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Lost Merchandise — Samantha's Saga, Part 3

by DL, with contributions by Dmuk

Samantha Harris, a beautiful swimsuit model, has been abducted in a highly unusual manner from a content she had just won in Florida.   After waking up in a strange northern city and escaping her kidnappers into the streets, she is rescued and helped by a detective, Marc Thomas, who has his own set of problems to deal with on top of a seemingly insane young woman with an unbelievable story.  ‘Sammi’ so far has remained free, despite intense efforts to recapture her by the mysterious artist Jarad Legrand, whose gallery is filled with extremely lifelike representations of the female form.   This is Part 3 of ‘Lost Merchandise’; first time readers are encouraged to start this one at the beginning.  You can catch up on Part 2 by clicking here.

Chapter 23:

Marc Thomas squinted as he looked through the rain soaked windshield of his cruiser at the bright headlights approaching from the opposite direction.  His head was still pounding.  Partly from the large knot on the back of his scalp that the goon's blackjack had extracted and partly from what he knew he had to do.  There didn't seem to be any way out of it; but that didn't make his choice any easier.  Commissioner Groves had released him from the fortress of a home, in the gated community, to go about his mission and the ultimatum was firm.  If he wanted to save Alison, he'd be forced to betray Samantha, and trade her life for his girlfriend's.  He felt sick to his stomach.   

Glancing into the rearview mirror, he watched for the "tail" that Groves was sure to have put on him.  To his surprise however, he didn't notice any vehicles following him on the haphazard route he was taking back to his apartment.  He thought about Sammi again as he drove, and he felt sorry for her.

The beautiful, yet unfortunate girl had already been drugged, taken against her will, and stolen away from her life and promising career back in Florida; her disappearance being explained away as a simple boating accident that had gone without question.  'What a setup... ' Marc surmised.  Alison had evidently been right.  'Legrand's connections, along with those of the Big Apple Mob's must run very wide and very deep, indeed!'

The hardest part to digest was what had happened to Samantha following her abduction.  By some mysterious means still unknown, this woman had somehow been placed into a stiffened, catatonic state and crudely posed upon a display pedestal like a mere object; presumably to never awaken!  And if things had gone as planned for Jarad Legrand, she would now be no more than a lifeless, yet enduringly lovely, object.  A mannequin... just like Dawn, er ah, Alison.  He would then have never met Samantha Harris unless he'd happened upon her stiffened figure some day in a boutique or a random museum somewhere.  Even then, he would have never dreamed in a million years that the beautiful artwork had once been a living, breathing girl.  As terrible as that sounded, it would have made things a lot easier... for him... But that wasn't the case.  Legrand's plans hadn't come to be, and Marc had met Samantha.  That made this dirty little assignment and his catch-22 choice that much worse. 

Marc also thought back on the events of the previous day with regret.  The poor girl had been lucky enough to escape the bizarre fate that was planned for her, and when she'd turned to him for help, he'd simply blown her off.  If he had only believed her then, if he had pressed harder, could he have protected Sammi and saved Alison?  There was no way to tell, but now, in an ironic twist of fate, he would ultimately be the one responsible for delivering Sammi back into the hands of the evil people who had turned Alison into a statue and maintained the same devious intentions for Samantha.  He hated the thought of what he knew he had to do, but if he ever wanted to see Alison alive again, he didn't see any alternative. 

His only thought of saving grace was that once Alison was freed and finally able to deliver her evidence to the Feds, maybe Legrand and the others would be put out of commission and Sammi could then be restored along with all of the others.  He dearly hoped that this was still a possibility.  If nothing else, the evidence could be used as blackmail to at least rescue Sammi...

Marc checked his watch as he pulled along the curb in front of his brownstone.  It was 3:35 AM.  He gently rubbed the huge bump on the back of his head once again, and immediately pulled his hand away after feeling the sticky dampness and surge of sharp, throbbing pain that his touch produced.  There was a small amount of blood on his fingers when he looked down.  Slowly, he staggered out of the car and up to the front steps of his building.  He looked over his shoulder and saw a sedan without headlights parking a short distance down the block, and his suspicions of Groves' henchmen following him were confirmed after all. 

Marc shook off the notion of trying to ditch them as he made his way up the interior steps to his second floor dwelling.  There wouldn't be any use, and he didn't want to take the chance of angering Groves at this point in the game. 

When he reached the top of the stairwell he could see that his apartment door was ajar and oddly, the television was playing once again.  He thought he recalled turning it off.  He drew his service weapon as he walked closer to the door, and sweeping it open gently, he scanned the otherwise darkened room.  The place had been tossed.  Furniture was overturned and papers and personal effects were strewn about; Marc knew that this was no ordinary burglary. 

He cursed under his breath as he stepped inside, his firearm poised for action.  His head was still throbbing and his vision was not as sharp as normal as he stumbled over some books and a broken flowerpot on the floor.  Quickly, he remembered the thumb drive Alison had hidden along with her note.  He looked toward the picture frame on the wall and to his relief it appeared undisturbed, then he stumbled toward the dark bedroom to ensure that he was alone. 

As Marc crossed the threshold, he reached for the light switch and suddenly another blinding pain swept over him and he collapsed onto the carpeted floor.  The man who stood above him was dressed completely in black and held the near empty liquor bottle that Marc had sipped from earlier as a bludgeon.  After kicking the dropped firearm away, the man knelt down and with a leather-gloved hand he checked Marc's pulse, confirming that the unlucky detective was still alive, but assuredly out cold once more.  The mysterious intruder then quickly made his way out of the apartment and disappeared into the cold March night.

 

Chapter 24:

...When Samantha opened her eyes, she was staring through a large plate-glass window.  From her elevated position, she could see people everywhere on the opposite side of the glass.  Some were looking up at her, gawking, pointing, congratulating each other with champagne toasts; some were even laughing.  Others walked by and paid little or no attention to her at all.  They disappeared into the distance like the never-ending stream of traffic, but there were those who continued to linger in front of her; awe-struck.  One young man even applauded. 

Typically, Sammi would have reveled in all the attention, but something about the way these particular fans were looking at her made her nervous. Regardless of the level of admiration shown by the swelling crowd, or lack thereof on the part of the uninterested passersby, all of them seemed indifferent toward the young woman as if she were nothing more than an ornate decoration.  And those who continued to gaze appeared to be appraising her as they would a precious jewel or a piece of artwork to be auctioned.  Most of the faces in the crowd were hazy, many of them belonging to strangers, but after a few more minutes of staring blankly at anyone who happened into her fixed line of sight, Sammi oddly began to see people whom she recognized.

Marc was there, along with the other policemen she'd encountered.  Even some of the other people who had ignored her when she'd pleaded with them on the street were present.  There was the bellhop and the old lady who had scolded her!  She stood at a safe distance with her shopping bag on her arm and silently shook her finger at Sammi as if she should be ashamed.  All of these people and the whole world itself seemed to be rushing past her like a whirlwind, yet oddly, Sammi remained affixed to the same spot.    

A pretty brunette then stepped into view and slowly approached.  'Oh, thank God!  Natalie, you're here!' Sammi exclaimed, but to her dismay, she couldn't move her lips at all.  Her friend only glanced up at her briefly, then turned her attention away.  Afterward, the redhead could hear her friend chattering away with the Hispanic lady from the store in an unintelligible foreign language.  'Huh?  When did Natalie learn Spanish? And why are all these people congregating around me?'  Hey, you... Quit staring at me like that!  Natalie... ?  Marc... ?  Can't you hear me?!'  She tried desperately to call out to them all one by one, but there was no use.  Her voice seemed to have been silenced once again, and suddenly Samantha realized that something else was very wrong...

Her body felt so cold, so stiff; so completely lifeless.  The numb, helpless feeling was similar to her earlier experience of being frozen upon Legrand's pedestal, but something was different this time... Not only could she not move, but a sensation of absolute rigidity seemed to grip her like an ever-tightening vise.  The area where she stood was also brightly lit, and Samantha immediately recognized an attractive middle-aged woman at the forefront of the on-lookers.  It was Jody!  She simply gazed up at Samantha with a wicked, satisfied smile on her face, and soon, Sammi saw why... If the pretty redhead were capable of moving at all, she would have recoiled in horror as her own reflection came into focus in the plate-glass enclosure surrounding her...

"Oh my God... !  They've done it to me!" She silently screamed.  "I'm a... a... mannequin!!  The young woman could see herself vividly in the mirrored reflection, and realized that her glossy, rigid body was naked and fully exposed.  The plasticized figure that she had become was posed amorously, in a humiliating position of self-pleasure and had been placed on public display; a stand-in for the other redheaded figure she'd seen earlier in the hotel's lobby boutique.  Suddenly, the entire crowd burst into a roar of laughter, jeering at her appearance, but Samantha was powerless to react to their mocking whatsoever.  Her heart began to pound behind her bare breasts, and her breathing accelerated nearly to the point of hyperventilation.  "Nooooo!! " She whimpered and tried to struggle in vain.  "Please... They can't do this to meee... !!  I don't wanna be a mannequin........... a mannequin......... a mannequin..................."  

Samantha awoke with a jolt, confused.   For a few puzzled moments she had no idea where she was, then her memory of the past days surfaced, aided by the distant but constant sounds of city traffic on the street far below.

The echoing thoughts of the still vivid dream continued to resonate inside her pretty head for a short while, as her shapely body squirmed beneath the covers on the large bed where she tossed and turned...  With another jerk, she broke free of the terrifying nightmare and opened her eyes.  Suddenly, she was completely awake and afraid once more.  The beautiful redhead remained curled in a fetal position on the huge bed, trembling and panting to catch her breath.  The tears that slowly dripped from the corners of her eyes trickled across her cheeks and onto the pillow. 

The early morning sun was now beginning to peep through the cracks in the closed window shades, and Sammi cautiously rolled over.  Her sleepy blue eyes scanned every inch of the high-end hotel room, until she discovered that she was still alone.  What had happened to Marc?  He'd said he was coming right over... She had waited on the detective as long as she could, but exhaustion resulting from the previous day's events had finally won out, and she'd slipped into the unrefreshing slumber and the nightmare that she was so glad to have finally escaped.  These troublesome, lucid dreams had haunted her throughout another restless night, but they were just dreams... The reality of her predicament was even more frightening.

 

Chapter 25:

Although it was only just after 6:00 AM on a Saturday morning, the Chelsea-district building that housed Jarad Legrand's exquisite collection of unusually lifelike art was already bustling with activity.  What were left of his associates had been summoned here once again for an emergency meeting, and Jody hurriedly rushed the five remaining women, along with Carter, the sleepy-eyed chauffeur, into the main gallery. The normally gossipy girls were also not so chatty at this early hour. 

"Me'shure Legrand will be with you momentarily." The French woman addressed the small gathering.  "He wishes to bring you up to date on zee Samantha Harris situazhon."  With nothing more, she turned on her stiletto heel and disappeared back into the work studio.

"I don't like this." Dierdre spoke up.    

"Me neitha', girl."  Charlene Gibbs whispered under her breath.  "'Dis is bullshit!  I should be gettin' mah beauty sleep on right now... "

"Shhh!" The blonde put a finger to her lips.  "Don't you think you're in enough trouble already?  You'd better hold your tongue for a change, or Legrand might give you the opportunity to sleep for a lot longer than you'd like!"

"Hmmph!  Fuck him!" Charlene protested a bit more loudly than intended, placing her hands on her flared hips.

Her foolish declaration brought about a few disbelieving stares from the others around her.

"I'll bet Heidi once thought the same thing," Dierdre cautioned. 

The blonde's words of wisdom made the attractive black woman stop and reconsider her cavalier attitude for a moment.  She knew her co-worker was right.  "Yea, I wonda' if lil' Molly's woke up yet?" She asked the other woman, lowering her voice again.  She didn't know if the others knew.

Dierdre checked her flashy wristwatch and shook her head.  "I doubt it.  The amount you dosed her with should be good for at least another six or eight hours."

"Emph!  Po' lil' thing." Charlene said apologetically.  "'Even tho' that lil' airhead is jes' about worffless, 'dat wuz an accident, you know?!"

The blonde nodded, but she wondered if Legrand and Jody would be as understanding.  She also knew she wasn't without fault herself.  She'd been the one to accidentally freeze Celia Dawes-Watson, and fully knew that mishap would not be taken lightly.  Dierdre was also concerned about Molly.  She hadn't seen the young woman yet and wondered where Legrand and Jody had stashed her immobilized body.  She hoped that the naive farm girl wouldn't be punished for her irresponsibility in the same way Heidi had been.  The poor girl didn't deserve that.  She hadn't intended any harm.  Then again... neither had Heidi...

"Whadya' tink da' ole man'll do to us?"

"No idea.  I don't even wanna think about it." Dierdre countered.  "Hush now, here he comes."

Jarad Legrand strode proudly into the gallery, with Jody in tow, and paused near one of the many stiffened female display figures.  He quickly had the attention of every animate person in the room, but the statues elevated around him only continued to stare blankly; holding their various static poses, they were totally unaffected by his presence or anyone else's.

"Good morning, ladies... and gentleman." He smiled at the attractive females and nodded to Carter who had almost dozed off before his boss' arrival.  The artist's mood was quite different today from the last time he'd addressed the group.  He almost seemed chipper, especially given the early hour.  He sipped from a large coffee mug and looked the group over.

His sharp eyes darted briefly to each of his employees; surveying their attitudes and levels of attention.  There was Dierdre Gale, the lovely blonde advertising agent.  The intelligent and vivacious thirty-year-old had been with the organization for just over five years and had made sales flourish.  She stood beside Charlene, the sometimes less than competent office worker, who had proven herself even more unreliable on the previous assignment.  The pair looked nervous, and for good reason.  As far as Legrand was concerned, about the only thing Charlene Gibbs had going for her were her looks.  The fair-skinned black girl had a curvy, athletic figure, a pretty face and long, straight black hair.  Through his wealth and influence, he had molded Charlene's physical appearance to make her look more sophisticated and refined, but her crude upbringings continued to show in her rough-edged personality.  "Rescuing" this girl from poverty and the perils of the New Jersey slums was only one example of how Legrand recruited his associates and effectively indebted them as his chattels. 

Next, he eyed young Kristen and Patti, the first a makeup artist and the latter an accounting specialist.  They were all grouped near Carter, who yawned again unwillingly. 

He knew most of the people in this group were mere office drones and laypersons who were not accustomed to tasks such as the one he had recently given them, but standing on the opposite side of the room was his most promising remaining associate, aside from Jody.  The tall dark haired, twenty-something girl stood apart from the others with a serious expression on her face.  "Good morning, Lisa." Legrand extracted her from the daydream she constantly seemed to be having since yesterday.

"Oh um, good morning, sir." She forced a smile, but Heidi's painful screams kept replaying over and over in her mind.  She hated Legrand for what he had done to her friend. 

Her boss thought for a moment just how beautiful Lisa Sachs was as well.  For a moment he even imaged her standing stiffly in one his display cases.  She would indeed make a lovely addition to his gallery or fetch a handsome bounty should she be placed on the auction block.  But, right now he needed her.  Heidi had been the best, but since her role with the organization had been drastically altered, he would have to depend upon Lisa for future acquisitions until other arrangements could be made.  'All in good time' he thought slyly...

"I have called you all here this morning," he began, pausing for emphasis after each sentence.  "To once again discuss the unfortunate events of yesterday.  There were many, many dangerous mistakes made.  And for some of you, repercussions may be in order." He took a moment to eye Dierdre and Charlene.  "But... I am mostly unhappy that between all of your actions - and inactions - Miss Harris has still not been located."

The statement brought a few nods from the restless group, and sent a shiver down the spines of at least two of them.

"Thankfully," he resumed his speech with a wry smile.  "I am pleased to announce that through a source I hadn't counted upon, we now have a track on Miss Harris and she should be back in our safekeeping before the end of the day."

"Maybe he ain't so pissed afta' all." Charlene nudged Dierdre.  A cold look from the blonde told her to shut up once again.

"Although this is hopeful news, our work is not yet complete.  Today's assignment hinges upon your dedication and attentiveness to detail.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough, that if there are mistakes of the same nature made today, they will be severely punished."

"Where's Molly?" Kristen leaned close to whisper to Charlene.  "She's missing all of this."

The black woman simply shook her head slightly as if to say 'not now' as Legrand went on.

"In order to put our mission into perspective, we mustn't forget what we are here for.  For me, it is neither for the money, nor the fame... "

'It's your lie,' Lisa thought ruefully.  'Make it as big as you want to, you bastard... ' 

"... But about adding grace and beauty to the artistic world." The man smiled and swept his arms outward in a gesture toward the frozen beauties surrounding him.  "I have been doing so for nearly thirty years now, and I am also proud to have been able to offer a very special gift to each and every one of the lovely ladies who have been fortunate enough to join my collection.  A gift that is more valuable than any material object... that fleeting and delicate thing that is called youth.  Once chosen, none of them will ever age, nor will they be troubled with the daily routines and tribulations of a humdrum life ever again.  No, by receiving my gift, they remain monuments of beauty to be admired by the world... for all eternity." 

Most of the others in the room listened intently, caught up in his words as if he were a hypnotist lulling them into submission.  Deep down however, they all knew the frightening truth behind his glorious words, and none of them wished to be added to the long list of recipients of Legrand's special 'gift' and end up a statue as so many others had already.   

Lisa, on the other hand, who had once been caught up in Legrand's demented proclamations herself, was now left with a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach.  'A gift?' She thought silently.  'More like a curse!' She couldn't help but think about poor Heidi trapped in that polymer shell of a prison. Forever.

