Calli’s envelope full of mysteries intrigued me for a short while until hassles at work and the realization I wasn’t a forensic whiz nor a 40’s hard-boiled private dick, able to piece together clues on a hunch and a scrap of yesterday’s news, brought me back to dismal reality. By then my patients were backing up because of the time I was spending (wasting) on her futzy crap. Of course she hadn’t called again; didn’t much expect her to – did I mention Calli isn’t the most reliable person in the world?
So, I’d just about forgotten all about our conversation and her envelope until one day I saw her sitting in a window!
It was a classic double-take; I had other things on my mind, like Mr. Jenks’ L4, so I only glanced into the boutique display long enough to see that spandex leggings were ‘in’ again for about the 37th time and got almost half a block away before the coin dropped (into what? I’d never understood that expression).
Blurting out a “holy shit!” that startled a large woman being towed by a small dog, I was back at the window in a flash, after finally realizing why that display mannequin’s shapely legs looked so memorable: They belonged to Calli Voss, as did the lithe figure and her sunglass-masked face. I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t stop; Calli’s words echoed in my head… “Turns out that he could actually make me into an artwork”.
And she WAS; even as a window dummy, Calli was exquisite. Holding still as stone, she was like a living picture in a way my photos of her never had been able to find. My eyes followed the curve of her waist, down those legs to her dainty feet. Someone had dressed the figure in a loose satiny blouse and silvery backless high heels along with the anthracite wet-look leggings. Calli’s frozen expression was inscrutable; she held her lips in a half-pout, half-kiss that looked impish and sexy at the same time. Did I mention I was staring?
“Can I help you?” came a voice right next to me; I jumped, glancing over at young woman wearing an embossed nametag: Melidee. She was cosmetically pretty and had a distracted way of speaking, as if she had many more important things to be doing.
“Um, not really, just that this window display is quite… striking,” I mumbled.
“I’m glad you like it. Umberto takes a lot of pride in his work. You know, he even calls those dummies ‘My girls’ and has a name for each of them. Go figure!”
“Takes all kinds, I guess. Say, you wouldn’t know what he calls that one, do you?”
“God, no – that’s his thing. I’m just glad I don’t have to do the change-outs, gives me more time with the customers,” the salesgirl replied, glancing back at the empty boutique sales floor.
My mind had finally gotten into gear, running back over the timeline since Calli’s last meeting in the coffeeshop. “How long has this – mannequin – been here?” I asked nonchalantly, trying not to sound too creepy and failing with every passing second.
“How should I know? I’m just a part-timer anyway. You gotta ask Jonathan about that!” She was starting to lose her cool with me.
“Yeah; whatever. He uses that artsy-fartsy name most times. Hold on, I’ll get’cha the number.” She headed back into the store; I followed, mostly to get a different view of Calli in the window as (looking back) my wicked imagination was getting the better of me.
The layout of the boutique was very open, with no barriers between the window space facing the street and the floor displays. The whole store was illuminated with lots of brilliant halogen spot-lighting, which made the clothing being sold look distinctive and a bit artificial at the same time. The appearance was of a fantasy world, in many ways.
Waiting for the prickly salesgirl to return, I found myself standing close behind the Calli-mannequin, looking out from her viewpoint towards the street, seeing her reflection in the polished plate glass, near enough to touch the exposed part of her shoulder and neck. Whether at that moment I truly believed that it was really her sitting there motionless or not wasn’t the point, but that I was even considering the possibility was. I wondered idly what it would be like to pass the time frozen in place, unable to even lift a finger, staring endlessly at the passersby. That’s not something I’d imagine Calli would ever want.
Oh, what the hell, I thought, reaching out to her. I’m not sure what I expected, but the arm was unnaturally cool, stiff and solid, very different than how I remembered Calli’s soft warm skin from before. Her body felt like how I’d imagine a corpse might be.
“Hey! Hands off, there…” Melidee surprised me by stealthily appearing again, handing over a sticky note with the artist’s number scribbled on it, all the while giving me the stink-eye as if she’d change her mind about the info. I thanked her before she could and made my exit before she called the cops – that was the last thing I needed – with only a slight peek back at Calli as I forced myself away from her display. You hang in there; don’t go anywhere! was my parting thought. The mannequin remained aloof and magnificent.
Back at the coffee shop, I sipped a double-espresso to calm me down and thought about what to do next. The reality of what I’d seen seemed so fantastic, but so real at the same time. I had to get to the bottom of what had actually happened to Calli, because having her end up in a window was bizarre, but not beyond all possibility.
Thinking back over my favorite police procedural drama offered no advice on how to rescue someone who’d been turned into a mannequin and wasn’t been much help either with ways to figure out what clues were hidden in the random stuff she sent me, at least for anything that wouldn’t take a gazillion dollars of lab equipment and four Ph.D’s. The obvious ones were too obvious and the obscure ones were inscrutable. Tracking down her bank records from the ID on the student card was one of the easy ones; wherever Calli was, she wasn’t lacking for spending money. That entry card was situational; I’d know (I hoped) when to use it even though I’d left it back at my apartment. But… fishline? A postcard from Tennessee? No clue. The barrel key was likely for a locker somewhere, but the “key” question was: where.
