Michael Sterno, watching Vreedeez giving directions to P'uzz Leen - and noticing Amin fingering his crotch as he stared at the desperate, transparently sheathed superstar - experienced that excitement that was also a kind of illness, a kind of sick fretfulness.
"Ov course," Vreedeez was saying, "one can't always get zose media-figures vun could like. I tried to zese fellows in Oasis get, but dot band is very heavily guarded just now, too closely vatched by people...maybe later...und zo I zettled for zumeone a bit how-you-say 'past it': Mr Jackson. Und across from Mr Jackson ve haff Mr Paul McCartney...very necessary I haff one of der Beatles...but unfortunately Mr McCartney died in the zustainable-taxidermy prozess, zo we do full dead-taxidermy on him..."
"He's dead? McCartney looks more or less the same as last time he was on tour," Sterno remarked.
In the forested foothills of Mt Feldberg, in the southern reaches of the Schwarzwald mountain range; above the realm of ancient oaks and within the shadowy recesses of the dark pine forests; on the melting cusp between dusk and sunset: they stood on the broad porch of the Black Forest schloss. So someone had called it, but what was this architectural grotesquerie? A confabulation of dark whimsy, this place, with its absurdly clashing mixture of medievel castle and German-gingerbread country house, its four-storey volcano-glass facades and dark wooden turrets, its crockets and louvers, its multifoiled panes and quatrefoils and lancet windows, its ornamental molds that seemed as Tantric as Germanic -
Hell, Sterno thought, the place had all the architectural integrity of miniature golf.
And then of course there were the living gargoyles, mounted on the eaves of stained-glass windows above the encircling porch. The "mountings", Vreedeez called them.
"Please," Michael Jackson sobbed. "Please." "Ja, mein King of Pop," Vreedeez murmured soothingly. "Ja ja."
The forest around the contorted edifice seemed to engorge with shadows as the sun sank; the trees becoming fuller and grimmer as they became darker; the mountains deepening their blues and the snowy peaks soaking up sunset oranges and pinks and tincturing blood-red...
Sterno couldn't suppress a shudder.
Sterno had only arrived that morning, on assignment for the Stark Fist of Removal Magazine, replete with the usual First Class accommodations on the Concorde, the almost intrusively comfortable five-star hotels, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be here, amusing though it was to see the erstwhile popstar in this predicament.
Sterno hadn't known Idi Amin would be here and Amin made him particularly nervous. He'd always wondered how the transcendantly brutal, notoriously syphilitic Amin had survived so long. Amin's hair had gone white, the whites of his eyes yellow as eggyolk. Most of his teeth were gone; his hands trembled. But the dictator, the monster who'd butchered tens of thousands of his Ugandan subjects for his own amusement, was still alive, still feverishly vibrant in that decaying flesh.
And what could Sterno say? Amin had departed his sanctuary in Arabia, was the permanent houseguest of the so-called Doktur Vreedeez. The story was, Amin had financed the Doktur's investments in Microsoft and certain other key companies that were the source of the Doktur's billionaire status, and the Doktur felt obliged to entertain Amin, despite the fact that, now and then, the Doktur's house-servants would go missing.
Vreedeez's majordomo, factotum and chief sustainable-taxidermist, P'uzz Leen, was presumably in no danger from Amin, if that could be said of anyone in proximity to the erstwhile dictator, because of Leen's importance to the doctor. P'uzz Leen almost never spoke; he looked very much like someone Sterno had known in the States, one moment black Irish, the next the Arab he pretended to be now.
"Please," Jackson piped, in his Mickey Mouse voice. "I'm a very rich man. Let me go and you can have it all."
"Ach, I love it when zay say dot," Vreedeez chuckled, as P'uzz Leen sprayed the oxygen-permeable flexishellac over Jackson's mouth. Jackson's piping cries became muted, barely audible squeaks.
"This is authentic Michael Jackson?" asked Amin. "Ja ja, zat es der Michael, not an impersonator. Seventeen million dollars for der kidnap, seven dead bodyguards we left behind, ja, vus vort it. Worth it fer sure."
