It was just before 2:00 AM and the spacious gallery of legendary artist Jarad Legrand was silent, dark and still, save for the red L.E.D. signs that marked the exits. Posed within this shadowy space were the latest of his world-renowned sculptures of the human form. These realistically crafted life-sized figures were arranged in various dioramas. Some stood in classic mannequin-like poses, while some knelt on pedestals and others seemed to be engaged in various forms of ordinary human activities. "Capturing real life – as it happens", was the quote he often liked to use when describing his work.
Unlike their unique poses, there were two things that all of these famous figures had in common. All were female and all were amazingly beautiful. Each sculpture was crafted in the image of a lovely woman varying in age from their latter teens to their early forties. From women who would qualify as fashion models to "girls next door", all walks of life were represented here in this darkened room; from inside their individual, static display cases, each stared blankly into infinity while resembling variously amorous depictions of "everyday life".
Posed on a low pedestal, in an adjacent work studio at the rear of this larger space, stood what was slated to be Legrand's newest addition to the gallery. She, or rather it, was a beautiful redhead sporting only a micro bikini. The revealing rhinestone-coated swimsuit top barely covered the nipples of her pert breasts and the flesh colored, jewel encrusted thong gave the appearance of near nakedness in her pubic region. The four-inch heels upon which this scantily clad mannequin stood also enhanced the sexiness of her long legs and well-rounded backside. She, or it, resembled a curvaceous athletic woman of about twenty-five with no intricate detail spared. From every sinuous muscle and infinite line of a youthful woman's toned body, right down to a few scattered freckles and the individual pores of her smooth, tanned skin, this latest masterpiece bore enough eerie realism that one could easily imagine she might step down from her pedestal at any moment and walk away.
A remarkable innocence mixed with sultriness was also rendered in the statue's cute face. A broad smile, along with a naughty twinkle in her vacant blue eyes, completed this sexy representation of playful womanhood perfectly. The pure, yet unchanging emotion appeared to have been captured precisely at the happiest moment of the model's life. This most recent, hyper-realistic artwork would be due to be placed on public display soon, and it was certain that critics and fans alike would praise the lovely sculpture as one of Legrand's best works to date.
Suddenly however, there was something very different about this particular sculpture that made her stand apart from the other exquisite figures in Legrand's collection... She moved!! At first it was subtle, but within a few moments, her well-proportioned breasts swelled as her lungs filled with oxygen, then slowly exhaled. This was something that hadn't happened in nearly twelve hours. The breaths came extremely slowly at first, then eventually began to return to an almost normal level. Then the fingers on her left hand, which were positioned stiffly near her slim waistline, twitched ever so slightly. There were no other immediate signs of life however in this otherwise inanimate mannequin, which stood woodenly in place upon its small pedestal.
Where am I? Her mind was so foggy. Her eyes were held open but when she tried to focus, her pupils were so dry that it was painful! She wished so badly that she could simply blink, but her entire body was incredibly stiff and rigid. And why can't I move? My whole body feels numb! Even the muscles in her face were completely immobile and sore from holding the same expression for so many hours now. She could also sense that she was smiling, but she had no idea why. She certainly didn't feel like smiling at the moment, but there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it.
She racked her brain trying to make sense of it all. Was it just a really bad dream? No. There was a chilling reality to all of this somehow.
The last thing she could remember was something about a bikini contest... somewhere. The sun was bright and it was so damned hot and humid! There was the aloe smell of suntan lotion. Then there was that... ah, hot lady reporter, or photographer, or whoever she said she was, backstage... She handed me that bottle of cold mineral water. There was something she wanted to talk to me about. But what was it?
She remembered gradually that the water had tasted funny; bitter-sweet. Her body had felt so strange after drinking only a few sips. Then, there were those bright lights! The flashes. That rumbling noise. What the hell was that?! Then there was nothing but absolute darkness...
Now she was standing here, helpless, in the dark once more... How much time had passed? It all seemed so surreal; distant. Like another life; like another place and time, far from her past way of life. But what place? What time? I can't even remember my own name!
The now conscious, but slowly re-animating figure tried once again with all her will to move, to speak, to do anything, but the best she could muster was another slight twitch of her left hand. After a few more minutes however, she was finally able to make out the silhouette of what appeared to be another woman standing directly in front of her. At first she was frightened. Were any more people in here? She couldn't tell as her eyes remained locked in their straight-ahead position. Maybe the nearby person could help. Or maybe this was the person responsible for what had happened to her?
"Hhhhhhhh.........." She strained, but only a muffled hissing sound, turned squeak passed through her smiling teeth and over her full, glossy lips. Her stiffened mouth and tongue just couldn't form the words. This other "person" remained exactly as they had been without the slightest response.
Once again, scenes began to flash haphazardly through her mind like blurry snapshots. She remembered water... waves... a beach. Those men in the crowd. They were screaming, clapping...howling. Were they screaming for me? I think so, and what was that guy saying on the microphone? He was introducing me to all those people or something. Yes. That is what he was doing! Introducing me. But, oh my God...I don't even remember who I am! Please! Somebody......... help meeeeee.......!!!!!!!!!
The muted scream resonated inside her pretty head for what seemed like forever, and then suddenly, she felt moisture in her eyes. The tear that subsequently rolled down her cheek was a welcome change, but it still didn't help the fact that she was literally stuck here in this very strange place. Think hard. She told herself. Damnit! What did that guy call you? Was it... Sam? Yes, that's it! Sam... Samantha! That's my name! Samantha... something or other.
For an instant she felt triumphant. But soon the realism, or lack there of, of her current predicament returned to her. I'm frozen here like a statue! What the hell has happened to me?! She began to believe that she must be dead. Was she in a tomb of some sort, a morgue? If she was, why was she still standing up? Nevertheless, she was convinced that she had surely died and arrived in hell...
A distant click, followed by a humming sound quickly caught her attention and dissolved any previously conceived notions about the pits of Hades as she felt the dry coolness of the air conditioning begin to blow down from above. The breeze caused a couple strands of her long red hair to wave lazily against her cheek, but Samantha continued to stare blankly, fixated upon the similarly stiff figure in the quiet darkness in front of her. Was this another statue as well? The only indication that Samantha was indeed anything more than a beautiful statue herself, was her faint breath and the tears that now flowed freely across her frozen face. Time passed and the helpless young woman's mind drifted back and forth between the fleeting thoughts that she tried so desperately to decipher, to the boredom of the chilly darkened room. Eventually she fell into an exhausted slumber; filled with turbulent, unsettling dreams............
.....Samantha awoke sluggishly as fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered to life above her. Soon the room where the beautiful redheaded statue was posed was filled with light and she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The chattering voices of two women followed. Samantha could sense that someone had entered the room, but she could not yet see them. Her eyes remained fixed straight ahead and she now realized that the "person" she had tried to call out to earlier was indeed only another statue. An incredibly life-like, naked statue! Was that sculpture conscious too?
From behind her Samantha heard a voice that was vaguely familiar. "She turned out pretty well, don't you think?"
Where have I heard that voice before?
"Oh, definitely!" The other woman replied with a more mature French accent. "I told Me'shure Legrand this one would be magnifizant after zeeing her photos. He haggled on zee price for a while, but when she goes up for auction, I think he will recoupe zee expenses and zhen some."
"Oh, no doubt about it. She is lovely."
Price? Auction? What are y'all talking about? Samantha struggled to make sense of what they were saying.
"Wee. Stunning. Is she to remain in this pose?"
"As far as I know. I brought along her flower arrangement and the banner from the bikini contest, if he does leave her posed this way. After all, she is 'Miss Tropic Gold - 2009' " the second woman snarled in a prissy, mocking tone when referring to the title Samantha had taken the day before. "They're right over there on the work bench."
A bikini contest... I knew it! Samantha remembered inwardly. But why are they talking about me like I'm not even here? Like I really am a statue or something. What do they mean 'leave her posed this way'? Suddenly, she began to panic. No! They can't mean... Please! Don't do this to me! I'm still alive...! You've got to help me! Samantha screamed in vain once again, trying to get the two womens' attention, but there seemed to be no effect. I don't wanna be a statue! I'm alive... For Heaven's sake, what have you done to me?! Can't you people hear me?!
Besides her new animate company, there was another subtle change that Samantha noticed in difference from her earlier time in the darkness. It did little to ease her fears, but the feeling was beginning to return to her extremities. Her fingers and toes tingled and her nipples even responded to the coolness of the room. Between slow, intermittent blinks, her eyes could also focus properly now. The two chattering women also failed to notice the faint breaths the presumed statue was now drawing at cautious intervals.
