The old lady sitting next to Hiram hit a jackpot. The machine began making noises and flashing lights, and her slot tray started filling up with nickels. The woman, a pair of eyeglasses dangling on a string against her chest, chirruped loudly and called to her friends sitting to the other side of her along the same bank of slots. One of them was wearing dark sunglasses with thick pink plastic rims. The image reminded Hiram somehow of Florida, of senior citizens sitting under lawn umbrellas and watching the world go by while they baked under the blazing sun.
Hiram plugged a nickel inside his machine and pulled the handle. He hated gambling, but it was all he could think of doing. Paddock was in charge now, and sitting in the casino playing slots was better than just standing next to her while she shouted out orders. The wheels turned in front of him and stopped. They were all lemons.
Typical, the detective thought bleakly. He had been in a morose mood all year. He had thought briefly that Oberon Fipís departure would have lifted his spirits, but nothing had really changed. Avatar had taken over a temporary stewardship of G. Limited, and the Grand Facade had opened to spectacular reviews. And Hiram was still wallowing in self-pity. He plugged another nickel in the machine and watched the wheels spin.
Mrs. Paddock was now in charge of the Cirque de Artificiel. It was enough to send shivers down Hiramís metal-plated spine. She was a psycho, worse in her own way than even Fip had been. Once, about thirty years ago while the Prodigal had loaned him out to her, Hiram had seen Paddock turn a group of pre-school children into wax-coated cherubs for some sick Valentineís Day project. The oldest of them must have been no more than four years old. She had had her agents kidnap the little kids right of their homes - the press and police had gone crazy for weeks trying to locate them - and then had dipped them one at a time into vats of molten wax. Hiram could still hear them screaming sometimes, and he prayed that whatever magic Paddock had used on them had also destroyed their minds. The thought of them still being conscious somehow, trapped forever in some display in a museum, plastic angel wings attached to their backs . . . .
The wheels stopped again. Plums and lemons this time.
Hiram had wanted to strangle the old bitch. Throttle her until her eyeballs literally popped out of their sockets. He could do it, too, physically at least, but the Prodigal when he had remade him had installed "safeguards." Hiram couldnít disobey direct orders from any of the Chemical Dancers, and unlike Fip, who had always underestimated the Cirqueís clockwork detective, Paddock had once specifically told Hiram never to cause her any harm, and therefore he couldnít. And today with Barbara Carter, as she had done years ago with those six children, she had ordered him again. All he could do was sit on the sidelines and watch.
One of the old ladyís friends came up behind Hiram and tapped him on the shoulder. "May I sit next to my friend? You donít mind, do you?" She smiled sweetly. Hiram could smell the cheap gardenia perfume she was wearing. He nodded and got up.
He saw a movie poster framed in a nearby wall and went over to look at it. The Good Earth, starring Luise Rainer, 1937. The film had come out just about the same time he had fallen in with the Prodigal. Luise Rainer didnít look anything like the girl he had been hired to find back then, though. Dorothy Simmers had been a natural blonde, almost Scandinavian in her features, a real country beauty, and it was no wonder she had run off to Hollywood to get into the pictures. It was the thing beautiful girls did sixty years ago. Hell, they were still doing it. And, like today, they usually ran into problems. Most were not so serious, but some were. Dorothy Simmers just had the bad luck to run into the Prodigal. And Hiram, trailing her, had walked right in after her.
Hiram turned and began walking towards the nearest exit. Paddock had told him to get out of her face, and if he wanted to he could take that advice strongly. He could lose himself for years before they caught up with him again, before Paddock had reorganized the Chemical Dancers to the way she wanted. The Spokesmanís sudden disappearance had opened up a lot of doors, and there was bound to be a big shake-up.
And that was bad. Not just potentially bad, but just plain outright bad. Hiram had enjoyed seeing the Andolins get their comeuppance, but the price overall was too high, and he was worried. Really worried. The Spokesman, Dr. Carnelian, had been the rudder that had guided the Cirque throughout the centuries. Hiram had researched him as much as he could shortly after their first meeting. He was a fascinating figure, really. Carnelian had been the first and the oldest of the Chemical Dancers. He had founded the Cirque de Artificiel, and though Hiram considered him as much a monster as all the others the Spokesman had recruited, there was at least one small difference between him and someone like Mr. Fip or Mrs. Paddock. They liked being soulless, perverted monsters, and they had purposefully shaped themselves into being soulless, perverted monsters.
