Gail sat alone in the darkness and slowly rocked back and forth nestled in the seat of her favorite chair. As soon as she had been brought home, she had locked the door (all three locks, plus a chair under the knob), drawn the shades, and tried to make herself as small as possible in her little apartment. She sat with her knees propped up under her chin and her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, with her head sunk down in the middle and her eyes firmly closed. And she rocked back and forth, trying not to think about anything.
It proved very difficult.
There was an . . . an emptiness inside her that hadnít been there before, and it was hard to ignore. Impossible to ignore, really. Gail gritted her teeth and held herself tighter.
She hummed, trying desperately to get Craigís voice out of her head, his loathsome invitation to return to the casino, but his words continued to penetrate her self-induced static. Weíll give you a week. If you donít want to come back, thatís fine. And then he had touched her, playing with her contemptuously. But if you do come back, thatís it, you have to know. Youíll be our property to do with as we please.
The short time Gail had spent at the Grand Facade seemed like forever to her now. She had been assaulted, physically and mentally. She loathed everything about the casino . . . Craig, the cocktail waitresses, the underground brothel . . . everything. She had been victimized in the worst possible way, and she was outraged at the shame of it. But, at the same time, there was that unavoidable ache now inside her. Gailís nails dug into her palms. She tried to make herself feel pain, but she couldnít.
They had left her mind alone but done something to her body. She had never felt so vital before, so full of energy and strength. Gail felt the blood pooling in her hands, but all she felt from her cuts was a low electric thrill of pleasure. She wasnít tired at all, or sleepy. She wasnít hungry or thirsty, either. But her skin was so sensitive now, incredibly so. Every brush of air was a caress. Her breasts and nipples felt full and needy. Her sex was damp and achy. Every part of her body burned and craved.
Youíll be our property to do with as we please.
No. That was unthinkable.
Gail sat alone in the darkness rocking back and forth.
* * * *
"Your . . . youíre dead," Stan managed to whisper. Cross had him by the back of his neck and had a gun pressed up beneath his chin. Beyond the guard railing of the balcony was a straight drop down into the casinoís Hollywoodland sign several hundred feet below. He wet himself looking up into the detectiveís eyes, and the front of his trousers stained darkly. "You . . you were destroyed. Craig told me."
The surprise had totally taken the strength out of his legs. He couldnít have fought Cross even if he had wanted to, or if it would have helped. The man had a grip like steel.
"Well, you know what Mark Twain used to say," the man holding him said. Cross pulled the pistol out of Stanís face and put it in his pocket. Then he reached up and gently tapped the side of his head. To Stanís horror, the detectiveís eyes began to glow in a spiral pattern and rotate in their sockets. Almost immediately he began to get sleepy.
"Now then . . . how would you like to do me a favor, Stan olí buddy?"
After a few minutes, Stan thought that would be a wonderful idea.
* * * *
Violaís eyes clicked open, and she awoke to find herself staring almost face to face with Mrs. Paddock. She curtsied to her mistress automatically.
She heard laughter from all around her. A single sweep of the room revealed to her the whole membership of the Cirque de Artificielís outer circle. They were in one of the many corporate meeting rooms of the hotel.
"Dances for them, Viola," the old woman in front of her ordered. "Doís as youíves been instructed." She began chuckling to herself as she walked back to the end of the table.
Viola remembered receiving no instructions, but nevertheless she gracefully hopped onto the long boardtable and piouretted to a center position. There she raised her hands delicately above her head, and, standing on her points, began slowly twirling, dancing in slow motion and appearing for all the world like the enlarged figure of a wind-up music box. Her bobbing red hair and dimpled cheeks only added to the image.
Her audience laughed at her, catcalling, but Viola felt neither resentment nor embarrassment at being the butt of her former colleaguesís joke. She wished only to dance for them prettily like the tiny ballerina she had become.
It was a great joy to serve.
