Grand Facade

by Fool

Read the previous part by clicking here.

Chapter Six

The man suspended over the vat continued his moan. The molten wax beneath him bubbled, and the chains holding him up by his arms and legs dripped with moisture drawn from the heavy steam. Replicas of heads, torsos, and limbs sat naked on shelves scattered around the room or were strewn carelessly in boxes along the floor, making the chamber look like a Bosch painting of the anteroom to hell.

Mrs. Paddock lifted the small figure in her gnarled hands and resumed her chanting. The moaning grew to a shriek of agony. The chains rattled as the manís arms and legs flailed helplessly. His muscles tensed as if an electric current were passing through his skin.

The old woman stopped after a few more minutes. This was getting nowhere, and the screaming was getting on her nerves. Sighing deeply, Paddock casually raised her left hand and pointed at the vat. First four, then five or six more thin streamers of molten wax rose from the pool like pillars rising up from the ocean. They curved inwards as they ascended and appeared like terribly distorted fingers grasping at a toy. The man, whose groans of pain had diminished with Paddock ceasing her recitation, screamed again as the hot ribbons made contact with his wet flesh. Paddock clenched her fist, and the streamers quickly encapsulated her captive in heated wax. He struggled for a few more seconds, and then all movement halted. More wax flowed out of the vat in defiance of gravity, and seconds later the chains appeared less holding a man than they a giant insectís cocoon. The spinster approached the suddenly still form and made a blowing sound with her lips. The wax began to cool and change color, shifting downwards from its molten red and yellow to a more ordinary fleshy tinge.

Paddock looked at the doll she held. Outwardly it appeared the same as it had just a minute ago, but she could sense the change. The link had been broken. Bahing contemptuously, she flung it away. The doll landed in the vat of wax, caught fire, and was quickly incinerated. She turned and walked up the steps from her lab while three of her assistants - porcelain white, blank-faced, robotic toyboys - cleaned up after her. One began cranking the wheel that drew the heavy metal lid of the vat while the other two stepped up on footstools and unlocked the waxen package dangling from the chains.

Paddock came out of the basement and went into the small study adjoining the front room of the Grand Facadeís Hollywood Wax Museum. She sat down in her rocker, picked up her knitting needle and thread from the basket next to her, and resumed working on the scarf she was making. Her lips pursed in annoyance.

The dolls were giving her a problem. If she was to succeed Carnelian, she needed to know how to make and break the links they had with their subjects. When she had cleaned out the doctorís townhouse back East, the first place she had gone was the locked vault where he had kept all the tiny wooden and plaster figures he had made or collected over the years. His Gallery of stone and marble figures she donated to the casino, and the Hei-pi cabinet she had had stored away for future research, but the dolls she had kept. They were the key. She could break the linkages by transforming their hosts, as she had done downstairs, but she couldnít do it any other way . . . and that was a serious, serious problem.

Notably, because in her own locked vault elsewhere in the museum, there was a tiny wooden and plaster figure made in her own image, just as there were dolls for almost every other member of the Cirque, their employees, and their Club customers.

Control of the dolls would give her control over everything.

Knit, one, pearl, two. Knit, one, pearl, two. She thought she was getting the hang of this.

In comparison, eliminating the Spokesman himself hadnít been a problem at all. Paddock knew everyone suspected she was responsible for his disappearance, but she really wasnít. Carnelian had up and left on his own, and she had no idea where he was. Nor did she really care. She had been making ready her plans for a takeover for years now, making alliances with the more prominent of the Chemical Dancers (and it was too bad Fip was no longer around . . . she could have used him) and co-opting the more influential members of the Club, including the decadent Mr. Stan Lockridge. She had built up her powerbase slowly. She knew from experience that the Spokesman periodically disappeared - not many of the current Cirque were old enough to know that - and then subsequently reappeared, sometimes years or even decades later. She had wanted to be ready for him, and so she had been. Carnelian was going to get a big surprise if and when he decided to come back. His Cirque was hers in all but name now.

If only she could understand those bloody dolls!

Knit, one, pearl, two. It was a very relaxing hobby.

One of her assistants came up later and told her the new subject was ready. Paddock put away her knitting and followed the automaton back downstairs. The fellow she had been experimenting with - a former Club member who had run into money problems - had turned out quite well, she thought. She stood in front of his cold, waxen form.