Carnelian just naturally was a soulless, perverted monster.
For all the evil about the man, if he truly was a man, and Hiram was pretty sure the good doctor had never ever once truly been a human being, there was also something purer about him than Paddock. The Prodigal, being a braindead idiot, held that purity too.
They were both dangerous as hell, but so were tigers and wild dogs, and like animals, they didnít spend time questioning their ethics. They just did whatever they did, for good or bad. At the very least, the Spokesman had not been actively malevolent, and had he been there in the penthouse earlier instead of Paddock, Barbara would have been set free. Gregor and Viola had broken the rules; it would have been the honorable thing to do. But with Paddock in charge, anything could happen now.
Carnelian had kept the Chemical Dancers underground. Hiram didnít think Paddock would do the same. He suspected she was responsible for his disappearance.
Hiram walked out the glass doors and looked up into the sky. The stars, only lightly eclipsed by the lights of the Strip, sparkled in the desert air.
Nobody in the Cirque would miss him for months at least, and maybe even years. He could walk out now and try and forget what they were . . . and what he had become.
It would be easy.
It was very quiet. Viola opened her eyes and looked around the cell. Barbara was lightly dozing, and the maids were still off in dreamland. She was unobserved.
She got up from her corner and began examining the wall beside her. She had been waiting, not sleeping. She estimated it was about midnight or so, and the old woman was likely asleep herself. Viola was tempted to stay and fight her, but she also knew it would be a wasted effort. She had no intention of ending up like one of her maids, or worse. Frankly, she would rather die than submit to whatever Mrs. Paddock did have in mind for her. It was better to cut her losses and run.
She paused. On the other hand, maybe I can still make a deal using Barbara. She glanced again at her sleeping form.
Viola shook her head a moment later. No, they would never listen to her now, not after all this. She sighed. It had been good while it lasted. Viola found the small flaw she was looking for. She pushed at it, and the whole section of wall silently titled inward. Seconds later the secret door was closed behind her, and she was hurrying along the narrow stairway up to her room. It always pays to be prepared, she thought. Just a few supplies, and Iím away.
Stan Lockridge had asked around and found the Facadeís new temporary manager in one of the casinoís many kitchens. The place was packed. Cooks bustled back and forth, waiters and waitresses streamed by carrying trays, and Craig and the head cook were discussing something over by the big freezer. Craig saw Lockridge and waved him over.
"I hear congratulations are in order, Mr. Denscomb," Stan said. Craig said one final thing to the cook, then turned and shook his guestís hand. "Not really. Nothingís been confirmed yet, but with Andolin gone the owners needed someone in the crunch." Craig shrugged. "But Iím hopeful."
"Just where is Gregor, by the way?" Stan leaned in close and said in a quieter voice, "What did the old woman do to him, anyway?"
Craig smiled and gestured to the freezer. Stanís eyes widened as the new manager took hold of the big handle in the metal doorís middle and unlatched it. A chill escaped into the kitchen, and whisps of frost flew lightly around them. "Take a look," Craig invited.
Stan did. Inside the huge freezer, in the back behind the racks of frozen meats and vegetables, stood Gregor Andolin. A thin layer of nearly transparent ice covered every inch of his body; the color of his skin had turned a bluish-white, and his eyes were frozen open in an expression of fear and uncertainty. Stan stood there shivering for a few seconds before Craig closed the vault-like door again.
Stan turned to him. "Is he . . is he dead?" He suspected Andolin wasnít, but you could never be too sure about anything around this place. "Surely you didnít put him in with the food so he could be . . . be . . . ." Stan gulped and couldnít finished his question.
Craig put an arm around Lockridge and guided him toward a door marked ĎPrivate.í He took a key out of his pocket and opened it, revealing a long narrow corridor. He and Stan went through and the door closed automatically behind them. The walls were a plain, flat gray, and the lighting so neutral it was hard to tell where their sources were.
"Nah, weíre not planning on serving Gregor up for dinner tonight, if thatís what youíre thinkiní." The two came to a t-intersection, and Craig turned left. "Heís just on ice temporarily, so to speak, and the freezer was just the best place to keep him. Iím not sure really what Mrs. Paddock is planning to do with him." They came to another intersection, and they turned right this time. Stan saw the casino honeycombed with passages like this one. "I understand, though, theyíre thawing him out sometime tomorrow. Thereís a big meeting scheduled."