"Wells . . . whatís do youse thinks?" Paddock glanced around the table, and the general laughter rapidly died out to a nervous tittering. Viola spun slowly, one leg lifting until the toe pointed squarely at the ceiling, her sense of balance completely unaffected by the complex movement. The toy-ballerina brought it back down in slow motion while continuing to idly rotate. "Does anyoneís else thinks she has a careers with the Bolshoisís?" She laughed dryly and cruelly, and the others joined in quickly.
"Are we going to sell her to the Russians?" the magician Warren Dire asked jokingly. "How much do you think weíd get for her?"
"Rights now, sheíds be too expensives for them, their economyís being whats it is." Paddock leered up at the calm and collected automaton and grinned evilly. "Buts in a fews days, sheílls be cheaper than grasses."
A man with an embroidered patch over one eye addressed the leader. He owned a run of sun-tanning booths across the Midwest . . . booths that had an interesting side-feature in the sale of custom bronze figures. "Is the plan ready, then? Weíre starting so soon?"
Paddock nodded. "We starts todays, in fact, firsts with the casino, then withs Las Vegasís, then in the days to comes, everywhere elses." She pointed at Viola. "Thinks of her as inspirations. Soons enough, weíll alls have tiny ballerinas of our owns, if we wants Ďem."
"But wonít anyone outside the Grand Facade notice anything wrong?" a female Cirque Dancer asked. "If youíll forgive me, maíam, your schemeís not very subtle." She looked around for support from the others and blanched slightly when she received none.
Paddock snapped her fingers, and instantly the woman froze. She time-stopped in mid-turn, a living statue in under a second. It was the fastest effect anyone at the table had ever seen before. They had all seen many wondrous things in their time, some great, some small, but never one quite so quick. Already a plastic sheen was spreading across the Dancerís features, her eyes glazing over into a faraway stare. The pores of her skin disappeared and were replaced by thick flesh-colored acrylic.
As if with one mind, the Cirque turned to look at the old woman.
"Iíveís been practiciní that tricks for centuries. Finally gots it right. And itís permanents, too, no tricks of the mindís. She coulds just as easilyís be waxís, or stoneís, or metalís." She met each of their looks individually. "And me powerís growiní. Without the Spokesmanís puttin limits on me, thereís nothinís I caníts do."
Where once a flesh and blood woman sat next to the other Dancers, a dark-haired mannequin now sat next to them instead. Paddock got up from her seat, walked over, and pulled the black wig from the figureís suddenly bald head.
Viola continued to dance without interruption.
"As I says," Paddock said, "we starts with the Facadeís today. You cans either joins in on the funs, or you can ends up decoratiní the capitalís of my new empireís."
Needless to say, there were no further questions or interruptions.
* * * *
Barbara felt unnatural.
She could only barely keep her eyes open. She was so incredibly tired; it was a struggle to regain even a moment of consciousness. She raised her hand above her face, and it didnít look right anymore. There was something different about it
Artificial. Not real at all.
Barbara felt she should be frightened, or mad, or something, but right now all she felt was neutral and so very, very sleepy. She closed her eyes and slipped back into dark slumber. The door hidden in her dreams had never seemed closer. Behind it she would find all the answers, she knew, and an escape from this ordinary world. She reached out, but she could not quite grasp it yet. It was still just a little ways out of reach.
But soon . .. . soon.
* * * *
Stan came out of the elevator, looked around for a moment, and walked over to the hotelís front desk. One of the casinoís uniformed employees followed him out limping badly. Stan tapped on the small brass bell at the desk and waited.
"Yes, sir?" The clerk came forward and saw who it was. "How can I help you, Mr. Lockridge?"
Stan smiled. "I need to get into the hotel vault, please." His eyes didnít seem quite focused, but then that was a fairly common condition at the Facade
The clerk frowned and looked down at the registry book beside him. "Ah, can you wait just a moment, please?" The limping bellhop came around the side of the partition and knocked on the locked door. Another clerk opened it for him, and he went in.
