Interior, Heckmann's Department Store, Present Day:
Blake Johnson stood back and admired his work. She was lovely! The female mannequin that he had just adorned with a white mini-skirt, Adidas top, matching athletic socks and sneakers looked like she was ready for a match on the tennis court. A Wilson racket and a thin visor, to shade her glassy brown eyes, completed her designer outfit. She, of course, stared back at him blankly; looking impossibly gorgeous and ready to be exhibited in any one of Heckmann's decorative sportswear displays.
Blake studied her closely, and he couldn't help thinking how almost real she looked. Her body was pleasingly curvy and, except for the joints that were hidden under her outfit, one would have to take a second look to determine that she wasn't a living girl. The jet-black, pageboy-cut wig accented her high cheekbones perfectly, and the ruby red paint on her full, glossy lips gave a false impression of moisture that would never dry. As he continued to stare at the alluring fiberglass figure, Blake was amused and ashamed simultaneously by the feelings that she or, rather, it had provoked within him. Gotta' get back to work! He scolded himself.
"Hey, Brooke?" He jogged his nineteen-year-old assistant from her own daydream. "Will you bring me those jewelry samples, please?"
She rolled her eyes, uncrossed her shapely legs and stood from behind Blake's desk. It was obvious he had blatantly interrupted her Internet surfing, texting, blogging, or something. He knew her mind was elsewhere, today.
She sauntered out of the small, glass-enclosed office and walked across the room, handing him a compartmented wooden box. She had to have known how sexy she looked in that micro-mini-skirt over silvery leggings, but Brooke didn’t seem to care for “older guys;” as she put it bluntly. Not for the first time, Blake wondered if old man Heckmann had hired that airhead for her looks alone; maybe she was the granddaughter of one of the board members.
"Sure." She placed her hands on her flared hips, and yawned. After watching Blake work for only a moment, she returned to her seat. She seemed to ignore the nearby telephone, which had begun to ring. Filing her pointed nails was clearly more important to the young assistant.
"Brooke, can you get that, please?" Blake said over his shoulder. He meticulously went about placing the stud earrings and a thin, gold choker on the motionless display beauty; readjusting each until he had achieved perfection. A diamond-encrusted gold tennis bracelet circled her slender fiberglass wrist. After he smoothed a few strands of wandering hair back into place on her wig, she was ready.
Out of Blake's sight, Brooke cocked her eyebrow in silent contempt, then cradled the receiver between her cheek and shoulder. "Visual merchandizing . . .?" Her bright blue eyes widened as she listened to the voice on the opposite end. "Really? Oh wow! Where? Okay, I'll tell him. Bye."
Blake hadn't paid much attention to her one-sided conversation, and continued about his duties.
"Bah, layke . . . " Brooke giggled as she hung up the phone.
"What is it?"
"She's b-a-a-c-k . . . "
"Who?" Blake gave her a puzzled look, then suddenly realized who his formerly bored assistant was referring to. "Not again." He shook his head. "Where?"
"Formalwear, this time."
Blake stomped past the cute young blonde, and headed toward the customer area. "Has security been alerted?"
"Yep." Her voice trailed behind.
As Blake entered the retail area, he looked out across the vast, upscale, women's department store. It was a Sunday afternoon and Heckmann's was packed. Being an anchor in a large and very modern suburban mall, Heckmann's attracted a diverse crowd. It only took one look at the prices however, to deter the more casual and middle-class shoppers. Make no mistake, Heckmann's retail was reserved for the upper crust of society in the greater-metropolitan area.
One odd thing about the store that contradicted its contemporary high prices, but most likely added to them, was its nostalgia for bygone days. The owner insisted on maintaining period decorative displays, including plate glass and polished wooden counter tops, ornate flowers and when it came to Blake’s department, traditional, full-bodied realistic mannequins in all the windows and floor dioramas.
Contrary to popular belief, Blake had landed this job by chance alone. He had known little or nothing about visual merchandizing, but he had sort of cheezed his way in. His silver tongue had given him a bit of a "bullshit edge" over the competition, and his unmistakable passion for the position clearly hadn't hurt. He had started as only an assistant, but within two months, a situation presented itself that propelled him to head of the visual merchandizing department.
After a normal day at work his former boss, Katherine Knolls, had mysteriously disappeared without a trace. The police didn't have a clue, nor did her friends and family. At that point, only foul play could be suspected. Weeks later, they still hadn’t turned up any leads. Rumors had circulated wildly about a possible medical problem or some criminal involvement, but they faded eventually. Heckmann’s position as head of visual marketing went to Blake as he was the most skilled and, some had said, was Katherine’s favored successor.
The salary gain had been substantial for Blake following this unfortunate chain of events, but flying by the seat of his pants in this fast-paced world of retail was taking its toll. Blake had hardly gotten to know Katherine, but he wished she were here at this particular moment.
"Excuse me, please." Blake offered as he pushed his way through the crowd that had begun to gather in formal wear. "Sorry. Excuse me." Once past the on-lookers he saw the security guard, and his eyes tracked past the uniformed man to the motionless tableaux that was drawing so much attention.
Three beautiful and very realistic female mannequins, posed wearing the latest and some of the most expensive dresses in the store, stared back at him with blankly emotionless eyes.
"That customer over there," The security guard pointed in the direction of a thirty-something female. "She reported it."
The woman, a middle-class 'soccer mom', stood just a few feet away, and held the hand of her pre-school daughter; who by now had lost interest in whole affair. A large Louis Vuitton handbag was slung from the lady's opposite side.
"The little girl was playing around the display, and noticed that the one in middle's legs were warm," the officer added. "Kinda' freaked the kid out."
"I should imagine." Blake replied as his eyes scanned the mannequin in question. He couldn't help but notice how stunning she was. The chiseled features of her pretty face and lithe, toned, figure would have been equally appreciated by any fashion industry executive or supermodel. Impulsively, he reached out and touched the mannequin's arm himself. Aside from the warmth and soft texture of its skin, he could not distinguish this figure from the two fiberglass ones that flanked her. Blake drew is hand back rather quickly. The mannequin did not flinch in the slightest way.
Her entire body was rigid; her muscles locked solid. Her blue-green eyes held the proverbial "thousand yard" stare as Blake gawked at the motionless beauty that stood before him. She was captivating! The silver and sequined Versace dress clung to her curves nicely; the short hem of the garment barely covered her sculpted backside, showing more than a little bit of nylon-clad thigh. She wore four-inch heels and a short, styled, rust-colored wig that obviously concealed her real hair, assisting in creating her artificial appearance. She had also taken great care in applying detailed facial and body makeup, which gave her skin the same glossy sheen as her plastic and fiberglass counterparts. Her costume and performance were exquisite. She even stood on a glass display disk as if she had been created that way.
'Amazing . . .' Blake thought wistfully as he drank in her gorgeous features. 'How can she stay so still with all this activity? She's good!'
"This the first time you've seen her?" The guard asked, bringing him back to reality.
"Yeah. I've heard rumors . . . but I think this is the first time in person."
"Been showing up like this for some time," the guard grumbled.
Oddly however, Blake felt like he had seen this young woman somewhere before; but where? He couldn't seem to place it. Had she been posed in his displays before and gone unnoticed? Had he simply walked past her, dismissing her as just another upscale customer or lifelike replica of an ideal young woman. . . ?
Suddenly, Blake remembered he had a job to do. "Let's move these people along, huh?"
The guard complied, mumbling something about her being a "nut", and began to usher the chattering on-lookers about their shopping. Once he and Brooke were alone with the imposter, Blake stepped even closer to the unmoving, and seemingly lifeless, figure.
'Okay. I can't let this turn into a scene,' he told himself. 'Old man Heckmann will have my head.' He leaned in close and whispered lightly into the mannequin's ear.
"Miss?" He offered to the unmoving form. "You're going to have to leave the store." There was no response. She didn't blink. She didn't seem to breathe. There was no indication whatsoever that she'd even heard him. Seconds passed. Trying not to draw attention, Blake nonchalantly went about adjusting and smoothing the garments displayed on the other two mannequins. Then he got an idea.
"Wait right here," he said redundantly. His addressing the lifeless figure brought an odd stare from a couple of shoppers passing within earshot, and Brooke tried to suppress a laugh. Blake pretended not to notice, disappearing into the back of the store, with an inquisitive Brooke on his heels.
A few minutes later, he returned alone. This time he was whistling, as if going about normal business, and pushing a low four-wheeled cart. The cart contained a pretty 'plastic' mannequin that was displaying a fashionable evening gown and pearls. Blake stopped just short of the partially faux display that he had recently left. As he returned his attention to the motionless beauties who were stationed there, all three continued to stare past him; undisturbed and presumably unaware.
"It's changing day, ladies . . ." He smiled and looked directly at the only mannequin who could actually hear him. "Let's do you first." He thought that this statement might extract the young woman from her false-frozen state, but he was wrong. She remained as woodenly affixed to the platform as the real mannequin who was standing by on the cart to replace her.
'It's now or never, Blake,' he told himself. He was a bit timid at first, but he gently wrapped his arms around her slim waist, and looked her straight in the eye. Then, to his surprise, she briefly winked at him! He also thought that he saw the hint of a smile! She had not allowed anyone else to see her split-second of movement and just as quickly, she resumed her regal, yet static pose. Blake's heart seemed to skip a beat!
This whimsical behavior only made Blake more determined, but he also couldn't help the arousal that it sparked inside him. He tightened his grip around her waist and lifted the stiff young imposter from the platform with a grunt. He realized quickly that she was not like the others, who were simply composed of hollow plastic; he was lifting a real, living woman, composed of flesh, muscle, and bone. Amazingly, as he sat her down on the cart, she never broke her pose. Even now that she had been lifted, moved and turned in a completely opposite direction, she never blinked, never showed another sign of life; only wobbled a bit as he released his grip on her waist. It was if she were completely paralyzed. He was glad however that she was already securely balanced, and that the clear monofilament line that was used to stabilize the other mannequins would not be necessary.
His whistling resumed as he pushed the cart through the crowded aisles and returned to the storeroom with his beautiful cargo. Once concealed behind the swinging doors, he glanced around the room, ensuring that Brooke had not returned from the busy-work task he had given her. Comfortable that they were alone, he addressed the pretty imposter.
"There. I've saved you from being embarrassed in public, and your little act . . . I have to say, it's pretty impressive, but enough's, enough."
"The dress you're wearing has a seven thousand dollar price tag, Miss. You obviously haven't paid for it, so you can either remove it, or I'll be forced to remove it for you." He reddened a bit after voicing the ultimatum, and wondered what type of undergarments, if any, might be underneath.
Blake was fascinated and infuriated all at the same time! 'Damn! Was she calling his bluff?! Did she want to be undressed?!' He surely would enjoy doing that, but he thought twice about it.
"Okay, fine." He offered bluntly. "I'll be right back with security, and they can escort you to the police for shoplifting." He stormed out of the swinging doors, audibly summoning security, and disappeared once again.
When he returned however, only a room full of 'artificial' mannequins, waiting to be dressed, or undressed remained. The beautiful young woman was nowhere to been seen. The Versace dress that she had modeled only minutes ago was now draped over the back of a chair. Inspecting it closely, Blake determined that there had been no apparent damage and he shrugged. In one way he was glad she was gone, but on the other hand, he was a bit disappointed. Maybe he should have pushed the envelope . . . His imagination ran wild.
There was plenty of work to do however, and he couldn't let this incident distract him. He tried as hard he could to put her out of his mind, but he knew there was no use. Preparing to return the pricy garment to its rack in the formal section, he noticed something else. Pinned to the designer's label was a small slip of paper. It had been endorsed with lovely, cursive handwriting:
Had a great time today . . . Fancy more?
The scrolled initials "GS", artistically shaped like a heart, were the only identifier of this mysterious woman who had left him so intrigued . . .
. . . Meanwhile, a sleek young woman, wearing an over-sized, hooded poncho, walked briskly from the rear fire exit and onto the concrete walk that bordered the street side entrance to Heckmann's, glancing down at the business card she had pocketed from Blake's cluttered desk. She smiled as she blended into the milling crowd in front of the store. Her pantyhose-clad legs and silvery heels were in deep contrast to the remainder of her brief garment.
The chill of the afternoon air, combined with the slight mist that had begun to fall, made her shiver a bit as she entered the first cab to arrive. Oddly, the cab’s interior air-conditioning was going full blast. “Where to, sweetie?” the sleazy driver asked, twisting around to eye her up and down with a creepy smile. Gail rolled her eyes, pulled her poncho in a little tighter so that it covered more of her legs, and gave him the address.
To avoid any more chitchat, she looked outside as she gazed at the front window displays. Two beautiful mannequins, one sporting a one-piece swim suit and the other showing off a significant amount of her plastic form under this years' hottest white thong bikini, were posed amid a beach scene and appeared to be in perfect bliss. From the opposite side of the glass, she looked back at them longingly as the cab pulled away.
In Another Part of Town at the Same Time:
Preparations for crafting a new figure had almost become an obsessive ritual for the Artist; now that chance had come again. Sooner than had been expected, though nobody should ever attempt to anticipate serendipity. Another prospective model had answered the discreet advert. There were things to do before the evening; the studio needed tidying; the posing platforms and camera to be placed in their proper locations for easy use once the session had started. Most importantly, the wand had to be located in its customary spot as well; ready to be picked up at a moment’s notice when the time was right. Ready to work its magic again to preserve beauty.
Another part of the Artist’s ritual was carefully inspecting the present collection, reviewing the posed figures to appreciate the still elegance captured in their motionless expressions and positions, occasionally touching them to adjust an errant lock of hair or align an uneven garment seam. Details were important to the Artist. Nothing should distract from the captured moment of perfection that each frozen female figure displayed. Their variety of attitudes, whether sculpted by some foreign studio or personally, captured some different facet of the living models that embodied these amazingly detailed mannequins. Fresh inspirations often came to the Artist during this tour of reflection as well, but experience proved that the Muse could never be hurried.
She would appear if and when she was good and ready to appear, not any sooner.
Riding along in the taxi, everywhere she looked Giselle seemed to see mannequins, safe and secure in their bright, fresh windows; each one fulfilling their elegant role with passive grace and eternal beauty. Each one carefully prepared and fussed over, made painstakingly perfect. Oh, why can’t I be part of that ideal world? She asked herself for the hundredth time since abruptly leaving Heckmann’s. I was so happy there, couldn’t you just have let me stay!
A few minutes later, the cab deposited her in front of a large brick building at the edge of the business district. She paid in cash, and then raced inside to her tiny apartment, barely able to contain her yearning.
Her original plan was in tatters; almost in tears, she moved like someone possessed. Dropping the poncho just inside the door, ignoring the greeting “Mmrrt?” from her cat curled on the bed, she immediately was drawn to a small painted-porcelain figurine of a ballerina resting on her small entertainment center; it had been with her since childhood. The miniature beauty always seemed so serene, so perfect posed there on her little mahogany platform. Giselle looked at her in peaceful reflection, then a sly smile spread across her face as she touched a fingertip to her lips.
Striding to the lighted cosmetic mirror, discarding the poncho into the corner with a flip, she quickly and expertly touched up her showy presentation make-up. Everything has to be just right; if nobody’s going to help me, I’ll just have to do it myself! Tossing the short, coppery wig aside, she picked another from a head form and slipped it on. Oh, much better than Patina-V, she thought, tucking her natural dark curls underneath a shoulder-length blonde flip, being a Rootstein instead feels so right.
Soon a different girl looked back at her in the mirror: One who was much less uncertain; one who knew her place and how to best appear stunningly beautiful there. A mannequin’s face gazed at her, with long feathery eyelashes, dark shadowy mascara, rosy blusher on her cheeks, and moist-looking maroon lips. She blinked, surprising herself for a moment by her own motion; she had started to let her mind drift into reverie. Almost ready; not sitting here though…
Stepping to her dressing alcove, she twirled slowly in front of the large 3-way mirror, glancing from one side view to the other, inspecting her smooth flawless skin along with the shimmery pale Chantilly lingerie from Heckmann’s that flattered her sleek figure as much as she flattered her sexy undergarments. The revealing demi-cut bra complimented the firm curvy swell of her breasts while the embroidered French-cut panties embraced her hips like spun silver. Off-black seamless pantyhose clung to her legs; she gave each one a brief tug and checked for any runs. Giselle didn’t like modeling garter belts, thinking they were a holdover from the past, but knew that most men favored them. She preferred the smooth streamlined appearance of premium pantyhose. She was especially fond of elastic topped stay-up stockings since they always seemed risqué to her. No time for those…
Closing the thick opaque drapes to the outside world, Giselle flicked on the lighting in her sanctuary. Her happy place. Her display setting.
