Her eyes were drawn to the doll the moment she saw its stall.
Its head and arms were porcelain, bone white and glassy finished. The face was exquisitely painted, with a little rosebud of a mouth blended perfectly with the shaped china and the set of platinum blonde curls framing it. It was real hair, Amanda thought, or something very much like it, she immediately saw, never having seen that particular shade of coloring on a French lady doll before. The dress it wore was of the finest cloth, a pale shade of sky blue with delicate white trimmings. A tarnished brass or copper tag dangled on a light chain from one hand.
It was the most beautiful doll Amanda had even seen.
The doll, in fact, was everything Amanda had wanted to be growing up a little girl, still pretty and delicate. Her hair, like the doll’s, was blonde, though now in her forties it was starting to fade a little. So, too, while Amanda had never been an overly large woman, she knew her still slightly overweight and plain, mousy features could never have attracted others the way any real woman with this doll’s beauty might have.
It was a wonder the tiny figure hadn’t been sold yet. The swap meet, like all the others Amanda had frequented that week, was crowded. It was being held in an old department store, now out of business, its interior cleared out for the independent marketers who had come for the week-long event. Amanda had already been there an hour slowly cruising the rows. The old fluorescent lighting had given her a headache, and the small boy in front of her shrieking happily and running back to his mother hadn’t helped it.
Swap meets, like garage sales and craft shows, were terribly addictive. Go to only one or two of them, and you could probably break the cycle of addiction before it began. Go to a few more than that, though . . . well, then your life’s course was set. You were doomed to keep going to them until you died, or at least until you ran out of money.
The problem, Amanda had reflected, passing down one row and up another, was that you could find “anything” at a swap meet.
From the crude to the refined, if you looked hard enough, you could find it. Bumper stickers. Jewelry. Fuzzy dice. More Elvis memorabilia than you could shake a stick at.
Anything, really, even valuable antiques.
Amanda’s thing was dolls. She collected them. Not the cheap, and sometimes not so cheap, plastic toys put out by the major manufacturers for children, nor really the special collector’s items dolls for adults sometimes advertised on TV or in the magazines. Amanda would never stoop so low as to buy a John Wayne figure or Princess Di or the entire cast of Gone With The Wind . Her tastes were more specialized. She collected Parisiennes, French lady dolls, like those produced originally in the mid to late 19th Century. Mostly she had to settle for imitations - Parisiennes were very expensive and hard to find - but she owned a few prize real ones as well, each carefully sealed away under glass in cabinets. It was a costly hobby, but a satisfying one.
Amanda frequented swap meets and crafts shows like the one she was at now just on the off-chance she might find something interesting. The movie posters, the food stalls, the people selling rugs and hand-crafted furniture, all these she ignored as best she could. She checked out the stalls with the doll arrangements instead. Usually she walked away disappointed. They usually never had anything she wanted.
But not today.
Her headache forgotten, Amanda walked over to the doll’s stall. It was seated casually (and criminally, in Amanda’s opinion) next to a set of others not worth even half its value. Amanda had long experience in the market; she read all the buyer’s books. She knew about these sort of things. A woman of about her own age, wearing a tee-shirt reading “I Love Dolls,” stood up when she approached.
“See something you like?”
“Yes,” Amanda said, keeping her tone carefully neutral. If this woman didn’t know what kind of treasure she had, and if she did, she wouldn’t be treating it so carelessly, Amanda sure wasn’t going to tell her. “May I see this one?” She pointed to a cheap bisque imitation next to the one she wanted.
The stall proprietor picked up and held the indicated doll so Amanda could examine it. It was good craftsmanship but nothing like the divine angel sitting next to it. Amanda pretend to appreciate the bisque, then bent down as if to get a closer look at its neighbors.
“Are you a collector, too, ma’am?” the stall owner asked.
“Mmm, not really,” Amanda lied, not looking up. “I have one or two at home. For the kids, mostly.”