"What happened to you?" the second man asked him. "I didnít see you yesterday."
"I had an accident downstairs."
The first clerk reached over and tapped a set of instructions into his computer. His frown deepened. "Um, sir, our records say you donít have anything stored in the vault at this time."
Stan nodded. "Thatís right. But Iíd still like to get into the vault, please." He waited expectantly.
The clerk cleared the screen on his computer. "But, sir . . . if you donít have anything stored here, I mean . . I canít get it for you, can I?" He picked up a telephone. "Maybe I should call the hotel manager."
Stan reached out and touched the manís arm. "No, you donít understand. I donít want you to go to the vault. I want to go into the vault myself and pick up something."
The clerk just looked at him. "Sir," he said incredulously, "guests arenít allowed into the vault. Itís against policy." Behind him, the limping bellhop had picked up a lamp.
"Yeah, I know, but I have to insist." Stan grabbed the manís arm with one hand and pulled out a snub-nosed pistol with the other. He pushed it into the clerkís face. "I would like to get into the vault, please."
The bellhop hit the second clerk over the head with the lamp. It broke with a loud crashing sound, and the clerk went over like a sack of potatoes. Stan cocked the pistol.
"Let me in."
The head clerk, his face white and trembling, just shook in shock and fright, and it was the bellhop who finally had to unlock the partition door and let Stan in. They went into the back room while Stanís accomplice dragged the second clerk out of sight. A large metal door, slightly smaller than one could normally see in a bank, but nevertheless of the same general proportions, stood closed in the far wall.
The bellhop closed the outer door behind them, and Stan casually pointed the pistol in the head clerkís direction. "Let me in. I would like to get into the vault, please."
"I . . I donít have the combination." His eyes were wide and fearful. "I swear."
Stan stepped a little closer and aimed the pistol at the middle of the manís forehead. "Yes, you do. Let me in. I would like to get into the vault, please."
Shaking, the clerk bent down and began turning the central knob in the vault door. He knew the ever-present security cameras in the lobby, the front desk, and in the vault room itself were of course capturing this whole robbery on tape, but Mr. Lockridge and his friend really didnít seem to care at this point. A few seconds later the central lock clicked open, and he pulled the door out from the wall.
Stan handed the gun over to the bellhop. "Thank you. I appreciate your help." He walked into the vault and looked around at the rows of small boxes set into the iron walls. "Iíll need your key now."
"Sure, whatever." The clerk threw Stan his desk-keys and watched him as he examined which box to open first. Finally, he picked the one he wanted, unlocked it, and pulled out a slender metal container. Stan took this out of the vault, set it on a nearby table, and opened it up. From inside, he picked up an old-fashioned key . . . the kind of key one used to wind-up toys or clocks or such. The clerkís mouth gaped open.
"Got it." Stan stood there holding the key like a man holding a prize he had searched for his entire life. A beatific expression filled his face. "I got it."
* * * *
"Stan Lockridge is doing what?" Craig looked at the security guard as if he had grown a third eye. "What are you telling me?"
"Sir, the man broke into the vault. Heís in there now with an accomplice and two hostages. We need to call the police now, sir." Behind him, a host of other casino security personnel gathered. They had roped off the lobby and were holding other guests back away from the scene.
"I . . what?" Craig closed his eyes for a second, then opened them again. His palms were sweating. "This is impossible. Thatís not Stan Lockridge."
"Sir, I donít really care who it is," the guard explained patiently. "Thereís a robbery going on, and we need to get the police here now."
Both men looked over in the direction of the voice. Mrs. Paddock walked towards them slowly, her eyes gleaming behind her glasses. "I wants to see whatís happenin."
The security chief moved to block her off. "Look, lady, I donít know who you are, but you canít be here. Thereís a situa- . . . ." The old woman raised her hands and clapped once, and immediately he froze in mid-sentence. All of the other security guards, all of whom knew nothing about the secret goings-on behind the Facade, froze too.