It was a small raised platform, octagonal in shape, surrounded on four sides by tall mirrors and lit from above by a bank of halogen floodlights, some with pastel colored gels in place. The floor was painted a light gray and in the center of the platform rested a polished square of plate glass with a bracket for a support rod attached to one edge. There was no rod; Giselle never needed one.
She stepped up to platform level, anxious yet painstaking at the same time. Telling herself a few seconds more won’t make a difference, while excellence does, she lightly brushed herself off from head to toe with a large feather plume, finishing by wiping the soles of her silvery shoes on a tack rag. Glancing into one of the mirror panels, she checked her makeup one more time and surveyed her accessories as well. The thin gold bangle bracelets from before were fine, but her shoulders now looked empty. Stepping down quickly, she looped a strand of matching golden links from her makeup stand over her neck and then went through the whole cleaning ritual once again. Finally, she felt ready to take those last few steps into the nimbus of lights to stand on the glass plate. Giselle’s knees felt weak with excitement, but she knew this was where she was meant to be all along.
Composing her features into a pleasingly blank expression, she posed her hands like the flawless Rootstein figure she had decided to become, then blinked once, slowly. Now, I want to stay, she thought to herself, exactly as I am, superb and unchanging. Time will have no meaning; movement has no meaning. All that exists is beauty, stillness, and tranquility. Beauty… Tranquility... Stillness! Giselle’s mind quickly drifted off to a place she knew well and loved fondly. An exquisite mannequin was reflected in the full-length mirrors. She had at last found her special place.
To anyone watching, a remarkable transformation had taken place. In that last blink of her eye, her whole body froze in place as if she had turned instantly to plastic. Even her breathing slowed to a point where one could barely detect any movement at all. As minutes passed, she remained there in position, unchanging. Her mind had conquered the whims of her body, so there was no discomfort, no exhaustion, no pain. Minutes stretched to tens of minutes, then past an hour as she posed within her inner-directed cocoon of motionless, dreamy contentment. Outside the sky darkened into night. Within Giselle’s display, time had no importance for the stunningly perfect mannequin standing there. A figure that seemed to almost echo the showy pose of a small ballerina statuette resting nearby.
At the End of Afternoon, the Same Day:
This latest model clearly didn’t have much experience or confidence, observed the artist as the young woman emerged from the dressing room. Clad only in a thin silky robe tied tightly, she held her hands over her well-defined chest and tapered lower torso even though the fabric was opaque. Modesty wasn’t able to hide her excellently proportioned figure; she was tall and slim but seemed awkward at times as she threaded her path across the studio towards the waiting artist and lens.
“Why are you being so shy now? Haven’t done much posing in the nude?” came the questions, said with a smile yet probing.
She blushed slightly, a rosy coloring on her pale cheeks. “Only for my college art class, for their figure study. That was different; I didn’t have to do anything; I was a still life.”
“This won’t be much different. I’ll guide you into position, then you hold the pose while I take a few frames from all angles around your platform,” the artist said, pointing to a circular track on the floor that held a tripod and camera on a little cart-like contraption. “You do a different pose, and so on. That’s not so hard, is it? All the sculpting comes later.”
“That sounds easy enough. You’re right; this is the first time I’ve ever modeled for a real artist. Let me know if I’m doing something wrong, OK?”
“Of course. You’ll do fine. The session will be over before you know it. Here, why not take a sip of something to calm your nerves?”
“Thanks,” she said with a faint smile, accepting the fluted glass. The wine was pale with a hint of bubbles, very different than the hearty red ones she usually consumed. Taking another drink, she felt a warmth spreading through her body. The artist drank as well, fiddling with the camera setup for a couple of minutes while she watched and sipped.
“How do you feel, now, Violet?”
“That’s Vee-o-let-ta,” she chuckled. My mother wanted a traditional name and I kept the spelling. “Just-a like inna ol’ country!” she added with a comic-opera exaggerated Italian accent. They both chuckled, then made small talk for a little while longer as she became more at ease and began decorating her comments by quick gestures with her long-fingered, graceful hands.
“How about taking off the robe, Violetta?” came the suggestion after a few minutes.
She only hesitated a fraction of a second, then with a fleeting smile, agreed, “Sure, why not?”
Moments later, the silk drape fell to the floor to reveal her sinuous figure and pale, flawless skin. Curving delightfully in all the right places, Violetta’s shape echoed her heritage while showing every hour of workouts she had put in at the health club. Her bosom was ample, without being overly large; her slender waist seemed to perfectly complement the flare of her hips. Long legs, firm but not sinewy, and a graceful neck completed her exquisite physique. Only her face seemed slightly out of place, being merely ‘cute’ and not as classically beautiful as some others of her Mediterranean lineage who had gone on to be supermodels or movie stars. “So, whaddya think?” she asked after making a brief twirl in place. “Not bad, hey?”
“You’re very lovely, and almost the ideal body type for what I have in mind for you to model. Why not get started; put on those high-heeled pumps and take a pose on the platform there.”
“What are these for?” she asked, holding up the shoes. “When I posed in class they just asked me to stand on tip-toe for a few minutes. That worked fine.”
“I’m going to be taking several photos of you, so this way it’s easier for you to keep the same stance for the duration of your pose. Trust me, this technique works very well. There you go; now, up onto the raised area and just get comfortable standing there. I’ll take a test series, to check focus and exposure, after that we can do some for real.”
“OK,” she agreed, stepping up onto the podium, which was less than a meter in diameter. “Feels kind of strange, like I’m on display or something.” She stretched briefly, the tried a few different poses, shifting her weight from one leg to the next, and then bending almost double.
“Well, the figure you’re modeling for is going to be shown in shop windows across the country, so a distinctive pose will make you that much more memorable and appealing,” the artist said while circling the camera around the lithe dark-haired young woman and taking exposures.
“Makes sense, I guess,” she allowed, becoming more at ease all the time, experimenting with arm and hand positions, glancing over one shoulder and then the other, making sexy-looking faces and pursing her full lips.
“Ready to take your first pose? Nothing fancy. Stand upright with your arms crooked a little. Turn your left foot a smidgen counterclockwise. Yah, that’s about it. Smile a bit and look up. Hold still now, I’m going to take a circle. Try not to talk – it looks odd in the composite.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” she purred without moving her lips. Wow, this is easier than I thought!
“All done; let’s try another one,” the artist announced after a couple of orbits around the naked model. “This time, angle that leg outward and put your hands on your hips. Yah, that’s good; hold it.” Another set of exposures clicked by, followed by additional poses. Violetta fell into the rhythm of the photo shoot and started to anticipate what the artist was looking for, getting fewer instructions and more exclamations along the way.
Pose. hold. Pose, hold. She had started to wonder how long this session was going to last and how she’d spend her fee (probably on a new designer handbag, she’d almost decided) when a sharp poke in her right butt cheek jarred her out of the daydream. “Hey! Watch it, there,” she objected, then felt an odd sensation, what felt like a numbing coldness. “What’d you do that for – what’s going on?”
“Nothing to worry about, Violetta, merely something to help with your presentation.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was doing fine, before. You said… so.”
“Yes, well, just relax now. Let things take their course.”
By now the strange feeling was starting to spread through her body. “Forget… that!” she yelled, or tried to. Her voice faltered. “I’m… getting… outta… here…” Trying to take a step, she realized her feet were stuck to the platform and she had no control over her stiffening legs. “What… did you… do… to… me?” she pleaded, her words slowing. “Can’t…. mo….”
The artist touched her again, adjusting her pose slightly before it was too late. Her one arm was placed with the palm of her hand facing upwards, the other moved away from her waist. After a slight change in the tilt of the model’s hips, she was almost ready. Gushing, the artist told her, “You know that you’re going to be my best display figure yet; almost flawless. Now you’ll remain exactly as you look at this instant, perfect and unchanging. You should thank me.”
“N..o…o….” was the last word to escape her lips before the stiffness reached her face. Silently she gazed out into the room through fixed eyes – her vision clouded as her muscles and skin hardened in position, as rigid as molded plastic. Soon afterward her mind faded into stasis.
With a grunt of effort, the artist lifted the motionless young model from the raised platform and carried her into the workroom. She had turned as stiff as a board and her pose did not change in the slightest way during transport or when she was placed on the polished metal plate that was her new setting. Violetta was already quite beautiful; with a modest additional effort she could be made truly outstanding.
The artist was exhausted, but content. Creating new artworks was always an effort; well worth a celebratory toast, or two. Or three. There were a few inches of dark amber liquor left in the bottle, more than enough to finish off the night.
Hours had passed and, across town, late afternoon shadows had lengthened in a tiny one-room efficiency apartment. The streetlights that flickered and struggled to life outside the single window indicated that nightfall was quickly approaching, but the only occupant of the small abode who seemed concerned was a gray brindle cat, who jumped off the bed and sniffed her food dish. Finding no satisfaction with the empty bowl, the feline moved slowly and stealthily forward until she reached the brightly lit platform of a window display set. The flashy diorama stood out from the remaining sparse accommodations, squeezed in neatly between the bed and an outside wall.
The cat's audible "meow" went unnoticed as she circled a pair of high-heeled, hose-clad feet, and looked upward at the unmoving, but very sexy, female figure who was positioned in the flood of light. The figure's long blonde locks flowed across her bare shoulders, and only a silvery silk bra, matching panties and slate-colored pantyhose separated her from nakedness. The combination of the lights and the makeup that had carefully been applied to her already creamy skin made her reflection in the mirrors appear almost artificial. The shapely figure only stared back at herself with an unchanging, yet satisfied expression. Time had ceased to have any relevance . . .
Blake was about ready to tear his hair out. She had been here, in this very workroom, and he’d let her slip away. Never mind that he had secretly hoped she would leave. Then. Hours later, after finding her coy note, he desperately wanted to see her again, talk to her, dress her, make love to her. In all his time as a visual merchandiser, he’d rarely met anyone who stirred those feelings. At least anyone alive, that is, he corrected himself. Her dazzling performance as a mannequin this afternoon was burned into his memory; he could see her pale frozen features and wide-open alluring eyes wherever he looked.
Whatever he had planned for the rest of the day faded into irrelevance; he had to touch her again! But who was that vision of motionless beauty? Where had she gone? All he had to go on was her flowery perfume scenting the paper and the initials “G S”.
He talked his way into the security office, mumbling a bogus story about tracking down a shoplifter, and managed to convince the dubious guards (one of whom had been with him at the formalwear display) to let him review the single-frame tapes from the monitoring cameras. The only problem was he didn’t know which exit she had used so, starting with the nearest to the workroom, he checked them all. His mystery mannequin had been clever, and very cool. Finally, she showed up briefly on the camera at the back entrance; with just a swirl of a loose cape and a slow glance at the side display window before she was swallowed up by the milling sidewalk traffic. If she hadn’t looked back, he never would have recognized her exquisitely made-up face. Moments later, a feminine hand with manicured finely polished nails raised to flag down a taxi. Blake couldn’t see who got in the cab before it sped away, but he was sure it must have been her. She’s well off, then, he thought to himself.
By quitting time he was back at his desk, staring at the note, as he had been for the past couple of hours. There has to be something more, he tried to convince himself for the hundredth time. His eye defocused and the calligraphic flourish of her initials seemed to dissolve into random loops and lines. Suddenly, like tea leaves condensing in the bottom of a cup, he started to see numbers in the scrawl. There was a 5 and an 8; still more numbers were resolved. Seven in all. A phone number? Had to be! It had been hiding in plain sight all along.
Hands sweating, he dialed the number. It rang; once, twice, three times…
"Hi, it's Gail, but I can’t . . .". Blake hung up, embarrassed, before the beep.
‘Well, now I know her first name, at least, but what good is that?’ he thinks, dithering over whether to call her and actually leave a message. ‘She won’t recognize me; I might as well be selling long-distance plans!’ “Dammit!” he blurted, out loud.
“Say what?” Brooke spoke up, looking from behind the computer screen.
“Oh, hi. Didn’t see you there; thought you’d gone home a while ago,” Blake reddened.
“I do put in a full day’s work, thank you very much,” she replied, acting offended but smiling. “Besides, I had a solitaire game to finish. Winning, too! What’s got you all wound up?”
Blake showed her the note and explained his discovery, venting his frustration along the way. “Now all I have is her number, ‘cause a young woman answered, but I can’t tell if it’s really her since she never spoke to me.”
“You’ve got her name, too, right?”
“OK, right. Gail. You know how many ‘Gail’s there are in the metro area? Thousands.”
“Hey, my dad once told me you can look up the first three numbers in the phone number in the yellow pages; most times there is a crossref to streets or neighborhoods. That should help you find the general location.”
“Great idea, Brooke! You headed out?”
“Yeah; today was kinda hectic, huh?” The cute assistant headed towards the door.
Blake took a few seconds to admire her receding backside, then dove for the phone book. Sure enough, Gail’s prefix was in the Delancy District, an old industrial section now undergoing revitalization into residential spaces and trendy shops. A lot of young professionals and artists lived in those brick-walled, high-ceilinged, apartments and lofts. The only problem was that the district was twelve blocks across. Well, it’s a start, he encouraged himself, then went back to staring at the card. Maybe there’s an address hidden in there too!
At least an hour more passed before he gave up. Night had fallen, along with a light rain pattering on the wired-glass windows of the workroom. Now the silent mannequins seemed to be mocking his failure.
Frustrated, he turned to the computer and started typing in things to a search site. Gail’s number brought back pages of ads for restaurants in the district; adding her name didn’t do any better. Finally, at wits end, he typed in “Find Gail”. Seconds later, an ad popped up, claiming “We can find any! one – Click Here - complete confidentiality!!” It was as if the web had read his mind. Several clicks, a credit-card number, and a signed statement absolving everyone at ‘ebloodpup.com’ of any liability, he had more detail on Gail Sanders than probably her parents ever knew. Including her address and complete Heckmann’s store purchase record.
“See who’s laughing now!” Blake taunted his roomful of display figures as he grabbed an umbrella and headed out the door, chuckling.
Mid-evening of the Same Day:
Looking both ways along the sidewalk, Brooke entered the “Drunken Poet” and edged up to the bar as several of the denizens gawked at her shapely profile and long legs. Not quite crude enough to be called a dive, the historic campus hangout typified that peculiar juxtaposition of academy and anarchy common to many college drinking establishments. Quotes from Proust, scrawled on the ceiling in felt-tip pen, competed with belching-frog mascots, fraternity sigils, miscellaneous bits of flotsam and jetsam with presumably high sentimental value tacked to the walls, and a small pool table that always seemed to have some sort of stain on it. A flat-panel television mounted on the wall near the ceiling blared, carrying a random sporting event.
The bartender wiped the space in front of Brooke’s seat, sizing her up. She wasn’t a regular, but he didn’t often forget a face, especially one that pretty. “What’ll itbe, Miss?” he mumbled.
“Beer,” she replied, seemingly distracted. “No, wait. Make that a chardonnay.”
The barkeep’s eyebrow went up a notch. Say what you will, the Drunken Poet wasn’t exactly a wine-and-brie kind of place. “Lemme see some ID, please?”
Digging into a large, stuffed, handbag she extracted a driver’s license and held it so he could see. The picture matched, though her hair was completely a different shade. He glanced at the date given, stared for an instant at her youthful face, then back at the license. “Alright,” he allowed after seeming to want to ask her something. Brooke made the license vanish as the barkeep dusted off one of the hanging wineglasses and filled her request.
“Thanks,” she grinned, dropping a crumpled bill on the bar. “Keep the rest.” She balanced the glass and napkin in one hand, handbag in the other, and made her way to one of the scattered tables. Alone, gazing at the memorabilia while sipping, she reviewed in her mind the events of the odd day and whether they had any significance. Two male students, hunched around a pitcher of beer at one of the booths, contemplated the best opening line for approaching her when an older man in a bulky business suit walked directly to her table.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, politely but with an air of briskness.
Brooke looked up at him and almost smiled, keeping her expression neutral. “Sure, it’s a free country. At least, last time I checked.” She avoided looking at him as he sat and took a long pull from his scotch-on-rocks. Her attention wandered to the TV screen, where an eruption of cheering followed some spectacular play.
“So,” the man commented, also looking at the game and not her. “Anything to report?”