"Well, nowís, Misters Wildman," she said, running her hand down the statueís smooth washboard stomach. All of the scars she had inflicted had faded. "Youse Ďell make a fine stand-ins, you will." She turned to the nearest toyboy. "Dresses him in a suits, ya lunk, 1950s or soís, and put Ďem in the scene with William Holden." The automaton moved to obey. It wasnít often now that Mrs. Paddock got to work with wax anymore, and it made her happy to see her modern work getting put to some use. Wax museums were a kind of entertainment that had passed out of fashion over the years. She would have to do something about that once she was in full control.

Yes. That was definitely a plan.

There was this commercial Hiram had seen on TV once. As a rule he generally didnít watch a lot of television, but this particular piece had stuck in his mind for some reason. The commercial showed this gorilla at the zoo in its cage, and somebody had put a suitcase in there with it. The gorilla stomped on the luggage, threw it around the walls of its cell, and basically just went ape with it. The demonstration was intended to show presumably how sturdy that companyís suitcases were. It was a good clip.

Hiram felt a bit like that suitcase now.

Another one of the ape-men (I think his name is Fido, Hiram thought briefly) grabbed the detective at the small of his back and hoisted him above his head, swinging him back and forth like a ragdoll before throwing him with bone-jarring force against the kennelís far wall. The primeval let out a joyful, primitive war cry and jumped up and down in glee. His companions, the two males Jojo and Rex and the female Miriam, rushed forward to be the next to play with the new toy.

The males got there first; they picked Hiram up and tugged on him the way little kids would over a favorite blanket. Each had a hold of one arm, and they both creaked with the pressure put on them. Miriam, not wanting to be left out, leaped into the air and landed in the middle of her two squabbling companions, hitting Hiram square in the chest with her bulky mass and driving him into the far wall for a second time. Hiram heard a deep crunching sound in his back when he hit. His vision was gone in his left eye.

He felt hairy paws on his shoulders. The fight began again.

Since his transformation sixty-odd years ago, Hiram could still feel pain, but it was mostly an abstract thing to him now. He could recognize it, but it didnít have much impact on him. So, even with the broken limbs, the crushed vertebrae, and all the shattered gears and pulleys inside him, Hiram found he could still think rationally and calmly about how totally screwed he was. Rex playfully punched him in the stomach to perhaps highlight that point. The strength of the blow would have driven the primevalís fist straight through an ordinary manís abdomen and out again his lower spine.

He thought he had deactivated all of the alarms. He should have known Paddock would have had her own forces ready and waiting for him. She must have known how he felt.

Jojo grabbed Hiram by the head and swung him at Miriam. Something snapped inside the detectiveís neck as he flew around the room. Miriam bounded out of the way and then leaped on top of her attacker. With his one good eye remaining, Hiram observed their fight degenerate into sex play. They began making low grunting noises.

Well, that leaves only two for a while, anyway, he thought. Fido put a foot on Hiramís head and pressed his face to the floor. The pressure mounted; the detective could feel things rupturing behind his nose. It was extremely disquieting.

Putting him the kennel with Violaís primevals had been Craigís idea. Paddockís toyboys had picked him up, carried him downstairs, and tossed him in like they were feeding the animals. The animals had gone crazy with their new plaything. They had sniffed at him for a few minutes, but soon after that playtime had begun. That was four hours ago.

They hadnít gotten tired yet.

What the ape-men had done to him, though, or the damage the robots had inflicted earlier, didnít hurt nearly as bad as what Hiram had done to Barbara. He could just hear a sinister Laurel and Hardy voice going off in his crushed head: Hereís another fine mess youíve gotten me into! It was inexcusable. He had raised her hopes. He had raised his own hopes; he honestly thought they could get away. He should have known better.

Rex smashed into Fido and pulled his toy away from him. Hiramís face was flattened against another wall by the swing. He felt his left arm pull out of its socket.

Dammit, he thought, what are they doing to Barbara now?

"Put this on, please," the maid said, and the girl took the proffered uniform and began dressing. The scene played out in silence. No resistance at all was offered.