They came to another door, and again Craig had to use his key to get in. The room beyond was almost as large as the kitchen they had left. It had a big vaulted ceiling arched high above them, and lamps hung down on thick cords illuminating the roomís east and west sides in separate spotlights. Stan licked his lips. Beneath each light a marble nude was displayed, mostly young women but with an occasional male figure there too, all posed delicately and rendered in brilliant white.
Stan met Craigís eye and saw the manager nod to his unasked question. "But . . but . . there are hundreds here!" His voice shook with amazement. The two started walking. The room stretched beyond Lockridgeís immediate eyesight; it formed a large corridor lined to either side by marble figures, each no more than four or five feet apart. The row went on for at least two or perhaps even three football stadium lengths. The figures were each beautiful and extraordinarily lifelike; most looked like living persons just lightly covered with white powder, like street performers or mimes in full-body makeup.
"Thousands, actually," Craig said calmly. Stan looked at him again, and the other shook his head. "But itís not what you think. If we tried to recruit this many people all at once, the whole world would know about us, and the owners donít want that . . . yet." They came to one petrified woman - her hands had been put together in prayer, her knees bent forward in a wide squatting pose - and Craig stopped. "We very concerned with the environment here at the Facade." He laughed at Stanís puzzlement.
"We recycle, you see." Craig put a hand on the statueís left knee and patted it with an air of familiarity. "Like this one, for instance, she was originally a G. Limited mannequin. We recruited her years ago." Stan came to stand at the other side of the marble figure. He felt her face, caught in a moment of ecstatic bliss it seemed, and found it cool and hard. He felt himself becoming uncontrollably aroused. "But with Mr. Fipís departure and the new casino opening, we decided to move some of the stock around."
Craig looked at his watch suddenly. "Say, weíre doing one now, I think." He pulled out another key. "Do you wanna watch?"
Stan pulled himself away from the intoxicating statue. His eyes were wandering her smooth and graceful curves. "Yeah . . yeah I think I do." Craig nodded and led his guest up a short way down the huge hall. There was an arch between two of the statues - both males this time, each posed heroically as if they were guarding the entrance - and smaller hall led from it. Doors lined either side of the short corridor, and Stan could hear a faint buzzing sound from behind some of them. Craig opened up one, and they walked in.
The room was white-tiled and brightly lit. It reminded Lockridge of a medical examination room or laboratory. In the center there was an upraised platform, like a pedestal but set with tiny multicolored lights that constantly blinked on and off. Along the south wall a long metal rack was stood, and inside it a row of female mannequins was arranged, all nude (and anatomically correct, Stan noted) and gleaming like the plastic of which they had been turned into. A pair of technicians in white coats came to attention when Craig walked in. He motioned for them to continue on.
Stan felt like he was going to burst. One of the technicians tilted a mannequin out of her slot - a tall redhead with a large bust - and carried her over to the platform. She must have weighed almost nothing; the technician carried the plasticized form casually. The other technician made a mark on the clipboard he was carrying and bent to adjust something among the flashing lights. The mannequin was put on the pedestal, and then the two men began re-posing her. They tilted her feet up and put stabilizers under her heels. They spread out her arms up over her head, arched her back forward slightly, and made the figure appear as if she were stretching, as if perhaps after some lengthy exercise. Then the technicians stood back and watched the pedestal do its work.
"Itís cheaper recycling, too," Craig leaned over and confided to Stan. "We do do some on-site recruiting, but frankly we go through a lot of statues and still-lifes here."
Beads of moisture had suddenly appeared on the plastic mannequin. Her poreless complexion began softening, becoming more lifelike. Stanís breathed faster as he saw the young womanís eyes gradually lose their vacant, glazed stare. Her breasts began moving slightly up and down; she was breathing herself for the first time in years, recognizing herself as well, as a person. She remembered the cab ride at night, and how the cabbie had taken her somewhere . . . somewhere she hadnít wanted to go. Then, as natural color seeped back into her flesh and bones, there was an electric chill, and a crackling sound filled the air. The womanís breathing slowed again and stopped. Her eyes glazed. A light gasp escaped her the figureís lips before they turned pale and white, hardening to solid marble. And, where once a plastic mannequin had once stood, barely a minute later stood in its place a marble statue.
Outstretched as if perhaps after some lengthy exercise.
