Page 5


“Go Away Little Girl!”


Connie grimaced. “That wasn't Elvis, you peabrain! That was Steve Lawrence. Surrender.”


“Stay Away.”


“Surrender.”


Harry blinked sweat out of his eyes and studied Connie with incomprehension. He had never felt less in control of a situation.


Something was going down between her and the lunatic, but Harry didn't have a clue as to what it was.


“1 Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine.”


“Surrender.”


Suddenly Harry remembered that “Surrender” was the title of a Presley classic.


“Stay Away” He thought that might be another Presley song.


Connie slipped into one of the aisles, out of Harry's sight, as she called out: “It's Now or Never.”


“What'dlSay?”


Moving away into the maze, Connie answered the perp with two Presley titles: “Surrender. I Beg of You.”


“1 Feel So Bad.”


After a hesitation, Connie responded: “Tell Me Why.”


“Don 't Ask Me Why.”


A dialogue had been established. In Presley song titles. Like some bizarre television quizshow contest with no prizes for correct answers but plenty of peril for wrong ones.


In a crouch, Harry eased into a different aisle from the one that Connie had taken. A spider's web wrapped his face. He pulled it off and crept deeper into the mannequinguarded shadows.


Connie resorted to a previously used title: “Surrender.”


“Stay Away.”


“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”


After a hesitation, the perp admitted: “Lonely Man.”


Harry still couldn't get a fix on the voice. Sweat was really pouring off him now wispy remnants of the spider web clung to his hair and tickled his brow, his mouth tasted like the bottom of a pestle in Frankenstein's laboratory, and he felt as if he'd stepped out of reality into some drug addict's dark hallucinations.


“Let Yourself Go,” Connie advised.


“I Feel So Bad,” the perp repeated.


Harry knew he shouldn't be so disoriented by the peculiar twists this pursuit kept taking. These were the I 990s, after all, an age of unreason if ever there had been one, when the bizarre was so common as to establish a new definition of normality. Like the holdup men who had recently taken to threatening convenience store clerks not with guns but with syringes full of AIDStainted blood.


Connie called to the perp, “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear,” which seemed, to Harry an odd turn in the songtitle conversation.


But the perp came right back at her in a voice full of yearning and suspicion: “You Don't Know Me.”


Connie needed only a few seconds to find the right followup: “Doncha Think It's Time?”


And talk about bizarre: Bichard mirez, the serial killer known as the Night Stalker, was visited regularly in prison by a stream of attractive young women who found him appealing, exciting, a romantic figure. Or what about that guy in Wisconsin not long ago, cooking parts of his victims for dinner, keeping rows of severed heads in his refrigerator, and neighbors said, well, yeah, there had been bad smells coming from his apartment for years, and now and then they heard screams and highpowered electric saws, but the screaming never lasted long, and anyway the guy seemed so nice, he seemed to care about people. The 1990s. No decade like It.


“Too Much, ” the perp finally said, evidently disbelieving Connie's professed romantic interest.


“Poor Boy,” she said with apparently genuine sympathy.


“Way Down.” The perp's voice, now annoyingly whiny, echoed off the cobwebbed rafters as he admitted his lack of selfesteem, a very '90s sort of excuse.


“Wear My King Around Your Neck,” Connie said, romancing him as she prowled through the maze, no doubt intending to blow him away the moment she caught sight of him.


The perp didn't reply.


Harry kept on the move, too, diligently searching each shadowy niche and byway, but feeling useless. He had never imagined that in the last decade of this strange century, he might have to be an expert on rock-'n'-roll trivia to be an effective cop.


He hated crap like this, but Connie loved it. She embraced the chaos of the times; there was something dark and wild in her.


Harry reached an aisle that was perpendicular to his. It was desertedxcept for a couple of na*ed mannequins that had toppled over long ago, one atop the other. Hunkered down, shoulders hunched protectively, Harry moved on.


“Wear My King Around Your Neck,” Connie called out again from elsewhere in the maze.


Maybe the perp was hesitating because he thought it was an offer that a guy should make to a gal, not the other way around. Though definitely a '90s man, maybe the bastard still had an oldfashioned sense of gender roles.


“Treat Me Nice,” Connie said.


No answer.


“Love Me Tender,” Connie said.


