THE PERILS OF PENELOPE T. HOZE

"Gregorís Gallery"

(In which our Penny gets an introduction to the art world, and is in danger of becoming a permanent part of it.)



"Are you ready for lunch, Penny?" Miranda Thomason walked up to the front of Pennyís desk while the newly hired, hard-working, eager to please administrative assistant put the finishing touches on some word processed company correspondence.

"ĎYours truly, blah-blah-blah,í" Penny read out loud as she typed. "There, all set, I think. Wait - does Ďblahí have one Ďhí or two?"

Miranda chuckled, something Penny rarely heard from her new friend. "Donít be too nonchalant," she warned, as Penny took off a pair of comfortable flats and slipped her stockinged feet into beige heels. "I knew a girl who used to joke about the Ďstudly Mr. Jordan,í and then accidentally typed that and sent it via e-mail to the company CEO."

"Yikes!" Penny put her purse strap over her shoulder, and got up to walk out with Miranda. "I suppose youíre going to tell me she no longer works here?"

"Actually, I was going to say you have her desk now, but I donít want to put any pressure on you."

Penny laughed nervously, and tried to gauge Mirandaís degree of seriousness. But her tall, dark haired friend walked to the elevator wearing a poker face - with maybe just a gleam of playfulness in her eyes.

Seeing Miranda with even a gleam of levity about her made Penelope feel very good about their friendship. When she had first met her at a local spa about a month ago, Miranda Thomason was cordial, but still somewhat reserved. The two had hit it off right away, and the ever ebullient Penny Hoze dominated their conversations, regaling her new friend with tales of the many weird and dangerous situations she had found herself in since moving to the city. Miranda politely listened, and shared Pennyís fear in the accounts of some of the perky blondeís escapades. She even picked up on Penelopeís current "between jobs" state, and helped her obtain a secretarial position at the investment firm where Miranda was an Executive Assistant to one of the top V.P.ís - the aforementioned Robert Jordan.

But in the midst of her extroversion and subsequent gratitude, Penny sensed that Miranda had suffered - was suffering - a tragedy or great sadness of her own. Something that she stored very deep inside her. Something that would take more than a fast-forming friendship to expose.

Something that the events of this dayís lunch would bring to the surface. . . .

After a quick salad at a downtown eatery, the two young women headed down a succession of side streets toward a destination only Miranda knew. The downtown department stores had become smaller specialty shops, and then older rundown stores and loud taverns, and then only a business or office here and there surrounded by empty and abandoned storefronts. Not the best place for two attractive young women dressed in blazers, blouses, wool skirts, stockings, and heels.

"Could we stop just a minute, Miranda?" Penny stopped, a bit heated from the long walk, and pulled a small battery operated pocket fan out of her purse. As the tiny fan blew some much needed cool air in Pennyís face, she took a moment to look around. "Uhhh, Miranda . . . usually I donít like to be lost. But I think finding out this is not where weíre supposed to be would actually be a relief." For the last couple of blocks, Penelope had felt like her head was on a swivel, constantly looking to one side, the other, and behind, to make sure some thug or fiend was not swooping in for the kill.

"Mr. Jordan told me it wasnít far from downtown - in fact this is the street," Miranda looked again at a slip of paper she was carrying. "But I do wish Iíd parked a little closer."

"Oh, I donít know. No use getting killed AND having your car vandalized in the same day," joked Penny, as she replaced the fan in her purse. But Miranda stopped short at her friendís comment, and seemed to be upset. "Iím sorry, Miranda. I was just kidding - I didnít mean to scare you."

"No, thatís not it - I mean, thatís okay. Iím fine, really. Oh! There it is!"

The long haired brunette pointed to a shop just a few buildings down. As they got closer, Penny thought it might be an Antique Shop or old gift shop, judging by the small artifacts and Ďcraft-yí looking items she could make out in the front window. But as they came to the front of the shop, she saw it was more than that. These werenít gifts, they were pieces of art. And it wasnít a store or gift shop. The lettering on the glass front read ĎGREGORíS GALLERY.í

"An art gallery?" she asked Miranda. "Why here?"

"Apparently, Mr. Jordan has commissioned a work from the artist. Some famous sculptor named Anton Gregor. Mr. Jordan asked if Iíd check on something here for him."

"You know, I saw some special on PBS that said female assistants and secretaries shouldnít run errands for their bosses. That it wasnít legal, and it wasnít right."

"Well," shared Miranda, "Thereís the world of PBS, and then thereís the world we live in. And in the world we live in, assistants and secretaries run errands for their bosses. Shall we?" She opened the door of the shop, and stepped in.

Penelope followed, and as soon as her shoes stepped on the carpeted floor, and she began to look around at the figures and carvings inside the gallery, and then the door clicked shut behind her, an unexplainable feeling came over her, from her head down through her stomach, clear to the tips of her toes. More than goose bumps, but less than terror. Something like fear - erotic fear.

"May I help you?" a deep, lulling, feminine voice sounded from the back of the gallery floor. An older, but very attractive dark haired woman came walking toward them. She was simply, but expensively, dressed in a creme colored pantsuit, with a navy scarf and matching navy heels. Pennyís eyes were first drawn to the beautiful jewelry she wore - beautiful diamond and gold rings, impressive without being gaudy - and a set of small pearls that set off the suit and scarf. And then, Penny noticed two dangling silver earrings. They appeared to be small silver human figures - one male, one female - quite distinguishable because of the detail, and because they were nude.

Miranda broke Pennyís stare. "Yes, thank you. Iím Robert Jordanís assistant, and he asked me to take a look at some bronze figurines heís considering for purchase."

"Oh, yes, of course. Mr. Jordan. Weíve spoken a few times. Our bronze figurine case is near the back of the room. Please follow me." the lady led the way to the back and Miranda and Penny followed. Penny looked around the room. There were not a lot of pieces in the gallery, but she was astounded by the detail and beauty and erotic power in each one. Nearly all were sculptures of people, with an animal here and there. Most were several inches to a few feet in size, although a couple of life-size statues - a very "manly" man in marble to the right of the main counter, and a younger kneeling girl in bronze, a garment of some kind covering her smallish breasts, standing near the front of the room - dominated the other pieces.

"Mr. Jordan mentioned that Mr. Gregor might be available to discuss his work. Is he here in the gallery?" Miranda asked.

"Iím afraid Mr. Gregor is indisposed right now. But I will be happy to answer any questions. I am Julianna Gregor - Antonís wife and assistant."

Miranda was a bit embarrassed. "Oh, Iím sorry, I didnít . . . please forgive me for implying that you couldnít help me."

Mrs. Gregor waved her off. "There is no problem at all, my dear." She continued to the back, and finally stood next to a large glass case, six feet in height and twice that long. "Please take your time looking over the pieces. I have something to take care of in back, but I will come out and answer any questions you might have. Excuse me."

Julianna Gregor backed away a few steps, then returned to the back room by the same curtain through which she had entered. The two friends stepped up close to the case and began examining the figurines inside.

"Everything in here is great," observed Penny. "Great detail. Great craftsmanship. Great holy Jesus, will you look at the size of that male warriorís, uhh, spear!"

Miranda laughed, then slapped Penny on the arm. "Shhh! This is art, not a Chippendale performance. Letís get back to what weíre here for."

"Youíre right. Sorry. And, by the way, what exactly are we here for?"

