"Will you slow down?!" Sammi screeched. She dug her manicured nails into the dashboard in reaction to Marc nearly rear-ending a slower car in front of them. “Maybe I’d be better off if they had turned me into a display mannequin – at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about being splattered across thirty-fourth street… or at least if I did you could patch me up like new with a dab of bondo and a fresh coat of paint. Hey, are you listening at all to anything I’m saying?”
The young detective was oblivious to her protests as he maneuvered the dark colored Crown Victoria through a busy intersection. His speed was well above what would be considered safe even on an empty street. He didn't even seem to notice the other motorists who were forced to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting him. Horns faded into the distance and an angry cab driver was still mumbling Middle-Eastern profanities by the time Marc and his lovely passenger were well out of sight.
When Marc finally spoke again, it was apparent that his concentration was divided between his memories of Dawn and Sammi's ridiculous accusations instead of the heavy traffic he was rapidly approaching and steadily swerving through. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't make it make sense. "I don't know why I'm even going to this place." He grumbled. "This whole thing is so far fetched! You'd better not be lying."
"I know how silly it sounds too." The girl defended herself. "But for somebody who doesn't believe me, you seem to be in a helluva hurry to get... Oh my God!" Sammi was interrupted as Marc blatantly ran another red light. "Watch it!"
"Huh?" His eyes were glaring blankly at the road ahead; glazed with preoccupation. He hadn't seen the light or heard a word she'd said. "Damn! I wish this piece of shit car had a siren."
"I was saying... " The redhead caught her breath. "For somebody who distrusts my story, you're in an awfully big hurry to get to the gallery. I'm not sure what perils I should worry about the most; that Legrand guy or your driving."
"I just wanna get to the bottom of this!" Marc snapped. He still paid little or no heed to her repeated suggestions to slow down. "But, just suppose - for a minute - that you are telling the truth about what happened to you... why would Dawn be there? She didn't have anything to do with people like that… It just doesn't make any sense."
"I know." Sammi said under her breath. "Neither did I... "
The trip from Queens back to Manhattan had taken a while in afternoon traffic even at the rate Marc was driving, but soon the tall buildings started to look vaguely familiar to Samantha. She knew she had been here before. Between her bitter memories from her previous visit to the area and Marc's suspicious attitude, she became very quiet.
"I'm sorry, Sammi." He finally apologized.
"That's okay." She stared out the window. "I know you're upset. I was way out of line and you must think I’m just another lunatic."
"What I mean is, I guess I haven't told you the whole truth either; about Dawn."
Samantha looked puzzled.
"You see when she left me, it was a lot more sudden than had I let on earlier. There was nothing to indicate that our relationship had gone wrong in any way. We were very much in love." He looked toward the passenger as if reconfirming her belief in his last statement. "Then, one night I came home from work and out of the blue, I found the letter I told you about. The abruptness of the break-up was very strange; I never heard anything from her after that. Not a peep. I guess there always was something mysterious about Dawn anyway, Sammi, but I could never put my finger on it. I guess I never really pursued it because I loved her so much... "
Samantha was listening intently. She could tell that Marc's feelings for Dawn ran very deep.
"So," he went on. "In the note it said she was only leaving for a short time, to get her head straight, and then she'd be in touch. She also asked me not to try and contact her under any circumstances. Said she'd explain later, but when that call never came, I got anxious. After about two weeks, I just couldn't help it. I tried her cell, her email; anything I could think of with no luck. All of those accounts had been de-activated. There was no credit card activity; nothing. She didn't hang out with anyone in particular, and she said all of her family members were either dead or estranged, so I had nowhere to turn."
"Did she have a job?"
"The place where she told me she worked as a secretary, said they'd never heard of anyone by that name. Eventually, I resorted to searching the net and our police computers - another dead end. It was as if she had literally vanished; like Dawn Hightower had never existed."
"Wow! How could they cover it up so well like that?" Samantha's mind was the one racing now.
"That Legrand guy's people...."
The skeptical cop ignored the comment and went on. "That still sounds too much like the plot of a bad TV show or some paranoid conspiracy theory; I'm just really afraid that something's happened to her."
"Something has happened, Marc." Sammi insisted. "I don't know why or how, but she's at Legrand’s art gallery. Petrified and mounted on a pedestal, like I almost was."
The detective only nodded to be polite. He obviously wanted answers, but he just couldn't bring himself to believe that his girlfriend had somehow been turned into a statue. No, that is just too crazy! He knew this absurd quest could jeopardize his reputation and career, but since this restless redhead seemed to know more than the average person might about Dawn, maybe a visit to the gallery would at least reveal something new for him to go on. After all, how could she have known about that tattoo? Maybe it was just a lucky guess... He hoped so. But what if he did find Dawn in the bizarre state as Sammi suggested? Well... he just didn't know how he would react. Would she still be alive? He shook off the nonsensical notion that she had been turned into some kind of sculpture and returned his attention to what seemed more like reality to him.
"Anyway, the search finally went beyond just our relationship. I had a job to do, and I had to consider her safety, so I entered her descriptors into the N.C.I.C. computers – nationwide – as a missing person. Earlier last week, we got a hit. A woman tried to cross at the Canadian border and security found a fraudulent identification card in her purse. The name on the card was Dawn Hightower! The border authorities held the woman for questioning, but by the time I got up there, they said there had been some kind of mix up, and the detainee had already been released. What's even more unusual is their description of the woman. It sounded like she could have been Dawn's twin." He shook his head. "That's the closest I ever came. Now I guess I'm just looking for some kind of an explanation; no matter what it might be. And as crazy as this story of yours sounds, I don't have any choice but to grasp for straws. I just wanna know where she is... "
"Well," Sammi began carefully. "I know it's gonna hurt, but I think at least that question will be answered when we get inside. I hate to say it, but what I saw standing there was her, Marc. If you don't believe me now, you will."
In moments, he was parking the cruiser in the alley beside the building that Samantha had been so lucky to escape from just hours before. The familiar, yet mysterious, brick structure stirred uneasy feelings inside the young woman as she now sat silent in the passenger seat. Why am I going back inside this place? I must be crazy...
Marc was already out of the car and scoping the area when he looked back inside the sedan to see Samantha still wearing her seatbelt. It was obvious she was in no hurry to get out. "Come on... " he urged.
Samantha complied by slowly slipping off the belt and leaving the car. She eyed the exit door from where she'd finally found freedom. "I don't know about this."
"I don't either, but let's get it over with."
Samantha reluctantly followed and the pair made their way toward the front entrance.
Inside the building, Jarard Legrand was seated behind his desk. The office door was closed and another tall man, who was equally as well dressed as the artist, sat on the opposite side. The man occupying the leather guest's chair was graying around his temples and wore wire-framed glasses. Although his sixty years could be seen in his face, his body was as fit and trim as the average forty year old. It would also be obvious to the on-looker that this man was a respected professional. He sat with his legs crossed and displayed the smooth demeanor one would expect from a politician running for office.
"I'm glad we're going to be able to carry out the transaction today after all, Jarad. I was very pleased when you called back."
"Yes, maybe if I can get your mind off of this one for a while, I can get some help in locating the Harris girl. If we don't get her back in time, I think you know what another proverbial can of worms that could open... And not just for me."
"I know, I know." The man acknowledged. "One problem solved and another one crops up. But my people are already on it. Between them and the small army you've put out there, it shouldn't be much longer. You worry far too much, my friend." He smiled a devilish smile. "Now, to the present business at hand... Where is she?"
"Just a moment." Legrand sighed as he pressed the intercom button on his phone.
"Jody, please bring in our client's merchandise."
"One moment, Me'shure."
With a crackle, the intercom went silent. A few seconds later the rear door to the elaborate office opened. Jody appeared on the opposite side and subsequently pushed a small, four-wheeled dolly into the room. Upon the transport device stood an object almost six feet tall. It was completely covered with a mauve silk drape that bore the embroidered emblem of Legrand Studios. Jody continued pushing the cart toward the center of the room and struggled a bit as the wheels sunk into the plush carpeting. Her extra efforts made the covered object wobble slightly and she placed her palms against the front and rear sides to steady it. Jody glanced toward Legrand, who gave her a nod of approval and gestured to remove the loose fitting drape. The man Legrand had been speaking to was now on his feet; approaching the enticingly concealed object. Gone was his cool demeanor and an ecstatic, anxious expression was present in his distinguished features. A cold look of satisfying revenge could also be seen behind his eyes...
"It's dark inside." Samantha offered peering through the double glass doors. "It doesn't look like they're open. Maybe we should just come back later; or not... " She was trying desperately to avoid going back inside this place where she had come so close to staying at for good.
"Door's are locked too." Marc frowned as he pulled on the handle. "Is this the way you came out?"
"No. The exit in the alley." She pointed.
"Let's try that, then."
"We can't. There's an alarm. It went off when I ran out."
"Well, we'll have to take a chance that they haven't reset it yet."