"We'll arrange zee props accordingly in her display caze once she is put under... permanently." The second woman went on. "Me'shure Legrand should be here soon. He will fine-tune her aspect before he administers zee final dose of preservant. He always prefers to do that personally, as you know."
From the way the Frenchwoman talked, Samantha got the impression that this second female was the one in charge. At least until this Legrand person arrived. Nonetheless, she didn't like the way this conversation was going. It was also apparent that neither of these women was going to help her in the least. No, it was obvious that they were somehow responsible for her being here in this strange place and unable to move a muscle. And once this Legrand guy did arrive, a bad situation was probably going to get even worse! I don’t like the description of becoming a statue “permanently”!
"The first dose was easy enough," the one with the familiar voice joked. "This airhead froze up after only drinking half the bottle. I barely had time to get her carried into the van before she stiffened up altogether. She doesn't look like she'd weigh that much, but I felt like I was handling a filing cabinet or something."
The woman with the water! That's where she knew the voice from! And what do you mean I weigh too much, you BITCH! You did this to me!
"Did anyone zee you?" The one in charge asked with concern.
"Nah; her agent kept everyone else distracted until me and that other slut, what's her name...? Natalie; from the competition got her loaded. Even let me borrow a hand-truck. Guess they wanted to make sure they got their money."
My agent? What's she talking about? Who's Natalie? Please... somebody... I don't want to die like this!
"Ha, ha. That bit you invented about being a representative from zee Playboy magazine was priceless too, Heidi."
"Oh, you should have seen the vain little tart." Heidi laughed, glancing at Samantha. "She fell for it hook, line and sinker when I told her 'Hef' sent me personally to offer her an appearance in an upcoming special edition. She was walking towards me, smiling. No, bubbling's more like it! So excited about winning her stupid little bikini contest and posing nude in that magazine again. Then,... she just stopped. Cold; immobilized in mid-step. She never even knew what hit her; that stuff works fast!" The woman then stepped into Samantha's line of sight and looked up at the immobilized bikini model’s vacant expression. Immediately Samantha recognized her face. The woman was very attractive, with a toned body and wavy chestnut hair that flowed across her creamy shoulders. Unlike the last time Samantha had seen her though, she was now dressed casually in tight blue jeans and a blouse that was cropped at her midriff. She was no doubt the woman who had offered her the mysterious drink. This acute recognition, in addition to the two women's uncaring conversation, made many scattered memories flood back into the redhead's clouded mind, but she still couldn't quite piece it all back together. It was now all Samantha could do to conceal the tears that were beginning to well up her eyes.
"Yep," The devious Heidi went on. "It's kinda funny: The last time I saw her, Jody, she looked exactly like she does right now."
In contrast to Samantha, the other woman found this joke hilarious and erupted in laughter.
"But, if she likes the notion of putting her nude ‘assets’ on display... she'll certainly have her opportunity now." Heidi concluded. "For a very long, long time."
"Wee." The French woman confirmed as she too stepped into view to appraise the motionless girl herself. "Not to worry, Ma Chere. Soon your beauty will be preserved forever. Now, you shall never grow old." This was the first time either of the women had spoken directly to the frozen young woman, but she found the attention was far from comforting. "Not a bad look for a spontaneous one, either." Jody addressed Heidi once again while subconsciously stroking Samantha's crimson locks. She let her finger linger down Samantha's slim neck and across her nearly exposed left breast. "Just touch up her make-up a leetle, Heidi. It looks as if she may have cried some, no? From these streaks?"
"Hmm. It must be condensation from the A.C. A drip or something. The vent's right above her," Heidi said, stepping away momentarily to retrieve a small kit. "Don't see how she could have shed any tears when she's hard suspended like this."
"Wee, I suppose you are correct. Even zo, attend to that small detail; merci."
When she returned with the make-up folder, Heidi stepped onto Samantha's pedestal and looked directly into the living statue's vacant eyes. Samantha held her breath. "Hey, honey. You awake in there?" She said coldly as she rapped against the side of Samantha's head with her knuckles and was rewarded only with a continued blank stare from the rigid contestant. "Nah; didn't think so. What a bimbo; all boobs and no brains! Now she won’t have to do anything more than look pretty ever again." She cleared the smudge from the redhead's cheek, and then began applying some additional blusher to her face with a smooth, soft brush. "Jody, can you hand me that eyeliner over there?"
Samantha was relieved when Heidi finally looked away from her face so she could sneak a quick blink. She took another short breath, fixed her eyes on the mannequin in front of her once again, and resumed the regal pose and frozen smile that was thankfully getting harder for her to hold all the time.
"But Me'shure Legrand had better get here soon." Jody warned, checking her watch as she stepped away. "If all she had was a half dose, she is likely to come out of it very zoon. That drive from zee Daytona Beach must have taken several hours. Perhaps you should give her a leetle booster, no?"
Heidi concurred about the lengthy trip, but disagreed about giving any additional preservant. "This little beach bunny isn’t going to be doing any more hopping. Thankfully, we were able to transfer her quickly from the truck directly to Mr. Legrand's private jet at Columbia, then flew directly here. That saved a lot of time."
The ginger-haired beauty then did something unexpected. Reaching out with a manicured hand, she tugged at Samantha's right arm and lifted it slightly. For the first time since arriving here, Samantha could sense the feeling rushing through that arm like a bolt of electricity. The feeling was slowly returning to her long legs as well. And although she finally had the power to return her arm to a lower relaxed position, she held it firmly where Heidi had positioned it. She couldn't reveal the fact that her ability to move was slowly returning... If she did, they might give her another dose of whatever strange paralyzing drug she was under the influence of, and then all hope would surely be lost! She had to find a way to escape!
"We should be okay." Heidi reassured, pointing toward the raised limb. "She's still fairly stiff."
"I have often wondered if they are at all conscious, or... aware, before zey receive zee final applicazun of preservant." Jody continued to admire the curvaceous redhead on the pedestal, this time from the rear. She pondered inwardly how the suspended girl might feel right now if she were conscious. How would she feel if she were in her place?
"Guess we'll never know, and she isn’t gonna tell," Heidi said with a flippant lack of concern. “Sucks to be her!”
"Wee. For both of our zakes, I hope vee nevvur fine out."
"Yah, me too. But there's no way that there's anything left after that final infusion. That hardens 'em up nice and solid."
"And very glossy, or how do you say, shiny too." Jody looked at the figure posed just in front of Samantha. That young woman had received her final treatment just days before. Apparently she had been a custom figure that Mr. Legrand had "preserved" for a special client, as her acquisition and preservation process had been conducted in almost complete privacy, hidden even from Legrand's inner-circle. Jody didn't even know this statue’s real name. Her wealthy boss had powerful ties, from the Government to the syndicate, so she knew when idle questions were appropriate and when they were not. This was one of the times when they were not.
The girl wasn't as striking nor as fit as most of her boss's display figures, but Jody saw a certain sexiness in her stiffened features. She also only remembered seeing this one briefly while she still retained some living humanistic qualities. But now, unlike Samantha, her formerly nubile body was completely solidified; totally hardened from head to toe. The skin, or outer shell, of this stiff naked statue that had been a living girl only days earlier, now bore the glossy sheen that Jody referred to that reflected the overhead lights. As realistic as the detail was in her motionless features, she still appeared somehow artificial to Jody, though she knew the chilling truth. Before the end of the day, the lovely Samantha was scheduled to join her... for eternity...
A ringing telephone in an opposite room caught all three womens' attention. In response, Jody exited, leaving Heidi and Samantha alone.
After a quick glance to check that the other woman was out of sight, Heidi stepped up on the pedestal again as Samantha tensed her body and tried not to look so alive.
“Everything comes so easily to girls like you, doesn’t it; never had to diet a day in your pretty bubble-headed life; never had to be ridiculed for being flat-chested or knock-kneed. You think you’re so perfect – now you can be a perfect statue forever while I have my chance! Whaddy-ya think of that, huh?” Samantha willed herself to not blink or gasp for air as Heidi stared at her triumphantly. “Didn’t think so.”
When the sound of Jody's heels clicked closer and closer to the studio once again, Heidi stepped down and patted the Samantha-statue lightly on her frozen cheek.