I walked back to the office in a daze, waiting for inspiration to strike while focusing my thoughts back on lumbar vertebrae, where they should have been all along. Some light rain started to fall, making the sidewalk slippery in places. Women in high heels had to be really careful, too, otherwise they could trip. With Calli on my mind, my memory dredged up an old vision of her wearing ridiculously tall acrylic platform heels – she’d called them ‘stripper pumps’ – that made her long legs look almost infinite; the teensy skirt hadn’t hurt either, nor did the garter she’d worn as an accent. I’d asked why she was dressed like a call girl and had such strong perfume on. Turns out Calli had signed up for something she described as an ‘erotic exotic aerobics’ class that everyone attended in suitable costumes. Yes, a tall brass pole and suggestive music was involved, but she claimed it really helped her muscle tone. I mostly recalled how hot she looked, prancing around like some high-dollar hooker. She had merely giggled (way out of character, by the way) and threw me her garter, with the promise she’d show me later how limber her body had become. Her honeysuckle scent was very strong.
The garter! That must have been the same one she sent me, to remind me of our encounter: pole-dancing class. I suddenly had a brilliant suspicion about where that key might go.
Work time spent adjusting my 3-o-clock seemed to drag, but I’d done the procedure enough that my hands were on autopilot and my thoughts were on Calli. Finally I was able to break away and search the net despite not knowing any names. Fortunately, one of the newspapers did a weekend feature on the place and there were a lot of links and follow-up comments. They were still in business and doing decently; guess there were always people who wanted to take some exercise or play out some of their fantasies. And yes, their lockers had pink key fobs. Jackpot!
The second jackpot came later at the dance studio when I opened Calli’s stash. Among her smelly used leotards, g-strings, and headbands was another large manila envelope with some photos and a few pages of written notes in Calli’s style. She always wrote stuff out and avoided using computers. I couldn’t blame her; with Calli’s inconsistent luck the technology was always breaking down on her in strange ways. Her notes were a treasure-trove of detail, listing the poses she had taken and how she’d dressed, along with her preparation steps right up to the point where she sat on her pedestal and pressed the button that sent her into oblivion. There were even mentions of any notes she received or things that happened while she was a statue.
Unusually for her, she’d almost kept a diary too; naming names and even keeping track of the route she’d taken out into the country and the name of her mysterious patron, who she referred to only by his initial: G. Wow – I could see now why she didn’t want to name the guy; any kind of scandal might threaten his fashion empire. I made a mental note to avoid pissing off someone with that kind of power and influence as I was trying to find out Calli’s fate.
Her last entry was particularly telling: “I can’t believe that Rachel is gone like she had never existed; tomorrow I’m going to have it out with G and get to the bottom of this whole business. Wish me luck!” It was dated almost a month ago. I suddenly felt guilty; here I’d sat on Calli’s hints, discounted our last in-person meeting and now she was gone too, or stuck in a window, and I hadn’t done anything. All the logical excuses I could name didn’t take the edge off the simple conclusion that I’d let her down. Big time.
Well, no longer. I stood up and headed out, doing my best to ignore the scantily-dressed girls in the after-work class who were doing their warm-up stretches and practice moves on the poles, floor, and in front of the full-height wall-length mirror. From now until I found Calli, I decided I was “on vacation” and cleared my schedule with the service. The rain had stopped, but the sky was partly cloudy so a pale moon played hide and go seek in the heavens.
First stop was the mannequin artist’s place; even though it was late, I decided to check the address out. As I arrived at the address at the edge of the fashion district, I saw that the studio lofts were also serving as living spaces. It looked like the whole building had been divided into these ‘hybrid’ workplaces; it sure saved on rent. Going up floor-by-floor on the antediluvian freight elevator, it seemed like many of the tenants were artists, designers, or creative types of one sort or another; I made a mental note to look some of them up later.
Top floor was where “Umberto Designs” was located. Stepping out of the elevator, I had my first shock (of many, it would turn out): Calli was standing next to the door, smiling casually, holding a “Welcome” sign that looked like it could be turned to say “Come Back Later” or some other status. Her figure was another mannequin, of course, but so meticulous and life-like that it was easy to mistake for the real Callisto Voss, who – I reflected – probably wasn’t sitting in some boutique window, either. This time there wasn’t any nosy sales clerk to watch over my shoulder, so I looked this mannequin Calli over closely. She looked absolutely real, with fine texture to her skin, tiny wrinkles, freckles, and those slight imperfections that distinguished a living person from, well, a replica. Except that this replica was exact, down to the smallest details. As a rule waxwork figures weren’t usually this precise; they had gotten the color of her violet irises right and reproduced the slight ridges in her lips. The rest of her body seemed equally accurate, for what I could see of it, capturing even the slight scar on her knee from a childhood scooter accident. Only the flowing, platinum-blonde wig departed from Calli as how I’d seen her last. That, and her costume: this figure wore a golden metallic string bikini that was more string than concealment – her proud nipples showed clearly, with a hint of camel-toe down lower – along with black fishnet stockings and a pair of polished white patent-leather high heels that added at least ten centimeters to her already striking stature.