It had been a wild night. Each of the shows had lasted an exhausting two-and-a-half hours. Between all the dancing, the leaping about, and the strain of holding that heavy headdress behind her with every step, Gail should have been dead on her feet. But she wasnít, strangely enough. There was a sense of fatigue in her bones, but it was merely the impression of tiredness more than any real feeling of it . . . like she knew she should be exhausted and somewhat wanted to be, but simply wasnít. The Controllers, in any case, continued sending pulse after pulse of mind-numbing pleasure through her body, and that was more than energizing enough to keep her going.

Those pulses were everything in the world now. They guided her every step. When she obeyed a command, they quickened. When she was slow to obey, they slowed.

Gail couldnít conceive of life without them now.

The maid had handed her one of the casinoís cocktail waitress uniforms. It was small and tight and reminded Gail more of lingerie than it did of something somebody wore in public. It was bright red with black trim and a series of brass studs holding back a flap over her bust. The skirt flared out around her waist and exposed her pantied crotch to all the world beneath a downy white layer of French-cut silk. Her Controllers fit comfortably beneath the black, fishnet pantyhose that was also part of the uniform. The chambermaid inspected the new girl when she was done putting it on and made some minor adjustments here and there. Her makeup was touched up a bit. Then she handed Gail a squarish bellhopís cap and helped her fix her hair beneath it.

Gail saw herself in a nearby mirror and didnít recognize herself. The girl who come to Las Vegas from Nebraska three years ago had been a pretty enough person, but now she was supermodel gorgeous. It was an incredible transformation. Her skin fairly shone with perfection. Her blonde hair simply glowed. And the look of bliss on her face . . . it completed the picture of loveliness. She had become another person entirely.

"Come with me," the maid ordered. They walked through the Grand Facadeís deep underground passageways, their high heels clicking sharply with each step. Soon they arrived in what at first appeared to Gail as part of a museum. The walls and ceiling were painted black, and beneath small lamps large portraits adorned the roomís sides. The atmosphere was silent and grave, and it reminded Gail of that old Rod Serling show, the one he had had after the Twilight Zone . . . what was the name of that? The maid led Gail over to a small bar set up unobtrusively along one wall, handed her a tray, and told her to stand there silently. Another waitress stood by at the opposite end of the bar, and together they made up a perfect set of ornaments in a room full of ornaments.

The subject matter of the portraits was . . . erotic. Each, in almost photographic exactness, showed the image of a beautiful woman in carnal pose. They were like the pin-ups Gail had seen in menís garages or similar places, but these works were no mere posters. Even to her untrained eye Gail could see they were oils, exquisitely painted and expensively framed. The one closest to her showed a stunning brunette lying on her back on a velvet-laid bed. She wore a flimsy black nightie open across her breasts, and gartered silk nylons stretched enticingly along smooth, firm legs. Her long hair was spread out behind her in an aching beautiful wave. She was a woman caught in an endless moment of desire, waiting perpetually for someone to join her in her soft bed. Her eyes were wanton with dark passion. The detail in the painting was breathtaking; Gail had never seen a flat image so wondrously alive before.

The other portraits showed women in similar poses and just as obvious needs. There was a blonde like Gail herself, short bobbed hair and wearing only a set of tight, tight jeans; a platinum blonde, with full bouncy hair falling over a transparent black gown; a young Asian girl dressed as a traditional geisha, her face painted white and porcelain fine; and many others as well, hundreds in all, women of all races and backgrounds, most wearing the naughtiest of lingerie, some wearing nothing at all, but each rendered in the same incredible level of detail. The room made Gail hot just being there.

The maid who had brought her to the gallery left. Gail waited as she had been instructed to, and a few minutes later she heard the sharp click of high heels returning on the smooth marble floor. But it wasnít the maid, after all. The new woman was dressed similarly to the portraits on the walls - a tight black bustier and matching leather panties, a choker with a porcelain seal in front, and high-heeled, knee-high black boots. Her hands and arms were encased in long, black rubber gloves, and full, wavy crimson-red hair cascaded around her shoulders. She was the dominatrix of any manís fantasy brought to life. All she missed was the whip. A marginally shorter man dressed in business fashion accompanied her. He wore small wire-rim glasses, and his companion had her face buried in his right ear whispering something to him. Gail could see the bulge in his pants and the sweat upon his brow, and she shuddered in forced contemplation of the place she was in.

