The discussion took place in a garden that, for lack of any superior term, glittered. The trees shone like spun glass, and their leaves sparkled under the overhead lights. The four principals hardly took notice of the precise mechanical intricacies surrounding them, however. More pressing matters were at hand.
"Crass commercialism," the first of them said. He sniffed loudly and expressed his well-bred sense of disdain. "Fipís organization runs contrary to the Artistic standards we have dedicated ourselves to. We are Artists . . . Aesthetes! Not merchants!"
The small figure dangling from golden chains beside him mouthed an affirmative. "I agree with the Spokesman," he said in a squeaky voice, wooden tongue tapping gently against hinged jaw. "We should abolish the company at once and concentrate on my new show!" His gesticulations caused him to begin swaying back and forth.
The tan, pictorially-decorated woman resting nearby had been admiring a small origami sculpture she had created some hours ago, a tiny frog made of blue and green silk-paper. She set it down on the tree trunk lying beside her. The frog shivered for a moment, then slowly inched its way across the polished silver surface. The lady turned back towards her colleagues and began making a rapid series of complex hand-signs.
As ever, P., the others read, you are missing the obvious. That was not the doctorís suggestion. G. Limited cannot be eliminated. Too much of our recent efforts have been invested into it. She paused to consider, then continued, her slim, pale-tan hands moving gracefully. Like it or not, this company has become our primary means of expression in the 20th Century. We need to reorganize it instead.
The Spokesman nodded even as his smaller companion shook his head and monotonously began chanting, "No, no," over and over again.
"Yes, my dear, that is precisely what I meant. I regret to say, though, that I am at a complete loss as to how such a task might be accomplished. My Artistic sensibilities do not lend themselves to such a . . ," and he grimaced as he said it, "business venture."
He opened a gold cigarette case taken from his carefully-tailored jacket and removed one thin cylinder. His piercingly green eyes soon gleamed behind tastefully aromatic smoke.
A small bird commenced singing. The tune was from Mozartís Violin Concerto No. 2.
"Perhaps we should promote Albert or one of the younger Avatars," the last member of the group said, wheezingly. He emitted a long series of deep, tubercular coughs and held a scented handkerchief to his mouth until he had regained his breath. The others waited patiently until he could continue. "Theyíre already involved in day-to-day operations."
No, the dark-haired woman signed. The Avatars and the Dires sided far too quickly with Mrs. Paddockís attempted coup. They cannot be trusted.
"Furthermore," the Spokesman added, "I have already taken steps to distance the families from ourselves. It will take time for their lesson to be absorbed, I should think." He took a second to draw on his cigarette. Finally, he said, "I recommend Mr. Cross."
Again, his female colleague indicated a negative. No. The detective has talents best utilized elsewhere, such as in hunting down the last of Paddockís Chemical Dancers. Let us leave him at the Grand Facade.
"Just blow it up," their suspended friend contributed irritatingly. His small hands mimed working a detonating box. "Just blow the whole thing to smithereens!"
"If only Fip hadnít been so careless," the coughing man said. He wrapped his arms around a thin chest and appeared as if he were trying to hold himself together. Red spots shown beneath his otherwise pale, bloodless cheeks. "If not Cross or any of the families, then it would appear our only alternative is to recruit from outside."
He looked around at the others. The gentleman and the lady both nodded. The harlequined dwarf drooped for a moment, then reluctantly nodded his head too.
"Very well, then." Their gaunt companion brought a shaking hand to his head to check for fever. "Iíll contact Jonathan and have him make the proper arrangements."
They departed soon after. The garden, all chrome and glass and twinkling, continued to operate for hours afterward. It would have to be completely re-wound before their return.
* * * *
The woman reached in and flipped the shower knob over. Water sprayed into the small stall, and within a matter of moments the bathroom began to fill up with steam. She glanced through her medicine cabinet and picked out her shaving things from the vanity. She liked letting the water run for a few minutes before stepping in. No matter of how expensive the plumbing, she could never get the shower at just the right temperature. While she waited for it to heat up, she examined herself in the mirror. It was a morning ritual. Once, she had checked her face for new blemishes or pimples; now, she tended to look more for new wrinkles or crowís feet. Not that she had ever had any.
