or: Don't go down to the cellar!
After Sharon's disappearance Louise noticed a change in Harold Foster's behaviour. He seemed ill at ease and restless. Whenever she asked him routine questions he was apt to reply sharply, or sometimes not at all, and she became increasingly wary of approaching him at all. On the other hand she was acutely aware that he seemed to be very interested in her. Once or twice she actually caught him staring at her, whereupon he would immediately look away or broach another topic with strained jocularity and deliberately avoid looking at her for the rest of the day. All in all, it made for a strained working relationship and Louise found her own temper becoming more and more frayed.
A local agency sent round a succession of typists to replace Sharon, but Harold seemed to find fault with all of them with the combined result that Louise was unable to build either a professional or personal relationship with any of them, and she found herself burdened with more and more of the routine work that Sharon used to do.
Six weeks had passed like this and Louise had decided that she could stand it no longer. Harold had once been the perfect boss and she had enjoyed working for him, but his recent behaviour puzzled and upset her. She decided to hand in her notice.
It was a Friday afternoon and Louise had the main office to herself. The agency had finally run out of typists and her own desk was piled with work. Peter, the invoicing clerk, had gone home early. Harold Foster was in his own office, pricing orders. Louise decided to get the whole unpleasant business over and done with.
Harold listened patiently to what she had to say. At the end of it he sat back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. Louise thought that he looked even more distracted than usual.
"Well," he said at last. "If you want to go I can't stop you. I'm sorry you're not happy. I suppose it hasn't been easy recently. Frankly, the business is in a bit of a rut, and then there was Sharon, of course...."
There was a few moments' silence. In spite of herself Louise felt guilty about leaving him in the lurch. She was dreading his next
"Can I ask you to think it over?"
"I already have," Louise replied.
Harold sighed and looked at his watch.
"It's nearly three o'clock," he said. "You look tired. Let's have a cup of coffee and a chat. No, don't move. I'll get it."
Louise had half-risen to stop him, but he was already at the door. It won't work, she told herself fiercely. Don't let him talk you into staying.
"Please," he said, smiling, and then he was gone.
In a few minutes he was back again with two steaming mugs. Much to her surprise he did not then attempt to persuade her to stay. They passed a few inconsequential remarks. Harold was clearly eyeing her as she sipped her coffee, and he smiled at her constantly, but he did nothing at which she could actually take offence.
"There's something I want to show you," he said at last. "If you don't mind. Something I think you ought to see before you leave."
Louise could not imagine what he might have to show her that was so important. The sudden realisation that she was completely alone with him caused her to shift uncomfortably in her chair. Harold saw the unease in her expression and countered it with a reassuring smile.
"It's alright," he said. "Nothing to be alarmed about. Just a little secret of mine that I'd like you to share."
"Um," said Louise doubtfully. "What is it?"
"Oh it's not up here," Harold replied. "It's downstairs, in the basement."
"But there's only old files down there!"
"And something else." He stood up. "I'd really like you to see it. It'll explain a lot. And time is running out."
Louise could not imagine what he meant by that remark. She was still suspicious, but now her curiosity had got the better of her. In any case, Harold was a small man and she was confident of her ability to defend herself if he tried anything untoward. She followed him down the dimly lit stairs to the underground storerooms in which she knew were kept the firm's old accounts.
Harold went past these rooms and unlocked another door at the end of the corridor which was partly blocked by a couple of old filing cabinets. Louise squeezed past these with some difficulty and found herself in a small square room which was illuminated by a single unshaded bulb. It was surprisingly warm and curiously furnished. Against one of the whitewashed walls was a long low table. Next to it stood a refrigerator, which throbbed and hummed continuously. Set into the far wall was another door.
Louise noticed all these details later, but for the moment her attention was centred upon an object in the centre of the room which caused her to stop dead in her tracks and emit a cry of astonishment.
Whatever she had expected to see, it was not this!
It was a life-sized statue, representing the slim naked figure of a girl much about her own age. It was standing on a small circular pedestal in the middle of the bare floor. The model's head was completely bald and its surface had a sheen which suggested that it was made of some kind of hard plastic or fibreglass. It reminded Louise of a shop-window mannequin, but they were usually jointed whereas this figure was all in one piece.
She stared at the figure in sheer incomprehension for some minutes, only gradually becoming aware that Harold Foster was staring at her with a strange expression on his face.
"Don't you recognise her?" he asked at last.
"Recognise her?" cried Louise. "Why, should I?"
She came closer to the statue and gazed at the expressionless face. The features did seem vaguely familiar.
"It's not ... no! It's not meant to be ... me, is it?"
The idea at once fascinated and appalled her, that her boss should have been so obsessed with her that he could have spent his spare time fashioning a model of her down here in this lonely dungeon, but he laughed at the suggestion.
"No," he said, grinning. "It's not meant to be you. But I'm disappointed. I thought you'd have recognised her. Perhaps this'll help you."
So saying, he produced a blonde hairpiece and arranged it carefully on the statue's bald head. Louise stared at the blank, inscrutable face, framed now by blonde curls, and recognition hit her like a physical blow. She had indeed seen that face many, many times before.