Jody looked troubled. "That was Me'shure Legrand. He will be delayed for at least an hour. He wanted to make zure however, that Samantha would be prepped for zee final prezervation immediately when he arrives. He is very anxious."
"She's ready now." Heidi proclaimed proudly, stepping back from the unmoving girl, then circling her pedestal. “Doesn’t she look perfect already?”
"Mai wee. Very well."
"If I must say so myself, I do splendid work." Heidi bragged.
"I compliment you as well, but I still zhink it would be wise to administer some additional prezervant. We do not want her waking up too zoon. Zat could be bad."
"Trust me, Jody. Sweet little Sammi here isn't going anywhere besides into her display case." Without warning, she turned back to the rigid figure and slapped her sharply on the ass. Oh, no! Don’t blink; please hold that breath… Samantha concentrated and felt her body wobble a small degree. "See - solid as a block of stone! Come on, let's get some coffee." Heidi offered.
"Very well. You are zee expert."
Samantha heard the two women share a giggle as their chattering voices and footsteps faded further and further away. Finally, she exhaled a sigh of relief. She had held her breath and this stupid pose as long as she possibly could. Her body, although still extremely stiff, had begun to loosen up consistently by the minute.
Samantha blinked her eyes rapidly, regaining moisture. She noticed now that she was no longer forced to gaze upon the inanimate figure immediately in front of her, as her eyes could glance left or right... She was also able to turn her head slightly.
With some effort, she was eventually able to stretch and twist her torso enough to see the doorway where the women had exited. No sign of anyone. The coast was clear, it would seem, but she wasn't taking any chances. With all of her strength, Samantha strained to lift her dainty high-heeled foot from the spot where it was planted on the pedestal. To her surprise the foot responded. Stepping back a little to steady herself, she then tried the opposite leg. It was now mobile as well.
It took a few more minutes before she could maneuver her arms enough to maintain balance for walking, but as soon as she could, she stepped down slowly and stiffly from the pedestal. Her right foot touched the polished tile floor below, and her head began to spin rapidly. She caught herself just as the acute dizzy spell was about to cause her to collide with a rolling cart that was stationed nearby. She was trying so desperately to be quiet, but her awkward movements and the slick floor were making that more and more difficult.
Suddenly, footsteps approached once again. Samantha knew from the fast pace and the click of the heeled boots, it was Jody. You learn a lot by just listening to sounds when you're standing around like a piece of sculpture all day, she mused, not knowing fully where that bit of telling sarcasm had come from. The thought had just popped into her still cloudy mind, but she knew enough to realize, that if she were to be discovered, her role as static artwork would be resumed. She stepped quickly back onto the low pedestal and struck a pose as close as possible to the one she had been forced to hold for what seemed like forever.
Luckily, the footsteps continued down the corridor. Whew! Samantha shook her head, still struggling to clear away the cobwebs. That was too close! I've gotta find a way outta' here...
From her renewed position of elevation, she scanned the room. There was the doorway to the right and another closed door directly behind her frozen comrade. It was a fifty, fifty chance. Stepping down from the pedestal for a second time, Samantha carefully, and somewhat uncomfortably, forced her stiffened muscles to carry her toward the doorway the other women had used. Her body felt so heavy and leaden. She was a hundred times stiffer than the most uncomfortable night of sleep, or the most strenuous workout she could ever remember. Peeking out, she looked into the long, dimly lit hallway leading to the left and right. At the far end to her left, she could see an illuminated exit sign, but there was an extra obstacle between her and this portal to freedom. A small office on the other side of hallway was lit and she could hear Heidi chattering on the phone. Samantha would have to pass directly in front of the occupied room if she chose this route, so this way would not be an option.
The other was a gamble as well since only darkness lay ahead. Jody had also headed in that direction, just moments before. Who knew when she might return? The Frenchwoman had been the nicest of the two inspecting Samantha's stiffened form, but she had no desire to run into either of them again under these circumstances... or any other!
Samantha's heart began to pound. She looked behind her and surveyed the other doorway. It was closed. Was it locked? Where did it lead? She hoped for the best, as she slipped back into the small studio and past the hardened figure that she had stared at for so long. The figure only continued to look vacantly into nothingness, as if Samantha had never been there.
As Samantha passed the unmoving representation, she tried to shake off her curiosity about the other statue's current state of mind. For a moment she wondered if she should try to help in some way. She was sure that this had been a living girl as well at one point, but the lifeless figure appeared to be beyond anything she was capable of doing for her now. If you keep lingering, you’re going to be standing right beside her again. And this time it will be for good! The redhead took a deep breath and tried to put the frightening thought out of her head as she reached for the handle on this other mysterious doorway.
Turning the knob slowly, she was relieved when it opened freely. The quiet darkness that lay ahead however was just as unnerving. She could barely see a thing. Proceeding slowly once more, Samantha could make out many more silhouettes among the shadows. The lights in the workroom she had just left projected just enough illumination into this larger room to cast long, spooky shadows from the many similar statue-still female figures posed within. Occasionally checking over her shoulder, Sam carefully studied the stagnant crowd in front of her. She was afraid that one of them might suddenly move; a trick perhaps. They remained frozen. Then she saw a welcome sight. There was another red L.E.D. exit sign on the opposite side of the room. This is my chance! Samantha reached behind her, slowly closing the door to the studio. The squeak in the hinge just before the door clicked shut completely nearly made her heart sink. Had anyone heard her? Sam was now in almost total darkness once again, with only a hint of light coming from underneath the bottom of the door and from a small skylight high above, but she stood fast; listening to see if the noise had brought any unwanted attention.
After a few seconds with no response, she decided that it was now or never. She had better make a run for it while there was still a chance, so she moved stealthily onward. The still, shadowy figures were everywhere around her. Some were obviously behind glass, while others stood in the open upon their assorted pedestals and mock positions of motionless activity. Samantha's eyes shifted from one frozen form to another as she took slow cautious steps in the darkness. The limited light only made this experience more frightening. The frozen statues' glassy eyes seemed to follow Samantha's every move as if encouraging her when she moved closer to the exit door.
Samantha's heart leapt into her throat as she suddenly encountered one of Legrand's figures a bit too closely for comfort. She had crept directly into a stiffened female statue. Instead of being elevated, like most of the others, this sexy blonde was at floor level and the shapely figure's stretched position didn't offer the best of balance. Samantha had to quickly wrap her arms around the lifeless woman's hardened athletic body to prevent her from falling over. She held her breath, looking directly into a pair of vacant brown eyes that gazed straight through her and beyond. Continuing to embrace the rigid figure, Samantha attempted to re-balance the mannequin-like sculpture that felt as heavy as a "real" woman! From the best she could tell in the darkness, this girl was very young, post high school age at best, and had short yellow-blonde hair. The petite likeness was clad in high-cut nylon gym shorts that revealed her tan sculpted thighs, and a white tee shirt with some type of school logo concealed her pert, bra-less chest. During their unintentional intimacy, Samantha could feel the hardened figure's pointy nipples pressing against her own, and she couldn't help but feel embarrassed. In her left hand, the stiff girl held a white volleyball aloft; the other arm was positioned as if she were ready to serve. It was if she were merely a three-dimensional photograph of a young woman frolicking at the beach.
Finally, Sam was able to steady the remarkable likeness, and it teetered back into place with a soft "clunk", wobbling faintly. Slowly, Sam backed away with her palms opened in a silent command to stay. The figure seemed unaffected by the near mishap and the only animate woman in the room breathed a sigh of relief, taking another careful step toward the door.
After nearly tripping on the looping hose of a statue that had been posed while vacuuming the floor, Samantha failed to see a low couch in the shadows and fell over it. Trying with all her might to control her reluctant muscles, she was able to turn the tumble into a semi-graceful recline onto the naked statue that already occupied the settee. If the lights had been on, she would have seen the figure was positioned as if sunning herself au naturale and had been captured in mid-stretch. Samantha had fallen into the arms of another of Legrand’s frozen artworks. Save for a tiny squeak from the springs on the couch, there was no sound as she disentangled from what an observer would assume was a lesbian tryst. “Sollrr” she whispered in the recumbent statue’s ear, but the dark-haired preserved beauty was far beyond hearing her.