"Take Julie here for example." Legrand continued as he motioned toward the display case closest to where he stood.  The dark haired girl inside had large, blue eyes that gazed blindly through the glass and into nothingness.  She appeared to be around her mid-twenties with sharp symmetrical features that were framed by an overly teased hairstyle long since gone out of fashion.  Her body was tall and thin, but relatively attractive with pert b-cup breasts and long toned legs.  Her ivory skin was pale and the strong halogen lighting almost produced a glare as it reflected off the smooth glossy texture.  

She had been posed in a manner that made her appear to be stretching upward as if watching for something or someone in the distance, or looking above the other heads in a crowd.  A hopeful, curious expression was frozen upon her face.  This figure was also clothed possibly more than any other in the gallery, wearing a tight leather mini-skirt, a white blouse and open-toed sandals, which revealed her polished toenails. 

"Julie was my very first in more ways than one." Legrand gazed up knowingly at the pretty brunette statue.  "She was an American studying abroad when I first met her in Paris many years ago, and the two of us became very close.  I suppose we remain so yet, but in a somewhat different manner now.  Of course she is still, and always will be, one of my enduring favorites.  Isn't she beautiful?"

His employees only nodded.  Jody had a scowl on her face however.  There was apparently something about this particular sculpture that she didn't like...

"Julie," Legrand went on.  "Has remained in this exact position, unchanged and unchanging, since 1983.  She would now be fifty years old.  Graying, sagging, possibly suffering from medical difficulties or menopause.  But I protected her from all of that.  I hope that she appreciates what Jody and I have done for her."

"Oh, I am quite sure zhat she does, Me'shure." Jody added. 

Legrand now made his way toward the next display.  Most of the women and Carter slowly approached as well, but Lisa lagged behind. 

This second glass enclosure contained a young woman with long golden hair, which was neatly pinned up beneath an old fashioned nurse's cap.  She wore eyeglasses, through which her fixed green eyes stared in the same manner as those of her many companions.  The silent, unmoving figure was dressed provocatively in a skimpy white nursing uniform that bore a medical cross emblem, and her large breasts nearly spilled from beneath the tight fitting garment.  The slightly bent pose that she held also caused the posterior hem of the racy dress to hike up, exposing the lower portion of a well-rounded backside.  A white garter belt supported the pair of matching stockings that clung snugly to her near perfect legs, and trailed downward from her tanned thighs to the white high-heeled shoes that kept her balanced within the silent tomb. 

The shapely girl remained frozen in position like a lifeless mannequin; her formerly lithe body now as rigid and solid as stone. She held out an antique stethoscope in her right hand and appeared to be checking the vital signs of an invisible patient.  Her other palm rested against her trim waistline and prior to her permanent preservation, a broad smile had been manipulated upon her lovely face.  She was the perfect example of a three dimensional pin-up girl.

"This, as I'm sure most of you may be aware, is Nancy." Legrand spoke again.  "She was also one my earliest acquisitions, and aside from Miss Harris, quite possibly one of the most difficult to obtain.  I was a patient of Nancy's some time ago, and she took marvelous care of me during my stay at the medical facility.  I decided to return the favor and now, she is, of course, in my permanent care."

The small group had now migrated toward the other end of the gallery as their boss droned on.  His detailed descriptions of the women displayed were mainly unnecessary for the majority of the workers as they were already familiar with nearly all of the regular sculptures that remained here on permanent display.  Regardless, Legrand continued his guided tour.

"And this..." He reached over the velvet ropes and caressed the upraised arm of an exposed female sculpture.  "... Is Brianna." It was the same young volleyball player that Samantha had embraced during her escape.  The texture of the young woman's skin was shiny and silky smooth, yet as hard and unforgiving as stone.  The figure wobbled slightly as he moved his hand away and looked toward Lisa.  "Thanks to Miss Sachs we were able to obtain this promising young athlete and preserve her while she was still in her prime.  Her lovely body will now retain its tone and poise long after it would have deteriorated under normal circumstances.  How old is Brianna, Lisa?"

"She was only eighteen at the time of her collection," Lisa said remorsefully. 

"There's no need to be modest, Miss Sachs.  You can be proud of your work.  Brianna is a wonderful addition and I am positive that she appreciates your efforts."

"Thank you, sir." Lisa said humbly, remembering how she had once boasted about falsely befriending the university freshman and accompanying her on a beach outing.  Later that day she had tricked the naive girl into a private, late night walk.  It was during that walk that Lisa had introduced Brianna to one of Legrand's hypodermics filled with preservant and the rest was history.  As was Brianna now.  She remembered how proud Heidi had been of her... Brianna had been Lisa's first acquisition, but now her attitude had changed greatly.  She felt ashamed.  She couldn't even bring herself to look at the cute blonde anymore.  What had she done?!

"The rest of you will also have the right to be proud when this day is over." The artist confirmed.  "Today I will have the opportunity to extend my generosity to yet another deserving candidate for immortality - Miss Samantha Harris.  And you will be able to say that you assisted me in saving that lovely young woman the unfortunate fate of growing old and watching helplessly as her beautiful body gradually loses what has made her famous.  She will never suffer the feeling of seeing her fame slowly slip away along with her youth and good looks.  After today, the gratifying feeling that she enjoys by placing herself on display will never have to be replaced with memories reflected only in cheap two-dimensional photographs.  After today, like these other women, we will have saved Samantha from that relentless agony so she will remain young and beautiful - always."

The group acknowledged him again with murmurs along with brief applause and Legrand knew that his pep talk was rallying their support.  He continued to move throughout the beautiful yet static dioramas, pointing out the backgrounds of each and every one of the lovely ladies indefinitely displayed there.  Repeatedly, he reminded his subordinates of the suspended figures' compliment to his art and the bliss that they all must surely be enjoying while doing so.  Slowly he was convincing them that it was their duty to allow Samantha and others chosen in the future the same opportunity of achieving immortality.  He even allowed Jody to introduce a few of the statuefied women and elaborate on their individual origins.  From the reclining brunette on the sofa, to another short redhead who sat at small desk, presented in all manners of dress and undress, their histories were revealed as the posed women seemed to go about their respective daily lives, then were suddenly suspended at some instant in time, where they remained.

The past three decades were also well reflected in their various displays.  One could easily follow the ever-changing trends in clothing and hairstyles, and the evolution of their activities.  Contrasts such as the rotary dial telephone and typewriter on the redhead's desk, to the slim device that another pretty blonde held thumbing out a text and listening to an MP3 player, proved that time had marched on.  Time stood utterly still however, for the unwilling human participants trapped within these hyper realistic depictions.    

When they neared the end of the gallery, Legrand approached the standing figure with the vacuum cleaner.  The sexy woman that this figure had once been had dark collar-length hair and wore an altered version of a service worker's uniform.  Her name was embroidered on a small patch just above her left breast.  She wasn't as young as most of her rigid counterparts, but was still quite the looker.  At the time of her preservation, the woman had been forty-two years old, but didn't appear to be a day over thirty.  Now, as promised, she would never age again.  Legrand turned to her with a solemn expression.

"This stunning artwork is Signe.  She held the responsibility of maintaining the cleanliness of this gallery and our offices for several years.  Quite the dedicated worker in her day," he stated affectionately.  "She never failed to take the utmost, delicate care of all of my lovely sculptures.  Signe didn't even know the gallery's secret, yet she tended to each of the ladies as if they were still living, breathing women."

The statue of Signe continued to stiffly hold the vacuum cleaner hose, gazing into infinity as Legrand told her story. 

"Unfortunately, Signe was diagnosed with an incurable disease.  Before, it could seize her in its fatal grasp and snuff out her life prematurely; I offered her a way to escape that fate by revealing my secret to her. Since Signe had no immediate family or relatives, she willingly accepted my offer to spare her; agreeing to be preserved and displayed here in the place where she spent so many days of her animate life."

In reality, Signe had only accepted Legrand's offer to see a man the artist had led her to believe was a physician practicing alternative medicine.  Grasping at futile hope, the unsuspecting Italian beauty had passively allowed the imposter to inject her with what she thought was an experimental cure.  The unusual side effects of that drug however, had long before been determined.  And now, she herself stood stiff and still among the many statues that she had once painstakingly maintained.  Although it was true she had been spared the inevitable end, if anyone else knew the chilling truth, they might question which fate would have been worse.

Legrand walked closer to the statue that was Signe and brushed his fingers across her glossy cheek.  The woman's face felt cold and unforgiving.  Examining his dusty fingers, after rubbing them together, Legrand shook his head with disgust.  "It is also apparent that the present cleaning staff is far less proficient than Signe.  If you could counsel them on that small detail, Jody?"

"Wee, Meeshure.  Immediately."

"And lastly," Legrand smiled as he approached a covered figure that stood hidden behind several of the others.  "We have the newest addition to my gallery."  Reaching out, he swept off the silk draping that concealed the figure, and a few strands of the girl's brown hair waved in the breeze that the draping created as he whisked it away.  A gasp simultaneously fell over the group behind him.   

The unmoving sculpture was a cute, all American girl, with creamy unblemished skin, standing woodenly in place upon a low dais.  She stared blankly back at the women and Carter as they all curiously moved in for a closer look.  It was Molly; the unfortunate office worker turned statue only yesterday.  Dierdre's fears had come true!  Even though she hadn't been the one who'd pulled the trigger, she felt responsible somehow.  Charlene seemed to be more in awe.  The pair of women then subconsciously stepped in front of the others and took in Molly's comely appearance. 

The petite girl was clothed appropriately for her South Dakota ranch upbringing, in blue jean cut-offs that would have made Daisy Duke blush, and a red checkered button-down shirt.  The sleeveless garment on her torso had been twisted and tied in a knot just below her bountiful breasts, giving her shirt the appearance of a halter-top.  Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her shapely legs were crossed at the ankle; one foot resting on the toe of one of the sharply pointed cowboy boots that completed her rural ensemble.  The girl didn't move in the slightest way and a hollow vacancy now replaced the former twinkle and wonderment in her deep, chocolate brown eyes.   

Possibly more so than the fact that Legrand had added her to his collection so abruptly, all present were shocked at just how developed Molly actually was.  The conservative girl usually kept much of her shapely body covered, and was the first to blush when someone spoke about sex or some other unmentionable thing.  She'd even confessed to the other women once that she was still a virgin.  

"D-a-m-n... Molly.  Looks like you been holdin' out on us.  You go, girl!  With yo' sexy ass self." Charlene teased.  "Shame you never showed off any a 'dis befo' you was a statue."

Molly didn't reply.  She remained only a silent, lifeless representation of herself, holding the pose in which she'd been arranged.

"Oh well, you wadn't worff much as a secretary anyway." Charlene laughed.  "You prob'ly be better off this way.  Mebbe I mighta' did you a favor..." She looked toward Dierdre for support.

The blonde remained silent.  Charlene had been the first to speak, but Dierdre was the first to notice something else very strange about Molly's props, besides her risqué costume.  The young girl's thumbs were hooked on the pockets of her dangerously short shorts, but in her right hand she held what looked like a tranc gun and not a western six-shooter.  Before Dierdre could muster the nerve to speak, Charlene had stepped in even closer.  That's when the statue of Molly suddenly and surprisingly moved.

"Chfff"... Chfff"

Before anyone could react, the young woman had raised the weapon and rapidly fired two preservant darts into the black woman who had mocked her.  A disbelieving expression crossed Charlene's face as the darts struck her midriff and she realized a moment too late what had just occurred. 

"Oooohh!  No you di'n't?!" Charlene was able to blurt before her tongue began to stiffen.  Her eyes opened wide with fear, and a slight tremor was noticeable as the powerful drug surged its way through her sexy body.  In only seconds, Charlene Gibbs froze into place exactly where she stood.

"Payback's a bitch, ain't it, girl?" Molly smiled, imitating the tone and accent of Charlene's voice as she stepped down from the pedestal.  "And so are you!"

Charlene's mind was slowly blanking out just as Molly's words registered.  'How? ' the now immobilized woman questioned silently.  'You... were... fro...... '   In a fraction of a second, the pretty black woman's brown eyes glazed over, and she joined the other figures in the gallery in their suspended limbo of nothingness...

The group of remaining associates was speechless.  They gathered around the frozen Charlene and looked her luscious body over.  An expression of surprise was captured upon her face, as her arms remained akimbo; the same position she had held while taunting the young woman they'd all assumed to be suspended as well.

Dierdre seemed especially fascinated at the sight of the newest sculpture standing woodenly before them.  She stared deep into the fixed lifeless eyes of the woman she had spoken with only moments before, finding it hard to imagine that the stiffened, perfectly still figure had been an animate person only a few seconds ago.  She felt a slight remorse for Charlene's fate, but simultaneously breathed a nervous sigh of relief, grateful that it had not been her instead.     

Legrand stood back with his arms folded and a smile on his face; satisfied once again.  Molly rushed to his side after stepping down from the pedestal while Jody held out a hand to retrieve Molly's weapon, which she readily surrendered.

"An exzellent performance, young lady." Jody smiled her evil smile.  "Perhaps you are more valuable zhan for which Miz Gibbs gave you credit."

"Thanks." Molly gushed as she caught her breath.  "It wasn't easy standing still all that time." She also couldn't take her eyes off the sassy black woman who stood frozen stiffly in front of her.  She had really done it and was proud of herself.  Those weeks of acting school had paid off.

Lisa only swallowed hard, knowing that another victim would soon have a permanent home in Legrand's collection, and that the innocent, gullible Molly was well on the way to becoming a victim herself.

"I have told all of you previously, " Legrand spoke up in more serious tone this time.  "That the incompetence, overconfidence, and foolish actions of the past days will not be tolerated within this organization.  I do not know how many times I must remind you of that responsibility, but this will be my final warning.  Each and every one of you has sworn an oath before me, in exchange for the special favors that I have awarded you.  You have also willingly agreed to all the penalty conditions of your contract of employment.  I don't believe I need to revisit the consequences of those terms at this time, as they have been demonstrated twice in the past two days.  But unless you would like to join your former co-workers, I suggest you accomplish your mission this morning.  That mission is to add another piece of beauty to the artistic world, once and for all... The beauty... of Samantha Harris."

"Yes, sir." A few of them chimed simultaneously.  "We won't let you down."

"There will be no second chances this time.  Am I understood?"

The others added in mixed responses to what they knew wasn't a threat, but a promise.  Briskly they filed out of the room, stealing a few frightened glances at Charlene as they passed by.

"Lisa," the artist eventually turned toward the dark haired beauty, "Jody will now brief you on the information we've received.  Since you are the most experienced remaining member of my staff, you will be in charge of carrying out the ultimate collection of Miss Harris, and... wrapping up some other loose ends." He then glanced down at the western-costumed brunette beside him.  "Molly will assist you."  

"With all due respect, sir, I prefer to work alone."

Molly appeared deflated by Lisa's decline for her help.

"And I would prefer for Molly to obtain valuable experience in the field." Legrand retorted.

"Very well, sir." Lisa knew it was a direct order.  She made eye contact with Molly, who suddenly looked like an elated child preparing to visit an amusement park.  It was exactly what she was afraid of.  

"Kristen?" he asked, turning to another assistant.

"Yes, Mr. Legrand." Her voice was shaky.

"Please transfer Miss Gibbs to the preparation area, and do your magic.  In the meantime, I will ready the chamber."

"Right away, sir."

Dierdre," Legrand finally addressed the blonde.  "Come away with me please."

The woman remained stunned from what had just happened to Charlene, but she swallowed hard and obliged, disappearing into the darkened work studio along with her powerful boss.

 

Chapter 26:

Two hours later...

Although still unbeknownst to Jarad Legrand, the lovely model that he sought so desperately was still hiding out at the Plaza Hotel; mere blocks from his gallery. 

Yawning and rubbing her eyes, Samantha eventually sat up in bed and stretched.  The covers fell away, exposing her curvaceous, nude body as she stood and made her way to the bathroom.  She looked into the huge mirror and felt ashamed about the bags under her eyes.  Yesterday had been a long day, but a model is always conscious of such things, she remembered; then inwardly scolded herself for her vanity.  Things like beauty didn't seem important anymore!

After a hot morning shower, Samantha re-dressed herself in the only clothes she had and waited impatiently for Natalie's arrival.  Her past night's sleep had been unsettling, and did little to refresh her sheer physical and mental exhaustion. 

As restless as her earlier slumber had been however, it ironically seemed to have done wonders for her memory.  Although some things were still cloudy, she now actually remembered where she was from and recalled many of her friends and relatives' faces and names.  Everything between meeting Heidi in Florida and waking up posed stiffly in the studio workroom however, was still a blank.  She also remembered the handsome detective, fondly.  She still couldn't help but wonder what might have happened to the kind man.  After all, he'd told her that he now believed her story and was on his way to help.  She prayed that Legrand and his evil assistants weren't the cause of his delay.

Checking the time on the nightstand alarm clock, Sammi saw that it was approaching 9:00 AM and she hoped that Natalie would not be delayed much longer herself.  The only other thing she could think about at the moment was simply going home.  The "Sunshine State" had never looked so good!  Of course, she had no idea if she'd be safe there either, but if she had to hide, at least there she'd be amongst friends and would have a bit more of an edge than she did in this large, and unfamiliar city.  When the telephone suddenly rang, she nearly jumped out of her skin!

"Hello?" She cradled the receiver.

"Sammi, oh good, it's Natalie.  Are you okay?"