She took care of herself well, nourishing her skin with the best creams and ointments available. She knew she was beautiful - her red hair was long and striking and her best feature - but beauty was no accident of nature. It was a full-time job, staying out of the sun to keep her complexion, hitting the gym three times a week to maintain her figure, but it had finally paid off. Youíre free, Lindsey, she thought, not for the first time.
The papers had been signed last week. Her husband was out of her life for good. She stepped into the shower and enjoyed that first moment of luxuriating warmth. After a few minutes just soaking in the heat, she began to lather herself up.
It had probably been unfair of her to hit her husband with divorce papers right in the middle of his financial crisis, but if she had waited, his settlement offer might have dropped along with his future income. If he lost the company, which her lawyer now said was very likely, he might lose several million dollars out of his personal estate alone. The prenuptial agreement hadnít been a factor at all; her attorney had made sure it wasnít worth the paper it was printed on. The only thing at issue had been the timing.
But it couldnít be helped. Seven million dollars, she thought. For five years of marriage. Not bad for a girl out of Poughkeepsie. The first place she would go now would be to . . .
A sudden, incredibly bright burst of light filled the bathroom, startling her and breaking her delicious daydream about Bermuda. Her first thought was that the overhead light had exploded. She tried to look up . . . and that was when she realized she couldnít move.
The woman tried to lift her arm or bend her legs, but they were locked tight. Her hands were still caught in position spreading foam over her legs. The water beat down over her back, she stared down at the floor of the stall, and she couldnít budge an inch!
Iím paralyzed! she thought, panicked. Oh my God. I canít move!
She heard the shower stall slide open, and out of the corner of her eye she saw a manís booted feet standing there. Unable to scream, unable to even look the intruder in his face, the woman just crouched, totally helpless, a living, breathing statue. She heard and felt him turn the water off. Then, lifting her with gloved hands, the man pulled her out of the shower and began to straighten her body. She had no control whatsoever.
Oh my God. There are two of them! Three!
The walls and mirror were steamy. The men wore masks, so the woman was unable to see their faces as they quickly buffed and toweled her dry. They didnít bother reclothing her, though. There would have been no point. They would have just had to take them off her again later.
* * * *
Donald had debated about whether or not to go to the restaurant, but in the end he decided he really didnít have much of a choice. If they wanted to speak with him, he was sure they would find a way no matter where he went to hide.
He would just have to hope for the best.
The young attorney was waiting for him at the table. He stood as Donald approached.
"Mr. Allen." They shook hands and sat down. "Iím so glad you could make it. Did you have any trouble finding the restaurant?" Jonathan Avatar seemed warm and studious.
The businessman shook his head. "No. Iíve had lunch here before." As Iím sure you already know, you son of a bitch. "The seafoodís great."
The waiter came by to take their drink orders, and Donald ordered a large one. He felt he probably would need it. He had no idea why a representative of G. Limited would call him up and ask him out for a business dinner. G. Limited! Donald had made several purchases from the clandestine company since that initial auction - he still treasured Roxanne as the best of his collection - but they had never called him before!
Donaldís palms were soaked in sweat. His lips were dry. He did not feel safe even in this public place. Considering recent events, maybe they thought they were putting him out of his misery? He wondered what they were going to do to him.
"How are you with your purchases from us, Mr. Allen?" the young man said, interrupting his bleak thoughts. "Are you satisfied? You own five of our Ďstill-life collectiblesí now, do you not?" He sipped casually at his water.
Allen nodded. "Ah . . yes. Five." He closed his eyes for a moment. "Thereís April and Roxanne. They were the first. Then I bought Hilda at the next auction . . the pink marble. And then . . ." Donald felt uncomfortable talking to the man. What in the hell did they want? Were they playing some sort of game? "And a couple of others," he finished lamely. Then, leaning forward desperately: "I donít understand why Iím here. Is there another auction coming up? I was too busy to attend the last one, but . . . .."
