The door was right in front of her. It was a dingy yellow, almost sickening to look at, and set with intricate scrollwork along its edges. It glowed with a pale radiance.
The journey had been long. For a time, she had completely lost sight of the door, and she still had no clear idea as to what was on its other side. But the journey was over, and all she had to do now was reach out her hand and grasp its cold, unreflecting knob.
The door opened.
In the background, she could hear the Prodigal hooting excitedly.
Barbaraís eyes opened.
And she knew.
Mrs. Paddock sat down at the poker table and glanced up invitingly to Hiram. Craig stood next to him, his eyes still largely unbelieving. He was having a hard time coming to grips with what was going on, the detective thought. Things were happening too quickly.
Hiram, on the other hand, had grown accustom to fast changes.
"Wells, Hirams?" the old crone asked. "Ares you game?" She smiled a toothless grin at him and spread the deck of cards she held over the table. The Grand Facade logo in gold and black was stenciled on the back of every one.
Hiram casually applied pressure to the small doll he had in his hand, and he watched as Paddock suddenly winced in pain.
"Let me get this straight," he said, coming around to the other side of the table. "You want to play a game of poker?"
She was a tough one. The strain didnít show in her voice at all. "Whys not? Weís evenly matched, mores or less. You caníts kills me withouts killiní everyoneís elses here." She made a wide expansive gesture with a bony arm indicating the silent casino all around them. Hundreds of gamblers stood frozen in mid-play, mid-sorrow, and mid-excitement. For all Hiram knew, he, Paddock, and Craig were the only mobile and aware people in the whole complex. "And sinces you haves the dolls, I caníts very wells strikes you down without doiní its to meselfs too."
"Um . . ah, Mrs. Paddock . . . ." Craig looked around starry-eyed. "Customers come in and out of the casino all the time." He wringed his hands. "People are going to know!"
"Soís?" Paddock snapped her thin fingers abruptly, and Craig froze in place, his rapid breathing and incipient panic stopped in an instant. Hiram grunted, surprised despite himself, amazed at how quickly the effect had swallowed the hotel manager.
"Itís nots to worry anyways," she continued, talking to the statue she had just made of Craig. "I knows me business. The effectís affects everyoneís cominí in the casino, and frankly no oneís leaviní anymores. So shuts up and helps me deals these cards."
Paddock snapped her fingers again, and Craig shuddered awake and into mobility. He fell to the floor shivering. Paddock just looked at him. After a few moments Craig weakly got to his feet again and stumbled around the table where the dealer would ordinarily stand. His eyes didnít look up from the floor, but Hiram could hear a soft moaning under his breath. He took the cards the old woman proffered with a shaking hand.
Hiramís stare met Paddockís. "Thereís no way Iíll trust you."
"Thenís wheres we ats, then, Hiram? I woníts lets you leaves with that dolls." She motioned with her eyes behind the detective, and turning he saw a row of Paddockís toyboys slowly filing out of one of the service corridors. With blank and porcelain faces shining, they assembled in a line between the casino floor and the front lobby.
Hiram turned around again, and Mrs. Paddock answered his unspoken question. "Theyís already beens ordered, thatís right. You puts any mores of a squeeze on me, and theyílls finish the jobs on you. Nots that I couldníts doís you in meself before you kills me. You saws how fast I was with Craigy." She tittered softly.
Hiram reached over and took the deck away from Craig. He looked down at them and began flipping through the cards one by one. Inside, he could almost hear the gears in his head turning. In his case, it wasnít just an expression.
He couldnít see a way out. Killing Paddock would be easy. The doll Carnelian had made of the crone seemed almost like a live thing in his palm. He could feel it moving in some strange way, perhaps not physically but spiritually. He literally held Mrs. Paddockís life in his hand, just as in all likelihood she held his in hers. Hiram held no illusions about his ability to withstand the kind of punishment she could no doubt inflict on him.
I should have squeezed her to paste the second I had my hands on it, he thought, recalling how he had stared down at the little doll while sitting in Mrs. Paddockís museum. But if he had, then everyone in the casino would have been trapped in stasis permanently. Hiram had done some awful things in his time serving the Cirque, but he didnít think he could continue to exist with that many lives on his conscience.