"Oh thank heaven! I didn't think you'd ever call!  Where are you?"

"My plane just landed." Natalie confirmed.  Her southern accent was still present, but was nowhere near as over-exaggerated as the sultry twang she sometimes purposely used for influence.  "I've arranged for a ride, and Ah'll be at your hotel soon, sweetie.  You still hangin' in there?"

"Yea, but I'm worried about my friend Marc."

"Who?"

"The cop I told you about?  He was supposed to be here too by now, but I think something might've happened to him."

"Sammi, I told you not to talk to anyone else." Natalie scolded, glancing at the multitude of people rushing past her in the busy airport terminal.  She was suddenly a bit nervous about what she had come to the City to do, and the last people she needed involved were the police...

"I'm sorry." Sammi half whimpered.  "He was really nice.  I thought it would be okay."

"Well just don't talk to him or anyone else 'till I get there. You never know who might be involved in this crazy scandal." Sammi's friend thought about the irony of her warning.

"K," Sammi pondered for a minute.  "I won't.  Just get here soon.  Please, Natti?"

"Ah'm on the way, sweetie." Natalie concluded.  "You just stay put and I'll be there before you know it." 

 

Chapter 27:

On the opposite side of the City, a black Lincoln Town Car was parked, idling, near the "Arrivals" curb at JFK International Airport.  From behind the dark tinted windows, the driver sat watching the many bustling people on the sidewalk outside.  He was waiting for one in particular.  A small foreign hatchback was also parked a few spaces away, where two lovely young women sat quietly as they awaited the same airline passenger's arrival. 

"Do you see her yet?" Molly asked anxiously.

"Nah... ," Her dark haired companion replied in a pre-occupied tone.  Lisa peered through the smudged window, keeping a sharp eye on the dozens of people struggling with luggage or embracing loved ones.  Others were scanning the parked cars and searching for familiar faces themselves.  Their alert expressions reminded her of the sculpture of Julie back at the gallery. 

"That one sorta looks like her!"

"Nope.  Too short... " Lisa shook her head after re-checking a full-length photograph of Natalie Nicoletti clipped to the dash.  It was basically the first time the two assistants had spoken since being given their assignment back at the gallery.  An assignment that Lisa dreaded, but one she knew she couldn't fail in completing:  Follow Carter and this other double-crossing, yet wholly unsuspecting model to Samantha Harris and ensure that both women were detained and returned to the gallery.  Previously, such a job would've come easy for the now seasoned associate, but her recent change of heart and the fact that they had paired her with this gullible, overly-eager nineteen year old ditz who had no experience, made it all the more difficult.  The small-framed girl next to her sat fumbling with her tranc gun nervously, and Lisa had a terrible feeling that this whole thing was going to end up in another disaster.

"Put that away; it's not a toy."

"Oh, sorry." Molly grinned sheepishly, returning the weapon to her coat pocket.  It didn't look as if she'd bothered to set the safety.  "This is just so exciting.  I can't wait!"

"Yeah..." Lisa's sarcasm was thick, but Molly didn't pick up on the other young woman's lack of enthusiasm.

"So," she continued in a perky tone.  "Which one do you want?  This new girl or the redhead?"

"Don't get ahead of yourself.  We've have to find both of 'em first."

"Oh we will.  I just know it." Molly's confidence was unwavering and unnerving.  "I've also gotta say that it's really an honor to be your partner, Ms. Sachs, ah, Lisa!  May I call you Lisa?" She went on, not waiting for a reply.  "I mean, like, you're one of the best... ever!  I've dreamed about this kind of chance, and now it's happening...  Gee!"

Lisa didn't acknowledge the younger girl at first and an uncomfortable silence filled the car's interior.  Lisa wished there were something she could do or say to convince the immature country bumpkin to simply go back home and leave these sinister deeds and people behind, but she knew it was too late.  Molly’s ego had grown out of proportion in only the past few hours, and it was obvious that Legrand was creating yet another monster like Heidi, or that French ice queen, Jody.  An eager monster who might prove to be one of the most dangerous ones so far.

"First of all," Lisa spoke solemnly, and with authority.  "I don't wanna hurt your feelings, but we're not partners.  But... , since I don't have any choice for now, just stay close to me, and do exactly what I tell you.  No daydreaming, and no freelancing.  Understand?"

Molly nodded, somewhat subdued.

"To be quite honest, Molly, you don't have any business being here.  You don't know what you're getting yourself into."

"Oh yes I do." The young one quipped defensively.  "I think you're just jealous.”

 "What?” Lisa barked, take totally aback.

“You afraid I'll take your job away from you, or something?"

"Oh, if you only knew." Lisa halfway laughed.  "But you'll find out soon enough on your own.  For now, just pay attention to the people outside." The uncomfortable silence returned after the exchange of harsh remarks and the pair resumed their search of the thickening crowd.   

"You're mad at me, aren't you?" Molly finally asked with pouting lips.  "About Charlene."

"No," Lisa shook her head again.  "I'm not mad.  You just did what they told you to do."

"I did what I had to do." Molly's voice squeaked this time.  "To protect myself... from her." 

"Huh?!" Lisa scrunched her brow and gave the girl a puzzled look.  "Protect yourself from who?"

"From Charlene!  She turned me into a statue!  If it hadn't of been for... "

"What happened to you was an accident." Lisa cut her off firmly.  "You startled Charlene, and she just over-reacted.  That's all.  Don't you remember?"

"No... ," Molly searched her mind.  "I don't remember much at all about being frozen, really.  It all happened so fast and I just sorta blacked out.  But when Mr. Legrand and Jody revived me, they told me the truth about what happened.  About how Charlene had suspended me on purpose 'cause she didn't like me, and that she was out to get me fired."  

"Well, no matter what they told you, or how you remember it, that's not the way it happened.  But that doesn't really matter now, does it?" The older brunette snapped her reply as she reflected upon the finality of Charlene's current state.  She wondered if the unfortunate woman had already been permanentized... like Heidi...  "They just told you what they wanted you to believe while you were still under the influence of the preservant; it messes with your mind." She was letting her feelings override her better judgment; no longer choosing her words as carefully as before.  "You shouldn't fall for their lies so easily."    

Molly looked surprised.  She peered back at Lisa suspiciously as she tried to digest her last outburst.  "Whad'ya mean, lies?" 

"I just don't want you to get caught in the same trap as I did, Molly.  Can't you see that Legrand is devious; evil?  And that bitch Jody... , she just fuels the fire.  They're taking innocent people and exploiting them as if they were nothing more than pieces of property.  They can call it art or whatever they want, but they're destroying people’s lives at their whim!  You need to get out before it's too late… for you!" Her voice had transitioned from an angry tone to one of almost begging her younger associate.

"I can't believe you're talking like this.  Think about everything Mr. Legrand's done for all of us!"

"That's just it. He’s made us do terrible things, malicious things.  It took me a long time to see it too, but now he owns us, Molly!  We're his pawns.  Please wake up before you're in too deep!"

"I don't think you'd want me to repeat what you're saying to Mr. Legrand," the younger girl threatened with her newfound confidence.  It was apparent that she had also developed an allegiance to Jarad Legrand that Lisa had never noticed before.  "I have a feeling that he wouldn't like your disrespectful attitude, Miss Sachs."    

Seeing that the gullible Molly had quickly transitioned from an innocent young girl into a faithful minion to their powerful boss, Lisa quickly re-thought her position and calmed herself.  She hoped she hadn't gone too far already.  "No, you're right." Lisa faked a smile.  "I wouldn't want you to tell him.  I guess the pressure of this job's just getting to me," she lied.  "Sometimes I... "

"Then why would you say such a thing?"

"I, I don't know what came over me," she tried to blow it off as best she could.  "I guess I'm just upset about Charlene... and Heidi... " Her voice quivered a bit when she said the second name.  "I feel so sorry for them."

"Well I don't." Molly stated flatly, folding her arms.  "Not about Charlene anyway.  She was a bitch.  She just got what she had coming.  And that uppity Heidi, she always thought her you-know-what didn't stink.  If she hadn't let Samantha Harris get away, none of this would've happened in the first place.  I think she deserved what she got too."

Lisa bit her tongue as anger swelled within her once again.  How could this little airhead make such a comment?  She didn't even know Heidi.  Lisa knew however that she was treading on dangerous ground.  "Well, let's just keep what I said earlier our little secret.  Okay, Partner?  Please?"  

Molly smiled brightly, but Lisa could tell she wasn't fully convinced.  "Sure thing, partner." Molly said sarcastically holding out her small fingers for a customary handshake.  "Looks like you're gonna have to be nice to me after all."

'Great!' Lisa thought, resisting the temptation to roll her brown eyes.  Now she had foolishly put herself at this teenybopper's mercy.  For a moment she thought about the tranc gun and syringes in her purse.  She could put an end to this unintentional partnership very quickly, but resisted the temptation.  For now.  "Do you know what scares me the most, Molly?"

"No."

"I think you actually enjoyed what you did to Charlene, back in the gallery."

There was only silence.

"You did, didn't you?"

"You betcha'," Molly eventually admitted, proud of herself.  "I'm tireda' sittin' in that stupid office day after day.  Mr. Legrand likes me, and now he might even let me go out with you on more recruiting assignments... like this one."  She beamed at the prospect.  "Maybe even some of my own... It's gonna be so much fun!" 

"Fun?!" The more experienced girl cautioned.  "Don't be so sure of yourself just yet.  If we screw this up, we'll both be joining Charlene and the others in the gallery.  Have you thought about that?"

Being suddenly brought back to reality, Molly curbed her cocky attitude.  "Yeah... guess you're right.  But we... Hey!  Wait a minute!" The petite brunette stopped short.  "Is that her?"

"Umm..., yes, I think it is." Lisa squinted as she watched Carter bolt from the driver's seat of the luxury vehicle and scurry to the opposite side.  He opened the back door for the striking dark-haired beauty who had just exited the terminal, and the woman strode confidently toward his gesture, flashing the handsome black man a toothy smile. 

She had wavy, jet-black hair that was pulled into a long ponytail, and bronze skin that was kissed by the warm southern sun.  The sexy woman wore a red sweater-top, with a plunging neckline that allowed a fair amount of cleavage, and her tight blue jeans complimented the flare of her hips.  Her shapely, long legs disappeared into knee-high, heeled leather boots, and the large designer travel bag that was slung over her left shoulder completed her fashion-forward ensemble.  If this wasn't the young woman the trio was supposed to meet, she was surely of model quality herself.

"Miz Nicoletti?" Carter greeted her.

"That would be me.  Lahve... and in person." The striking young woman on the sidewalk answered with an intentional Scarlett O’Hara style drawl as she lowered the huge pair of sunglasses she wore.  She was pouring it on thick.  The bright morning sun glinted off of her large hoop earrings as she looked down her nose at the driver and dropped the travel bag at his feet; unappreciatively.

Seating herself inside the Town Car, she crossed her slim legs, and glanced back at the driver once more.  "Do be careful with mah bag, driver."

"Yes, of course." Carter agreed, gritting his teeth.  This woman was beautiful, but he could tell right away that she knew it as well.  The middle-aged man had met many attractive women in his occupation and confidence was one thing, but conceitedness was another.

After securing her door and placing the leather bag in the trunk, Carter swiftly took a seat behind the wheel.  "Where to, Miss?" He eyed the new passenger in the rearview mirror.

"Nowhere, until Ah'm paid.  Just where is this Mister Legrand, anyway?"

"You'll meet him in due time, I'm sure.  For now, if you'll look on the seat beside you, there's a briefcase containing what I believe you're looking for."

Natalie turned toward the leather case and with manicured fingernails, gingerly released the brass latches.  Inside she saw a stack of large, un-marked bills along with a small wooden container resembling a case for a fine writing instrument.  She quickly snatched the wad of cash and thumbed through the bills, appearing somewhat disappointed.  The final and most mysterious item in the case was a bonded envelope bearing only her first name.  It contained a folded sheet of expensive stationary that she lifted her shades to read...

               'Hello again, Natalie.  As I am sure you have already counted the amount of cash that I have enclosed, you've noticed that there is only $10,000.  The other half of the sum we agreed upon will be delivered once you have carried out your end of our bargain.  If you will examine the item inside the wooden container you will find the means of doing just that.  Simply place it against her skin and press the button.  That is all that is necessary.  If you do not understand now, you will. 

My best regards,

PS. Do NOT disappoint me.

...  Her brown eyes darted over the typed note a second time, and the brunette re-folded the piece of paper and returned it to the envelope.  There was no signature on the paper or any other identifying characteristics, but she knew that the author of the strange letter had to be Legrand himself.

Natalie then picked up the ornate, felt-lined box and after removing the lid, looked down at what appeared to be a thick chrome fountain pen.  The note had indicated however, that it was far more lethal.   The cryptic instructions had also stated that it was all that would be needed to incapacitate Samantha.  But for how long?  Hours, days... , or longer?  She swallowed hard.

"Well, miss?" Carter urged.  "Is everything in order?  My boss does not like to be kept waiting."

 "Fyne." Natalie conceded after shutting the briefcase and placing the money and injector pen into her purse.  "The Plaza Hotel, and step on it."

"Very well.  The Plaza it is." Carter took his finger away from the button that would have filled the passenger compartment with preservant gas, put the large car into gear and pulled away from the curb, merging into traffic with Molly and Lisa following from a safe distance...

 

Chapter 28:

"Hey, son.  Wake up!  Can you hear me?"

"Huh?" Marc Thomas could hear a persistent voice calling out to him from somewhere beyond the mists of consciousness, but his head was throbbing so badly he didn't know if it was real or a dream.  He could sense that he was laying on a cool hard surface, but was disoriented as to where he actually was.  When he finally opened his eyes, he focused and saw the pair of worn bedroom slippers that the man who knelt beside him wore.  It was his elderly neighbor from across the hall.

"Are you alright?"

"Ah, yeah I think so." Marc was able to mutter.  "Help me up."

As the older gentleman helped the detective to his feet, Marc nearly collapsed again from the pain and dizziness.  The old man was not the most sure-footed himself at eighty years of age, but he was able to help Marc to the nearby bed where he sat down and rubbed the back of his head once more. 

"What the hell happened?  Your place is an absolute wreck!" The man probed. 

"I don't really remember.  There was somebody here when I got home.  A burglar, I guess." Marc's voice was weak.  "He must've hit me from behind.  Kinda funny... twice in one night."

"Huh?" The old man was puzzled, not being aware of Marc's first assault the night before.  

"How'd you find me anyway?"

"I was going down to get the morning paper and I noticed your door was open.  I couldn't help but see inside and what a mess the place was!  So I got a little worried and came in to check."

"Well, thanks, Mr. Henderson.  I appreciate it." His aching head was starting to clear somewhat.

"Ya' need a doctor, or want me to call the police, or anybody?"

"No, no, I’ll be fine." Marc cut him off, holding up a hand.  He looked toward the bedroom window and suddenly the beams of sunlight snapped him back into reality.  "What time is it?"

"Five past nine."

"Shit!" Marc cursed under his breath suddenly realizing he'd been out for several hours and recalling the scheduled arrival of Samantha's friend.  If the two models met and caught a flight back to Florida before he could get to Sammi, then what would become of his and Grove's deal?  In some ways he wished Samantha were able to escape, but where would that leave him... and Alison?  Marc didn’t want to think about that conclusion at all.

Staggering from the small bedroom into the adjoining bath, he splashed some cold water into his face, then gulped down a handful of aspirin.  He looked terrible.  His face was pale and the hollow look in his eyes along with a day's growth of beard made him appear that much worse. There was a large red mark on one cheek where he’d been laying on the floor.

"Are you sure you're okay, son?" The old man called out from the other room.

"Yeah.  I think I'm fine now, Mr. Henderson." Marc said straightening his clothes.  "Thanks again for checking on me, but I have to run."

Marc grabbed his service weapon from where it had been kicked by the mysterious intruder and brushed past the confused older man, disappearing into the hallway. He hadn’t even bothered to lock his apartment.

 

Chapter 29:

Having completed their job once more, the large fans and compressors connected to Jarad Legrand's mysterious chamber were silent, and he watched as Kristen carefully applied the finishing touches to his latest masterpiece.

"Exquisit, Meeshure!" Jody complimented her boss as she entered the room. 

"Thank you, Jody." He only half smiled as he turned to greet her.  He hadn't appeared to enjoy creating this newest statue as much as he normally did.  He had too much on his mind.  If Samantha Harris had talked to the wrong people... He shook off the notion.  He didn't even want to think about the consequences if that happened.

"Is this satisfactory, sir?" Kristen looked toward her boss and Jody for their approval.

Legrand nodded.  "Excellent work, Kristen.  You may be excused."

"Yes, sir.  Thank you." The makeup artist smiled and quickly slipped from the room.

Once she was gone, Jody lit a long European cigarette and after inhaling deeply, blew out the smoke in a sultry manner.  It drifted around the motionless sculpture before them, and the middle-aged woman gestured toward the shapely figure.  "A fitting attire, I zink."

"Yes.  A rather easy choice, actually.  I simply envisioned her leading the lifestyle she would have led by now, had it not been for you and I."

"Wee."

The sculpture that the evil pair was admiring was that of an attractive, athletic black woman in her mid-twenties.  She was dressed provocatively in the stereotypical gaudy, skin-tight clothing of a street-walking prostitute, and the expression on her face had been molded from one of surprise into a sexy come-hither smile.  Her posture had also been adjusted to resemble a leaning stance as one might see in a lady of the evening at a corner lamppost.  Her large brown, heavily made-up eyes simply gazed through the tall man and the attractive woman who stood beside him.  The young, vivacious woman who had been Charlene Gibbs less than an hour ago was now a permanent work of art. 