Hmmm, Sterno thought: "Worth it fer sure", Vreedeez had said. Vreedeez affected a burlesque Bavarian accent - like Mel Brooks doing a Nazi - but almost flaunted his lapses into a Western American accent. Sterno suspected Vreedeez of actually being an American and, despite the German accent, Vreedeez was not trying very hard to conceal it. And like P'uzz Leen, Vreedeez looked eerily familiar though he was sure they'd never met before.
Vreedeez was stocky, dressed in black, mustachioed, curly haired, dark eyed, late thirties - though some say that his apparent age was fifty years behind his real age, thanks to Growth Hormone treatments and despite his chainsmoking the slim brown Sherman's cigarettes. Now he turned to Sterno and said, "You vould like to see der other mountings?"
"Does a damn prairie squid lie in wait fer a face-fuckin' bat? You bet your ass."
"My donkey? I haff no donkey for gambling." "Come on, man, I don't believe you're not familiar with that expression, we're a global shit-culture now, and this veneer of -"
"Speaking of veneers," Vreedeez said, interrupting him calmly but with a distinct note of warning, "haff you seen our complete collection? Mr Jackson is of course only der newest..."
"No, I haven't. I have to ask - are these the real thing? Or are they...I don't know, plastic-surgery-altered impersonators?"
"Mm ruh meee...!" Michael Jackson whined. "You haff not read the papers?"
"Yeah, sure, man, but...okay, all those people disappeared, sure 'nuff, but you might've taken advantage of that disappearance trend - I mean, everyone assumes it's some kind of massive publicity stunt - and you might've just, you know, made the mockups...maybe it's part of the publicity stunt put on by the real Michael Jackson and whoever...I mean, otherwise why would you invite me here? I mean, shit, if I report on this...of course it's a so-called underground magazine but it's read by all the key World Leaders anyway...and you'd have cops swarming here from every damn country missing its celebrities?"
"As for taking a chance on dot, vell, it is important for me dot a representative of der media see what I haff here, but not necessarily dot it is, finally, reported in der media..."
"It's enough I just...see it?"
"Ja. To ask vhy, consult mit der Carl Jung books." Sterno's shudder, then, had a different quality to it; less frisson and more fear. How was Vreedeez going to prevent it from being reported 'in der media'?
"Und now...I present, around und ziss side uff der schloss, as you zee..." They strolled around a corner, Sterno and Idi Amin and P'uzz Leen.
"Whoa!" Sterno burst out.
Lit from beneath by the soft floodlights that had come on when the ambient light dropped, were four slightly-wriggling, transparently sheathed, gargoyle-mounted internationally known...figures. Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and -
"Melph meeeee!" Madonna whined, from within the sheath of oxygen permeable shellac. Under the shellac she wore a bit of filmy black lingerie and a lot of jewelry.
"That's got to be her for real," Sterno breathed appreciatively. He wondered at his own lack of sympathy for the kidnap victims; but then they'd long ago voluntarily abdicated their own humanity, so it all seemed very natural somehow...naturally unnatural...
"Zis spot over here is being prepared for Alanis Morisette," Vreedeez said, losing his accent halfway through the sentence.
Madonna quivered within her sheath of semiflexible shellac...
"She looks sick, poor Madonna," Amin observed. "Maybe you take her out a while, give her to me, I keep her a pet."
"We discussed that before, Idi," Vreedeez gently chided. "You'd only kill her, and it's too hard to get them sheathed and unsheathed..." He'd discarded the "German" accent entirely for the moment. "...if they die we simply open up the abdominal zipper and complete the taxidermization...But you are right: She does look under the...under der wezzer...a bit zick...P'uzz Leen, are der intravenous and extravenous tubes functional for Miss Madonna?"
P'uzz Leen stroked his black mustache thoughtfully as he opened the Sustainability Panel and checked the various feeder tubes. Then he nodded. Said only, "Yes."
"Gut, gut...Vell, monitor her clozely..." They paused for refreshments, brought by a mute (literally tongueless) tuxedo-dressed waiter. There was, Sterno noted, an electronic monitor anklet locked onto the waiter's right ankle. Eyes deadened by despair, he offered them brandy and canapes on a silver platter.