“Oh, you should be careful with these dolls here, then. They’re very dear, very fragile. They’re not meant to be played with.” She put down the bisque and picked up the antique Amanda now rather desperately wanted. “Take this one, for example. She’s at least a hundred and twenty years old. A real collector’s item.”
More like a hundred and forty, Amanda privately thought, putting on a poker face and trying to be casual about the marvel being presented to her. “I’ve heard dolls are a good investment. How much for something like this one?” she inquired.
The stall owner quoted a price that was expensive but at least $200 lower than what Amanda herself would have wanted in her place.
She paid cash.
Twenty minutes later Amanda was home and busy rearranging her own doll collection in order to make room for her latest prize. As soon as she had walked in the door she sat down and minutely examined the incredible antique, comparing her to the other Parisiennes she had. The doll was flawless, and Amanda again congratulated herself on her shrewdness. That stall owner would just die knowing what she had just given up.
The doll was definitely not a fake, which had been Amanda’s first worry, and she was completely undamaged, which had been her second. In fact, she was remarkably well-preserved for her age. Her legs were porcelain, too, as much as her arms and head. The body was stuffed kid and artistically proportioned. Again, if the doll had been a real person, she would have been an absolute knock out.
The only strange thing about her was the metal tag she wore. It was in dire need of a good polishing. Amanda had no chance of reading it at that moment, so she carefully unclipped it and put it off to the side for examination later.
She was so excited, she didn’t notice the brief electric tingle she felt as she did so.
That evening just before bed, Amanda came back into her living room to look at the doll again. She had made her the star of the collection, the whole set of which filled one wall of her house. The doll now had one entire shelf all to herself right at the top . . . but something about the arrangement didn’t satisfy Amanda.
This doll is special, she thought. She deserves special attention.
Unlocking the glass cabinet, Amanda took the new doll down and carried her back into the bedroom. There she carefully put the figure on top of her dresser, balancing her carefully so she wouldn’t tip over.
That’s better, Amanda thought, standing back and looking at the new placement. She needed to be in here with me. We have the same shade of blue in our eyes.
Amused somehow, and lulled somewhat by that observation, Amanda turned off the lights and went to sleep with her doll watching her.
Neither of them stirred for hours.
Change, profound change, when it occurs, tends to happen either very slowly or very quickly.
When change occurs fast, everyone notices. When it comes slowly, however, when it creeps along and builds steadily towards some momentous ultimate transformation, even a profound change can go unobserved for quite a long while.
Lunch at work.
Amanda was eating a salad and going through her accounts receivable when she noticed someone standing next to her table.
“Ms. Placer? Amanda? May I join you?”
Amanda looked up and saw Mark Jefferies there, from Savings. She gulped a little, then nodded slowly. He sat down next to her.
“Is it all right if I call you Amanda?” He smiled brightly. His teeth were perfect. He was gorgeous.
“A . . Amanda’s fine,” she fluttered.
They began talking, really talking, and before the lunch ended, Mark had asked Amanda out for dinner the next night. She had nodded numbly, still unbelieving, and he had walked off beaming, promising to pick her up after work tomorrow.
A date! I have a date with Mark Jefferies, the corporate stud, the most handsome man in the bank!
I can’t believe it!
Amanda went back to her office floating on air. After a while, though, she began to wonder. Mark - and it suddenly was Mark, not Jefferies as she had always thought of him before - had been with the bank for about five years. In all that time, he had hardly ever spoken to Amanda, and never about anything other than bank business.
Why did he ask her out on a date now? Amanda had been with the bank ten years, and she had been men like Jefferies come and go numerous times. Certainly they had never expressed any interest in her before.
Jefferies (Mark, Amanda thought) went out only with the bank’s younger women.
That definitely left her out.
Right. The more she thought about it, the more Amanda became sure Mark had just been playing with her, conducting some kind of practical joke or something. She had seen In The Company of Men. She shouldn’t trust him, should she?
A knock on her office door interrupted her thoughts. Before she could say anything, her secretary Janie had come in. She shut the door behind her and leaned back against it.
“Give,” she ordered her boss, smiling brightly.
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But Amanda thought she might.