Returning to the side of the building, Marc held his breath as he reached out to tug on the heavy steel door. "If the alarm sounds, head for the car." Sam nodded, but to both of their surprise, the door opened freely and only silence followed. Heidi's brief search for Samantha in the alley earlier had proven beneficial. In her haste she had failed to fully secure the door when she stepped back inside.
Marc's hunch had been correct and he breathed a thankful sigh of relief. "Let's go."
The building was even darker and more silent now than Sam remembered. There appeared to be no one around besides the still female figures posed in the shadows that lay ahead of them. Samantha clutched the detective's arm as the pair entered the eerie gallery room and Marc could feel her trembling as she gripped his arm tighter by the second. If her wild story wasn't true in reality, it was obvious that it was very "real" to her.
"Look, it's gonna be okay, Sam. I won't let anything happen to you."
"Please be careful, Marc. You don't know these people. They're cruel."
"Just show me where you think you saw her."
"It was this way... I think."
Marc took in their surroundings quickly and carefully. His tactical training was kicking in. After unsnapping the concealed shoulder holster, which held his .40 caliber handgun, he reached into his coat pocket for a small flashlight. Sweeping the small device across the room in front of them, the beam of light danced from frozen face to frozen face. It reflected from the glass display cases and briefly illuminated some of the stiffened bodies of the many beautiful statues posed there. All of them were perfectly motionless and seemed to stare directly at the stealthy pair as they crept closer.
"Watch out for the vacuum cleaner hose," Sammi cautioned in a whisper.
"Huh?" Marc responded; wondering what the pretty redhead was talking about. He found out all too soon as his feet became entangled in the same manner as Sammi's had before. In one clumsy moment, the young detective nearly tripped and fell onto the naked brunette who remained posed in the reclining position Sam had disturbed with her earlier fall. This time however, Samantha held his arm and helped steady him before he completely lost his balance.
"I told you," Sammi scolded.
Marc simply shook his head. He couldn't take his eyes off the beautiful raven-haired mannequin on the couch. He had almost fallen into her arms. In a way he wished he had. The figure looked so real; so sexually alluring. The statue's eyes were closed and she, or rather it, was totally unconcerned with Marc's presence. Finally, he refocused his mind and the flashlight. "Is that statue that looks like Dawn in here?"
"No. That door.... yeah, the one right over there." Sammi offered as Marc turned the light toward it. "She's in the workroom."
Back in Jarad Legrand's office, there was no indication of the gallery’s stealthy visitors as Jody began to delicately remove the dark silk draping that concealed the still object upon the rolling platform. Slowly, she lifted the lower hem of the veil to reveal two feminine feet, which were supported by three-inch heels. As the cloaking was raised even higher, a pair of shapely legs and thighs came into view. When Jody finally swept the remainder of covering away, the entire petite body of an attractive brunette about thirty years old was revealed. The shapely woman did not move in the slightest way.
The stiffened figure was nearly naked, save for the bottom portion of a black lace "babydoll" undergarment that only barely covered her sex and fit snugly to her rounded backside. The statue's small breasts were fully exposed, with nipples alert, and her arms were positioned in such a way that her thumbs hooked the limp bra straps. The seductive pose made her appear to be pulling down the sexy "one-piece" to remove it. In addition to the partially worn lingerie, a black sequined garter encircled her left thigh and sterling silver earrings dangled from her earlobes. The striking mannequin's face was looking slightly downward with a sultry expression, and her fixed brown eyes stared blankly into infinity. It was if she had been halted in time just as she was undressing for a lover. The young woman that this figure had once been was completely suspended; permanently preserved and unaware of her current surroundings.
The man now approached the unmoving figure with a broad, devious smile upon his weathered face. "Hello again, Alison. Or should I call you Dawn? I wasn't sure which name you are using today."
The inanimate figure remained silent.
Jody, taking her cue, now left the room and once the door was secured behind her, Legrand rose from his seat as well. He joined the other man near the stiffened young woman.
"Remarkable, Jarad!" The nearly breathless man circled the unmoving female on the platform. He slowly ran his fingers through her long brown hair, twirling the dark ringlets that lay softly against her hardened glossy shoulders, before returning to face her once more. "Simply remarkable. One of your best yet!" His hand was trembling when he reached out and touched the statue's cute face. It was rigid and unyielding; as cold and hard as lifeless stone. The taller man stooped a bit to look deeply into her hollow unseeing eyes. "How do you like your new assignment, Alison? It doesn't pay as well, but it should be far easier than your last. That one didn't work out so well for you."
The man continued to linger around the preserved figure like a moth drawn to a flame. His sexual attraction to her current state could no longer be hidden and pressed against the trousers of his designer business suit.
Legrand soon interrupted the man's sensual daydream. "If we hadn't gotten to her in time, it would not have worked out very well for us either. After this Samantha Harris ordeal is resolved, I believe it would be wise for us to re-assess our network and our habits a bit; if you know what I mean. It would also be in our best interests if your people learned to be a little more cautious."
"My people?" The man turned toward the artist. "Yours haven't exactly done such a wonderful job lately themselves."
"And it was those damned Sicilian thugs of De Luca's who let her into the operation to start with. Most of those stupid wops are too blinded by the dope they snort and their constant pursuit of a piece of ass to see clearly. And don't forget, my people are the ones who tracked this one down before she had a chance to expose us."
"Tracked her down?" Legrand smiled a sarcastic smile. "If it hadn't been for that putz detective that was sleeping with her, what's his name... Marc something? We might have never found her. You'll have to admit she was good."
"Yes. She was... " The man said with a knowing smirk. "But good ole Sergeant Marc Thomas' probing is what inadvertently tripped her up. Once her lover boy got a fix on her at the border, we intercepted a copy of the Teletype message. Luckily we had people nearby and were able to get to her first."
"Lucky being the keyword." Legrand quipped. "Thankfully, that Border Patrol agent you knew owed you a favor. Are you sure he'll keep quiet?"
"Sure, but he doesn't have to. The lady was simply being detaining for investigative purposes. After all, the fake I.D. papers she was carrying were connected to a missing and possibly endangered person; thanks to our friend, Detective Thomas. Once N.Y.P.D. assumed custody, the incident was really of no further concern to the Border Patrol or the Canadians."
"Just in time, too. This nosy lady was snooping a lot higher into the chain of command than just those mob lackeys," Legrand warned. He was still not satisfied by the other man's casual lack of concern. His attitude, coupled with the recent turn of events involving Samantha, made the famous artist very unhappy; and worried. "To get as close to our operation as she did, she made some close friends in very high places. Even you, Mr. Groves, if I recall correctly."
The man looked a little embarrassed and Legrand only smiled. He had finally hit a nerve.
"Well, she won't be revealing any of our secrets now." He turned back to the lovely mannequin who remained posed exactly as she had been. "Will you, Alison?"
Once again, there was of course, no reply from the motionless figure.
"That's what I thought. Ironic isn't it, my dear? You worked so hard to get close to our operations. Now you're as close as anyone could possibly get." The man laughed at his own joke before facing Legrand once again.
"I thought that this would be more fitting than what De Luca had in mind for her. That would've been far too messy. And why waste such beauty... They wanted her silenced... so I had her silenced. I've even got a spot picked out in my study where I plan to display her. De Luca and the others should be quite amused with my newest trophy on their next visit."
Marc and Samantha now stood just on the opposite side of the door from the work studio where Sam had been posed.
"It's now or never.." Marc announced. With a determined motion he turned the knob and entered the semi-lit workroom. Samantha was in tow. In front them stood two low pedestals. One of which Samantha herself had occupied earlier; the redhead subconsciously steered away from it.
On the second, a posed female figure could be seen from the rear, but something was different now. It was difficult to see in the limited light, but this mannequin seemed to have lighter hair and was a bit more shapely than the one Samantha recalled. She had spent a lot of time staring at that statue, but with her memory as foggy as it still was, who knew.
What was even stranger was the fact the statue wasn't standing on the pedestal like she'd earlier remembered. This figure almost seemed to be floating above it. Then, she saw why. A narrow steel rod had been inserted into an orifice of the stiffened sculpture in a manner Samantha didn't even want to think about. The lower end of the rod was embedded into the pedestal and its chromed length held the still, naked woman's high-heeled feet several inches above its surface. This figure looked like an impaled butterfly, delicately suspended and displayed as if she were a project for some bizarre alien high-school biology class.
Marc quickly walked to the front side of the motionless object that was elevated before them. Pointing his flashlight upward toward the mannequin's face, he was at first shocked by the expression, and he stepped back. Soon however, disappointment – as well as relief – were both evident in his own handsome features as he continued to study the unmoving sculpture. Sammi joined him shortly and she also looked up at the preserved woman's horrified face in disbelief, stifling a scream.
This statue wasn't Dawn... It was that bitch Heidi!