The overall effect was uncanny; even though the mannequin was firmly mounted on a display base with some kind of fine wires, I naturally wanted to treat her as a real person, going to the point of excusing myself when I stepped aside to press the door buzzer. A rather irritated, muffled, voice responded “Just a minute” from the other side of the door, giving me more time to study Calli’s motionless doppelganger whilst I waited.
I needn’t have bothered; when door opened, there were even more Calli figures revealed inside in various stages of completion and dress, along with mannequins having the likeness of at least three other attractive young women. However, it seemed as if Calli was this artist’s favorite; I glimpsed many more of ‘her’ sitting, laying, or standing around the large open workroom than any of the others. Unlike the one outside, all these Calli mannequins were completely naked.
“What’cha want?” The artist grumbled, blocking most of the view when the door finally opened. “Kinda busy, here…” She wore a paint-smudged oversized t-shirt and faded torn jeans, worn-out unlaced hiking boots, and so help me, a beret. Seemed to be in her 30’s, but had a sort of ageless beauty that could survive on someone much older. Despite the kitschy costume, she could have been good-looking herself if she’d put more effort into her own appearance instead that of her static creations. Her hands and arms seemed odd, almost artificial, until I realized she was covered almost up to the elbows in lighter-hued flesh-toned lacquer overlaid with smudges of other shades spattered here and there. “Don’t got all day…” she prodded as I gawked.
“Are you, uh, Umberto? I got this address from one of the girls down at the boutique.”
“What if I am? How does that make you feel about me?” A few seconds passed while I stood there in stunned confusion. “When you figure that out, come back around. Until then, like I said, I’m busy.” She turned and started to close the door on me.
“Wait! Hey, I don’t care if you’re the Queen of Sheba, I’m just here looking for information on one of your mannequin models. Her,” I continued, pointing at the Calli figure standing outside.
The artist warmed immediately. “Well, why didn’t you say so? Ain’t she a living doll? I can probably give you a few minutes, seein’ as you broke my train a thought anyway.” She walked inside, leaving the door open. It wasn’t exactly a gold-engraved invitation, but probably the best I was going to get. I followed the quirky woman inside, and was immediately amazed.
It was as if Calli and some other girls had wandered into a mirrored fun house when a flash picture was taken. There were probably a dozen versions of her mannequin figure, frozen in various poses, a few of which I recognized from our chat in the coffee shop before she’d disappeared. Most of the poses had multiple copies, too, some of which were clothed while most remained immodestly naked. All looked to be anatomically correct and accurately decorated. Speechless, I wandered among them, wondering if Calli herself was here somewhere or if these were only replicas. The mannequins themselves were not saying.
“You like her, huh?” The artist appeared from somewhere among the forest of frozen figures, startling me with her change in appearance. She’d doffed the t-shirt and stood unclothed from the waist up, revealing a nice pair of firm boobs and a toned torso. My guess is she was trying to be discreet and I could see those jeans disappearing quickly too, right after I did. The artist’s unusual overspray “make up” turned out to cover more than just her arms as her nipples and stomach bore the same lighter flesh-toned coloring. “I do too; she’s my favorite...” Without hesitation, she wrapped her arms around the nearest Calli mannequin and planted a wet kiss on the figure’s solid painted lips, her hands quickly caressing the mannequin’s rigid breasts. For a moment, they were one: Artist and creation; flesh and fiberglass. Finally it came to me why the artist was coated in paint probably from head to toe. My emotions swirled in confusion; I didn’t know whether to feel aghast, or aroused. Something in me wanted to join them there, but I couldn’t quite.
After almost a minute, the artist seemed to come to her senses and broke off the one-sided tryst. “Sorry,” she muttered, wiping her hands on her jeans while she blushed. “Kinda got carried away; I don’t get many visitors when I’m working…”
“I can see that.” Trying to be polite, I looked away, but wherever my eyes fell there were naked images of Calli and my imagination did the rest. I felt my face getting warm, too.
“You were, um, wanting to find out more about this one? What, exactly?” She asked at last, trying to focus on me although I could see her eyes were straying to the other mannequins when she didn’t think I was noticing. They’re all taken from life casts; that’s part of my technique…”
Along with making love to your handiwork? I thought cattily while following the artist deeper into her cavernous studio. Overhead skylights would have let in the sun, but today after dark a bank of overhead high-pressure arc lamps flooded the space with faux daylight. Here, the mannequins were less finished; standing around with blank white or monotone faces. Over to one side was a plastic-draped paint booth with an in-progress figure inside. There were mannequins everywhere, many with the pale yellow tone of unpainted plastic as they leaned against the worktables or were lined up on the floor. Some still even had parting lines around the edges of their forms. There were different frozen girls represented, too, not just Calli, I counted four or five distinct models in many varied poses. Looming ahead was a large rectangular block of some bluish stuff, looking like someone had filled up a phone booth with liquefied Smurfs. Other similar blocks of various proportions and volumes lurked in the scanty shadows.