“Mark Jefferies, that’s what.’ Janie scrambled over in front of Amanda’s desk and planted herself there. “Tell me everything.”
Amanda hesitated, then told her friend about lunch and her upcoming date. Janie squealed in all the appropriate places. They’d both mooned over Mark Jefferies for years, but neither apparently had ever drawn his attention before. Until now.
“You gotta tell me your secret,” Janie finally said. “Are you going to a new dietitian or something? Because whatever he’s doing for you, I gotta get done too.”
Amanda shook her head. “No, I swear.”
“C’mon. And what about your hair? Is that a new dye or what?” Janie reached out a hand and lightly touched Amanda’s head. “It’s great.”
Amanda only shook her head again. Janie let out an exasperated sigh, got up abruptly, and led her friend to the nearby washroom. “You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed all the stares you’ve been getting.”
“No . . I . . ,” Amanda began, and stopped. She had noticed something, to be honest. She had been receiving some unusual looks, or at least unusual looks for her. Men’s eyes lingering where they had never lingered before, that sort of thing. Amanda also remembered the secretaries talking and looking over in her direction a couple of times that day. Were they talking about her?
About a change in her appearance, maybe?
No, it couldn’t be. But when she saw herself in the mirror, with Janie standing there and pointing them out, for the first time the changes were clearly apparent. It was funny how she had never noticed before. She was definitely slimmer, and her hair had regained most if not all of its original color. It almost did make her look younger.
The thing was, though, despite what Janie had said or others might have thought, Amanda hadn’t been on a diet. She hadn’t changed her hair dye.
She hadn’t done anything different.
Amanda went home early in a strange mood. She had noticed - perhaps only in the back of her mind, but she had noticed - all the strange attention she had been receiving. It had just taken her conversations with Mark and Janie to get her to actually think about it. When Amanda had been younger, sometimes, very occasionally, men would give her that look . . . but that had been a long time and several pounds ago.
She walked into her house and closed the door behind her. She swept past her living room doll collection with hardly a glance. She went into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of her bed and stared down at her feet.
Weird. Good, but very weird.
She didn’t know how long she sat like that before she noticed Gisele staring down at her. The new doll was still on top of the dresser where she had put her a few days before.
The doll stared blankly at Amanda, and Amanda stared blankly back at the doll. This went on for several minutes. Eventually, Amanda got up and carefully picked her up.
“Something’s happening,” she said softly to the fragile porcelain and cloth figure.
Amanda had named the doll Gisele. The name had just come to her one day.
She had become a companion of sorts to her new owner. Amanda lived alone. Her divorce had been finalized years before, and she had never had any children. She sometimes thought of her dolls as her children, but that thought only occurred when she was feeling maudlin. She didn’t generally make a habit of talking to them.
Gisele, however, had been different right from the start. Amanda couldn’t explain how she was different, but she was. She seemed, in some way, hungry for Amanda’s attention, like the way a faithful pet might be. Amanda had often found herself talking to the doll after work on long days. She didn’t conduct lengthy conversations with Gisele, she wasn’t crazy or anything, but every once and awhile she would offhandedly mention a bit of office gossip from the bank. “Susan came into work late again, Gisele,” she would say, for instance. “She’s going to be sent packing, mark my words.”
She would have shared her news about Mark with Gisele if she hadn’t felt so strange.
It was harmless, really. Just kid stuff, an attempt to liven up otherwise dreary afternoons when all she had going for her was the latest Harlequin romance. It wasn’t as if the doll ever answered her back. It was all perfectly normal.
Or so she had thought.
Now, looking closely at the doll, she wasn’t sure anymore.
Our clothes are the same, Amanda slowly realized. We’re wearing the same clothes.
Well, not really. Gisele was wearing a blue dress: high waistline, loosely hanging skirt, and short full sleeves. It was classical Late Empire fashion. Amanda’s own business suit was a trifle shorter, more suitable for the workplace, but it was cut identically, and it was exactly the same shade of sky blue.
She hadn’t noticed before.
Their hairstyles, too, were also exactly the same, she noted.
