A single drop of sweat slowly inched its way down Tony’s forehead. He
felt it sting his eye and quickly wiped a forearm
across his face. He blinked a couple of times to clear his vision, then bent back down to the layout in front of him. His fingers,
tightly wrapped around a small pair of tweezers, were starting to get numb. He was holding on to them too tightly, but it was
delicate work he was doing - painstakingly delicate - and tightness gave him better control. Besides, he was almost finished.
One . . . two . . . three . . . . The tweezers, almost surgically small,
gently squeezed out another tiny blackish flake. Each was
little more in size than a single grain of sand, but they were each also angularly precise, each a perfect little square or triangle.
The key, Tony knew, was to get just the right proportion of each. He had only so much, enough certainly for one life-size
subject, but only barely enough for two. Four . . . five . . . one tiny square . . . one tiny triangle . . . six . . . seven.
The work was monotonous, time-consuming, and Tony had spent a whole
day at it, carefully sifting his last petrifying formula
into two jars. His mind wandered as his cramping fingers worked. Euterpe, he thought. Muse of the flute and Dionysiac
music. He remembered Ruth in high school, the way she had played in the band, the way she had held her piccolo while
practicing in the gym. Tony had known even then that she deserved immortality. The music she had played had been so
beautiful. And Louise, lovely Louise, once head of Grammercy’s Star-Gazing Club . . . she would make an excellent Urania,
her head soon to be tilted back to look at her beloved sky forever. They were both waiting for him now, standing by the side
of the motorhome. They were still, compliments of the Freezer, but not as still as they soon would be, their beauty preserved
for eternity in metal-hard stone. He knew they were looking forward to it.
He had told them what he was going to do for them. They hadn’t replied
- they really could not reply - but Tony was certain
they understood and approved.
After all, who wouldn’t want to become a god or a goddess?
There . . . almost finished. Tony picked up the last tiny flake and
settled it into the secondary pile. He carefully sealed both
jars, and then he fell back into his chair, exhausted. He flung the tweezers away, no longer needing them, and heard them
rattle somewhere after landing in the barn’s rafters. He began gently rubbing his fingers to get the soreness out and turned
around in his chair to look upon his remaining subjects.
I envy them, he thought. They are joining a great and noble pantheon,
and I’m nothing but a mere mortal. Tony smiled,
though. But I’m the one who made them. And long after I’m dust, they will remember, and so I too will be immortal.
It was a warm thought.
He looked at his watch. It was almost evening. Tony debated for a few
seconds whether he should wait for the next day
before beginning Ruth and Louise’s ascension, but he knew that he couldn’t. He was almost completely done. Despite every
hardship, despite his rejection by his masters, the Nine Muses were almost manifest. He shook his head. He would take a
shower, take some aspirin, dress for the occasion, and then . . . then he would witness history.
He checked the seal on the jars one last time, then limped his way into the motorhome.
* * * *
The image hung in front of Fip’s cane for another moment caught in a whisp of grayish smoke. He saw Huer enter the
motorhome and let his gaze linger a moment longer on the two immobilized women leaned up against the vehicle nearby.
Anthony has taste, the Salesman thought. They’ll bring in an excellent price, either individually or as part of the whole set. He
began idly thinking about a pricing range for the Nine Muses.
Fip waved the softly glowing cane through the smoke, and the image it
made drifted away in the dimming light of the sunset.
He motioned for Ray and Les behind him to come forward. They unload the truck and began walking up to the barn, huffing
softly under the load they were bearing. The locks were not a problem, nor any of the other precautions Huer had taken to
secure his privacy in this Midwestern purgatory. Fip touched his cane briefly to the large padlock hanging on the barn door,
and it eagerly popped open. The door itself opened as of its own accord. Neat and simple.
The Salesman examined the metallicized Terpischore as his assistants
wheeled Cross into the barn. The soft, almost liquid
curves of her body had been rendered perfectly exquisite in the flowing silver, and again Fip mentally congratulated Huer on
his sense of taste. The plaster Polyhymnia and crystal Melopomene were equally outstanding. He felt it was a real pity that
such a great artist as Anthony Huer had become would have to die soon, but there was no helping that. Les would shoot him
on his orders; he had the gun with him now. It was a mundane weapon, Fip knew, but it fit in with his plan.
He walked over to Cross. Ray had just finished unstrapping him from
the mover and quickly backed away from his boss as
he approached. The detective was frozen in mid-charge, his hands still outstretched as if to grip Fip’s neck from the night
face was fixed in a most charming look of utter surprise.
I probably fused his gears beyond repair when I unwound him, Fip speculated.
It’s a very damaging thing to do to clockwork
mechanisms. The Salesman was not overly concerned, though. This too had been part of his plan. He could just picture what
his associates would think when they finally came upon this scene - five more additions to the Nine Muses; Huer dead, shot
obviously by the detective Cross after he had tracked him down; and Cross himself permanently disabled, obviously damaged
somehow in his confrontation with the “serial petrifier.” Ray and Lester would come upon the scene later, following in the
detective’s trail on his orders. There would be no one left to dispute anything. There would just be an embarrassing mess, all
of which could be laid
down upon Anthony Huer, who had of course once been one of the Spokesman’s disciples. Ultimate blame would then fall
on the good doctor.