For that matter, at the time he hadnít crushed Paddock for largely the same reason. He could not commit cold-blooded murder, even on her. Hiram put the cards down and met the old womanís expression again. He could tell she knew exactly what he was thinking.
"All right," he said finally. "Iím game, but I set the stakes." He held up the doll meaningfully.
"Goís on." Despite the pressure of the detectiveís grip, the old woman seemed almost ebullient.
"First, if I win, you release everyone in the casino."
"I walk out of here - with the doll - and you get Barbara and her family to go with me."
Paddock shook her head, almost sorrowfully. "You knows thatís impossibles, Hirams. Barbaraís sisters are already turned . . . transformed. We caníts turns the clocks back."
Hiram thought about that. That was true, from his experience. The Cirque could transform you - retransform you even, if they didnít like what they turned you into in the first place - but they couldnít, or wouldnít, restore you to what you originally were. Hiram himself had been looking for a way to get back to being human for years.
That still didnít mean he couldnít take their toys away from them.
"Thatís the deal, though. If Barbaraís still herself, I want her to remain that way. Her sisters and brother-in-law, I want out of here regardless. Iíll find a home for them."
Paddock snickered. "Very noble. I guessís youse conveniently forgots all the others we haves here, too. But noís matter. All rights, you gots the deal. Nows hereís what I wants. If Iíams to win, you gives me the doll. After thats, well, I thinks you haves an idea of whats Iíll do nexts."
Hiram hesitated a moment, then nodded. He had never welched on a bet in his life, even a suckerís bet like this one. But it was the only game he had.
"Goods. That goods." Paddock adjusted herself in her seat while Hiram sat down in the chair behind him. At a silent command from the old woman, Craig took the deck back and clumsily began shuffling it. "And I promises, Hiram . . . no cheatinís."
The detective just looked at her, and she laughed and laughed.
The sudden silence throughout the Grand Facade did not go unnoticed by the members of the Cirque de Artificielís outer circle. Except for the one who had suddenly been transformed into a mannequin, that was. She continued to just sit blankly in the chair she had been sitting in when it happened, her dark hair transposed to the artificial wig lying on the table in front of her. She paid the silence no mind. For everyone else, though, it was quite shocking.
"Itís started," one of them said. She sounded nervous but a little excited nonetheless.
Warren Dire, the illusionist, stood next to Viola. The little marionetteís mechanisms had run down since Mrs. Paddock left, and she took the key with her. The former colleague and hotel patron stood prettily immobile by the side of the table, her rouged cheeks shining red. Dire thought the change suited her. "Yeah, itís started," he repeated softly.
"Do you think she can really do it?" The man with the eye-patch glanced meaningfully at the mannequin in their midst. "I mean, the Cirqueís always been so secretive. Freezing a casino, and then a city . . . itís megalomaniacal, like a comic book plot. Can she do it?"
Dire nodded, not turning away from Viola. She had been turned into a fascinating creature. "Take over the world, you mean? Yeah, with the Spokesman gone, yeah, I think she can." He wondered if he could get the Prodigal to make a ballerina for him too.
"But . . but what if the Spokesman isnít really gone?" Eye-patch looked as if he wanted to be back in the Midwest selling sun-tanning booths . . . maybe even normal ones that didnít turn people into merchandise. "Iíve done the research. Carnelianís done this before, disappeared for years at a time and then suddenly returned. Whatíll happen when he gets back?"
"He wonít," another junior Cirque member said. "Why would he have stayed away so long, Mrs. Paddock taking everything of his, if he could have returned. What Iím worried about are the other higher-ups. The older Chemical Dancers. What are they gonna do?"
Dire turned to face the group. "Gentlemen, ladies . . . collect yourselves. Weíve made our choices, good or bad." The other looked at him. "Say the good doctor does return, or the Parchment Lady or one of the others does put in an objection. What can they do? Mrs. Paddock has the power. Sheís clearly the strongest."
The illusionist went around to the front of the table where Paddock had sat just a few hours before. No one interrupted him, least of all either the ballerina or the mannequin.
"She says she can take over the world, and I for one believe her. Carnelian left because he was afraid of her, thatís what I think. Itís the same reason the others are staying away. And when theyíre gone, when Mrs. Paddock sweeps the board, weíll be the new inner circle, and weíll have everything in the world to do with as we want."