When Samantha finally reached the exit she threw all of her weight against the panic bar. As she flung the heavy steel door open, the burst of sunlight hurt her eyes, but the overwhelming taste of freedom was all that occupied her thoughts for the moment. She was so close! Within a fraction of a second however, the fire alarm screeched loudly! A nauseous feeling crept into her stomach as bright strobes began to flash in conjunction with the deafening klaxon. Glancing behind her one last time, the redhead looked back at the various stiffened figures in Legrand's fiendish gallery. The spooky bursts of bluish light from the strobes illuminated each of them in short intervals like flashes from a camera. For that split second it gave the lifeless objects the illusion of movement; shifting back and forth upon their pedestals between the darkness and intermittent light. "Shit!" Samantha cursed under her breath. She knew the two women would be coming.
She ran as quickly as she could in her post- stiffened state toward the only cover in the dirty alley. She didn't display her normal grace when strutting on the four-inch stilettos, but she was able to quickly concealed herself by crouching behind a small dumpster; watching for the search party that would surely be forthcoming. Looking down, she realized the short sprint had caused her slinky rhinestone-encrusted top to become misadjusted and her full right breast was exposed. In her continued foggy state she wondered why she reflexively corrected the wardrobe malfunction.
Inside the studio, there was pandemonium. "What the hell's going on?!" Heidi yelled down the hallway. "Where are you?"
"I'm right here," Jody countered loudly above the screech of the alarm.
The two met face-to-face in the hallway just outside the preparation studio and simultaneously gasped as their eyes fell upon the single empty pedestal. For a moment they shared a collective look of concern.
"Wh- where is she?" Heidi was the first to speak. Her voice was quivering. Her haughty attitude had suddenly disappeared. "The girl was so stiff – you don't think?"
"I do not know," Jody said with concern. "But zis statue is clearly gone; you had better lock zee doors."
"No way! How could this have happened?" Heidi was tearing up in disbelief. "She was totally suspended. Frozen. Solid. Wasn't she?"
"I warned you to give her a booster, but you would not lizzen." Jody said in a scolding tone this time. "Now go secure zee exits... It may already be too late!"
“Yeah; you’re right,” Heidi admitted and ran off.
Samantha continued to watch nervously from her hiding place as Heidi stepped into the alley. The attractive woman stood alertly with her hands on her hips and looked in both directions. Thankfully, she failed to investigate behind the dumpster and stacks of scattered wooden pallets where Samantha crouched. She could see that the other girl had angry tears in her eyes. The expression of frightened concern on her pouting face told an even deeper story. Heidi quickly scanned the alley one last time, took a few steps towards the dumpster, then dejectedly stepped back inside; slamming the door.
By now fire engines were pulling up in front of the large building. Between the sirens, shouting voices and the sound of traffic passing in the distance, Samantha saw an opportunity. In her continued post-statue stupor, she casually walked out of the alley and down the busy street clad in only the tiny swimsuit and showing a vast amount of suntanned skin.
There was noise and confusion everywhere. Horns honked in the never-ending stream of traffic as sirens faded into the distance. There were people walking all around her in an endless stream that avoided her as if she were a fireplug or a lamppost. Most just brushed past the scantily clad redhead, while others stopped to point and stare. Some even snapped pictures on their cell phones.
"Hey baby...," A young man leaned from his car window in passing traffic. "Need a ride?"
"Wow! Would 'ya look at that..."
"'Dat bitch is trippin'...or somethin'!"
"Oh my, God...!"
"Now that's hot...!"
"Hey youce guys,...get a load 'a 'dis!"
The voices of the people surrounding her swirled into a loud roar like the icy wind. Some were even in various foreign languages that Samantha couldn't comprehend. As she stood fast and watched the people rushing past her, Samantha searched every face for help, but none seemed concerned. Her helpless state appeared to be only a cruel form of amusement for them. She jumped in shock as a passerby copped a feel and blended back into the flood unidentified. Wearily, Sam moved onward in this boisterous that was equally as scary and disorienting as the still, quiet, gallery.
Whistles and a variety of vulgar offers replaced the sound of jackhammers and air compressors as she staggered by a construction zone. Some of the men even approached her making "smooching" sounds and gesturing with their body parts. Their gruff voices blended with surprised derogatory comments from others that stopped to gawk on the sidewalk.
"You should be ashamed of yourself, harlot." An elderly lady scolded.
Samantha clutched the woman's arm with a pleading look. "Ph,please..."
"Get away from me, you tramp!" The older woman jerked away and scurried down the street.
Samantha continued to wander along in a dizzy intoxicated state. She was totally lost. She struggled to make sense of this vast array of people, the myriad cars; the tall buildings. Wherever she had come from, it was nothing like this...But oddly she felt as though she had been here before. But when...? Why...?
A distinguished looking man sporting a business suit and brief case scanned Sam's beautiful body as he approached. He looked like someone who might be able to help.
"I...neeed...h,help..." was the best Samantha could stammer. Her voice had not fully recovered from the paralyzing effects of the preservant.
The man paused for a moment and Samantha smiled, but he shook his head as he walked away with the kind of straight-ahead stare that people use when they ignore the Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas time. Two other men walking beside him heard her request however and stopped. "What's wrong, miss. Where are you from?" Finally someone appeared to be concerned.
"Ahh, I, I...w,was...going to....m,meet...Hef..." The lovely girl stuttered slowly and batted her eyes in an attempt to focus. Her mind was still very foggy. She truthfully had no idea where she had come from or where she was going.
"Hef?" They shared a chuckle. "You mean as in Hugh Hefner? Whadya' parading around out here in a bikini, hopin' he'll notice 'ya?"
"Bikini...contest..." Samantha looked down at herself and realizing for the first time, her true state of undress, she shivered. "S,so...c,c,cold..."
"Yeah, it is. That's my point!"
"Come on, Dave... She's a nut. Let her be." The other one nudged his friend.
"Yeah, guess 'yer right." The one who had seemed concerned concluded. This pair departed as well and left Samantha standing alone in the sea of people once again.
"Hey." Another voice caught Sam's attention.
Samantha looked from face to face in crowd; confused.
"Over here." A man was leaning across the front seat of an expensive car parked on the curb.
Samantha stumbled to the car and looked down at the middle-aged man.
"How much?" He whispered, flashing a wad of cash.
She looked dumbfounded.
"Come on, come on, baby; how much do you charge?" He looked around anxiously as if someone might be watching.
"For sex, a blowjob; whatever. How much do you want?"
"N,no...d,don't under...stand." She shook her head. "N,n,need...h,helpp..."
"I wouldn't need any help, sweetie. I can handle it all by myself."
Samantha dejectedly walked away from the idling car. It seemed there was no use.
"Hey! Where you going, honey?" He shouted.
She ignored his repeated calls to her as she pressed clumsily back into the crowd.
"Crazy bitch!" The man cursed as he slammed his car into gear and attempted to pull back into traffic.
Samantha seemed to drift back and forth between reality and a near stupor as the cold wind whipped around her nearly naked body, blowing her hair wildly into her face. It was so frustrating. Nobody cared. No one would help. No one could even understand her slurred speech. Her head was spinning again. Feeling as if she might loose her balance and fall, she sat down by the cold brick foundation of a building and drew herself into a fetal position. Tears filled her eyes and once again she smeared the eyeliner and blusher that Heidi had touched up earlier. Suddenly, a man's voice caught her off guard.
"Lady? Are you okay?"
"Uhhh?" Sam lifted her face, which was now stained with black streaks.
"I said, are you okay?"
He knelt beside her and touched her shoulder. His touch made Samantha flinch in fear. "Hey, calm down, missy. It's all right. I just wanted so see if you were okay."
Samantha whimpered as she shook her head. "Need...help."
"Sure. What can I do?"
"Wh, what day is it?"
"Well, it's ah, Friday. What are you doing out here?"
"Ah, I...don' know. Where? W,where am I?"
"Well, you're in New York City, of course. What's wrong with you?"
New York City... Natalie and I came here once... Natalie! The tiny bit of memory had arisen out of nowhere. She also recalled the women in the studio mentioning someone by that name, but couldn't remember in what context. Suddenly she could picture her friend's pretty face. Yes. I remember... Natalie...
"P,phone... Need...to...use... a phone?"
"Alright. Here." He generously handed her his cell phone.
Samantha accepted, now almost breathless, and opened the slim device. Sadly, she could only to stare at the keypad. She could not remember a single number to dial.
* * *
"Whatda' ya think Mr. Legrand will do?" Heidi asked nervously.
"I am afraid to contemplate that. It would not be an issue had you simply leestened to me."