Avatar held his hands out and shook his head. "No, no, Mr. Allen. Be calm, please. You have nothing to be concerned about." He took another sip of water. "I apologize for the dramatic way in which we contacted you this morning. Itís an occupational hazard for us to be so overly dramatic. A legacy of our founder."
Donald had found the G. Limited business card lying on the pillow next to him earlier that morning . . . right where his soon to be ex-wife had once lain her head. The time and address of the lunch had been written on the back. The best security in the world, the analysts had said, but it hadnít stopped them even for a moment.
"Then . . then why?" Allen stopped and shook his head. "Iím sorry, but itís been a bad couple of weeks, and now Iím meeting with someone from G. Limited." He took a deep breath. "Itís a little much to take in all at once."
"I understand, sir. Allow me to explain, then, if you donít mind." Avatar reached down and pulled his briefcase up to the table. He opened it and leafed through a sheaf of papers. "You are probably not aware of it, but recently our company has undergone a number of significant personnel changes. Ah, here they are." The attorney removed what looked like a series of contracts and laid them out on the table in front of him.
"G. Limited is," he continued, "or more properly was, a family business, in a manner of speaking, Mr. Allen. My own family, the Avatars, and another named the Dires, have run operations for more years than Iíve been alive." The young man looked down suddenly. "Until recently, that is. Not too long ago, our founder Oberon Fip parted with the company. It was not an amicable split, but suffice to say Mr. Fip left on his own accord. Shortly thereafter, another member of our . . ," and here Avatar seemed to struggle for an appropriate phrase, ". .. Ďboard of directorsí, you could say, attempted what amounted to a hostile takeover of G. Limited. You have had some experience in these matters yourself recently, so I understand?"
Allen nodded. He had, sure enough.
"The takeover bid failed, of course, but it has left us in an uncomfortable position. The Ďboard of directorsí of G. Limited would like to bring in a neutral party now to help settle things and bring us back on track." The waiter arrived with their orders and politely ignored the open mouth look on Donaldís face. "My employers would like to offer you this position in the firm."
He couldnít have heard that right. "I . . what . . . what did you say?"
"G. Limited would like to hire you, Mr. Allen. To be our new CEO, as it were." He handed over the contracts he had taken out. Donald looked down at them and saw they were indeed pretty standard employment papers. "We feel you can be a great asset to the company."
"But . . but why me?" A job offer had literally been the last thing Donald had expected. He thought maybe the G. Limited people were angry with him for some reason, or concerned about how he was losing his company. He thought . . . he thought they had brought him there to do something to him. But a job offer? It was unreal!
"Those papers will explain most of the particulars, sir. You can read them at your leisure, but basically all they say is that you meet or exceed all of the qualifications we desire in a new manager. You can keep a secret. You have experience in business and in running a large corporation. You have purchased items from us before and were likely to do so again." Avatar looked earnest. "Most of all, you are not megalomaniacally ambitious, either. I donít want there to be any confusion on this matter, sir. Your mandate would be to handle G. Limitedís day-to-day operations, and nothing more. Mr. Fip and Mrs. Paddock had higher aspirations, and they now regret them, Iím sure. All policy decisions would remain at the top."
"At the top?" Donald asked. He was beginning to think Avatar might just be serious. If he was . . . was he really interested? He thought about his "collection" at home in the secret vault he had had constructed. What exactly were they offering him now?
"Youíll discover more about them if you decide to join us, Mr. Allen." Avatar looked across at his dining companion. "Are you free for this evening? If you are, I can send a car for you, and we can discuss the matter in more privacy." He examined his plate. "We should probably eat before our food gets cold, but I want to leave you with something else to think about. We are aware naturally of your recent personal and financial difficulties."
"Yes?" Donald said, noncommittally. He had had a bad evening talking with his own lawyers last night, and he tried to hide how much the situation had him seething inside.
"The fact that a more powerful competitor is after your company is not a negative reflection of your business acumen, sir, nor that your wife chose this moment to serve you with divorce papers." He took a bite of his shrimp salad. "If you decide to take us up on our offer, Mr. Allen, we can rectify both of these problems for you."
The divorce would cost him millions. The takeover would steal his company away.