Dire sat down in the first chair next to the seat of power.
"Enjoy the silence, boys and girls. Itís the calm before the storm."
No one said much after that. They all either kept standing, pacing, or sitting impatiently.
"Straight . . . ah, is straight poker okay to everyone?" Craig was sweating profusely despite the chill from the casinoís air conditioners. He looked ill.
Hiram nodded, and Mrs. Paddock said, "Deal boy." Around them, the gamblers and casino workers alike formed a silent, unmoving audience. It felt like they were the only three people on the planet. It was surreal.
"Urr . . okay." Craig shuffled one more time, took a deep breath, then slowly began peeling off cards. He slid them face down across the table to the two players. One card to Mrs. Paddock, a second to Hiram. A second card went out to each, then a third, and then a fourth. Neither one of them looked at what they had been dealt. "Um . . . Iím, ah, Iím going to show the last cards, okay?" Craig felt uneasy, and it wasnít just his unfamiliarity with cards. Things had been going downhill since early that morning.
"Gets it over with, stupids," Mrs. Paddock said, and Craig slid a fifth card to her. It was an eight of diamonds. He turned over the next card to Hiram and gasped a bit when he saw it was the ace of spades. "Sor . . sorry, maíam," he said to his boss.
She ignored him. Casually, she snuck a peak at each of the four cards she had face down on the table. One corner of her mouth sneaked up. Hiram put all of his cards on top of one another with one hand and then picked them up and held them close.
His face showed no expression.
Jack of hearts. Jack of diamonds. Ten of spades. And the ace of clubs.
He couldnít have ordered a better hand.
Mrs. Paddock took three of her facedown cards and tossed them back to Craig. "Iílls take threes, donít you knows." She waited until Craig dealt three more cards back to her, then glanced over at Hiram. She didnít look at her new cards, he noticed.
Hiram took the ten and discarded it. "One, please."
He picked up the new card Craig dealt him. It was a four of spades. No change.
No one said anything for a few moments. Craig continued to stand there and sweat. Hiram sat like the automaton he was. He couldnít sweat.
Mrs. Paddock still hadnít looked at any of her new cards.
"I tells you whatís, Hiram," she said. "Letís sweetenís the stakes. If I wins, I promises nots to takes you aparts. You haves to works for me willingly, like, thoughs, forevers." She smiled toothlessly at him. "In facts, you gets to takes Craiggyís place here."
Craig gasped. "Maíam . . . please, donít . . . ." And he stopped, abruptly, once again frozen in place. Paddock hadnít even snapped her fingers that time. The dealer began to turn gray and pale as Hiram watched. His hair fossilized. His eyes turned glassy and blank. There was a crackling sound as Craigís muscles and joints petrified. A look of shocked amazement grafted itself permanently on his now granite face. Lines of dark green color streaked across the exposed surfaces of his head and hands.
Their dealer had turned into a statue suitable for any park in the world.
Paddock reached over with her cane and tapped the center of Craigís forehead. The rubberized tip thudded against the thick stony material.
"Heís was gettiní on me nerves," she explained. Her eyes gleamed wickedly behind thick glasses. "So whatís you think? I wins, you be my new rights hand man."
Hiramís expression didnít change. "And if I win, what do I get?"
Paddock hung her cane on Craigís outstretched arm. "Names your prices. The worldís mine, or wills be soons." She leaned forward. "Thinks about it. You can haves Barbara and her family, but why settles? You haves the doll . . . you haves me, and unless you doneís put the squeezies on me poor innards, you can haves it all. If youse wins, I canís do anythinís for you. I wills . . . just to stays alive, I will. Youse knows that."
Hiram tongue wet his lips, or seemed to anyway. He really didnít have much in the way of ordinary saliva. "What youíre saying, then, if you win, you take over the world, and if I win, youíll take over the world for me. Is that pretty much it?"
Toothless grin. "Yeahs . . . thatís pretty much its."
Hiramís eyes glanced over his cards again. He had a pretty good sense that Paddock wasnít overestimating her talents, and he had a four of spades, useless, but two aces and two jacks, too. He could win - he thought he would win - and maybe the old crone would keep her word. She would have to, because he still held her doll in one hand.