"Has there been any word from Lisa or the other field associates?" Legrand asked anxiously.

"Wee, Meeshure.  Liza reported zhat zhey have left zee airport and she and zee young one are following Carter and Miz Nicoletti to yet an unknown locazion."

"Very well.  How about Ms. Gale?"

"Dierdre arrived at zee hospital with Miz Dawes-Watson without inzident.  She was zhen tranzferred from zee ambulance to a private room.  Once Dierdre administers zee revival formula, zee doctor you contacted will inform her zhat being hospitalized is merely zee rezult of a rare allergic reaction zu paisley fabric, and zhat she has been unconzious for zee past day.  Zhat will hopefully explain her loss of memory from zee time she was suspended at zee boutique to zee present."

"Excellent.  This whole unfortunate situation may finally be coming to a successful ending." Legrand said as he prepared to exit the room.  "It is a pity however, about Miss Dawes-Watson. Such a lovely woman so would be a deserving candidate of my gift.  Ah, perhaps in time..."

 

Chapter 30:

"Damn, Carter," Lisa grumbled loudly as she dialed her cell phone.  "Slow up a little!"

The driver of the Towne car was several lengths ahead of the two women as his practiced weaving in and out of traffic made it difficult for them to keep up.  The pretty brunette flipped the phone shut, frustrated, after several rings with no answer. 

"He never checks his stupid phone!  If we lose him... " She shook her head, not finishing the sentence.  "He was supposed to signal me to let us know where he was taking her. Could you…" she began to say.

Suddenly, a large truck emerged from a side street and pulled directly into Lisa and Molly's path.  The abrupt move forced Lisa to swerve to avoid broadsiding the truck, but her evasive maneuver was nearly as disastrous.  Another vehicle had been approaching in a parallel lane, and Lisa had driven directly into its path.  The resulting collision crumpled in the front end of her small hatchback and Lisa sat cursing under her breath as steam rose from beneath the dented sheet metal.  Her eyes scanned the traffic up ahead, but Carter had not seen the crash in his mirrors and he and Natalie were now well out of sight.

“You shouldn’t drive while using the phone,” Molly added helpfully as Lisa glared at her.

*  *  *

A few minutes later, the large car glided to a halt on the street outside the Plaza Hotel entrance lobby.  Carter was outside and to the rear passenger door within seconds. 

"Ah won't be long." Natalie gave the driver a devilish grin as she stepped from the vehicle.  "This little job will be finished soon enough."

Carter merely nodded and watched appreciatively as the beautiful young woman sauntered toward the glassy front entrance, and added a bit more sway to her hips as she passed the uniformed doorman.  Carter knew she was right.  The job would be finished soon, along with her.  Glancing around, the driver looked for his trailing accomplices, but the other two women were nowhere in sight.  He decided to check his mobile phone and saw 13 missed calls from Lisa.

 

Chapter 31:

When the sharp knock came, Sammi jumped again instinctively.  Slowly approaching the door and looking through the peephole, the redhead saw her attractive friend standing anxiously in the hallway.

"It's me, Sammi." Natalie offered from the other side of the bolted door to reassure the frightened girl. After the sound of the security chain being released was heard along with two deadbolts, the door swung open and the brunette was greeted with a tight hug.

"I'm so glad you're finally here!" Sammi exclaimed.  Tears were beginning to stream down her pretty cheeks once again, but this time they were tears of relief at finally seeing a familiar face.

"I know, Sammi.  I know.  It's gonna be okay now." Natalie rubbed her friend's back softly, trying to comfort the panicky beauty.  "Just calm down." 

"But you don't understand!  Someone tried to turn me into a statue…" The redhead was frantic and began to go into detail once again about the strange ordeal she'd experienced, still clinging tightly to the other girl.  

"Shhh...  Shhh." Natalie tried to quiet her as she slipped free of the hug and re-locked the door.  "Sit down here for a second and pull yourself together, sweetie." Her over exaggerated southern accent was again almost non-existent as she patted her hand on the bed.

Sammi reluctantly complied, but went on nervously.  "We've gotta get outta here before they find us, Nat!  Oh my God!  If they catch us, who knows what they might do!  They might try to turn us both into mannequins!"

"Don't worry." Natalie half smiled, sitting the travel bag down next to Samantha.  "I've got everything under control."  She continued to clutch the small purse that contained the injector pen, but after finally digesting Sammi's words, she thought hard about what the other girl was saying; getting her first realization that she herself could be in jeopardy of being double-crossed. What did Legrand mean in the note by not disappointing him?  Could he be feeling threatened by her?  She would indeed have to plot this out carefully.  She couldn't allow Jarad Legrand and his people to out-smart her...  

"Nat?"

"Oh, Sorry." Her concentration returned to Samantha.  "Well, the plane out doesn't leave for another five hours, so we might as well lay low for a bit before heading to the airport.  We also haveta' put a plan together an’ be real smart y’know," she said, still pre-occupied.  "We've gotta figure out how we're gonna sneak you out of here without being recognized.  I'm sure those crooks are still looking for you.  You're worth a lotta money to them."

"How do you know that?"

"Oh, ah, just a wild guess." she backpedaled.  "I mean, think about it.  How much do you suppose some rich perv would pay for an incredibly lifelike statue of a redheaded bikini model?"

Sammi nodded.  Her friend’s explanation made sense even though the idea of turning a living person into a statue did not.  "Thank you so much for believing me, Nat." Sammi finally smiled.  "Everyone else thinks I'm crazy."

"Well, I don't."

"I know." Samantha said appreciatively.  "I don't know what I'd do without you!" The unsuspecting model never picked up on the fact that her 'friend' seemed to accept such a strange concept so readily and without question.  But after all, this was Natalie!  Why should she be suspicious?  They'd been through way too much together. 

Natalie only half smiled and tried to remain focused.  She wouldn't allow herself to become emotional right now.  The proverbial demon on her left shoulder had long before won a decisive victory over the now non-existent angel on her right.  Soon pretty Sammi would be out of her way, forever.  "You haven't talked to that cop anymore have you?" she probed. 

"No."

"Good.  We just need to get you outta here without anyone else gettin’ involved.  Did he know I was coming?"

"Um, yeah.  I told him last night."

"Oh great!" Natalie said sarcastically.  "I told you not to trust anyone."

"I'm sorry, Nat.  Marc's a good guy!" The redhead protested her friend's negativity.  "He rescued me on the street yesterday.  If it weren't for him I'd be in jail... or worse." Sammi couldn't forget the original reason she'd been brought to the city. 

"And if weren't for me, you'd still be wanderin' the streets... or worse.  Wouldn't you?"

Sammi conceded to her false friend's rebuttal as the tall black haired model stood and turned her back for a moment.  She could tell Natalie was fumbling with something in the small purse.  "You know, they have his girlfriend."

"Whose girlfriend?"  Nat mumbled.

"Marc's.  Her name's Dawn, er..., it was." She shut her eyes for a moment, thinking back as the panic flooded over her again.  "They already turned her into a statue!  I saw her there, mounted.  It was so sad!  She was just like all those other poor girls; all hard and shiny like they were coated with something!  Like they weren't real people anymore!  But I know they are!  I don't even know if they're still alive, but if there's a chance, there's gotta be something we can do to help them!"

Natalie kept her back turned.  "I doubt there's anything we can do.  And even if there were, why take the chance?  He's a cop, I'm sure he'll figure something out; if he's not in on it already."

"He's not.  Believe me.  What are you looking for, anyways?"

"Oh, nothing.  I'll be right back."  Nat dismissed the question and stepped into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.  A moment later, Sammi heard the lock snick shut.

"Can't I at least call him to say goodbye?" Sammi spoke in a pouty tone, but loudly enough for the girl in the other room to hear.  "I at least owe him..."

"No!" Natalie interrupted sternly.  "We're not taking any chances any more."  In the privacy of the bathroom, the slim model retrieved the shiny pen-like device from her purse and took a deep breath to calm herself as she looked into the mirror.  'How have I reached such a low in my life?  If she could pull this off however, she knew that things for her would change for the better.  They had to!  Her heart was racing.  The flush upon her face was also evident, and she knew she couldn't reveal her nervousness to her unsuspecting friend.  That could ruin everything.  She sat the injector pen down for a moment and wet her hands under the faucet, but reconsidered splashing the cold water into her face.  She couldn't take the chance of smearing her carefully applied makeup!    

Suddenly, she had to look away from the wicked image that was reflected in the mirror.  For a fleeting moment she almost considered "chickening out", but it was far too late for that and there was too much at stake to let her conscience get in the way.  'It's now or never.' she reassured herself.  Taking a deep controlled breath, Natalie palmed the chrome pen and decided on her game plan.  She flushed the toilet for effect, primped her sable-hued mane, and returned to the main room of the hotel suite, meandering toward the large picture window that offered a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.

"So, have you checked out this view?" Natalie lured her friend as she peered outside, but she was not merely enjoying the scenery.  She was confirming that Carter and the Town Car were still waiting below, without an unexpected posse, before launching her own plan. 

"No, I haven't really.  I wasn't in the mood for sight seeing."

"Well, come look now – you’re never going to get this view again." Sammi’s friend backed away from the window as the redhead approached.  "It's gorgeous!"

Samantha separated the blinds and took in the skyline and park, but seemed unimpressed.  "Yeah, it's cool, but..." She stopped short and glanced at the reflection in the polished glass window as she felt her friend’s gentle touch from behind.  The dark-haired model had crept silently behind her and placed a hand on her left shoulder.  Just then, Sammi's eyes fell upon the shiny object that Natalie held in her opposite hand.  It was poised in the manner a doctor would ready a hypodermic needle, hovering only a fraction of an inch from the smooth exposed skin of her upper right arm. 

"What the hell?!!" Sammi gasped, but the other woman quickly used the free hand she had placed on the redhead's shoulder in false comfort to muffle her disbelieving scream, and to gain momentary control over the redhead by pulling her head sharply backward and against her own left shoulder.  Her hand remained over Sammi's mouth and for a few seconds the pair stood utterly locked in that position, with Sammi's eyes darting back and forth from the mysterious tool to the face of the ‘friend’ who held it.

"Mmmph...!" Sammi tried to speak, but Natalie tightened her grip. 

"Quit squirming!  It'll all be over in a minute."    

Sammi began to tremble as she looked into the dark, determined eyes of the woman she'd always considered to be her best friend.  The reality that suddenly sank in was something she would have never anticipated.  But the black-haired beauty should have acted and injected Sammi while she had the opportunity.  With a forceful jerk, the determined redhead, who was a bit stronger and outweighed the other woman by a few pounds, broke free of the hold and quickly backed away; stumbling into a small dining table, then knocking over an overstuffed armchair placed near the window.  Soon however, the surprised redhead found herself trapped in a corner.  The look of astonishment on her face was even more prevalent than the sheer horror at Natalie's betrayal. 

"Don't make this any harder than it already is," the treacherous model snarled.

It was now Samantha's breath that quickened.  "No, Natalie..." she said disbelievingly, pointing her finger accusingly towards her.  "Not, you?!"  

Unlike Samantha, Natalie did not waiver and after the short-lived pursuit, she closed in on the redheaded woman once more; the pen-injector still readied for business.  "Yeah, it's true, sweetie." The devious girl replied.  "I was actually in on this plan from the beginning, you dumb bunny." Her words were cold and calculated.  "But I don't have time for a buncha' heartfelt questions right now.  It really doesn't make any difference anyway.  So just hold still for me for a sec longer an’ after that, you won't have to worry about holding still, or anything else; ever again.  I’m really gonna enjoy seein’ you all gussied up in one of them display cases…"

"No!" Sammi was sobbing and gritting her teeth all at the same time, drawing herself into a defensive position.  "I can't believe..." There were so many emotions running through her mind after this unexpected turn of events.  Adrenaline was pouring into her bloodstream.  Fight or Flight…

Natalie was soon in Samantha's face; she could feel her warm breath on her skin.  "Hush little baby, don't say a word... " Natalie began to softly whisper the old fashioned lullaby with a cruel undertone.  "Mama's gonna buy you a... Ouch!  Damn, you!!" She cursed as Samantha struck her wrist and swiftly knocked the injector pen from her hand.  It landed a short distance away on the carpeted floor, then rolled underneath the huge bed while both shapely young women scrambled for its possession.  The ensuing struggle between the two beautiful girls became a wrestling match for pure survival on Sammi's part.  She knew she couldn't allow Natalie access to the pen again.  If she did, she knew her traitorous friend would not hesitate a second time.  This was her last chance!

The catfight quickly progressed from slapping and scratching to a more intense level.  The elite hotel suite was in shambles by the time the struggling women reached the area on the floor where the pen had been hurled.  Then, as both girls stretched desperately to retrieve the object from beneath the bed, one of each of their manicured hands landed upon it simultaneously. 

"Let... fucking... go!" Natalie yelled, grabbing a handful of long red hair.  "Ummph!" Her next utterance however, as well as her end of the 'tug of war' trailed off weakly as she coughed, exhaled, then collapsed onto her back upon the floor.  Samantha had delivered a massive kick blow to Natalie's abdomen and she lay stunned for a few seconds, trying to catch her breath. 

It was now Sammi who finally had the upper hand...  and the injector pen.  The redhead sat on her knees partially straddling her former friend, and now both women had tears in their eyes.  "Why, Nat?"

"Why?!" The southern beauty, who was now on the defensive, shot back.  "Because I'm sick of always playing second fiddle to you.  Tired of always being the runner up to the Amazing Samantha Harris!  You win all the contests, get all the hot guys; all the attention from the magazines and tradeshows: everything! Nobody hires second place. With you out of the picture once and for all, that'll be me instead up on the winner’s podium, gettin’ all the choice gigs.  So when your manager and that chick that Legrand sent to pick you up approached and asked for my help in puttin’ you on ice, you can bet your sweet tushie I jumped at the chance!"

"But we were best friends, Natalie.  I've never done anything to intentionally hurt you.  I was just being myself.  I couldn't help..."

"Oh, I know." Nat said sarcastically as her breath slowly returned.  "It was always so easy for you.  You never even had to try!  All you had to do was strut around and be the hot redhead with big boobs and a great ass.  Just putting your pretty little self on display for all the world to see." Natalie's words dripped with jealousy, then an evil smile crossed her face.  "And... once I turn you back over to that Legrand guy, you'll still be doing just that," she said smugly.  "The only difference is, being on display is all you'll be doing, and I'll have my chance to shine.  Ya' see Sammi, this really works out super for both of us, but just a leetle better for me." 

Samantha's blue eyes narrowed as she stared down at the woman who mocked her so cruelly; the woman she had trusted so deeply for so long.  Her face reddened with anger and with hurt.

"Besides that," she smirked.  "Your finished statue's worth twenty grand to that artist, on top of what he already paid me for bringing you in!" 

"Just don't move." Sammi held up the injector pen in a threatening manner.  "I'm calling Marc.  He's apparently the only one I can trust." She wondered inwardly if that were even true as she stretched toward the nightstand to pick up the phone.

"Ha, ha!" Natalie taunted.  "You don't have the guts to use that thing!  You don't even know how." She shifted on the floor slightly, but settled into place once more as Sammi moved the pen closer to her body.  "Just give up, Sammi.  It's over.  Everyone besides me and Legrand thinks you're dead anyways."

Sammi gave her a puzzled look. 

"That's right.  Back home they've already planned your funeral.  Right now it's 'poor little Sammi...', but before long they'll forget all about you and I'll be the only one who knows the truth:  That you're standing in a store window somewhere, or being some freak's jerk off toy.  Pretty amusing thought, huh, Sammi?"  Natalie began to giggle.

"Fuck you!" Samantha finally barked.  Her redheaded temper was flaring.  "Just lay there and shut up, before I change my mind."

Then, unexpectedly, as Sammi shifted her attention to the phone again for only a split second, Natalie saw an opportunity.  She lunged up from the floor, rolling on top of the redhead with all of her strength, grasping Samantha by the throat.  The redhead's reaction to the sustained assault however, surprised both women equally.

"Chff!"

As Natalie clutched her throat, Sammi reacted out of pure reflex and depressed the plunger on the slim device in her hand.  But the powerful dart fired from the injector pen only grazed the smooth, bronzed skin just above Natalie's collarbone and embedded itself uselessly into the wall beyond. 

"You missed!  You dumb bitch." Natalie hissed as she continued to choke out the redhead and pound her head against the floor.  Samantha was now on her own back, and fought back with all the fading strength she could muster.  She still clutched the injection device in her left hand, but was unable to deliver another dart due to the relentless attack from the other woman.  The fingers on her right hand pulled feverishly at the ones wrapped around her throat, but to no avail.  Natalie was getting the better of her and she groped and gasped for air; not even having the strength to strike the other woman.  Her head was throbbing and the world began to appear very dark around the edges.  Sammi was nearing unconsciousness as her left arm fell slack beside her, and the brunette watched with pleasure as the injection pen fell free from her grip.

"Well... , looks like it's time to say night, night, Sammi." Natalie smiled as she picked up the pen once more.   Her right hand remained in place around the now reddened jaw-line of her former friend, and she used the other to place the injector directly against Sammi's carotid artery.  "This should make tings that much... um, ... ah." She closed her eyes slowly and shook her head.  "What's... going... on?" Nat felt dizzy all of a sudden, disoriented, and Samantha gulped for air when her friend’s grip finally loosened slightly.  