“Not really; other than me being bored stiff most of the days,” Brooke replied. “Oh, one interesting incident, though. Today the ‘mystery mannequin’ girl showed up again in one of the displays. First time in a while. Blake handled it pretty well although he was almost ready to step on his tongue afterward. Seems the kook left him some kind of message; he was going all ga-ga over it. Trying to find her after letting her walk.”
“Anything to analyze?”
“He took the note with him, but I glanced at the number; name’s Gail, last begins with S.” Local. Still raptly looking at the TV, Brooke reached into her bag and passed over a small sticky note, which the man pocketed without looking at. “I don’t think she’s involved,” Brooke observed.
“We’ll run it anyway, the usual. Did Johnson say anything about his ol’ buddy?”
“Not a peep. That lead’s probably gone cold by now. I have to get going soon; whoever suggested that I actually take a fashion design course was insane. This homework project is killing me!” she complained, while smiling.
“Sorry. Same time next week?” he asked.
“Yeah, but go to the ‘Ball & Compass’ instead. People are starting to recognize me here.”
He turned to her and grinned. “You’re awfully recognizable, especially when you’re dressed in outfits like that one. Very chic, very sexy.”
She decided it was a good time to make an exit. Standing up abruptly, she raised her voice just enough so the other patrons could overhear. “That’s all I need, getting hit on by someone with a wife and kids at home. Don’t hassle me ever again!” she finished loudly, striding out of the bar, followed by several pairs of appreciative eyes, leaving the suited man sitting at the table.
He up-ended the last of his liquor, then signaled the barkeep for another. Keeping his expression rueful and contrite, he chucked in his thoughts. That ‘Brooke’ sure is one of a kind!
Much Later on That Same Night:
Deep in the evening, the bustle of suburban life faded into the cool shadows. Daytime sounds were muffled too, letting the chirp of insects and the quiet calls of the nocturnal birds come out. Few people were around either, save for the occasional dog walker or strolling person taking in the night airs. The jogger seemed to respect the silence as well; her sneaker-clad feet barely appeared to touch the pavement as she glided along. Tiny reflective cords sewn into the seams of her one-piece workout suit picked up the streetlights, turning her graceful movements into a very appealing sinuous silhouette.
After covering a few blocks distance, drawing only the momentary lewd attentions of two bored beat cops, she turned up a gravel walkway without breaking stride, pausing only briefly to spring the latch on the gate before entering the spacious fenced back yard. She knew the layout well and didn’t even need the feeble moonlight filtering through the trees to locate the flowerpot with the hidden entry key and unlock the sliding glass patio door.
Inside it was almost completely dark, with a few indicator lights on various electronics giving barely enough light to see anything at all. Though she knew the house well, there were always new obstacles to deal with, such as the rigidly posed young woman standing in the archway that led to the studio and gallery. This mannequin wore a shimmery, mini-short party dress and an expression of rapt surprise on her blonde-framed features. This figure was new, and quite possibly a chance ‘discovery’ caught now in a moment of weakness. One of these days… she thought to herself, knowing the potential risks from a long history of cautious successes.
Edging the solidified figure to one side, taking care not to scrape the spiked heels across the tiled floor, the jogger slipped deeper into the vast house. First things first, she reminded herself, walking gingerly towards the liquor shelf. The scotch bottle was missing and there had been a new replacement added since the last time she was here. Quietly, she extracted a syringe and vial of liquid from an inside pocket and piercing the seal and cork, injected a small quantity of narcotic into the alcohol. Two other bottles of red wine and one of port were similarly treated and all traces of their being disturbed were removed. That will keep him for a while… she smiled.
In the studio she found the artist, passed out on a couch, with an empty bottle of scotch at his feet; he wasn’t going to be waking up anytime before the morning and likely not early at that. His latest ‘creation’ stood patiently and very, very, still in front of the unconscious artist. She looked to be in her late teens or early twenties with olive skin and raven hair. Her stance was attractive enough, though slightly typical, however this one’s figure was her most outstanding feature, with a narrow waist and firm round breasts. Maybe not high fashion, but ideal for swimsuits or lingerie; she thought, sizing up the new mannequin at a glance. The face was not classically beautiful, but did possess wide dark eyes and a full expressive-looking mouth.
Working quickly, the jogger softened the mannequin’s suspension just enough to re-pose her arms and shift the weight more to her supporting leg so that she didn’t look so ready to tip over if anyone nudged her. Knowing not to mimic a LaRossa so closely, she changed the stance to be a bit more evocative and altered the fingers to something different than the hackneyed ‘fan’ pose that most mannequins had for hand positions. Stepping back, she smiled. While subtle enough the artist probably would never notice, the adjustments made a real improvement. Touching the lifelike mannequin to restore full suspension, the jogger felt the young model’s energy flowing into her own body while at the same time the posed figure quickly hardened. In a few seconds, her exposed skin looked as smooth and solid as plastic or painted fiberglass.
The first burst of energy was like a cold splash to her face; she felt alive and aware again, something she had almost forgotten what it felt like. Instantly, she craved more.
There were more posed figures scattered about the house, but she had visited them recently. Brigitte was standing near the couch in the living room, dressed in that classic kitschy maid’s uniform, forever reaching delightfully and ever so fruitlessly for that last bit of imaginary dust. If you had been a little quicker, sister, that would be me frozen there instead of you, the jogger reflected to herself, kissing the busty redhead on the cheek while knowing full well the mannequin figure could see her and feel the brief touch of her lips. I know you’re really loving that sexy costume! She whispered sarcastically to the mannequin, then moved on leaving Brigitte to her still thoughts.
The gallery was beautifully laid out, looking like a showroom or upscale store setting. She had helped the artist with the design long ago, but the appearance always pleased her each visit. The wood parquet floor was a couple of steps down from the entry, allowing for a higher ceiling and a walkway around the border of gallery for high angles of the displayed figures. Each one was part of a small diorama or setting, with painted flats or screens separating them. Most were standing on bases or low pedestals; a few sat or reclined on neutrally colored abstract cubes and platforms. Overhead lighting shone down to highlight each scene; she searched for a moment for the familiar switch panel before realizing the lighting had been upgraded. All she had to do now was approach the tableaux and the lights for that one would come on; a few seconds after she walked away, those lights would go out while those for the next scene would appear. It was a very elegant solution. Maybe Brett had something to do with this, she mused with delight.
Time’s a wastin’, girl; you truly don’t have all night, no matter how it seems! But as she went patiently from display to display, touching each motionless stiff figure and getting another boost of life-force energy, she couldn’t help but notice the creativity expressed in the dressing, posing, accessories, and settings for each mannequin display. She wished some of Blake’s artistry had rubbed off on the supposed artist too, but she was making the best of it. Once again, careful planning had paid off, as it had over and over in the past.
The first hint of dawn’s lightening had appeared in the eastern sky when she slipped out of the house quietly once more, hid the key in the pot, and started jogging back home with vastly renewed vigor in her steps. Behind her, the last automatic light flickered out as if she had never been there at all.
Morning, the Next Day:
The next morning, sunlight had replaced the shadows in the tiny apartment, and rivaled the halogens that had continued to burn since the previous night. The shapely female figure, now nestled beneath a warm comforter, turned over in her bed. Her eyes slowly fixed on the small figure of a ballerina on her nightstand; Gail giggled momentarily, remembering her recent, vivid, dream with not a little bit of embarrassment.
The neglected cat was already up and about, and sat twitching her tail on the wide windowsill.
"BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZT!"
With a manicured hand, Gail Sanders quieted the annoying alarm clock and sat up in bed. Feeling refreshed, she stretched, threw back the covers and swung her pretty legs over the edge. She was completely naked now, which puzzled her a little, and she tried to recall the events of the previous day. She shook her head in confusion, but she had long ago stopped wondering or worrying about little details like that. Then Gail saw the neatly folded nylons and lingerie on her dresser, along with Blake's business card, and she smiled a mischievous smile. Giselle, my capricious alter ego, must have had a good time….
Gail glanced back at the clock. Seven-thirty! Today was a workday and her job at the teller's window awaited. There was no time to spare. Heading for the shower, she was startled when the doorbell rang. Who could be here at this time of morning?!
She contemplated ignoring the interruption, but several loud knocks that followed roused her curiosity. Slipping on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, she approached the door and looked through the peephole.
It was him! The guy from Heckmann's! My God, what did he want?! Her breath quickened, and her knees suddenly went weak. How did he find me?! Are the cops with him?! Gail tried to regain her composure.
"Yes, can I help you?" She offered sheepishly through the closed door.
"Good morning. My name is Blake Johnson - I work at Heckmann's?" His voice was soft; almost apologetic. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Please?"
"I'm not dressed," she stalled.
"OH! I'm sorry." Blake's heart soared as he anticipated the view from the other side of the door. "I don't mean to interrupt Miss and, and I know it seems kind of odd, me being here and all; but I'd really like to talk to you. That's if you have the time."
He was pleased when he heard the chain and lock being released. As Blake stepped into her apartment, he scanned the small room, and his eyes were drawn immediately to the window setting and platform. It was hard to miss, taking up most of the floor space.
Gail moved nervously away from him with every step he took. She seemed more confused than afraid. "Do I know you?"
“Of course, er, well I mean I think so. You were at Heckmann’s yesterday and, uh, we spoke then. Surely you remember; it was in formalwear?”
“No, I didn’t do any shopping there; maybe you have me confused with my roommate. She likes to go to those fancy stores; I don’t make that kind of living. Is …Giselle… in some sort of trouble?”
"Well it is about what happened at the store, but it's not like that at all." Blake reassured her; holding up his hands. "You're not in any trouble, Miss." He looked at her closely; there was no mistaking those cheekbones and eyes. “Neither… is Giselle.”
This seemed to calm Gail's nerves somewhat, and she closed the door behind him.
"So, you're not mad? She can be so… impulsive… sometimes."
"Not at all." Blake shook his head. Even if he had been, the 'scared, little girl look' on her face would have soon made him forget his anger. He couldn't get over how lovely she was; even without makeup and in her early morning attire. He watched with admiration as she walked to the antique refrigerator, and extracted a half-full bottle of water. He liked the bounce of her bra-less chest under her tee shirt, as well as the way the tight fitting shorts hugged her sculpted backside. She was truly a work of art.
Taking a gulp of the water, she turned to face him. "So then, what can I do for you? Mister Johnson, was it? I have to get ready for my job."
"Blake, please." He smiled.
Her eyes narrowed as if to say 'get on with it'.
"Well, after meeting you, er, Giselle, at the store yesterday," he looked at the floor and cleared his throat, "I was so impressed with ‘her’ impression there, I ah, well I'm a little ashamed to say this, but I found out where you lived." He grimaced. "Please don't think I'm a weirdo or anything! Giselle even left me a note!" Hesitantly, he offered her the slip of paper to see.
He waited for her to scream, or threaten to call the police or something, but she just looked at him with a puzzled expression. "You were impressed?"
"Yes! Miss, you are so beautiful, and that performance in the display. . . I just can't get over it. I've never seen anyone so good."
"Well, she surely will appreciate the compliment." Gail smiled. "But you didn't have to go out of your way to come and tell me, Mister . . . ah, Blake I mean."
"Well, I didn't come just to compliment you. By the way, I didn't catch your name."
"Gis…Gail. Gail Sanders."
He offered his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Gail Sanders.
After she returned the gesture, he went on. "I was wondering if, ah, you might like to join me for a cup of coffee?" He fumbled with the words a bit.
Gail was in deep thought. It was a bit creepy for him to have shown up here like this, but it was original. No, it was actually more like scary. But there was something about this guy, aside from the fact that she found him attractive. He was a total stranger, but he stirred something within her like no one had in a long time.
"Well, I don't know, Blake. I've got to be at work in an hour, and . . ." She looked away momentarily. "I don't think you'd find me all that interesting. Probably kinda' boring; Giselle is way more fun to be around."
"Boring? I don't think that's possible. You’re an astonishing young woman, from all I can tell." Gail could see the sincerity in Blake's expression, and it warmed her insides. "But since you brought up your ‘roommate’, there's a business proposition I'd like to discuss as well."
A smile washed over her pretty face. "A business proposition? What kind of proposition? She’s not that kind of girl, you know."
"What does…she… charge per hour, as a mannequin model?"
Now Gail laughed openly. "Charge? She’s never been paid to do it."
"Well, if you're interested, Giselle is about to start getting paid to do it."
Gail cocked her eyebrow in disbelief at this stage.
"Look. I know you're in hurry right now, but meet me for lunch at the Sports bar in the mall. We'll talk then." Blake offered. "Is twelve-thirty alright?"
“It’s a date,” Gail confirmed. Blake tried to conceal the grin that was plastered over his face.
Later That Next Day:
Gail wrestled with the thought all morning at the bank. Was she silly to have accepted the stranger's offer for lunch? Possibly. But what the hell? She mused. It's just lunch, and it is in a mall full of people. Somehow she knew better, but her interest in his additional offer compelled her to show up more so than her interest in Blake himself. Giselle can be so impulsive at times…
Lunch was pleasant. She and Blake had actually hit off, and once again, in conflict with her better judgment, she had agreed to meet him again later that evening. Things seemed to be moving so fast. He seemed familiar to her, in some way, even though they had just met.
In the meantime, Blake told her he was planning to talk his business proposal over with his manager, and receive approval for the funds to compensate Giselle for posing in the window. Gail was thrilled, but a little uneasy about this opportunity as well, and it preoccupied her mind for the rest of the day. She could certainly use the money, but it just seemed too odd to be true. He had assumed they could talk about it more, at dinner tonight. ‘Giselle’ had said yes before Gail could reply. Clearly her alter ego was much more confident than she; it was almost like she was a different personality at those times. Gail hoped Giselle was right about this guy.
The afternoon at work flew by; customers had come and gone and it was finally closing time. The routine paperwork was completed and Gail now stood in front of her supervisor.
"Gail?" The elderly head teller queried. "Are you okay today, hon? Your drawer was off. That's unusual for you."
"I'm sorry, Ma’am. I must be coming down with something. I'm not feeling so hot." she fibbed. "It won't happen again."
"Well, it's straight now, and it's quitting time; you go home and get some rest."
When Gail arrived at her apartment, she went about her normal routine. She had felt terrible for not feeding "Lilly" the previous night, and in her guilt she fed the happy feline nearly an entire can of salmon. As Lilly sat in the corner licking and cleaning her paws, Giselle eagerly anticipated the company that she was expecting in only a couple of hours.
Why, I’ve only got barely enough time to get ready! She pushed away the more cautious thoughts of Gail, who had gotten worried about how quickly things were happening. Sitting at the make-up mirror, brushing her hair, Giselle let her fingers stray idly to a naked breast, feeling her nipple rise to the occasion. God, it has been so long since I’ve last been touched by a man there… and there, too, she recalled as her lascivious hands continued their dalliance.
Driving home from the mall after work, Blake also anticipated his first night with the lovely woman that he had finally talked with today. There was something a little strange about her, he mused; Gail was probably just freaked out that he’d tracked her down where she lived and made the first move. Maybe she thought he was a stalker or something. He just hoped she'd still pose for him!
His ringing cell phone broke his concentration.
"Hello?" Blake grabbed the slim device, keeping his other hand on the wheel. "Darren! How 'ya doin'? Hadn't heard from you in a while."
Blake paused while listening to the voice on the other end. He was careful to be pleasant, but not overly jovial considering what his friend had recently been through.
"Tonight? Well, I suppose. I have plans later, but I guess I could swing by. Yeah? Glad to hear you're working again. Really?! Then I'll definitely drop by. I'm anxious to see the latest masterpiece. Okay, 'round six? Alright, see ya then."
At five fifty-five Blake parked his SUV in front of a sprawling suburban home on a hilly cul-de-sac lot and made his way to the front door.
"Come on in." Came a voice from the other side in reply to his knock.
Darren Russo, a man in his latter fifties, met Blake in the foyer and extended his hand. "Good to see you," he gestured toward the living room. “Make yourself at home, and I'll pour us a drink."
"Sounds good." Blake replied taking a seat on the leather couch. He gazed around the ornate living room, and was as amazed as always. Darren's home wasn't decorated like most houses you'd see in this area or anywhere else. It always fascinated Blake to be invited here (although those occasions were rare), because Darren's home was a dream come true for someone with Blake's zealous enthusiasm for realistic mannequins.