"Now over here, ve haff zuh Array uf Writerz...As you see ve haff Tom Robbins and across from him, in rather, may I zay, very uncomfortable proxzzzzzimity, Mr William Gibson..."
"Hiya Bill," Sterno said.
Gibson - replete with his glasses and Arrow shirt - regarded him owlishly but didn't try to reply. He at least had the dignity not to beg for a release that would never be forthcoming. Robbins by contrast whined piteously, making Amin laugh.
"I vanted ve get William S. Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, instead of Mr Gibson, frankly, but Mr Burroughs would have died before we complete zuh sustainable taxidermy process, ve suspected, und Mr Pynchon...well, we went through four zeparate kidnapees zupposed to be Mr Pynchon, but none of zem were really him..."
"Over here looks like a kind of mixed bag..." "Ja, ve haff Bono, und Faith Popcorn, und Jesse Helms und Jean le Pen, und Lady Sarah Ferguson der Duchess of York - ve vanted Princess Diana but she vas just too closely guarded, dot MI5, always der problem - und here ess Richard Gere und over here Richard Simmons...it's very funny, even in zuh sheath he tries to make der aerobics, very cute...und here ess David Letterman..."
"No shit! Dave! Love this here 'Stupid human trick', Dave!" "...und Gerard Depardieu, Michael Stipes, Uri Geller, Liz Taylor, Arnold Schwarzanegger - he cry for a very long time, begging us much, Mr Schwarzanegger...Milosovec...Henry Kissinger...mixed bag as you zay...but over here ve haff a theme, high fashion mit der Calvin Klein, Georgio Armani...und here please meet zuh 'magician' Mr David Copperfield..."
Sterno had to laugh. "David Copperfield! Hey my man! David! Work out that Houdini escape thing yet?"
"Here zuh fake guroos, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Scott Peck, Deepak Chopra...Ah, observe..."
Vreedeez reached out and unzipped the sealant over Chopra's mouth. Chopra responded predictably, "You...you have my body but my soul roams free..."
"Bullshit," P'uzz Leen said, surprising Sterno. "...and I am sending vibrations into the quantum-uncertainty realm which will miraculously cause the destruction of this abomination...look to your Karma my friend..."
P'uzz Leen reached up to zip Chopra's mouth shut again and just before it closed Chopra burst out, "I am a very rich man! I will give you anything if..." Zip. "...Mumph merf yuff!"
"Now that don't break my heart," Sterno said, chuckling. But something was bothering him...
It bothered him increasingly, despite his mental rationales...that none of this bothered him.
Just Assholes? Maybe. But these were people, after all. Vreedeez was smiling at him as he took him around to the rear of the house; the porch ran all the way around. "I veel you are..."
"Could you, seriously, dispense with the fake accent?" "If you like. You have your own...veneers. Sterno is not your real name and you are not nearly the bad-ass you pretend to be. You're a family man. And as for my accent - we've already taken a psyche-impression of me as the 'Herr Doktur' so it's not necessary to continue it - we'll edit out everything after that..."
"What the hell are you talking about, man?" Vreedeez ignored the question. "You're from Arkansas, by the way, aren't you?"
"Gotta problem with that?"
"No, not at all, Mr, ah, 'Sterno'. It's just data. As I started to say, a minute ago...you are having doubts about your own reactions to what you see here. It is written quite clearly in your face. You play-act, like so many fringe artists, like the Reverend Shirley and friends, like Survival Research and their cronies, at enjoying the suffering of fools, but real, high-intensity suffering, right here, in-your-face, is more than unsettling. And yet you are not as unsettled as some fragment of conscience in you tells you that you ought to be. And is that really any surprise? You're an American. You take part in all sorts of butchery and cruelty routinely. In media, in your action movies; and in so-called 'reality': There was 'Desert Storm' - you rather enjoyed those smart bomb raids - and there was the Congress that took away all those social services for impoverished children -"
"Hey man that wasn't my doing, none of it." "No, no it wasn't your doing, not directly. But you are a cell of the organism that did it although you and your friends pretend otherwise. And what did you do to stop it? Oh but I forgot: it's hopeless, no? It's all hopeless. And hopelessness is every cynic's excuse for his enjoyment of his nation's cruelty..."