If he had to, he could hold that doll in his hand for the next hundred years. He was past sleeping or getting cramps, after all. He was a machine, really. It would be easy.
And he could figure out another way to keep hold of it, if he thought about it long enough. Time was on his side.
Owning the world - owning everything - was a very tempting offer.
Hiram looked down at his five cards for a full minute. Then he laid them face-up on the table and said to Mrs. Paddock, "No deal. Show me what you have, or Iíll flatten you out now, you old hag."
The crone looked back at the detective for a brief moment, then shrugged and turned over her cards one at a time. Next to her eight of diamonds she turned up a two of hearts, an ace of hearts, an eight of clubs, and the ace of diamonds. Hiramís eyes widened.
"Aces and eights, Hiram," Mrs. Paddock said. "Dead manís hand. You wins, but you loses all the sames."
Hiram jerked involuntarily as he felt the gears inside him suddenly come to a screeching halt. He tried to squeeze the Paddock-doll, but the joints there stiffened immediately. His eyes, rolling in their sockets, turned and looked down at his feet.
On the carpet around him, spread like a gigantic amoebae across the casino floor, a pool of molten, virtually liquid wax had washed in unnoticed. It flowed like ordinary water despite its loathsome flesh-colored appearance. It formed a trail from the side-entrance Hiram had walked in from the wax museum only a few minutes earlier, at Hiramís back now sitting at the poker table, having moved silently over the soft layered matted surface. It had pooled beneath him unnoticed apparently, seeping silently into all his hidden joints and seams, gradually filling his mostly hollow interior. Hiram opened his mouth involuntarily, and a stream of built-up wax poured out and over his chin.
Inside and out, the wax hardened quickly.
He hadnít felt it. The wax had been a neutral temperature. He had been distracted, too, and among other things, Hiram no longer had nerves, or normal nerves anyway.
No excuses, though. He had been suckered.
Mrs. Paddock stood up from the table and walked around it to the detective. She gave a mental command, and the wax filling Hiram up like a plaster mold responded instantly. His hand opened, and she carefully picked up the doll crafted in her image.
"You dones sets a fire in me museums, boy, and you melteds all me statues. Poor things. I thinks youse hurts their feelinís, Hirams." She grimaced, and the wax inside Hiram convulsed, sending a wave of pain throughout his body. There was nothing abstract about it. "Thatís wasnít very nice."
Hiram couldnít speak. It was all he could do to keep her in his sight as she moved. The wax, now that he could feel it, put pressure on him from the inside out.
"You knows whats Iím gonna douse to you, Hiram? Iím a gonna heats that wax till it melts every gears inside youse, tills youíse as empty as a hollow tubes. Then Iím gonnas use youse as a strainer for me wax, permanent-likes. Youílls have its flowiní through youse for the next five hundreds years, I thinks." She put her face close to his.
"And thens Iílls really gets even." Paddock picked up her cane from the Craig-statue and waved it at the toyboys. They started to walk forward, each oneís step matching the other perfectly. "In facts, I mays doís the sames with that pretty-pretty you wanted . . . Barbara. By this times, the Prodigals should have mades her just likes youse, I thinks, or so. Youílls both be havinís a perpetual wax enemas."
There was a soft ding of one of the nearby elevators. It was easily heard in the silence of the immobilized casino. Mrs. Paddock laughed. "Thatís thems now. I sents for the Prodigals whiles we was playinís." She rubbed her hands together in barely contained excitement, obviously looking forward to what she had in mind for Hiram and Barbara.
A thick stomping sound started and became louder as the Prodigal approached. He moved like a small Godzilla; each of his footsteps was a minor earthquake, or so it seemed. Hiram saw him come around the bend in the lobby, his hundreds of fleshy chins bobbing up and down as he stalked towards them. He was still dressed in the surgeonís smock the detective had seen him in earlier following his repair job.
Barbara followed behind in the Prodigalís gigantic shadow.
Bafflement filled Mrs. Paddockís face.
The girl didnít look as if she had been changed at all. She seemed perfectly ordinary, in fact, like she had been when they had first met in the penthouse.
She was even dressed, for Godís sake. She wore a simple yellow summer dress, and she had an almost sprightly expression on her face!
