by Cobalt Jade
Lori and Cinnabar walked grimly through the Sexateria doors as soon as the store opened. Cinnabar glanced casually round her, not as an eager shopper but as a seasoned crimefighter: checking faces, postures, and routes of escape, even though it was likely nothing would happen to them in a crowded store. The women of Team Paragon were very careful to keep their mundane identities a secret, but it was possible for the dogged to discover them, just as they had discovered Plastica's. Lori often wondered why it didn't cause more problems than it did. Often there seemed to be an unspoken code about superpowers meeting outside of costume.
In fact they did attract a lot of attention, but only because they were two beautiful women. "Where did you see Shana?" Cinnabar whispered.
"Upstairs," Lori said. They took the escalator to the second floor. "There, at the dungeon entrance," she whispered.
Cinnabar gave a surprised grunt. Unflappable as she was, even she was capable of showing surprise at the hooded X-shaped mannequin in its bondage gear. Perhaps it was the nature of the clothes, but it didn't look as real as it had the day before. It looked more like a chamber of horrors prop from a cheap carnival, tawdry and tasteless. Lori went closer. Could she have been mistaken?
"We're being watched," Cinnabar said casually, as if mentioning the time of day. "Bend down with me, pretend you're interested in its boots."
Lori obeyed, regarding the floor near the base of the pole. "Who?" she said in a whisper.
"I don't know," Cinnabar said. "They could be plainclothes detectives, criminals, anyone." It was a sixth sense she had. She examined the pole and the smooth, flawless skin of the mannequin's upper thighs. "Hmm... looks like an ordinary mannequin to me. Think we can get that hood off for a closer look?"
"I have a distraction in mind," Lori said. "Do you mind getting a little wet?"
"Not at all. Think you can take out those watchers, too?"
"Just tell me where they are."
Cinnabar gave a bend of her head behind her. "Twelve and three o'clock."
Lori stood, pretending to glance idly across the store, and saw them. They were trying very hard to blend in the with the shoppers, but the way they stood gave themselves away. A chill ran down her spine. Had they been sent to watch over the Shana mannequin to see if her friends turned up? Or were they just store security watching for shoplifters? She narrowed her eyes. She hadn't been with Team Paragon long, but knew a seasoned criminal when she saw one, and the plainly-dressed man and woman flipping through the racks were clearly store detectives.
She directed her gaze to the air conditioning vent above their heads and concentrated using her special power. The cool of air suddenly lowered by fifty degrees, becoming ice-cold. The pair jumped as if goosed. A few nearby customers jumped too, all of them staring up at the vent.
"They're distracted," Lori whispered. "Now brace yourself..." She turned her gaze back to the ceiling, concentrating on a water pipe above the dungeon entrance. She froze the pipe at its elbow, creating a plug of ice in its interior. As she expected, it burst a few seconds later. Cinnabar squealed dramatically at the sudden downpour and tumbled down on top of the mannequin, pretending she had slipped. As she fell she ripped off its hood.
"Shana!" Lori gasped.
"It can't be..." Cinnabar muttered, still wanting to deny it.
Both pretended ignorance as the store detectives ran up. "Are you hurt miss? Can you get up?"
Cinnabar gave a phony groan and pushed to her knees. Shana had fallen to the carpet, the shower of water batting her stand back and forth. Her unblinking eyes remained open in the deluge, her lips slightly open as if to drink it in. "I'm sorry..." Cinnabar blurted. It could have been meant for her teammate. The detectives helped her to her feet. "The pipe burst and I fell, I didn't mean to..."
"It's all right miss," the male detective said. He called for Maintenance on his cell phone. "It's only an accident."
Cinnabar shivered, putting on a good show of being dazed and confused. Lori was shaking as well. Not from the cold water so much -- after all, she was Arctica -- but from the confirmation of her teammate's fate. "Come this way," the detective said, beginning to lead them. "We'll get some towels for you, some dry clothes..."
"Great," Lori groaned, looking at the racks of bondage wear. "Will we have to go home wearing that?"