What had they done to her? She looked terrified! Heidi's lovely body remained tensed in the struggling, twisted position that she had been permanently frozen in, then impaled upon the long chrome rod. Her hands were raised, palms opened as if she were pushing away an invisible enemy, and her inflexible face bore a pitiful, begging expression that Samantha couldn't help but sympathize with. Even as mean as this woman had been to her previously, in Sam's mind she hadn't deserved this. The transformed Heidi's emotions remained fixed however, and she only gazed through the redhead and into the distance; now unknowing or uncaring of her return.
Marc turned toward Samantha, but she cut him off before he could speak. "I know it's not Dawn. I don't know what's happened to her. This is one of the other women I told you about. The cruel chick from the contest. The one who was talking about preserving me! Her name's Heidi."
"This figure doesn't have a name, Sammi, because it’s not alive. This here is a fucking mannequin!" It was obvious he was pissed. His exasperation with this foolish story of hers was more evident now than ever. "See?" He reached out and tapped the flashlight against the hardened flesh of Heidi's upper thigh. Only the dull thunk of metal against a solid object resonated. "And this dummy doesn't look anything like Dawn. What were you thinking before? Let's get outta' here."
"Keep it down!" Sammi whispered, looking over her shoulder. "They must've moved Dawn’s body. I'm telling you, this is a real woman that was as alive as you and me a few hours ago. They just did to her what they were going to do to me! They turned her into a statue. Why can't you see that?!" She was trying desperately to make him believe her.
"Sam," He tried to choose his words carefully. "I don't know what you think you saw here, or what somebody might have done to you, told you, whatever, but you've got to shake this crazy statue bullshit. It's ridiculous. I can't even believe... "
Marc was cut off again as the room suddenly flooded with light. Samantha renewed her grasp on his arm, and they both jumped a little as the door on the other side of the studio quickly opened. In the entrance stood a lovely dark-haired woman that Marc surmised to be of about college age. Her face was new to Samantha.
"Who are you people?" The girl glared at the pair suspiciously. "And what are you doing in here?"
"Ah, we were just enjoying the displays, Miss." Marc offered, groping for an excuse. "We kind of found ourselves in this room, but the artist's work in the main gallery is excellent, truly unbelievable. I have to say, the detail in his work is amazing!"
"Well thank you, but we're closed right now. How did you get in here, anyway?"
"Oh, we had to park in the alley and we saw the side door, so we just came in that way. I hope that was okay. Where do we pay admission?"
"Right now, nowhere. I told you, we're closed. You'll have to come... ah, back." The woman had suddenly turned her attention toward Samantha. She couldn't seem to take her eyes off the pretty redhead.
"I'm sorry." Marc said in a friendly tone. "We didn't realize. The name's Marv. Marv Benett." He extended his hand. "We didn't mean to cause any inconvenience."
"That's okay." She smiled, returning the handshake. "Lisa Sachs. But you really should go now. You're welcome to visit us another time," she glanced back at Samantha again.
"Oh, thank you. My lady friend here is fascinated with this place. She just can't stop talking about it."
Samantha folded her arms in disgust at the belittling comment.
"Oh yeah." Marc added. "I have to say that I'm becoming more and more interested myself. The artworks are so lifelike; it's sorta spooky. In a sexy kind of way, that is." He grinned.
Lisa remained silent. Her arms were folded now as well. She kept a curious eye on Samantha who was now as close to the exit as she could place herself.
"This one is interesting in particular." Marc looked up at the plasticized Heidi. The absolute detail was amazing, even to a skeptic. "Her position is certainly, ah, different to say the least."
Lisa looked up at her immobilized friend as well. Trying her best to hide a distraught expression, she explained. "Yes, she was a special contract for one of those horror wax museums or haunted amusement parks or something like that. Most of our sculptures don't carry this sort of grotesque attitude, as I'm sure you've already seen." She apologized inwardly to Heidi for referring to her former friend in such an objectified way, but she had to think of something. She hoped that her quick-witted response would quell his suspicions, but Marc continued.
"So where does Mr. Legrand get his models?" He asked.
Lisa seemed a bit taken back by the question. She had a strange look on her face. "Excuse me?"
"I mean, does he use live women?"
"I, I don't know what you mean." Lisa stammered.
"To pose for his sculptures."
"Ohhh... to pose. Yes. Actually he solicits girls from all over of the country." She relaxed a bit. "The whole world for that matter."
"Do you get to meet any of them?"
"Sometimes, why?" Lisa didn't like these questions at all.
"No reason really. I'm just curious. Did you ever encounter a model named Dawn? Dawn Hightower? She did some modeling for a while." Marc probed, trying see what if any reaction that name would have on Lisa.
The young woman didn't react; she continued to gaze raptly at the statue affixed to the pedestal, as her memory replayed Heidi's muffled screams from only a few hours ago as she was permanentized. They went too far…
Marc suggested, "I seem to remember Dawn doing some 'still life' stuff or whatever the proper name for this is. She might have even posed for Mr. Legrand."
"No... " Lisa was deep in thought as she shook her head and cut her eyes back from Heidi toward the still silent Samantha. She wasn't lying. She had never met a 'Dawn Hightower'. "The name doesn't ring any bells," she said returning her attention to Marc. "I can't say that I've ever heard of her."
"Oh well. Just thought I'd ask. She's an old friend of mine. Did you know the girl who modeled for this?" He pointed to Heidi once again.
"No. Never met her either." Lisa fought back tears. I'm sorry, Heids!
"She must've been very talented.. That had to be a tough pose to hold!"
The rumble of caster wheels in the tiled hallway behind Lisa interrupted their conversation. She looked down the long corridor to see Jody returning to Legrand's office with a large, padded transport container on another dolly. Before she reached the work studio, Lisa quickly shut the door. "Look, before I get into any trouble, you two really should go."
"Well, we... " Marc stalled again. Although he still didn't believe Sam's outrageous story, there might be some kind of lead here about Dawn's whereabouts, and he didn't want to blow the chance.
"Now. Otherwise I'll have to call the police." Lisa's tone was deadpan and Marc knew she was serious. "You can go back out through the gallery; the way you came in. Just be careful not to disturb anything."
A knock came at the door. "Liza? Are you in zhere?" It was Jody. The sound of her accented voice made Samantha's blood run cold and she began to tremble.
Lisa made a silent, yet insistent, gesture that told the pair to go; they quickly slipped back into the main studio and out of sight. Opening the hallway door, Lisa was greeted by her superior.
"Whom were you talking to?" Jody queried.
"Ah, no one."
"I thought I heard voices coming from zis room." Glancing around, eventually realizing there was no one else present, Jody looked up at the stiffened woman on the pedestal, and a knowing expression crossed her face. "Oh, I zee. For what it is worth, I am zo zorry about what happened to Heidi." She faked a concerned look. "Zee two of you were very close, no?"
Lisa nodded. This time she couldn't hold back her tears. Jody was one of the few people who knew that Lisa and Heidi's relationship went beyond mere friendship.
"I tried to talk Me'shure Legrand out of such a drastic meazure, but I was unsucezzful. I do not mind if you wish to spend zome time alone with her before she leaves zee gallery."
"Leaves? Wh, where is Heidi going?" The brunette sobbed.
"She will be prezented in zee next auction, of course. Even with such an unusual exprezzion, I am zhertain zhat she will zell. Zhere are all kinds, as you know..."
"No!" Lisa blurted. "He can't just... sell her like that. Like she's just a piece of property."
"Heidi is now no different zhan zee rest. No different zhan zee ones you have personally acquired for him in zee past. Remember?"
Sadly, Lisa did remember. She had begun to regret becoming involved in this evil trade even before today’s events. She reflected for a moment about the unfortunate young women that she herself had acquired from the university. The detailed plans that she and Heidi had personally concocted to explain away those girls' disappearances. Heidi had been the only reason she stayed around. What had just happened to her intimate friend was the final straw! Lisa knew however, that getting out now would be nearly impossible. If she wasn't careful she might meet the same fate as her former lover, and although in some sadistic ways that fate seemed like it might be a fitting punishment for her own evil deeds, she knew she had to think of something...
"But enough of zhat for now," Jody cautioned, interrupting Lisa's daydream. "I need your help loading a figure zat is in Me'shure Legrand's office. Merci?"
"Yes." Lisa wiped her eyes. "Just give me a minute."
"Very well. I will be waiting." The older woman then continued pushing the transport container down the hallway and disappeared from sight.
Lisa looked back at Heidi once more, then shut the hallway door. She was sure by now that the man and the redheaded woman had exited the building. Just to be certain however, she checked the main gallery. There was no sign of anyone besides the expected static occupants. Satisfied, she locked the exit door and returned to the smaller studio.
There was something else she just had to see. Something was far too familiar about the pretty redheaded female intruder, and Lisa thumbed through a folder revealing the images provided of the missing model Samantha Harris. There was no mistake about it. The woman that Legrand sought so desperately had been standing in the work studio just moments before and Lisa was proud that she had been responsible for her second escape.
"That was her just now, wasn't it, Heidi?" She addressed the motionless woman who remained impaled upon the chrome rod. "I know that you didn't mean to let her get away. It was an accident as you said. But I knew it was her and I did let her go on purpose! If they did this to you, Heids, what do you think they would do to me for that?"