The young woman kept looking intently up and down the shelves. "Mr. Jordan has heard a lot about this artist, Anton Gregor. Heís thinking of making an investment in some bronze figurines, and wanted someone to take an initial look to see if Gregorís any good. Before he starts talking money."

"Well, Iím no art critic, but these things look great to me. Probably pretty damn expensive, too. Especially this couple here on the rock. Take a look, Miranda." Penny looked over to see her friendís eyes fixed on one of the pieces in the case. "Miranda, remember what you told me about that warrior." Penny laughed, but Miranda was beginning to turn a little pale. "Whatís wrong? Are you okay?" She shook her a little, but Miranda seemed breathless.

Finally she whispered a few words. "Oh my, God. It canít be. It canít be." She put her face against the glass. Tears began to stream down her face. "Cassandra? Is that you, Cassandra?" She stared a few more seconds, and then her eyes fixed on something in particular. She let out a small cry, covered her mouth, and ran from the case and out the front door. Penny was dumbfounded at first, and started to look inside the case to see if she could catch what had upset Miranda. But she decided it would be better to go comfort her co-worker and friend, and she quickly left the gallery, as well.

Miranda mustíve run away from the store, because Penny didnít catch her until nearly three blocks away. The upset young woman was leaning back against a wall, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, and struggling to compose herself.

Penny was quite breathless herself when she caught up with her friend. She leaned back beside her, and after a moment of silence, Penny spoke up. "Iím kinda torn between just giving you a hug and shaking you a few seconds while screaming ĎWhatís wrong! Whatís wrong!" The blonde secretary was going for a tension breaking big laugh, but settled for a red eyed, on the verge of more tears, smile from Miranda.

Finally Miranda composed herself enough to speak. "I know I owe you a big explanation - and Mrs. Gregor . . . . oh, God, she must think Iím a nut case or terribly rude . . . and Mr. Jordan."

"I think weíll all understand, Miranda. As soon as we know enough about whatís going on to have something to understand . . . ." Penny paused, "That last sentence made perfect sense in my head before it actually reached my mouth."

This time Miranda did laugh, and Penny, too. After a moment, Miranda touched Pennyís shoulder in a gesture of thanks. "I will tell you whatís going on, but I just canít right now. Not without breaking down again."

"Okay. But are you going to be all right now?"

"Yeah. Iíll be fine. But I do need to walk and clear my head. This is asking an awful lot, but would you mind taking a cab back to work? I donít want to make you late, but I just canít face Mr. Jordan and the others this afternoon. I can give you cab fare . . ."

she started to reach into her purse, but Penny stopped her.

"Donít be silly, Miranda. Thereís no problem at all. But you do have to promise me two things: first, you will share with me whatís going on here, so maybe I can help." Miranda nodded. "And the second thing - I do need to borrow a few dollars to pay for the cab. Lunch kind of strapped me." Miranda chuckled again, and reached into her purse to give Penelope the small loan.

"Was Mr. Jordan very upset?" Miranda asked Penny after the two had ordered lunch. Jordanís Executive Assistant had stayed out from work the previous afternoon, and this morning. She had called Penelope around 10:00, asking her to meet her at a restaurant near Gregorís Gallery for lunch. She was much more composed than the previous afternoon, but still a little on edge.

"Not really Ďupset,í" Penny ventured, "more like concerned. About you, I mean. Evidently, Mrs. Gregor had seen you leave the gallery in tears, and called Jordan to find out what was going on."

"Did you tell Mr. Jordan anything?"

"No. Which was quite easy, considering that I know absolutely nothing to tell him."

Miranda sighed. "I know. Thatís why I invited you to lunch. I want to tell you everything, and find out what you think about all this. Then weíre going to take a little trip." Miranda stopped, and took a sip of water. "Back to the gallery."

Penny was going to offer that maybe that wasnít such a good idea. But Miranda seemed so close to opening up, that she decided silent listening was the best course. And Miranda haltingly, but finally, began to tell her story:

"Youíve probably guessed that it was something I saw in the display case that set me off." Penny nodded. "As I was looking at all those beautiful figurines, just glancing at so many, one caught my eye as being very familiar. It was a nude female figure, on one knee, with arms outstretched reaching toward the sky. As with all the figures, this was extremely well done. Extremely lifelike." Mirandaís voice started to break, but she took a sip of water, and then a deep breath, and continued.

"I continued to look at that figure, blocking out all of the other pieces in the case. First drawn to the body, I looked up and down the legs and torso, the upreached arms, and then the long hair. And then, strangely enough, I looked last at the face. Disbelieving at first, but second after second of staring convinced me more and more. It was her. Cassandra. My sister." Tears were beginning to stream down her face now, and she took a longer drink of water.

Penny decided to give her a short break. "I didnít know you had a sister, Miranda. You never mentioned your family. Or that she was a model. But I still donít understand why that was so upsetting."

"You must be thinking that we didnít get along - thatís why I donít talk about her. Actually, we were as close as two sisters could be. With my parents, too. Daddy called us his little Ďbookends.í And she wasnít really a model - although she had done a little modeling when she was younger. She moved to New York City a year ago to become an actress. She was very good - I thought she had a great chance."

Penny noticed the tone. "Had?"

Miranda nodded. "About six months ago, after getting regular phone calls and notes and cute, funny cards about struggling to make it, all communication stopped. No one answered the phone. None of the other members of her acting class had seen her for days. Nothing. She was gone. Like she disappeared off the face of the earth. Me and my parents went to look for her, and talked to the police, but there was not a single trace. The police were very nice, and said they would continue to search, but underneath what they were saying, we knew what they really meant. Something had probably happened to her. And we would probably never see her again." The last part had been especially difficult, and now Miranda broke into sobs. Penny held her close and gave her a rocking hug. Having no family of her own, Penny could imagine what losing someone so close must have meant.

Miranda pulled herself up and took some deep breaths. "Now you understand why it was such a shock to see that figurine. Cassandra had never mentioned modeling for it. Even if she hadnít told Mom and Dad, she would never have kept such an adventure from me."

"I donít want this to sound skeptical or mean. But maybe youíre mistaken, Miranda. Maybe it just sort of looked like your sister. How can you be sure, with such a small figurine."

"Iím sure, Penny. For one thing, Cassandra had a funny shape to her toes - an unevenness in length we used to kid each other about. I could see that same shape on the figurine."

"But the face - the look - couldnít it be just a likeness?" Penny asked.

"No. Thatís one thing Iím sure about. You see, Cassandra was more than just my sister. She was my twin. My identical twin. And looking in that case at that figurine, was like looking in a mirror. Thatís why Iíve got to go back. I have some questions to ask the Gregors. And I know this is asking a lot, but Iíd really like for you to go with me, Penny."

Penny took Mirandaís hand. "Youíre talking to a living, breathing worshipper of Nancy Drew, missy. You couldnít keep me away."

When Penny and Miranda entered Gregorís Gallery, Julianna Gregor was completing a sale with a well-dressed male customer.

"I believe ĎReposeí will make a wonderful addition to Mr. Whitneyís garden, Mr. Smythe."

Penny wondered which piece was entitled ĎRepose,í and then noticed that the full-size bronze statue of the young girl was no longer in its position at the front of the showroom.

"Mr. Whitney is very happy, as always, with your husbandís work. Although he is still hoping for a female marble figure for the entryway of his estate." The buyer glanced to the side to see the two young women standing near the front door. He nodded a brief greeting, but before turning back, stopped and stared at Penny. He looked for only a few seconds, but it seemed an eternity, and Penny became self-conscious enough to blush a little, and inconspicuously give her gray skirt a brief tug downwards to cover more of her black stockinged legs, shimmering in the sunlight.