The noise from the casino abruptly turned off. It became deafeningly quiet.
Craig looked around, his own expression like that of a man who has had cold water splashed in his face. "What?" he muttered weakly.
"Just partís of the main shows," Paddock muttered herself. "Shuts up and tells me whatís happenin."
"Uh . . uh, Stan Lockridge is robbing the casino vault, maíam. There . . thereís another casino employee helping him." He looked around. The guards, the people standing and gawking at the edge of the ropes, everyone in the casino itself . . . they were all suddenly motionless, like a hundred of Paddockís wax statues from her museum. "You . . you froze everybody?" He hadnít thought that was even remotely possible.
Paddock ignored him. Instead, she just looked past him and into the front desk area. She looked like Superman trying to gaze into the next room with his x-ray vision.
"I doníts know whats his problems is," she said, more to herself than to the still stupefied Craig, "but noís one crosses meís. Noís ones."
She raised her cane and gestured with it in the air.
* * * *
The sprinklers inside the vault room turned on suddenly. Water began spraying everyone, and the head clerk cried out in astonishment.
Stan continued to stand there with the key in his hand for a full ten seconds, still beaming with absolute joy. Then, slowly, it began to dawn on him that he was getting drenched. The fuzziness left his eyes, and he lowered his hand down to his side. The key dropped onto the floor and was forgotten. He looked like a man waking from a dream.
He blinked. "Where . . . where am I?" He wrapped his arms around his wet chest. "Iím cold." He found himself standing in front of a vault.
The bellhop holding the gun also lowered it to the ground. He clutched his head with his remaining hand and winced in pain. "My head," he exclaimed. He fell to floor suddenly, his ankle throbbing hotly. "My ankle. The bastard broke my ankle."
"What the hellís going on?" the head clerk cried out. He looked up at the security camera in the corner. "I didnít do anything! Itís not my fault!"
The room was getting very cold.
Bastard? Stan shivered there for a moment, then light dawned in his eyes. "Cross!"
He looked around, realizing where he was and what he had done . . . and what was happening. "No!" He ran to the outer door entrance and tried to open it, but a filmy layer of frost had built up around the jam. It was getting very cold in that room.
"No!" Stan pounded on the door. "Itís Cross, goddammit! Cross! He made me come here!" His breath steamed in front of him. His skin was turning blue. Stan turned around and saw the three people behind him shivering, small shards of ice glinting in their hair and clothes. They were noticeably slowing down.
He pounded on the door again. "It was Cross, dammit. Cross."
And then there was a bright white flash, and after that nothing at all.
* * * *
At her unseen beckoning, a group of Paddockís toyboys came into the lobby and started working on the entrance to the front desk area. Craig never remembered seeing the automatons out in the open before, and this more than the reliability of his own senses confirmed that Mrs. Paddock had indeed done something to everyone else in the casino. The automatons would never be allowed out in public otherwise.
"What did you do?" he asked the old woman standing there. He wasnít sure if he meant what she had done to Stan, to the people in the hotel, or even to himself at that point.
"Security measures," Mrs. Paddock replied. She made another gesture with her hands and her cane, and the toyboys began pounding on the door to the vault room. She turned to Craig. "Whys woulds Stanís do this? Whatís did he haves in there?"
Craig shook his head. "I have no idea. He must have gone crazy."
A surge of cold air washed out of the other room. A white fog settled out. The toyboys went in and a few moments later began dragging out ice-covered figures. They lined them up in front of Paddock and Craig, each a blue-white sculpture of frost still radiating an almost painful aura of cold. Craig knew that if he touched one, his finger would freeze to it like a kidís wet tongue would to a metal pole in the winter. He could barely recognize Stanís desperate face beneath the ice.
Paddock looked at the four statues. "Whoís that ones?" she asked, pointing to a figure holding his head and his ankle. Craig bent down low and stared hard into his face.