"Whoa, whoa, hold on there, old pard -"
"Don't take offense. It's just talk. More brandy? Good brandy, isn't it? I see you're wearing Nike tennis shoes?"
"What? What the fuck difference does it make what tennis shoes I'm wearing?"
"Nike, like Adidas, like Spaulding, like many other American companies, sub-contract the manufacture of their products to sweat shops staffed by starved, enslaved, badly mistreated children. Small children." He sounded more entertained by this fact than outraged. "Sometimes - surprisingly often - the children are tortured to get more production out of them: this happens in South America, in India, in Pakistan, in Malaysia, in other places. The American companies who subcontract to these foreign sweatshops, they of course know full well what is going on, and they make their excuses, but they really don't give a rat's ass."
"I heard something about it but..."
"But you didn't bother to find out more. You are insulated from the issue by your convenient sense of 'hopelessness', by the cynical posturing that makes it easy for you to numb yourself...and hence you can look at my exquisite little atrocities here and feel more or less nothing. It is enough to take part in the organism, the big machine, that feeds you, that sustains you, on the backs of the Third World -"
"Now waitaminnut, when did you, a fuckin' Billionaire, suddenly turn into a Marxist?"
"Marxist? Who said I was a Marxist? I see what is, I take note, it becomes data I use or discard. I am untouched by it. I advocate no political ideology. I simply notice hypocrisy because hypocrisy is blindness, the buffered are blind, and blindness is exploitable, you see. I am quite above politics. We all are."
"We? Who's 'we'? Sounds like there's...an organization back of all this, somewhere..."
"But of course there is...You may call us the Masters of True Will. That is not our True Name but you are not to know that. We are those who use the chaotic magic of the world's uncontrolled, blind outpouring of psychic bile, and what you call suffering, and through a kind of ritualization you cannot comprehend - as for example, this time, by turning internationally known figures into living gargoyles - we transform it all...into energy; and the energy we turn into...whatever we wish. For example, you have noticed that I somewhat resemble a friend of yours. But this is not my true appearance at all. Or is it? Was I that person all the time - undercover, so to speak, arranging deeper and more subtle levels of hypocrisy in the so-called 'fringe art underground'? Who knows. I will say this: the 'underground' art scene has much more impact on the zeitgeist than it realizes...It is a back door into the collective unconscious - we find it quite useful."
"I...uh..." He looked at P'uzz Leen, who only shrugged, and then at Idi Amin.
"Don't look at me for answer," Amin said. He had inexplicably pulled his penis from his pants and was absent-mindedly massaging it. "I don't understand him when he talk like this..."
"Many are the rituals of mass chaos magic," Vreedeez was saying. "Sometimes, for example, we arrange a small war, so we can transmute the massive outpouring of hypocrisy around the war...as well as, of course, take our part of the financial profits. I myself am a major stockholder in a company that is one of the world's foremost manufacturers of landmines. Did you know that there are more functional, deployed landmines in Cambodia than there are people? Did you know that most landmine victims are civilians and a large number are children? I adore that! These are matters of personal pride to me. And of course the manufacture of landmines and armaments is very important to the American economy - in which you take part. And you see some part of you knows this. Hence you must become numb to suffering, even when you see it in front of you, as you have today...some suffering though is easier than other sorts to ignore, wouldn't you agree? For example...how do you feel about - these?"
So saying he gestured grandly at the new 'array' of living gargoyles at the rear of the castle, in the deep shadow of the dark-forested mountain.
They were "conjoined gargoyles", two people, two celebs, in one sheath: here was Arafat and a certain famous right-wing Israeli Rabbi, whose name Sterno couldn't remember - compressed into the same tight envelope of flexible, unbreakable shellac, the Rabbi brutally clasping Arafat, above him, the two of them facing one another, projecting from an eave a few feet overhead; blood was pooling, squeezing into flattened pockets of the transparent film over them like blood in a supermarket meat package. Blood from their gnawing; blood from their clawing; blood and spittle and sweat and an effluvium of despair, unseen but palpably felt. Arafat was missing both his eyes.