"Whatís this, you lummocks!?" Paddock screamed. "Youse was supposed to changes her, you idiot!" She waved her cane around menacingly. Her normally pale and wrinkled complexion had turned beet red in seconds. "Speaks up!"
The Prodigal hooted. He put his thumb in his mouth and began sucking happily.
"He did change me, my dear Mrs. Paddock," Barbara said sweetly, stepping around the behemoth. "His surgical skills remain the best . . . a true achievement of greatness."
Paddock brought her cane down and leaned on it. She seemed out of breath.
"Brilliant simplicity underlying infinite complexity. Changes within changes within changes. Metamorphosis without end." Barbara brought her hands together and softly applauded. Hiram wondered what the hell was going on.
Paddock suddenly clapped her hands together viciously, a snarl on her face. She waited expectantly for Barbara to begin petrifying, but nothing happened.
It was so hard to think. All she could see was red.
But suddenly she felt a suspicion. "No. Noís . . . it caníts be."
Barbara finally ceased her accolades. "The Prodigal is a great artist . . . perhaps the greatest of us all. There is no guile in him whatsoever. No ambition, nor understanding. He is Art, and his Art the simplest, most direct fashion of all."
Paddock stepped back, stumbled, and almost fell. The color began bleeding from her face again. "Noís. Noís."
Now Hiram himself began to see what she suspected. He didnít feel anger, sadness, or anything. He was too shocked, and he guessed Paddock felt the same the way.
Barbaraís appearance began to change. Her features blurred. The yellow dress she wore seemed to melt and reform itself. Soft cotton became crushed satin; long brown hair shortened, turned pale, and soft blond. Barbaraís eyes turned a brilliant, unearthly green.
And she continued to address her audience.
"As for myself, I am unfortunately burdened with a greater sense of myself and the world we live in. Unlike the Prodigal, who is simplicity itself, I must seek my inspirations elsewhere. And, of course, this search often necessitates changes of my own."
Mrs. Paddock turned, her face searching from side to side. Hiram didnít know what she was looking for. Maybe it was help. It was unlikely, but perhaps she was searching for help in those last moments. Anything was possible.
Barbaraís voice changed. It lost its feminine lilt and acquired a strange, almost European accent. Masculine, too. It was an accent no one in the modern world would be able to identify, though. Her flesh paled but retained a girlish softness, which somehow seemed to produce an odd effeminacy. Effeminacy in a woman? Yes. Odd, very odd.
Hiram found suddenly that he could speak again.
And move. The wax had disappeared, or at least flowed outside him again.
"Why?" he found himself asking. It was a useless question, but he had to know.
Finally, the transformation ceased. A ageless man stood where Barbara had been just a moment earlier, his unlined face equally a twenty or a hundred and twenty. Green eyes like bottomless pools were the only colors in his face.
"In order to grow as an Artist, Mr. Cross, I have found that one occasionally needs new perspectives." Dr. Carnelian, the Spokesman, stretched his arms out in front of him and delicately tugged at the lace surrounding his wrists. His yellow, crushed velvet smoking jacket virtually glowed beneath the dim casino lights. "After all, if you will forgive the crude analogy, even the torturer must allow himself to be tortured every once and a while in order to fully understand his craft, or the master pleasurer submit to unwilling pleasures in order to learn from them. Perspective is All."
Paddock turned to her toyboys, but as she did they collapsed in a row in front of her. She shrieked and swung around to Carnelian again. "You couldnít have been playacting the whole time!"
The Spokesman sniffed and looked somewhat offended. "I assure you, Mrs. Paddock, at no time did I merely playact. The Barbara Carter personality was very much her own. It was truly a grand facade. It would have been unfair to have not been so vulnerable."
"And her sisters?" Hiram asked. He stretched a little himself. He still felt all waxy and sticky inside. "And her brother-in-law, and Stan?"
"Ah, well, that was the masterstroke, was it not, Mr. Cross?" Carnelian looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Establishing myself as Ms. Carter might have aroused suspicion had not her family been conditioned beforehand. I was a bit afraid that Stan would be suspicious - two couples arriving in Las Vegas for a romantic vacation, with an older tag-along sister - but he really didnít think it odd whatsoever, nor anybody else." He considered. "At the end, though, I do believe the sister Samantha might have begun to recognize I was what those police dramas used to call, what was it? Ah, yes. A ringer. She failed to recognize me while I was being prepped for surgery."