"I know." The tearful woman finally admitted. She glanced around the now well-lit main gallery at the various motionless figures surrounding she and Jody. Damn that little redheaded tramp. In only an hour, she would have been standing right here beside the others where she belongs. "Do you think he'll fire us?"
"Us? There is no us." Jody said defensively. She seemed indifferent to Heidi's plight now. "You are zee one at fault in this matter. I told you to give her zee booster..."
"Oh never mind the 'I told you so's,' dammit. Just help me figure something out! The bimbo couldn't have gotten far. Maybe we could hail a cab and take a look around."
"If we can get her back before Legrand gets here, then there won't be any harm done, right?"
Jody was silent and looked away. It was obvious she had washed her hands of any involvement in the situation.
"Very well." The French woman relented to her begging. "I will come with you."
The two women made their way to the small office to retrieve their coats. From a locked cabinet, Heidi also grabbed a small syringe, which contained a thick clear liquid.
"This is for that little bitch when I find her," she proclaimed. "After I jack her up with this, she’ll be back on the dais in no time and Mr. Legrand will have hardly any work left to do." Tapping the syringe slightly, she slipped it into her purse and the pair headed for the main entrance. Before they made it onto the street however, a tall well-dressed man wearing sunglasses came face to face with them in the doorway.
"Good afternoon, ladies. Going out somewhere?"
"Ah, Mr. Legrand," Heidi looked like she'd seen a ghost. "We were just ah..."
"Oh, ah, nothing." She looked to Jody for support, but received none.
"Is my lovely Samantha prepped?"
Heidi shuffled her feet and looked down at the floor. Finally, she cut her eyes toward the older woman again. She refused to look Legrand in the eye. “Umn, not quite, sir. She was..., but something has unexpectedly come up…”
Legrand furrowed his brow. "Something more important than completing the only assignment I gave you?"
"Well, sir..." She could feel her face becoming flushed as she continued to fidget. "I don't quite know how to say this, sir, but um...we lost her?" She shut her eyes and cringed after blurting the news as if she thought Legrand was going to strike her.
"Lost her?!!" He raised his voice in disbelief. "How could that conceivably happen?"
There was an uncomfortable period of silence, and Legrand's face was reddening by the second. The veins in his neck bulged as if he would explode. He looked back and forth between the two women awaiting a response. Finally, Jody offered the truth. "Me'shure, I warned Heidi. I told her zee initial dose would be wearing off zoon, but she would not leesten, and zee girl escaped."
"But don't worry." Heidi reassured her furious boss. "We'll get her back. I promise. We were just going out to look for her."
Legrand was outraged. He turned and glared back outside for a moment "How long had she been suspended?"
"Well... I guess about sixteen or seventeen hours."
"You guess?!" He shouted. I don't pay you to fucking guess about! Exactly what time did you administer the first dose and how much was used?!"
"Sir, I put a full vial into a 12 oz. bottle of mineral water. The model drank half the bottle and that was about 2:30pm yesterday afternoon." Heidi tried to minimize the disaster that she had created as best she could. "She froze up so fast, I thought everything was normal."
"Heidi, you know better," he scolded angrily. "I taught you better. The model's weight as I recall would be 120 pounds. With only a half dose, she would have regained at least partial consciousness after somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve hours!"
"She was still so stiff, sir; even at ten o'clock this morning right here in the prep studio. I checked her again just a few minutes before she..."
"Escaped?!" Legrand finished her sentence. "You were one of the best, Heidi. My favorite, as a matter of fact. I simply cannot believe you used such poor judgment." His voice changed now from an angry shout to a more methodical business-like tone. This frightened Heidi even more than his screaming at her.
"If she reanimated enough to escape at ten o'clock," Legrand calculated, "she was most probably conscious and able to comprehend what was going on around her for at least two hours prior. Was anything mentioned in front of her about the final process, or how she came to be here?"
“Well…” Heidi began.
"Pretty much everything." Jody spoke up again. "Heidi clearly enjoys to berate zee models before zey are put under permenantly. Zis one waz no difference."
Heidi stared back at Jody in disbelief at her betrayal. Although she knew the woman wasn't lying, she didn't have to throw her completely under the bus! She now also regretted the extra insulting comments she had humiliated this particular immobilized model with. She had no idea the young woman had been awake.
"How could you be so foolish?!” Legrand warned, “If she was listening to your conversation then she knows our secret. And that information can never be revealed to anyone. She must be found, and quickly! Call an emergency meeting for all associates today at three," he instructed Jody. "And contact the police. Tell them a contracted model has walked out of the studio wearing a diamond-encrusted bikini, the value of which being one million dollars."
"If we're lucky she will be found soon," Legrand went on. "She'll still be influenced enough by the preservant to make it difficult for her to speak or move easily. And even if she can, no one will believe her in such an intoxicated state."
"And what if zee police find her first?"
"If they pick her up in the meantime, she'll still be safe until we can transfer her back to the studio. They'll just think she's drunk and dismiss any crazy-sounding babble that she tells them. If they don't, I have connections there as well."
Heidi nodded, afraid to interrupt with a question.
Legrand continued, “If our people find her first, be sure to stick her immediately, no matter where she is. It will be far easier to explain away us hauling around a lifelike sculpture than a kidnapped living girl.”
"Very well, Me'shure. I will do as you ask." Jody obediently left the room to carry out Legrand's orders.
"Sir," Heidi was crying again, trying desperately to regain her former stature with the boss. "I'm so sorry. I'll find her I promise. No matter what it takes. And I'll pay you back for any expense that my mistake might have caused."
"Money is not the only issue here," he said coldly.
"I know, sir. But please don't fire me. Just let me do my job and I promise I'll never let you down again."
"Let me down?!" He shouted at the attractive girl. "Your foul up has done a lot more than let me down. It might cost me my career and my reputation, for starters. It also jeopardizes your fellow associates and the entire operation. No Heidi, you will have no involvement in retrieving Samantha. If it weren't for you, we would not be in this situation. Now get the hell out of my sight!"
A shameful Heidi bowed her head and slowly turned to leave. She looked back at the powerful man one last time as tears streamed down her cheeks. "Go!" He shouted again, and she disappeared into the darkened hallway.
"Yes." He acknowledged his returning assistant; still fuming.
"I have done as you instructed."
"Thank you, Jody."
"What is to become of zhat one?" She pointed in the direction Heidi had gone.
"Termination; probably..." Legrand rubbed his chin in frustration.
"What if she talks?"
"Hmph. She knows better."
"It is just my humble opinion, Me'shure." Jody smiled meekly. "But she has proven to be an azzet to zee organization in zee past. Is there no alternative?"
"Heidi has been valuable, without question, but I can't let this go unpunished."
"Oh, I am not suggesting zhat, Me'shure. Maybe a more… suitable… position would be appropriate. One where she would have less responsibility, but remain equally as valuable, no?"
Nearly an hour had passed and Sam was still walking the bustling streets of New York. She had left the kind man, who offered his cell phone, far behind after it proved useless. All she could think about now was getting some clothes and seeking shelter from the bitter cold. She entered a small clothing store in hopes that someone might be kind enough to help her.
It was quiet inside. A musty aroma filled the air in the less frequented shop, and the heavy-set immigrant shopkeeper had her back to the bikini-clad girl who now fumbled through the racks of clothing. A younger female gave Samantha a strange, wide-eyed look when she noticed her perusing the merchandise from the opposite side of the store. The pretty Latina held her tongue, but when the older woman turned around, she was aghast.
"Oh, Dios mio!" The woman shrieked in Spanish. "Usted esta' desnudo!"
Samantha jumped with a confused look. She couldn't understand the woman's language, but could tell by her tone that she was angry. "Please..." She begged. "I need clothes..."
"Se' Senorita', clothes. No be in store like this!"
Sam saw the middle-aged woman coming around the counter waving her arms frantically. "Hoja...Leave!"
As Samantha headed for the door she grabbed the closest article of clothing in her reach and scampered back onto the crowded sidewalk. The shopkeeper was close behind her, and even though the woman was older and out of shape, the spiked heels Samantha wore evened the race. Finally, Sam was able to round a corner. Maybe she could lose the angry shopkeeper this way.
She continued to run and glanced over her shoulder to see the endless mass of people closing back in behind her. Thankfully, she saw nothing of the woman who had been in pursuit. Samantha slipped the big-apple-red tee shirt she had taken over her arms and pulled it down as far as possible, but it did little to cover anything below her trim waistline. In her continued haste, She was interrupted by a sudden and sharp twinge in her left ankle. The heel of that shoe had caught in a crack in the sidewalk and she fell to her knees in pain in response to the twisted ankle.
