melopomene, looked bewildered and scared. They were as still as mannequins, barely breathing.
In one of the bunks further back a third woman lay on her back, also staring forward blankly. She was a redhead.
Polyhymnia was in the bathroom, her porcelain-white doll's flesh still hardening into eternal perfection.
Ruth's the last one, Tony thought, turning the ignition and trying to ignore the sick pain welling up from his stomach. He started driving. Now I can get started on the final tableau. It'll all be worth it in the end.
The motorhome cruised off leaving behind it a dog on its side, a man staring forward stupidly into the street, and a woman caught frozen trying to scream.
It would all make a truly fascinating police report.
* * * *
Ray was a long-time G. Limited employee. He didn't like Cross very much, but when he saw the detective walk into the bar he wasn't afraid of him. That changed suddenly when the guy grabbed him by the throat.
"Hi, Ray," Hiram said. "We need to a have a talk." He laid a roll of bills on counter in front of the bartender and began dragging the little man into the rest room. The bartender made the money disappear quickly. The rest of the bar's patrons conspicuously began looking elsewhere.
The rest room was empty. Hiram easily lifted up Ray's barely five foot frame with one hand and held him against one of the stalls. He let his grip loosen enough that the little weasel could breathe.
"What'ver I did, it's not my fault! I didn't do it!" Ray wheezed. His feet dangled six inches off the linoleum floor.
Hiram's voice was calm. "Do you enjoy breathing, Ray? I know I used to. But, then I had to break the habit." He gave him a shake. "Unless you want to go cold-turkey too, why don't you explain to me why you're not watching our petrifier's potential victims."
"I . . I don . . I don't know what you mean?" Ray sputtered. He was a bad liar.
Hiram reached out with his right hand, took hold of the nearest stall door, and began exerting pressure. Its hinges groaned. The metal creaked. A second later there was a loud pop, and the door crashed to the floor.
"What was that again, Ray? I don't think I heard you right."
Ray shook. "It . . I .I had orders. From the top. They said to pull off . . pull off the tails." His eyes bulged in terror.
"Because someone wanted the petrifier to get his victims," the detective completed for him. His first thought at the beginning of the case had been right. It was all a game of some kind. The Cirque playing another one of its tricks.
He shook Ray again. "Who gave the order? I want a name."
"It . . it came from Avatar, but . . bu . . .." He didn't need to finish the sentence. Everything Avatar did, he did because Oberon Fip told him to do it. Fip owned G. Limited.
But he didn't own Hiram.
The rest room door slammed open, and Ray's frequent partner Les came barreling in. Les was a big man, easily a good 250 - 300 lbs. Hiram had seen him fight once before. He wasn't bad.
Hiram pivoted sharply at the waist, almost a full 180 degrees, and threw Ray at Les with blinding speed. It knocked the big man to the floor. The detective pivoted forward again, turned around normally, and landed a soft kick to the man's head, nowhere near as hard as he could have. He went out like a light.
Technically, Hiram did work for Fip and Avatar, but Fip wasn't the man responsible for his transformation. Hiram didn't like the Cirque - hated it really - but was forced to go along with their eccentricities.
This was different, though. Something else was going on.
And he was sure as hell going to find out what.
. . . to be continued
Read, "The Arts, Part Seven"
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