The perp still did not respond, and Harry was alarmed that the conversation had become a monologue. The creep might be close to Connie, 'letting her talk so he could get a better, final fix on her.


Harry was about to shout a warning when an explosion shook the building. He froze, crossing his arms protectively over his face. But the blast had not occurred in the attic; there had been no flash.


From the floor below came cries of agony and terror, confused voices, shouts of anger.


Evidently other cops had entered the lower room where the ladder gave access to the attic, and the perp had heard them. He'd dropped a grenade through the trapdoor.


The gruesome screams conjured an image in Harry's mind: some guy trying to keep his intestines from spilling out of his belly.


He knew that he and Connie were in a rare moment of total agreement, experiencing the same dread and fury. For once he didn't give a damn about the perp's legal rights, excessive use of force, or the proper way of doing things. He just wanted the bastard dead.


Above the screams, Connie tried to reestablish the dialogue: “Love Me Tender.”


“Tell Me W” the perp demanded, still doubting her sincerity.


“My Baby Left Me,” Connie said.


The screams were subsiding on the floor below. Either the injured man was dying, or others were moving him out of the room where the grenade had detonated.


“Anyway You Want Me,” Connie said.


The perp was silent for a moment. Then his voice echoed through the room, infuriatingly directionless, “I Feel So Bad.”


“I'm Yours,” Connie said.


Harry couldn't get over the speed with which she thought of the appropriate titles.


“Lonely Man,” the perp said, and indeed he sounded miserable.


“I've Got a Thing About You Baby,” Connie said.


She's a genius, Harry thought admiringly. And seriously obsessed with Presley.


Counting on the perp being pretty much distracted by Connie's weird seduction, Harry risked showing himself. Because he was directly under the' peak of the roof, he rose slowly to his full height, and surveyed the garret on all sides.


Some piles of boxes were shoulderhigh, but many others were only a few inches higher than Harry's waist. A lot of human forms stared back from the shadows, tucked in among the boxes and even sitting on them.


But all of them must have been mannequins because none moved or shot at him.


“Lonely Man. All Shook Up,” the perp said despairingly.


“There's Always Me.”


“Please Don't Stop Loving Me.”


“Can't Help Falling in Love,” Connie said.


Standing, Harry had a slightly better sense of the direction from which the voices arose. Both Connie and the perp were ahead of him, but at first he couldn't discern if they were close to each other.


He could not see over the boxes into any of the other avenues of the maze.


“Don't Be Cruel,” the perp pleaded.


“Love Me,” Connie urged.


“I Need Your Love Tonight.”


They were at the west end of the attic, the south side, and they were close to each other.


“Stuck on You,” Connie insisted.


“Don't Be Cruel.”


Harry sensed an escalation in the intensity of the dialogue, subtly conveyed in the gunman's tone, in the speed of responses, and in his repetition of the same title.


“I Need Your Love Tonight.”


“Don't Be Cruel.”


Harry stopped putting caution first. He hurried toward the voices, into an area more densely populated by mannequins, groups clustered in niches between boxes. Pale shoulders, graceful arms, hands pointing or raised as if in greeting. Painted eyes sightless in the gloom, painted lips eternally parted in halfformed smiles, in greetings never vocalized, in passionless erotic sighs.


More spiders lived there, too, evidenced by webs that tangled in his hair and stuck to his clothes. As he moved, he wiped the gossamer off his face. Wispy rags of it dissolved on his tongue and lips, and his mouth flooded with saliva as nausea gripped him. He choked down his gorge and expelled a wad of spittle and spider stuff.


“It's Now or Never,” Connie promised from somewhere nearby.


The familiar answering three words had become less of a plea than a warning: “Don't Be Cruel.”


Harry had the feeling the guy wasn't being lulled at all but was ticking toward a new explosion.


He proceeded another few feet and stopped, turning his head from side to side, listening intently, afraid he would miss something because the booming of his own heart was so loud in his ears.


“I'm Yours, Puppet on a String, Let Yourself Go,” Connie urged voice falling to a stage whisper to foster a false sense of intima with her prey Although Harry respected Connie's skills and instincts, he was afraid that her eagerness to sucker the perp was distracting her from the realization that the perp might not be responding out of his confusion and longing but out of a similar desire to sucker be': “Playing for Keeps, One Broken Heart for Sale,” Connie said.