“I start here, with making a precise mold of the original using a special variant of alginate that the special effects people in Hollywood developed. Of course, they don’t usually take this much! You can see one of my archetypes here: Lucianna.” She pointed out a tall motionless nude girl, holding a stylish pose, coated in a dusty powder, standing next to one of the blocks. “I just finished her impression earlier today and am waiting for it to fully cure. Then it’s just a matter of…”
“Wait a minute!” I interrupted, stepping over to Lucianna, who hadn’t moved a muscle this whole time though her eyes remained open. The model’s hair had been gathered under a tight swim cap, giving her the appearance of being bald. “You mean this is a real person?” I clarified, touching the still model’s upper arm. Her skin was firm, a bit cool, and yet slightly pliable. Definitely not plastic. She didn’t notice me at all, or anything else for that matter.
“Of course. As I was saying, I then fill the mold with an epoxy silicone…”
“But, this model is stiff, frozen; she’s like a mannequin already!”
“Yeah; isn’t it great? Don’t tell anyone, but that makes this part of my work so much easier. Toughest part now is their eyes, windows to the soul and all. I found an ancient Chinaman – older than dirt – who used to make fantastic prosthetic eyes until the last wave of pirate movies made patches fashionable again and wiped him out. Now his life’s work is more of a hobby. It’s a sad tale, but perfectly true,” she deadpanned. My thoughts were elsewhere.
“How do your models get that way – do you have something you give them to help pose?”
“Beats me; they come to me already frozen, but none of them has ever said how!” The artist chuckled at her little joke as she too inspected the immobilized form of Lucianna, who was completely unaware that people were standing just centimeters from her naked body.
“Weren’t you ever curious about how they got this way?” I realized that mixed in with the palette of miscellaneous colors spattered all over the artist’s exposed skin was a streak or two of dusty mold release. Talk about your immersive creation process!
“Look; I get paid a really good stipend to make these mannequins. I mean, really good! Part of that compensation came with the request that I don’t ask too many questions. Any; in fact. So, I don’t; that’s worked out wonderfully so far.”
“Sounds bizarre,” I mused.
“Works for me. Plus, they don’t ask me how many replicas get created, or where they end up other than the places that were targeted for installation. Say, you know…” she glanced at me.
“So, who does the setting up in the stores?”
“You mean, ‘Who’s Umberto’ I bet. Just some loser I found. He likes to put on airs, play the artiste for those vapid sales clerks. Plus, between you and me, I think he’s got a thing for the mannequins, myself. He’s the one who gives them names and fusses over their dresses and accessories. Kind of a kook, if you ask me.”
“Uh, right.” Takes one to…
“Anyway, I hired him from a big department store down in Philly. Up till now, he hadn’t been able to keep a job for very long; got fired from pizza delivery, if you can believe that! His last place was where he showed some promise in visual design, though there was some kind of problem too; doesn’t want to talk about it much. So, that dweeb plays ‘Umberto’ for all the clients, which gives me time to create my beautiful still masterpieces.”
“Everyone wins, I guess,” I concluded. She didn’t seem to know much more. I stepped away and started browsing among the completed mannequins. Calli stared at me disapprovingly from several vantage points. Am I missing something? “So these others…” I ventured, singling out one of the non-Calli figures, “…they’re all from the same place?”
“Sure are. Lucianna, here; Rachel, Tamara, and of course that one you like so much. Callisto.”
Bingo! I had never told the artist Calli’s real name. I tried not to seem too eager. “Really; that’s interesting. Would you happen to have that contact number?”
“Don’t ask too many questions, remember. They come to me every couple of weeks with a big panel truck that’s got padded compartments inside, kinda like cushy coffins. They drop off a new model for me to copy and often as not, pick up one from earlier that I’m done with. What happens in between I have no frakking idea.”
“When’s the next pick up?” I prodded. The artist stared at me as if I’d asked what water was. I answered my own question: “Right; don’t ask.”
“Now you’re starting to get the hang of it,” she chuckled. “They don’t ever say; the truck just shows up. That’s another reason I like to hang around here and not be away if they come by.”
“This one you called ‘Rachel’?” I asked, stopping in front of a strikingly beautiful, very fit mannequin. Her musculature was so well defined that I thought the model might be a dancer or athlete. She already looked like an idealized Greek sculpture. The artist nodded, and I continued, “when was the last time this archetype came by for you to work with?”
“Hmm; been a while. Maybe a month; maybe two. Why do you care?”
“Just curious,” I hedged. How do those PI’s on TV make interrogations sound so casual?