There was only silence...
Approaching the inanimate Heidi, Lisa stepped onto a short step stool so that she could look directly into the vacant, frightened eyes of her friend. "I really don't care what they do to me now, but I'm so sorry this happened to you, my love. I hope it didn't hurt too much." She wept as she whispered into Heidi's deafened ear. "You don't know how much I'm going to miss you. I hate that bastard! And I'm not going to just stand by and let him do with you as he pleases. I'm gonna get you outta here one way or another. It may not be the same, but I promise that we'll always be together."
"That's it?!" The redhead's fiery temper was flaring up. "You're just gonna drive away? What about finding Dawn?"
"Sammi, I've had enough of this. Dawn's not here, and I doubt she ever was. Your mind is playing tricks on you; you need help. Professional help. If you'd like a ride, I can take you to a hotel, the airport anywhere you wanna go, but I'm done."
"You still don't believe me, do you? Even after seeing the woman on the pedestal? Hard evidence! She was a real woman, Marc. I'm convinced now that they all were, at one time. They're not just random sculptures!"
Marc started the engine. "Get in the car, Samantha."
"No!" She proclaimed loudly. "Just go, if that's what you wanna do."
"And just what do you intend to do?"
"I have no idea, but if you don't want to help me, I'll go find somebody who will."
"Suit yourself." He slammed his door with force.
The sexy redhead then stormed off on foot toward the busy street where she had walked nearly naked this morning. Marc now had the car in reverse and pulled alongside her. "Sam, wait. I don't mean to blow off your story so easily, but you have to understand..."
She kept walking; ignoring his half-hearted attempt at an apology.
"Sammi, hold on a minute... "
The angry woman paused for a moment and looked back at him with tears welling in her eyes.
"Here, at least take one of my business cards," he offered. "If you need anything at all, my personal cell number is listed. Okay?"
She almost told him where to put it, but the redhead finally snatched the card from his hand. Without another word, she turned the corner and disappeared into the heavy stream of people on the busy sidewalk...
“There she is! I see her!” blurted the petite black-haired girl from the back seat of the town car. “Over there…” she pointed to a tall redhaired woman who was striding along the sidewalk, wearing large sunglasses and swinging a bulky designer handbag.
“Oh, God, Molly, for the umpteenth time it’s not her; that one’s an international supermodel, not our missing bikini girl. Angie-somethin-er-other. Don’t you know anyone in the industry here, girl?” her sassy partner retorted.
“Well, it could have been her…” the young assistant responded weakly.
“We’re wasting our time; the bimbo is long gone!” grumbled Dierdre Gale from the ‘shotgun’ seat as the car wound its way uptown. She and the other two gallery associates each held a photo of a beaming Samantha Harris, draped in a satin sash and holding a bouquet of roses, taken from the winner’s podium in Florida.
“You can’t be sure – where would she go?” said the elfin assistant who seemed perpetually surprised by even simple office work. To be sent out to find a missing model like some kind of private investigator or secret agent was so far out of Molly’s comfort zone that she spoke in a quavering whisper. Real life in the big city had turned out to be way different than she ever imagined back in South Dakota. “I think we should just tell Mister Legrand we could not find her…”
“Right; you jes’ go an’ do that. We be getting a pedestal ready, ‘cause you surely is gonna end up stiffed next to Heidi for that one, girl!” laughed Charlene Gibbs, a street-wise young black woman from Jersey. “Come ta tink of it, we should do you ourselves, jes’ to keep you from whining any more,” she cackled, holding up her injector gun that was loaded with fast-acting preservant solution.
“You wouldn’t!” gasped Molly, her wide eyes growing even larger.
“Try me, bitch…” Charlene taunted.
“Hey!” yelled Dierdre from the front seat. “Pay attention to the pedestrians and quit screwing around. She could be right under our noses and you wouldn’t see her. Carter, go up Eighth; we’ll check Penn Station, then the bus terminal,” she instructed the driver, who nodded while rolling his eyes at their antics.
“There she is! I see her!” screamed Molly a few minutes later. “She’s got a dress on now; she just went into that building.”
“Oh, come on…” grumbled the black woman.
“I did see something,” whimpered Molly.
“No… Wait. I saw a flash of leg and some coppery hair too,” Dierdre stated. Molly may not be mistaken this time. We should check it out. Pull over there in the loading zone,” she told the driver.
“Oh, God! Not again,” moaned Charlene as the town car stopped across the street.
From behind the revolving door of the office building that had been converted into a thicket of urban boutiques, Samantha watched the car pull up and three young women emerge. Her hazy memory recalled at least one of them from the gallery and maybe more; she had a half-dream about the doe-eyed dark-haired girl staring at her sculptured body for what seemed like hours while Sam had stood immobilized on her pedestal. Regardless, they seemed to her suspicious mind to be looking very hard for someone.
They were definitely coming her way; she walked quickly deeper into the atrium, looking for a place to hide. Moments later, Charlene entered through the circling door, followed by the remaining Legrand associates.
“See? Wha’d I tell ya. Nothin’!” the black woman proclaimed.
“Let’s have a look around. Carter’s not on the meter and we need to be thorough,” Dierdre soothed. She had readied her injector pistol too, just in case. Trying to seem like casual shoppers, the three browsed from store to store, moving ever inward.
Samantha felt trapped. The boutiques weren’t that many and there didn’t seem to be a back door to the building. She found a shop that had racks of clothing and maneuvered behind the garments so they couldn’t see her from the promenade. The only glitch in her idea was the pesky salesperson who kept asking her if she needed any help or wanted to try something on and oh, yes, we do accept all major cards.
Molly’s mood had shifted again; now that they were actually searching, her long hours spent at computer games and role-playing took over her previous meekness. She thought of herself as a stealthy Amazon warrior, skulking through the jungle in her imagination rather than the artificial trees and kiosk carts that actually filled the walkway. Spotting her co-worker Charlene up ahead, the petite office drone decided to test her ninja skills and crept up noiselessly behind the taller black woman. When she was about a foot away, Molly sprung her trap, yelling “Boo!” and getting ready to tell Charlene she’d been had.
What Molly hadn’t counted on was that Charlene was deep in a mind game too, one where all manner of grisly undead creatures ambushed her wary team of futuristic mercenaries. Her reaction was pure reflex: she turned and fired her pistol at the source of the sound.
Molly only had an instant to gasp “unhh?” in surprise before she seemed to turn to stone as the paralyzing dart took effect. Spreading instantaneously outward from the point of penetration, an icy numbness locked her muscles in place even before she could start to react. She could feel her whole body become immobilized but there was not the slightest thing she could do to resist her speedy transformation into a display figure. For a moment Molly gazed at her own arms held out stiffly in front of her uselessly as her body froze in position. Even the tiniest voluntary movement was completely stilled; she could not even blink. Then her vision faded into a misty gray haze as she lost all awareness and her mind succumbed to the powerful venom. The change was so sudden and so quiet that the few passersby did not notice anything.
“Oh, Shee-it!” gasped Charlene as her mistake continued to stand rigidly in front of her like a living mannequin.
“What’s going on?” Dierdre asked, picking the worst possible moment to arrive; she had seen the two together and headed over to prevent another noisy argument. What she found was an altogether different scene.
“I uh…” the black woman began.
“Got trigger-happy. I can see that. Well, there’s nothing we can do for Molly now; that drug will keep her frozen solid for hours. Or more… Jody upped the dosage after this morning’s incident. This is what I meant by being careful.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“Nothing more we can do, right now. We still have a missing model to find; let’s make that a success and Legrand may not be quite so upset later at your screw-up.
“We can’t jes’ leave her here. Someone’s gotta notice…” Charlene warned.
Throughout, Molly remained a silently standing participant in the conversation. Her mouth was held open, but no additional sounds emerged.
“Sure we can, but let’s change her pose a little bit before she stiffens up completely so folks will think it’s some kind of advertising gimmick. Here; help me move her over to this bench.”
A few minutes later, the hapless Molly was seated quietly in place, reading a magazine with rapt concentration, looking very much like a piece of street art. Dierdre had relieved the frozen girl of her ID and the injector pen; those would raise too many questions if the authorities found her first before their team could convey her body to the town car.
Meanwhile, Samantha had chanced upon a bit of luck; she’d found a scarf in one of the changing booths and wrapped it around her red-gold hair. Emboldened, she decided now was the time to make a run for it just as another redhead entered the store she was browsing in. This other woman was taller and thinner and looked much more wealthy judging from the expensive shoes she wore. The elegant customer looked uneasy, as if she didn’t want to be seen in such an ordinary place. Samantha slipped out of the store and finally found the fire exit at the end of the hallway about the time that Dierdre and Charlene had finished concealing Molly.
“That will keep her for a while,” Dierdre summed up. Before I came over to check on you two, I’d tracked our model to that boutique over there and confirmed her from the picture. All we have to do now is collect her.”