"Owww!" She cried, clutching her lower leg. "Oh, damn!"
People had now started to gather around her crumpled form on the sidewalk. The sight of the thonged portion of her lower body drew as much, if not more, attention than any curiosity or concern about her injury.
Looking up, Sam's eyes were suddenly drawn to the store window where she had been forced to pause. It was an elegant bridal shop and posed stiffly in the front display window were two lovely and very realistic female mannequins. Both were dressed in the latest wedding fashions of silk and flowing lace; Samantha couldn't help but notice how much these lovely figures reminded her of the earlier experience at the art gallery. Then she saw it! A small wooden placard near the feet of the rigid models confirmed her suspicions...
- Custom Mannequins - Courtesy of Legrand Studios, New York, NY - The sign read.
My God! That could've been me! It still could be...Was the only thought that resonated in Samantha's mind as she ignored the onlookers. Her concentration was interrupted soon, however, by a sound and sight that almost frightened her more!
She turned in response to a loud "Snort", and looked directly into the long face of huge horse. Samantha recoiled against the wall in fear, staring up at the gigantic animal until it turned under command of its rider who called out to the bewildered girl.
"Hey, lady," A mounted police officer queried. "What the hell do ya' think you're doin'?!"
The blurp of a siren also parted the crowd and a marked police cruiser pulled along side.
"Stand up." The first officer commanded.
Samantha obeyed and stood a bit hesitantly, in response to the man's words. Her ankle still hurt tremendously, but maybe she had finally found someone who could truly help.
The eyes of the young man on the horse widened as Samantha stretched to her full five-foot-nine inch height and gave him an unobstructed view of her shapely, scantily clad body. For a moment he was speechless.
When the older, pot-bellied officer approached from the car, adjusting his heavy belt, he too was taken back by the sight of Samantha and glanced up at his co-worker. The mounted officer shook off his fascination for a moment and asked for identification, which of course Samantha could not produce. Thankfully, for Samantha's sake, a delay in the communications center had prevented either policeman from receiving the A.P.B. for the "diamond bikini thief" matching her description.
"Who are you, then?" The older officer asked.
"Sam...I think. I ah, I don't... remember the rest."
"Hmmm. You don't recall. Convenient. Can you tell us what you're doin' out here dressed like that, then? You turnin' tricks in what there is of that getup, or what?"
"They tried...to... turn me... into...a..." Samantha put all her effort into what she was trying so desperately to tell them. "Statue..."
The two men shared a strange look. They thought they had heard it all, but this took the cake.
"Ph, please... I, I...drank the water... Couldn’t move… Tried...to...turn me...into... statue." Samantha was even frustrated with herself. Her thoughts were clearing, but her tongue just wouldn't cooperate. "Like...them..." She slurred and pointed to the shapely figures in the store window with a manicured nail.
"A statue, huh?" The older officer said with a smirk. “More like a dummy, it seems…”
Samantha nodded, but knew the men didn't believe her.
"Signpost up ahead," The mounted officer joshed. "The Twilight Zone!" He hummed the theme sounds.
"Yeah, really. A little 10-96, I'd say, how 'bout you O'Donnell?"
The other officer was about to concur when a woman's voice interrupted; breathlessly.
"Bonita 'es loca. She steal from me." The Spanish shopkeeper had finally caught up and joined in the disorderly scene, pointing to the shirt Samantha wore.
"Well, that's enough, hon. We got petty larceny and lewd conduct; easy. Likely disturbin’ th’ peace, too," The officer confirmed as he reached for his handcuffs. "I'll take her to detox and put a call into psych services too."
"Excuse me, gentlemen. Can I assist in any way?" A handsome younger man in a coat and tie offered as he also pushed his way through the growing crowd.
"Thanks, but everything's under control here." The senior officer countered. "Just stand back, mister."
The man continued to approach the uniformed men, holding official police credentials high so they could be easily seen.
"Oh sorry, Sarge." The cop let his guard down. "I didn't recognize 'ya. I just transferred over from Brooklyn last week."
"Not a problem." The young detective smiled. "Hello, Brian."
O'Donnell, the mounted officer, acknowledged the handsome man's greeting.
"And what have we here?" It was the detective's turn to apprise the curvy body of the would-be prisoner.
"She's eitha' drunk 'er stoned outta' her freakin' mind." The older cop concluded with a laugh mixed with a typical New York accent. "Walkin' around out here half naked...To top it off, she lifted that shirt from a store down 'da block. 'Ya see all kinds in this town."
The detective only acknowledged the man's description of the circumstances with a smile and a nod. He was entranced by the leggy redheaded beauty who gingerly stood in front of him on her weakened ankle. He also couldn't help but notice the pleading look in her captivating pale blue eyes. These were not the eyes of an intoxicated person, nor a thief.
"Tell ya what, officer..." The detective read the man's nametag. "...Esposito. I know you guys were probably getting ready to eat lunch, and since I'm heading back to the precinct anyway, I can take of this if you want."
The other cops looked surprised.
"Unless you want the collar, that is."
It didn't take Esposito long to consider the detective's kind offer. It was already past noon and his stomach was growling. "Not hardly." He shook his head. If you want her, Sarge, ya got her. Sure 'ya don't mind?"
"Not at all. I remember how it was on the beat. Haven't forgotten where I came from." He winked. "Know what I mean?'
"Sure thing. I heard it was different downtown. But wow, I didn't know it was this different. Thanks, Sarge! I owe 'ya one."
The detective waved his hand as if to say "it was nothing" as Esposito returned to his idling, double-parked cruiser. "Come on, O'Donnell." He motioned to the other cop who was still dumbstruck by the detective's unusual offer. "Let's get some grub."
Removing his jacket, the plain-clothed officer placed it around Samantha's shoulders both to help warm her shivering body and to conceal her near nudity. She smiled a warm but confused 'Thank you' as the other officers moved away.
Allowing Samantha to place a hand on his shoulder to compensate for her limp, the detective escorted the trembling young woman back to his car. Thankfully it was parked nearby, and he opened the passenger door politely gesturing for her to take a seat in front. While in the presence of the crowd, he had maintained an official demeanor, but once inside the vehicle his tone became friendlier. "I'm Marc." He said gently as he offered his hand to his lovely passenger. "What's your name?"
"Sam-ma" is all she could readily offer. "I...n.need help...!" She was finally able to stutter. "Please... didn't...mean to... steal..."
"Hey, take it easy." Marc reassured when he realized she was still afraid of going to jail. "I don't have any intentions of arresting you. I just want to help."
Samantha smiled again sweetly and he couldn't help being struck by her beauty.
"What can I do? Do you need a ride home?" He offered.
"I...ah, don't know... where that is." She struggled to get the words out.
"Did someone hurt you, Sam? What's going on?"
She only shook her head, embarrassed that he would think she was crazy as well if she told the truth.
"Well, how about I drive us back to my place and you can get a hot shower and some warm clothes. We can talk more then."
Samantha was distrusting of everyone at the moment, but her options were limited, so she nodded her reluctant approval as they pulled away from the curb.
Marc's apartment was small and lacked decoration, but it offered a long awaited refuge from the bitter March winds. Samantha had remained quiet during long the ride here, but once inside, she accepted his generous offer to warm herself with a hot shower. The slinky bathing suit lay discarded upon the bathroom floor as she let the steady flow of warm water flow across her tanned, shapely, body. The glass shower door had gotten all steamy but hid nothing.
In the adjacent kitchen, the owner of the meager abode removed a whistling teakettle from his stovetop, added a triple-shot of whisky to the liquid and wondered about this mysterious sexy woman he had invited into his home. Who was she? Where had she come from? These were questions that still eluded the young detective. He had no way of knowing that they eluded his pretty guest as well.
A few moments later, Samantha exited the bathroom wrapped in only a towel. Ironically, it covered more of her shapely body than the tiny costume she'd worn earlier on the street. She was so beautiful. Her long red hair was wet and the tiny undried droplets of water on her shoulders made her smooth skin glisten.
As much as Marc hated to cover up this lovely woman's body, he handed her a set of stylish feminine clothes, including undergarments. "Here, these should fit."
"Thanks." The shower had proven beneficial in revitalizing Sam further and her normal voice was even returning.
"How's that ankle?"