"Sharon!" she cried. She turned to Harold Foster in confusion and amazement. "But what happened to her? Where is she? Why have you got a model of her down here?"
Harold held up his hand to stem the flood of questions.
"All in good time," he said. "The first thing you need to know is that this isn't a model of her, at least not in the conventional sense."
He paused for a few moments for dramatic effect. Louise stared at him in sheer incomprehension.
"I don't understand," she said at last. "Not a model of her? What do you mean?"
"You asked where she is. Well, she's standing right in front of you. This isn't just a facsimile of her. It is Sharon!"
Louise's expression changed to one of incredulous horror as the awful truth began to dawn on her. She opened her mouth, but no words would come. She stood transfixed, simply staring at the lifelike mannequin that she now knew had once been her missing friend and colleague until her legs buckled and she fell to the floor in a dead faint.
When she came to she was still in that chamber and the first thing she saw was Sharon's body, perfectly preserved by some devilish process, standing stiff and silent on its pedestal. Harold Foster was kneeling over her, a glass of water in his hand. Her first instinct was to get away from him and from this place which his twisted mind had turned into something far worse than a tomb. She knocked the glass from his hand, scrambled to her feet and ran to the door.
Somewhat to her surprise, Harold did not try to stop her as she tugged desperately at the door. It did not take her long to realise why. It was locked.
"Don't waste your energy, Louise," said Harold Foster quietly. "The key's in my pocket. You can't get out."
Wild-eyed, Louise turned to face him.
"Let me go!" she demanded. "I ... I promise not to tell a soul if you'll just let me go."
Harold smiled at her.
"I can't do that," he said. "It's not that I don't trust you, but surely you must have guessed that I brought you down here for a purpose and I'm not prepared to let you go now. I thought you'd like to see Sharon in her new form, not least because it'll give you some idea of how you'll look in a few days time."
Louise shrank back against the wall as he approached. All of a sudden she felt very weak and tired.
"Get away from me!" she screamed as he approached her.
Still smiling he reached out and took her by the arm. She tried to lash out, but something strange had happened to her. Her arms felt like lead and would not respond to the frantic signals from her brain. Harold pulled her away from the wall and guided her into the middle of the room. She moved as if in a hypnotic trance. Her brain was clear and she could see and hear perfectly, but she could no longer move so much as a finger of her own volition. She stood rooted to the spot as Harold walked all the way round her, looking her up and down.
"At last," he said, and despite her paralysis Louise could hear the relief in his voice. "I thought it was never going to happen! I hope you can still hear me, Louise. Don't bother trying to move. I put a little something in your coffee."
The girl made no sign that she had heard him. She could not speak. Her eyes stared blankly from her expressionless face. Harold was still gazing at her rigid, paralysed body.
"You're a lovely girl, and it's just you and me here now, for the whole weekend. And Sharon, of course. Beautiful Sharon. You should be glad of that. You and she are going to be spending a lot of time together.
"I told you I wanted you for a reason. I think you thought I was going to rape you. Well, I shall have the undeniable pleasure of undressing you in a little while, but not for that purpose. A few weeks ago, a business friend of mine who owns one of the local dress shops - you must know it, but I'm not going to tell you the name - asked me if I knew where he could obtain two unique and lifelike mannequins for his shop window. Like me, he's losing a lot of trade to the multiple chains and he wants to try and revitalise his business.
"I told him I did, at a price. Now you see - Sharon has become the first of those mannequins, and you're going to be the second. The money he's paying me for the pair of you will help me pay off some pressing bills. And you'll achieve a kind of immortality, although you won't exactly be aware of it. But let me assure you - as the centrepiece of his new window display you'll get to wear lovely new clothes and be admired by hundreds of people every day, and as a bonus you'll still look just as young and lovely in a hundred years time as you do today.
"I've only just finished Sharon. It's taken six weeks to turn her into a dummy, and it wasn't all plain sailing, but I think the result is worth all the time and effort. You'll have the benefit of the experience I gained with her, of course, so I reckon you'll be done in about two or three weeks.
"Sharon's changed a lot since you last saw her alive. To start with all the blood has been drained from her and replaced with formal-dehyde, which is, as I'm sure you know, a preservative. Her insides have been removed and her body filled with an expanded polystyrene stuffing. I had to shave off all her hair and apply some artificial colouring to her skin.
"Thus far she was still more-or-less flesh and blood, but in order to preserve her for eternity she had to be vitrified. That was done by immersing her in a bath full of a special chemical solution for about a fortnight, to turn her flesh into a sort of resinous plastic. After that, she was sprayed with a coating of clear lacquer to varnish and seal her body and, incidentally, to give her that lovely, shiny, plastic-like look."
He came closer to Louise and placed his hand on her shoulder.
"And now it's your turn," he said. "In a few minutes you'll be naked as the day you were born. Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to drain all your blood away. Messy job, but absolutely necessary before I can remove your insides."
He smiled and patted her cheek.
"Don't worry," he said. "You'll be fast asleep by then."
He sighed, scooped her unresisting body up into his arms and carried her over to the table.