And Fip would become the Cirque de Artificiel’s new Spokesman.
Ray and Lester will have to go, too, in a few days, Fip thought. That
also was a pity. Good help was so hard to find these
days. Then he noticed that the door to the motorhome had flung open, and Huer stumbled out, one hand clutching his stolen
Freezer. Ah, good, Fip went on, putting on his trademark smile, it’s showtime.
“Anthony,” he said softly. “Surely you remember me? We, of course, all remember you.”
His grin grew wider, and Ray and Les crouched back into the shadows.
They’re here! They know! Tony dropped the Freezer and fell to his knees
in front of the blessed Chemical Dancer, his
master. They had come. All his work . . . all his effort.
“I . . I knew you would come,” Tony bleated, the sudden pain in his
ribs forgotten. He had hurt himself in his excitement. A
trace of blood stained his lips. “I . . I knew.”
“Of course we knew, my lad,” Fip purred, standing in front of the wretched
creature. “And I must say, we are impressed.
Your work has won you not a little fame.” He waved abstractly to the three statues already finished and the two potential
statues already waiting. “They sent me as representative to witness the final culmination of your dream.”
“Will . . will I be allowed . . . to work with you all again?” Tony
asked. “That’s my true dream. I . . I want to come home.”
Tears streamed down his face, and he fell forward to Fip’s shoes almost as if he wanted to begin licking them.
In a way, he did.
“Certainly, certainly,” Fip assured him. He began talking faster. “Now,
please, to your feet, Anthony. You have work to do,
schemes to finish, great plots to fulfill. The world will soon be yours again, or you will be the world’s again, or something like
that.” The former actor’s voice rose in his solitary performance. “All of manner of things, great and small, shall be at your
command. Would I lie?” He laughed like a demon.
Tony felt his master put an arm under his shoulder (He’s touching me,
he thought wondrously. I’m back, I’m back!) and help
him to his feet again. They turned toward Ruth and Louise, and that’s when Tony noticed that monster he had fought also
standing there. He backed away abruptly, tearing out of Mr. Fip’s embrace.
“Him!” he yelled terrified. “It’s him, the . . the thing!” He fell behind Fip in terror.
The Salesman hauled the petrifier to his feet again. “Yes, you’re right,
you’re absolutely, positively, certifiably correct. It is
certainly him.” He kept on laughing. “But, I assure you, I guarantee you, this monster is of no consequence to you. I brought
him here myself, personally I did, to reassure you that nothing but your work is of any importance.”
Tony fell back further. His eyes were wide in fear. That monster had
almost ruined everything. It had, in fact, ruined the
symmetry of his project, forced to him to waste his icing solution. Why does he have to be here? he whined inside.
Cross just stood there, impartial. Paralyzed.
“Don’t you trust me?” Fip asked Tony. He saw the panic in his eyes.
“I think you’ve forgotten our strengths, my boy. Perhaps
you need a reminder.” He walked over to the side of the motorhome and tapped his cane gently against it. The silver tip at the
end glowed redly.
A grayish smoke rose from the barn floor, light and ghostlike. The light,
which was already dimming, dimmed even further.
Ray and Les huddled forgotten in a corner. Tony’s eyes widened. Fip’s grin grew fatter.
“You don’t want Calliope to think you a coward, do you, Tony?” And the
image of the Muse appeared before her petrifier, a
figure of white marble, her arms upward and offering him a scroll to read. He remembered her only vaguely as Jeanette
Armstrong, once the Literature Club member at Grammercy.
“And what about Clio?” Fip went on, and the Muse of history joined her
sister. “Surely you want her to record you as the
brave man you are?” Her granite gray form, head down in contemplation of the book she read, began to renew Tony’s
confidence. He had actually dated the former Melissa Kepler once. The evening had not gone well, but he had known even
then what her future would bring, and he had been satisfied.
Thalia and Erato appeared next, the first in green marble, mask in hand,
the other in plastic serenity. She, like Calliope, held a
scroll in one hand. Tony remembered how he had worked with them, transformed them, made them immortal goddesses.
What did he have to fear?
And, he saw now, all of the Nine Muses were here in one place. His dream
was real. It was happening. Calliope, Clio, Erato,
and Thalia took their rightful places besides Melopomene, Polyhymnia, and Terpischore . . . statues of marble, stone, plastic,
crystal, metal, and unbreakable porcelain. The Arts . . . the immortal Arts.
He need only finish. Ruth and Louise, soon to be forgotten, and in their
places forever, Euterpe and Urania. I’m done, Tony
thought. I’m almost done. He got up, limped back to the table he had set up, and grabbed the two jars waiting there.
What an easily manipulated fool, Fip thought, his smile a dark radiance.
He turned and walked over to Cross. “And so were
you, my friend. Just a plaything, to be used and then discarded. Just like everything else in the world.”
The detective just stood there, his eyes bulged out, his hands outstretched.