Mrs. Gregor also noticed Mr. Smytheís stare, and when he turned back to her, seemed to give him a knowing nod. The man smiled, and handed her his employerís check. "I trust we will be in communication in the very near future," he said, lowering his tone just a bit.

"Perhaps so, Mr. Smythe. Perhaps so. ĎReposeí should be delivered later this afternoon. Please give my best to Charles." She and the buyer shook hands, and Mr. Smythe headed out the front door. He politely nodded at Miranda, but his nod toward Penny struck her as more of a sizing up - a committal to memory of her form - that she found not a little disconcerting.

"Wow," Penny whispered to her friend, "I almost felt like saying Ďtake a picture, itíll last longerí."

"He did seem to stare - but you probably get that a lot," Miranda was a little sympathetic, but her thoughts were on other matters.

"Miss Thomason, thank you for returning." Julianna Gregor walked quickly over to Miranda. "I hope youíre all right. I was so fearful that something Iíd said or done had caused you great anxiety." She took Mirandaís hands in hers and gave her what Penny considered a rather staged look of concern.

"Oh no, Ms. Gregor. You had nothing to do with yesterday. It was, well, something else . . ." Miranda hesitated, not sure how to broach the subject she had come to talk about.

Penny decided to work on her Nancy Drew badge. "You certainly have a great memory, Ms. Gregor, remembering Mirandaís name so well." Penny remembered that neither she nor Miranda had introduced themselves the day before. How would Ms. Gregor know that Miranda was ĎMiss Thomasoní?"

"Thank you, my dear, it is important in this business. And after I called Mr. Jordan, and he identified Miss Thomason, I hoped she would return so I could inquire after her condition. But I do apologize, Mr. Jordan failed to mention your name, and I donít think we were introduced."

Rats, thought Penny, I thought I had her. "Iím Penelope Hoze, Miss Thomasonís - I mean, Mirandaís - friend."

The exchange between Penny and Julianna Gregor allowed Miranda to recover her courage. "Ms. Gregor, may I ask you a question about one of the figurines?"

"Of course, my dear," the gallery matron waved the two young ladies to the back, toward the figurine case. Miranda knew exactly where to look to find the figurine she knew in her heart was modeled after her sister, Cassandra. She walked directly to that spot in the large case, and pointed with her finger.

Her words came out in a slightly broken voice, but she was determined not to break down. "Thatís the one - the kneeling figure with arms outstretched."

Both Penny and Ms. Gregor followed the point of Mirandaís index finger, and spotted the bronze. Penny did indeed see a resemblance to Miranda in the face, but with the figure being so small, she knew it would be easy to realistically claim that it was a resemblance, but not based on her sister. A twinís intuition was not evidence.

Julianna Gregor looked at the figure. "Yes, it is quite attractive, I believe Anton fashioned that piece in . . . ." and then she stopped abruptly. She stared more intently at the figurine, and then back at Miranda. She gently wiped a tear from Mirandaís face, cupped her chin in her hand and turned the head from side to side, then looked back at the figurine.

"Please wait here, ladies. I will be right back."

Ms. Gregor walked quickly toward the curtain at the back of the gallery floor, pulled it to the side, then hollered, "Anton! Anton, please come out here a moment. I need to see you!"

A voice called from the back. "Iím in the middle of a sketch right now. Can it please wait?"

Miranda moved forward to say something, probably to insist on seeing the artist, but she didnít need to.

"Anton! This is very important! Please come out now!" The artistís wife responded, and in just a few seconds, out stepped Anton Gregor.

In some ways, he didnít look like a famous artist to Penny. His clothes were worn jeans and a college sweatshirt, with the sleeves rolled up. He was certainly not imposing - medium height and build. But he did have several days of unshaved beard on his face, giving him an artistic countenance. And when he turned from Julianna and looked at Miranda and Penny, both women knew he was looking at them through an artistís eyes: glancing, seeking, sizing, then posing.

Ms. Gregor walked him over to the case and their visitors. "Anton, this is Penelope Hoze, and Miranda Thomason, from Robert Jordanís office."

He shook both their hands, gently. "Nice to meet you both." He paused when shaking Mirandaís, and stared. "I remember speaking with Mr. Jordan, but I thought we spoke alone. Yet, I believe weíve met, have we not?"

Tears formed once again in Mirandaís eyes. "Weíve never met," she turned to the case and stared once again at the figurine, "but I believe youíve met my twin sister, Cassandra."

Gregor followed her gaze to the six inch figurine inside. He looked once, then blinked, and looked harder. Then he quickly walked over behind their sales counter, opened a drawer and removed a small key, and returned to the case, unlocking the sliding glass door. Carefully he removed the bronze figurine, and gently he carried it to the sales counter.

"Yes. Yes. I believe I remember. New York, wasnít it Julianna?"

Miranda nearly burst out. "Yes, Cassandra was in New York. She was studying to be an actress."

"As so many we meet in our business," Julianna agreed. "I remember the sessions now, too, Anton. She stopped by our studio one afternoon, shortly after we had met with a Mr. Greene, who was negotiating to buy our property. She had seen a modeling ad we routinely post on campuses and art and drama schools, and asked about possible employment."

"Thatís right. But our ad had been for a life size bust, and had been answered and filled days before. I remember her eyes were so sad - she was very short of money, and wanted desperately to stay in acting school. She had been answering numerous modeling ads . . . "

Julianna cut in. "Which Anton warned her against, by the way."

He agreed. "Yes. One never knows who or what will encounter in these ads. Anyway, she was very polite, we sat down and had some tea and talked about her acting, her family - yes, I remember now Julianna, she did say she had an identical twin, didnít she? The other, how did she say it, Ďbookendí?" Ms. Gregor nodded. "Finally, I told her I would do a sketch for a smaller amount of money, with permission to use it later. And she agreed. We did a brief session, she was slightly embarrassed about the nudity, but relieved that Julianna would be in the room, and then she left to pursue other possibilities." The artist paused. "But I hadnít planned on using the sketch, why did I make the figurine, Julianna?"

She shook her head and thought. Then she looked up in shock, and over at Miranda. "Oh no, you poor girl, now I remember. Now I understand your reaction."

Miranda was crying, and Anton and Penny still had puzzled looks on their faces.

"Anton, it was because of the news story a few weeks later. You remember," she lowered her voice, "the missing girl."

Suddenly it came to him as well. He lightly touched Miranda on the shoulder. "Oh, yes, I am sorry. Thatís the reason. Those kind of things happen so frequently in the big city, I felt that in case the worst happened, her beauty should live in another way. It wasnít sensationalism, my dear, I assure you. In fact, I hoped someday she would return and I could show it to her. Did she . . . I mean, was she ever . . ."

Miranda simply shook her head no.

"Iím so sorry, my dear." Anton held Miranda as she cried softly. "But donít give up hope. Perhaps someday the two of you will be reunited. In some way."

Penny appreciated the concern the artist and his wife were showing for Miranda, although she thought Gregorís crack about reuniting in some way was a little too over the top. But he was just trying to be helpful. Unfortunately for Miranda, though she had been proven right about the bronze figurine, it still wasnít really closure. Time for Nancy Drew again.

"Cassandra didnít happen to mention what other ads she was going to answer, did she?" Penny asked.

"Thatís a good question - the police asked us that same question when they talked to us," Anton stated.

Miranda perked up. "The police? Talked to you?"