The technicians pulled a moving cart up to the pedestal, and together they began the laborious task of moving the stone figure down from the pedestal. Craig touched Stan on the shoulder, and they left the men to their job. Instead of going back to the hall of statues, they went up the shorter corridor and turned left at the intersection at the end.
"I should say congratulations to you too, Stan." Craig led them to another laboratory setting. There was the same white-tile, but instead of a metal rack and pedestal in the middle there was only a soft couch and coffee table. "You have a new deal with the owners."
The men sat down, and within a minute one of the casinoís chambermaids came in and asked them their pleasure. They ordered, and she hurried away to get their drinks.
Stan sat back and admired the girlís backside as she left. "Yeah. Paddock approached me just after the Andolins did. She knew what they were up to the whole time." He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. "What I donít understand, though, is why all the fuss? You guys Ďrecruití all the time. Whyíd they get in trouble with me?"
The maid came back with their drinks, and, after serving them, she stood demurely behind Craig as he spoke. Stan watched her breasts move up and down.
"Guests are off-limits, itís that simple." He took a drink of his scotch. "Itís the same thing with the recycling. The Cirque doesnít want any undue attention right now, and grabbing guests of the casino is a big no-no. If we did, sooner or later someone would make a connection. Itís just easier to recruit outside." Craig leaned back and gave his empty glass back to the maid. "In fact, we got a new girl training right now. No friends, no close family, and no connection to us. Sheíd be impossible to trace."
Stanís eyes never left the maidís body. He had decided one of the best perks of being a Club member was that he could ogle anybody he wanted and they didnít care . . . couldnít care. "Oh, yeah? Iíd like to see her."
"More drinks, please," Craig said to the help. He glanced back at Lockridge and shook his head. "She hasnít been processed yet, not completely."
"Well, you see, itís like, say, your new maid Sami. Gregor got her brain going on track, but we havenít really done anything to the body yet. Youíll want to have that done, by the way. We treat Ďem . . . they stop aging, they never get tired, no need for food or water, and it beautifies them all at the same time. Itís neat."
"You mean . . like her?" Stan asked as the chambermaid came back with their second round. Her complexion was perfect, almost unnaturally so. It was hard to believe she wasnít human anymore.
"Hm-hmm," Craig hummed. "Theyíre like living dolls after we get done with Ďem. Anyway, because Sami was a special case, we kind of started ass-backwards with her. Usually we give the dollies the bandage treatment first. We condition the body first, addict it to pleasure, and then we find working with the mind becomes all the more easier." He motioned for the maid to come closer. "Just so I donít forget . . . Gwen, have the new maid Samantha report to Alterations the next time you see her. Wrap her up and fit her with a pair of Controllers."
"Yes, sir," the girl replied politely. Craig spoke to Stan again. "You wonít actually need the Controllers, probably, but theyíre a neat toy and every little bit helps. Samantha will be young and beautiful for you forever."
"Thanks," Stan said, really meaning it. He had been a Club member for years, but though heíd collected some petrified figures from G. Limited over that time, the Cirque usually didnít sell its servants and living toys to its audience. That was the main reason he had made his deal with the Andolins originally, and then again with Paddock. He would have a special kennel built for Alicia he could visit privately in the countryside, but Sami could serve him full-time in his house in New York.
And there was one other matter to consider now. "When can I have Barbara?" he asked.
"Anytime you want her," Craig answered. "Like I said earlier, thereís a big meeting going on tomorrow, but after that you can have her transformed into anything you want. And I mean that . . . sincerely. Mrs. Paddock was very clear."
He leaned forward. "You can have her transformed into anything you want."
"Good." Stan was satisfied.
Barbara woke suddenly when Samantha and the five other maids all quietly lined up. No order had been given, at least not one that she heard. In fact, without a word being said in the process at all, the cell door opened and the six girls calmly walked out. Barbara had been exhausted and had fallen into a fitful sleep earlier. The movement now disturbed her.
"Sami? Sami!" She rushed to the door.
And, standing there, was the man in the rumpled suit, one of her "rescuers" from before. Barbara ran straight into him before realizing he was there. Then, seeing who what it was, her eyes widened, and she prepared to scream. He clamped a hand over her mouth.
"Shhh," he whispered to her urgently. He moved them back just inside the cell door, looked outside in the corridor for a moment, and then turned his sight back to Barbara. She was struggling in his grip, but though he didnít seem to be exerting much effort, his hold on her was rock-solid. He bent down to whisper in her ear.