“All right!” Charlene encouraged her. “Way to go, girl. You tha best.”
“Don’t blow sunshine up my ass; you’re still in a heap of trouble. This is the way it’s going to go: You stay outside the store and intercept Miss Harris if she makes a run for it. I’ll go inside and detain her as quietly as I can. Then I’ll signal you and we can move her figure to the car and come back for Molly afterward. If anyone asks, this is just another stunt like those living mannequin models for the laptop company that are appearing all around town. That’s the plan.”
That was the plan until Dierdre snuck up on a very prominent redheaded socialite and injected her with a double dose of permanentizing drug before checking the photo one last time. Now there were two statues to take care of; neither one of them their desired target. Fortunately, Dierdre and Charlene were able to get both frozen women back to the town car and posed in the back seat without attracting too much attention. This was, after all, New York City and odd things happened all the time. Charlene, however, spent the rest of the short ride back to the gallery needling Dierdre about ‘baggin the wrong babe’ and what Jody and Legrand were going to do as punishment.
The austere, glassy front entrance of the ritzy hotel intimidated the young woman at first, but eventually she walked inside and sat on a bench just within the lobby. Samantha had been walking aimlessly for quite sometime and she needed a minute to rest and warm herself.
Although she was no longer as disoriented as when she'd walked these streets earlier, the feeling of knowing so little about herself was still frightening. She felt helpless. Where would she go? What would she do? She had nowhere to stay, and no one here she could even call besides Marc. She felt a little foolish now for walking away from him so abruptly, but she was too proud to give in just yet. She didn't have a penny to her name; nothing to eat. The clothes on her back didn't even belong to her. She did know however, that the original owner wouldn't be needing them ever again. And what would she do if those people from the gallery came looking for her again?
Everywhere she turned, there seemed to be reminders of her potential fate. Even in this posh hotel there was a small boutique display where two elegant mannequins in evening gowns stood rigidly in place. The plastic statues seemed to be staring at her the whole time; one of them was even a redhead, which made the whole scene even more surreal. Sammi imagined herself frozen there…
The pretty redhead had caught the eye of the desk clerk behind the counter from the time she had entered, and Samantha noticed him glancing in her direction periodically. This made her feel extremely uncomfortable, and she attempted to look as inconspicuous as possible. An assortment of magazines was arranged on a table nearby, and she began to thumb through the stack. Picking up a vacation travel guide, Samantha lazily flipped the pages. The action was more of a nervous tendency than any curiosity about what was printed there.
Suddenly however, the photo of a bikini-clad model on a sandy beach nearly made her heart stop! She recognized the face of the pretty olive-skinned beauty immediately. It was her friend… Natalie! The rush of memories that flooded the redhead's mind afterward was nearly as scary as the earlier lack thereof.
"Miss? Excuse me, Miss?" A deep voice caught her attention. The man standing above her was middle-aged and wore a nametag identifying him as an employee of the hotel.
"Ah, yes." Sammi replied.
"I'm the hotel's concierge. Are you a guest here?"
"Um no, not actually. I, I was lost and just came in for a few minutes to get warm. Is there a phone I could use?" A number had mysteriously arisen during the flood of memories that returned to her. The picture wasn't complete yet, but it was slowly filling in. "I'm sorry. I'm from out of town and I really need to call a friend of mine."
"Yes, certainly. Over at the desk." The man smiled. How could he say no to such a lovely creature? "Right this way."
Samantha followed and upon picking up the telephone receiver, she slowly began to press the buttons. She hoped that her memory wouldn’t fail her now. What had once been, and should still be a familiar number, seemed more like a hazy impression from a fleeting, early morning dream.
The phone rang on the opposite end several times and Sammi hoped that it wouldn't simply go to voicemail. She had to talk to someone she knew! Just then, the call connected and a female voice answered with a smooth Southern drawl.
"Natalie?" Samantha asked with great anticipation. The line remained open, but silence from the other end was all she heard after a ‘clunk’ that sounded like the person had dropped the cell phone. She hoped she hadn't just thought up the number of some stranger. "Hello? Is this Natalie?"
"Ah yes... it is... " The female's voice was shaking. "Who's this?"
"It's Sammi. Thank God you answered!"
"Oh, ah wow. Sammi..." Natalie sounded like she had just received a call from beyond the grave. "Wh,where are you?"
"You won’t believe this; I'm in New York City! I have no clue how I got here! All I can remember is winning at the contest and then I woke up here; still in my bikini. I was drugged or something, but that’s not all." She was almost babbling now.
"Slow down, Sammi. It's okay." Natalie tried to calm her panicky redheaded friend while maintaining her own tenuous composure. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute as well! "We've all been worried sick about you," Natalie lied; at least for her own part. "You say you don't remember anything about how you got up there?"
"No. Not really."
"Oh, sorry," Natalie quickly corrected her subconscious utterance. "I mean it's good you're okay, sweetie! How do you feel?"
"The only thing I can really recall is that woman being backstage giving me a water bottle. Do you remember her? The one that said she was from Playboy?"
"No... " Natalie fibbed again. "I don't think so."
"Well, she's not going to bother us anymore, but you'll never believe what almost happened to me after that!" Noticing the strange look on the faces of the two hotel workers snooping from the bell desk, Samantha lowered her voice and edged out of earshot, stretching the coiled cord to its limit as she went into detail explaining her bizarre experience of almost becoming a display piece.
Natalie listened intently, hiding her nervousness well from the girl on the other end.
"So now I'm at this hotel... the uh, Plaza, and I don't know what to do." Samantha finished and began to weep again. "Some nice cop helped me out with some clothes, but he's gone now and I don't have a thing. No money, nothing... "
"Okay, Sam. Just stay put. I'm on my way there right now. I'll catch the first flight I can and try to be there by morning. Don’t worry…"
"Oh, thank you, Natalie." Samantha's voice was still quivering. "I'm so glad you understand! No one else does... I'm really not nuts, I swear; at least I don't think I am. This really happened..."
"Of course you're not crazy, sweetie. I believe you! If you'll put someone from the hotel staff on the phone, I'll book you a room for the night on my credit card. You can take a hot shower, have something to eat from room service, get some rest. Don’t worry; I'll be there as soon as I can. Just don't go anywhere 'till I get there."
"I won't. I promise."
"And Sammi... ," Natalie cautioned, trying to sound calm, "I wouldn't tell anybody else about this either... You could still be in danger."
"I know; I'm scared. I'm gonna lock myself in the room 'till you get here."
"Good girl. Sleep tight. I'll see you in the morning. Let me talk to the hotel now…"
"Thanks, hon. You're a lifesaver! Here's the man at the desk. Love you... " Samantha handed the phone back to the concierge and moments later a bellhop was leading her to a plush room on an upper floor of the elaborate hotel.
"Your room, Miss." He opened the door, held it for her, then handed Samantha the key card. "If you'd like to order something from room service the number is on the nightstand; if you need me for anything, the name's Harold, I'll be reachable at the front desk until midnight.
"Thank you." Sam smiled sweetly. "I'm sorry I can't offer you a tip, mister, but... "
"I understand completely." The older man gently smiled. "Everything's been taken care of for you by the young lady on the telephone. It was very generous of her to reserve your room for the night and to leave her account open. She must be a very good friend."
"Oh, she is. I'd trust Natalie with my life."
"It's nice to have friends you can count on." The man offered as he turned to go.
"Yes it is!" Samantha beamed. For the first time that day, she wasn’t afraid.
Across town, Detective Marc Thomas slouched alone on the couch in his sparsely decorated apartment. A fifth of bourbon that he'd broken the seal on just a short time before sat half empty on the coffee table. On the opposite side the room, a small television illuminated the otherwise dark room as it played the cable news; he simply let the usual endless loop of political rivalry and bad news stories fade into
His mind was tangled. The memories of Dawn that Samantha had stirred and the thought of the pretty redhead herself with her crazy stories tore at his gut. Now he had to wonder what had happened to the both of them. Standing from the couch he walked across the room to where the picture of he and Dawn hung on the wall.
Pulling down the 8 x 10 frame, he returned to the couch and stared at the image for several minutes. Where are you, babe? And what's happened to you? With the photograph in one hand, he grasped the liquor bottle with the other and downed another straight slug. Then, pressing the glass in the picture frame to his lips, he gently kissed the image of his missing girlfriend. Wherever you are, I hope you know that I still love you...
Marc leaned forward to place the framed photograph on the table, and suddenly something slipped from under the cardboard backing and fell to the floor. Retrieving the object, he saw that it was a small computer thumb drive. The device had been concealed behind the picture and out of sight while it hung on the wall. How long had it been there? Since Marc had no prior knowledge of its presence, it had to have been Dawn who placed it there! The answers he'd been seeking for so long just might have been hidden right under his nose.
Marc was on his feet again in seconds. Disappearing into the bedroom, he returned with his laptop and inserted the device into a USB port. He opened the file that bore his name and began to read...