“That’s nice. You know, but I don’t have all day to spend shooting the breeze. Do you want to buy one of the Callisto’s or what?” The artist had finally run out of patience.
“Um, no, not really, I…” mumbled; she’d caught me by surprise. Was it that obvious?
“Come on, you don’t have be shy with me. I understand. People have… urges. So what if your neighbors don’t approve. It’s a free country, even now.”
“No; it’s just that…” I couldn’t say my real purpose, but the idea of having a frozen Calli figure as a ‘mascot’ was starting to grow on me.
“Or, do you want me to make a figure of you, then?” The artist suggested, trying a different tack. “You’re kind of cute and I wouldn’t mind seeing you in the buff, either.”
Hmm; no. “I thought you said the models come to you already stiffed? I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a vat of goo, trying to breathe through soda straws in my nostrils.” Don’t ask me where I remembered that from, probably some random how-it-works show. The mind works in strange ways.
“You wouldn’t be. Just because I said I don’t know how they immobilize the models doesn’t mean I haven’t developed my own techniques. Or tested them. You’d be fine; it would all be over in less than a day. What do you say? I have just the pose in mind for you.” The artist seemed to be getting obsessed with that particular vision. “I’d even give you a discount…?”
“Maybe next time,” I demurred, knowing I’d never see her again. “And I do have another appointment coming up…” Now it was my turn to wrap this wacky encounter up. I headed for the entrance and wondered how long it would take for that ancient creaky elevator to get here.
“Well, you know where this studio is. Don't be a stranger, now. I’d really like to capture that sexy butt of yours and put it on display,” she offered. I wondered if she was thinking about a private showing instead.
“Anything’s possible,” I shot back at her from the closing door, not knowing why I was encouraging her fantasy. In the lobby, the signpost pale-wigged Calli glared at me accusingly.
- - -
Back at ‘our’ coffee joint close to a week later, I sipped my coconut latte and reflected on what a dismal failure my efforts had turned out to be so far. The stakeout of ‘Umberto’s’ had lasted almost a day, until I realized sitting in the car was deathly boring and I wasn’t all that fond of stale donuts or coffee that tasted like foam cups. That, and the chances of actually recognizing the right truck among the hundreds that clogged the warehouse district were somewhere between slim and none.
Then there was my crafty plan to check out Calli’s empty apartment; where I had the pleasure of meeting her neighbor, Amos Trilby, and his sawed-off cannon of a 12-gauge. Luckily the old coot had recognized me; otherwise I’d be picking rock salt out of my ass right about now. Turns out he had been ‘house sitting’ for Calli ever since she’d moved out after telling him the lease on her place was paid up; enterprising Amos promptly moved in and instantly sublet his own apartment to a guy who’d been laid off recently from being a salesgrunt for Primatech. After putting the gun down, the old man told me that he hadn’t seen Calli in over a month.
So, that was two dead ends taken care of; only a million or so more to go. Good thing I didn't have anything better to do. I’d grabbed her envelope and diary, hoping something would jump out from the random stuff she’d sent. That hadn’t happened, either.
“Say, yew all been ta Tennessee?” came a question out of the blue. I looked up to see a rumpled forty-something couple standing over my table. He had a camera around his neck and she held a sightseeing brochure, had on sunglasses slung from a neck chain and wore – so help me – a gingham dress with sneakers. Tourists.
“No, not ever,” I replied, not having the slightest idea where this was going. People here don’t usually go out of their way to be outgoing, or pleasant; their sudden salutation had caught me off guard.
“Saw the card and figgered you mighta been there. Plenny to see; lots o’ naturl wonders.”
Then why are you here? I shook my head ‘no’. “That’s nice. Well, have a good time in the city.” I picked up one of Calli’s diary pages and started reading, but they didn’t get the hint.
“Look, Sam; isn’t that Tuck’s Ranch down in Ebenezer?” the wife chimed in, picking up the card and looking at the caption on the back.
“Shore is,” chuckled the man, looking over. “Small world, isn’t it? We’re all from Cornersville, right around the corner from where this was taken. Near where they have the big Frozen Goat Festival, ev’ry year. Strangest critters you ever did see; slightest sound and they go stiff an’ fall over, like they turned to stone!” He pantomimed the effect with his hand like an animal’s legs, tipping over, amused by the memory.
“We should be going, Sam; it’s going to be a busy day,” his wife urged him, at last sensing their intrusion on my not-so-busy day. She put the postcard back on my table.
“Indeedy; well, you have a nice one, too,” the husband concluded as they shuffled out of the shop and towards the bus stop. Who goes touring on a city bus?
I looked down again, thankful to be alone, glancing at the random passage from her notes:
Rachel hasn’t yet told me a thing about how G (that’s what I call him, as a secret) found this amazing technique for creating the sculptures, but she assures me it’s a hundred-percent natural extract with no chemicals. All I have to do is drink the potion down, then when the sound comes on my whole body goes stiff; it’s like I’m turned to stone!”