Darren shared many of Blake's interests, but there was a subtle difference. While Blake merely dressed and posed female figures in a store, Darren was an accomplished artist who actually created them. Examples of his work, all unbelievably beautiful and accurate, were displayed just about everywhere around the fashionable house and in his attached gallery, but never in public. The astounding motionless sculptures recalled many of the famous mannequin studios’ creations in their attitudes and expressions, with representations of haughty “Hindsgaul”s, flirty “Filoso”s, and playful “Pucci”s, but there was always an elusive additional essence in each figure; the spark of creativity that made every expression of his art unique.
Despite Blake's and, previously Katherine's, dogging of Darren to allow them to exhibit the figures at Heckmann’s, he had flatly refused. Also, he insisted that the two window dressers only assist him in properly displaying his hyper-realistic beauties, urging them not to ask questions about his artistic methods.
Waiting for Darren to return, Blake concentrated on a static, busty redhead who stood posed uncomplainingly near the end of the couch. She wore a French maid's uniform and shiny black nylons, perched high upon her stiletto heels, her sculpted body bent forward in what appeared to be a futile attempt to reach the end-table with her extended feather duster. The faux girl looked like she could take a breath, come to life, and go about her interrupted cleaning at any instant. She remained frozen in position however, unchanging and as still as stone.
Another dimension to Darren's creativity, one that had always intrigued Blake, was the artist's ability to capture absolute realism. Although the mannequins displayed in Heckmann’s stores were very realistic in nature, they did not begin to rival Darren's work whatsoever. His figures portrayed "real life" in the fullest sense of the word. This artist had mastered his craft. Skin blemishes, freckles, tattoos, all attributes as well as those subtle differences in a real woman's appearance were reproduced with the greatest of detail. Mannequins that went beyond being mere commercial depictions of the female form to becoming truly objects of art.
Blake had often had a sneaking suspicion that this mysterious man that he called a "friend" had something to hide. But he had agreed to help him prepare those uncanny replicas, no questions asked. After each and every visit, and his skillful assistance with a figure's final preparation for display, he was rewarded with a large wad of cash and he went about his own business back at the store. Besides, he enjoyed the hell out of dressing and displaying these eerily lifelike, yet absolutely immobile, women; he wasn't about to ruin that chance; even if something less than wholesome was going on.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" Darren interrupted Blake's renewed appraisal of the redhead.
"Yes. Thank you." Blake took the tumbler glass from Darren's hand. "Katherine posed her, didn't she?"
Darren nodded. "That figure was created some time ago. Early ninety's if I 'member right."
Sipping his drink, Blake figured he'd get it over with. "Any word on Katherine?"
"Nothin'. The fuckin' cops keep houndin' me, 'cause she'd been here that night. But the one they need to find is that asshole husband of hers," he slurred. "She was gettin' ready to leave the bastard, but she was scared of what he might do if she did." Darren paused. He took a few moments to refill his drink to the top, then took a deep swallow. He seemed deep in thought; frustrated somehow. "She had planned to tell him that night. God only knows what he might have done; now both of ‘em have vanished..."
"You loved her didn't you?"
"It's not past tense!" Darren replied angrily. "All I tried to do was help her. We both wanted to be together, and someday, we will be."
Darren was getting that funny look in his eye, and Blake figured he should change the subject. "How 'bout that new figure you told me about on the phone," the window-dresser prompted.
"Oh, yeah, come on. We'll take a look. I'm sorry if I get a little carried away sometimes." Walking away a bit unsteadily, the gray haired man unlocked the door in the hallway that led to his unique display gallery. With Blake close behind, they descended the darkened stairway, and soon the room was flooded with light.
The vaulted sunken room, almost a museum, was nearly a heavenly experience for the novice visual merchandiser and 'closet' statuephile. Blake gazed with opened jaw at the numerous lovely mannequin models displayed in various arrangements, poses, and scenes. There were facsimiles of women in all shapes and sizes, ranging in age from late teens to early fifties in some cases; nearly every ethnic group was represented. Considering the hairstyles and clothing displayed on some of the female figures, it was also obvious that they had either been created some time ago, or were deliberately meant to portray a previous era. Blake had been here before, but with each and every visit, feelings were stirred within him that he couldn't explain, or didn’t want to.
"She'sh right over here." Darren circled out of the showroom and into the nearby workshop, then pointed to a canvas-draped upright shape on a pedestal. Removing the concealing tarp gently, Darren revealed his latest, naked masterpiece. It nearly took Blake's breath away! He gingerly approached the unmoving female figure, and stood in awe of her exotic beauty.
She appeared to be of traditional Italian stock; about twenty years old and strikingly beautiful. Not model quality, as the store mannequins often seemed to be, but none-the-less, a head turner. She was tall and a bit skinny, Blake thought. But these were ‘imperfections’ that a lot of real woman would gladly brag about.
Her long, shiny, coal black hair, which appeared to be woven into her plastic scalp as opposed to a wig, spilled across her bare shoulders and trailed down to her perky, "C" cup breasts, both of which were captured in an erect posture. The figure had large, dark, and mysterious eyes that stared back at Blake without emotion; he soon broke eye contact and continued his survey of her comely form.
Her taut abdomen showed evidence of time in the gym and the anatomically correct region just below was hidden by a fair amount of matching, thick black pubic hair. Even her under-arm area showed evidence of a day's stubble. The silver stud belly-button ring reflecting in the bright overhead lights completed her thoroughly.
How did he do it? Blake thought better of asking.
"When did you sculpt her?"
"She was finished yesterday." Darren said bluntly.
"She's gorgeous! I think she's one of your best yet."
"Thanks." Darren said with a somewhat critical eye. "But I don't agree. I'd kinda' hoped for better. But, she'sh been the first in while. Guess we gotta get back in the swing of things, heh?"
Blake shook his head at the artist's modesty. "What did you have in mind? Swimsuit? Formal? Personally, I'd go with lingerie." This one has a really nice shape, especially her waist and torso.
"Thought about trying something different this time." Darren pointed to a shopping bag on the floor near the motionless figure.
Blake worked in silence as he dressed the olive skinned beauty in the leather outfit, which included a choker collar and studded bracelets. When he was done, she looked like she had stepped right out of starring in an S&M porno flick. It wasn't really his style, but he had enjoyed maneuvering the skimpy clothing over her smooth rigid form. It was more difficult than dressing the store mannequins, not only because of the lack of joints, but the weight of these figures rivaled that of real women.
Working so close to this alluringly lifelike statue, Blake let his hand linger, caressing her sex, touching her intimacy lightly as he positioned the micro-shorts over her hips. He had a raging hard-on, which he tried to conceal by standing even closer to the mannequin. Glancing over at Darren, he saw the older man smirking knowingly. “So much for hoping he wouldn’t notice…”
"You ever considered using a lighter material?" Blake joshed as he set the one hundred plus pound figure back upon her pedestal. She didn’t wobble at all.
"Personal preferences." Darren replied, half asleep.
"Well," Blake countered. "You won't believe what happened to me yesterday. At first I thought it might have been you, playing a practical joke on me."
Darren leaned forward in his chair and listened. His eyes widened in anticipation of what the young man was about to share. He listened intently as Blake related the entire encounter, including his technique for removing the faux mannequin from the display and then her elusive departure.
Darren interrupted. "She's back, huh? Kathy told me about that girl – use’ta show up every once-st in a while for the past year or so. Sometimes they'd run her off; others they'd just ignore her there. Let her get her rocks off. Know what I mean?" he smirked.
"Well, she was more than I could ignore." Blake grinned. "I've got a date with her tonight!"
"Good for you! Look's good, huh?"
"Absolutely." Looking at his watch, Blake withdrew himself from the pretty brunette statue. "Shit! I'm supposed to be there in half and hour; can’t stay any longer." He was distracted momentarily as Darren staggered up and shoved a wad of green bills into his hand.
"Have fun." With that, Darren walked off into another part of the astounding studio, and closed the door behind him. He heard the sound of a deadbolt thunking into place. Blake knew that another of their strange meetings was over.
Later That Evening:
With a bounce in his step, Blake ascended the stairs to the third floor of the depression-era warehouse that had been remodeled into an apartment building. As he neared the end of the narrow hallway and approached Gail's door for the second time today, he noticed a small lavender envelope taped just below the tarnished brass numbers. His name was written upon it in familiar cursive handwriting, and the perfumed note within welcomed him inside; indicating where the key was hidden. With a broad smile, he retrieved it, unlocked and turned the knob.
The sight that greeted him shouldn't have come as a surprise. The halogens of the window display were blazing once again, and instead of being met at the door by Gail, Blake was delighted to see the beautiful mannequin Giselle staring blankly into the mirrors that were positioned on four sides around her motionless body.
She seemed no more aware of his presence than she had been in the store. He didn't speak as he closed and locked the door, then moved towards her. Appreciatively, he surveyed her luscious immobile form. Instead of a wig this time, her own chestnut hair was tucked neatly into a bun, revealing her slender neck and bare shoulders. Only a lacy black bra, thong panty and matching nylons, suspended by a garter belt, separated her from nakedness. Blake moved close to the unmoving figure, and could smell the flowery perfume that permeated the air. He examined every curve of her sinuous body with lustful eyes; his excitement clearly evident from the bulge in his trousers. The nervousness he had experienced at the store on the previous day was long gone, yet he wondered just how 'open' Giselle's invitation really was. After all, they had only met this morning and again at lunch, but he figured he would test the waters.
He reached out and touched the mannequin's soft, warm arms with both of his hands. As he gently caressed the unmoving limbs, he could feel the thick coating of makeup rubbing off on his fingers. She remained rigidly posed as if unaware of his touch. He looked deep into Giselle's fixed eyes, and spontaneously, planted a kiss upon the full, red lips that were frozen into a half smile. His hand now brushed across her mid-section and upward toward the mounds of her breasts. I haven't gotten slapped... yet! He mused.
As his fingers moved gently over the thin lace that covered her bosom, he could feel, and see the reaction that he was evoking. He used his thumb to encircle the jutting nipples that had responded so favorably, and within moments the unclasped bra lay on the floor at the faux mannequin's feet. She still didn't move in the slightest way. Blake considered the lack of protest to be a continued invitation and he went about his playful exploration.
Before he knew it, his hand was between Giselle's shapely thighs. He gently maneuvered his fingers beneath the light fabric that concealed her sex and massaged the spot of increasing dampness. He thought he sensed a shudder pass through the unmoving body, quickly looked up once more at her beautiful face. It remained as frozen as before, but there was something different. Her smile had broadened now!
Blake's throbbing manhood was about to burst his zipper. Sliding his fingers beneath the waistband of Giselle's garter belt, he gently released the tension on the elastic straps and lowered the garment along with her panties. Even her cleanly shaved sex appeared shiny and artificial; coated with the same makeup that had been applied to the remainder of her lovely body. It was only smudged from Blake's touch and the wetness that was becoming more evident with every passing moment. He thought he might have heard a brief, stifled, gasp from her but when he looked up the mannequin was still holding her same fixed facial expression.
I might not have been able to make her move before...but... Blake smiled inwardly at the devilish thought. He knelt before the sexy and nearly disrobed mannequin, and leaned in close enough to her now exposed sex to revel in the female scent. Another shiver, this one more pronounced, passed throughout the frozen female figure as Blake tasted her sweet juices. His oral massage lasted for several minutes and although the frequent shudders that trembled her motionless body increased, she still did not break her pose. Was she ever going to move?! He was nearing the point of no return. He couldn't stand this much longer!
He almost jumped when he felt a hand on the back of his head; then another. They caressed his hair nearly in time with every movement of his skillful tongue, and pulled him in closer. He heard a gentle moan. Giselle's knees began to buckle and her whole body seemed to limber up, and he looked upward to a smiling, blissful face. Blake stood with the intentions of sweeping the beautiful woman into his arms and carrying her to the bed in the corner, but suddenly she froze up once more. Her eyes were shut and the blissful expression remained on her face, but once again, she didn't move in the slightest way. Damn it!
Kissing her passionately on the lips created a momentary ‘thaw’ and more cooing of pleasure, but as soon as he stopped, so did she, stiffening into a statue. What am I waiting for? I just can’t hesitate… Tipping her backward, he lifted Giselle’s rigid body off her feet while she remained ramrod-straight like a girl he had once seen in a hypnosis show. It was only a few steps to the platform bed as he laid her gently on the covers. She hadn’t moved in the least, keeping an unchanging pleased expression with lips pursed out into a frozen kiss. There was no objection as he pulled the bedding away underneath her and carefully removed her high-heeled shoes and items of jewelry.
She did not move or complain as he removed his own outer clothes and lay down beside her, their bodies lightly touching. Her skin was cool and slightly glossy due to the abundant body makeup she wore. Her rigidly held arms weren’t quite in the way as Blake caressed her still form, starting by tracing his finger lightly along the lines of her face and down her smooth neck to her bosom. It’s a good thing she’s not ticklish, he thought as he cupped one breast and started to fondle its shape. Even while she held herself absolutely still, no amount of mental control could change the soft firmness of her breasts or the supple sinuous contours of her taut abdomen. His fingers reached her damp sex once more, circling teasingly before going deeper. Giselle let out a throaty “MMmmmm…” to let him know his tender stroking was enjoyable but otherwise remained a passive participant. Maybe that’s the way she likes it, Blake mused as he hovered over her luscious figure to kiss her pouting lips. After all, she believes she’s a mannequin, stiff as solid plastic. What if she were made of something else?
“You’re absolutely gorgeous, Giselle,” he said to her softly. “I’m so pleased they can craft a figure so utterly beautiful that can be pose able, too. Here, let me arrange your arms slightly.” There, he thought, I’ve given her an out… Rolling more on top of her, he grasped one arm and guided it across so her hand was resting on the back of his neck. There was no resistance; though he could feel her muscles lock up again as soon as he was done. Then her fingers with their long manicured nails slowly unfroze and started to play with his hair. Soon afterward, she arched her back languidly, pressing her body more closely to him. Blake kissed her again, his free hand slipping behind her back to grasp her muscular buns. His rock-hard member brushed the mound of her sex as he began to rock lightly against her. Maybe a dry hump is all I’m gonna get tonight… Suddenly, at last, Giselle thawed.
“I can’t hold still any longer, Blake,” she gasped. “Take me…ooh!”
The following timeless time was a blur as their bodies entwined and explored and merged. She was surprisingly strong and agile for someone who spent a lot of time standing statue-still. Her experienced lovemaking came too as a revelation; she looked so young. Beyond the second or third climax, Blake stopped being amazed by her and let himself fall into the shining moment.
"Is that the first time you’ve made love to a mannequin?" She asked, much later, looking at Blake, glowing. They were curled up together on the makeup-smeared sheets, enjoying each other’s close intimacy.
“Sure is, but I gotta admit that I’ve ‘practiced’ more than a few times,” Blake replied, reddening. He barely knew this girl; here he was blabbering.
“Hey, no worry. You certainly knew what you were up to. I almost caved in several times; it’s so… so… abstract? Being utterly still, letting someone else treat you like an…”
“Object?” Blake supplied.
“Exactly, though that does sound a little kinky. But it feels right to me. The thrill I get from just standing there, being fussed over, arranged, is like being made love to; it’s so incredible, like a constant climax. Even posed in the store, I feel a little bit that way too. Genuine sex though, while frozen, is almost celestial; tonight was simply unbelievable. Mmmmmm…”
“So, it was good for you, too?” Blake chuckled, reciting the corny phrase.
“Oh, yeah!” she agreed, snuggling closer, arms around him. Minutes passed in serene silence, then Gail propped herself up on one elbow, waking Blake, who had drifted off.
"You said you went to visit a friend tonight?" she asked, out of the blue. “That’s why you were late; we were starting to worry.”
"Uhh; yeah. A guy named Darren Russo. He's a little bit on the oddball side, even for me." Blake chuckled, yawning. "But he's an artist. I guess they're, or we're, all a little bit eccentric."
"Yeah. He actually sculpts mannequin figures. Aside from you, Giselle, his are probably the most realistic I've ever seen!"
She laughed and kissed him softly. "You’re so sweet! Does he make the ones for the store?"
"No. I've begged him," Blake replied, tracing a pattern on her neck with his fingers. "But he won't let me do anything with his figures besides dress 'em. Then he just keeps 'em hidden away at this house, on pedestals or in little dioramas. I'm not even supposed to talk about it."
She had a curious look on her face. "Sounds a kind of spooky, but intriguing."
"Like I told you, he's a little weird. He really went off the deep end after Katherine, my old boss, went missing. They had a thing, you see. She'd been there, at his house, that night; I guess it's the last place she was ever seen. That caused quite a stir, as you can imagine." Blake stood up from the bed. "Tonight's the first time I've really caught up to him since."