"Sam...mi...?" Natalie was able to slur as her eyes grew wide and an odd sensation passed throughout her curvaceous body.  Even though the paralytic dart had only grazed her skin, enough of the powerful drug that it contained had been absorbed and had gradually begun to take effect.  Her fingers were still gripping Samantha's neck, but soon the pressure she had formally applied dissipated even more, then ceased altogether, replaced by a numbing stiffness.  She was positioned on her knees, with her arms outstretched toward the redhead's slim neck, but in only a few seconds, her movements seemed to slow, then come to an abrupt halt.  The look on the pretty black-haired girl’s face was at first one of surprise and confusion, but by the time she realized what was happening to her, it had morphed into a static expression of pure terror...

"Nat?" Sammi whispered to the now completely motionless woman.  Her lovely features were frozen in the same fearful expression that remained unchanging.  "Can you hear me?"

"Y-o-u... b-i-t- ..." Her weakened, muffled words also froze upon her tongue as Sammi stared back at her in awe.  She watched with remorse, as well as relief, when Natalie's eyes seemed to slowly lose their focus and glaze over as her breathing became so shallow it was almost unnoticeable.  In mere seconds, the lovely model was transformed into a stiffened, unmoving, identical mannequin of herself. 

Sammi was as frightened as she was intrigued by the sight of another beautiful woman who was now completely motionless, yet still straddling her and staring blankly through her; her frozen face only inches away from her own.  This had been her only a day before, and she wondered how she must have looked in this same state, and how Natalie must feel right now... If she could feel anything at all.

The woman-turned-statue's hand was still faintly gripping Sammi's throat, and her dark eyes, as determined and evil as they had appeared a few minutes ago were now no more than blank, unseeing orbs that glared into nothingness.  Finally, Sammi mustered the nerve to pull free of her opponent's now passive grasp and took hold of Natalie's upper arms, lifting her slightly.  The jet-haired beauty was literally as stiff as a board, and seemed totally unresponsive to Sammi's touch or the upward movement of her own hardened form. 

The redhead was able to raise the statue of Natalie up long enough to scoot out from beneath her, but when she released her grip, the stiffened body of her sexy, former-friend settled into the exact position she had held previously, completely immobilized by the preservant.  The only noticeable difference was that now she appeared to be strangling air and staring straight through an invisible enemy.  Samantha couldn't even detect any breathing!  The drug had taken its full effect, and Natalie Nicoletti was frozen solid!      

 

Chapter 32:

"Legrand Studioz?" Jody answered the telephone on her desk.  "Wee, one moment pleaze." She said before transferring the call to her boss' telephone in the next room.

"Hello?"

"Jarad, It's Groves.  I've got some good news!"

"Tell me you've located the girl!" Legrand stood from his desk in anticipation.

"Relax, my friend.  She'll be back in your hands before nightfall.  The beauty of it is we don't even have to do the leg work."

"I don't believe I follow."

"Good ole' Detective Thomas is helping our cause again." Groves laughed.  "It's a long story, but he's knows where the Harris girl is, and he's going to bring her to us."

"How?" Legrand was confused.  "Why would... ?"

The man on the other end was still chuckling.  "The details don't really matter, but let's just say I introduced him to my newest trophy last night and he's going to deliver the missing woman to me later today."

"You idiot!  What if he talks?  Not everybody in your damned incompetent agency is on the take!  Not to mention the federal authorities! "

"He won't talk.  The fool thinks we're going to revive his girlfriend in exchange for Samantha Harris.  He wouldn't do anything to jeopardize a reunion with his precious Alison."

"I wish you had informed me of this earlier.  I've got a team of associates closing in on the Harris girl even as we speak.  If he walks into the middle of that, who knows what might happen." Legrand shook his head in frustration.  "And even if he does return the girl to us, what do we do with him, then?!"

"I've taken that into account too.  Police work is a dangerous business, if you know what I mean."

"Yes... Well, we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.  For now I've got to inform my associates of this change.  Just keep me informed."  Legrand slammed down the receiver and summoned Jody.  "Get Lisa Sachs on the phone immediately!" he barked.

Before Jody could do as he instructed, the telephone rang again and Legrand turned away while Jody answered.  He only half listened to the short conversation in the background.

"Meeshure, zhis iz Carter.  He iz calling from zee lobby of zee Plaza Hotel.  Zat is where Miz Nicoletti requested to be driven.  She iz in one of zee rooms now, prezumably with Miz Harris...  However, Liza and zee young one have thus far not arrived.  He waz eventually able to reach zhem by telephone, and zhey have been delayed by an automobile aczident." 

"Damn!" The gray haired man swore.  "Just when it seemed like things were coming together.  I wonder what else can go wrong today?!"  

"What shall I instruct him to do, Meeshure?"

"If the hotel is where Miss Nicoletti wished to go, the Harris girl must be there as well.  Advise him not to let either of them leave under any circumstances aside from full suspension.  I'm on my way there; personally!" 

 

Chapter 33:

Samantha stood and walked around her stiffened, former friend.  'What was she going to do now?!'  Her one supposed source of help was lying helplessly immobilized upon the hotel room floor.  'Marc!'  She suddenly remembered the friendly detective.  She would call Marc! 

After removing the tranc-injector pen from Natalie's outstretched hand, she stepped over her friend's frozen body and reached for the telephone once again, but before she could dial she was interrupted by a knock at the door. 

"House keeping..." A cheerful woman's voice called from outside, and Samantha almost panicked once more.  Was this truly hotel staff, or yet another person sent to carry out Legrand's evil intentions?  As the door swung open, Samantha ducked into the closet, where she watched through the crack in the small room's door.

A cute Latino girl with frosted chocolate-brown hair, pulling a maid's cart, backed into to the hotel room and, after retrieving a few supplies, turned around to go about her work.  But as her dark eyes cut toward the motionless woman on the floor she gasped and dropped the bottle of cleaning solution at her feet.  "Oh!  I am so sorry to disturb!" 

The rolling bottle came to rest against Natalie's right knee, but the statue that she had become was totally unresponsive.  Frightened, the girl started to back away, but curiosity got the better of her.  What the hell had gone on in here... ?!  It looked like a bomb had exploded in the room.  Broken furniture... lamps... things scattered... everywhere...  She was also intrigued by this realistic sculpture.  Was this a real woman or a joke that one of her co-workers was playing on her?  "Hello...?  Are you okay, lady?  Lady...?"

There was no response.

Samantha watched as the pretty post-teen worker knelt beside the stiffened figure of Natalie and gingerly touched her arm.  "Miss?" There was still only an eerie silence and the girl drew her hand back quickly after feeling the stiff texture of the black-haired model's olive skin.

'What am I gonna do?!' The redhead pondered from within her hiding place.  If this girl called for help or told her co-workers about what she had seen, there would surely be a crowd drawn and Sammi couldn't afford the extra attention.  Suddenly, she had an idea.  The desperate woman hated the thought of what she knew she had to do, but there didn't seem to be any other way.  As quietly as a cat preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse, Sammi eased out the closet, the tranc injector ready in her hand.

As she crept closer to the Spanish maid, the girl was still pre-occupied with the stiffened Natalie figure on the floor, and never noticed Samantha closing in on her from behind.  The redhead took a deep breath and readied the slim shiny device, but just as she prepared to execute her plan, the kneeling girl either sensed her presence, or caught sight of her in her peripheral vision and turned around.  Sammi saw the subsequent blood-curdling scream building in her throat, and didn't hesitate. 

"CHfff!"

The dart struck the girl just below her rib cage as she was straightening to her petite 5'3" stature, and only a faint squeaky "Oh...!" escaped her full, parted lips before she seemed to stop in place like a freeze-framed video.  The only noticeable movement afterward was a slight widening of her big brown eyes as Sammi placed a trembling hand on her shoulder. 

"I'm so sorry!" The redhead apologized.  "I hated to do that, but I had to.  You'll be okay after a while... I think..." She bit her lip, not knowing if her words registered with the girl or not, as by now the maid seemed to have stiffened up completely and her eyes held that thousand yard stare that Sammi had glimpsed only a few minutes ago in Natalie.  It was evident that a direct hit from one of these powerful darts caused a much quicker reaction than when a person was only injected with a smaller amount of the drug, as it was in former friend's case.  Sammi's heart was pounding a mile a minute!  Now there were two immobile women in the room, stationed as rigidly as the expensive furniture and decorations strewn throughout. 

After racing to re-lock the still-open hallway door, Sammi quickly returned to where the surprised young maid statue waited patiently.  "I don't know if you can still hear me, uhm, Maria... ," she offered, glancing down at the girl’s nametag.  "But if you can, please forgive me for this."  After taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, Sammi then began to unbutton the girl's hotel maid uniform, which looked like it might fit.  Maria however gave no indication that she comprehended the redhead's words, was aware of what was being done to her, or could object to the actions whatsoever.     

In only a few moments Sammi had pulled the gray uniform dress off from Maria's firm shoulders and she struggled to maneuver the short-sleeved outfit down the girl's stiffened, outstretched arms.  The maid’s hands were another matter.  Both were held outright, palms open with fingers splayed, in a useless attempt to ward off her attacker.  Sammi tried to be as respectful as she could, but in her hasty jerking on the material, the redhead nearly caused the rigid girl she was disrobing to topple over onto the floor.  Catching her just in time, as she had Brianna back at the gallery, she steadied the stiffened Spanish beauty upright once more.  And not unlike that suspended athlete, Maria of course was totally unaffected by Sammi’s clumsiness.    

Eventually, once the garment was free of Maria's torso, it slid rather easily over her trim waist and smooth, flared hips.  The dress now lay around the hapless worker's ankles in a crumpled pile, and Sammi knelt, trying to tug it from beneath where the younger woman's feet were planted firmly on the carpeted floor.  That wasn’t going to work.  Maria was as solid as stone - dead weight - and Sammi was forced to grasp her around the waist and tilt her rigid body a bit.  Balancing the Latino beauty gently to one side and then the other, Sammi was finally able to snatch the dress from beneath girl's dainty feet.  When Sammi released her grip on the pretty maid's waist, the frozen woman simply wobbled woodenly back into place, clothed now in only her bra, panties, and a pair of plain white socks and sneakers.

'Okay, here goes...'

Quickly, Sammi discarded her own outer clothes and attempted to pull on the petite maid's uniform.  Unfortunately the other girl was considerably smaller in stature than the redhead and Sammi had to squeeze into the undersized garment as best she could.  Her hips and breasts were heaving against the over-stretched material when she finally got the tiny outfit buttoned.  The hem of the dress, which had reached to the maid’s knees, barely passed as a miniskirt on the taller redheaded model.  The shoes were another story.  There was no way that they were going to fit her, and she soon abandoned the idea, sticking with the pair of flats that Marc had given her on the previous day. 

With all of her strength, Sammi then grasped Maria under her arms and began to drag her towards the open closet.  The woman's stiffened body remained as hard and rigid as before and she did not bend or move in the slightest way.  Soon the unfortunate maid stood nearly naked within the small space, gazing out into the room with the same surprised expression on her frozen face.  She was completely unaware of her current state of undress, or the company of the other dark-haired beauty, equally as oblivious, that soon joined her in the closet.

Sammi looked one last time into the hollow eyes of both of the women she'd been responsible for betraying and incapacitating, then pushed the closet door shut; hiding the immobilized pair in the quiet darkness. 

The redhead now began to rummage through Natalie's travel bag, where soon she found exactly what she was looking for!  The ever fashion-conscious brunette had packed a knit wool designer stocking cap and Samantha quickly pulled the hat on, tucking her coppery locks beneath it as best she could.  The next item she saw was a large stack of cash; surely the bounty that Nat had been paid... for her.  Sammi swallowed hard and misted up again in disbelief at her friend’s double-cross.  She was no more than a crude possession to this Legrand person, or as was now apparent, to her best friend... An envelope next to the money revealed an airline ticket, which Sammi knew would be useless without the appropriate identification, but she pocketed the cash with haste along with Marc's business card, Nat's cell phone and the ever-potent injector pen.  The piece that completed her calculated disguise was her former friend's large dark sunglasses.

After carefully checking herself in the mirror, Sammi opened the door and wheeled the maid's service cart into the hallway, preparing to make her escape.  She had no sooner rounded the corner when the elevator doors at the end of the hallway opened.  Sammi turned her head away and fumbled through the towels and various items on the cart as two young women, both attractive brunettes, exited the lift and rushed toward her. 

She recognized both immediately.  She couldn't remember either of their names, but the taller one was without a doubt the girl she and Marc had met the day before at the gallery.  And the shorter, mousey one had accompanied Legrand's other "hunters" when Sammi had nearly been cornered at the shopping boutique.   The women looked pre-occupied and appeared to be heading straight toward the room that Sammi had luckily vacated only moments before.  Thankfully, she didn't think either of them recognized her

The redhead was careful not to look directly at the pair, but watched from the corner of her eye as they passed.  Then, just when Sammi thought she was safe, her heart suddenly sank!  The tallest and prettiest of the two suddenly took notice of Sammi down the hall.  Maybe it was her odd headwear, skin-tight maid’s outfit or dark sunglasses, but something was not right.  The other woman looked back at her suspiciously for a long moment and almost stopped, but as Sammi continued to gather rolls of toilet paper and various cleaning items from the cart, the wary woman seemed to abandon any notions she might have had and quickly moved on. 

Soon the two women were a fair distance away, and after a few more seconds they disappeared around the corner.  'That was way too close!' Sammi breathed a thankful sigh of relief.  'I've gotta get outta here; right now!'  Abandoning the cleaning supplies and cart along with the wool hat, Sammi quickly slipped into the stairwell and glanced back into the hall just as the door swung shut.  There was no one else in sight, and she began her careful descent down the concrete stairs.  The frightened model could only pray that more of Legrand's henchwomen didn't await her at the other end. 

The stairwell was cold, damp and hollow sounding as each of her footsteps echoed off the concrete walls.  Floor by floor Sammi made her way down to ground level, then peeped through the small window in the door to the main lobby.  There were people everywhere:  Hotel guests coming and going, bellhops pushing luggage carts and hotel workers scurrying about their everyday jobs.  The confusion looked inviting to someone simply trying to blend in, and Sammi eased the stairwell door open slowly and join the myriad of people; her eyes on the sunlight that shown through the large window and revolving door from the outside world.  

When Sammi finally made her way through the busy lobby and past the chubby black man who was chatting with the desk clerk, she knew she was almost free.  No one else besides the woman upstairs even seemed to pay attention to her in this disguise; just another worker going off shift.  In the flurry of activity however, Sammi also missed a very important person herself: a tired and flustered looking detective who had just entered a nearby elevator.  Sammi had passed by just as the doors slid shut, and neither she nor Detective Marc Thomas took notice of each other. 

As she eventually approached the exit onto the street, Sammi never took the time to look back.  The frightened young woman pressed her way through the large revolving door and stepped out into the bright, chilly morning. The redhead was thankful to have escaped the devious plans of Legrand and his people once again, but she was acutely aware that many more dangers awaited her and that her luck was wearing thin. 

 

Chapter 34:

Back on the 5th floor...

Lisa knocked on the door of the recently vacated hotel room for a second time with no response.  Her new partner, Molly, stood only a few feet away, tranc gun drawn, scanning the practically deserted hallway, and by the younger one's posture and behavior, she looked as if she were on a mission for Soldier of Fortune.  It was obvious she was daydreaming again, and Lisa rolled her eyes.

"Go make yourself useful," the more experienced girl instructed.  "See if you can find a maid or somebody.  Tell 'em you lost your key, got locked out; whatever.  Maybe we can get in that way."

"Are you sure this is the right room?" Molly whined.

"Yes!  The man at the front desk confirmed it.  It's registered to a Miss Nicoletti, but if they're in there, they're obviously not gonna answer.  Now go, and hide that tranc gun!"

"Okay." Molly huffed.  She didn't like taking orders.  As she stomped back down the hallway however, she seemed to be in luck.  Another service worker exited a room a few doors down and Molly explained her fabricated situation, adding a few tears for emphasis.  Soon the door to Samantha's room was being unlocked, but Lisa clutched the handle, keeping it from swinging all the way open.

"Thanks," she replied as the helpful hotel worker smiled and lingered a bit longer than Lisa was comfortable with.  "Oh sorry," She reached into her pocket and handed the graying lady a couple green bills.  "Here." 

"Gra'cias!" The woman allowed as she finally walked off. 

When the maid was safely out of sight, Lisa readied her own tranc gun and made her move into the suite.  "Come on!" she urged a lagging Molly.  The pair stepped cautiously into the room and took in the sight of the destroyed furniture and strewn belongings scattered about.  The room appeared otherwise unoccupied.

"What the fuck...?" Lisa continued to look over the destruction.  "What went on in here?"

"Looks like she tore the place up." Molly stated the obvious.

"Yah think?" Lisa quipped.  "Molly, look... over there..." She pointed.  "That's the Nicoletti girl's bag on the bed!  She was definitely here, but where the hell are they now?"

"They couldn't have gotten away; could they?"

"I don't see how they could have.  There's no other way outta this room, and we would've seen 'em on our way up.  Even if we missed 'em on the elevators or stairs, Carter's been covering the lobby ever since he brought the new girl here..."  It did appear painfully obvious; however, that the missing model and her scheming friend were nowhere to be found.  "Go check that closet."  