They were only doing their job, but Cinnabar was adamant about leaving immediately. They left after a hail of apologies from the store manager and several hundred dollars in gift certificates. Bribes, Lori guessed, to keep them from suing. Not that they would.
"You were right," Cinnabar said as they got in the car. "I apologize. It's either Shana, or a lifelike plastic cast of Shana. In which case, where is the real Shana?"
"We have to get her out of there," Lori insisted.
"Right," Cinnabar said. She reached for her cell phone.
"What do you mean, the building's gone haywire?" Plastica tapped her red-lacquered fingernails against the gleaming white surface in her desk. The motion looked like cherries dancing in the snow.
"First the air conditioning malfunctioned, then a water pipe burst," the maintenance man said. "It happened over by the dungeon. There's a stain on the carpet and some of the clothes got soaked. One of the mannequins got knocked over."
"Shit," Plastica muttered, cupping her hand over the receiver. Every little disaster that happened in the store meant precious time was taken away from her more clandestine work as Vi Nyll. "All right, I'll send some people over. Don't worry about it, honey. I know you're working on it." She disconnected the call with her finger, eyes searching among the many buttons for the VM on duty for that floor.
Before she could make the call the phone rang again. "Hello, Plastica," the soft voice purred.
For a second Plastica felt the bottom drop out of her world. How could someone have found out her real identity? How? Polly Jean's all-white office turned into a snowstorm as her vision blurred. Then instinct took her over. "Who is this?" she snapped.
"Don't you know me, Plastica?" the voice said in its mellifluous tones. It was an exotic voice, cultured, with traces of an unidentifiable accent. A woman's voice. "This is Kylasha."
Plastica's hands gripped the edges of her desk. She had met Kylasha the Damned only once, but that was enough. The villainess was as far above her as Paula Jean Estes, VP, was above Sexateria's lowest stock clerk. And she was reputed to be a sorceress, besides. She cleared her throat with a soft cough. "Uh, hiya, Kylasha. So how are things in Greece?"
"Pleasant, as always." Kylasha had an alternate identity as a Countess and owned her own island, though her real ethnicity was in fact far more exotic. Plastica had heard rumors she was actually immortal, coming from a time and place far removed from the scale of recorded history... a civilization so ancient it was not even a memory to Babylon and Ur. "I've called to warn you, Plastica, and to ask you a favor."
Plastica felt the blood return to her face. Kylasha didn't mean to blackmail or destroy her. "I'm listening," she said, trying to keep the shakes out of her voice.
"I know what you did to Xenon."
"How -- " Plastica sputtered.
"Come on, my dear," Kylasha said lightly, as if at a gossip-filled dinner party. "News travels fast. Did you know she had friends? Was a member of Team Paragon?"
"Well she does. I'll forward you my files. There are five of them, and they'll be looking for her. Their leader is Scirocco, real name Cinnabar Steele." Plastica's hand tightened on the receiver as Kylasha's voice became colder. "I want her."
"What?" Plastica said.
"Call it a vendetta, if you will," Kylasha said smoothly. "I want her, Plastica, a plastic prize to display in my trophy room, to show the world Kylasha the Damned does not accept defeat from a mortal woman. I've heard about your special talents. Do that, and I may have other... jobs... for you in the future."
Plastica's priorities for the day had changed rapidly. "Yes," she said with conviction. "Yes, you'll have her, Countess. A plastic prize to grace your villa." She smiled wickedly as ideas began to form.
Kylasha gave a low, lazy laugh. "I should hope so. I'm counting on you, Plastica. The files will be on your computer at home, even as we speak. We'll talk later." The line clicked dead.
Plastica stared at the walls of her office, breathing hard. But she knew what she had to do. She punched in her VM's number. "Charlie? This is Paula. Oh, nothing to worry about, honey. You know that mannequin by the dungeon? The one in the leather gear? Well, take it off the floor and bring it to the loading dock. It's going back to the warehouse. Yeah, I know it's not damaged, only a little wet, but that's what's been decided. I'll send in another one to take its place. No, do it now. Don't worry about the rest of the dungeon, it's not important. Got it? Bye."