"It looks like Mike Qualls," he said after a minute. He had to have one of the toyboys wipe the statueís face clear to be sure. "He normally works downstairs."
"Um, he used to handle Mrs. Andolinís animals, you know . . . the primevals." Craig stood up suddenly, his eyes widening. "Where we put . . . ."
He didnít finish. He didnít have to. Paddock pursed her lips as if she had bitten into something sour. "Where we putís Cross."
The hag closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating, then glanced up at Craig.
"Weíves been snookered."
* * * *
Hiram, his ear pressed close to the metal surface, heard a soft click from inside and a moment later pulled open the safe in Mrs. Paddockís living room.
Not bad, he thought, leaning next to it and looking inside. Maybe if things donít work out in the detective business, I got a shot as a cat burglar. He pulled out a simple wooden box open at the top. Lying inside were a set of wooden and cloth dolls, each about a foot in height, each with a small nametag wrapped around its neck. Each was exquisitely detailed, lovingly made, and it was easy for Hiram to identify whose images they were made in. Most of the Spokemanís dolls he had found downstairs earlier in Paddockís basement, sequestered casually in a workcabinet, but the important ones he figured she would want to have closer to her. Finding the safe had been easy.
He picked up one doll, a little shorter than the rest, and very, very wrinkled. Carnelian might have carved the face out of a prune pit, it was so badly corrugated.
I wonder what would happen if I just squeezed, the detective thought viciously. Hiram glanced at his preparations sitting next to him, sat down in Paddockís rocking chair, and then examined the little doll made in her image. He twisted it softly from side to side. If I squeeze, maybe sheíll just pop like the rotten old pimple that she is.
He held the doll up. He was sorely tempted.
Hiramís reverie ended when he heard a noise in the outer room, in the wax museum itself. He got up abruptly, tossed the dolls from the safe into the leather satchel he was wearing, and went to see what was happening. He had set up his distraction in the casino to avoid any of the special pitfalls Paddock might have had guarding her place, but now he figured it was past time she figured out what was going on. He knew from experience that she could leave a trace of herself hanging around somewhere to watch over things, but he also knew she couldnít be in two places at once, either. He could almost feel her presence coalescing in the air around him. It was cold and malevolent.
Looking out into the central hallway of her wax museum, Hiram saw the figures coming to life. They struggled out of their frozen positions, looked around blankly, and began clumsily lumbering towards him. He counted an even thirty just in this section alone.
Hiram figured he definitely had her attention at this point.
He backed up slowly into the living room. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack were the first ones to walk in. Dean still had a martini glass in one hand. They saw Hiram and converged on him with a frightening hollowness.
"Boys," the detective said, grabbing the mop he had picked up earlier. He had found it leaning against the vat of wax downstairs along with a whole selection of flammable chemicals. He had thought then it might come in handy. "Canít we discuss this like reasonable men?"
Coming up behind Frankie was Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon, and Tony Curtis, all wearing dresses. Hiram figured he must have missed that movie.
"I guess not, huh?" The detective took out his lighter and ignited the top of the mop. With a burst of flame, he swung it around and hit Frank in the side of the head. The mophead melted through and practically decapitated the crooner, though it really didnít do much to stop his advance. The can of kerosene Hiram grabbed next though, also conveniently picked up in the basement, did happen to make the wax figures pause.
Hiram poked one finger through the thin metal, flipped the can around, and squeezed it like an accordion. A jet of fluid squirted out and hit Sinatra. A second later he and his shiny companions were engulfed in flame. Hiram used the mop to push them out of the way as they burned and headed toward the exit. Not one of the animated statues could stop him. The heat melted them like candles. A second or two later Hiram saw the fire door in front of him, barreled through it, and ran as fast as he could through the connecting rampart to the hotel. He heard alarms go off all around him.
To his surprise, he got only about halfway to the casino when he saw a pair of toyboys running towards him. He looked around and indeed saw that he was in an open area of the resort. Any tourist with a camera could have taken their picture.