"Did you talk to your manager today?"
Blake busied himself pulling on his now torn boxers, saying “Yeah. They, uh, said it was a great idea and wanted me to pursue the concept some more. I was thinking you could help me with a proposal for an event, maybe a demonstration too?”
She pursed her lips. “So, nothing right now?”
“Didn’t say that; just we need to work on some things first. That way, they can’t say no.” ‘And,’ he thought, ‘Giselle can continue to become my very personal mannequin for a while longer.’
"What about this Russo guy?" She seemed to perk up a bit.
"No." Blake said with authority. "Stay clear of him."
He walked to the tiny bathroom to wash his hands. When he came out, Gail was still in bed, silent, staring at the ceiling. “Hey, what’s up?” Coming closer, he saw that infinite vacant gaze and knew that Giselle’s craving to be ‘arranged’ was in control once more. Her hands though, were posed provocatively with one caressing a breast and the other held lower. She didn’t move at all, though it was clear what was going on. This mannequin was ready for display in the sort of store that catered to erotic toys and books. You’re quite an erotic toy, yourself, he thought, bending over her to once more awaken his frozen beauty by the only means he knew.
Gail stirred as morning light leaked around the edges of the drapery, bringing with it a new day. Suddenly a rasping snore erupted from the other side of the bed, where someone lay sleeping under the heaped comforter. She realized she wasn’t alone and that most of those dreams of lovemaking she’d had weren’t really dreams at all. Her face flushed; warm beneath smudged makeup. Lingerie and other garments were strewn across the floor, with one filmy nylon draped over the overhead light fixture. Giselle certainly had a good time last night!
Two Weeks Later:
Gail's high heels clicked on the concrete floor of Heckmann's storeroom as she approached Blake's office. Reaching the doorway, she saw Brooke seated at the desk. The young assistant was facing away from the entrance, and was wrapped up in another of her endless cell phone conversations. It was obvious that she failed to recognize Gail's presence. Even the telltale echo of her approaching footsteps hadn't gotten the pretty blonde's attention.
Since that first magical day, Gail had been to the store quite a lot to meet with Blake, stopping by at breaks or to grab a quick snack. It was becoming clear to anyone that they were fast becoming an item. Brooke even seemed relieved when the two young women had talked.
"Knock, knock." Gail offered, hoping not to startle the younger girl.
"Oh, hey." Brooke glanced over her shoulder with a surprised expression. She looked like 'the cat that swallowed the canary'.
"Lemme call ya back." Brooke whispered flatly. Snapping her cell phone closed, she turned to face the visitor. "Whew, you scared me."
"Sorry..." Gail smiled. "I didn't mean to interrupt. Boyfriend?"
"Who?" Brooke hesitated; a little confused.
"On the phone, silly."
"Oh, ah, sort of." She seemed relieved somehow at Gail's simple deduction. "Actually just a guy I know from wor, er, ah college I mean."
Gail wondered why she seemed so frazzled, but dismissed it as youth. "Where's my handsome window dresser?"
"He's in a big meeting with the GM and the regional manager, upstairs. Probably be a while," she laughed. "That guy comes by twice a month to chew everybody's ass; whether they need it or not."
Gail frowned. "Oh, damn. I took some time off, and stopped by to see if he wanted to have lunch." Secretly, she had the odd notion of also hoping to be able to spend a few happy hours in one of the displays, too. The rack of party dresses seemed to call out to her… Wear me! Model me! Gail wondered where those weird thoughts came from.
"You're welcome to wait if ya' want." Brooke stood from behind the desk. "Here, have a seat. I've gotta go straighten up one of the displays. Some kid spilled a soda, and the stupid janitor screwed everything up. But I'll be back."
"Okay, thanks." Gail accepted her offer. “Say, did your boss mention anything about the store doing some freeze modeling events? He said he was going to check into it since other malls are hosting them?”
Booke gave an ironic chuckle. “Yeah; Blake almost got canned for that one. Told me the upper management considered the very concept ‘frivolous and not aligned with the prestigious Heckmann's image’,” she quoted. “No way that’s going to happen here now.” She saw Gail’s face sag as she delivered the disappointing news. “Sorry…”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Gail said, though it was clearly a brave fib. “Don’t you have some clean-up to do? I’ll just wait here for a few minutes.”
"I so wanna graduate and get outta here." Brooke grumbled to no one in particular as she walked away.
Gail was alone now. She drummed her fingers on the desktop out of boredom. I wonder how much longer Blake's gonna be? We need to talk…
She glanced over the cluttered desktop, and her eyes fell upon a faded card in his opened Rolodex. She had no intention of being nosy, but Giselle’s eyes were immediately drawn to the name and address scrawled there. I wonder if . . . ? No, Blake told me not to. Hmmph!
Gail abruptly got up from the desk and started to walk out into the storeroom. Everywhere she looked, her gaze was returned by the glassy eyes of motionless female figures; those silent yet haughty avatars of beauty. Some were dressed; most were not. A few were even disassembled, missing arms, legs or both. Various appendages however, hug from the ceiling racks and nearby walls that could easily be snapped into the empty sockets. In the back corner, there were some mannequins that were damaged. Gail imagined that they were waiting in vain at hopes of repair, but she knew that most of them were destined for the dumpster.
They all looked so peaceful somehow, even the broken ones, and their tranquility seemed to get the best of her. Gail could feel herself slipping away into that same special place, one that Giselle knew very well. Unconsciously, she struck a display pose and her mind began to drift off. If only . . .
Suddenly the telephone on Blake's desk rang.
The interruption was enough to cause "Giselle" to disappear as quickly as she had come, but her promiscuous yearning had not been extinguished. She glanced around the room once more, and then returned to the desk. Hurriedly, she copied down Darren Russo's name and address, and slipped out of the store.
When Blake returned from the executive meeting, Brooke was seated behind his desk once again, squinting at some tiny video clip on his computer. The floors remained un-swept and the garment racks that Blake had asked her to tidy up were exactly as they had been. He only shook his head. The last time he had brought anything negative about her up to the general manager, he had gotten his head bitten off. After the meeting he had just left, he'd had enough "constructive criticism" for one day, so he figured it was best to let any reprimand go.
"Gail was here," the young girl offered, looking up from the tedious task of filing her nails.
"About an hour ago."
"Where'd she go?"
Brooke shrugged. "Don't know. I thought she was gonna wait for you, but when I came back, she was gone."
Blake smiled. "I'll bet I can find her."
Heading out through the store, he searched every display window and platform. He was only greeted however by beautiful but hollow plastic replicas, which stared back at him; his lovely Giselle mannequin was nowhere to be seen among them. Dejected, he returned to his office.
"Hi, it's Gail, but I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave your name and number and . . .".
Blake slammed down the phone. For the past four hours Gail's cheery recorded greeting had been the only response he had gotten when dialing either her home or cell numbers. He was becoming worried.
Gail wandered the rest of the afternoon, not wanting to show up at work and face those nosy questions from her co-workers; she avoided her apartment because she didn’t want to see Blake if he showed up there. Two tossed-back double martinis had not helped her judgment any, but did blunt the pain. She was adrift, unsure of where she was or where she was going; letting the randomness of streetlights and traffic lead her. How could he have lied to me about that! kept running through her mind. They had seemed to hit it off so well; he understood her need to appear as Giselle, or said he did. Was that only so he could sleep with me? Gail asked herself.
The mannequins had it so much easier; all they had to do was be beautiful and stand around as others worried about them. Giselle watched, transfixed, at another store as a window dresser prepared the mannequins there for display. She imagined the still figures as being herself, feeling the erotic joy of being posed and primped, without having to lift a finger. She found herself pressed against the cool glass, peering inward like a gawker at a carnival. The window dresser noticed her, too, shutting off the lights in the finished display with disdain, leaving the completed tableaux standing there in shadowy darkness. Giselle drew away, leaving her faint fingerprints on the glass and one smeared outline of her lips as well. What was I doing there all that time?? she wondered with a glance at her watch.
It was starting to get dark and the temperature was dropping as a light rain began to fall; she knew she’d have to go home sooner or later. The slip of paper with the contact information for Blake’s sculptor friend came to hand as she searched for her purse. She’d switched off her cell phone hours ago; now she activated it and dialed the number with newfound conviction.
Later That Evening:
Blake had gone by her apartment after work, half expecting to find his flighty girlfriend standing statue-still in her own little diorama, but Gail wasn’t there and the display lights were cool. She hadn’t been around all day and did not return to her work in the afternoon either. He realized he didn’t really know her all that well; maybe she had just gone out with friends or taken in a movie? Yet he did know how much she had been looking forward to having a genuine job as a mannequin model at Heckmann’s and how their decision to decline had likely hurt her feelings.
He’d looked all through the store earlier and again on his way out, but there were many other department stores, shops, and boutiques in town that still used realistic display figures; Blake knew them well from his ‘research’ into visual marketing concepts. Checking them all took hours; some had closed by the time he finished well into the evening. Still no Gail anywhere.
It was becoming very clear she didn’t want to be found; he finally gave up and decided to give his the space she seemed to be needing right now and wondered if she’d decided to end their relationship. That seemed kind of abrupt to him, but Gail was sort of a kooky young woman even if their kinks had kind of aligned with each other. He didn’t sleep very well that night.
The cab drove away after dropping her off at the suburban address; Gail stood at the sidewalk for a few minutes more, suddenly unsure of her decision to come here. Was she being too hasty? Should she take a day or two and chill out? her conscience cautioned. Another voice in her mind encouraged: If this works out, you’ll have a lot longer than that to think things over. Quit stalling! Giselle was taking control again.
She straightened her hair, smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress, and cinched the wide belt at her waist another notch tighter. Checking her stockings for runs and finding none, Giselle took out her compact and freshened her makeup with a little bit more blusher and mascara than usual for daytime appearances. The soft street lighting didn’t help either.
Finally, Giselle was ready. She strode unfalteringly up the winding pathway to the front entrance of the sprawling house and rang the bell. Faint echoes of a chime could be heard echoing inside. Time passed as she polished her long nails and waited, at first patiently. She pressed the button twice more, resulting in a longer series of chimes. More seconds elapsed, looking to stretch into minutes.
She was digging in her purse for the cell phone when the door opened abruptly and they looked each other over. This Darren guy was even more disheveled than most artists she’d met; his brow was sweaty and he seemed to have been drinking as well judging from the way he steadied himself on the doorframe. His eyes widened approvingly as he took in her elegant appearance in a glance, then gave Giselle a slow toe-to-head leer that lingered on her figure at several places. He seemed to be having trouble making eye contact.
“Mr. Russo, we spoke earlier? My name is Giselle Sa..” she began.
“You did? Oh, yeah,” he recalled gruffly. “Call me Darren, darlin’, and come on in. I’m jus a little busy tonight. Wanna drink?”
Giselle paused for a moment more, probably hearing the voice of Gail in her head, then stepped into the house. “No, nothing yet, Mr… Darren.” She closed the door behind her as he had already shuffled ahead, and had started to follow him when she caught sight of a posed figure standing stiffly alongside the living room couch. It was a mannequin, or statue, dressed in a French maid’s uniform. The motionless woman was incredibly life-like, looking frozen in time as she reached out with the feathered duster. “Oh! My… is this one of your works?” Giselle called out to him. “She’s marvelous!”
“Yeah; one of the early ones. My newest figures are even better. Wanna see?” his voice echoed from deeper within the spacious house. “I’m in the studio.”
“Certainly, Mr. Russo,” she called out, following the sound of his voice. “But I also want to talk about what I asked you on the phone?” There were more of his ultra-realistic mannequins scattered through the house, most on display stands but a few were completely free standing or sitting inattentively on furniture. One reclined, buck naked, on the carpet next to a huge fireplace. Giselle could have spent all day and night looking at the incredible artworks; with an effort she passed them by for now as she located the brightly lit studio.
Darren was there already, his attention focused on yet another motionless female figure as he adjusted her position. The mannequin’s arms were sculpted oddly, held up in front of her body, almost as if she was trying protect herself or ready to be leaned against a nonexistent window. The artwork held an expression of surprise and was dressed in a tailored pantsuit.
There was no outward sign that betrayed the fact the mannequin’s name was Shanna Steuben and that she had appeared at Russo’s door only a few hours earlier, cold calling for real estate properties. From the street, his place had looked extremely attractive. Not unusually, Darren had thought the same about her.
“That’s a really interesting choice of a pose; it will limit the places she can be displayed, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Giselle spoke up, causing the artist to flinch a little before turning around to face her. “I’ve had some experience freeze modeling, you see,” she continued.
“Huh? Oh, yeah; well I sometimes try out what they look like in dif’rent ass-pecs, y’know,” he said while lowering the figure’s arms in line with her waist and twisting her hands at the wrists into a more typically graceful appearance. “Now, what did’ja say you wanted again?” he muttered, turning towards his workbench and taking a sip from a tumbler of scotch on rocks.
“Honestly, Mister Russo, did you even listen to what I said earlier?” Giselle was getting upset.
“Sort of, honey; you were talkin’ kinda fast. Something about Heckmanns’ store and posing?”
“Yes, that’s it. They won’t let me mannequin-model there, so if I could pose for you and have you sculpt a mannequin figure of me, they could see how nicely I can look displaying in their windows and then they might change their minds. Does that sound silly to you?”
“Um, not really, no.” He looked her over again. Why not? “So, you want me to turn you into a mannequin?” He fumbled in his pocket.
“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. I’ve seen your work here and it’s… amazing. If only I could – Wha!?” Giselle’s voice cut off mid-word as the artist turned quickly towards her and touched her with something that caused a strange tingle throughout her body. She was instantly frozen in place, suddenly unable to move or utter a sound. Oddly, the sensation turned her on a lot, even more so than when she freeze-modeled as a mannequin by herself.
“That’s better, darlin’; never did like too much conversation from my models. You jus’ relax and let me do my magic, hah!” His chuckle turned into a dry, hacking, cough that lasted for several seconds before he began to undress the immobilized young woman. “I got a feeling you’re gonna be my best one yet.”
Giselle remained fully aware of everything and finally comprehended, too late, that the other mannequin in the studio had also come here on her own two feet earlier tonight. She could see out of the corner of one eye that the posed figure was wearing a pendant around her neck, earrings, and rings on several fingers. A woman’s leather handbag rested on the worktable behind the exceedingly lifelike mannequin that really wasn’t an artificial sculpture after all.
Good God, exactly what have I gotten myself into? Gail wondered. Quit kidding yourself; you knew something like this might happen. Chill out and enjoy the journey! Giselle’s thoughts countered.
Another New Day:
The next morning Blake barely made it into work. Even fueled with a four-shot espresso, his brain seemed like cotton. Sorting out some dresses that would go into the upcoming displays, he let his mind wander back to his last conversation with Gail. What might he have done to turn her away; had he pushed too quickly?
A ringing in his ears finally sunk in, it was his cell phone sitting on the table!
"Hello?!" Blake grabbed the call on the last ring in hopes that it was Gail, not noticing the ID.
The gravelly voice on the other end disappointed him. "Hey Darren, how are you?"
"Doin' pretty good. I wanted to talk a little business with you, if it idn't a bad time."
"No, go right ahead." Blake looked at this watch. He was not so disappointed anymore.
"Well, I been busy over the last couple days." He drawled. "Got a new figure that I'm anxious for ya to see."
"Not as anxious as I am!"
Darren cleared his throat. He sounded as though he had recently woken up. During the short pause, Blake could hear the clink of a Zippo lighter and a forced exhalation that preceded the older man's deep cough. Not waiting for his friend to continue, Blake pressed the conversation. "When would you like me come by?"
"Actually, you don't need to this time. I've been thinkin' about it, and if you're still interested, I'll let you use this one for a while at the store. In one of y'all's displays, I mean." Darren paused to take another drag from his cigarette. "Don't mean to brag, but this one deserves to be seen at Heckmanns."
Blake was ecstatic. "Darren, that's great! You could really get some great exposure. Man, there's a fortune to be made if..."
Darren cut him short. "I don't want my name attached to it, what-so-ever. You jus' dress her and display her as you see fit. If people start askin' questions, just bullshit 'em. Anonymous Artist is all you know."
"Well," Blake hesitated. "If you're that modest, that's how it'll be."
"That's the way I want it." Darren reaffirmed. "I'll have her delivered this morning."
"Cool! I'll take good care of her. You don't know how much I appreciate this, Darren."
"Jus’ do me proud."