“Oh. My. Gawwd!” I gasped, making the unlikely connection between Calli’s transformation into an artwork and those goats stiffly falling over. Audible triggers were involved in both; the freeze seemed to happen instantaneously; those affected became rigidly catatonic; and there were no lingering effects. That she knew of. Wondering if Calli was just being coy or if she suspected that someone was watching her or going over her diary afterward, I thought about the postcard again. It couldn’t have been there by chance.
Turning to the coffee shop’s free Internet, I soon knew far more than I wanted about myotonia congenita and its causes. The disorder did exist naturally in humans, as well as in animals, but was much less frequent. There had been some gene therapy attempted, but no conclusive cure. Multiple research teams, privately well funded, were continuing their work at, interestingly enough, the University of Tennessee. There were references to peer papers I didn’t care a hoot about hidden among ads for goat cheese, goat meat, and the chamber of commerce.
Another Bingo! However, my growing suspicion that “G” was behind the R&D of a myotonic activator drug didn’t get me any closer to finding Calli or releasing her from the statuesque fate she had somehow seemed to have wandered into.
Finding her would be a good start! my conscience prodded.
- - -
Several hours later, I found myself lost in the wilds of The Suburbs, trying to follow Calli’s cryptic directions and observations to the estate of her patron, the mysterious “G” man. I’m sure these had made sense to her when she was jotting them down, or she’d already been on some really choice hallucinogenic drugs, because I kept missing her markers and ending up in the wilds of the country, or at least far enough off the main road I couldn’t see the fast food signs. Slowly, I got to a place where there was a “big red barn after a culvert” and amazingly enough, the “tree-covered gate” a few miles beyond that. That entryway looked run-down, but a lot of the rust was simply skillfully applied paint. Under a flap of canvas was a keypad; I’m sure there was a surveillance camera around somewhere, too, but I couldn’t find it.
There was a string of numbers written on one of her clues; could it be this easy after all? Keeping in mind that entering G’s estate without an invite was getting me in deeper than before, I thought of Calli and punched in the digits. There was an uncomfortably long delay, then the gate swung open without a squeak or jiggle; the road beyond was empty of leaves and twigs as if it were vacuumed daily. Maybe it was; I prepared to enter the domain of the super-wealthy, not knowing really what to expect. I’d taken a couple of her blue pills out of worry and mistrust, their effects may not have helped my direction-finding any either, I reflected.
What seemed like kilometers further on, but was in reality was probably only a few hundred meters, was the manor house, which looked more like a castle than any of the other dwellings in this part of the country. Constructed of stone, the multi-story mansion had a large circular crushed-rock courtyard at the front and paved paths that led off into the darkness. Following Calli’s directions, I drove past the entry and around to the side, where a set of lined parking spaces had been laid out. Across the wide driveway was what looked like a huge multi-car garage and shop; in front of me was a discreetly lit path leading to a keycarded entry door.
Boldly; foolishly, I stepped over to the door like I belonged there and swiped the card (hmm, had Calli ‘swiped’ the card earlier to give it to me?) The vagaries of language amused me in the few seconds it took for the system to digest the code and ‘click’ open the lock. In for a penny; in for a pound. I stepped inside.
…and found myself staring into the barrel of a 9mm automatic held by a very muscular butler. Adrenaline gushed; I took a second – or perhaps only a tenth of that – to come up with a good story to explain my appearance.
“Would you like to contribute to the Farmers’ Auxiliary Holiday Fund? No? Well, sorry to have bothered you tonight…” I turned back towards the door, thinking maybe he bought it.
“Stop right there! Turn around,” the butler commanded, with a hint of a wry smile. Well, perhaps I should have spent more time thinking before talking. This always worked in movies.
He patted me down, expertly, finding places I hadn’t even thought to hide something and in the process found the keycard and the rest of Calli’s notes, along with my cell phone and a transit pass I’d lost track of a month earlier and had to replace. The man pocketed the cards and my driving license, and then holstered the gun inside his tailored jacket. Apparently I wasn’t that much of a threat. Real confidence-builder, that.
He touched the handle of the inside door, which flashed green and opened after a momentary pause, then ushered me forward. The “hallway” beyond was more like an underground cavern-sized space built into the mansion, huge and echo-y, but well lit. There was a single person waiting there, someone whom I had never expected to meet in person, but whom I’d seen thousands of images of: It was “G”.
“Welcome to my home,” he greeted with a warm(?) smile, his voice holding that lingering hint of a western European accent that was as much his trademark as the clothes he designed. “It seems you have taken the – how to say it – ‘long way round’ to visit us this evening. But, forgive me for being such a poor host; can I offer you some wine?” He raised an arm to point the direction towards what looked like a sitting room off the main hall.
“Uh, sure,” I agreed, not quite grokking it all yet. Was this some kind of a trap? I followed G into the study, followed myself by the butler/guard to make sure I wasn’t going to do anything foolish. Make that more foolish; I was here.
The wine, a light Chardonnay with a hint of cinnamon, was delicious. G sipped his glass, taken from the same decanter, without hesitation. After a moment’s reflection, he got to the point.