Paddock raised her arms over her head and shrieked again. Whatever effect she had been trying to produce, though, failed to manifest. Carnelian simply looked at her disdainfully.
"If you had only waited, Mrs. Paddock. I would have been gone only a few years, or decades perhaps. It would have been amusing to have been a statue again, or some other mindless pet. But then you had to become ambitious and force me to come back early."
The Spokesman clicked his tongue and shook his head. Mrs. Paddock fell to the carpeted floor shaking, though whether in rage or fear Hiram couldnít tell.
Carnelian walked over until he was standing just over her. "To be perfectly blunt, my dear lady, I am quite displeased with your behavior. You have grown corrupt, and while that is acceptable to some degree, you have also grown crude, and that is unforgivable. Have you anything to say for yourself?"
Paddock raised her cane and made as if to swing at the doctor. Hiram, standing behind now, grabbed it and pulled it out of her hand. Her face collapsed to the floor, and she began sobbing into the carpet. The Spokesman clicked his tongue again.
"Quite disgraceful." Carnelian turned to Hiram. "By the by, Mr. Cross, itís good to see you again. How have you been?"
Hiram broke the cane in two. "You are, without a doubt, the complete and utter bastard of the world. I should feed you this cane." He was absolutely seething now.
The doctor smiled. "As charming as ever, I see."
Hiram wanted to smash the smug son of a bitch in the face, but he couldnít. Whatever mechanism that had been turned off to allow him to hurt Paddock still worked for the Spokesman. If the man gave him an order, he suspected he would have to follow it.
"What now, doctor?" Hiram asked, his teeth clenched in fury. He gestured around the casino. "Are you going to leave them all like this?"
"Oh, certainly not. When we are finished here, they will be allowed to return to their lives. They will have missed nothing." The gentleman carefully stepped over Paddock and walked across over to the petrified Craig. "I have to admit, though, that I am miffed at some of my associates. World conquest indeed."
The Prodigal hooted again. Hiram snarled at him, and the idiot savant ducked his head meekly. Paddock just kept crying.
"I believe itís time to clear ranks again," the Spokesman said. He took out a small lavender handkerchief and rubbed at an invisible spot of dust in Craigís frozen ear. "The Cirque de Artificiel is old and needs reinvigoration, I think. Something more modern. I was hoping this casino would be it, but it appears I was mistaken." He finished polishing and looked back at Hiram. "I understand the entire outer circle is upstairs right now deliberating about how to divide up the countryside. How perfectly atrocious."
"I suppose you want me to go up there and punish them for you," Hiram said, his voice dripping with irony. He had thought seeing the Spokesman again in charge would have been a good thing, but he was wrong, as usual.
Carnelian beamed. "Would you, Mr. Cross? That would be most helpful."
Hiram looked at him for a second. Then, "Are you serious? You want me to go after the other members of the Cirque?"
The Spokesman shrugged and returned to his examination of Craig. "Why not? As I said, itís time to clear ranks. Get some new blood in the organization, so to speak. And then you can takeover the casino."
"Well, I certainly donít want to run it. Far too pedestrian. Besides, I consider it a failure, and you can see to its elimination. Hire, fire . . . I give you carte blanche."
"I donít want to run a casino." Eliminating the rest of the Cirque, though, the junior members of it at least, Hiram felt did have some appeal. Especially if he could start with Paddock. "I donít know anything about it. Besides, itís morbid as hell."
Carnelian looked at him. "Why, Mr. Cross?"
Hiram took a deep breath. "Itís . . . itís full of your damned tricks, thatís why. And your victims. Hundreds of Ďem . . . thousands."
Carnelian just kept staring.
"Because itís the Cirque de Artificiel, dammit, and its sickening!"
And the Spokesman politely chuckled at his colleagueís naiveté. "How absurd. Why, you are a member of the Cirque de Artificiel, Mr. Cross. You always have been."
And Hiram looked at him in horror.
"You always have been." And the Spokesmanís chuckling filled the silent casino.
Continued... (or rather, concluded, for now)