Hello, Marc. If you're reading this, it probably means that I have been found out. I hope you won't be too angry with me, but I haven't been wholly truthful with you and about who I really am. Please understand that there were really good reasons for this deception and that my not being able to tell you the truth has gnawed at me every day we were together.
First of all, my real name is Alison Logan and I'm an investigative journalist. Dawn Hightower is just an alias that I fabricated to work undercover. My recent assignment was to infiltrate the Big Apple mob. I would have never believed just how far their network reaches! They are committing unbelievable, audacious crimes. Second, we hit it off so well so I could get close to you initially because of your position in the Police Department; however our bond has grown to be much much more since then.
But the fact that I couldn’t tell you the whole story doesn't mean that I'm not still the same person who loves you and cares very deeply for you. I was just too far into the operation when we met and I couldn't tell you until it was over. But please believe me, darling, this doesn't change anything between you and I! I had every intention of coming clean with you completely when things were safe. Now it appears my worst fears have come true and I may in deep trouble. I just hope that it's not too late now...
If De Luca and his henchmen have become wise to me, it scares me to think about what might happen! I might have to drop out of sight for a while. Marc, please don’t come looking for me.
I want you to be careful too! Now that you've seen this and know my identity, things aren't safe for you either. This thumb drive contains all the evidence needed to convict boss Jimmy De Luca, the Police Commissioner and countless other powerful people in the City government. They will do anything to get it back! You can't trust anyone! I know you're probably confused, but the files should explain everything. There's also a message number listed for my contact at the F.B.I. Please deliver this information to them as soon as you safely can.
Although I may never see you again, I wanted you to know that I will always love you...
Tears were streaming down Marc's face by the time he finished reading Alison's goodbye note. His devastated emotions were running completely wild. It seemed that his and Dawn's entire relationship had been a lie, but he still cared deeply for the woman; whatever her name really was. His worries and fears had only mounted, as he knew the man she mentioned, Jimmy De Luca, was one of the most powerful mob bosses in the City. He also knew that Dawn, er ah, Alison was in grave danger, if they hadn't gotten to her already. And what was the connection with the police commissioner, his ultimate superior at the NYPD?
Marc began to browse the many files, audio clips, and photos stored on the thumb drive, and just as Alison suggested, it soon all started to make sense. Eventually he reached a folder that simply read "Legrand" that brought him back to Samantha and her wild story. With great anticipation he opened the zipped file and couldn't believe what he was reading. It was exactly what the pretty redhead had been telling him this afternoon. Jarad Legrand not only crafted lifelike artworks and mannequins to lease to retail stores and display in his gallery, he was abducting living women to create them from. From what Marc read, it was evident that Legrand was also trafficking these unfortunate women through the mob or selling them privately. Alison was unsure of exactly how Legrand was carrying out these evil deeds. She only knew that he had developed a paralytic drug as well as a heinous chemical compound that somehow could hold these unfortunate women in indefinite stasis.
Suddenly, Marc had a sickening thought. If Sammi had been right about the figure she saw in the gallery who looked like Dawn... might have really been her, statued. His stomach sank, but he couldn't allow himself to become emotional right now.
Marc knew he had find Dawn /Alison and Samantha; fast!
It was now nearly nine o'clock at night and Jarad Legrand was alone in his office once again. His wealthy visitor had departed, fully satisfied. A briefcase stacked with unmarked cash had been exchanged for the unfortunate reporter, and Alison’s petrified figure had been removed as well; carefully packaged in a padded metal transport container, destined for the pre-determined display space in the eminent man's home.
Legrand leaned back in his chair, rubbing his tired eyes. So far, the missing model had still not been located, and the only thing that his team of supposedly professional associates had accomplished so far was the accidental freezing of one of their own and the subsequent immobilization of a female bystander. He wasn’t sure yet how he would explain things to Celia Dawes-Watson when she revived; the ill-fated lady was one of his most generous benefactors and astute enough to start asking awkward questions about the origins of his sculptures after having briefly been one. For the moment, she had been given a longer-term dose of preservant and placed in a workroom, but that wasn’t the final solution. Legrand could see his staff would need to be given some additional motivation before this debacle was over.
A few moments later, a knock came at his door. Acknowledging the request to enter, he saw Jody sauntering toward him with a cocktail she had prepared. Always appreciative of the female form, Legrand couldn't help but notice the way her stylish skirt fit the flare of her hips as she walked closer. For a woman of fifty years, she still had a very fit and sexy body. "Scotch and water, Me'shure?"
"Thank you, Jody. It's been a long day."
"Wee." She sighed. "Iz zhere anything elze I might do for you before I depart?"
"No thank you, my dear. I'm going to stay here a while longer in case there's any progress in locating Miss Harris. If she is found tonight, I do not intend to waste any more time before processing her. Her memories of the day’s events are probably near normal by now and so if she talks, my entire plan will unravel. That must not happen. If Samantha Harris is returned to me here tonight, she is to be placed in the chamber and coated immediately."
"Very well. If you need my assistance, I can return at any time."
The phone on Legrand's desk rang and Jody instinctively reached for the receiver. "Maybe some good news, Me'shure."
"I can only hope."
"Le'grand Studioz?" Jody answered pleasantly. "Wee. May I ask who iz calling? Oh? One moment, pleaze... " Jody turned toward her impatient boss, placing her hand over the mouthpiece. "Zhis woman insists upon speaking with you directly, Me'shure. She says she has zome informazion about Miss Harris."
Legrand grabbed the receiver with haste. "Jarad Legrand speaking. Who is this?"
"Good evening, Mr. Legrand." The female's accented voice was honey-smooth. "Ah know we've never met, but mah name's Natalie. Natalie Nicoletti. Ah recently… assisted… your associate, Heidi and was partly responsible for the arrangements that allowed you to recently acquire the model Samantha Harris. From Florida?"
"Yes. What can I do for you?" he urged impatiently. The woman liked to talk.
"It's more like what Ah can do for you-all," Natalie smirked. "I recently spoke to my good friend Sam and things don’t seem to be going as planned for y’all there."
"No, they are not, as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, there were some complications and Miss Harris is no longer in our safekeeping. Do you know where she might be?"
"Ah know exactly where she is and she knows almost all the sordid details about what you folks were gonna do to her! Thankfully, she still doesn't know little ‘ol me had anything to do with her collection."
"If you would be so kind as to provide me with her whereabouts... " Legrand was now on the edge of his seat.
"No." Natalie said with determination. "Ah'm comin to New York myself to make sure the job is done right this time. If you still want Samantha, Ah'll bring her to you, gift wrapped, but it won't come cheap… this time."
"How much more is she worth to you now?" Natalie said coyly.
"I already have fifty thousand invested. I'll pay you five more?"
"Ha! Not hardly." Natalie replied with contempt. "Let's see, I got ten thousand before, plus your added assurance that Sammi Harris would be out of my life forever. See’in as that last part didn't work out so well, this time I want twenty, all in advance, and actually have the satisfaction to see that redheaded bitch put on display for good!"
"That amount is a bit excessive, wouldn't you say, Miss Nicoletti?"
"Excessive? Oh, no; Ah wouldn't call it that. She and Ah could simply go to the police and the press tomorrow morning’ an tell them all about your little artistic ventures. How much would that end up costing you? A bit more, Ah reckon."
"Agreed," the artist conceded, gritting his teeth. "Twenty thousand it is."
Jody subconsciously raised an eyebrow as she listened to the one sided conversation, but remained quiet.
Legrand could almost see the conniving young woman's broad smile over the phone, but the wheels were turning in his own head as well. "I'll have to admit, Natalie," he continued. "I rather like your style. If you're able to return Miss Harris to me as agreed without further incident, you might just be cut out for further operations of this nature. Perhaps you'd be interested in a position with my organization? I can always use attractive young women with your kind of drive and initiative. And as it happens, I do have a vacancy at the moment."
"Well, ah, we'll have to see about that," the narcissistic, yet naive Natalie demurred proudly. She assumed she'd browbeaten the powerful artist into submission and was also truly flattered by the offer. All she had done in reality was allow herself to be caught up in the tangled web that Legrand had spun and was luring her into.
"How soon can you be here with Samantha Harris, Miss Nicoletti?"
"Tomorrow morning." The girl confirmed. "She's stashed in a safe place for the night and she promised to stay put. Ironically, she still thinks I'm her best friend," Natalie chuckled coldly. “Little does she know the reality of the situation.”
The same can be said of yourself, Legrand thought with irony. "Very well. Contact me at this number when you arrive at the airport and I'll arrange a town car for you. Special means will be provided at that time to help deal with your friend."
"Ah also expect a round trip ticket to New York – first class, natur’ly – to be waiting for me at the airport here in Orlando as well."
"Done." Legrand groaned. Her obstinance was indeed growing old. "You do drive a hard bargain, Miss Nicoletti."
"Ah know." Natalie said in an oily sarcastic tone. With that the phone went dead.