"You know I will." Blake beamed.
With that the phone went silent and Blake returned it to his pocket. He looked around the storeroom. He had to make very special preparations for this. Where should I put her?... Lingerie, swimsuit?... No; the front window would be the only suitable, and deserving spot for the beauty that he anticipated.
"Good morning." Brooke's sultry voice broke the silence.
As Blake returned her greeting, she walked to his desk and sat her large purse down with a thump. What does she carry in that thing? Blake silently questioned. It must weigh a ton!
She stood with her back to him for a moment, and he watched appreciatively as she pulled the pink "scrunchy" from her long, blonde curls and slipped it onto her wrist. With the elastic restraint removed, the mane of flaxen hair fell gently down her back, and nearly covered the tiny, pink tank top that exposed her midriff. Without her knowledge, Blake's eyes continued their playful excursion. The stonewashed hip-hugger jeans appeared to have been painted on her shapely backside, and they clung to her long legs; disappearing into the calf-high, heeled boots that she wore. Although work performance wasn't one of them, there were other advantages to having a pretty female college student for an assistant.
Too young! Blake reprimanded himself mentally. Besides, you've got Gail... and Giselle. He smiled in reflection of the thought. But it doesn't ever hurt to look...
Soon Blake had filled Brooke in on the events that were to unfold this morning. It was the first time she had heard him mention this 'Darren' fellow, and she too was anxious to see this hyper-realistic figure that Blake was so enamored with; even before he had seen it.
Blake and Brooke stood outside the roll-up door in the cool morning air. Blake's heart pounded with each of beep of the backup alarm as the delivery van moved closer to the platform. After the parking brake was secured, the driver hopped out and approached the two waiting employees. His eyes were immediately drawn to the two perky nubs beneath Brooke's top that had responded to the cool morning air.
"Good mornin'." The muscular black man said with a cheerful smile. His eyes never made it high enough to meet Brooke's.
Sensing his stare, she crossed her arms.
"Special deliv'ry fo'... a Blake Johsson." The man's accent interfered with his professional dialogue as he looked down at the electronic clipboard.
"That's me." Blake declared, beaming. He reminded Brooke of a child on Christmas morning.
He watched with the wide eyes as the driver used a hand truck to maneuver the large wooden crate from the back of the van to the center of the storeroom. Blake was a bit uncomfortable however, with how much the dimensions of the container reminded him of a coffin. "Right here is fine," he directed the man.
The man sat down his burden with a thud, and handed Blake the clipboard. "Sign in the first blank box."
As the uniformed deliveryman returned to his rumbling diesel truck, Brooke secured the bay door. Together they maneuvered the heavy crate onto a pallet jack, into the freight elevator, and up to the visual merchandising department’s workroom. He had wanted to open the crate right there on the loading dock, but Brooke talked him into waiting a few minutes longer. Blake was already digging through the mismatched tool set in search of a pry bar as she scanned the bill of lading.
"Just a little more." Blake pressed downward on the tool, and after the last nail skreaked free, the lid of the box was removed and set to the side. Blake dug into the Styrofoam packing material, scattering the small white peanuts into piles around his feet. The suspense was killing him! Finally... he could almost feel the delicate curves of the figure beneath. Then just as he'd cleared away most of the troublesome packing chips, he discovered that he could still not clearly see the motionless beauty that awaited him. The figure was also cloaked in a layer of heavy bubble wrap, which had been taped around it multiple times. Obtaining a penknife from the pocket of his jeans, he gently went about removing this final obstruction.
The first thing he saw was the right arm of the mannequin. The stiff limb was parallel to the female figure's side and the hand that was soon exposed resembled that of a woman with a fresh manicure. Before long, another portion of the plastic protection was pulled away revealing two shapely, tanned legs. Blake admired the way that Darren had captured the curvature of the muscles of her thighs and even a tiny beauty mark just above... her knee. He smiled, thinking that Gail had a similar birthmark in the same location. Then, as a cold lump formed in the pit of his stomach, Blake became more hasty and jerked at the covering aggressively.
Suddenly, as he ripped the sheet away that masked the mannequin's attractive frozen face, a look of horror crossed his own.
"Oh, my God!!" Brooke gasped. The assistant bent in to look more closely at the now stiffened features she had seen in life only a day earlier. This guy works fast! Her mind raced.
Blake rubbed his eyes. He didn't believe what he was seeing!
Doesn’t that look just like..." Brooke blurted, bringing her hand up to cover her mouth.
"Gis...Gail." Blake finished the sentence in a shaky voice. He felt dizzy, as if he would pass out. His face was pale white and his hands shook as he reached into the crate and touched the familiar, naked mannequin who stared woodenly back at him. Its texture was rigid, cold and unyielding. And just like all of Darren's figures, it mirrored life itself; as still life.
He studied the rigid figure more closely. This was not a mannequin that had been rendered from a model, at least not in the traditional fashion, nor was there a way that anyone could sculpt a figure that reminded both he and Brooke so much of the beautiful young woman that he had come to know so deeply.
Placing his hands under the mannequin's stiffened arms, Blake pulled the unmoving figure from the crate. The solidified body was heavy, and he gently worked it free of the 'coffin'. Blake shuddered once again at the thought. The mannequin now stood naked, permanently arched feet tip-toeing on the cold concrete floor. She wouldn’t balance on her own unless wearing heels, so he had to lean her awkwardly against a wall so she remained upright. A tear rolled down his cheek as he observed every detail that he remembered of his girlfriend's naked body. Each and every one them were rendered perfectly into this hardened, seemingly lifeless mannequin.
He touched the figure's cheek gingerly, and looked deep into the glassy, blue-green eyes. It reminded him so much of the day he had first met Giselle in the formalwear display. This time was different, however. There was no wink, no smile. The glossy sheen of the mannequin's skin that reflected the fluorescent lights was also similar, but this time, no makeup was involved. What had Darren done?! This was no replica. This was Giselle!! He was sure of it!
Brooke grabbed Blake's arm just he was ready to collapse onto the floor. He was weeping openly now. She helped him to a nearby chair. “This might be just some bizarre coincidence, you think?”
"I always thought something fishy was going on out there." he moaned. "I always knew something wasn't right. B'but... I didn't say anything. I was so selfish; enjoying myself too much. Now look what happened! He's gone and killed her!"
Brooke gave him an skeptical look. "What'da you mean?! Do you think this really is Gail? That's impossible, Blake." She looked at the still, impassive, figure propped up in front of her. "Isn't it?"
"I would've thought so before, but..." he stopped short as if he had a revelation. "I've seen things that... OH MY GOD! Katherine! Oh, no!" He caught his breath and his eyes widened. "I bet he took her, too..."
"We need to call the police." Brooke urged.
"And tell them what?" Blake looked up at her. "That there's this crazy guy turning women into mannequins? They'd send the men in white coats for us both. Right after they got done laughing!"
"They wouldn't... laugh; I don't think," she tried to reassure him.
Just then Blake's cell phone interrupted. As he pulled it from his pocket, he saw a familiar number displayed. It was Darren! His hand continued to shake as he held the phone to his ear and tried to play it cool, putting his emotions on hold.
"Well... Has she arrived yet?"
"Ah, yeah. She's ah, here," he stuttered.
"What'd you think?" Darren sounded unusually excited.
"Oh, the figure is ah, stunning; beautiful." Blake could barely get the words out as the shapely mannequin stared back at him accusingly, he thought. Well, you are breathtaking, Giselle…
Brooke also leaned closer, listening in as best she could.
"Glad you like her! I wanna' stop by later and see what you've done with the figure. I’m expecting something amazing with this one."
"Oh?! Of course…” Blake balked at the idea initially, then saw Brooke nodding encouragingly. “About what time?”
"'Round three? That good for you?"
"Well, uh, I'm gonna be tied up in a big meeting from twelve on..." he lied. An idea had just entered his mind. "But you're welcome to stop by. I’m prepping her for the main display window, but she won't be officially unveiled until around three, though."
"Alright, see you then." Darren ended the call. Blake put the phone down and took several deep breaths. His hands were shaking uncontrollably.
"What's going on?" Brooke's expression held suspicion. "What meeting were you talking about?"
"There is no meeting." Blake frowned. "He’ll be coming by here at three o'clock to see Giselle in the window display. We'll get her ready; then I've got some snooping to do. If he comes into town, it'll take him at least an hour to get home again with afternoon traffic."
"You’re not thinking of going to his house?"
"I don't know if that's a good idea Blake. Besides, I don't want to be here alone if he comes by. That guy kinda freaks me out," she added for effect, though she had his ‘reception’ all planned.
"I've got to get to the bottom of this," he stated defiantly, “find out if there’s some way to reverse what he did to her.” Nothing was going to change his mind at this point, short of Giselle waking up and walking into his arms. She continued to stare stiffly into the distance.
“Going there isn’t a really rational idea, we should meet him here. Anyway, we don't have much time." Brooke observed, making her own plans, then asked a sensitive question. "So, what you wanna dress your sweetie in?" She stepped towards the Giselle mannequin.
Blake moved more quickly to block the way. “NO! This is… personal. I want to prepare her myself. Don’t you have some props to check into the warehouse or, or, something?”
Brooke looked crushed, hiding her flash of anger. “I understand you don’t want me around, but no reason to be such a prick about it. Come to think of it, catalog your own damn props!” With that, she turned her back on him and walked rapidly away. He’d given her an excuse.
“Hey, wait! I didn’t mean it like that,” he called after her; she ignored him, grabbed her bulky handbag, and continued out the door.
Blake waited almost a minute, but it was clear his assistant wasn’t coming back. All through the confrontation his mannequin-ized girlfriend had been very patient, standing patiently, propped against the wall of the workroom. Now they were alone, he felt the gaze of her frozen eyes staring at him. Through him.
“Well, Giselle, you got yourself into quite a situation this time,” he said jokingly to the rigid figure of the young woman, because the alternative was far too painful. “Looks like I’m going to have to do all the work to get you ready for your big debut today. First things first; you can’t stay there, so wait a minute while I find you some shoes and a posing place.”
Giselle was patient as Blake rummaged through the box of display footwear and came up with a pair of heels with the proper rise; these were a soft metallic hue that looked like brushed gold. Giselle was very patient as he laid her figure back down into the soft packing material to slip the shoes onto her arched feet, then moved the mannequin to stand on a low, well-lighted dressing platform in the workroom. She was as massive as Darren’s other figures; now he knew why.
“Much better,” Blake proclaimed as he stepped back briefly to check her appearance as a freestanding figure. “Too bad this window isn’t for a clothing-optional beach!”
Giselle said nothing, though her expression in the overhead light he imagined to be impatient.
“OK, OK, just kidding!” He approached her closely again, amazed yet appalled at how her body had been transformed, solidified, yet retained the original textures and shadings. “Don’t know if you can hear me,” he whispered in her ear, “but you do look absolutely stunning.”
Impulsively, Blake bent down to kiss Giselle on her lips; they were cool and hard yet very familiar. She didn’t back away as his hands moved to caress her firm breasts and contoured waist. The mannequin tipped forward as he drew her towards him, lifting the heels of her shoes off the platform. Blake was becoming lost in the memory of their last time together before realizing that this Giselle mannequin wasn’t going to melt into his arms regardless of how much he kissed her or fondled her lovely, still, form. Abruptly, he broke off the embrace; the rigid figure settled backward, almost toppling over, as she remained teetering in place for several seconds.
“Uhh… Sorry, Giselle, got sort of carried away there for an instant,” he told her as his face reddened at the thought of someone walking into the workroom and finding them canoodling in the middle of a busy workday. It had to be his imagination, but her static expression now looked… amused? Slightly aroused? Some trick of the light, perhaps.
From a few feet away, the attraction to her wasn’t as strong and he was able to convince himself Giselle was just another hyper-realistic mannequin that had to be prepared for a window display within a rapidly approaching deadline.
Blake selected sheer Italian lingerie for her supple figure, which even when not turned hard as plastic was firm enough not to require much support. He apologized to her again as he slid the garter-less, stay-up hose over her shapely legs since this required holding her closely, balanced on one foot as first one shoe was briefly removed, then the other, so the nylons could go on.
He’d had his eye on a particular Cavalli gown to dress her in for some time now; even thinking about taking it to her apartment for one of their evening “posing” sessions, but she had told him no while asking what would happen if he’d gotten caught by a security camera or something. Now she was in no position to object as he maneuvered the sleeveless, bead-highlighted wisp of sun-gold couture around her rigidly posed arms and over her torso. As he’d expected, it fit her like a second skin when he’d done up the back zipper. Giselle displayed an enticing amount of cleavage at the bosom, yet the front of the gown was slit high enough for her beautiful legs to be well displayed. The back of the dress swept downward into a floor-length almost-train that showed off her curvaceous silhouette. Whether by intuition or a happy accident, her golden shoes matched perfectly. A few accessories later, and she was almost ready for the window.
Giselle now looked almost happy, radiant, standing there in a dazzling designer gown and done up ‘to the nines’. As Blake smoothed her hairstyle into flawlessness and sprayed it in position, it dawned on him that she was finally getting her wish, though not in the way she’d thought:
Giselle was going to be a featured Heckmann’s mannequin.
A few minutes later, behind the opaque dressing curtain in the main display alcove, she was positioned alone in the display, with a painted city-scene backdrop behind her and the real city soon to appear in front of her on the other side of the plate-glass window. Blake was taking care of the final details with the meticulousness of the expert visual merchandiser he was. This was the first time Giselle had ever needed to be wired into place; when freeze-modeling she’d maintained her own balance. Now, almost invisible monofilament lines running from her waist to tiny screw-eyes in the display floor kept her stiff-as-steel body upright against the vibrations of passing vehicles.
Sneaking one last quick kiss on her still lips, Blake smoothed out any remaining wrinkles in her gown and backed out of the window set, carefully hiding any footsteps as he closed up the display access and latched the opening shut.
It was five minutes to three when he finally pulled on the knotted cords to open the dressing curtain. Light streamed in under the gap in the access door. Giselle was at last on display.
Darren would be there soon to reflect on his latest ‘creation’, exhibited in public at last.
It was almost three! “Oh, Crap!” he said to himself, turning around and almost running into one of the pretty sales clerks who worked this section of the store. “Sorry, Ellie,” he called back to her while rushing out the main entrance towards the car park.
As late as he was, Blake had to take a few moments more and marvel at the window display and the gorgeously gowned mannequin posed within. Already a small thicket of passersby had collected; all interested in Giselle and the designer gown she modeled so perfectly. He was sad for a brief second that she wasn’t able to experience the attention her exhibition was generating, and then focused himself on the task at hand: Finding a way to restore Giselle back to life.
Almost an Hour Later:
Brooke was already well outside the city. Early afternoon traffic had been sparse and she was passing through the suburbs, closing in on the exact location. For a good part of the entire trip she had been on her mobile phone, putting the pieces of her plan together. A silvery headphone in one ear looked like oversized jewelry, as she seemed to be talking to herself.
“OK, let’s just confirm; you’ll be at the store by fifteen-hundred to apprehend Russo for questioning. Yes, I think it’s really him after all; from what I saw today I know what he’s capable of. The guy we’ve been watching at the store, Blake, isn’t involved directly; could bring him in later as an accomplice.”
She paused for a few moments, listening to her partner’s reply as she negotiated the turn onto a tree-lined street. The houses here were expensive and spaced generously apart in frequently landscaped estates. Her destination was just ahead on the right.
“I’m almost here; am gonna take a look around first. Backup? Don’t need it; I’ll be fine. Russo’s heading to you; Blake, if he comes here at all, is at least an hour behind me. I’ll be long gone before he arrives…”
Brooke winced at the voice on the line, replying, “You’re just being silly. I’m not going to get any resistance from a roomful of mannequins! Take care of your end and I’ll take care of mine. Alright, later.” She pressed her finger to the earpiece to end the call.
Parking one house away from the target, she waited cautiously almost a minute while sizing up the neighborhood. It was very pastoral and quiet, with a rare vehicle passing along and only a few pedestrians, none nearby. A muffled sound from a lawn mower buzzed in the distance.
The house looked deserted; it was placed well back from the street. Grabbing a colorful ad flyer for her “cover,” Brooke stepped out of the car while pretending to look at a list, then made her way deliberately up to the front door. Placing the flyer under the edge of the mat, she then rang the doorbell briefly. There was no answer; she hadn’t expected any, but one couldn’t be too careful. Glancing around to make sure there was no one watching, she pulled a pair of small, pointed, tools from her bag and made quick work of the locks. If anyone had seen her, it would seem like someone had just opened the door from inside. She mimed a greeting to an invisible person, and then slipped quickly inside, undetected.