Avatar smiled. "Letís discuss the matter this evening, shall we?" He gestured around him with his fork. "When we have a bit more privacy."
They ate. It was the longest lunch Donald had ever had in his entire life.
* * * *
Fitzsimmons walked out into the dark underground parking lot and tried his best not to run. He wasnít angry or afraid or startled or anything negative like that. He had to keep from running just out of sheer excitement! The company was practically in the bag!
He let out a high, short laugh. Donald Allenís stock had been sitting in place for months. Not even dynamite had been able to budge it. Now, though, in just a few weeks of trading, it was starting to climb. Fitzsimmons had bought when it was still low, and he was now reasonably confident he could gain control. Even if he didnít, he was still making one helluva profit. He approached his shining new car and raised his key device to deactivate the alarm. He opened the door and slid in behind the wheel, laughing.
* * * *
G. Limited was nothing if not punctual. The limo pulled up in front of Donaldís house within seconds of the time appointed. He got in and saw Avatar waiting for him in back.
"Good evening, Mr. Allen. Have you had time to consider our offer?"
Donald murmured a yes. "I have a lot of questions," he said.
"Naturally." The car pulled out into the street. Its back windows were heavily tinted, and practically nothing of the outside world would intrude on their conversation. "I would have been disturbed if you hadnít." The attorney spread his hands. "Fire away."
Donald wanted to ask him first what he had meant earlier about solving his business problems, but he waited. He was beginning to think they were actually on the level, but even if they werenít, this was a chance to satisfy his curiosity about a lot of things. Such an opportunity might never come again. "All right. What exactly are you people?"
The attorney laughed. "Whatever do you mean, sir?"
"I want to know what G. Limited is," Allen said, insisting. "Are you aliens or something? UFOs? Or I am about to sign a deal with the devil?"
Avatar laughed even harder for a moment before purposefully willing himself to stop. He took a tissue from a box next to him to wipe his eyes. "Iím sorry, Iím sorry. Itís just that you seemed so serious." He got himself under control. "To answer your question, ah, no . . . we are not extraterrestrials, nor are we in league with the forces of hell. We donít care a whit about your soul. In point of fact, you will find us to be a highly secular organization should you do come to work for us." He took another tissue.
"Then what are you?" Allen had to know. "You turn women into stone or marble statues or whatever, and then you sell them. Are you telling me thatís all it is? Because if you are, youíre a liar."
The young attorney shook his head. "No, no, of course not." He turned and appeared to look out the nearly black window beside him. "There are some things that will have to wait until youíre actually one of us, but I can answer your question in general, if you like. G. Limited serves a group we sometimes call the Cirque de Artificiel or "Artificial Circus," if you prefer the English translation. They are a very old group . . . very old, and their origins are largely as mysterious to us as they are now to you. The Cirque more or less makes up our company Ďboard of directors.í"
The name meant nothing to Allen. "I donít understand. What are they?"
Avatar shook his head again. "I really canít tell you. Literally cannot, because I really donít know. All I can say is that the Cirque is interested in sex . . transformation . . and art . . yes, and especially art. They are very much in favor of art over anything natural."
"And this . . this Ďartificial circus,í theyíre the people Iím going to work for?" This was a bit too weird for Donald. He had images of stepping into a board meeting and seeing the cast of Ringling Brothers sitting in all the chairs. "What do they do? How do they do it?"
"Magic," Avatar said simply. "I canít explain it any better than that. The members of the Cirque, and our company founder Mr. Fip was a member of their group, can do things no one else on earth can. And they provide G. Limited with the tools we need." He leaned forward and started to speak to Allen almost in a secretive, confidential manner. "They donít understand business, though. Theyíre artists, you see, solely, and thatís one of the reasons they want to hire you. They donít know how to run G. Limited."
He sat back in his leather seat. "Our company provides a specialized level of merchandise. You are only familiar with our main line, I think . . . agallops."
Donald didnít know. "What are agallops?"