The youngest of the pair was just about to investigate further, when a commanding male voice interrupted from behind.  "Hold it right there!"

When the girls turned toward the voice, they were staring straight down the barrel of Marc Thomas' .40 caliber pistol.  The rumpled looking detective stood just inside the doorway, his gun poised should the two women try anything foolish.

"Where's Samantha?" He demanded.

"W,who?" Lisa stammered. 

"Don't play dumb with me, lady.  I wanna know where she is.  Now!"

"Just put that gun down, mister." The elder dark-haired associate tried to calm him.    

"Not until I know where she is.  Now get your hands up where I can see 'em.  Both of you." he ordered.

Lisa and Molly complied, afraid not to.  For a moment, Lisa thought about the tranc gun in her purse, but decided against trying anything foolhardy.  She knew she'd never win a quick draw against a trained officer.  She also couldn't help but think that she knew this man somehow, but from where?  There seemed to be some vague recognition in his eyes as well.  Suddenly it struck her... Mr. Benson 'er Benett, or something like that...  He was the friend who'd accompanied Samantha Harris on her second unexpected visit to the gallery! 

Marc soon proceeded past the two women, keeping his weapon at the ready.  He checked the empty bathroom, then took up a defensive stance as he turned the knob on the closet door himself.  When the door was swept open, he and both of Legrand's associates were equally astonished as Natalie Nicoletti's rigid, frozen body, which had been resting against the inner side of the door, fell backwards from the opening and landed on the carpeted floor with a dull, solid "THUMP!"  She didn't move at all; her black hair was fanned out on the carpet.

"Oh my God!" Marc stammered, jumping back.  His surprised exclamation was echoed by simultaneous gasps from Lisa and Molly.

The lovely figure of Natalie remained utterly still upon the floor, unaffected by the sudden jolt, and remained in the same posture that the young woman had held while trying to choke Sammi.  The only difference now was that instead of being positioned upon her knees, the frozen woman lay on her back with her legs elevated as if she were caught in the middle of an exercise routine.  Her outstretched arms seemed to grope the air for an invisible object, and two fixed, emotionless brown eyes gazed upwards at the detective, through him toward the ceiling, and then... into infinity. 

Marc also saw the stiffened, half-dressed maid as she stared blankly back at him from inside the darkened closet.  Two more frozen beauties, neither of whom he recognized, but thankfully, neither of them was Samantha!  Keeping an eye on Lisa and Molly, the detective knelt down beside Natalie and checked for a pulse.  He felt only the stiff, rigid texture that her body had taken on with no signs of evident life.   

"Lisa,"  Molly whispered, pointing toward the still figure that Marc probed.  "That's Nicoletti!"  So far, neither she nor her senior associate could see the semi-naked maid from their point of view.  "If she's... um... there, where's... ah?" Molly stopped abruptly when she saw the insistent stare from her superior telling her to please shut up.

"Yes.  Do tell, Lisa." Marc stood and re-approached the still frightened brunette.  "Where is she?" It was more than just a question. 

"I, I swear I don't know... " Lisa's mind was racing.  She was not only scared of this crazy man with the gun, but of what her powerful boss might do upon finding out his prize statue had evidently evaded them once more.  "I won't lie, mister.  I really wish I did know where she was."

After looking deep into Lisa's pretty, frightened eyes, Marc couldn't help but believe her.  It was obvious she was telling the truth, but that still didn't absolve her or this other girl of why they were in Samantha's room, nor did it answer the other thousands of questions running through the detective’s mind.  Feeling a bit more relaxed; Marc finally re-holstered his weapon and motioned for the girls to lower their hands.

"I realize we have some explaining to do." Lisa offered first.  She was trying desperately to fabricate a convincing story to relay to the anxious man.  As badly as she wanted to, she knew she couldn't tell him the truth.   

"Yeah, you do." Marc barked.  "First off, who the hell are they?" He gestured toward the closet where the stiffened bikini model still lay unmoving on the floor and the young maid remained immobile and hidden from the women’s view.

"They?" Lisa queried, stepping closer for a better look into the interior of the closet.  Soon she too saw the hapless Maria standing frozen within.  Her state of undress suddenly set off alarm bells within Lisa's mind.  The suspicious looking maid... the one she and Molly had passed in the hall.  That had to be Samantha Harris - in disguise... and that also had to mean that Samantha had been responsible for at least one or both of these other women's current states.  'She has a tranc injector...!' Lisa thought inwardly.  The stakes had suddenly risen again.

"Well?" Marc urged, bringing her back to the here and now, pointing at Natalie.  "Who is she?"

"This figure, sir, is modeled," Lisa started to say as she pointed downward.  "From..."

"Someone whose identity is no longer of any importance." A deep voice boomed from the doorway, finishing her sentence. 

Marc reached for his weapon once again.

"There's no need to be alarmed, Detective Thomas." Jarad Legrand stated with authority as he entered the room.

"Detective?" Lisa mumbled.

Molly stood as quiet and woodenly throughout this whole ordeal as if she too had been converted into one of Legrand's realistic artworks once again.  She was now especially frightened at the appearance of her powerful boss and having misplaced Samantha Harris.

"You know who I am?" Marc seemed surprised, removing his hand from beneath his coat.  He recognized the well-publicized artist immediately. 

"Yes, Mr. Thomas, and I am well aware of your arrangement with a client of mine.  If your end of that bargain has been carried out, I see no need to waste anymore time conveying Miss Harris back to her rightful place: with me." His sharp eyes darted across the hotel room.  Not seeing the redheaded model, he turned back to Lisa.  "Where might she be, Miss Sachs?"

"She's um, not here, sir." Lisa explained, pointing out the obvious.  "She was already gone by the time we arrived and we found her like she is." She pointed toward the immobilized Natalie Nicoletti on the floor.  “There’s another frozen woman in the closet; apparently a bystander.”

Legrand's face reddened at the news.  It appeared that Samantha Harris had slipped through his fingers once again.  He then looked closer at the statue that Natalie had become.  He was satisfied in the thought that at least that part of his plan had already been accomplished without difficulty, but the main goal was yet to be achieved.  "It appears that the lovely Miss Harris turned the tables on this one."

"Yes, sir.  We believe she still has... a... pen." Lisa tried to be as vague about the mysterious weapon as possible in the presence of the detective, but it was apparent that this man knew more than she had initially given him credit for.

"Damn!" Legrand swore.  He also knew the risks of Samantha's possession of such a dangerous and incriminating item.  Before he could give further instructions however, he was interrupted by Marc's ringing cell phone.

At first the detective hesitated in answering it, then he saw the Florida area code on the caller I.D.  "Thomas?" His formerly gruff tone vanished as he flipped it open.

The voice on the other end was frantic and breathless, but somehow still as sweet and sultry as always.  "Marc!  Oh, thank heavens!" Samantha panted.

"Where are you?!" Marc could see all ears in the room perk up once he'd addressed the caller.  Even though he didn't use her name, they all seemed to know who it was.

"Oh Marc, I can't even think straight!  I had to... It was Natalie..., she was... and now... she's..." Choking on her tears, she could barely get the words out, then finally blurted.  "She's frozen too!"

"I know." The detective acknowledged grimly.  "I've seen her.  I'm at your hotel room now.  What happened?"

"She tried to turn me ah, oh Marc it was so awful!  But the details really don't matter now.  I'm just so scared!  I need you... please!"

"Okay; just try to calm down and tell me where you are."

"I, I don't know exactly.  I'm in a cab," was all the redhead could offer. 

"Ok, Sammi.  Where's the cab taking you?"

"I don't know and I don't care as long as it's away from here; away from this city.  I, I just told him to get me out of here.  To take me anywhere, but here!"

"Look, Sammi. Please don't leave before I can see you.  Will you meet me somewhere?"

"Okay, I guess," she sobbed.  "Where?"

"Tell the cabby to take you to the coffee shop at 33rd and 5th.  I'm close by and I'll be there as soon as I can."

Marc flipped the phone shut after establishing the location and looked around the room at the three anxious faces that stared back at him. 

"Well?" Legrand asked as he folded his arms.

"She's trying to leave town, but she's agreed to meet me first."

"Very well." Legrand smiled.  "She seems to have a great deal of trust in you."

"I know." Marc hung his head.  "That's what bothers me."

"Just think of the end results, Detective, and what it will mean to you."

He'd hit a nerve.  Marc thought for a moment about Alison; about how wonderful it would be to be with her again.  About how lonely and pitiful she looked standing so still behind those glass walls of her display case.  Then he thought once again about Sammi standing there forever instead.  It just wasn't fair, but he had passed the point of no return, and he knew there was no other way.

"So, do we still have a deal, Detective?" Legrand asked. 

"Yeah.  I don't like it, but I'll bring her to you.  I think it's going to be difficult to get her anywhere near your gallery again, though."

"It shouldn't be difficult at all once you've administered her a dose of this." The older man said with a look that made Marc's blood run cold.  He produced a small vial that contained a clear liquid and offered it to the reluctant police officer.  "Simply add the contents of this container to a beverage, convince the girl to consume it, and within a few moments I can assure you, she will not protest in the least." 

"Oh, no." Marc stepped back, holding up his hand.  "I said I would turn her over to you; not be the one who, who pulls the trigger, so to speak." He knew in reality however, he would be just as guilty either way.  He could only hold out hope that once Alison was freed that the two of them could find a means of helping out Sammi and all of the others.

"I don't see any other way, Detective." Legrand said calmly.  "I promise that Miss Harris will not feel any pain."

"Still..."

"The choice is yours, Marc.  But if she is allowed to escape again, our deal will become null and void - for good." His tone had turned determined and cold and his eyes drilled into the reluctant police officer.  "Consider those consequences while making up your mind."

"Fine." Marc's throat was dry as he finally reached out with a shaking hand and took the vial from Legrand, placing it into his own coat pocket.  "Then what?" He half whispered.

"Leave that to myself and my associates here." The artist smiled and placed an arm around Marc's shoulders.  The helpless detective only nodded as Legrand ushered him from the hotel room and began to explain his pre-conceived plan.  The two speechless associates were left behind for the time being; both attempted, unsuccessfully, to put the pieces of this strange puzzle together in their minds.  The other two women in the room remained completely unconcerned.

 

Chapter 35:

Thirty minutes later...

Marc Thomas stood on the sidewalk just outside the small coffee shop where he and the unsuspecting beauty had arranged to meet.  He checked his watch.  All preparations had been made, and Legrand's evil scheme would soon be set into motion, but Marc wondered if his own involvement, in the end, would indeed justify the means.  The only thing he knew for certain was what he had to do.  It was now or never, and there was no turning back.  After taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped inside. 

The shop was not as busy as it would normally be on a weekday, but by this time it was after lunchtime and a fair amount of Saturday shoppers and the usual yuppie downtowners sat at small tables sipping their overpriced lattes and crowded the counter for espressos and Danishes.  He looked around the room at first wondering if Sammi had decided not to show.  He didn't see the redhead anywhere.  Then, just as he was beginning to worry even more, he saw someone seated alone, as far in the back of the shop as possible.  From the gray service worker's dress that she wore, he could determine the person was female, but the woman hid her face with both hands while resting her elbows on the table.  She wore large sunglasses covering her eyes, but her coppery-gold hair was like a signpost.  As he approached, he could also tell she was nervous.

Walking even closer to the table where she was seated, Marc finally confirmed it was Sammi.  She was noticeably quivering with fear and she looked up at him silently before he sat down across from her.  He could instantly see the relief in her face at finally being with him once again, and it didn't take long for the nagging pain in his gut to intensify.   

"I'm so glad you're here!" Sammi whimpered as she reached out and took his hand in hers.  "Everybody's after me!  Even Natalie!  She was working for those people too!" The redhead started to break down again.  "Please help me get out of this crazy place, Marc.    I just keep running and they keep catching up with me!  Everywhere I go!"

Marc squeezed her hand a bit tighter.  "It's gonna be alright now, Sammi.  I promise." At least he hoped his words were true.  "I've worked out a plan.  You've just got to bear with me and do what I say and you won't have to run anymore."

"Okay." She agreed.  "But this is like some horrible nightmare, Marc, that never seems to end.  You're the only person I can trust!"

The detective tried to swallow the lump in his throat at her last ironic declaration.  He knew that if he didn't act quickly he would never be capable of going through with what he knew he had to do.  He was also well aware that Legrand's people were waiting nearby and Sammi would never make it much further than this coffee shop whether he was the means of her incapacitation or not.  And, if he didn't follow through, her fate, along with Alison's would be sealed for good.  'I just have to remember why I'm doing this.' He told himself.  'It's the only possible chance that Sammi or any of the others have.'

"So what's your plan?" she asked anxiously.

"Like I said, you'll just have to bear with me.  You may not like everything about what I have to do, but I think it's the only way." He checked his watch again.  "You probably won't understand until it's all over."

Sammi gave him a puzzled concerned look.

"Now just sit tight, and I'll grab us some coffee.  We have to kill a little time." Marc said standing from the table.  He walked to the counter, leaving the worried redhead alone to wonder what this mysterious plan of his might be.  Had she known, she would have probably made a break for it then and there.

Within moments, the barista had filled two large cups and handed them to Marc in exchange for his cash.  The detective stopped at the end of the counter and added sugar and cream to his own beverage and while his back was turned to Sammi, he palmed the small vial from inside his pocket.  After slowly unscrewing the lid, he poured the entire contents into the trusting redhead's cup of java and returned the empty bottle to his pocket.  He prayed that he was doing the right thing.

When Marc returned to the table, he made sure that he handed the correct cup to the lovely young girl and waited for her to drink.  He checked his watch again and even appeared a bit nervous himself to Samantha.

"Are you okay?" she smiled. 

Marc looked back at her and she could see the concern in his eyes.  He seemed to be studying her intensely as if it might be the last time he'd see her or something.  She was so beautiful!  While he had stepped away, Sammi had removed her glasses and ran her fingers through her long red hair that now spilled across her shoulders and down the overly tight dress that she had stolen from the maid.

"Do you realize that Legrand guy paid like twenty thousand dollars or something for me?!" Sammi finally sipped her coffee.  "Or I should say a statue of me!"

"That's probably only the half of it." Marc fidgeted.  "This thing goes a lot deeper than you know."

"I just can't believe Nat, of all people, was involved!"

"What happened back there at your room, Sammi?"

"She came at me..." Sammi reached into the pocket of her dress.  "With this..." She laid the shiny injection device upon the table.  "I hated to do it, but it was me or her.  Natalie was getting paid to bring me in.  Like I was some kind of a prize or something.  And then there was that poor maid..." Her voice trailed off.

"You'd better let me hold on to this." Marc studied the pen for a moment, then slipped it into his own pocket.  "This will be valuable evidence."  He also knew that it might come in handy in a pinch.

"I guess I shouldn't care after what she tried," Samantha said sadly.  "But I wonder if Nat's gonna be okay?  I wonder if she's woken up yet?" 

Marc knew the answer to her question, but held back.  Before leaving the hotel, he'd seen the stiffened figure of Sammi's old friend being conveyed back to Legrand's gallery where she was destined to become just another lifeless, yet lifelike addition to the artist's twisted collection.  And unless he could intervene somehow, neither she nor any of the others would ever awaken again.  At least the unfortunate maid, Maria, had been spared.  She had simply been left standing stiffly inside the closet to awaken on her own.  He'd heard Legrand say that she probably wouldn't remember a thing once she'd regained consciousness and mobility.

Sammi took another sip and paused, smelling the coffee as if it tasted unusual.  Another sip...

"Something wrong?" Marc forced a smile, hoping she hadn't discovered the additive.

"No," she almost laughed for the first time in a long time.  "Just brings back some bad old memories.  I'm being silly I guess.  Hey..., I really appreciate you coming to rescue me for a second time in two days!"

The detective had no response for such a statement and only stared back at her as she gulped more of the tainted liquid.

"So, what about Dawn?  Is she okay?" Sammi went on.  "I hope you were able to help her somehow."

"She will be... hopefully." Marc confirmed.  "That's all part of the plan."

"Good.  Is there anything I can do to help?  As far as the plan goes, I mean." Sammi sipped from her cup again. 

Marc's heart was beginning to pound even harder.  "As long as you bear with me today, you'll be helping a great deal; more than you know."

She gave him another suspicious look, but smiled.  "I'll do whatever you say, Marc.  It's the least I can do in return for all that you've done for me.  To you I was just a stranger; for all you knew another lunatic walking the streets, but you helped me anyways.  I'll always be grateful to you." Instead of clutching his hand, she was now caressing it.  "You know, it's funny the things you think about when you're under stress or when you're sad, but if you and Dawn weren't together... Oh, what am I saying?" She stopped herself and giggled a bit.  "I'm sorry.  I guess you're just like my knight in shining armor."

"I don't know about any knight in shining armor." Marc blushed.  "But don't be sorry."  No matter how hard he tried to fight it, the feelings of guilt were washing over him more and more by the second, and Samantha's trusting expressions of gratitude and affection weren't making things any easier.  Whether it was simply a crush or not, this girl really did seem to have sincere feelings for him and he tried to suppress the similar emotions that were welling inside him as well.  'I have to think of Dawn, er ah, Alison.' He scolded himself.   

Marc noticed that Sammi was beginning to blink as if she were sleepy.  "You look tired." He jibed.  "I think you needed that coffee."

"Yeah," she began to appear a bit woozy too."  Maybe a double shot... would... have... been..." Suddenly, Sammi's words began to come very slowly.  "Marc... I... feel..."

"Feel what?"