Taking a quick scan around, she didn’t see any obvious danger. There was a blinking security alarm panel on the wall next to the door that she deactivated with a quick sequence of taps. The interior of the house was spacious, well appointed, and seemed professionally decorated with elegant paintings on the walls and occasional sculptures resting on stone pedestals, highlighted by concealed lighting. Brooke noticed these tended to favor the female form, but also included sculptures of animals in the wild and some that were completely abstract.
The entryway opened up into a dining room on the street-side that didn’t seem to be used much, judging from thin coating of dust on the highly polished wooden table and dried floral centerpiece. The floor creaked slightly as Brooke looked around briefly; nothing unusual. Then she caught sight of something that immediately told her she had come to the right place.
On the other side of the entry was a large media room on one side, with a plush couch facing a large flat-screen video. A life-sized figure of a redheaded young woman dressed in a frilly maid’s uniform stood rigidly alongside the couch in place of an end table. The sculpture was incredibly detailed, a level of artistry Brooke had never experienced until earlier that very day when she had examined the Giselle mannequin.
Catching sight of another dark-haired female statue standing alongside the far wall of the room in a pool of concealed lighting, Brooke let her attention wander away from the maid. This next figure was dressed in leather fetish regalia, with thigh-high stiletto-heeled boots over fishnet stockings; posed brandishing a braided whip in one hand. Her face was pretty but not overly gorgeous, with a saucy expression that hinted at hidden pleasures. The exotic mannequin stood on a gleaming plate of polished chrome that reflected her shapely figure from below.
As odd as it seemed, Brooke had the impression she’d seen this one’s face recently before. Closing her eyes, she imagined the girl without all the makeup and the outlandish costume, pictured a smiling face in a candid shot rather than staring blankly into nothingness. Brooke’s trained memory quickly did the rest. “Violetta Omerti!” She gasped in sudden recognition. “Reported missing from trades college by her roommate three weeks ago… could be the one.”
Brooke examined the still figure closely, noting a pattern of freckles on the mannequin’s neck and part of a tattoo that peeked out from under the garter belt. Decent enough identifying marks, and a good chance for DNA samples too. Then her eyes focused upon the palm-up hand of the figure as she was looking for rings; this mannequin still had fingerprints. “Well, duh!” she scolded herself for almost overlooking the obvious evidence. “Forensics is going to have a field day in here…”
Farther down the wide hall was another frozen figure, this one a cute girl with Asian features and frosted dark hair, dressed in the short pleated skirt and bulky sweater of a cheerleader; she held pom-pom’s above her head and had a beaming, joyous expression. “Hmm, that looks like that Ginger something-or-other on missing-persons from last year; this guy sure likes to recruit from the local schools,” she muttered to herself as she moved through the house, finding more realistic mannequins and statues posed everywhere. Some she recognized from mug shots and the like; many of the faces were complete mysteries to her. Unsolved abductions from other parts of the country, maybe?
Curiosity drew Brooke in deeper, even though she’d already seen enough to put Darren Russo away for many, many years. She found the large workshop and a nude mannequin that hadn’t been finished yet sitting on the bench. The blonde-haired figure was posed as if perched on the edge of a chair with her long legs crossed in mid-air. This one still had stubble around her pubic area, though a jar of depilatory cream nearby showed how the ‘artist’ was going to deal with that particular detail. Like all the others, the mannequin was stiffened in position, skin as rigid as plastic or fiberglass. Though it was pretty clear by now to her that these statues had all been modeled by living people, Brooke didn’t have the foggiest notion of how the transformation was being accomplished.
Towards the back of the vast house she found another set of locked double-doors, which she made quick work of with a credit card. The large open space on the other side was dark, even in the late afternoon, and her first steps echoed hollowly until she reached the threshold of the automatic lighting. Suddenly, the contents were revealed.
“Jackpot!” Brooke gasped softly to herself. Stretched out in front of her were the dioramas, glass-enclosed displays, and tableaux in Russo’s main gallery of arcane artworks. They were presented with the elegance of a mannequin studio’s showroom, which in a sense it was. From the entry, she could look down across the entire space; a railed walkway circled the periphery.
There may have been dozens of the life-like motionless figures posed there, maybe more, since the winding paths led off into the shadows. Many of the more complex settings held more than one mannequin in the tableaux. Without hesitation, Brooke descended the short flight of stairs and approached the first still figure, her motion triggering the lighting in that section of the display to brighten. The haughty mannequin there was posed as if in a window, clothed in a sparkling party dress, but made up and styled in a way that looked somewhat outmoded.
“Who are you, really?” Brooke asked the mute statue rhetorically and received the expected silence as an answer. Pausing only momentarily, the curious young agent moved on to look at the next display setting as the lights there brightened expectantly. There were so many to see.
Just After Three-o-clock:
Darren approached the street-side windows of Heckmann’s and immediately knew something special was going on. A fair-sized crowd of passers-by had collected by the main window and were all milling about, trying for a look inside. He hadn’t seen it that busy since the winter holidays, when their signature electrically animated dioramas showcased the season.
Gradually and sometimes not so gently, he moved towards the front of the grouping so he could see the window better. He didn’t see the other man homing in behind him as he finally caught sight of Giselle in the display. She was stunning! Russo recognized Blake’s talented presentation skills in her dress and accessories but felt a flush of pride that there was a figure he’d crafted, being admired by everyone. He’d have to re-think keeping all his artwork private.
“Excuse me?” A man’s voice interrupted, as he felt a hand on his arm. “Darren James Russo? Please come with me for a moment to answer a few questions, if you’d be so kind.”
Darren glanced over; the man had his hat pulled down across his face but he glimpsed the holstered side arm inside the man’s long coat. “Huh? Wazz goin’ on?”
“Sir, do not resist; that would bring you more trouble than you already have,” the agent persisted, steering Darren away from the window and towards a waiting car at the curb.
“Hey, wait a minute! “ Darren protested, but nobody was paying him much attention. “I want to call my lawyer.”
“All in due time, Mr. Russo; all in due time,” the man replied as he shoved Darren the last couple of feet into the back seat of the sedan and shut the door. Darren belatedly realized there were no handles on the inside; a metal-screened partition separated him from the driver.
The car pulled away from the curb and drove off. Giselle continued to dazzle in her window.
At a House in the Suburbs, Three-fifteen:
Twenty-five minutes of wandering through Russo’s ‘showroom’ later, Brooke’s head was starting to spin as the scale of what she was witnessing started to overload her observational skills. There had to be twenty or more years of missing women in this one huge room!
Mannequins were posed everywhere she looked, dressed in a variety of styles and fashions ranging from elegance to tackiness; a solitary figure in a wedding gown ensemble presented in one display contrasted with a tableaux of shapely figures in latex fetish costumes complete with vinyl thigh-high hooker boots in the next. Fashions varied too; Brooke wasn’t an expert, but she recognized some garments from the 70’s and 80’s when bright colors, patterns, and go-go boots were in style to current avant-garde metallic leggings and transparent fabrics, with everything else in between seeming to swirl around her as she gawked.
Early on she had identified one pair of motionless display figures as the Mersey Twins, two identical Canadian models that had vanished some years back when on a backpacking trip. Here they stood, decked out in matching bra, panty, and garter sets in red and black, posed within a diorama that recalled an upscale undergarments shop. They held expressions of subtle amusement or even arousal on their perfectly made up faces. How did you get here? Did you even have a chance to resist? Brooke asked the stiffly gorgeous pair in her thoughts, neither one of the silent figures so much as blinked an eye or lifted a finger in response. What else do you expect, they’ve been turned into mannequins! She scolded herself for being so silly.
Not only were fashions represented on the lovely motionless figures, but popular icons made and appearance too. Here on a short pedestal was a sexy young woman in an original bunny costume that hugged and molded her lushly curvaceous figure like it had been custom-fitted to her physique, which it most likely was. The outfit was complete with ears, a starched white collar and cuffs along with a large powder-puff tail that accented her own shapely tail perfectly. How long have you been standing there? Brooke wondered.
There were showpiece mannequins in slinky party dresses, crisp pin-striped business wear, and sporty wide-belted jumpsuits that Blake had once told her might be coming back into style. Other display figures in pastel micro-mini dresses and calf-high heeled boots cavorted statically, frozen in the middle of their dance steps. There were display figures in skin-tight Lycra aerobics outfits and another in casual jogging clothes. This last one looks a little too casual, Brooke thought as she absentmindedly straightened a lock of dark brown hair that had fallen over the figure’s spooky, lifelike, glass eyes.
One particularly striking tableaux held a trio of showgirl mannequins in flesh-toned fishnet stockings, posed in provocative stances and displaying the sheerest of lingerie along with a dazzling array of jeweled bracelets, pendant necklaces, and silvery shining waist chains. Dappled overhead spotlights created sparkles that reflected off the models’ still bodies and the half-circle of sheer stretched fabric that defined their enclosure. The three had the classically sleek, leggy, physiques of dancers and hair shades balanced between pale blonde, ginger redhead, and a midnight brunette with Betty-Page style bangs that framed her gorgeous face and long neck.
Nothing moved; it was as if time had stopped inside each setting. Then something caught Brooke’s eye. One of the beach dioramas was fitted with a fan that had just come on, blowing the mannequin’s flowing platinum-blonde hair like an ocean breeze would. Brooke noticed it only emphasized the absolute immobility of the posed reclining figure, though it was a nice visual touch.
Wandering now, overwhelmed, she only took a quick glance at most of the tableaux, until she came to a figure that triggered a distant memory. The classically posed mannequin modeling a kitschy Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini as celebrated in the popular period song looked vary familiar to Brooke somehow; in her imagination she pictured a strawberry-blonde hair color instead of the golden metallic wig the figure had been styled with, adding in her mind a loose yet figure-flattering sun wrap. No! It can’t be? Brooke thought to herself as all the pieces fell into place.
“Tamara Carstairs, as I live and breathe!” She gasped in an awed whisper as the true identity of the immobilized mannequin became clear to her. Once a star in a 60’s TV sitcom that Brooke had watched unfailingly in reruns for years, the actress had mysteriously dropped out of sight after the series went off the air. Her name disappeared from the trade press and she never had any guest appearances in later movies or shows as so many of her co-stars did to stretch out their careers. Aside from a few petulant trade interviews, Tamara Carstairs simply vanished.
Being a fan, this piqued Brooke’s curiosity; she started to look into the actress’ history in print and online, finding pictures of her residence and many photo-ops, tracing her origins from a small town in Kansas to the glamour of a Hollywood star’s lifestyle, but gaining no clues as to where Tamara had gone. Soon afterward, Brooke shifted her interest from architecture into criminology; in a very real sense that first mystery had led to her current career and assignment.
Now, after all those years, her question had been answered; the circle was complete. It is you! She smiled, cheering inwardly with glee, just as she felt something poke her on the ass.
“Urk?” Brooke managed to gasp in surprise before her voice suddenly cut off. Instinctively turning to see who was behind her, she quickly found all her voluntary muscles had locked up, rigid, freezing her in position. She was paralyzed, like a living statue. Or, as she realized a moment later, like Tamara and all the other mannequin figures in the gallery. Oh, Crap!
An attractive woman in her mid-thirties stepped in front of Brooke’s field of vision. She wore a fitted jogging outfit, complete with white tennis shoes, and held what looked like a mahogany-colored conductor’s baton in one hand. “What have we here, now?” she asked to herself, fully aware her victim could not utter a word, “Someone with a little too much curiosity; a thief maybe, intent on making off with the jewels and designer couture displayed here? Or, perhaps, a volunteer?” she continued wickedly, waving the baton in front of Brooke’s blank gaze while looking her over with a critical, practiced eye.
Brooke belatedly realized she had seen this same woman minutes before, posed stiffly as a mannequin in one of the seemingly countless exhibits. The woman had clearly been faking. How could I have been so stupid? She seethed to herself; I should have called for that backup…
“Well, it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?” The woman continued. “You’re here now, and not in much of a position to object. Are you?” She taunted the immobilized Brooke wickedly. “Young, not unappealing, though you’ve an appalling sense of style. Aren’t you happy you don’t have to worry about that at all, evermore?”
Not really, you psycho!
“You should be happy to hear that I’ve got a perfect setting and wardrobe all picked out for you, my pretty new mannequin. Hold still, now,” she chuckled; bringing the wand’s tip less than an inch from Brooke’s nose.
The tinkling crash of broken glass from elsewhere in the house distracted the woman. “Bloody hell!” she grumbled, “This place is like grand central station today.” Slipping the baton into a pocket of the warm-up suit, she turned away from her victim. “Practice standing patiently, dearie; I’ll be back to finish you up in a brief bit,” she said, already out of view.
Brooke had never felt so helpless in all her life. She was conscious, aware, but could not move a muscle no matter how hard she tried. It was like a bad dream, one that soon could turn out to be her final nightmare. To make things worse, Brooke could not take her eyes off the rigid figure of Tamara Carstairs standing in her own display just a few feet away. The actress’ blank stare seemed to be accusing and disappointed at the same time. Oh, God; I’m so sorry, Tamara, I’ve failed you, too, after all this time!
Creeping stealthily through the quiet house, the woman in the jogging outfit decided she could repeat her ‘fade into the display’ trick again and looked for a good spot when she heard footsteps approaching.
Blake held his handkerchief wrapped over his bloody knuckle as he hurried along, not knowing why he was being so dramatic. Darren’s at the store, so’s Giselle, and Brooke’s off pouting somewhere, he told himself. Yet there was something about his visit today that made him more audacious. He moved through the house quickly, skipping past the mannequin figures he knew well, even the dazzling redheaded maid who he favored with a lingering glance. There were a few new additions, too, but he knew they would wait patiently for inspection later. He was on a quest.
Reaching the workshop that adjoined the gallery, Blake searched the drawers and cabinets for something that would release Giselle even though he had no real idea what that might be. He looked for syringes, strange potions, odd-looking jewelry, gas sprays or anything else that might possibly be able to transform living women into motionless mannequins but came up empty-handed. Darren had always kept those fine points of his ‘art’ from the young window-dresser; while the stiffened blonde sculpture posed on the nearby worktable probably knew much more about it from recent personal experience, she wasn’t in a condition to say anything at all. He wondered idly who she was, then realized he was getting no closer to finding a way to restore Giselle than he had been before. The answer wasn’t here.
Continuing on into the showroom-like gallery, which was thankfully unlocked, Blake felt oddly like an intruder for the first time; Darren wasn’t here to guide him as he had before. Passing by the many displays he recalled the little touches and entire settings he had contributed, all the time trying to see the something that he had missed; something the could give him a tiny clue.
Then he came upon Brooke, posed rigidly in the middle of a pathway, a look of surprise frozen onto her pretty face. Other than being utterly immobilized, she was exactly as she had been when she stormed out of the store. Slowly it dawned on him that she’d probably planned on getting here first to search the place and that someone had gotten the drop on her. She looked peaceful, standing there so still, but within her motionless body Brooke’s thoughts seethed.
Blake, You Idiot! She mentally screamed at him, trying uselessly to get his attention; not a peep came from her half-parted lips. Forget about me; get out of here as fast as you can…
Suddenly a chill ran down Blake’s spine; whoever had found Brooke was probably still here. Darren, he expected, was off at Heckmanns, viewing Giselle though he didn’t really know that. Maybe I’ve been double-crossed? he wondered, instantly on edge, ready for the slightest sign of peril. Adrenaline coursed in his blood, his mind flashed on odd things: bits of memory, scenes from old movies, snippets of conversations long past, a list of “Five things not to do in a horror movie”. He realized he’d already done three of them…
Look behind you; she’s right there… Brooke’s silent thoughts warned.
Spinning in his tracks like a ninja (or as he thought a ninja might do), he almost tripped over his own feet. Taking in the view in a glance, he saw that nothing seemed changed. Mannequins on display, motionless and elegant, filled his view. Out of the corner of one eye a ruffle of movement; nothing more than a wavering wisp of hair on one of the posed figures. Hearing another sound, he turned back to glimpse the static scene of Brooke and the swimsuit diorama she could not stop staring at. Wait a second – something’s changed! Racking his jittery memory, he tried to recall which lifelike mannequin had occupied that vacant looking spot on the left.
“Hello, Blake.” The sultry female voice sounded right behind him.