"Iím not going to hurt you," he said quickly. "Iím here to help you get out. Iím going to take my hand away. Please, donít scream. This may be your last chance." Barbara met his eyes. They were soft brown and concerned. He lifted his hand.
Barbara took a sharp, breathy intake preparing to yell. The man winced in anticipation but made no further effort to keep her silent. He relaxed his grip on her completely, and Barbara pushed herself out of his arms. Her head turned back and forth across the cell looking for a weapon. She saw the man drop a bundle of clothes on the floor and put his head outside the cell again. Barbara wasnít sure what was going on.
She didnít scream, however. One thing was for sure, and that was that this just might be her last chance to get out. There was nothing in the cell she could use.
He was looking down the corridor. "I brought you some clothes. Hurry up. We havenít got a lot of time." He made a deliberate effort not to look in Barbaraís direction, and this more than anything he had said to her gave her hope that he was telling the truth. She rushed down to the clothes - brown slacks, a blouse, shoes, and a coat - and after a momentís deliberation began putting them on.
"Who are you?" she whispered, grabbing the shoes. They were a size too big.
"My nameís Hiram," he replied, not turning his head. "Once you get dressed, follow me. Weíll take a right down the hall, then another right, then a left. Weíll come to a set of stairs, and thoseíll take us right to one of the restaurants. Once weíre in public, weíll be safe." He pulled a gun out of his coat pocket, checked its ammunition, and then held it behind him to Barbara. She hesitated, then reached out and took it.
"Why now?" Barbara asked angrily. Her eyes began to tear. "Why didnít you help me before?" She choked back a sob, then repeated her earlier question. "Who are you?"
He seemed to sense she was finished dressing. He turned to her just as Barbara was putting on the coat. "My nameís Hiram Cross, and I work for the Cirque, though I donít want to. And Iím the only one who can get you out of the casino."
Barbara held up the gun and aimed it directly at his chest. She cocked it.
"You couldíve done something before," she said furiously. "You could . . you could have saved Sami, or Alicia!" Her finger pressed down further on the trigger.
Cross shook his head. "No. I couldnít save them, and we canít save them now. Theyíre already . . . already transformed. Itís irreversible." He made a short, humorless laugh. "Believe me, I know."
Barbara kept her finger on the trigger. "I donít trust you."
Cross gave a half-grin and held out his hands open-palmed. "I donít blame you at all, and thereís nothing I can do to make you trust me." He paused. "Well, I take that back. I could, but I wonít do that to you." He took one step forward. "We donít have a lot of time."
Barbara aimed the gun higher and took one step closer herself. She put the barrel of the weapon about two feet away from the center of Hiramís forehead.
"This could be another trick." She prayed it wasnít, but she just wasnít sure yet. This man had stood around and done nothing while she had been dragged away earlier. "If it is, Iím going to blow your head off."
He took one step closer, hunched down, and slowly put his forehead against the gun. Barbara trembled and had to ease up on her grip. "Yeah, you can if you want. It wonít help, but you can if you want." He met her eyes again. "Itís either now or never. Which is it?"
Barbara bit her lower lip slightly, then eased the hammer down on the pistol and raised it from where it had been resting. She began crying but said softly, "Okay, letís go." Her voice was timid now where it had been fierce just a few seconds before. Hiram nodded again, then held out his hand. Barbara put her left hand in it - she held onto the gun with the right - and he turned and began moving. He checked the corridor again, and a moment later the two were jogging down the hall to the right, not running but not taking the time about it, either. They came to an intersection and turned right again. The corridors were narrow and empty, and they made Barbara think of movie scenes set in fictional government underground complexes.
"Why are you helping me?" she asked, whispering.
They passed a series of red doors with black numbers painted on them.
"Because I knew a woman just like you once." They came to another turn and made a left. "I tried to help her too a long time ago, but I failed." He tightened his grip on Barbaraís hand slightly for emphasis. "Iím not gonna fail again."
A stairway was at the end of the hall. Barbara saw it and began running.
At the intersection right in front of the stair the corridor split again in two. As Hiram and Barbara raced towards it, a large figure stepped into view from either side.
Barbara screamed and raised the gun. They were automatons - porcelain white skin, broad-shouldered figures, massed black fused hair on top of their heads, and faces as blank and expressionless as a Ken dollís. They turned in front of the stairs and began walking side-by-side down the hall.