"Oh, yes. Your sister told friends about our ad and her plans. Unfortunately, she didnít mention any other visits she planned to make. We truly wish we could have been of more assistance to them." Julianna sympathized.

No one said anything for a few moments, until Julianna spoke again. "I know this is rather crass, but I did want to tell you to please let Mr. Jordan know about our fine bronze pieces. We look forward to doing business with him, and despite these circumstances, we are happy to have met you, Miss Thomason. And you too, Miss Hoze."

The Gregors apparently believed the incident was finished. But not Miranda.

"I want to purchase the figurine of my sister," she stated. Pennyís mouth dropped open, and the Gregors were also slightly taken aback. "I know you do fine work, Mr. Gregor, and I know this piece must be rather expensive, but I donít care. Iíll give you everything I own for this figurine."

"I understand completely, my dear," Ms. Gregor began, "I would want to do the same in your situation. But youíre right, it is rather expensive. And more important, Iím afraid we already have a buyer."

"What! Oh, oh no, it canít be. But why is it still in the case?"

"Well, it is such a fine example of Antonís work - artists do this all the time, continue to display works for which there is already an offer . . ."

"An offer, you say? Not a sale. Iíll match your buyerís offer - no, Iíll top the offer." Miranda pleaded.

Penny tried to take her friend aside. "Miranda, youíre just upset, you donít know what youíre saying. That figurine could cost a lot of money - more than you have."

Miranda shook her arm free of Penny. "I donít care. Iíve lost Cassandra once. Iím not going to lose her again." She approached the Gregors once more. "I will come up with the money somehow, just tell me what I need to bid."

"Miss Thomason, you donít understand. This isnít a bid. The offer that has been made is virtually the same as a sale - sort of agreeing by handshake instead of contract. The only holdup has been the way the buyer wants the figure . . . uhh, set, I guess you could say. Unless the buyer rescinds the offer, it is a firm commitment."

"Then can you tell me who the buyer is - maybe if I talk to the buyer, and explain the circumstances, theyíll rescind and let me purchase."

Anton stepped forward. "Miss Thomason. First, we canít tell you who the buyer is - thatís just not done. And second, weíre talking about a price in the five figure range. I would love for you to have this piece - but considering the size of the buyerís offer, I think that person is seriously committed to the piece."

Miranda directed her pleas toward Julianna. "Ms. Gregor, I know this isnít my sister, and canít bring her back. But to have this, maybe the last thing . . ." Miranda choked up for just a moment, " . . . the last thing she may ever have done, would mean so much to our whole family. I wonít make you take a loss - Iíll raise the money somehow. But couldnít you talk to the buyer. Beg the buyer to let me have this chance."

Julianna Gregor looked at Miranda, thought for a moment, and then looked back at Anton. She sighed, then spoke. "I donít think the buyer will be happy, but I think I can convince him to pass this time . . . . mind you, Iím not promising anything. But if you can raise ten thousand dollars by the end of the week, I think I can hold off the other buyer that long."

Needless to say, Miranda was overjoyed. "Oh thank you! Thank you both!"

"But remember, even if the buyer does relent, he wonít do so indefinitely. I expect to see you by the time we close this Friday. Six p.m." Julianna was trying to be harsh, but a little smile broke through. "Hopefully, in a small way, we can reunite the Thomason twins again."

"Thank you so much, again." Miranda shook Julianna Gregorís hand, then Antonís, then Juliannaís again. Then she led Penelope quickly to the front door.

Before they exited, Julianna yelled after them. "Oh, and I hope youíll accompany Miss Thomason on Friday evening, Miss Hoze!"

"I wouldnít miss it!" Penny called back, as she and Miranda left through the front door.

The rush of excitement and happiness that Miranda felt all day Tuesday was replaced by two large doses of reality on Wednesday: the first was that buying the figurine did not change the fact of Cassandraís disappearance; the second was trying to raise ten thousand dollars in two days.

"If I cash in my CD, use all my savings, max out my credit card for cash, and get a good price for my car - I may just have enough," Miranda was adding some figures as she and Penny sat at lunch on Wednesday.

Penny hesitated to comment, but finally had to speak up. "Miranda, Iím sorry to say this - but donít you think this is a kind of, well, a crazy thing to do."

"What? To love my sister enough to sacrifice what I have. I donít think so - and if you think so, I donít need your negativity right now."

"But youíre giving up everything for a . . ." Miranda looked sharply at her, and Penny decided to drop that argument. She took a different tack. "Couldnít you ask your folks for some help. Theyíre as much a part of this as you."

"No. They have already been hurt enough. If I involve them in this - get their hopes up - and then it falls through . . . . No, I canít do that. If everything goes okay, Iíll take the figurine home and leave it with them. But I canít take the chance of them getting hurt again, Penny."

"I understand. I just donít want to see you get hurt again - either by losing this figurine, or going bankrupt trying to get it."

Miranda smiled again. "Thanks, Penny. Sorry I snapped at you. Youíve been a good friend. So has Mr. Jordan."

Penny took a bite of her sandwich. "Oh, donít tell me heís throwing in a few bucks. He could sure afford it."

"You got that right. But, no, I didnít ask him for money. But I told him about the situation, and heís very excited for me. He admires my independence, and agrees about waiting to tell my family. Heís also giving me all the time I need to make arrangements this week to get together the cash. He says its because heís a devoted art collector himself. But I think heís just a real softy."

"Too bad heís not a real softy with a couple extra thousand bucks to lend someone whose independence he admires so much."

"Oh, Penny!" Miranda laughed, and Penny felt so good about Mirandaís change of heart, that she laughed, too.

Penny hardly saw Miranda the rest of the day on Wednesday, and not at all on Thursday. With still no word on Friday morning, she was afraid that either the deal had fallen through, or Miranda had come up short of cash. She had lunch alone on Friday, and still no word by 3:00 p.m. To make matters worse, her supervisor brought an armload of documents that had to be proofed and ready to fax out before she left that afternoon. Getting out by five would be impossible.

At about a quarter after three, the phone rang. It was a breathless Miranda.

"Where have you been the last two days?" asked Penny. "Iíve been worried sick. Did something go wrong?"

"No. I was only able to raise about eighty-five hundred, but I called the Gregors and they said that would be okay. Theyíve really been great."

Penny was still worried. "You talked to the Gregors, huh? No word about the first buyer?"

"No, and Iím guessing that means everything is still on. Iíve got a couple of loose ends to take care of, then Iím heading to the gallery. I was hoping maybe I could meet you there instead of coming by the office to pick you up. Is that okay?"

"Actually, it will probably work out better. Old man Simpkins dumped a load of reports on me at the last minute. So I may be a little late. But donít worry about me. Go ahead and get your deal done. Just stall a little bit once youíre in there, so I can at least arrive in time to help you carry Cassandra home." After she said it, Penny thought that it had been a little too nonchalant. Considering how Miranda felt about things, she would probably be upset.

"Carry Cassandra home? You know, that sounds really great, doesnít it? You bet Iíll wait for you. See you there."

Miranda hung up, her voice and spirits still high. Penny had to admit, this was turning out better than she thought. Maybe in some way finding this figurine was helping Miranda get the closure she needed. Maybe Anton Gregor was right. Maybe, in some way, the Thomason twins were being reunited.