“I understand you have traveled here to visit your – friend – Callisto and ensure that she is well and unharmed by her choice to join in my collection of beautiful things. That is assured, as…”
“So you admit it; you’ve turned her into a statue!” I blurted, interrupting him; something I could see he was not used to. He took several seconds to answer, sipping his wine again.
“That decision belongs solely to Miss Voss; I merely provided the method and the opportunity.”
“That’s what you say; I want to hear it from her.” I countered
“I am afraid that is not currently feasible. She wished to express herself in a manner that has pleased both our esthetic sensibilities. Her presentation in my gallery is truly brilliant; a beauty above beauties! I have no desire to disturb that installation at this time, so Miss Voss will remain as she is, though you may inspect her if you like.”
“Yes, I would, though I’d prefer to talk instead.”
“Perhaps in the future, then. Could you follow me?” G put down his glass and moved towards the rear of the study, where a set of tall double-doors were set into the paneling. He must have been wearing some sort of ID tag because he didn’t have to key in any numbers or wave his hands; the doors simply parted at his proximity, swinging open silently with perfect timing. A gust of cool air spilled into the study as the gallery pathway lighting illuminated, followed by accent lighting on some of the artworks. I felt as if I’d been given an all-access pass to the Louvre.
G entered first, moving directly towards where Calli must be; I followed but spent the time gawking from one side of the gallery to the other like a bobble-headed tourist. It was quite a collection! Calli’s description hadn’t really done the place justice, but then again her mind had been on other things. There were not just life-sized sculptures here, but paintings, carvings, and statues of all sorts and styles, from abstract to impressionistic. There were works by Picasso and Rodin, Gauguin and Warhol, along with hundreds more I could not recall. But it was the living artworks that caught my eye. They were the ones whose pedestals had lit up most brilliantly and which had been given the most presentation space in the crowded gallery.
My eye caught on Lucianna first, perhaps because I’d seen her recently. Now she was poised in a seated asana that was both simple and elegant. Both legs were straight; she was sitting up, grasping the back of her knees with her hands, forming her body into a V-shape that rested on the center of her buttocks. The motionless girl gazed endlessly at the lights above her. Naturally she was completely naked, looking like she had been carved from flawless alabaster.
I wanted to study her more closely, but G had moved forward, passing one of the rare clothed figures who modeled a spectacular gown that may have come from “the man”s own collection. There were other living artworks in addition to those I’d seen at Umberto’s.
Then there was Calli. An unmoving, gorgeous, lovely woman turned statue.
This pose was a standing one, with one leg crossing in front of the other while her arms pointed at the sky, palms together. It reminded me a little bit of a ballet stretching exercise but with a twist to her waist. There was a wide smile on her face that looked like she was happy.
G stopped at a respectful distance and circled her motionless figure, but I dove right in, driven by curiosity and a need for closure. I knew that if I kissed the Calli-statue that would get me thrown out for sure and I probably would never see her again. I didn’t precisely care, but before I could consummate the act, I noticed something about her eyes.
Now, Calli has these unusual gold-flecked irises against a field of dark blue or almost purple. This was one of the aspects that made her so striking and I’d never seen anyone with eyes quite like those. Including, it seemed, this mannequin. Beautiful as she was, it wasn’t her!
“What exactly are you trying to pull?” I asked pointedly, pulling back.
“I do not understand those words. You asked to see your friend’s presentation; here she is…”
“Except, that’s not Calli. It’s one of those replicas – almost replicas – that you’ve commissioned Umberto Designs to create for your stores. Yes, them; I visited the studio a few days ago and had a chance to see this one’s twin, or triplet, or whatever. She’s not real. Now, where’s Calli?”
“This is most uncalled-for. I must ask you to now leave,” G said, only barely ruffled by my outburst and accusation. I heard a rustle behind me; the butler was getting ready for action.
“I’ll leave, but not before I see the actual Calli Voss and get to talk with her,” I stated levelly. “You can throw me out of here; I’ll be back with a court order and a missing-persons report. You can make me disappear, and then it will be up to that detailed statement I mailed to the police earlier to condemn your actions.”
“Have you considered that you might simply join your friend in my gallery?” G asked with a hint of a smile, then held up a small control box and twisted the dial. I heard – no, felt – something go through my head and for a moment there was a twinge in my muscles, as if they were trying to stiffen up, but the feeling passed as I thanked my cautiousness and Calli’s pills.
“Well, I guess I did; sorry, not today.” My response seemed to surprise the fashion mogul. “Now, can we quit playing games and take me to see Calli?”
G seemed to slump a little; defeat was not something he was accustomed to. He looked over to me with something – respect – pity – in his eyes. “Ah, you think you are so astute! Yes, I should not have tried to deceive you. But that was an act of kindness; I was merely trying to spare your emotions. It is time now for the truth…”
G walked without hesitation to one side of the gallery, this time he did have to squint into the locking mechanism before it clicked open. He held the door open for me, but caught his butler with his eyes after I passed by. “Karl, please remain outside. All will be fine.” The man didn’t seem very pleased, but he followed his orders as the door locked in front of him.