"Crap," Hiram said under his breath. Paddockís toyboys. He hadnít expected to see them. He let go of Barbaraís hand, bent down, and rushed them. Barbara fired at the same time. The bullet hit the first mannequin-like figure in the chest; there was a sound like thick glass breaking, but the automaton didnít even break stride.
Hiram jumped at them like a football player, his arms outstretched and sweeping. They collided with another breaking glass sound, and all three fell into a heap.
"Run!" Hiram raised a fist and brought it down on one of the blank faces. It shattered like a mirror, and the whole head exploded from the force. There was no blood at all, though, and the figure kept on fighting. The second robot kidney-punched Hiram, and Barbara heard its hand pass into her rescuerís body with a loud crunching noise. He began making sounds like the gears in a car being stripped, but he kept on fighting. His kick into the second automaton sent a crack through it all the way up to its hairline.
Barbara jumped around the huddle and made her way to the stairs. In front of her, though, two more porcelain men came around the corners. She fired another shot at one of them and missed. It grabbed the gun from her hand and twisted it away. Barbara tried to leap past them, crying, but then another pair of figures came around the corner, and she there was no where to go. One of them seized her by the arms and held her while the others joined the pile up now on top of Hiram. Barbara fought but it was no use.
A blonde-haired man in casual clothes came running down the hall. He looked out of breath. "Shit! I donít need this!" He came up behind Barbara while she was struggling and took in the scene. "Shit!" He was holding a thin metal collar in one hand.
Craig saw it was Hiram Cross being tackled by the toyboys. He was still punching and kicking; a random hit drove a huge hole in the wall beside him. Craig decided to keep his distance. Paddock was going to be furious, and he had to take control of the situation now or pay the price for it later.
He saw the girl fighting. "Hold her steady," he ordered the automaton. It let go of one arm and grabbed Barbaraís hair. It pulled and tilted her head down. She screamed again in mixed pain and anger. Craig came up around her and slipped the collar around her neck. He snapped it shut.
Immediately she stopped fighting. She stopped moving altogether. Her eyes, facing the floor and hidden behind her hair, widened in sudden shocked fear. She couldnít move at all. She was totally paralyzed.
Craig stood back. "Straighten up," he told Barbara, and against her will she complied. "Turn around." She did. She couldnít speak, couldnít yell for help. Her limbs felt like they were on strings. She was a puppet! "Take off those clothes."
Barbara stripped at the manís command. She had no choice. Soon her hastily gathered suit was lying at her feet.
"Go back to your cell and wait for me." Unhesitatingly, walking stiffly, Barbara turned and walked past the porcelain and plaster huddle beside her without so much as a glance. Craig took a step after her, then stopped. Four of the toyboys were still on top of the detective; even so, they were having trouble holding him down. A fifth lay nearby hopelessly demolished. Craig gestured for the other porcelain man to join the fight. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a cell phone.
"Yeah, this is Craig. Send down three or four more of the robots. The 300ís hall. We got a situation here." He closed it and stepped back to let the automatons work.
And this was only his first day on the job!
The sewers smelled, but then again they werenít exactly listed with the top sites in Las Vegas anyway. Viola held a perfumed handkerchief to her nose and mouth and kept walking. The stagnant water went up past the thick rubber boots she was wearing, and she hated to think what might be swimming in it. City designers would have been surprised to see a sewer this large under the Strip, but, then, the city was full of all sorts of surprises, wasnít it? In any case, it provided a great way to get in and out of the casino secretly . . . and, best of all, not even Gregor had known it was there.
Viola had always thought it best to plan ahead.
And a private escape tunnel was always to have around.
First the parking garage, she thought smugly, then the car nobody knows I own, and by the time the old bitch finds out what happened, Iíll be in L.A. Viola felt sure she could lose herself there for a hundred years or more. It was too bad about Gregor - Viola had shed a tear for him briefly while packing - but those were the breaks. They had gambled, and they had lost . . . but Viola didnít plan on paying the full wager.
The lights were dim. She turned a corner down the narrow shaft and bumped her head against an outthrust pipe. "Ouch, shit!" It was never like this in the movies, she thought, rubbing her forehead. She had gotten the idea for the escape tunnel while watching, of all things, the Mutant Ninja Turtles. There, though, the sewers had really been big.
But, then, that was Hollywood for you.