Even with proofreading as fast as she could (which probably wasnít a very good idea), Penny still didnít get away from the office until just after five thirty. Fortunately, the only good thing about the fact that Gregorís Gallery was in such a bad part of downtown is that there wasnít much traffic. By the time Penny parked her car and walked the block and a half to the front entrance of the gallery, it was nearly six fifteen, and late autumn dusk was turning to darkness.

The ĎSorry, Weíre Closedí sign was in the front window, but Penny could still detect a light in the back of the building, so she tried the front door. It was still unlocked, so the attractive blonde stepped in. Only a few security track lights lit the interior of the gallery, and since darkness was falling outside, the gallery floor was filled with an eerie light, and the numerous shadows of the Gregorís sculptures, both big and small. Penny was about to holler out "Iím here!", when she heard loud voices - slightly angry voices - coming from the back room, behind the curtain.

"Anton, you idiot! I canít believe youíve already given her the red potion. Didnít I tell you I was preparing Mesmerizing perfume for tonight?" The voice was unmistakably that of Julianna Gregor, but it had a harshness and edge that Penny hadnít heard before. And what in the world was she talking about. Penny decided to walk closer to the curtain, but quietly and hopefully unobserved.

"But I thought the perfume was for the other girl, not the twin. The red potion is for Miranda, is it not?" That was Anton.

Perfume? Usually the mention of perfume brought a smile to Pennyís face, but she somehow sensed that this was not a gift. Something was definitely not right here. And where was Miranda. She hadnít heard her friend speak a word.

Then Penny heard a slight moan. That was Miranda. Penelope crept closer to the curtain, and slowly pulled back an edge, making sure she could see, but not be seen.

The room seemed to be a combination sitting room and office. There was a desk and other pieces of office furniture, but also a sofa in the middle of the room. Anton was standing near the desk, holding Mirandaís arm. Julianna was standing next to a file cabinet, the top drawer open, pulling out a lovely perfume atomizer, with the old fashioned ball squeezer attached.

Miranda was holding her hand to her head, and seemed a little wobbly on her black heels. Apparently thatís why Anton Gregor was holding her arm. Julianna was still examining the atomizer, visibly angered by something that her husband had done.

"I should be out at the front door, welcoming our other guest when she arrives. But instead I have to be back here baby-sitting the two of you. Are you sure she drank the whole glass of wine?" Julianna nodded toward Miranda, getting more unstable by the minute. Sure enough, there on the desk beside Pennyís friend and the artist was an empty wine glass.

"Please donít be angry, Julianna. Just calm down. Miranda said that Miss Hoze would be late getting here. You told me to accompany Miranda into the back so we could get started. I assumed you meant get started with Miranda, since our buyer is coming by later this evening."

Mirandaís head rose when she heard the word buyer. "Buyer? But you said I could buy the figurine. I brought the money with me," she tried to open her purse, but was so drugged she was too uncoordinated to handle anything.

Anton Gregor spoke kindly to her. "Iím sorry, my dear. But we only told you that to make sure you would come when you did, and to make sure you withdrew all your money - just as if you getting ready to leave town." He looked over at his wife. "A clever idea which was mine, Ďthe idiot,í as you say."

Penny was shocked. And unsure what exactly to do. Apparently the couple were some kind of kidnappers or white slavers, or something worse. They had plans for Miranda - and for her, as well, apparently. Who knows - they probably were responsible for Cassandra Thomasonís disappearance as well. But what should she do? Should she try to rescue Miranda and risk capture as well? Or should she run and get the police - maybe call that handsome Sergeant Bailey who had helped her before - and leave Miranda, possibly never seeing her again.

Whichever decision she leaned toward, was definitely affected by the shocking events of the next few moments.

"Youíre right, Anton. It was a good plan. But couldnít you at least have given her the blue potion before the red potion. It would have made things so much easier," Ms. Gregor added.

Penelope wondered what she meant by that - and the answer was provided in a chilling fashion.

"Oooohhh - I donít feel well, at all," Miranda moaned, holding her stomach and starting to double over.

"Itís happening, Anton. Get her on the couch, quickly."

Penny watched as the artist moved her friend toward the couch. Penny noticed that as he lifted her up, Mirandaís heels slid easily off her stockinged feet. And even more strangely, the entire toe portion of Mirandaís hosiery hung loose as Anton Gregor laid her on the couch.

Miranda continued to moan, and Penny bit her lip, helplessly, as her friend seemed in such pain. She seemed so small lying there - actually she was small lying there. Smaller and smaller. At first Penny just noticed the cuffs of Mirandaís blouse dangling empty, with no sign of her hands. The entire blouse seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, but then Penny realized that wasnít the case. As she saw Mirandaís head get smaller and move down into the blouse, she realized that it wasnít Mirandaís clothes that were getting bigger - but Miranda that was getting smaller.

The legs of Mirandaís pantyhose were now empty from the knees to the feet, and for a brief moment, Penny was sure she saw a few small toes try to poke through the nylon just above the knee. Mirandaís head had completed its disappearance into the blouse, and by now there was considerably less of Miranda than of her clothes.

Julianna walked over next to her husband, and stood over the shrinking Miranda. "I didnít mean to scold, Anton. Itís just that if you use the blue, paralyzing potion first - then itís easier to pose the subject before you shrink them - thatís all." She continued to watch. "We must be careful now, Anton. Even though sheís small, she can still move, and either get away or get damaged by our trying to catch her. I certainly donít want a six inch naked girl running loose on the streets."

Anton laughed. "You are so funny, my love. If people see a six inch person running down the street, theyíre not going to notice whether sheís naked or not." They both laughed, while the effect of the potion was nearly finished. In another few seconds, the shrinking stopped. There was stillness, and then a small clump of movement under the waistband of Mirandaís wool skirt.

"There she is, Anton!" Julianna screamed. Donít let her get out - but donít grab and squeeze her either. Sheís worth a lot of money to us unblemished."

The artist began looking inside Mirandaís loose clothes for the tiny young woman. Penny watched in paralyzed shock, and then heard tiny screams coming from inside the loose clothing.

"I think I have a butterfly net in the storage room," Julianna offered. "Iíll go get it."

"No need," Anton said as he reached with both hands and began to move things around. "I think - yes - I think we already have what we need. Ta da!"

He lifted up his hands, and Julianna laughed and clapped while Penny put her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. Anton Gregor held in his hands Mirandaís tan pantyhose, and there in the left foot, screaming and kicking and struggling, was the six inch nude form of Miranda Thomason. Trapped in her own nylons.

This was too much for Penny. She was nearly in shock as she slowly began to back away from the curtain toward the front door. Unfortunately, not noticing some crystal animal miniatures on a glass stand behind her.

The artist held the foot of the stocking up to his face, to watch Mirandaís struggles. "Alright, Anton, thatís enough of that." Julianna pulled an eye dropper out of the file cabinet and handed it to her husband. "Put the blue potion in the eye dropper, and figure out a way to give our tiny model one drop - and one drop only. Once sheís paralyzed, pose her the same as her sister. We can do the bronzing later. Iíll go out and wait for our blonde guest, and give her a whiff of Mesmerizing perfume. Who knows. If we work long and late tonight, we may have two sales to ring up by tomorrow. Just donít let her get aw . . . ."

She stopped as she heard the sound of glass on glass. Julianna put a finger to her lips, grabbed a remote control device off of the top of the desk, and slowly moved toward the gallery floor. As she slung back the curtain, she saw Penny getting up from having tripped, and running toward the front door. Ms. Gregor quickly lifted the remote and pushed a button. The front door made a clicking sound - locked - and metal shades dropped down completely closing off the outside world.