She sounded as if she was right on top of Harry, in the next aisle, surely no farther than two aisles away and parallel with him.


“Ain't That Loving You Baby, Crying in the Chapel.” Connie's whisper had grown more fierce than seductive, as if she was also aware that something had gone wrong with the dialogue.


Harry tensed, waiting for the perp's response, squinting into the gloom ahead, then turning to look back the way he had come when he imagined the smiling, moonfaced killer stealing up behind him.


The attic seemed to be not merely silent but the source of all silence, as the sun was the source of light. The unseen spiders moved with perfect stealth through all the dark corners of that high room, and millions of dust motes drifted as soundlessly as planets and asteroids in the airless void of space, and on both sides of Harry, gatherings of mannequins stared without seeing, listened without hearing, posed without knowing.


Forced between clenched teeth, hard as a threat, Connie's whisper had ceased to be an invitation, had become a challenge; and song titles no longer constituted her entire rap: “Anyway You Want Me, you toad, come on, come to mama. Let Yourself Go, dirtbag.”


No reply The attic was silent but also eerily still, filled with less motion than a dead man's mind.


Harry had the strange feeling that he was becoming one of the mannequins that stood around him, his flesh transformed into plaster, his bones into steel rods, sinews and tendons changing into bundles of wire. He let only his eyes move, and his gaze slid across the inanimate citizens of the garret.


Painted eyes. Pale br**sts with permanently erect nipples, round thighs, tight buttocks, curving away into darkness. Hairless torsos.


Men and women. Bald heads or matted wigs caked with dust.


Painted lips. Puckered as if to plant a kiss, or in a playful pout, or parted slightly as if in erotic surprise at the electricity of a lover's touch, others formed into shy smiles, some coy some with a broader curve, the dull gleam of teeth, here a more thoughtful smile, and there a full and perpetual laugh. No. Wrong. The dull gleam of teeth. Mannequin teeth don't gleam. No saliva on mannequin teeth.


Which one, there, there, in the back of the niche, behind four true mannequins, one clever mime, peering out between bald and bewigged heads, almost lost in shadows but moist eyes glistening in the dimness, no more than six feet away face to face, the smile opening wider as Harry watched, wider but as humorless as a wound, the weak chin, the moon face, and one more song title so soft as to be barely audible, “Blue Moon, ” Harry taking in all of this in an instant, even as he was bringing up the muzzle of his revolver and squeezing the trigger.


The perp opened fire with his Browning 9mm maybe a fraction of a second before Harry did, and the attic was filled with the crashes and echoes of shots. He saw the flash of the pistol's muzzle, which seemed to be directly in front of his chest, oh God please, and he emptied his revolver faster than seemed possible, all in a blink if he'd dared to blink, the weapon bucking so hard that it seemed likely to fly out of his grip.


Something hit him hard in the gut, and he knew he had been shot, though he had no pain yet, just a sharp pressure and a flare of heat. And before the pain could follow, he was knocked backward, mannequins toppling into him, driving him against the wall of the aisle. The stacked boxes rocked, and some were dislodged into the next branch of the maze. Harry was carried to the floor in a clatter of plaster limbs and hard pale bodies, trapped under them, gasping for breath, trying to shout for help, able to make no sound louder than a wheeze. He smelled the distinct metallic odor of blood.


Someone snapped on the attic lights, a long string of small bulbs hanging just under the peak of the roof, but that improved visibility only for a second or two, just long enough for Harry to see that the perp was part of the weight that held him on the floor. The moon face peered down from the top of the heap, between the na*ed interlocking limbs and past the hairless skulls of the mannequins, his eyes now as sightless as theirs. His smile was gone. His lips were painted, but with blood.


Although Harry knew that the lights were not actually going out, it seemed as though they were on a dimmer being cycled off. He tried to call out for help but still could only wheeze. His gaze shifted from the moon face toward the fading light bulbs overhead. The last thing he saw was a rafter streaming with tattered cobwebs. Cobwebs that fluttered like the flags of longlost nations. Then he slipped into darkness as deep as a dead man's dream.


Out of the westnorthwest, ominous clouds rolled like silent battalions of war machines, driven by a highaltitude wind. Though the day was still calm and pleasantly warm at ground level, the blue sky steadily vanished behind those thunderheads.

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