"G'Broagh Fram buggered by Dobbs!" Sterno swore. They'd reached a point of near paralysis, the two international political celebrities in the sheath, so contorted and entangled were they; now and then they moved like dying embryos, twitching their last.
Amin was sniggering.
"They don't of course last very long in this position," Vreedeez said. "...after they die we draw out their blood, replace them with a preservative and hardener - like Louis Farrakhan here and -"
"Jesse fuckin' Helms!"
Farrakhan and Helms had died in one another's arms; Farrakhan had chewed away most of Helms' throat: the old man had definitely taken the worst of it.
Sterno's stomach lurched.
"But," Vreedeez said, "this is the sort of thing you always wanted to see - right...'Sterno'? You and Reverend Shirley and Janor and the New York 'fringe' scene? But you haven't really got, as they say in Mexico, the cojones for it. You identify with the suffering of these...temporary creatures. That is the famous and relentless irony: these are nonentities, all these 'stars' of the world stage, they are, as Lou Reed said, a 'temporary thing', quite ephemeral, as in the famous Ozymandias poem, but in this case we can savor their significance in the media overmind, which is one layer of the energy structure that we manipulate through what is both art and ritual, to create a -"
"You're telling me way too much, man," Sterno interrupted. He was looking at the forest, wondering if he could sprint into it before...
Before what? P'uzz Leen didn't look armed but probably was. He had the look of quiescent lethality about him.
"Too much, Mr Sterno? Too much what?"
"I mean - you are planning on letting me go?" "You will go as free as a man ever does. Now then...Here you see -"
"I don't know if I want to see any more..." "Don't be rude, Mr 'Sterno'. Here you see -" "And listen, there are lots of people who know I came here." "To be sure. As I was trying to say, here you see Tom Cruise and Stephen King - combined into one living-gargoyle-sheath, and if you'll step closer...you see they're still alive...Just a little closer, Mr Sterno, look here -"
Sterno stepped close - caught up by curiosity. Was it really Cruise? Tormented, half crushed, sallow, quite insane, the side of his face chewed away by Stephen King but yes -
As he was looking at Cruise and King he was vaguely aware that P'uzz Leen was doing something -
Something seen from the corner of his eye - Unzipping the -
Tom Cruise's finely-muscled arm drooped down, and twined 'round Sterno's neck and pulled him up, off his feet; one of King's arms was free now, too, grabbing Sterno by the jacket collar; Sterno struggled and screamed.
Amin had grabbed Sterno's arms, held them pinned. Was giggling into his ear.
Another unzipping. Stinking, rotting mouths began to chew at him...Tom Cruise's stinking mouth...Stephen King's...began to chew at him...to chew at his face...
"Death is, after all, the only true freedom, Mr 'Sterno'..." Vreedeez was saying, lighting a cigarette. "As for the people who know where you are - we'll either have them killed by 'suicide' or we'll buy them off. It's surprisingly easy to buy off 'underground' artists. Just offer them a major record contract or a movie deal..."
The pain was -
But they broke Sterno's neck, and the pain was gone and buzzing blackness sucked him in.
"No no no no, Idi," Vreedeez said. "You may not eat the man's testicles. I wish to...Idi...Stop that!"
Vreedeez sighed. He'd finally had enough. He signaled P'uzz Leen, who drew the dart gun from his pocket and fired it neatly into Amin's neck. Idi Amin fell, paralyzed.
"We'll mount Idi here on the new array...maybe with the Archbishop of Canterbury...Now, P'uzz, see that Mr Sterno's remains are fed to all the living gargoyles; a little bit, at least, for each, except of course for the brain - I'll be taking that with me for bio-interface downloading. We should get a significant charge from this juxtaposition; events will tilt in our favor once more...Perhaps we should take advantage of it and foment a war...Oh and buy more stock in Adidas and Nike..."
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