What the inner sanctum lacked in presentation sparkle it made up for in the sheer emotional power of the artworks displayed. The theme here was pure eroticism, represented both by single objects, pairs, and multiple figure dioramas. There were no paintings here, simply extremely explicit poses depicted by living artworks.
I recognized Calli immediately, by her shapely backside. Her statue was posed in the midst of a frozen embrace, locked in place atop another motionless figure that was Rachel, who in turn had become a statue in mid-caress. The two frozen lovers gazed endlessly into each other’s eyes, on the verge of a passionate kiss and lovemaking that would forever be about to happen.
The lighting didn’t provide any modesty as the halogen beams shone down upon their unmoving bodies, picking out the contours of their physiques, the tension in their muscles, and the brief yet enduring nuances of their captured expressions.
G gazed at them, too, not saying a word, letting the moment and their intimacy speak for itself.
I was awestruck and at the same time, becoming aroused. This was truth, all right, in the (frozen) flesh. Searching for a substitute explanation, I babbled, “You could have posed her that way after she was starting to freeze up.”
He shook his head sadly, said, “You’re not making this any easier on yourself,” and held up his control box, looking over at the clinched pair of statues. He twisted the dial.
A few moments later, Calli reanimated, slowly at first. She was so intent on her lovemaking that she did not notice for a while that the woman she continued to kiss and fondle was not moving. Finally, she paused, untwined herself from Rachel’s arms and looked over towards us.
She immediately recognized me and her eyes narrowed; this just wasn’t embarrassment, it was something else. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked, actually more like demanded.
My face reddened. Truth. “I thought you were in trouble – followed your trail of clues…”
Calli took a few seconds to answer; I could see emotions battling between her eyebrows. When she did speak, it was in her overly calm tone I recalled was one step away from bat-shit losing it: “That’s really sweet of you…” Did she just say ‘sweet’? “…I sort of got carried away a little in my mind after I agreed to move in here and pose. That’s when I gave you that stuff but I never expected you to use it.”
“Let me continue. As you can see, everything’s fine and I’m not some kind of petrified prisoner here or whatever your addled mind has conjured up. In fact, I’m more than fine; I not only found something to do that I love, I found someone to love: Rachel.” Calli glanced down at the frozen young woman she was resting on and smiled warmly. Rachel’s sinuous body formed one half of an incomplete artwork, missing her companion; the negative space that Calli would soon fill again looked inviting and comforting at the same time. “This is the time to go our separate ways, find another…”
“He’s making mannequins of you when you’re frozen!” I broke in, desperately.
“I know; some of those poses I picked out myself. I get half – not sure if it’s the top or bottom half…” she grinned at saying this, a flash of her wit showing through the tension.
“Look, I’m not some damsel in distress that needs rescuing! I appreciate all what you’ve done and gone through tracking me down. However this is my choice. I want to be here. With her. Please – leave me alone – let me go!”
I couldn’t say anything.
She smiled at me one last time, then looked back down and threaded herself into Rachel’s arms again, placing her body in exactly the same location as before. With a brief whispered “ready”, she stretched her figure to resume their lovemaking. Suddenly, she paused, and then stopped, as still as stone, an absolutely stunning sculpture. It was spooky; one moment she was alive, the next she was an object of art.
Seconds passed, then almost a minute as I formed part of the still-life tableau. At last, G cleared his throat to break my rapt concentration. There’s no humor or satisfaction in his voice as he stated, “I believe your affair here with the young lady is concluded.”
“Yeah; I think you’re right…”
“My wish is for my business and tastes to remain private. That wish now extends to her, as well. Please permit me that small indiscretion and I will arrange to make the time you have spent on this senseless quest worthwhile.”
Was he offering me a bribe, or a payoff? This was the wrong place, the wrong time. All I ever really wanted was Calli, and that wasn’t possible any longer. She made her choice, but that didn’t make mine any easier. You always lust after what you can’t have.
- - -
After we parted company, I figured that was it, over, Fini. A big tycoon like G wasn’t going to bother with the likes of me, not after he got the codes changed on all his security.
So it came as a great surprise that a couple weeks later when an unmarked truck pulled up outside my building and they delivered a “Persian Rug” to my apartment, agreeing that ‘no’ I did not order it and ‘yes’ it was a gift. No COD to pay. I did, however, manage to tip them.
I paused in my typing, glancing back at my motionless muse as she stood behind my chair.
“Can you believe it? Calli, it was you inside, all wrapped up in bubbles and foam, just as beautiful as when I saw you last in the studio. I’m amazed they remembered to give back that lace cat-suit you like so much; it still fits you really well, even in that pose.”
Calli Voss looked like she wanted to smile at that instant, but she held it until later.
“We’re going to have so much fun together, and I hope you never decide to leave, ever again.”