Twisting around again, he saw that missing ‘mannequin’ not four feet away on the carpet, dressed in (his racing mind abstractly observed) a not very flattering mustard-colored fleece tracksuit. She held a stick in one hand and looked to be in her mid-twenties with a pretty face. Something about her seemed recognizable, but different. “Wha?” he blurted, backing away and almost knocking Brooke over; he’d forgotten she was still standing there close behind him.
“Long time, no see,” the mystery girl continued with a smile, taking a step towards Blake.
Out of nowhere, his mind flashed an identity that didn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. This girl looked like the daughter of... “Ka… Katherine?” he mumbled. “Is that you??”
Her smile got broader. “In the flesh; though of course a little different than before. By the way, I’m going by ‘Kadie’ now.”
Questions flooded his mind; they all came out in a tumble. “Where have you been? Did Darren turn you into one of his artworks? What did you do to Brooke – is she OK?” He left the most important question unasked: What Happens Next?
Chuckling, she edged even closer, almost within arm’s reach. “That’s quite a lot; let me start by saying I never meant to hurt you. Or, it seems, your girlfriend.”
That word jogged his thoughts back to of Giselle, hardened like a fibreglass statue, standing forever lovely and mute in Heckmann’s window. “But you turned her into a mannequin!”
“Don’t worry about her; she’ll be fine. I can explain.”
That’s easy for you to say, lady; you’re not standing here like a dummy, unable to lift a finger…
“You’d better!” Blake blurted. She kept getting closer; he moved away, using Brooke as a shield, unconsciously figuring whatever had happened to her was already over with.
Katherine, or Katie, brought the stick up to eye level so he could see it clearly. A thin rod of polished dark wood, it had that deep gleaming finish of a Stradivarius violin. There was a small knob or grip on one end of it, looking a little like a conductor’s baton but a bit shorter.
“What if I told you this wand was the key to eternal vitality?” She asked, with a straight face.
“I’d say you’ve been reading too many ‘kid wizard’ novels,” Blake replied sarcastically.
“Fine; don’t believe what I said. But take a good look at me and believe what your eyes tell you; do I appear the same as when you saw me last?” Kadie smiled; there were no crinkles around her eyes or lips. Her skin was clear and smooth; there was a shine to her auburn hair. Clearly she seemed years if not decades younger. Letting his glance wander down her trim figure and proud breasts, Blake could see her body was firmer as well, and not just from dedicated jogging.
“Not bad for a 376-year-old crone, huh?” She chuckled again, almost a giggle.
“You? That’s bullshit!”
“No; it’s this wand. It extracts – something – energy, life-force, vitality, from whatever living things I touch with the wand and stores it. I can then transfer that energy to myself or anyone else by touching with the other end. Here, let me show you…” She moved towards him again, twisting the grip.
“Stay away from me with that thing!”
“Suit yourself; you’ll never know what you’re missing.” Kadie removed the knob and held the back end of the wand under her chin. “Ohh, that feels so good!” she purred with bliss.
“Great; you get an energy rush, your fountain of youth, at the cost of freezing your victims into mannequins; forever?”
“It’s not forever, Blake. I don’t understand it, but that vital energy does regenerate slowly, and the wand acts like a storage battery. Since I keep returning occasionally to tap them, all these women, these mannequins, remain immobilized. But I can restore that lifeforce drain, too. Watch!” She stepped quickly up to Brooke, lifted the wand again.
“Wait!” Blake yelled, then saw she was touching the blunt end to his assistant’s rigid body. The effect only took moments to become visible. Brooke seemed to ‘thaw’ before their eyes as she relaxed from her immobilized stance.
Ahh, much better! You should have tried a touch, Blake..
The reanimated young woman wasted no time in taking action, now that she could. Stepping back, reaching into her handbag with a fluid motion, she pulled out a snub-nosed handgun and aimed it squarely at Kadie. “Freeze!” She commanded, adding with a wry grin: “Er, you know what I mean…”
“What are you doing?” Blake gasped, dumbfounded again by the turn of events. Kadie slowly replaced the knob on the wand, while looking from Brooke to Blake and back again.
Brooke motioned with her gun, stating: “Saving out asses. Sister, whatever your name is, don’t make any sudden moves; hands over your head. Drop the wand on the floor!”
“Looks like your girlfriend was holding out on you, Blake,” observed Katherine.
“She’s not my…” he started to say, and then realized his gaffe. Brooke glared at him as well.
Katherine understood immediately; she held the wand over her head, grasping it with both hands, bending the thin rod into a strained arc. “Give me that gun, or I’ll destroy the wand; you’ll never be able to revive your sweetie. Do it – now!” she demanded.
“No! Brooke, you have to…” he caved.
“Don’t fall for her; it’s a trick!” she snapped back. “Kadie needs that wand to keep herself young.”
“I know of other wands, but this one is attuned to a person’s lifeforce, her inner spirit; a different wand can’t restore her. You don’t want to risk that, do you?” Kadie countered, putting more pressure on the flexing wand. It was an impossible situation.
“She’s lying… stop, and think!” Brooke warned, thinking herself about taking the shot.
“AAAahhhh!” Blake screamed a tense moment later as he rushed Katherine, surprising her. They both fell to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, scrabbling for a thin wooden rod.
Brooke couldn’t take a clear aim; they were moving around too randomly.
“Careful with….” Kadie blurted, then her voice trailed off. Suddenly there was only one moving person on the floor, along with an oddly contorted mannequin. Seconds passed before Blake was able to untangle himself and hop up like an acrobat might.
“Wow, she was right; that’s quite a boost,” he grinned triumphantly, holding the wand up like a trophy. “Want to take another hit?”
“Not right now; we still don’t know all that thing can do,” Brooke cautioned, covering Kadie with her weapon. The tracksuited woman remained still in position, staring at the carpeted floor. “She’s probably not out completely; I wasn’t when she touched me briefly before. But I couldn’t move a muscle, either, when you came upon me...”
Blake glanced at Brooke. “You were awake the whole time?” Now he was glad he hadn’t given in to his impulses.
“Yeah; not that it did me any good. Here, let’s try to get her upright, she’s not totally stiff, might be poseable.”
Brooke bent over Kadie and, with Blake’s help, maneuvered the immobilized figure into a standing position. Kadie’s body and limbs could be posed with some effort and stayed in place once the force was removed. Soon they had her standing, balanced vertically, with her arms to her sides, but she looked like she was still trying to reach the wand that Blake held in his hand..
Her face remained a mask of surprise, she continued to stare blankly through them; Blake nudged her open mouth closed, wondering what she might be thinking if she was aware.
Blast, that’s what I get for being sloppy! Katherine’s thoughts echoed in her mind. Now I know how that witch Brigitte felt. You two win this round, but all I have to do is wait...
“Don’t get too close to her; she might be faking!” Brooke warned. “She’s fooled both of us before.” Grabbing the wand from Blake, she held it to the immobilized woman’s neck for several seconds and watched as her exposed skin seemed to turn hard and slightly glossy.
Not so much! Getting harder to think… hard… Then all her thoughts froze into timelessness.
“I think that’s enough,” Blake interrupted, moving Brooke’s hand away. “We don’t know if that will hurt her.”
“What about all those other women she’s zapped in this gallery? What about your Giselle?”
“You’ve got a point. Kadie said this thing stores up energy; there should be plenty now to revive her if that’s possible… Hey, what are you doing?”
“Making sure she’s got nothing up her sleeves!” Brooke had pulled a large buck knife out of her handbag of tricks and was slitting open Kadie’s tracksuit and removing it from the mannequin, revealing a stretchy sports bra and briefs along with her running shoes. Soon she looked like a display for a fitness store. Her hardened body was firm and well toned, striking evidence of the restorative powers of the wand.
“You thought she had.. what? Another wand tucked into her panties?” Blake asked sarcastically as he took back the wand, a little upset at how Brooke was treating his former boss’ stiffened figure. “And what’s with that knife anyway, and the gun? You can’t be that much into personal protection!”
This got Brooke’s attention away from Kadie; she turned to face the young window-dresser. “Was wondering when you’d ask about that. It’s kind of a long story.”
“We’ve got time; they’re not going anywhere,” he replied, taking a quick glance around the roomful of mannequins and Kadie. “So, what’s going on?”
Brooke smiled innocently. “As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not really a student; that’s my cover story. I work for an agency investigating the disappearance of..”
“Wait a minute!” Blake interrupted, “You’re a cop?” Pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
“Not exactly, my firm is private. But, if you’re going to keep breaking in I’ll never get to the delicious irony of this current situation.”
“OK, ok, go on; who were you looking, for?”
“Her.” Brooke glanced briefly at the frozen figure of Kadie, who had been a mute third party to the conversation all this time. “You were the prime suspect.” She smiled wryly. “Cute, huh?”
“Yeah, in a way. You sure strung me along. So, who hired you? Her husband?”
“No; we haven’t heard from him since the police closed their missing-persons case and I now have a sneaking suspicion she may have tapped him with the wand somewhere along the way.”
“Who, then? Heckmanns?”
“You’re gonna love this one: Darren Russo,” she revealed with a chuckle.
“Huh? But how… he turned Giselle into a mannequin.. That doesn’t make any sense!”
“That’s the quirky part of all this; Kadie must have been helping him somehow but Russo didn’t know it. Did you ever see the wand before today?”
“No; he always kept his technique secret. I only saw the completed figures, like that lady in his workroom now. Come to think of it, Darren always did carry a torch for Katherine and he certainly had enough money…”
“But she was right under his nose all the time!” Brooke grinned. “Now you’re starting to see the entire screwed-up picture.”
“Speaking of Darren, he’s going to be back here any minute after that trip downtown.” Blake was suddenly anxious.
“No, he’s not. He’s been… detained… indefinitely.”
“Another mystery disappearance?”
“Let’s just say I’m not working on this case alone. Russo has got a lot questions to answer to now. Fraud, kidnapping, mannequinization…” Her words trailed off as she thought about the tangled web that had been created.
“Yeah,” Blake agreed.
Almost a minute passed in silence.
“Now what?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Brooke admitted, “but one thing we do have is time. I mean, Katherine’s not going to be running off anytime soon,” she observed, waving her hand in front of the mannequin’s blank gaze. “Russo’s in custody for now, but we can’t give him over to the authorities just yet.”
“What if this isn’t his only hiding place for his artworks? He may not have told you the whole truth, either.” She looked back at Kadie. “We haven’t heard her story yet; there may be more tricks to this wand than she told us about. There’s a lot of power in that thing.”
“Sure is,” Blake mumbled, turning it in his fingers. He started to think about how he could make the whole situation a lot simpler. Turning casually towards Brooke…
“Don’t even think about it,” she stated, having taken a step back, one hand in her handbag. “Even if you turn me into a mannequin again and stash me here, you’ve got my partner to contend with, and Darren Russo as well.”
“Hey, I wasn’t thinking that!” He protested weakly, giving up on the idea. For now. “The first thing I want to do is make sure we can revive Giselle with this thing,” he said, covering his actions.
He glanced around on the floor and found the missing knob that protected the energy-restoring end of the wand. It had rolled underneath Kadie’s posed feet. Looking up at the motionless display figure of his former boss, he felt a twinge of lustful desire for her. Maybe it was because she appeared so much younger now; maybe it was because she had now become a mannequin. He thought about giving her a quick peck on the lips, but Brooke was standing right there and she wouldn’t understand at all.
“Sounds reasonable; let’s go,” Brooke allowed. Since dropping her cover identity of a ditzy blonde assistant, her speech patterns and even the way she moved seemed to have changed.
As they headed out of the vast gallery together, Blake turned to her and asked, “So, what’s your real name, anyway?”
A Week Or So Later, at Heckmann’s Store:
As the young woman who’d gone by the name of Brooke approached the workroom door, she heard silvery laughter coming from the other side. Her style of dress was more business-like and her hair now a shade darker, but she still had gotten greetings and “miss you”s from the store staffers she’d met on the way.
“Knock, knock,” she announced before entering so the two wouldn’t be surprised.
“Come on in,” Blake chucked; a few seconds later after a couple of feminine giggles and the sound of some rustling fabric could be heard faintly. By the time the door opened, Giselle was standing atop a mannequin stand, dressed partially in a party dress, her hair vaguely mussed.
“We, ah, were trying some new poses,” the girl explained, as Blake blushed.
“I’m sure,” the visitor observed with a smile. “You’re looking much more lively than the last time I saw you here. Quite a sparkle in your eye after your recent circumstances!”
“Oh, that wasn’t so bad. Blake woke me up in that window like he was a prince in a fairytale and I’ve been feeling great ever since, like I’m bursting with energy.” Giselle didn’t stay on the stand very long, but darted around the room, posing on tables, chairs, draping herself across clothing racks, resembling more a nimble dancer than a recently rigid mannequin. “My only regret is that I don’t recall so much after I visited that artist. Things got kind of hazy after that. I would have loved to have seen myself displayed in the showcase window here!”
“I told her I’ve got some pictures in addition to those the newspapers ran,” Blake got a few words in edgewise. “Plus, Gail’s going to get a bunch more chances too.”
The young woman once known as Brooke shot him a mildly accusing glance.
“Yeah, see, Heckmann’s liked all the publicity around her live mannequin display that they agreed at last to try out more of them from time to time. Of course they’ve asked her to appear again as their featured figure,” he explained while Gail beamed with joy.
“You should try it sometime,” she bubbled to the other woman. “It’s the coolest feeling, ever.”
“Um, okay, though I’m not so sure I’d agree,” the female investigator said evasively. In truth, her experience as a helplessly frozen dummy at the hands of Kadie had left her with extremely mixed emotions.
“You’ve really got the face and physique for modeling; it would be such a kick to have you standing next to me in a window display. You’d make a splendid mannequin!”
The blonde PI said nothing, keeping her expression carefully neutral.
That didn’t stop Gail. “You’ve got to admit it; I finally have. I don’t know why I’d kept that part of me hidden for so long within Giselle,” she gushed. “I feel so… so… free!”
There was another awkward pause.
“So, how are things going with you, uhhh, Miz?” Blake changed the subject, then realized he’d forgotten her real name already.
“Oh, pish, you two can call me Brooke if you’d like,” she finally grinned, breaking the tension. “Things are going great. I’ve identified several more of the figures back at the house and have even set up to collect our first reward. Can you believe one of those frozen women in Russo’s gallery is none other than Monica Blaisdow?”
Blake seemed confused, but Gail piped in with, “The vanished socialite! Wow, what display was she posed in?”
“One of those movie homage’s, I think, but that’s not important right now.” Brooke continued, “Can I take the wand again for a day or so to restore her? That if, if you two don’t have more things you want to try out first,” the last words came out bitchier than she had intended them; more of those mixed emotions coming to the surface.
“Sure,” Blake agreed, “there isn’t anything coming up, and Kadie’s posed exactly how I want her for now.” He turned to the mannequin figure of his former boss, stiffly standing on a nearby platform. Her stance was slightly changed but retained an athletic quality to it, a pose that showed off her youthful lush figure by the shiny ribbed spandex raspberry-colored workout leotard and white opaque tights she was clothed in. An electric-lime-green wig gave her a different appearance and made it virtually impossible for anyone else to recognize the motionless figure as Katherine Knolls.
Brooke did, however. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“I thought it would be a nice touch, after what she’s been doing all these years,” Blake said with a shrug. “Besides, Kadie’s not going to be needing to move anytime soon this way. You’ll know exactly where to find her.” He took the slim leather sheath containing the wand from the figure’s stiff fingers and handed it to Brooke. “Here you go; want to take a charge off her before you go revive Miss Blaisdow? It might take some extra oomph.”
“Thanks, but not right away. Plenty stored up now, given the timeline I’ve been constructing. She should wake up fairly quickly. A few already have and are willing to testify for kidnapping charges. Can’t say the same for those in his collection who have been frozen longer, though. Unfortunately Tamara Carstairs and that woman posed as a French Maid may take a lot more of this lifeforce stuff; they’ve been there almost from the beginning.”
“Yeah; I’ve seen that dusting maid figure pretty much every time I visited Darren’s. He always kept her displayed in a prominent location. I wonder what her story is?” Blake wondered.
“We’ll find out eventually, I hope,” Brooke said, tucking the wand into her new much-smaller purse. “See you on the weekend, then.” She turned to leave.
“Hey, don’t be surprised if we stop by the gallery sooner though,” Giselle said with a sly smile. There’s a few things we’d like to try out…”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me at all?” Brooke asked rhetorically, adding in her inner thoughts: Maybe I’ll want to join you.
Of Course: To Be Continued…