The man looked at Gail and wet his lips. The dominatrix gently put her rubber-clad fingers to his face and guided his attention elsewhere. "Any of the portraits here, Mr. West. Choose, and she will join to you in your room shortly." She waved her other arm about in an expansive gesture encompassing all the gallery. "They live only to serve."

The man took out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. With the mistress of pain beside him, he wandered slowly along the room gazing intently at each picture. When he asked for a drink, the cocktail waitress beside Gail played bartender. Gail herself brought the refreshment and curtsied in front of him when he took it, her actions guided by pulses from the Controllers. She hardly needed to think about the movement at all. A few minutes later the man made his decision. The picture he choose showed another redhead, short-haired this time, standing in blue panties, white gloves, and nothing else besides. His companion complimented him on his choice. At a wave from her, the other cocktail waitress came forward, took the gentleman in hand, and guided him toward the waiting bedchamber he was told to expect.

"Linda will keep you company until your selection arrives, Mr. West," the woman said sweetly as they left. When they were out of sight in the darkness, the dominatrix approached the painting the man had chosen. Gail watched as she removed the choker from around her throat and carefully placed it on the ground beside her. Her hands moved up to caress her leather-clad bosom, and she stared adoringly into the eyes of the painted redhead in front of her. She was smiling, obviously looking forward to whatever was going to happen. Gail could feel an increased tension in the air.

The portrait began to move.

Gail blinked but didnít budge from her station near the bar. No, she thought, thatís impossible. But, then, wasnít everything in this casino an impossibility?

The figure in the painting moved. Her white-gloved hands slowly raised from where they had been resting on her lightly tanned thighs. Her lips, pursed before in an eternal kiss, opened gradually. Her chest began to move from side to side as if she were breathing. The dominatrix moaned in delight and pressed a hand down upon her panties. Gail watched in amazement as the figure in the portrait began expanding off of its two-dimensional surface. It was like a bubble being blown; air, or in this case a sense of solidity, flowed into the flat image. The oils in the painting seemed to flow, and like liquid mercury the short-haired redhead stepped out from her frame and onto the cold, marble floor. Her body glistened, as if she were coated in Vaseline or, perhaps, just bodypaint in the same color as her own natural tones. Her arms lifted, and she embraced the leather-clad dominatrix in front of her. A bubbly moan of pleasure escaped the living portraiture, and she nestled her face deep into the throat of the woman now holding her.

It was a miraculous sight. An exchange took place, Gail saw, one she could hardly believe occurred. The flat image from the portrait slowly filled out. A sense of depth seemed to pervade her. The liquid quality of her features seemed to dry out and become more natural looking. Simultaneously, the dominatrix began to . . . well, flatten. She was like a balloon about which the air was being drawn out. Perspiration appeared along her face and upper arms, and she took on the same glistening trait her replacement had had previously. Her bustier, before filled out with plump, thick cleavage, seemed to deflate. Her well-muscled thighs flattened out like paper. The two women broke their embrace, and the now liquidy, flowing image of the dominatrix stepped lightly first onto and then directly into the surface of the hanging portrait. Colors flowed between the wooden frame. She appeared to turn around - an impossibility again for a two-dimensional figure, but she did it anyway - and settled into pose.

The short-haired nude standing in front of the dominatrix portrait knelt and picked up the black-ribboned choker. She fastened it around her throat and took a moment to caress her now full three-dimensional body. She looked over at Gail and winked.

Then she turned and went off in the direction Mr. West had been led in.

Gail stood there for a long time. The portrait of the leather-clad dominatrix appeared the same now as any of the others in that vast gallery. There was no difference in quality at all. Gail stood there and admired . . . and wondered if she too would be joining the collection.

Viola 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. Her mouth felt funny, too. She couldnít seem to close it entirely. Viola tried to speak, to ask what was being done to her, but she felt very thick-tongued. There was a pumping sound next to her head, and she turned her face to the left to see what it was. The effort seemed to take forever.