"Jody?" Legrand turned toward his stunned assistant and smiled as he placed the receiver on the hook. "We now have an optimistic lock on Miss Harris and the final potentially loose end involved with her initial capture will be here in the morning. This might be easier than I had originally anticipated. Before you leave would you please arrange airfare from Orlando, Florida to JFK on the first available flight for a Miss Natalie Nicoletti? One ’L’, two ‘T’s…”
"Wee, Me'shure. First class?"
"Yes, unfortunately. Prepare an additional display case as well," Legrand smiled.
"Gladly." Jody returned his wicked smile.
Marc Thomas had now strapped on his weapon once again as he quickly pulled on a jacket. He figured the first step would be to locate Samantha. He would begin with a search of the downtown area, but he had no way of knowing how far she could have gotten in the huge city. He would also have to go it alone. Alison had warned him not to trust anyone, and since he had no idea who, or how many of his police associates might be on the take, he couldn't even enlist their help in his quest.
As he prepared to leave the apartment he also ensured that the thumb drive was again safely hidden behind the picture frame where he had found it, after copying the contents to his laptop hard drive. Until it could be delivered to Alison's contact with the FBI, this was the safest place for the valuable information to remain. It would be far too risky to keep it in his possession outside. If her research fell into the wrong hands, every bit of Alison's work and her sacrifices would have all been in vain, and he couldn't allow that to happen.
Now assured that he was ready, Marc headed for the door. Just as he entered the hallway however, something made him pause briefly and he glanced back inside through the open door. The muted television continued to glow in the darkened room with its bluish light, but the image that suddenly flashed across the screen stopped him dead in tracks.
The fuzzy still photograph was that of a lovely redheaded model standing upon a makeshift stage. The young woman wore a rhinestone-encrusted bikini that barely covered her sexy, well-toned body, and was without a doubt the same beautiful woman he'd been with just this afternoon; the same woman he was preparing to track down now. Racing back inside, he turned up the volume and listened intently to the male reporter's ongoing dismal dialogue...
"... The Florida model has been missing since late yesterday afternoon, when she reportedly fell overboard during an outing on her manager's private yacht. According to police reports, Miss Samantha Harris had just taken first place in the Miss Tropic Gold bikini contest earlier in the day and had joined her manager and some friends for a celebratory cruise. The former Playboy Cybergirl is believed to have fallen overboard several miles off the coast of Daytona Beach; our sources indicate that since most of the boat's passengers, including Miss Harris, were intoxicated, her absence went undetected for sometime before authorities were alerted. Alcohol and drugs are thus believed to be the prevailing factor in this tragic accident with foul play so far being ruled out... "
More comely images of Samantha danced across the screen, including a video clip from a Yourtube post filmed at one her many competitions. Following the montage was a short, but teary-eyed interview of her manager describing the vague details of the incident to on-scene reporters.
"To date," the anchorman continued. "Florida State Police, in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, have scoured the presumed area of her disappearance without success. Due to the time that's already elapsed however, the young woman is now feared dead and the search and rescue mission has been called off. Authorities will resume their search efforts in the morning, but sadly... they are now calling this a recovery mission; stating that due to strong coastal tides and rough waters, Samantha Harris' body may never be found... "
Marc switched off the television and disappeared into the hallway; heading for his car.
"Whatdaya' say, L.T?" A portly man wearing blue jeans and a faded, untucked golf shirt greeted the man who sat down beside him on a barstool in a small Irish pub. The tiny establishment was often frequented by New York's "finest" and tonight was no different. "Buy ya' a beer?"
"Sure, thanks." The man replied, loosening his tie. "How are the mean streets of Manhattan treating you since your transfer, Esposito?"
"Pretty good so fa'," The now off-duty cop indicated as he tried to catch the busy bartender's attention. "I sar somethin' today I'd neva' seen ova' in Brooklyn, dough..."
"Oh yeah? Wazzat?"
"'Dis freakin' hot chick, damn nea'r naked, walkin' around in a drunken stupa' at eleven o'clock in da' freakin mornin'. And not some average lookin' street hooka' neitha'. I'm mean to tell ya', Lieutenant, dis' bitch was smokin' hot; a model er somethin'. L-o-n-g red hair, and... " Esposito smiled as he raised his hands to his own chest to demonstrate where two shapely breasts would be seen on a well endowed female.
"Where was this?!" He now had the superior officer's undivided attention.
"Right down on twenny-four'th. She kept babblin' on about somebody tryin' to turn her into a mannequin or some sorta' nonsense. Me and O'Donnell was gonna lock her up, but along comes this detective and offas' to take her in for us."
The other man narrowed his eyes. "A detective offered to take a collar for public drunkeness?"
"Yea, nice guy dat' Sergeant Thomas. Saved us a lotta' paperwork."
Esposito took the last sip from his beer mug and turned back to the man he'd been speaking with, but the stool was empty. His unconsumed beer remained on the bar as well.
"Well, how'do ya' like that?" Esposito mumbled under his breath as he watched the door leading to the street swing shut. He watched the lieutenant disappear into the darkness; his cell phone pressed to his ear. "Oh well... " He shrugged off the abrupt departure and reached for the full, abandoned bottle of beer.
Inside the Plaza Hotel, Samantha remained alone in her double-locked room. The curtains were drawn and she sat in the quiet solitude wrapped only in the upper covers from the king-sized bed. She hadn't even turned on the T.V. She only stared at the telephone on the nightstand and gripped a dog-eared business card in her shaking, manicured hand. After much internal debate, she finally dialed the hand-written number scribbled on the reverse side.
"Thomas?" Marc answered gruffly.
"Marc? It's Sammi. Samantha Harris. You helped me today…?"
"My God!" he exclaimed. "Where are you?! I've been cruising the streets for nearly three hours looking for you! Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm at the Plaza Hotel. Room, uh, 2305. I got hold of a good friend and she booked this room 'till she can get here tomorrow. But I'm still scared."
"I know, Sammi. Look... I'm sorry about earlier. I know now that you were telling the truth about Legrand. And Dawn. So much has happened, I don't know where to begin."
"Can you stay with me until Natalie gets here, Marc? Please?" Her voice was almost begging. "I just wanna go home... "
"Sure I can. I'm on my way there now. I've got a lot to tell you, too. Don’t open your door until I call you, OK?"
Marc ended the phone call and turned the car uptown, in Samantha's direction. Suddenly, the phone rang again. This time he recognized the number. "Yes sir, Lieutenant?" he said as he flipped open the phone.
"Marc," the man said anxiously. "I'm glad you're still available tonight. I've got a lead on an important case and I need your help with something. Can you meet me?"
"Ah, well, yeah I guess. I was heading someplace else, but if it's that important... "
"What's the matter? You got a hot date or somethin'?" The other man chuckled.
"No, nothing like that. Just working on something of my own."
"Well, believe me," the other cop said. "This case is very important. I can't explain over the phone, but if you'll meet me in thirty minutes, I'll tell you everything then. It shouldn't take too long."
"Okay, Phil. Just tell me where and when. I'm on the way."
A pre-determined spot was named and Marc once again re-directed his cruiser. He thought it was odd for his boss to name a location in such an upper-end part of town, but he didn't question his word or authority and maneuvered his car through the lessened late-night city traffic. After all, Lieutenant Phil Martin and Marc had been together since their early days at the academy. Although Phil had excelled in the ranks faster than Marc had, and now held a supervisory position above him, the two had remained trusting friends throughout the years. If Phil needed Marc's help, he would be there. Marc was sure he'd do the same for him, and since Sammi was already at the hotel, she should be safe for just a little while longer...
Ahead of schedule, Marc pulled alongside the lieutenant's already idling cruiser on an otherwise deserted side street. "Park your car and get in," the other officer suggested through the open window. Marc complied and soon took a seat on the passenger side of his friend's similar vehicle.
As Phil put the cruiser in gear and prepared to leave, a shadowy figure slowly arose from the backseat; initially unnoticed by the newest occupant of the car. Just then, Marc caught a glimpse of the figure in his peripheral vision... "Hey!!"
Suddenly, a numbing pain spread throughout Marc's body and his head spun briefly as his vision blurred to darkness. Only a subtle "Umph!" escaped his lips before he lost consciousness and crumpled over in the seat.
The driver glared back at the man who had arisen from the back of the car. He had contempt in his eyes. "You didn't have to hit him that fucking hard!"
"Hey, Groves said he wanted him out didn't he?" The man smiled as he slapped a blackjack against his palm. "Don't worry. He'll be all right, once he comes ‘round. Just drive."
Phil shook his head as he guided the car into a gated community where beat police cars were rarely seen. The electronically controlled security mechanism closed behind them as Marc remained slumped in the passenger seat...
It was now 1:15 AM; nearly an hour had passed since the unsuspecting detective had been incapacitated. Slowly, he began to stir and eventually awoke sitting upon a leather sofa inside an elaborate home. His head was throbbing, and when he tried to move his arms, he found that he'd been handcuffed behind his back. Struggling uselessly, Marc glanced around the room. Seeing he was alone, he gradually sat up on the couch, his hands remaining in the restraints.