"Better." Samantha looked down at the stylish blouse and jeans Marc had given her. "Your wife's?"
"Nope. I'm single."
"So, you keep girl's clothes on hand just in case you pick up a naked chick on the street?" She smiled. "That's kinda creepy, even for this city."
"No." Marc laughed. "They belonged to my ex. I think you're about the same size."
Samantha could sense the sadness in his voice when he referred to the former owner of the clothing. "How come..." Her voice bogged again for a moment. "How...come she's an ex?"
"Oh, long story. She just walked out one day." He shrugged. "Left me a note saying she wasn't in love anymore, wanted some space, and that was that. Didn't even take half of her things. That's why the clothes are still here. I suppose I'll get rid of them one of these days, but I guess in the back of my mind, I'd always hoped she'd change her mind and come back."
"I'm sorry. That's so sad."
"Yeah. I don't know. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be." It was obvious he wanted to change the subject. He was trying to be tough, but Samantha could sense the emotion welling up in his voice, so she didn't press. "Anyway... enough about that," he concluded. "Try these on. I wanna know more about you."
I know the feeling... Samantha thought quietly.
Marc pointed her in the direction of the bedroom and she shut the door while changing into the sexy clothing he had given her. When she reappeared, Marc had poured two cups of hot tea and offered a steaming cup to his guest. Suddenly, Samantha got a strange look in her eyes and stepped back; distancing herself from the cup and saucer in his hand.
"What's the matter?" Marc grinned. "It's not poisoned or anything."
Samantha shook her head. "No thanks."
"Oh, if you don't like Irish tea, I've got..."
"No. That's not it," Samantha interrupted. "You...wouldn't... understand."
"Try me, Sam, was it?"
"Samantha. I think my friends...call me...Sammi." Another fleeting memory had mysteriously popped into her head.
"May I call you Sammi?"
She nodded her approval while continuing to stare at the beverage he had placed on the coffee table. She accepted his gesture toward the couch and joined him, but kept a safe distance.
"So where are you from, Sammi?"
"That's just...it. I don't remember. It's an awful feeling."
"Do you remember what happened to you?" Marc's cynical police side still made him doubt what she was telling him was true. His voice was almost accusing. "Were you using drugs?"
"No. I wasn't, but I think I was drugged. I just woke up here in the city... and don't remember anything else before... besides a bikini contest; somewhere on a beach."
"Well, that would explain the outfit, but it doesn't explain how you got from the beach to Manhattan?"
"I know. I just want to know who I am and where I'm from. It's so frustrating. I just wish I could think straight!"
"Well, amnesia happens sometimes when a person has been through a traumatic event, or if you were in fact drugged. Maybe I can help."
Samantha nodded as another tear dripped down her cheek. "I hope so. I just want to go home... wherever that is."
"Well, try and think back." Marc offered. "Who were you with at the contest?"
"I don't remember that either. There were people everywhere. It's just a blur. The only name and face I can remember is my friend Natalie. And that other woman..."
"Maybe we could contact your friend."
"I tried. I can't remember the number."
Did you wake up on the street where we found you?"
"No," She paused. How could she possibly relay her strange experience to this man without him thinking she was totally insane. "I first was in an art gallery, or someplace like that," she finally admitted cautiously.
"An art gallery?"
"Yes. Somebody called Legrand is the name I heard them say."
"As in Jarad Legrand? He owns an art gallery over on 53rd. It's only a few blocks from where I picked you up."
"There were statues, er ah, mannequins...everywhere. There were two live women... they were so mean. They tried to..." Samantha's head was pounding now as she tried to collect her thoughts and explain the odd sights that she had witnessed.
"Which women, Sammi? Tried to what?"
"And that other poor girl." She sobbed as she went on, ignoring his questions. "I wanted to help her but it was too late. Something very bad is going on there. They’re doing evil things…"
"I don't understand, Sam. What girl; what women?"
"I know this sounds crazy, but I think those statues are more than just...statues. I mean, I think they're real women, or once they were. Now they’re just artworks, posed, hard. That was almost me, too."
"Real women?!" Marc raised his eyebrows. "Sammi, I don't know what you think you saw over there, but I've been to that gallery, seen his female figures. I realize they look very real, but they're just sculptures. Jarad Legrand creates them from clay or polymer or something. He's famous in art circles."
"That's what I would have thought too, until they tried to make me one of them."
"I still don't follow. Make you one of them?"
"Yes! They were going to turn me into a Legrand statue!"
Marc got up slowly from the couch, shaking his head. "Sam," He began carefully. "It's apparent that you've been through a lot. Maybe what you saw was just your imagination running wild; the drugs or whatever. You said yourself you're not thinking straight."
"I may not remember how I got there, but what they tried to do to me was real. I was standing there, helpless; frozen. I couldn't move a single muscle, and, and those two women. They were putting makeup on me. They were talking about how they were going to pose me."
"Mmm, hmm. And these women, just how do they turn people into statues? With magic or something?" His tone had turned patronizing and sarcastic.
"Please, Marc. I know it sounds absurd. I don’t trust it myself. But I think they're the one's who drugged me. One of them is the other person I remember from the contest. She gave me some water; it tasted funny. After that I don't remember a thing until I woke up in the gallery. I think that's what they use to get the girls there. After that, I don't know. They said something about putting me into a display case once that Legrand guy preserved me or something like that. It was so scary..."
"I've heard some good ones in my time, but this has to beat 'em all." Marc said as he glared back at Samantha.
"Oh, I knew you wouldn't believe me. Just like your friends."
"Well," Marc shot back sarcastically. "Even if I did believe you, what stopped them from finishing the job. Why aren't you just a statue now too in their collection?"
"I have no idea. I just… woke up. I was able to move again after a while, only a little at first. Then, when they weren't looking, I slipped out. That's how I ended up on the street. Please, you're a cop. At least check this guy out."
"So, I'm supposed to open up an investigation on one the most respected men in the city on the word of a dazed girl I found walking the streets nearly naked? A girl that doesn't even know, or says she doesn't know her full name. I don't know about you, but I don't enjoy making an ass of myself." Marc was becoming angry. "I thought I could help, but I guess I should have just let that beat cop take you downtown."
Samantha didn't reply as her eyes welled up with tears. She didn’t want to look him in the eyes; she focused her attention on the opposite side of the room. A small, framed photograph had suddenly caught her eye; she quietly stood from the couch walking toward it as if she were in a trance.
"What is it?" Marc watched her carefully. "Where are you going?"
"Who is this?" She pointed to an attractive brunette who posed with Marc in the picture. Her voice was trembling.
"That's Dawn; my ex. Why?"
Samantha slowly turned toward the skeptical police officer. Her bright eyes were wide and her voice was reduced to nearly a whisper. There was no mistaking the young woman’s face. Samantha had stared at it for far too long. "Oh my God, I’m so sorry; I know where she is."
"Your girlfriend. Dawn."
Oh, come on," Marc snapped. "This has gone quite far enough. Don’t bring her into your hallucination…"
"Marc, listen to me." Samantha urged. "She's at the gallery, still. She's one of the statues!"
“Prove it. Let’s go there. Right now! Show me you’re telling the truth and not some damn crack dream.”
“They won’t like it.”
“Sammi, dealing with people who don’t like me is my job. Get in the car…”
* * *
Back at Legrand studios:
Jody knocked on Jarad Legrand's office door and entered only after he waved her in. She knew he was still boiling over the recent turn of events.
"The associates have all arrived, Me'shure. I have assembled them in Studio two as you requested. You also have a call holding on zee first line."
"Very good. Has everything else been prepared as we discussed?"
"Thank you, Jody." He said picking up the phone. Jody knew it was her cue to leave.
"Yes?" Legrand answered the blinking line and paused for a moment to listen to the caller. "Yes, she is prepared and ready, but delivery will have to be delayed. I have a more important situation on my hands at the moment...What happened?!...Haven't you heard? One of my models has been permitted to escape...Yes! The newest one, from Florida!...What kind of an operation are you people running down there, anyway? A call was placed nearly three hours ago." His anger was swelling once again. "How hard can a tall redhead in a rhinestone bikini, for Gods sake, walking the streets of Manhattan, be to find?... What?... I really don't care what you have to tell me right now... No. No buts! I don't have time. Just find her, tout suite, dammit! I’ve had enough incompetence today," he said as he slammed down the receiver.
In the car, Marc concentrated on driving quickly through the heavy traffic, but had time to ask again, “How can you be sure she's one of the statues?"