The machine worked like a pump. A light yellow liquid filled one glass container on top, and a dark red liquid filled a second right beside it. Tubes stretched back and forth in a tangle. As she watched, the level of the red liquid increased, and the level of the yellow liquid decreased. Viola lifted her hand to the pump, maybe to gain some perspective of what she was seeing - she couldnít quite comprehend it - and stopped when she saw how odd it looked. The flesh didnít look like flesh anymore; it was smooth, overly pinkish, and appeared to her experienced eyes very much like plastic.

It looked like the skin of a Barbie doll, in fact.

Artificial. Not real at all.

There was a tight feeling all around her, like being wrapped in plastic.

Viola 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.

She never felt the dress being sewn on her.

It had been hours since the escape attempt. Hours! The collar around Barbaraís throat prevented all independent movement. She couldnít speak. She couldnít budge an inch.

All she could do was wait as she had been instructed to.

A pair of tourists came up to her and stood there for a long time. They whispered to one another. A younger boy who had been wandering through the casinoís interior shops walked up and stuck his tongue out at Barbara. He put his hands to his head and made grotesque gestures. Barbara just continued standing there, waiting. The expression on her face never changed. Her eyes stared off into eternity.

After a while the tourists got tired and went away. The boy could have been trouble, but a security guard eventually came over and told him to get lost. They were watching out for Barbara, it seemed, making sure no one interfered with her pose.

God, she wished someone would interfere with her pose!

It was just after the incident in the hall. The man who had put the collar around her throat had walked into her cell and casually introduced himself as Craig. He had come to her after the escape attempt and spoke while she stood there helplessly in front of him in an obscene parody of military attention, arms and legs at her sides and, save for the collar, naked as the day she had been born. He had put one hand to her breast and stroked its nipple while he talked.

It had been torture!

"If it were up to me, Barb, Iíd have had you wrapped up and controlled already." He hadnít met her eyes; all he did was play with her breasts. It had been maddening. "But Stanís your rightful owner now, and he hasnít decided what to do with you yet."

He had switched breasts. "Still, you need to be punished."

Barbara had realized early on that he wasnít so much talking to her as he was merely musing aloud. She was just his sounding board. His voice was abstracted, and his eyes were deep in thought. "Has to be non-permanent. Meetingís scheduled for today, too, so we canít freeze you." He had appeared lost for a moment. "Freezerís already full."

Abruptly, then, he had pulled away, turned around, and walked out of her cell. He came back just a few minutes later and made a gesture in the air, and Barbara, without any control at all in the matter, had followed him out again, her movements stiff and robotic.

They went to a small room that had appeared to Barbara at first like a storage closet. The walls were lined with shelves, and numerous boxes were balanced evenly among them. A rack of clothes stood in the center of the room, and a complicated-looking machine sat in the corner. An elevated platform was connected to it. A pair of the ubiquitous chambermaids had been waiting for them, and with just a few words Craig had put them to work. One began taking boxes down while the other searched through the clothes rack. They approached Barbara and began dressing her like they would a dummy.

"Ever been to one of those big department stores, Barbara?" Craig had asked while the maids worked. "Of course you have. Well, sometimes they do demonstrations or publicity stunts. They use real models as mannequins . . . they call Ďem Ďliving mannequins.í" He laughed. Barbara saw they were putting a wedding gown on her - white satin, lace, the works. It was hard to see exactly what they were doing, though, because her eyes couldnít track them. They were as paralyzed as the rest of her.

"I used to work at a place where we made real living mannequins," Craig had added, watching the maids dress her. That had been worse in a way, even worse than being helpless while the man had played with her naked body, now having him watch her being dressed. It was obscene, a total humiliation. "Now, Iím here, but when I look at you, Barb, I just canít help but think youíd make a fine mannequin." He laughed again.

It took a long time for the maids to finish. They did everything - her hair, makeup, the white veil, the silk garters - everything. They hid the collar underneath the satin. Then Craig had ordered her to stand on top of the platform, and she had, unable to do otherwise. A lever was turned down, and the platform rose through an opening in the ceiling. Theyíve done this before, she had thought at the time. Maybe a lot of times.

Barbara found herself standing in the display window of the Grand Facadeís wedding chapel. Before leaving, Craig had told her to wait, and so she did. It was all she could do. She could see her reflection partially in the window. The maids had put a sweet smile on her face before draping the white veil over it. Her hands were held in front of her with a bouquet in the middle. They made her look as if she were having the best day of her life. She was the perfect, utterly submissive, little bride-to-be.