Marc squinted and took in the lavish furnishings within this unfamiliar place. The smell of stale cigar smoke lingered in the air. Where the hell am I?! He strained.
Expensive paintings and the taxidermied heads of deer, elk and other exotic animals adorned the walls of the spacious room, along with the weapons with which they had most likely been taken. Those were locked in a nearby rack. A huge mahogany roll-top desk also sat in one corner, the dark wood matching the many shelves filled with leather bound books. A large curio cabinet displaying various plaques, trophies and awards was positioned near the desk as well. Marc noticed that several of the items within bore the badged emblem of the New York City Police Department.
A similarly styled piece of furniture placed at the opposite end of the room, near the mounted animal heads, caught Marc's attention in particular. That tall cabinet was darkened, and he could not make out its contents from a distance. Just as he was struggling to his feet however, a man's voice called to him from behind.
"Hello, Detective Thomas." The voice was deep and somehow familiar. Marc turned on the couch to identify its origin, but when he saw the tall man's face in the doorway, he couldn't believe whom he was staring at.
"That's correct. I suppose you're wondering what you're doing here."
"Ah, yeah." He thought he had a pretty good idea, given Alison’s information, but played dumb. "Wanna explain the handcuffs? Sir?"
The Commissioner continued into the room, followed by Lieutenant Phil Martin and another man Marc was unfamiliar with. Groves then motioned to Phil, who approached Marc with a readied handcuff key.
"I don't suspect there are going to be any outbursts, are there, detective?"
Marc shook his head in response to the Commissioner’s question and glared up at the man he assumed had been his friend. Phil looked ashamed as he removed the cuffs. "Sorry buddy," he offered. "This was for your own good."
Marc remained silent and flexed his stiff limbs. He noticed that his service weapon had been removed from its holster as well.
"How's the head?"
"Whatda' you care?" Marc spat.
Phil hung his head as he moved away.
Commissioner Groves now walked forward to face the angry detective. He stood with his hands clasped in front. "Marc," he began less formally. "Tell me what you know about Samantha Harris."
"Samantha Harris." This time he said the name very slowly, pronouncing every syllable.
Marc shrugged. "I think she's an actress or a dancer or something. I've seen her on T.V. Why?"
"Don't be coy with me, son. Now is not the time." Groves snapped back. "We know that the Samantha Harris I'm referring to was last seen leaving with you this afternoon; supposedly under arrest. However, there is no record of you bringing anyone in to the precinct in past two days. Would you like to explain that?"
"Oh..." Marc smiled ruefully, his bluff called. He knew he had think quickly. "You mean that redheaded chick in the bikini. I never could get a full name out of her, but it turns out she wasn't so drunk after all, just a little spacey." He turned his finger in a circular motion beside his head. "I cut the broad a break and gave her a ride back to her condo. I know it's not proper procedure, but even if I needed to be reprimanded, I think this is going a little overboard. Wouldn't you agree, Sir?"
"Gentlemen, it's apparent that Detective Thomas doesn't wish to cooperate." Groves addressed Phil and the other man who guarded the doorway. "Perhaps we can jog his memory."
At this point Marc tensed his body. He expected another physical altercation was about to take place and with three against one, the odds weren't in his favor. To Marc's surprise however, Groves simply walked to the darkened cabinet that Marc had noticed earlier.
"Since Samantha Harris’ name doesn't seem to register with you," the Commissioner smiled, "maybe the name Dawn Hightower will... " He flipped an electrical switch near the cabinet and it was suddenly flooded with brilliant halogen lighting.
Marc was on feet in a second! Finally seeing the contents of the mysterious display case, he raced toward it. His stomach steadily sank as he reached the other side of the room and glared into the cabinet in disbelief. Tears began to well up in his eyes as he tried to digest the sight before him. Inside the cabinet was Dawn, her body pale and naked, looking as stiff as a statue! His missing girlfriend, in her rigid mannequinized state, stood silent and still behind the glass; utterly frozen in place and now no more than another sickening trophy decorating the room. He guessed Legrand was involved in this.
Marc gently brushed his fingers against the glass of her transparent tomb, but of course got no response from his beloved Dawn; the woman he had recently learned was actually named Alison Logan. She only continued to stare blankly past him, displaying the partially removed negligee in her beautifully preserved static form.
The tears in Marc's eyes were now mixed with an expression of vengeful rage. An expression that said: nothing mattered right now. Not his job, not prison; not even death; nothing but Dawn. He was willing to kill! Without warning, he turned abruptly and charged the Commissioner. "You Bastard!" he screamed as he reached the older man and wrestled him onto the floor. His hands were clenched around his superior's throat and Marc was getting the better of the evil man until Phil and the stranger finally responded and pulled him off. The larger stranger physically restrained him once more, but Marc continued to struggle and tried to pull away.
The Commissioner coughed and tried to catch his breath as Phil helped him up from the Oriental carpet where he squirmed. Eventually, he re-collected his lost eyeglasses and, with Phil's help, made it back to his feet. Marc continued to stare at him with black hatred in his eyes.
"My, my, detective." Groves cleared his throat again. "You've got quite a temper."
"You'll pay dearly for killing her, you sonofabitch!" Marc vowed. "That I can promise you."
"Marc; Marc," Groves put extra emphasis on his name and raised his hands in an attempt to soothe the livid detective who continued to try free himself of the big man's grasp. "I don't believe you understand. This young lady is not dead. She's only been placed into a state of suspended animation. She's perfectly safe, I can assure you."
Marc suddenly perked up at the statement. "Wh, what? How? You mean... Dawn's still alive?" He looked hopeful, but confused.
"Yes, of course." Groves confirmed. He was telling Marc the truth, just not the whole truth. The young woman was far from dead, but he failed to mention to the detective that the preservation process that she had undergone was, to the best of anyone's knowledge, irreversible.
"Then release her!" It was not a request.
"Not just yet." Groves held up a finger. "There's still the small matter of Miss Harris. Has your recollection of her improved?"
"What about her?"
"Well, maybe we can reach an agreement." Groves smiled as he continued to reel Marc in.
"I don't talk business when I'm being held prisoner," Marc barked.
"Very well. Let him go."
The large man released his grip on the detective's arms and the Commissioner flinched a bit before determining he wasn't going to be attacked again.
"Yeah." Marc scoffed as he took a step away, circling Dawn’s cabinet. "Just what kind of an agreement are you getting at?"
"An exchange, of sorts," Groves offered. "If you know the whereabouts of Miss Harris, all you have to do is turn her over to us, and I'll release your girlfriend to you. It's fairly simple."
Marc's mind was racing. The thought of having Dawn, er ah, Alison back was so tempting. "And if I do that," Marc said suspiciously. "What happens to Samantha?"
"Well, I think it goes without saying." Groves motioned toward the stiffened woman in the case. "Unfortunately, she'll have to take your girlfriend's place as a sculpture. She's worth a great deal of money to Mr. Legrand."
"She's worth a great deal as a living girl too!" Marc quipped. "She has a life to live, a family; friends. Do you ever think about that when Legrand does this to someone?" Marc took another long glance at Dawn in the display case and imagined Samantha imprisoned there instead. It wasn’t fair, asking him to choose.
"Of course I do. I hope you don't think I'm totally heartless. I like to think of it as giving a beautiful woman a gift..."
"A gift?" Marc scrunched his brow.
"Yes. Of everlasting youth and beauty. Think about it... There are people out there who would do anything for that."
The man did have a demented point, but the decision still had Marc tied in knots. He couldn't simply betray Samantha and condemn her to life as a statue. Even though she wouldn't be dead, she might as well be in that frozen solidified state. However, he also loved Dawn – Alison! – more than anything or anyone else in the world. Now that he had something to hold over these powerful men's heads, maybe he could play along for just long enough and use their own sinister deals against them. If he played this right, he could have his Alison back and save the lovely redheaded model before it was too late. He knew it would be risky, but his choices were clear: His girlfriend, remaining in her current inanimate condition, or a lovely and vivacious younger woman. No matter which one he chose, one of the two ladies would have to be sacrificed, at least temporarily, and if he completely refused the powerful man's offer, he knew there was no chance for Dawn at all. Sammi would still be in danger, and he probably wouldn't live to see the sun come up himself.
"Come on, Marc." The Commissioner pressed. "What do you say?" He could tell he was beginning to break through to the detective. "That Harris girl doesn't mean anything to you. But Dawn, on the other hand, why I understand you two were very close. I know you went to great extremes to find her when she first disappeared. This way you can have her back. Do we have an arrangement?”
Marc didn’t answer immediately, taking a long moment to look deeply into Alison’s vacant eyes. His immobilized girlfriend seemed to be pleading with him, silently saying: Please! Don’t leave me here this way; I don’t want to be a statue any longer; it’s drafty and this light is hurting my eyes. Please, Marc; I will always love you…
“OK,” he grunted, pulling his eyes away. “You’ve got a deal..”
To Be Concluded...