She made a few more calls to cover her absence for the rest of the day, then hurried to the dock.
"Oh yesss..." A warm exhalation of breath, a sigh.
Gina shifted position, opening her eyes. Below her, on the bed, was her second most favorite thing in the world: the broad, tanned chest of Jayce, her cop boyfriend, with its well-defined chest and eminently kissable nipples. His head was turned to the side, his mouth stretched in a growl of passion. Currently inside her was her number one most favorite thing in the world, and she rode it up and down like a cowgirl on a one-trick pony. His thick fingers thumbed her nipples, sending surges of passion through her lower body.
"Oh, god..." she groaned.
"Fuck... baby... oh yeah..." His bedroom vocabulary wasn't the wittiest in the world. But neither was hers.
She pumped herself harder, enjoying the slippery feel of his cock as it pistoned in and out. Her skin began to tingle. "I'm... I'm..." she gasped. "Oh oh oh..."
Her beeper went off, distracting her. Please, let it be a mistake, she thought. Let it be the dryer switching off or something. Please, not now, when I'm...
Jayce groaned loudly as he came inside her, with the same sweaty, triumphant expression she'd seen on soccer players kicking home a goal. The big lug. She wanted to kiss the sweat off his forehead like she always did, but that would have to wait. She rolled off him to grab her beeper, checking the number. Cinnabar's.
"Can I use your phone?"
"The phone? Oh, yeah," he said, still panting. "What is it?"
"It's the studio," she lied. She quickly punched in the number for HQ as Jayce nuzzled her hip, kissing it. "Gina here," she said.
"Chrystar, where were you all day?" Cinnabar said sharply, using her Team name. "Report back to HQ immediately for an all-hands meeting. It's about Shana. She's in danger."
"All right." She hung up the phone, guiltily noting it was 11 PM. She gently pushed Jayce's head away. "Sorry, Jayce, but I've got to go."
"Can't you put them off?"
"I told you I was on call tonight." She began to dress, sliding on a pair of pink satin panties. Her body still smoldered with sexual tension. She couldn't get together with Jayce as often as she wanted because of their schedules, and when they did, emergencies on his part or hers often cut their dates short.
"I've got Friday night free," Jayce said hopefully. He was still hard, The pale rectangle of skin over his hips contrasted nicely with the bronzy tone of the rest of his body, which in turn contrasted nicely with the hair on his head, which was surfer-boy gold. Her palomino cop.
"We'll see." She couldn't make promises; both her careers had a habit of interfering. It was every superheroine's dilemma. The only solution was to date another superhero, who understood the risks the lifestyle involved... like Cinnabar's relationship with Shuriken. But even that carried problems of its own: competition, jealousies over one's work partners, and the constant fear for your lover's safety. Gina knew it wouldn't work for her. Jayce didn't know she was Chrystar, and never would. But because he was a cop, they had more in common than he realized. "I'll give you a call, okay?" She kissed him softly on the mouth.
"Come back soon. I get lonely!"
She grinned at that; it was what he always said. But she couldn't let it slow her down. She grabbed her jacket and quickly ran down the drive to her car.
As she drove past palm trees and limousines she reflected on what Cinnabar had told her. She wasn't surprised. Shana's absence at the last meeting had been too unusual; she was the punctual type. In spite of her penchant for strange men...
She slammed on the Civic's brakes, nearly hitting a Porsche in front of her. What was it Jayce had told her? LAPD had received reports of over a dozen young women, models and actresses, who'd gone missing the day before. "It was like they'd disappeared off the face of the earth," Jayce had said. "We didn't even find their cars." He went on to tell her several of the women had appointments at a new modeling agency on La Cienega. But when detectives had gone there the office was empty, though the owners of the deli across the street said people had been going in and out the day before. The name of the agency had been Plastic Fantastic. It had no business license, no phone numbers, no listings in the usual guides... though phony checks had been printed up, one of which had been given to the deli's owner.
She frowned. Could the two be connected somehow? Had Shana been on to something?
She parked her car and went up to Cinnabar's loft, then through the secret door that took her into HQ. The others were already there. "Sorry I'm late," she said. "I was... occupied."
