To save himself from exploding with laughter and from his girlfriend's ensuing ire, Traynor sauntered over to the column wall, where his best friend, Nick Parker, stood staring at Diminishing Returns, going, "For some reason, I like that mannequin…"
Short but muscular, with dark eyes and wavy black hair, Parker looked like a bull ready to charge a red rag. Apparently, he was giving the redhead he had been flirting with some time to miss him before he reeled her in. Traynor followed his friend's stare. The painting featured a painter's wooden mannequin sitting on a turquoise drum in turn sitting on a reddish cliff. Below, a blue ocean, or at least a reservoir, like Lake Powell on the Colorado River, stretched beyond a reddish headland. Above, a cloud in several shades of blue with a silver lining covered most of a blue sky. The mannequin was juggling what looked like colorful Christmas balls, with a red one already shattered on the ground.
To Traynor, it looked like surrealism, and not very good surrealism at that. The most he could make of it was a caricature of Howard Roark gone crazy on his cliff. According to Jennifer, the official Objectivist line was that the playful lay figure represented gaiety. If it made her happy…
As far as Traynor was concerned, the exact opposite might be just as true. The inescapably surreal nature of the painting might symbolize statism. The wooden, faceless, soulless stick figure might be a government bureaucrat playing with and casually breaking the baubles produced by capitalism.
Others said that the mannequin, having hooters, the drummer on her turquoise drum, was Ayn Rand, and that the balls she was juggling bore self-portraits of her husband Frank O'Connor. You take it from there. To Traynor, any interpretation was as good as any other in this case, as any the other flavor of intellectuals offered for the nonobjective art in the other galleries.
Parker stirred. "Gotta go now, look after another lay figure."
Traynor looked languidly on as his friend left the gallery. As languidly, the muddy river of the mayor's speech emptied into an ocean of applause. Now the crowd grew restless, some milling to the paintings, some out of the gallery to one of the impromptu bars. Traynor headed back to his girlfriend.
Suddenly, clouds of smoke billowed from the air conditioning vents. The fire alarm sounded.
"Fire!" Panicky cries rang out, interspersed with coughs.
People rushed to the exits, but that moment something or somebody triggered the burglar alarm, and the massive steel doors clanked shut, locking everybody in. Traynor ducked under the thickening smoke screen. Where was Jennifer?
He dashed toward the place he had seen her last, rooted through a forest of legs, homed in on a fair pair under a black miniskirt, ran into her, and grabbed her by the wrist. "Gotcha!"
"You play with Nick for five seconds, and bang, there's a fire."
"I try to do my best. But I'm not sure that there's fire where there's smoke."
However, the gallery kept filling with dark-gray smoke. Some people tried to filter the smoke by breathing through tissues or handkerchiefs. It did not seem to help much. Others dropped to the floor for clearer air. Panicky people cursed, screamed, raged, ranted, and banged their fists against the steel doors.
"The end of the world!"
"I knew we shouldn't have come here!"
"Give me that tissue!"
"Get your own tissue, bitch!"
"Where's my phone?"
"Where are the firefighters?"
"Where are the police if you need them?"
"Stand back!" ordered one of the mayor's bodyguards.
"Freeze!" ordered another.
"Stand back and freeze!"
"Everybody, stay clear of his honor, or we'll fire!"
"The building has already been fired!"
"I'm not even close to his honor!"
"Where does he have any honor?"
"Shut up! I bought his honor last week! A clean million into his Swiss bank account! Now it's strictly for the birds! What an irony, to die like this, together, like two rats!"
"Birds? Rats? Keep your imaginary zoo to yourself, or his honor will sue you! His honor doesn't have any bank account in Switzerland. He can't even find Switzerland on a map. He doesn't even know how to spell it."
"Who cares? He can't sue, 'cause we're all gonna die in here!"
"I never voted for that rat anyway."
"Who cares what you voted for? We're gonna die!"
Cough! Wheeze! Gasp!
"There ought to be a law against this shoddy construction!"
"There ought to be a law against these steel doors!"
"There ought to be a law against fires!"
Cough! Cough! Cough!
"Jesus, we're all gonna die!"
"Oh my god, the end is nigh!"
"Oh my god oh my god oh my god…"
"Yea, though I walk in death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill. For thou art with me, and thy rod and staff me comfort still…"
Cough! Cough! Wheeze! Wheeze! Gasp! Gasp!
"Sam, I have a confession to make. I've been lying about my age for years. I'm not going to turn thirty next week. I'm turning forty."
"I know. I know. The divorce papers are in the mail."
Cough out loud!
"My poor hair! Oh, that damn smoke. It's going to ruin my hair!"
Rolling on the floor wheezing!
"Take the phone, Ferris, and say goodbye to the children!"
"Oh, come on. I know they're not my kids."
"Oh, those fucking terrorists!"
Cough! Cough! Wheeze! Wheeze! Gasp! Gasp!
In people's minds, the smoke grew into everybody's personal nightmare, be it fire, bombs, or poison gas. It became impossible to see anyone or anything more than a couple feet away.
Jennifer shook off her boyfriend's hand. "Where are the fire extinguishers?"
"There are some over there, but where's the fire? Maybe not such a great idea, blindly emptying the fire extinguishers into the ventilation ducts."
That moment, a busty brunette standing and coughing nearby, lacking a handkerchief, ripped off her blouse, sending buttons flying every which way, one hitting Traynor in the chest, and used it as a makeshift gas mask.
Through the smoke, Traynor watched her hooters strain against her bra and wobble with every cough. "Maybe coming here was not such a bad idea, after all. Too bad Nick isn't in here. He'd love that."
Coughing herself, Jennifer shot her boyfriend an icy glance. "You want me to compete on these terms?"
Traynor grinned. "Well, you'd be one step ahead of her, oh my braless wonder. Besides, she can't compete with you anyway."
" 'Cause she isn't even blond."
"Thanks. I think."
Traynor drew his .45 Colt M1911 pistol and chambered a round. "Better 1911 than 911."
"Doesn't help much against the fire, though," cautioned his girlfriend.
Traynor coughed. "What fire? What about the burglar alarm and the steel doors? Looks more like a heist to me."
With the doors shut and the smoke, there seemed to be nothing they could do, except to be ready to defend themselves and to wait for the smoke exhaust system to cope and firefighters to fight the alleged fire and to open the doors. Through the smoke and the noises of the alarms and the charging mob, Jennifer and Traynor thought they heard a swishing sound from the center of the gallery. A shadowy figure clad all in black brushed past them. Jennifer gasped involuntarily. He or she — or it — had no face! There was nothing there but a dark blob of slime!
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