Damn, Hiram thought, reaching into the satchel. I mustíve really upset her. Really breaks my heart, too. He pulled out the wrinkled figure of Mrs. Paddock and clenched it in one iron-hard fist. He stopped running and squeezed gently.
"Think about it," he said to the automatons as well as to the air in general.
The toyboys pulled back so abruptly one would have thought they had invisible ropes tied to their backs. They stood there looking at him, their painted on features expressionless. Hiram straightened his tie with his free hand, walked up to the pair of them, and then casually rammed his fist through the chest of the one on the left. It collapsed, and Hiram did the same with his companion. Whisps of smoke drifted out of their ruined shells as he passed them. The detective walked up to the side entrance to the hotel and opened the swinging door.
At first Hiram didnít understand what he was seeing. The place was full of people as usual, but they werenít making any noise. The casino was as silent as a grave. The detective blinked and then saw the obvious. No one was moving.
He looked around in awe, dumbstruck by the simplicity of what Paddock had done.
Everyone in the casino - the gamblers, the dealers, the cocktail waitresses, the showpeople, everyone - were frozen in their tracks. Hiram was standing in a casino of the inanimate. Even the lights and buzzers of the slot machines had turned off.
Everything was frozen still.
And then he heard a noise. The detective turned saw Paddock and Craig walking towards him from the lobby. Craigís eyes were as equally flabbergasted as his own, but the old womanís expression was unreadable. She studied Hiram as a dissectionist might a frog.
They stopped around ten paces from one another.
"Hiramís," Mrs. Paddock said. "Gives me the doll." She held out her hand.
There was a pause. Then Hiram smiled and shook his head.
"Not this time. I think that particular gear mustíve gotten lost in the shuffle." He held up the hand with the doll in it. "I can do you harm, too, now that I think about it. Lots of things have changed."
Craig started to say something, and Paddock touched his wrist lightly to stop him. "How dids you doís it, Hiram? I thoughts you were fishbaits for sure."
Hiram held up his other hand, and with a flick of the wrist he produced a wind-up key in his palm. He turned it around, fit in the back of his neck with the ease of long habit, and began winding, each motion accompanied by a slight clacking sound.
"Who do you think? The Prodigal found me in the hallway outside Fido and companyís den. I guess the idiot son of a bitch must have fond memories of me or something. He fixed me up better than new." Hiram pulled his key out again. "By the way, did Stan get my spare key? I always leave a couple extras hanging around just in case."
Paddock nodded as if she had already known the answer. Then she stared up at the detective again, her expression still completely unreadable. "So, whatís now, then? Youíse nots going to leave with that dolls, you understands?"
"How can you stop me?" Hiram grew angry. "In fact, whatís to stop me from reducing this thing to a paste?" He gave a short squeeze, and Paddock suddenly gasped in pain.
But she grinned too.
"Onlys your conscienceís, my boy." She gestured around the hotel floor with her cane. "Seeís you all of themís? Whenís Iíms gone, theyílls be like this forevers."
Hiram looked around at the casino again. Hundreds of figures were standing or sitting about, a handful caught in the motion of winning, but most losing, and all frozen. They sat around the poker tables, they had their hands on the slot levers, they were shouting at the dark television screens in the sports book, and they were all as still as statues.
Hiram met Paddockís gaze again, and she nodded.
"We haves here somethinís of a dilemma, I think. I do tends to believes you now when you says you can done squeeze me like a squashed tomato." She gloated. "You can kills me, but if you doís, then you condemns everyone hereís to an eternity of this. On the others hand, thereís any numbers of ways I can doís you in, but nots without puttiní the hurt on meself at the same times."
The old woman started limping over to the nearest casino game . . . a poker table. She reached over and picked up a deck of cards, then turned around again.
"Wotís say we bets for it, eh?" She flipped the cards from one hand to the other.
Hiram and Craig walked over slowly and looked down at her.
"After alls," she said, "this is Vegas, doníts you know."