It was galling. But the worst thing, the absolutely worst thing, was that final touch.

There was a candy shop just opposite the wedding chapel across the broadway. It too had a large display window, and in it Barbara could see the reflection of the sign Craig had put outside her own display. It had taken a long time for her to read, but finally she had translated it: "Living Mannequin At Work. Can You See Her Moving?"

By her count, Barbara had seen two or three hundred people go by her window so far that day. They stood there in small groups, and they gawked at her. She could hear them talking, too: "I donít think sheís breathing. Sheís not real. There, you see! She blinked!" They flashed cameras in her face, some of them tapped on the window to see if sheíd respond (and oh, if she only could!), and altogether they had succeeded in making her feel less than human . . . for all intents and purposes a real, live mannequin. All day she had tried screaming for help, and all day she had failed.

All she could do was wait.

And look pretty.

The primevals had finally calmed down after ripping one of Hiramís legs off. It sat on the other side of the kennel near the swing set someone had thoughtfully provided the ape-men. Dismembered, it looked like a discarded prosthetic. A maintenance guy had come around noon then and thrown the animals their lunch, a bountiful feast of raw meat and vegetables. Rex had flung Hiram into the long cage grid facing the kennel, and for a long time he had just lain there watching bonelessly as they huddled and ate their fare.

All kinds of strange liquids were seeping out of his demolished body. Black, blue, and yellow mostly, and once an oddly luminescent green. No red, though. All the gears were broken. When he moved his chest or his neck, crunching noises emerged. He had had to stop; the primevals had looked at him for a second before returning to their feast, and the last thing he wanted now was their attention. The fingers on his left hand had been torn and shredded. All in all, he had to admit he had felt better.

He was a mess.

His right arm worked, though. Mostly. Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised his hand up to his mouth. Hiram really hoped this trick was still functioning. If it didnít, it was extremely likely he was going to end up being Fido and companyís chewtoy for a long, long time. And, frankly, he had better things to do.

Muffling a short cough, Hiram brought up his own "lunch." An old-fashioned windup key and a small black packet fell into his palm. They were untouched by digestive juices. Hiram didnít have any anymore, nor even a stomach for that matter. Still, there were a few hollow spots here and there, and in his profession Hiram had found keeping an extra set of keys always came in handy. They had taken his other keys before throwing him into the den, probably figuring it wouldnít take long for him to wind-down anyway.

And they were right. Hiram didnít have a lot of time left. Heíd worry about broken gears and mechanisms later. Putting the windup key in his breast pocket, Hiram clumsily opened the packet as quietly as he could. He breathed a sigh of relief - not that he had lungs anymore, either - when he saw his lockpicks were relatively undamaged. He took two and balanced them between his fingers.

And now I wonder if I can do this with one hand, he thought, putting his shattered left hand beneath his chest. He slowly began pushing himself up. I used to say I could do this with one hand tied behind my back. I guess itís time to put up or shut up.

He noticed he was moving even slower than he was trying to be. He was starting to wind-down, and Hiram had his doubts whether the broken mechanisms inside him would ever wind back up again. It was a wonder he was still moving at all. Itíd be ironic as hell if he got out of the cell and then froze three feet from the door. A real cheery thought.

Hiram glanced back at the primevals once. Fido and Jojo had curled up and gone to sleep, and Rex was looking a bit dopey too. Miriam, though, was staring straight at him. She sat on her haunches, long blonde hair all around, and watched Hiram pull himself up to the cage door. He couldnít read the flat expression on her face at all.

He tried to maintain eye contact, though. Hiram had heard once that if you could maintain eye contact with an animal, it wouldnít attack. Probably it was a load of bull, but it was worth a shot anyway. Besides, he didnít need to look at a lock to try and pick it. He had a natural way with keys. Always had, even before 1936.