Penny was trapped.

Penny was as frightened as she had ever been. Seeing what the Gregors had done to Miranda, and knowing what they still planned to do to her friend, brought a deep, sick feeling of dread deep in the pit of her stomach. But she had to stay calm, and think fast. Maybe she could talk her way out of this - get help and come back for Miranda before she became a bronze figurine like her sister.

"Uhh . . . sorry to make so much noise," Penny improvised as she stepped back slowly toward the front door. "I came by to see if Miranda was still here, but I see sheís already come and gone." True enough, in a manner of speaking, Penny thought. "My boyfriend is waiting with the car running out front, so I guess Iíd better head out."

Julianna advanced slowly toward her, holding the perfume atomizer at her side. "Boyfriend, huh? I donít remember either of you mentioning a boyfriend before"

"Well, I guess it . . . well, it just never came up. Heís a . . . policeman . . . a sergeant, actually. And heís in kind of a hurry tonight, so . . ." Penny reached for the door, but it was locked, just as she thought. Without turning back, biting her lip and hoping Ms. Gregor bought her story, Penny said matter of factly, "Whoops. I think I locked myself in. Could you unlock this for me, please?"

She still faced the door, knowing if Julianna Gregor could see the fear in her face, she was doomed. She hoped to hear the click of a remote. Instead, she heard the sound of clinking metal, as Julianna pulled back the end of the large metal shade, and peered outside.

Ms. Gregor took a quick look, then secured the shade. "I was a little suspicious about the policeman boyfriend, but I couldíve bought that." She stepped toward Penny and raised the perfume sprayer. "But if youíre going to use a Ďrunning carí in your story, you need to have a Ďrunning car.í"

Remembering the Gregors comments about ĎMesmerizingí perfume, not to mention what had happened to Miranda, Penny quickly moved away from the door and the encroaching Julianna Gregor, but deeper into the gallery.

"I saw what you did to Miranda. Shrinking her, trapping her in the hose. Is that your plan for me?" Penny decided to draw Julianna out, both to stall for enough time to figure out some plan of escape, and to find out as much as she could about Mirandaís condition.

"Ah, yes, poor Miranda. She must be suffering Ďsheerí terror, right now, donít you think?" Julianna laughed at her pun. She was enjoying Pennyís fear, just as she had Mirandaís. "But, no, my lovely Miss Hoze, I can promise you we have no intention of shrinking that lovely, shapely torso of yours. That would be an extreme disappointment to one of our best customers. And would leave such a void in the entryway of his estate, where he has dreamed of placing a lifesize marble nude statue of a lovely young woman, much like yourself." She walked closer, still holding the atomizer. "I promise you, your transformation will be much less painful than that of your friend, Miranda. Just take a deep breath of this sweet smelling perfume, and your mind will drift away, long enough for us to make the necessary changes to your exquisite form."

"You mean long enough to strip me and coat me in marble, donít you?" Julianna was almost close enough now to spray Penny. The lovely blonde reached out for some kind of weapon, and grabbed hold of a female nude oriental figure of solid jade. She held the piece up high. "Stand back, or Iíll drop this invaluable, uhh . . . irreplaceable piece of art. Youíll lose a lot of money, Ms. Gregor."

Julianna sighed, and paused for a moment. "Youíre quite right, Ms. Hoze. It is a very expensive piece. But Ďirreplaceableí? Only until we find an escort service specializing in Asian girls, and treat another beauty to our Ďjadingí process, just like the young lady you hold in your hand."

"Oh my, God." Penny almost dropped the piece, but realizing it was once a living person, set it down carefully. "Who are you? What are you?"

Julianna smiled. "Anton and I are merely connosieurs of art and beauty, who in our great travels have accumulated a great store of knowledge on the many ways to preserve the mortal beauty of humans in the immortal beauty of art. What you witnessed in Miss Thomasonís case is a rather crude process. I assure you, we donít intend to coat you, dip you, or spray you with marble. You will be completely transformed, inside and out, to beautiful, polished marble. Each of your lovely features captured as is, for all eternity. Surely you, just like all young, beautiful people, fear and dread the ravages of time. You can only fight a losing battle against such change. Whereas Anton and I have found a means to defeat it completely."

"I think Iím going to side with old age on this one, if you donít mind," said Penny.

"But I do mind. And our customer will mind greatly if we donít deliver a nude marble statue to his doorstep. A statue that was once Penelope Hoze." Julianna was ready to spray Penny with the mesmerizing spray, when the blonde shouted out.

"Wait! Someone else does know weíre here!"

Ms. Gregor stopped, realizing that Pennyís surprise at this revelation must indicate the young woman was not making this up.

"Miranda may not have told her family what she was doing, but she did tell one other person besides me. A very important person. Her boss, Robert Jordan."

Julianna stopped, and then began to chuckle, and then laugh out loud. "Oh yes, the great Robert Jordan. A fine man. A true humanitarian. And a collector of expensive art. Figurines, in particular. We know that, because we are working on a piece for him right now. A set, actually. That will be finished later tonight for him to pick up. Oh yes, Robert Jordan knows that you and Miranda are here. In fact, you might say that you and Miranda are here, because of Robert Jordan."

It was the last gasp of hope for Penny, and she knew it. She didnít have to be Nancy Drew to understand it all now: why Miranda was sent to the Gregor Gallery in the first place; his understanding of Mirandaís perdicament; his advice to not tell her parents.

The sculptorís wife closed the last few feet between her and a newly mesmerized subject for their sorcery. She lifted the atomizer to spray the perfume in Pennyís face. Penny reached into her purse, hoping to find some sort of weapon - a nail file, pepper spray, a gun would be nice, of course - but she didnít have any of those things. All she could put her hands on was . . .

. . . a miniature fan.

As Julianna Gregor sprayed the mesmerizing solution, Penny T. Hoze lifted the mini fan in front of her face and turned it on. All of the spray immediately blew back into Juliannaís face, and after a short gasp by the evil artist, her eyes went blank, her hand holding the atomizer dropped loosely to her side, and she stood silent and helpless in front of the ever resourceful Penny. There would be no marble statue made tonight.

But what about Anton Gregor? And Miranda? Penny grabbed the atomizer out of Juliannaís hand, encountering no resistance whatsoever. And she headed for the back room of the gallery to rescue her friend.

Slowly drawing back the curtain, Penny peered into the room where earlier her friend had become a magically transformed prisoner of her own lingerie. Neither the diminutive Miranda, nor the evil Anton Gregor were in the room. Behind the desk, there was a door - the only one in the room. Gregor and his next intended piece of Ďartí had to be behind it. Penny quietly tiptoed to the door, and gingerly opened it.

This was an even larger room than the one she had come from. Along the walls were shelves holding bottles filled with strange colored fluids. There were a few long work tables scattered at intervals, each complete with various shackles, ropes, and other restraints. And a couple even had strange clear tubing extending from the shelved bottles to the table. One of those tables was more cleared off than the others. The tubing was attached to a large bottle filled with a whitish liquid. Beside the table was an easel with a penciled sketch of a nude female standing on a pedestal, in a classic - yet sexy - pose. The picture seemed somewhat familiar -

"Oh my Lord!" Penny screamed silently to herself. "Thatís my face - my body in the picture." Apparently, that was the work area where the Gregors had planned to turn Penny into a marble statue later that night. Penny visibly shuddered thinking about their intentions - and visualizing spending all eternity posed on a pedastal, silent and still in polished marble.