The fearful expression then crossed Sammi's beautiful face that made Marc's heart nearly stop.  "Sammi!  Put the cup down.  Don't drink anymore of that, please!  I've got to explain." He'd caved in.  The kind-hearted detective just couldn't do it.

"What...?" Sammi obliged after a second or two’s confusion and sat the cup on the table as if it were suddenly burning her hand.  She then gave Marc an accusing look that spoke volumes.  She didn't want to believe what she knew she was about to hear from the one and last person that she trusted.  "Do... you mean?"

"The coffee." Marc whispered.  "It's not your imagination.  It's drugged.  But you've got to believe me, Sammi.  I’m not doing this for money or anything underhanded.  I was doing it for you and for Alison; for all those poor women."

"Alison...?" Sammi's speech seemed to be slowly returning to normal without the continued dosage of preservant being introduced to her body.

"Dawn; whatever.  There's to much to explain and not enough time." Marc reclaimed command of the conversation.  "I was able to strike a deal with Legrand and his people.  They promised to free Dawn if I turned you over to them."

Samantha looked aghast!

"But listen, Sammi.  Once Dawn's freed, she's got enough evidence to put those people away for the rest of their lives and afterward all of the women who've been stuck in that gallery for so long can be set free.  You don't think I would've simply sold you out, do you?"

The redhead only continued to stare at him.  She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"Sammi, look.  Maybe you could only drink a small portion of that stuff, just enough that you could fake it.  It might convince Legrand enough to revive Dawn, then..." Marc stopped short as Sammi pushed herself away from the table.  The disbelief in her eyes had turned to anger and fear. 

"You're crazy…" She stood dizzily from the table and appeared to be preparing to flee, when Marc grabbed her arm. 

"Stop it!" She spoke under breath.  "Let me go!"

"Sammi, those people are waiting right outside for you.  It's either my way, where there's at least a possibility of you being rescued, or there's their way.  You know how that ends.  If you choose not to help me, I won't force you.  But if you walk out that door without me, you can rest assured that you, Dawn, your friend Natalie and every other girl in that damned gallery will spend the rest of their lives as statues.  And I'll probably end up in the East River."  He released the grip on her arm and turned his face away.  "There's no escaping this time, Sammi.  My plan, as far fetched as it might seem, is your... our only hope."

Marc Thomas hung his head in shame and defeat, and then he realized that the pretty redhead had not left his side.  He felt her soft hand on his shoulder and she moved back to her former location and took her seat once again.  "Okay," she said, shaking her head.  "I don't know about this plan, but I do trust you, Marc.  If it's the only way, then I'm in."

Marc looked up at her and smiled.  "If I could think of anything else..."

"I know..." She took his hand again.  "So what do I have to do?"

"Just… bottoms up, I guess..." He shrugged, not knowing what else to say. 

Sammi's hand was shaking when she reached for the drugged coffee again.  She lifted it momentarily as if in toast and placed it to her full lips.  "See ya soon... I hope."

Marc crinched inside as the beautiful redhead tipped the generously sized cup back and gulped as much of the hot liquid as she could stand, took a deep breath, then took another full swallow.  "Do you feel anything?" he asked nervously.

"Not so far."  She took another gulp.  The cup was now half empty, but there seemed to be no immediate effects on the girl consuming the mysterious potion.  "How long… is it supposed… to take?"  Her words had started to slow again.

"I, I don't know." Marc stammered.  He still wasn't sure if this was right thing to do.  He was a cop with gut instincts, and something in his gut was telling him to stop her again, but he didn't.

Another gulp.  "How long will… I have to… stay… this… way?"

"They didn't give me that many details.  I just know that once you're, um, frozen." He cleared his throat, hating the way that sounded.  "You'll be taken back to the gallery.  I don't know how long it'll be afterward before they'll revive Dawn.  She's at a private collector's house now... on display." He hated the way that sounded even more.

"I hope… it's not… too… long...  Don't wanna... be... s-t-u-c-k ... l-i-k-e... t-h-i..." Sammi voice slowed, then abruptly stopped; the unpronounced word still hanging on her tongue.  The expression on her face was surprise mixed with fear, familiarity and acknowledgement of what was happening; of what had just happened - again!  She had felt this strange feeling before, also when it had been far too late to do anything more, and Marc watched nervously as a slight tremor passed throughout her shapely body and the bright sparkle in her blue eyes began to fade.  Instead of looking at him now, her beautiful eyes simply stared straight through him and into nothingness.

"Sammi?" he whispered. 

There was no indication that she'd heard him.  The redhead sat rigidly in her chair, completely emotionless and unresponsive. 

Marc resisted the notion to wave his hand in front of her face.  "Sammi, we had to do this.  Please don't hate me."

Again, there was only silence.  For the second time in two days, the lovely redheaded model was under the influence of Jarad Legrand's preservant drug and frozen as stiffly as a waxwork.  It was now time for Marc to enact the final portion of the plan.

As gently as he could, he slipped his hand from Samantha's and noticed how her fingers retained their shape as if she were still holding onto his.  Her empty eyes stared straight ahead and she appeared totally unaffected by his movement.  Suddenly, he sprang to his feet!  "It's gonna be okay..." he exclaimed, moving to Samantha's side of the table.  In an instant he had the attention of the entire coffee shop.  "Stand back folks!  She's having a seizure!"  He placed his arms around Sammi's stiffened body and pretended to caress and comfort her.

"I'll call 9-1-1!" A kind customer offered.

"No!" Marc already had his phone to his ear.  "I'm a police officer.  I'll call a direct line.  It's faster," he lied.

More people were now gathering nearer to Marc and Samantha's table and Marc once again cautioned them to stay back.

"That's the strangest looking seizure I've ever seen!" He heard a voice say.

"It's a very rare disorder." Marc said as convincingly as possible.  "Yes..., 9-1-1?  I need an ambulance!  33rd and 5th!  And hurry!" He babbled the fake information into his cell phone, which had by now connected with Lisa Sachs' who was waiting just down street with Molly.

The pair had been stationed in an actual City ambulance with Carter behind the wheel, and upon Lisa's signal to go, they screamed toward the coffee shop with lights and sirens blazing.  The trio of associates arrived in mere seconds, but with all the chaos inside, no one even noticed the super fast, almost unrealistic response time.  "Real life" paramedics would almost never have arrived so quickly.

Inside the coffee shop, Marc was still acting out his part.  He continued to caress the shoulders of the young woman who sat stiffly in her chair, unmoving, unseeing and uncaring about what was happening around her.  Marc could feel the rigidity of her body as her soft skin stiffened more and more by the second.    

Soon the crowd parted and two very shapely, brunette paramedics, wearing coveralls bearing the star of life, made their way inside and to the table.  The attractive female pair wheeled a collapsible stretcher between them, and they lifted the gurney to a comfortable height for transferring their mock patient from the chair.

By now Marc had slid the chair and its motionless occupant away from the table.  Sammi's hand was still outstretched, now into mid-air, from when she had clutched his earlier. 

When Lisa approached the stiffened redhead she pretended to use a stethoscope while Molly fumbled with a blood pressure cuff, trying to wrap it around Samantha's upper arm.  They knew they had to at least make it look real.   

"Vitals are abnormal.  Prepare an I.V. and O2." Lisa threw out some loose medical terms she'd heard on T.V., not really having a clue what she was saying.  "We'll need to transform, I ah, mean transport the patient immediately!"  She was thankful that no one picked up on her botched terminology and procedure.  "Take the feet," she instructed Molly.

The younger girl grabbed Samantha's ankles while Marc clutched the redhead under her arms and upon Lisa's command to lift, the helpless girl was moved quickly from the chair to the stretcher.  She remained totally unaffected; holding the exact same stiffened position from when she had been seated.  Her body had now become so rigid that it was impossible to even straighten her legs, or adjust the arm that was still held high as if she were waving to someone from her now prone position. Eventually, Samantha was turned onto to her side upon the stretcher and once she'd been covered with a blanket, the straps were tightened down to hold her motionless body in place.

The two mock paramedics now wheeled the stretcher hastily outside and onto the sidewalk where Carter waited with the idling ambulance.  Once Sammi was lifted into the back portion of the vehicle, Lisa and Molly also climbed inside and prepared to shut the rear doors.

"Hey!" Marc stopped them.  "I'm coming too."

"Our instructions didn't include you riding along." Lisa shot back.

"I don't care what you're instructions were," Marc said climbing inside.  "I'm not letting you take her without me."

"Fine.  Carter, go!" Lisa yelled as she slammed the doors.

The ambulance then pulled back into traffic, lights and siren wailing once again.  Soon the crowd, which had gathered momentarily, began to dispel and within a few minutes, normal activity resumed on the busy city street.

 

Chapter 36:

Once the ambulance was well out of sight of the coffee shop, Carter switched off the emergency lighting and siren, then quietly blended back into traffic.  Molly had climbed up front into the passenger seat, and the three remaining occupants in the rear portion of the vehicle remained quiet.  For one of them, silence was beyond her control, but for the other two the awkwardness of the moment prevented any conversation.

Marc sat quietly and stared at Samantha as she lay so still upon the stretcher.  An occasional bump in the street would cause the vehicle to jar and with each one, Marc grimaced as Sammi's shapely body bounced then settled back into place; totally unaware and immobilized.  Her blue eyes seemed to stare straight toward him as if she were pleading for his help even in her catatonic state.  The detective slowly reached out and brushed the hair back from one of the lovely inanimate girl's cheeks.  Her skin felt so cold; almost hard.

"Don't touch her." Lisa slapped his hand away.  "You lost that right when you sold her out." She looked to see if Carter or Molly up front had heard her spontaneous remark.  Neither seemed to be paying attention.  "I thought you were her friend," she snapped in a low voice that dripped acid.

Marc gave her a confused look, wondering why a direct associate of Legrand's would be concerned with Samantha's well being or how she came to be the newest slated addition to the artist’s ever-growing collection. 

"Shh!" Lisa held her finger to her lips, just as Marc was preparing to defend himself.  She realized they were pulling up next to Legrand's gallery when she heard the back-up alarm sound and Carter maneuvered the rescue vehicle toward a loading dock.

In moments, the stretcher that held Samantha had been whisked inside and wheeled toward a work studio; Marc protested as the door to this unknown area was slammed shut in his face.  After he was left to wait in hallway all alone, he began to pound on the door.  "I wanna see Jarad Legrand and I wanna see him now!" He screamed.  "We had a deal!"

Soon an unfamiliar woman appeared at the door and glared at him.  She looked to be in her late forties to early fifties, but was trim, well dressed and quite the looker for her age.  "Meeshure Legrand will zee you in due time.  For now you muzt wait for a short while and remain quiet."

Marc nodded.  "But..."

"Or elze you will be removed from zee property."  She cut him off.  Her French accent was thick and the uppity woman disappeared back into the mysterious room as quickly as she had come, locking the door behind her.

With nothing left to do besides wait, Marc began to stroll though the adjacent gallery of lovely, motionless female figures.  He knew all to well that in the very next room they were preparing Samantha to be turned into a startlingly realistic statue as well.  The regrettable result of the no-win bargain he'd struck with that fiend Groves in order to save Dawn from that same enduring future.

Now, seeing these motionless silent ladies on their display stands all around him was making him doubt his choice even more.  Even though he'd known her only for a few days, Marc knew Sammi was vibrant and witty as well as drop-dead gorgeous.   How had he ever agreed to betray her?  The disbelief and hurt that flared in her eyes when she realized he had tried to trick her into drinking the preservant drug had burned into his mind along with her frozen expression as she stiffened into rigidity; that stare continued to haunt him even as he imagined the sweet face of his revived lover and her affectionate gratitude at being freed from her glass prison.  But Dawn, er, Alison - her real name - had known what was at risk when she took the undercover assignment.  Would she be upset because Marc had chosen her over truth and justice?  Would she leave him?  Why did Sammi have to be so innocent and trusting? The consequences of his dilemma were tearing him apart.

Marc nearly bumped into a nearby statue as he paced nervously among the artworks.  “Sorry,” he muttered out of habit before comprehending the immobile effigy standing in front of him would never react to his presence or appreciate his apology.

The young woman looked to be a few years shy of thirty and was posed saucily in homage to a 50’s pin-up girl.  She was tall and possessed the lithe yet curvy figure of a lingerie mannequin, a figure that was well displayed.  Dressed (or, more appropriately, undressed) in a slinky black bra, panties, and garter set, the lovely green-eyed sculpture stood facing a full-length “mirror” whose glass had been removed for a better view.   Concentrating on her imaginary reflection, the motionless model was primping her intricate curly honey-blonde hairdo while angling one long leg and balancing on the other.  A long strand of pearls looped around her slim neck and rested between her rounded breasts.  Another pearl bracelet decorated her wrist.

Marc took a step back, looked the statue from head to toe again, wondering how he had ever missed seeing this one in the gallery before.  The figure certainly was an appealing eyeful.  Who had she been?  Turning away, he spotted a statue that he had seen previously, but hadn’t had the time to check out with Samantha.

This one could almost be mistaken for sculpted alabaster from a distance; her skin was so pale and clear.  Perched on a veined marble column that was only a foot or so in diameter, the immobilized acrobat lay on one firm butt cheek while holding her arms and hands gracefully in front of her and one shapely leg upraised while the other was bent at the knee.  The musculature of this frozen gymnast was startlingly clear in the brilliant halogen spotlights that limned her physique.  Other than a close-cropped helmet of dark hair and her arched eyebrows, the statue was completely naked and obviously anatomically accurate as practically every square inch of her magnificent body could be seen clearly.  This figure seemed only in her late teens; she gazed unblinkingly into the strong overhead light, her grey eyes and rosy lips smiling. Her joyfully exuberant expression was one that she would hold forever.   There was a small brass plaque at the base of the pedestal, titling the strikingly beautiful artwork with a single word:  “Panache”  Legrand’s living artwork certainly showed that!

Towards the edge of the gallery space, next to the clothed figure of Signe, was a tall, darkened, glass-walled enclosure that looked like the same sort of curio cabinet that Dawn was displayed in back in Groves’ trophy room.  Inside this one was another still figure.  Thinking Legrand’s workers could not have possibly processed Samantha into a statue so quickly and yet fearing that they had, he approached the cabinet cautiously until the proximity-sensing switch activated and the interior lighting came on.   It wasn’t Sammi - or Dawn either!  Marc breathed a sigh of relief as he gazed upon an elegant statue dressed in a low-cut evening gown that highlighted the woman’s ample breasts and seemingly exaggerated hourglass figure.  Enticing glimpses of her slim dark-hosed legs were visible through the hip-high slits in the gown.  This woman was no youngster, but her smooth attractive face and sculpted shape hinted at a conscientious beauty and exercise regime as well as frequent trips to the plastic surgeon.  Her face was as meticulously prepared as the rest of her appearance, with smoky eye shadow and long false lashes framing striking violet eyes, the glow of her unblemished skin accented with rosy blusher on her cheeks and forehead.  Her full crimson lips were parted slightly to reveal pearl-white teeth set in a mouth that some purists might consider overly large but which fit the shape of her face perfectly.  She had delicately coiffed ginger-colored hair that wasn’t quite strawberry-blonde or copper, nor was it auburn.  Other than the motionless figure herself, the most striking feature of this woman was the brilliantly sparkling jewelry the statue was displaying.  Marc knew a little of the diamond trade from his uncle and realized this statue had a fortune in cut gems and precious metals around her neck, hanging from her earlobes and encircling her wrists.  Memories stirred and the woman’s gorgeous appearance recalled when he had seen surveillance footage of someone looking very much like her draped on Jimmy DeLuca’s arm at some charity fundraiser.   This clearly wasn’t his wife.  A mistress?  Golddigger?  In any event, she must have displeased the mobster enough to have her converted into an artwork by Legrand’s sinister process.  The mobster had showed a truly ironic sense of humor by dressing the statue in more riches than she could ever hope to possess in a lifetime, but this wealth she could never touch.

Marc frowned, his thoughts leading back to Dawn’s evidence on the gangster and the police commissioner.  He had even more incriminating material on Legrand.  Not only had he witnessed the artist's warped procedures in person, he had the still-loaded injector pen in his pocket.  Those bastards shouldn’t get off scot-free, he mused.  But who’s to stop them now?  Dawn would want me to, but I’m getting in just as deep as Groves or Legrand is.  I should never have given up and taken this chance with Samantha.  He turned away; fifteen seconds later the timed control extinguished the lights in the cabinet, plunging the unknown immobilized beauty into shadow once more.

Lost in thought, he nearly bumped into another female statue he’d swear hadn’t been there earlier.  Not bothering to look up, lost in confused thoughts, he stepped to one side and continued walking.

"Mr. Thomas?" came a voice from behind him.   Marc jerked up and looked around, seeing another pretty smiling assistant who had been waiting so patiently that she looked like one of the artworks.  She was no statue, but with the lifelike figures all around, it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference. “Please follow me,” the young woman asked invitingly.

“Where are you taking me?  I was supposed to wait here…” he objected.

“You’ll find out when you get there,” she replied, walking away. 

After an instant of indecision, Marc followed her into a small workroom, where the gorgeous Italian girl – Nicoletti – from the hotel now stood posed upright but no more mobile or aware than she had been before.  Examining the frozen girl’s stance was Legrand’s assistant who had shooed he and Samantha out of the gallery the day before.   The same one who'd orchestrated Sammi's return here today.  He remembered from their strange interaction back at Samantha's hotel room that her name was Lisa.   The other attendant stepped away, leaving them alone.