With his back to the cage, Hiram braced himself upright with his remaining leg. He wrapped his left arm around a bar and pressed it back up against his body. When he felt reasonably secure, Hiram slowly inched his right arm around the bar too and reached for the lock. Miriam made a growling noise, and he froze until she stopped again. Then, painstakingly, Hiram began pushing himself up with his leg, balancing himself with what remained of his left arm. He could picture what he looked like. This would be funny, he thought, if it were happening to anybody else. He stopped climbing when he felt the lock pressing against the small of his back. Guiding himself by touch alone, Hiram felt around for the hole and, very carefully, inserted his two picks.

What felt like sweat moistened the top of the detectiveís face, though he knew it was probably just a lubrication leak. His fingers danced behind him; the positioning was awkward, but Hiram didnít dare let his eye leave Miriamís. She was creeping forward on him, and Hiram had the idea that if he turned his head for even a second she would be right on top of him. He bit his lower lip and wished his hypnotic spectrum worked. He had tried it, but the mechanism was jammed. So, instead he just smiled and hoped the lady ape didnít take it the wrong way.

His fingers stopped. The smiled faltered suddenly.

The picks were stuck.

Miriam moved forward another foot.

Hiram put more pressure on his fingers. If he put too much pressure on the picks, they would snap in two. If he put too little, Miriam was likely going to rip his head off.

The ape-woman was right in front of Hiram now. She sniffed at him and growled. Her flat, Neolithic face seemed very alien, and her breath steamed Hiram remaining, unblinking eye.

"Say," the detective whispered to her, trying to calm her down, "I donít suppose youíve heard the one about the gorilla who walked into the bar, have you?" He tried to keep the grin on his face. The picks just wouldnít move!

Suddenly Miriam let out a heart-renching cry and slammed into Hiram as hard as she could. The male primevals snapped to immediately. Hiram felt something huge inside him bust - he heard a sound like piece of wood being chopped in two - and a gout of oil flew out of his mouth and into Miriamís face. At the same time, the lock clicked loudly, and the cage door unlatched and swung on its pivot. Hiram brought his foot up, aimed, and landed a kick into the center of the ape-womanís stomach. The motion pushed her back into Fido and propelled Hiram around and back into the cage frame as the door swung completely around. A hairy arm reached through the double bars and wrapped around Hiramís neck and pulled back. The cage door itself was wide open. The detective yanked forward with all his remaining strength and felt his head tear. A piece of the transformed flesh around his face and throat ripped loose revealing the custom metal and porcelain plate underneath, but he was free. He leapfrogged forward on his hands and used his foot to kick the cage door shut again. Jojo bounced into it and fell on his ass, but Rex was behind him. The door closed on his arm and didnít lock. Hiram rolled and smashed his body into it, eliciting a cry of pain from the ape-man. He pulled his arm out, and Hiram pushed the door again and heard it lock. Then he rolled away.

The primevals cried and gibbered at the top of their lungs. Hiram crawdadied to the roomís entrance. He heard footsteps running. He pulled around the side, hunkered low, and waited. A moment later a pantís leg came into view, and Hiram grabbed it with his good hand. He squeezed as hard as he could. A sickening wet crunching sound filled the air, and then a scream of pain. The casino employee fell face forward, and Hiram pulled him back within reach and hit him over the head. He was instantly still.

The primevals kept shouting, but Hiram didnít hear anyone else coming down the hall. Climbing over the unconscious body, the detective slithered through the entrance and began crawling. He left a trail of oil, other fluids, and small pieces of plastic, metal, and porcelain behind him as he went. He didnít know where he was going; maybe if he could find someplace to hide in, and a tool kit, he could make repairs. He slowed perceptibly as he moved down the hall. The ravaged gears inside him stumbled and clanged haphazardly. It was as close to excruciatingly painful as Hiram could still get to pain; he rattled like a maraca. The energy drained out of him.

Hiram crawled with his face just above the floor. Gradually, he became aware of a hooting sound, not just from behind him, but in front too. He pulled forward and tried to raise his head. The first attempt failed. The second brought his good eye up to a vast black expanse standing in front of him. He couldnít see past it, and it didnít seem human. Then, using his right hand as a prop, he lifted his face even higher. It was a figure of man standing there. A grotesquely distorted figure.

A huge figure . . . monstrously huge. And familiar.

Hiram could only see the silhouette, but he knew immediately it was the Prodigal.

The detectiveís head made a hollow noise as it struck the floor again.


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