"I apologize for my wifeís harshness earlier, Miss Thomason." Pennyís awful reverie was broken by the sound of Anton Gregorís voice at the far side of the room. As Gregor spoke to Miranda, Penny inched closer to see what exactly was happening.

"She is a perfectionist, you see. Which is good, I suppose, for the kind of work we do . . . ."

Yeah, right, Penny thought. For the kind of evil sorcery you do, you mean.

". . . everything must be done in its proper order and time." Gregor continued.

Penny was now able to see the Ďsculptor,í although his back was to her as he sat at a smaller table working on something. As she crept even closer, Penny silently chided herself for not having a better plan - or, in this case, any plan at all. What she shouldíve done was bring Julianna back with her, threatening her with . . . well, with something. That way, Anton would have been forced to not only release Miranda, but tell Penny how to restore her friend, or else his beloved Julianna would be . . . well, something or another.

No, of course! Penny finally figured it out. She remembered Julianna Gregor yelling at Anton for using the Ďredí potion - the shrinking potion - first on Miranda. Penny needed to find more of that red potion, give some to Julianna, and then once she was shrunken, Anton would have to tell her how to reverse the effect to save his wife. A perfect plan, except for one thing . . . where was the red potion?

While Antonís attention was directed to his work table, Penny frantically looked from side to side, shelf to shelf (as much as she could from standing in one position), trying to detect something that was red and said on the bottle Ďshrinking potion.í That was probably expecting too much. There were plenty of bottles with red solution in them, but would they be labelled? Penny quickly looked for some sort of kitchen area, or food or drink laying about. Thatís probably how Miranda had received her dose in the first place, and maybe there would be more of the stuff nearby.

"Julianna certainly is taking a while with your blonde friend," Anton said, and turned around in his seat. Fortunately, Penny was watching for such a move, and quickly moved behind a large section of shelving, hopefully out of sight.

The artist did not rise from his seat. "Ah, well, all the better. More time to surprise her with how well I can do things."

Penny didnít know what that meant, and at the moment didnít care. Her new vantage point put another work table in sight, and on it she saw the waist band of a pair of tan pantyhose. Mirandaís pantyhose! Anton mustíve secured the stockings in some way to prevent Mirandaís crawling out, and then laid them on that table while he worked on some project waiting for Julianna to bring the other project - Penny - back to the work room.

Moving even more carefully now, Penny approached the table where the stockings lay. But as she got closer to the table and the hosiery, and to Antonís work area as well, some distubing things came into view. First, on the table near the hosiery was a container filled with a blue liquid, and an eyedropper near by. Second, Penny soon realized that the hosiery was not secured in any fashion - because the nylons were empty! Miranda was no longer in the foot of the stocking.

She tried to tell herself that Miranda had gotten away somehow. That, like Penny, she had escaped her captor, and was hiding somewhere in this room. But Penny knew deep inside that was probably not the case. Anton Gregor had her small friend. But what was happening to her?

That question was horribly answered by what she saw over Antonís shoulder on the table in front of him: a large pot of a shiny, brownish like liquid. A little smoke rose from its surface, although it was not bubbling. From objects she had seen before - baby shoes, trophies, and more recently many of the figurines in the gallery display case - this was some kind of bronzing mixture. Penny started to tear up - it just couldnít be! Hadnít Julianna Gregor told Anton that the bronzing would be later? Surely he wouldnít disregard her instructions?

Gregor suddenly looked at his watch. "Ahh yes, it is time. Now we show Julianna that Anton Gregorís way also produces great art."

What Penny had only horribly envisioned seconds before now became a reality before her eyes. She saw that Anton Gregor had a thick string tied around his right wrist. And as he slowly lifted that arm, the string began to pull a small object out of the bronze solution. As tears fell, she also realized that in an insane way, Anton Gregor had proved his point.

The pose was absolutely perfect: hands upstretched and face pointed upward; one leg lying extended back while the other leg knelt. Even as the figurine dripped the bronze solution back into the pot, Penny recognized it as an exact duplicate of the figurine Miranda had shed tears over earlier in the week. And now, Penny shed tears over this work of art.

Her dear friend, Miranda.

Now a six inch bronze figurine.

The Thomason twins would be together once again. And probably through all eternity.

As Anton Gregor stared at his newest creation, quickly hardening as it dangled on the string in front of him, he evidently heard the heavy breathing and sniffles that accompanied Pennyís crying. But he didnít look around immediately.

"You see, Julianna - you were so worried. But she is magnificent. A perfect match. A perfect pair. Donít you agree?"

Now he did look around, and at first saw standing there in tears the figure of Penny T. Hoze.
"You fiend!" Penny cried. "You murderer!"

Penny noticed that Antonís look of shock as he stared at her raised up to look past Pennyís shoulder into the rest of the room. "Julianna? What has happened?"

Penny turned also, and saw that Julianna had stumbled into the room. Still dazed and mesmerized by the perfume, she held the door remote in one hand and stared blankly ahead.

While Anton gathered his senses, and carefully set down the nearly dry and hardened figure of Miranda Thomason, Penny quickly acted. She rushed over to Julianna Gregor, took the remote from her hand, and ran through the office into the showroom. She quickly raised the remote and started pushing buttons. Eventually the shades rose and the door clicked.

Hearing a noise behind her, she turned and backed toward the door, holding the atomizer in front of her to use on Anton if she needed to. But as she backed up, she didnít see the broken glass she had knocked over earlier, and her heel twisted badly on one of the larger pieces, sending Penny painfully to the floor. Even more unfortunately, the atomizer of Mesmerizing perfume fell beside her and the top popped off, sending droplets flying into the air, a few of which landed in Pennyís mouth when it opened in surprise at her fall.

Anton Gregor pulled back the curtain and entered the room, but a frightened and angered Penny picked up the atomizer and hurled it at the artist. While he ducked, Penny quickly got up and rushed to the front door, through it, and into the street.

Her first thought was to run as fast and as far as possible into the night, sure that Anton Gregor would follow her. But as she covered the first block quickly, she became aware of a very funny taste in her mouth. And then a very funny sensation throughout her body. And then a very funny feeling of emptiness spread through her head. And that first thought she had moments before, was the last thought she had for several days. . . .
 
 

"Sheís been moaning softly for nearly 30 minutes, doctor. I believe sheís starting to come out of it," Penny heard the older womanís voice, although her eyelids were still too heavy to open and keep opened.

"Miss Hoze. Miss Hoze, can you hear me?" This was a manís voice, somewhat gruff but also comforting.

"Penny! Penny, wake up! Itís Geoff . . . Sergeant Bailey!" That was, thank goodness, a more familiar voice from the recent past.

The eyelids were getting lighter now, and Penny was able to open and look at the three people standing over her. She tried moving her head around to take in her surroundings, but it was much lighter than her eyelids - too light for such a survey. She moaned and closed her eyes once more.

"Not too much, at first, young lady. Weíre just glad to see you awake," the older, gruff voice said. "I think you should probably come back later, Sergeant."

"Just one more thing, doc." Penny could feel him lean closer to her, almost as if he planned to give her a kiss. The young lady was aware enough to know she knew this man, but not to the extent heíd say goodbye with a kiss. And it wasnít a kiss. It was a question instead.

"I know you need to rest, Penny. And Iíll be back with you whenever you need me. But just think on this, because it would be a great help: do you have any idea what happened to you last Friday? Think about that, and get well. Iíll see you later."