"Itís an old word. We take it to mean Ďstill-lifeí transformations - statues, mannequins, living pictures, and other sorts of ornaments. We produce more of them than anything else, because that is what the Cirque is most interested in . . . Ďliving art.í But we also do other things. We make living sex toys, for instance, and pleasure slaves. Thereís a huge market for sex slaves in the world, if you didnít already know. We can transform people into animals, and animals into people. We can restore youth. We can provide you perfect health and a long, very long life. Really, we can do almost anything." He leaned forward again. "The Artificial Circus used to do all these things for free once, for their own amusement or studies or what have you. Oberon Fip, though, came to understand that you could also charge for these tricks and reap very, very high profits.
"And, so, he created G. Limited. And thatís where we are today, Mr. Allen. Oh, and the by the way, not all of our acquisitions are necessarily female, as you seemed to indicate. The majority are, Iíll admit, but thatís simply an economic thing. We anticipate a greater gender equality in the next millennium as more women come into positions of authority."
"Thatís . . . an unbelievable story, Mr. Avatar." But Donald believed it, or most of it anyway. He had some of their Ďstill-lifes,í after all. Stony April . .. Plastic Roxanne . . Marble Hilda . . and others. He had felt their transformations as he knelt by them, touched them . . .dammit, enjoyed them. Because they were now his property!
He had to see. He had to know more. Avatarís story just hinted at what was there. Donald felt like he had discovered Santa Claus was a real person and had offered him a job up at the North Pole. This was a whole new world to uncover.
There was another matter he wanted to discuss, too. "Earlier, you mentioned something about my ex-wife. And about my business?" If G. Limited could do all the things Avatar claimed they could, then maybe . . just maybe . . . .
Avatar checked his watch. "We should be approaching the warehouse in just a few minutes. Why donít we wait until we get there before I explain our complete offer."
Allen didnít have to wait long. The limo stopped about fifteen minutes later, and the two of them got out inside a large, nearly empty warehouse near the docks. Donald remembered his first time at this place. He had made his first purchases from Mr. Fip then. The decor hadnít changed at all, though something had definitely been added.
In the middle of the floor a large transparent vat had been set-up, and inside it a clear, softly bubbling fluid slowly churned. It looked large enough for a backyard swimming pool. Over it, dangling inside a gridded cage, stood a naked woman with long, darkly luxurious red hair. "Thatís Lindsey," Donald said remotely. "Thatís my wife, Lindsey."
"Ex-wife," Avatar said, coming to stand beside him. "Remember, the divorce is final. We took the liberty of acquiring the ex-Mrs. Allen this morning in anticipation of, well, this offer Iím going to make you." He pointed at the vat. "The liquid inside there will transform her into an acrylic sculpture. Quite permanent. I understand sheíd always been something of a trophy wife for you. Now, she really can be."
Lindsey wasnít screaming or crying or even moving anyway in the slightest. She just stood there. She had been posed upright, hands sensuously drawn over slightly crossed legs. Her face was turned to the side. Her eyes were half-closed and her mouth partially opened, as if she were inviting Donald into one last passionate night together.
Donald turned to Avatar. "And what happens if I donít sign up with you? Youíre telling me youíll turn Lindsey into a statue?" His fists clenched and unclenched tightly.
"You misunderstand, sir. Thatís entirely your decision. Whether you join G. Limited tonight or not, we will turn your wife into a living masterpiece upon your word and your word alone." He handed Allen an old-fashioned key and pointed toward a junction box attached to the harness holding Lindsey up. There was a slot for it to be inserted and turned. "Consider it a perk. She can be the first of many in your expanding collection . . . and certainly now you wonít have to pay her any alimony!"
He looked at the key in his hand. Could he do it? He thought about the other girls already in his Ďcollection.í Throughout his marriage, spending time with them had been more enjoyable than spending time with her. He had almost forgotten why he had married her in the first place. She had been the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
"If she disappears . . . wonít people be suspicious? Wonít they come asking me questions?" He lifted his head and met the representativeís eyes.
"Let us take care of that. I assure you . . no one will be suspicious when she disappears. We have a great deal of experience in these sort of matters." The attorney walked back a few paces to the car. "And you havenít heard the rest of my proposal yet. You havenít met our driver." He tapped on the driverís side window.