Fip stood beside him and tapped his cane against
his hollow head. He watched as Huer approached the two remaining women. Within minutes they would join their classmates.
The Salesman cocked his head forward and stage-whispered in Cross’s
ear. “You know, the real reason I think I brought
you here was to just have you watch. You never did really approve of what we did.” He chuckled softly. “You were so
And Cross turned his neck to face Fip and said distinctly, “Like you should talk.”
The detective winked at the Salesman.
And grabbed his cane, which for the first time was easily within his reach.
“What?” the thin rake just weakly managed before another hand gripped
his throat and lifted him bodily into the air. This can’t
happen, he thought weirdly. I’m Oberon Fip. This can’t happen to me. Then the pain struck and the tightening around his
breath clenched tighter. The cane’s red tip snuffed abruptly out, and the false images of the four additional statues winked out
like blown-out birthday candles.
Tony’s attention was diverted. He looked upon a nightmare come to life.
“Nooo!” he screamed and rushed to his beloved
“How?” Fip almost managed to croak out. His feet dangled in the air.
Hiram pushed his former boss hard enough against the
motorhome to cause something inside it to crash. The cane fell out of his hand and snapped in two in the detective’s fierce
“There’s this little old man in Cincinnati,” Hiram said. “Oh, wait a
second, willya?” He saw Huer running at him and spun to
meet him. The look on Fip’s rapidly bluing face was like that of a small child who had just been told the all-day sucker he was
enjoying had been given to the family dog first. It was a look of complete incredulity.
Hiram threw Fip into Huer. He had done much the same thing earlier in
the week with Ray and Les, but this time he threw his
makeshift weapon a great deal harder. Bones crunched in the impact, and both men continued to fly back for a few feet even
after their brief contact. They fell together in a bloody and tangled heap.
Hiram started walking towards them. Fip was fast, and he was strong,
but in the end he was just a human being. Still, he had
to make sure.
“Like I was saying, there’s this little old man in Cincinnati.” The
detective reached in and pulled the two men apart, each
moaning in pain. His critical eye noticed that the jar Huer had been holding had shattered. “Owns a clock repair shop. Really
experienced, especially in doing custom work. Did you know it was possible to reverse the gears inside a clock, so that if,
say, someone unwinds one or tries speeding it up, he might actually be winding it up? I know I didn’t.”
Fip kicked upwards, punching deeply into Hiram’s stomach. The detective
gave a low grunt and flew backwards now
himself. Fip stood up and put one hand out to steady himself against the motorhome. “You bastard,” he managed. “You
He tried to move forward, his intention to tear the clockwork detective
into his component pieces, but then found to his
surprise that he couldn’t. The Salesman looked down at himself. There was a creeping, crawling sensation building in his
chest, expanding in a chilling wave from where the jar had impacted. “No,” he whispered.
He raised his hands to in front of his face.
They were turning to stone.
Black, metal-hard stone.
“Noooo!” Fip screamed and again tried moving forward. Hiram kept his
distance and watched in fascination as the owner of
G. Limited began to petrify. His pale features darkened in steadily mounting degrees. His movements slowed to a crawl and
then stopped altogether. His skin where it was exposed by his suit, now torn in several places, gleamed like polished ebony.
“I . . .Am . . .Fip . . .This . . .Ca. .n’t . . . .
He never finished the sentence.
Now, who would’ve thought? Hiram thought. A real example of poetic justice.
The detective heard a noise behind him. Ray and Les had come out of
hiding. The bigger man was holding a gun. Both looked
Hiram just looked at them.
Les abruptly dropped the gun, and both turned on their heels and ran.
Hiram didn’t blame them a bit. He picked up the
discarded gun, then walked back over to Huer and the new Fip-statue.
Huer was still human . . . almost. The other jar had broken here, too,
and he was petrifying as well. He whimpered when he
saw the detective approach but couldn’t get away. Even if hadn’t been turning to stone, virtually every bone in his body had
been broken. “You . . ruined every . . thing,” he said.
Hiram had thought about what he would say when he finally got this close
to the petrifier again. Something profound, he had
hoped, just before punching his lights out. But it would have been a useless gesture. Huer was a wreck. Rather than feeling
angry at him, the detective was surprised to feel something almost like pity.
And then there was a second ebony statue in the barn.
Hiram looked at his watch, then remembered the two women still standing
paralyzed behind him. He went into the
motorhome to find them some clothes. Some hypnosis, a little selective amnesia, and they could get back to their lives none
the wiser. They would have nightmares, maybe, but at least they would have normal lives.
The other three women, and the four before them, he would take care
of personally. He would not let them be sold to some
deviant, nor displayed in some museum. He would try to make life comfortable for them.
And Fip and Huer?
Hiram thought he might bury them somewhere in the middle of the desert.
Let them contemplate the arts underground for eternity. Maybe a muse
would inspire them. They might learn what Hiram
himself had learned a long time ago, that human life was the greatest of all the arts, and living well its greatest technique. God
knew he wanted his own humanity back.
Perfection was an illusion, beautiful as it might be.
Even the gods knew that.
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