Already exhausted from that one brief moment of lucidity, Penny fell back into a fitful sleep for many hours. Each time she awoke briefly, she remembered the policemanís question, and thought about it very hard. But for all her efforts, the question was the only thing she remembered. Not even a hint at an answer alighted on her mind - that night, or in the days ahead.

The relief Penny experienced in the next couple of days, as she regained her strength, and was finally released from the hospital, was mixed with some disturbing facts.

First, of course, there was the fact that nearly two weeks of her memory was completely gone. The last thing she remembered was going to work on a Monday morning, and making plans to go to lunch with her good friend, Miranda Thomason.

Miranda Thomason was the second disturbing fact. The attractive young Executive Assistant was nowhere to be found. Apparently she had been absent from work since that last Monday of Pennyís recollection, and other than a few public appearances at her bank and a nearby car wholesaler, she had disappeared.

Her employer, Robert Jordan, was very concerned. When Mirandaís parents came looking for her, he was a little hesitant to discuss her activities of that week. But pressed by them, and by Sergeant Bailey, Jordan finally admitted what was going on. Apparently, he told them, Miranda had gotten an anonymous tip from one of her sister Cassandraís friends in New York, that a mutual acquaintance had some information about Cassandraís whereabouts. Unfortunately, the tipster would not share that information for free. Money was required, a lot of it.

Jordan told Mr. and Mrs. Thomason that he counseled Miranda to speak with the New York police, and then with them. But she was afraid the informant would get spooked, and Cassandraís trail would get cold once more. So Miranda asked for time off to raise the money, and travel to New York. She assured Jordan that if the tip seemed legitimate, she would bring in the police. Jordan said he offered to help, but she wouldnít hear of it. Finally, he got he to agree to at least let him pay for her airline ticket to New York City. Jordan produced the credit card receipt for the purchase, and Sergeant Bailey found out it was an evening flight that departed the previous Friday evening. The same Friday that something happened to Penny.

Bailey promised the Thomasons he would do his best to find out what happened to Penny and Miranda that night. In Pennyís case he speculated that some very powerful drug was involved. Not enough to do long term damage - but enough to wipe out a large chunk of her memory. He refused to speculate about Miranda - but considering that Penny got away and was still in such bad condition, and Miranda was nowhere to be found . . . . He didnít finish the speculation, but since the Thomasons had been through something like this before, they knew the options. And none of them were very good.

The stress of all that had happened over the past few weeks (half of which she didnít even remember) had taken its toll on Penny, and she decided to get away from the city. A good friend out west had invited Penny to stay with her until she decided what to do and where to go next. That meant, of course, leaving her job at the investment firm behind. Sergeant Bailey had offered to help her pack up her desk, and amidst teary goodbyes to friends, Penny was invited to Robert Jordanís office for a final farewell.

"We hate to lose you, Ms. Hoze, but perhaps getting away from all this is the best solution," Jordan said, sympathetically, seated behind his desk.

"Thank you, Mr. Jordan. I hope things weíll work out for the best. Even with all that happened to me, Iím still the lucky one. Itís the Thomasons I really feel sorry for. I just wish I could help them, but thereís simply nothing . . . no recollection . . ." Pennyís put her hands to her forehead, straining once again to remember, but only getting the recurring headache that started each time she tried.

"We all know youíve tried, Ms. Hoze. Itís not your fault. Things like this can happen. Believe it or not, I have an acquaintance whoís had a recent Ďtraumaí that affected her in much the same way."

"Oh. Has she recovered?"

"With a lot of care and patience, sheís putting things back together. In her case, throwing herself back into her work has done the trick. But I believe in yours, getting as far away from this place is the proper - yet painful for the rest of us - prescription."

Penny smiled, and stood as Jordan also stood and walked around his desk. But instead of walking her to the door, he stepped over to the far wall of his office, and pushed a button on a nearby stand. The sound of motor could be heard, and then the wall itself started to turn. On the back side was a beautiful mahogany bookcase. The shelves were filled with several beautiful - and no doubt valuable - art objects, from vases to small paintings, to a number of bronze figurines. In the center of the bookcase was a short row of books, most of which looked very old, like first editions.

Jordan lightly put his hand on Pennyís shoulder, and moved her toward the case. "Thereís something I want to show you."

As they stood in front of the bookcase, Pennyís eyes were first drawn to the beautiful art pieces scattered on the shelves. But as Jordan reached for the books, her eyes were drawn to the well preserved volumes on the shelf. All held in place by two lovely, but unusual bookends. They were six inch bronze figurines, mounted on a cherry stained wooden pedastal. The figurines were female nudes, very lovely, with long hair, arms and hands reaching skyward, one knee bent as in supplication. And, being bookends, the two female figurines were identical in every detail.

Jordan watched Pennyís eyes carefully as she stared at the bookends, looking back and forth in comparison. He was relieved to see that other than the admiration any person has for perfection in art, there was absolutely no element of surprise or recognition in her stare. She simply looked a few moments, and turned her attention back to the books.

Smiling, Jordan took down a brightly colored smaller book from the shelf. "Iím not sure how I found this out, but it came to my attention that you are quite a devotee of ĎNancy Drew.í"

"Yes," Penny chuckled. "I loved the old Nancy Drew books."

"Well, this is a first edition of the first title in that series. Itís yours to keep." He handed it to her.

"Why, Mr. Jordan, I . . . I donít know what to say. This must be very valuable. Thank you. Thank you very much!"

"Itís nothing, my dear. Itís been a difficult time for you these past few weeks. I know you canít remember many of the things you wish you could. But at least with this book, youíll take with you a good memory of this company." He escorted Penny to his office door, and shook her hand as she left. "Good luck to you, Penny. And remember, if any of this awful mess begins to come back to you in any way, call me first. Iíll make sure the appropriate action is taken."

Penny had a tear in her eye, as she reached up and gave Jordan a quick hug around the neck. Mr. Jordan watched as the lovely blonde walked over to her desk, and led Sergeant Bailey - carrying a large cardboard box - out of the work area, saying final goodbyes to her co-workers.

After they boarded the elevator, and Jordan waved goodbye for the last time, he strode back into his office. Sitting down behind his desk, he looked through a few of the files, finally settling on one in particular. Then he picked up the phone. "Ms. Davenport, this is Robert Jordan. Iím still not satisfied with the temps youíve been sending me to handle my correspondence." He looked at the file once more, including the photo attached. "Please send Ms. . . . . uhh, Bligh, Tracy Bligh, in to see me. Thank you."

Jordan looked through the file for a few moments more until a knock came at the door. "Come in, please!"

As soon as Tracy Bligh entered the office, he knew he had made the right selection. Tall and shapely, her long blonde hair accentuating a figure comparable to a movie starletís. She sat in the chair where Penny had sat a few moments before, and crossed her long legs, her flesh-colored hosiery making that wonderful nylon on nylon sound. This was a great day. The Hoze problem was leaving town. And now Jordan would be able to placate the Gregors, and his good friend and fellow art connoiseur Charles Whitney, on the same day.

"Iím looking forward to seeing more of you, Ms. Bligh. Iíve been looking over your qualifications, and you seem to be a perfect match for my needs at the moment. I have some documentation for you to type. But if you wouldnít mind, Iíd like for you to leave early this evening. Thereís a small art gallery downtown, and I need a rather large check hand delivered there today."

The young woman laughed. "A large check, huh? Well, Iíll bet theyíll be glad to see me."

Jordan also laughed. "You have no idea, Ms. Bligh. You have no idea . . . ."

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