The dark glass slid down, and Allen grunted in surprise. The driver was Matt Fitzsimmons! It was the bastard who was trying to buy out his company! He sat behind the wheel with a chauffeurís cap on his head, his eyes blankly expressionless. Donald stepped up to the car and waved a hand in front of his rivalís face. His eyes didnít track at all.
"What did you do to him?" He looked like a living mannequin.
"Nothing too permanent," Avatar said. "Though that can be changed too, if you like. We acquired him shortly after we did Mrs. Allen. Heís been completely reprogrammed."
Donald examined the limoís driver while the attorney spoke. This man had caused him more trouble in the last year than he had had in his entire life. He had almost stolen his company, the business he had built up himself from scratch. He had had daydreams about murdering the son of a bitch . . . and now he was literally at Donaldís mercy. He realized that G. Limited could transform this man into anything he wanted . . . a statue, a toy, a beaver . . . anything! It was unbelievable.
"Tomorrow weíll send him out to ruin his takeover bid of your company. Heíll even apologize in public to you, if youíd like. After that, well, whatever you desire." Avatar walked up and put his hand on Donaldís shoulder. "We can do anything, Mr. Allen."
He stepped back. "Make your decision, sir."
Donald stood there for about two minutes, not speaking, just turning the key he held over and over in his hand. He lifted his head and stared up at the ceiling for a long while. Then, sniffing loudly, he turned and walked briskly over to the junction box controlling his wifeís cage. Without pausing an instant, he slid the key in and turned it.
Behind him, Avatar looked relieved. It would have been bad for him had he failed.
With a loud clang, the harness chains began to work. Lindseyís cage lowered slowly into the yellowish chemical beneath her. As he stood there watching - for the first time watching as one of his Ďspecial girlsí was being made - some connection formed between Donald and his wife. It was like those times he touched the statues he already owned. Somehow, he could sense Lindseyís thoughts .. . . experience her feelings. The basket reached the level of the liquid in the vat. The liquid seeped up through the squarish spaces and soaked her feet and legs. Donald knew Lindsey wanted to jump, to escape, but she couldnít move! The bottom of the basket went under, and with it went her feet, her ankles, and then her legs. The chemical was hot, though far from scalding, and thicker than ordinary water. In moments she was completely submerged.
Dipped, Donald thought. Iím dipping my wife like a candied apple. He started to giggle.
Her pose was perfect, ideally statuesque. Surrounded by a thick, warm gel that caressed her skin like some divine lover, Lindsey slowly crossed that invisible line between flesh and plastic. Her skin stiffened. The chemical left a thick, shining glaze. Even her hair shone, wet the way Donald liked when she got out of the shower in the mornings.
A feeling of blissful, luminous warmth filled the new statue . . . and Donald, incidentally. He shuddered the way she wanted to shudder. He gave voice to the wild passion she experienced and would continue to experience now forever, perpetually aroused, perpetually climaxing . . . living art! The ecstasy built up into a core of blinding colors, a maelstrom of passion. Lindsey was raised out of the dipping solution and swung over to a drying pad. Her body shone like delicately glazed sugar. She was beautiful.
And eternal. An eternal work of art. Donald thought he began to understand why the Artificial Circus did the things they did. Never before had he felt so alive!
Avatar crossed the floor of the large warehouse and stood next to Donald Allen. He waited until his new CEO could control the raw emotions boiling through him. When he was ready, he offered his hand and shook it. "Welcome aboard, sir."
Shuddering, ready now to step into a new life, Allen looked at Avatar and thanked him. He thanked him from the bottom of his heart. Behind them, Fitzsimmons waited obediently like the robot he had practically been turned into. Deep below the heavy conditioning he had undergone, he gibbered in mad terror, wondering what was next.
"Just one more thing," Donald said. He had lots of questions, a multitude of questions, but first a small one. "Before I start in my new position, can you tell me one thing?"
"Whatís that, sir?"
"What exactly does the ĎGí in G. Limited stand for? Iíve always been curious."
The attorney passed his arm about his superiorís waist and helped him walk. He was still a little shaken by his first transformation experience. "Iíd have thought that was obvious, sir." And he told him, and their laughter filled the rafters of the old building.