The sound of water splashing was everywhere. Viola didnít notice the shimmering light up ahead until she was almost on top of it. At first she thought it was just a reflection from her flashlight - it was a flickering glow, like what youíd expect seeing bounced off of water - but as she approached closer she saw it was also multicolored, like a shifting kaleidoscope . . . the colors blurring one into another . . red into blue into green . . . sparkling and beautiful . . . and . . No! No!
Too late she recognized her error.
It was an eerily beautiful light, and watching it floating there on the water Viola could feel the strength draining out of her limbs. The flashlight fell out of her hand, and she shrugged off the backpack she had carefully balanced. The light took away all the problems, all the worries, and it was making her feel so suddenly sleepy . . . .
She felt something on her wrists, and at her ankles, and over her waist . . what?
The light expanded, shifted inside her, and the next moment Viola was aware of herself she was strapped to an operating table in one of the Facadeís underground rooms. She recognized the white tilework and moaned uncontrollably.
They hypnotized me! Time was disjointed.
It could have been hours later, she realized.
They caught me!
"Did youís really think you could leaves that easy, Viola?" she heard Mrs. Paddock say. The old woman was in the room somewhere but outside of Violaís sightline. She couldnít move her head. It was strapped down to the table with canvas and leather, just like her arms and legs were. She was helpless. How long have I been here? Have . . . have they done anything to me yet? Everything was so confused.
A second ago she had been in the subway.
Now she was in an operating room.
There had been almost no transition. The suddenness of it all was sickening, like being on a rollercoaster going full-steam and then having it just stop abruptly.
It was jarring. It made even thinking hard.
Where am I? Viola thought weirdly. She knew where she was, and the idea of it terrified her. Whatís going to happen to me? But, then, she knew the answer to that one, too.
"Oh, noís, noís," the old woman cackled. "Iís no that easy." She came within Violaís eyeshot and put her tiny wrinkled hand to the younger womanís face. Viola opened her mouth to say something - she didnít know what, a curse, a plea for mercy - and found herself mute. "I tells you what I think, dearie."
Mrs. Paddock gazed down at Viola. She had a bemused expression on her ancient countenance. "I believes you done this on purpose, Viola."
She nodded, and Viola motioned with her eyes. No, no that wasnít true!
"I believes you done its on purpose," Paddock repeated. "You must of knows weíd catch you and punishes you. Thereís no escapes, you knows. Nots ever. But you went aheads and made your deals anyways and brung them folks here to the casino to play with."
Paddock clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
"Youís wanted to be punished, I saidís to myself earlier like. Didníts youse?" She put her hand around Violaís mouth. "You must speaks the truth."
"Yes," Viola heard herself say, unbelieving as the words poured out. "I was bored . . . and I saw the chambermaids, and I saw how happy they were . . . and I wanted what they had." It wasnít true, Viola screamed inside. It wasnít, it wasnít.
She was so confused.
Paddock nodded as if she had known all along. "Youís wanted to be made a happy, blissful slave," and Viola nodded, not understanding, unable to know whether that was the truth or not. "Wells," Paddock went on, "far be it for meís to stands in your way."
She let go of Violaís face and made a gesture in the air. Someone else was in the room, Viola realized. When he came into her sight, she began screaming uncontrollably.
"Youís wanted no mores responsibilities," Paddock said, "or worries or cares, so be it." Then she bent low to whisper in Violaís ear. "I thinks he has somethiní specials for you," she added confidentially. "A whole newís thing." She beamed.
The Prodigal was an immensely fat man. No, not fat, nor obese. Those words implied humanity, and the Prodigal was not human, not anymore. He was instead tremendous. Gigantic. A behemoth. He was incredibly large, with the kind of bulk only a very, very tall person could put on. Rolls of flesh hung down around his small face and his multiple chins, along his arms and even his hands. Shorter people couldnít put on the kind of weight the creature had. Entire sheets of white cloth had to go into providing the surgical gown he was wearing. He easily topped around six or seven hundred pounds, at a minimum, but it wasnít just the physical mass of the man. There were others in the world who equaled his size. It was the Prodigalís density that made him a monster.
It wasnít fat or muscle behind all those rolls of flesh.
It was madness.
His eyes sparkled like a little boyís. He drooled. He made funny hooting sounds.
He pulled a tray of instruments up to the operating table. Scalpels, retractors, and other arcane tools gleamed under the roomís bright lights. Viola continued to scream.
"Iílls just leaves you twos alone, I will," Mrs. Paddock said, smiling, and left.