"Sit down, Gina," Cinnabar said crisply. "I have some bad news. Shana is in trouble. She was investigating a connection between Plastica -- yes, Dr. Polly Mehr is alive and well, and back in LA -- and the Sexateria chain of adult novelty stores when she disappeared. When Lori and I went to Sexateria this morning -- " Gina noted Lori's blush -- "we saw a mannequin that looked remarkably like her. Knowing Plastica's talents, it could have even been her. Shana had a copy of the Sexateria stockholder's report in her apartment, with the picture of Paula Jean Estes -- the vice president of Merchandising -- circled in red ink. I feel the two are connected, or are working together somehow. It's vital that we get into that store tonight after it closes."
Gina cleared her throat. "I was, um, with Jayce tonight, and he had an unusual story to tell me." She told them about the disappearances.
"I see," Cinnabar said. "That's very interesting. Shana had also discovered Plastica bought the old Bondmachen mannequin factory out in Long Beach."
Silence wrapped the room as they all came to the same conclusion. Finally Allison spoke up. "Do you think Shana found Plastica out? And... got turned into plastic for it?" She swallowed hard. Gina still couldn't believe it herself. Plastica should have been dead after the explosion last year.
"I'm not sure," Cinnabar said carefully. "It could have been a replica, in which case the real Shana may be still alive somewhere. Team, that is why we have to move out tonight, while the store is closed. I think this case is far, far bigger than what it seems."
"I agree," Lori said, and the motion traveled round the table, each superheroine giving her assent.
Gina felt an electric thrill roll through her body, a sensation more intense than the most passionate orgasm. After six months of inactivity Team Paragon was on the move again, and this time they were up against something that would test their skills to the limit. She would rather it wasn't at Shana's expense, but that was what made her a good crimefighter: the challenge of the hunt, the scent of fresh game.
Standing, they raised their right arms, joining them in circle above their heads. "Team Paragon -- Unite!"
The transformation was instantaneous, wrapping them in cocoons of sparkling light, making them over into their crimefighting identities: Allison to White Rose in her skin-tight unitard with the rose cutout over her chest, Nemiah the snow lion growling softly by her side; Noelani to Blue Cymbidium, darkly exotic in a short clinging dress formed of glittering flower petals; Lori to Arctica, her blue and silver costume gleaming with a thousand tiny crystals. Gina knew she looked no less spectacular. The transformation altered her molecular structure so she was now as hard and strong as crystal, and as transparent.
And finally Cinnabar, her long red hair a curly mane, her blue-gray bodysuit gleaming: Scirocco. "Desert storm! Wind of Vengeance!" she cried, and Sabreglass the sword appeared in her hand, all four feet of it, snapping with lightning and looking very, very sharp.
The team members lowered their hands, gloved, frosted, clear and gauntleted -- and stood. "Team Paragon, away!"
Lori flew out the window within her own miniature icestorm, followed by Allison on her winged lion. Cinnabar lifted her sword so it could carry her after them. That left Gina and Noelani, the only non-aerial members of the group, to follow on their sky-cycles, which were more than adequate enough to keep up with the rest. Gina gunned the engine as she zipped through the night, taking her place in formation with the others. Traffic crawled beneath them in ribbons of white and red, winding like snakes around the LA hills. The houses of the rich dotted their flanks. Gina wondered just how many people down there knew about the criminal activities that went on above.
They landed on the roof of the Sexateria Wilshire store with a soft thump, assembling behind a ventilation shed for cover. It was one a.m. Five pairs of eyes -- and various other senses -- probed the roof, but they were alone. If the store was a criminal hideout, it wasn't guarded by human beings.
"You all know what to do," Cinnabar said in a low voice. "Allison, get the door open. Then Gina will go in and find the security room to disable the cameras. If you see any security guards, let us know so Allison can erase their memories. I don't want anyone hurt. In the meantime, the rest of us will search the roof. Ready?"