"Huh??  What’s going on?"

“Mr. Legrand will want to see you soon; he’s a very impatient man.  He even wants his women to be waiting for him, rather than the other way around…”  She chuckled ruefully.  “I thought you might like to see Samantha Harris one last time; she thought the world of you, you know.   Please, follow me…”  She started to walk away, the designer high heels she was now wearing in place of mock paramedic shoes clicking on the tile floor.

“Just a second, Miss,?” he interrupted.  “Can I ask you a question?”

“I suppose, but there’s a lot you’ll have to ask Mr. Legrand about." Lisa Sachs, by the way.  We weren't properly introduced earlier.”

“OK; you can call me Marc, but most people refer to me as Sergeant Thomas,” he joked half-heartedly.  Lisa said nothing but glanced once towards the naked still figure of Natalie.   Marc continued, “You’ve been with Legrand for some time, haven’t you…   Probably seen him in this studio crafting his artworks, like she’s going to be, right?”

“Well, uh, that’s not exactly…  That’s something you should ask…”  Lisa reddened, feeling guilty again.  She tried to defuse the question by walking away; they reached the display gallery by the time he stopped her by grabbing her elbow.

“Look – Lisa – let’s cut to the chase.   I obviously know these are real women; that he’s uses some kind of curare-type drug that freezes them into statues and he poses them here on display.   For now, I’m not interested in all of that, or your implication as his associate; I’m not even interested in De Luca’s floozy standing over there in the corner. I’ve made my choice.  What I want to ask you about is how quickly the process can be reversed?”

“Reversed?” Lisa looked puzzled, her eyes darting from one side to the other, falling time after time on a statue that she’d helped “recruit” into the collection.  Living sculptures that weren’t going to move on their own, ever again.

“Legrand had a contract to process a very good friend of mine into a display figure some time ago; you may know her as Dawn.  My turning Miss Harris over to your boss today was part of an arrangement I've recently made for her release.  So, please tell me how long it will take to reanimate her?”

“Uh.   Well, that’s not…  I mean… Uh, sorry,” Lisa managed to stutter.  The detective's involvement in this whole ordeal was finally coming together in her mind.  He hadn't done it simply for money or some other perverted reason.  He was trying to help his friend...

“Well?  Out with it!” Marc seethed.

“You can’t.”  Lisa stated flatly.   “The final preservant coating is… permanent.”

“What do you mean?” he clarified, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach.

“Just what I said.  Look,” Lisa said, taking a couple of steps towards the nearest statue, a cute figure in a Bunny costume and ears, complete with powder-puff tail.  "Take Shelly here for example..." 

“Get to the point, Miss Sachs.”

“When a figure is coated, there’s a catalytic reaction with the solution.  It hardens, instantly.”  She reached over and rapped her knuckles on the bunny’s forearm, which ‘thunked’ solidly.  They’re turned almost into plastic, like mannequins.  It’s supposed to be painless,” she trailed off, images of Heidi’s last moments bubbling up in her memory.  Shelly, at least, had been immobilized first.

“You mean…?” Marc whispered, fearing the truth.

“There’s no going back.  Your friend is a statue forever.” Lisa concluded.

What have I done?   Sammi!  his thoughts raged, though Marc kept his police-like demeanor.

Another set of footsteps could be heard approaching.  It was Jody, Legrand’s personal assistant.

“Whatever are you dooing?  Meshure Legrand was ready two minutes ago and he does not like to be kept waiting!  Come along, now,” she stated, then turned immediately and began walking to the studio.

Marc and Lisa followed, somewhat meekly.   Before they got to the door, he leaned over to her and said quietly.  “I’ve done something terrible; if you help me I can get you cleared of any wrongdoing.  Will you help me?”

After a second’s pause, Lisa nodded.  "There's still a chance for Miss Harris, but we've got to act quickly; before she's put into the chamber."

"Whatever are two whispering about?" Jody scolded.  "Liza bring zhat man in here, now!"

"Yes, maam." Lisa replied.  "Right away."

Soon, Marc and Lisa were standing inside the work studio where Samantha was being prepped.  The lovely redhead was still utterly motionless, and now lay upon a stainless steel table.  She was completely nude, and Marc couldn't help but notice how her ample breasts jutted upward and were capped by two beautiful pink hardened nipples.  He also took in the sight of her long shapely legs.  With the help of a variation of Legrand's mysterious drug that she had been injected with before back at the gallery, her stiffened legs along with her arms had been straightened out upon the table as if she were being examined by a doctor.  Her eyes still held the  same vacant stare that Marc had seen earlier, and they gazed blankly toward the bright lights in the ceiling.  Hovering around the helpless girl was another young woman who was gently giving the statue to be a sponge bath under the direct supervision of Jarad Legrand.

"Hello again, Detective." The artist addressed Marc.

Marc felt as if he could throw up, but did his best to keep his cool and play along although he now knew at least part of the truth.  "Sir, I believe I've upheld my part of our bargain.  I'm only curious as to when my friend might be returned to me."

"All in due time, Mr. Thomas.  I thought that since you've come this far, you might like to see the entire process and have a better understanding of how I preserve the beauty of fortunate young ladies like Miss Harris." In truth he was stalling, knowing that Groves and his henchmen were on their way to insure that Detective Marc Thomas never shared the information he had learned so far today with anyone.

"You call them fortunate?" Marc scrunched his brow.

"Why yes.  Quite fortunate indeed, Detective.  From me, each of them receives the very special gift of everlasting youth and beauty. Capturing real life as it happens.  That's what I prefer to call it."

"Well, I know of at least one them who would've declined your gift, had she the opportunity.  And she'll gladly return it.  That's why I'm here; remember?  If we could speed that small process along, I'll be on my way."  Marc still couldn't take his eyes off of Sammi as Kristen continued to bathe her.  The warm water dripped down the tanned curves of the stiffened redhead on the table and channeled across her firm abdomen, draining across her well groomed sex, then disappeared through the slots in the stainless-steel table.

Legrand smiled, ignoring Marc's protests.  "It is now time to chose an appropriate pose for Miss Harris.  Lisa, if you could assist us please.  Any suggestions, Detective?" He glanced back at Marc smugly.

Marc remained silent as Lisa stepped forward to help Kristen and the artist maneuver Sammi's rigid form from the table.  Her entire body, although re-positioned, was still as stiff as a board.  Once upright, Legrand adjusted her feet into a more suitable position for standing as the women shifted the frozen girl's body in such a way that she was finally able to stand on her own.  And as awkward as the position was, she did remain standing once their supporting hands moved away. 

Samantha was a vision of loveliness.  Marc watched with sorrow and regret as Legrand continued to mold his latest masterpiece, and once satisfied with the pose, the artist stepped back and cued Kristen once again.  The girl rushed up, with hairbrush and makeup kit in hand and went about her work.  Marc could only imagine Dawn er, ah Alison going through this same process before she had been permanently transformed into a solid, lifeless object to be placed in some sick display.

Lisa had been scurrying around the room herself, even stepping out of sight a time or two before she slipped back up beside the almost tearful detective.  "I've got a plan," she whispered when Legrand stepped out of earshot.  "When we go into the chamber room, you follow my cue.  You've got a gun, right?"

Marc nodded.  "What do have in mind?"

"I don't have time to explain right now, but you'll see.  When I make my move on Legrand, you just cover Jody and anybody else that might interfere; okay?"

She tried to move away, but Marc gently grabbed her arm.  "Thank you for helping me."

"I'm helping myself as much as I am you."

Marc nodded again.  He understood.  "Just be careful."

"You too." Lisa whispered, moving away when Legrand re-appeared and approached Samantha.   

"Well, Miss Harris," he began.  "It has been a long and winding road, but you are finally back with me.  It is now time to immortalize your ample beauty – once and for all."

The mannequin that Sammi had become only stared into nothingness. By now her beautiful naked body had been posed to resemble a youthful beauty standing upright with one hand on her hip and the other gently reaching upward as if she preparing the run her fingers through her long red hair.  Makeup had been applied and her coppery locks were impeccably groomed.  Her lips had even been molded into a half smile; her mouth slightly open.  Her eyes however, told another story.  They still held that scared, uncertain expression that had frozen into them back at the coffee shop.

In a few more moments, a wheeled platform had been brought into the room and the statue to be was hoisted aboard.  Samantha was then rolled down a hallway toward another mysterious room.

"Come along, Mr. Thomas." Legrand motioned with his hand.  "This is the best part.  Immortality awaits."

Marc nervously followed a few steps behind and once inside the room, he saw the ominous glass chamber that Sammi was positioned in front of.  Off to one side, the equally motionless figure of Natalie Nicoletti stood on another wheeled platform, awaiting her turn to become plastic.  Lisa eyed the detective and he knew she was planning her move.

Soon, Samantha was taken off the wheeled platform and placed inside the hideous chamber.  Before the door was sealed, Kristen stepped in again and re-touched any makeup that had been smudged in movement and straightened a few stray strands of Sammi's long hair.  All appeared to be set when Legrand stepped closer to Sammi.  "Well, Miss Harris," he addressed the rigid redhead a final time.  "I am so very pleased that we have finally arrived at this moment.  I know that you must be as well.  You just might prove to be the most stunning young woman yet to receive my gift.  I do hope you enjoy it."

With that Legrand stepped back and swung the heavy door to the chamber shut.  Marc could hear the airtight latches seal themselves after Legrand fingered a button on the control panel.  Jody had now entered the room along with Molly.  The pair stood near Marc, who continued to shift his vision from Samantha, to Legrand, then back to his accomplice, Lisa who was on the opposite side of the room with Legrand and Kristen.  When the hell was she going to make her move?  Pretty soon it will be too late!

Just then, Marc saw Jarad Legrand finger a second switch on the control panel and suddenly the chamber roared to life.  His heart seemed to stop what seemed like the tenth time today.  He could hear the pressure building and just as Legrand folded his arms in triumph and turned his back to observe... Lisa rushed forward.

"Liza!" Jody shouted.  "What are you dooing?!"

Hearing Jody's sudden blurted comment, Legrand spun on his heels and came face to face with Lisa just as she took aim and fired her tranc gun.  The dart struck the artist directly in his chest, and Jody screamed.  By this time, Marc had drawn his own weapon to hold Jody and Molly at bay.  The meek Kristen had simply backed into a corner, shaking with surprise and fear.

In only an instant, the man who had created so many beautiful female statues had become only a stiff, silent representation of himself.

"Hold 'em, Marc." Lisa yelled over the noise of the chamber.  The nozzles inside had now started to rotate around Sammi.  "I've gotta shut this damned thing off before the catalyst is released!"  Lisa began jabbing buttons on the panel haphazardly, but nothing seemed to be happening.

Jody then spoke up.  "You fool!  Zee chamber can only be operated by Meshure Legrand himself.  Only he knows zee accez codes.  And I suzpect zhat he will be using zhem on you in zee very near future."

"Shut up!" Lisa cried, continuing to beat on the control box.  The nozzles inside the chamber had now begun to apply the thick, sticky layer of preservant to Sammi's nubile body.  Time was running out.

"Ha, ha, Liza." Jody cackled.  "I did not know zhat you wanted to join you lover Heidi zo badly."

Lisa now turned toward the older woman and without a word, discharged her tranc once more.  Only a slight whimper escaped Jody's lips before she too joined Jarad Legrand in frozen silence.  Marc only had one hostile person to cover now and Molly's big brown eyes were as wide and frightened as his own.  He knew she wasn't going to resist.

Meanwhile the chamber continued its cycle.

"What are we gonna do?" Marc screamed above the noise.

"We have to halt the chamber before it reaches the final permantizing step!  There’s going to be gas released soon… Help me!"

When Marc finally turned his attention away, Molly saw her chance and made a break for it, sprinting away and not looking back.  Kristen soon followed.  "Damn it!" Marc cursed as they ran out of the room.  "What about them?"

"Don't worry about those two!  Just help me; quickly!"

Marc was by the beautiful Lisa's side in a moment as she climbed upon a nearby pedestal, trying to reach the hoses that pumped the horrible fluid into the chamber from an adjacent tank.  With a jerk, Lisa pulled one of the large hoses free and it spewed a heavy white mist into the air, much of it splashing back onto the associate-turned-rescuer.  The liquid seemed to gel and harden quickly on her soft skin like cooling wax.  Grabbing the second of the many hoses, Lisa tried her luck again and slipped from the pedestal as she tried to stand in the slick residue that was building up.  Marc helped her to her feet and he glanced back at Sammi.  The chamber was beginning to fog up, and he could see the same shiny film beginning to develop on her shapely body as the nozzles continued to rotate.  Legrand and Jody stood by patiently without any knowledge of what was going on...

"We need something to puncture that tank.  To take the pressure off!" Marc was screaming at the top of his lungs now.  The noise from the hoses was almost deafening. 

"Yes.  Over here!" Lisa offered running toward the other side of the room and picking up a mannequin's display pole.  She rushed forward and struck the tank as hard as she could, but the hollow rod simply bounced back, causing no damage whatsoever, not even a dent.  Tears were streaming down her pretty cheeks by now.

Marc had also picked up a similar object and had begun to slam it against the thick glass walls that surrounded the redhead who was getting closer to becoming a permanent statue by the second. 

"There's only one way left!" Lisa shouted, running toward Marc.  She reached under his coat, before he could protest, and grabbed his handgun. 

"Hey!  What the hell are you doing?!!" Marc screamed.

"Get out of here!  Now!!!"  Lisa turned and pointed the firearm directly at a smaller aluminum cylinder next to the large fiberglass tank.

"No!  You can't do that!  That thing’s under tons of pressure.  If it explodes, we'll all be killed!"

"Go, Marc.  You've got to look after Samantha... And I don't have anyone – not anymore." The pretty brunette was openly sobbing.  "Go, damnit!!"

Marc turned to go, but hesitated.  Lisa was sighting in the weapon on the catalyst tank, but he just couldn't let her do it.  He then glanced back toward Sammi who was almost nearly coated in the shiny liquid.  "Please... there's got to be another way!"

"No, just go, Marc.  Please!" Lisa was begging him now.  "I've got to do this myself."

Marc was just about in the doorway when the shot rang out, followed instantly by another deafening explosion indicated that Lisa had been on target.  A rush of white gas and clear liquid discharged from the room with a force that it knocked the detective down and completely clear of the stream.  Scrambling to his feet in the hallway, he made his way back toward Lisa. 

The sound of the chamber had finally quieted, but he could barely see anything in the thick mist that filled the room.  Once the heavy fog began to clear, he could make out more of the horrific scene.   Everything within reach of the exploding cylinder's contents looked like it had been covered with a light snowfall.  The whiteness of the coating however, began to dissipate as the liquid dried, and first Marc's eyes fell upon Legrand's faithful assistant, Jody.

The attractive older woman was frozen in the same defiant pose where Lisa rendered her earlier with the tranc dart, but something was very different now.  There was a slight, glossy sheen to her skin.  Even her smart business dress had been affected.  Next, Marc eyed the artist himself who had also been completely encapsulated with this same shiny coating.  It was evident that neither of these two would be creating any more statues anytime soon. 

As Marc made his way past the artist, he could only make out the shadows of the chamber in the mist that still hung around them, and he wondered if they had stopped the process in time.  Just then he remembered the brave woman who'd been responsible for at least trying to help Sammi.  "Lisa?"  He raised his voice hoping for a response, but there was none.  "Lisa?  Where are you?!  Can you hear me?"

He could now see her silhouette in front of him and he approached her gingerly.  The pretty brunette was no longer holding his weapon and he noticed that it had fallen by her feet.  Her hands were raised in front of her face in an involuntary reaction to the huge explosion of gas, vapor, and liquid that she had taken the brunt of.  She didn't move in the slightest way, and when Marc walked in front of her, he gazed deep into the hollow staring eyes of the beautiful woman who had sacrificed herself to help him.  She too had been frozen completely solid by the sudden rush of permeating preservant fluids that had been released from the tank.

Marc reached out and touched her face.  It was as hard as stone; even harder than the firm texture that he remembered when touching Sammi's skin after she'd consumed the coffee.  He could understand now why the final coating was indeed permanent.  He removed his hand and looked deep into Lisa's glazed, staring eyes.  "I don't know what to say." His voice was shaking.  "Just to say thank you seems so weak."  Lisa of course couldn't hear the detective in her permanentized state, but he noticed something a bit strange about the expression on the lovely statue's face.  She didn't appear to be afraid, or sad.  It was if..., as if she was almost smiling!  Had she won somehow?  Was this her victory over the man who had kept her indebted to him for so long; and her penance for her own evil deeds?  He would never know for sure, but he could only speculate.  He did feel indebted to her for the chance she took.  For the ultimate sacrifice that she had made.  The irony of the whole situation seemed surreal.

Just then, Marc was interrupted by a sharp "bleep".  It seemed to have come from the now dormant chamber.  He rushed toward it and noticed a green light blinking on the control panel.  He pressed what he hoped might be the correct button and he heard a sudden release of pressure as the hatch popped open.  Inside, the lovely, naked Samantha Harris stood as stiff and still as the rest of the occupants of the room, but he noticed that while the shiny film was present on her skin, her body had not hardened into plastic.  Apparently the glass had protected her from the catalyzing gas that all of the others had been exposed to.  He reached out and touched her still body as well.  And to his surprise, Sammi's skin hadn't taken on the absolute hardness that he had felt when touching Lisa.  Maybe they had reacted in time and Lisa hadn't suffered her fate in vain. 

Only time would tell...

 

The End 


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