"Just what I said. In the room where they were prepping me, there was another statue. A completed one. I spent hours staring at that same face, unable to turn away. It was her, Marc. I'm sure of it."
"Oh, it must be a coincidence." He tried to dismiss what Samantha was telling him. "The model Legrand used for the artwork probably just looks like Dawn."
"Maybe, but does Dawn have a cute little tattoo of a rose right about... here?" The redhead pointed to an area just below her front panty line, and Marc's face suddenly turned a pasty white. “The statue I saw in the gallery had the same marking. It’s her, Marc. Dawn.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” Marc growled, pressing his foot down on the accelerator pedal.
* * *
Ten individuals, including Jody, were gathered in a private/hidden room between the preparation studio and Legrand's eloquently furnished office. Many of the associates he had summoned were beautiful women; they whispered among themselves to pass the time. Rumors of Heidi's stunning mistake had already circulated and the others contemplated where she might be... "she must have gotten fired"..."I heard she was being reassigned..." One of them speculated.
Jarad Legrand stood at the forefront of the room. The gray-haired man paced back and forth in front of a thick curtain, his hands clasped behind his back, he was deep in thought. The restless group grew quiet when he finally spoke and proceeded to explain the mission at hand. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began solemnly. "As some of you are already aware, an unfortunate error on the part of one of your co-workers has allowed one of my models to reanimate prematurely and escape from the gallery. In addition to the extreme monetary loss on my part, this turn of events could prove equally disastrous for everyone in this room."
There were rumblings once again from the attentive crowd. Words like "prison" and "abduction" circulated among them.
"Thankfully," he went on, "at this point and time, the model should still be suffering from temporary amnesia and aphasia, her motor skills have probably not fully recuperated, making her a fairly easy target for you to apprehend. However, if she is not located quickly, she will eventually regain normal physical and memory capability, so your task will get a lot tougher. From past experience it is believed that she will not recall anything between the time of her initial suspension and her return to consciousness, but she is known to have overheard a conversation this morning between two of our associates, revealing our most profound secrets. If this information is relayed to anyone in the press or the police department who is not part of our network... well, I don't think I have to describe the consequences that all of us may suffer."
Legrand walked to a small table nearby. "Here, ladies and gentlemen," he motioned, "is a sufficient amount of preservant and delivery devices to effect the missing model’s re-capture and to temporarily incapacitate anyone who might interfere. You are expected to use these devices wisely and bring little or no attention to yourselves in the process. You have also each been given multiple photographs of this young woman so you might easily identify her."
He looked from face to face in the crowd. "I cannot stress strongly enough that all is at stake in this matter. Failure, ladies and gentlemen, is not an option. Samantha Harris must be found!"
The associates had now been properly briefed. The assignment was straightforward; retrieve the missing model at all costs. When Legrand paused, several in the group stood preparing to depart, but their employer raised his hand, commanding silence once more. Those standing returned to their seats.
"Incompetence and negligence, ladies and gentlemen," he warned sternly. "Is what created this unfortunate situation, and that cannot – will not – be tolerated. So, before any of you take another step, I will demonstrate how I deal with such undesirable traits in this organization."
Suddenly, he whisked open the thick curtain behind him, revealing a cylindrical glass chamber. Wide stainless steel bands encircled the thick glass walls and near the top, industrial hoses and high-pressure air lines intertwined, connecting the device to several large, fiberglass tanks. Sealed within the ominous glass enclosure stood a quivering young woman whom everyone in the group immediately recognized. It was Heidi. The chestnut-haired beauty had been stripped of all her clothing, save for a pair of high-heeled shoes, and the naked woman begged for Legrand's mercy. Her silent pleas could not be heard from outside, but the others grew wide-eyed in realization of her predicament.
Recognizing the diabolical mechanism as Legrand's means of final preservation for his mysterious figures, some of them began to protest. "No! You can't do it! Not her; give her another chance?" One of Heidi's pretty brunette friends pleaded as well. "She's fully conscious! The other ones were already in limbo. This is cruel. It's torture!"
Legrand's confident air never waivered as he glared back at the woman in contempt. "Are you now finished, Lisa?"
One of her few male colleagues settled her down, but politely concurred. Several of the other women also rose from their seats; some in protest, but most from fear. Others just wanted a closer look. Their employer's icy stare settled down all of the restless group.
"Need I remind each of you," Legrand quipped. "That you are all under a certain obligation to me. If this Samantha Harris is not located, then I can promise you, the authorities will be the least of your concerns."
Without another word, Legrand fingered a control on the outer core of Heidi’s chamber then stood back, arms folded, to observe. Amid horrified gasps and tears from the shocked crowd, a steady whine indicated that the machinery was pressurizing. With a "chuff", a host of tiny nozzles inside the chamber engaged and began to ominously rotate around a terrified Heidi like a vicious animal circling its prey. She began to whimper as she had seen this process done many times, to others. She knew exactly what was about to happen and remembered, remorsefully, her joy when watching the effects safely from the other side of the glass.
Then with a lack of emotion or conscience of their own, the nozzles began to spray a fine, nearly invisible mist upon her naked, struggling body. This wasn’t a reversible process, and Heidi continued to scream uselessly, pounding her fists against the thick glass. Some of her co-workers could read her lips. They recognized her direct pleas for them to help, but none reacted. Some even looked away to avoid eye contact. Jody simply stared at her ex-co-worker coldly, hoping she had avoided the same fate.
Heidi was now beyond hysterics. She even turned in the chamber once and used her hands to feel the glass in a 360-degree fashion as if she would find an opening somewhere and escape. But there was no avoiding the multiple streams of shiny liquid that were now quickly and evenly coating her entire body. As the thin layer of sticky fluid continued to build up on Heidi's formerly soft skin, her futile struggling eventually slowed, then came to a complete standstill. The beautiful girl was frozen rigidly in place. Her brown eyes were held saucer-wide and her mouth was open. An observer could almost hear the last scream that never escaped her slightly twisted lips. This was the expression of horrified shock that would be displayed on her pretty face forevermore.
When the nozzles had delivered the specified amount of preservant, they came to rest and a large fan, located in the ceiling of the narrow glass tube, whirred to life. The strong air flow ensured that the shiny encapsulating coat of polymer-like material dried and hardened quickly around the occupant of the chamber; even drying her long, chestnut hair so quickly that each strand was captured in perfect individuality and not matted. The coating on Heidi's body soon became almost invisible, leaving only a slight sheen covering her motionless figure.
When the fan shut down, a sharp bleep from the control panel indicated the process was complete. All was quiet as Legrand approached the chamber and unlocked the airtight latches. He glared proudly at the "preserved" young women inside who had been captured with her palms pressed against the glass, fingers splayed, in a last useless attempt to force open the chamber's hatch. Every muscle in her toned body was tensed. Her smooth, glossy skin had the appearance of hard, shiny plastic.
Looking deep into Heidi's wide vacant eyes, a satisfied smile crossed Legrand's face. Unlike the emotionless stare of most mannequins, his special figures always retained a hint of their last thoughts prior to total suspension. This one was no different. But since most of the others were already in limbo, and unaware of this stage of their preservation, their serenely apathetic expressions deeply contrasted to the agonizing irony that would always be present behind Heidi's blank glassy orbs as they gazed into infinity. Even one of her many teardrops had been captured and solidified at the precise instant it had begun to flow.
The audience continued to hold their breath as Legrand swept open the chamber's hatch in one determined motion. Heidi had been permanently frozen off balance with her weight against the door, and the pretty brunette observer sobbed as her friend's hardened body fell face first through the narrow opening. The inanimate frozen figure that Heidi had become struck the hard tiled floor with a solid, telling, “thud” and bounced back slightly, stiff as a board, before coming to a standstill. The finality was unmistakable. Now, only the lower portion of her shapely legs and high-heeled feet remained inside the device. The machine had effectively claimed yet another young woman; suspending her life force beneath an impenetrable shell and preserving her beauty forever.
Legrand glanced at the stiff, unmoving, form which lay facedown at his feet. Heidi’s permanent pose was far from becoming, but seemed more than fitting. He then returned his attention to the shocked crowd one last time. The look on their faces revealed that his message had been clearly delivered. "Are there any questions?"
He was rewarded with only silence, save for a quiet rustle, as they began to stir. They were all quickly gone from the room, except for Jody. "What shall I do with zee figure, Me'shure?"
To Be Continued. . .