Everyone nodded. Allison went over to the rooftop door and listened at it carefully. She placed her hands upon it, palms flat, and closed her eyes. Gina couldn't see it, but she was projecting a force field to open the lock. Her facial muscles turned taut with strain as she concentrated. Simple as it was, the delicate operation took a lot out of her because she couldn't see inside the lock she was forcing. But they couldn't just smash open the door, for that would give cause for suspicion come the morning.
Once it was open Gina slipped inside, adjusting her molecular structure to full transparency so she was nearly invisible. She still cast a slight shadow, but in the dim afterhours lighting of the store it wouldn't be noticeable; nor would it be seen on a surveillance camera's small, fuzzy video screen. She pattered down the steps, keeping her tread light, and pushed open the door that led to the store.
Well, well, well. She'd come in through the bondage department, and the bare-rumped leather-strapped mannequins -- posed for other scantily-clad mannequins to paddle and smack -- would have brought a blush to her face if she hadn't been made out of crystal. They creeped her out knowing what she did about Plastica. She tiptoed around them, and more than once she jumped, heart pounding, at a moan or whimper that wasn't really there.
She made it to the other side of the department. A blue-white glow told her where the camera room was. The door had one of those magnetic slipkey things -- damn! But there was a window, and someone inside: a single security guard, eating a Subway sandwich and reading a magazine.
Gina was stymied. She couldn't get inside; therefore he would have to come out. She tapped lightly on the window, hiding beneath the ledge. As she hoped he went to the door, gun drawn, and heaved it open; she quickly struck him on the occipital ridge with the flat of her diamond-hard palm. He fell like a stone on the floor. Once inside the room she quickly disabled the cameras. "Gina here," she said into her communicator. "Allison, there's a man here you'll have to brainwash. Otherwise, everything's clear. It doesn't look like he has a partner."
"Roger," the telepath said. "We're coming down."
In a few minutes they were in the camera room. Cinnabar opened a panel in the console and loosened some of the wiring, making it seem that the surveillance outage had been an accident. Shana could have done a better job at it, but she wasn't here... as Xenon, that is. Gina shuddered when she remembered that her teammate could be any one of hundreds of mannequins in the store.
Allison knelt by the guard's side and touched her fingers to his head. "There. He'll remember nothing out of the ordinary happened." She looked sharply at Gina. "Did you have to hit him?"
"It was the only way to get in," Gina said, spreading her hands.
Cinnabar gave a look to the two that said don't fight. She'd heard that argument before. "Lori, search downstairs with Noelani; you know what to look for. Search the store, loading dock, offices, storage areas; everywhere. Take note of anything you think is unusual. Remember we're also looking for connections to Plastica, modeling agencies, mannequin manufacturers, or anything that indicates someone may have been held here against their will. Gina, you and I will search upstairs. We'll regroup on the roof in an hour."
They split up, Allison going back to roof to keep watch. Gina and Cinnabar started casing the floor. They didn't have to look long. "Over there," Cinnabar said with relief. "She's still by the dungeon."
Gina shook her head. It was bad enough being a mannequin, but to be a bondage mannequin... but then, Dr. Polly Mehr was capable of anything. They found a roll of brown paper and carefully packaged the mannequin for transport, then took her upstairs.
In another hour they regrouped on the roof. "We found her," Cinnabar said shortly, indicating the large, lumpy package strapped on the back of Gina's sky cycle. "Lori, Noelani, did you find anything interesting?"
"We searched the offices," Noelani said. "We found a few things on Paula Jean's desk and took some pictures. The real dirt is probably on the computer, though."
"Anything in the other offices?"
"Nothing out of the usual. Though what is usual in a place like this, I can't really say..." She gave a nervous laugh, a relief from tension.
They prepared to go after locking the rooftop door again. It was very unlikely anyone would notice the break-in; they'd think the mannequin's disappearance came about through store error rather than burglary. "Well, we got what we came for," Cinnabar said grimly. Gina climbed on her sky-cycle. "Let's head for home."
This story is copyrighted 2002 by Cobalt Jade (Cobaltjade@aol.com). This work
may be freely distributed over electronic media provided no fee is charged for
its use. Charging a fee for this story, or publishing without author credit
or this notice violates my copyright.