Gisele’s hair was arranged in a classic late 1800’s chignon. So was hers.
She hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t consciously decided that morning to tie such an old-fashioned knot in her hair, anymore than she had deliberately tried to dress like the doll, but there it was. Once seen, it could not be unseen.
Amanda now bore a more than passing resemblance to her doll.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Placer. I really can’t tell you how old the doll is. I can’t even tell you where it came from for sure.”
Amanda had taken Gisele to a person she knew, Hans Goeter. He was an antiques dealer she had conducted business with in the past. He was an expert, especially in the field of dolls and toys. She had purchased quite a few of his wares over the years.
“You can’t tell me anything?” she asked incredulously. She couldn’t believe it. Amanda had watched the man examine Gisele for nearly an hour in his backroom shop, scrutinizing the doll and occasionally consulting his books. Goeter was elderly and bald save for the white tufts of hair on either side of his head. With his old bifocals on, he was the very image of wisdom in his craft. But he shook his head sadly.
“In forty years, I’ve never seen anything like her.” He put the doll in a small stand on his workdesk and pointed at her hairline with a pencil. “Here,” he said. “Look at this.”
He handed Amanda a magnifying glass. “What am I looking at?”
“Here. I don’t know what that material is, but it’s not human hair. It’s not animal hair, either, so far as I can make out. It’s some kind of fabric, but I can’t identify it.” He shook his head again and took off the bifocals. “It’s kind of like silk, only it’s not.”
Amanda didn’t know what to say. She just looked, slightly amazed.
“Don’t ask me how, either,” Goeter went on, “but each strand of material is inserted individually into the porcelain. I mean, every strand. I can’t believe the kind of effort that must have required.”
Amanda glanced up, more than a little disturbed now. “Can’t you give me any kind of estimate?” she pleaded.
Goeter reached back behind him and grabbed his stool. He sat down heavily.
“At a guess,” he began, “and it really would be a guess, I would say the doll was made in the 1860’s. In France, more than likely. I could be off by twenty years or more, though, in either direction. Was there any identifying mark or other to give it a more precise origin?”
Amanda began to shake her head, and then she remembered Gisele’s little brass tag. She opened her mouth to say something, but Goeter interrupted her.
“How much do you want for her?” he asked. He named a price over twice what Amanda had paid.
She said nothing for a few moments. Then, getting to her feet, Amanda picked up Gisele and left the store. She didn’t say anything even when Goeter asked what was wrong.
She returned home and sat down in her living room with her doll. They remained like that for an hour, just sitting. Amanda stared at Gisele, and Gisele stared back at Amanda. It was nearly six o’clock before she got up.
Amanda found the metal tag she had removed earlier and polished it in a cleaning solution. The liquid foamed for a few minutes. Once clear of the grime, the inscription could be clearly read:
Le Cirque de Artificiel
Le Cirque de Artificiel? What kind of signature or trademark was that? Amanda’s French was rusty, but she thought it translated out as “artificial circus” or “circus of the artificial” or something. But what did that mean? Did Gisele come from a circus, or was that the name of a company?
She returned to the doll herself. Over the next few hours, Amanda took down and read through every doll book she owned. She compared her mysterious new doll to every illustration. She looked through hundreds of photographs and descriptions. She examined Gisele in every conceivable way short of actually taking her apart.
Just before bed, Amanda came to two separate conclusions.
One was that the doll was older than Goeter had said. He had said the 1860’s, but for some reason Amanda thought Gisele went back to at least the 1850’s, maybe even the 1840s. Her second conclusion was that the doll really didn’t look like any other collectible Amanda had ever seen or heard of before. Goeter had confirmed that, too, but it was one thing just to hear it being said and quite another to discovering it herself. The materials used in Gisele were similar to other designs of the early 19th Century, but the actual make of the doll fit no regular type. She was totally unique.
Her sleep was fitful that night. She had strange dreams.
Amanda took the next day off and tried going back to the swap meet. She wanted to ask Gisele’s previous owner about her, but she had no luck. The stall owner had already moved on. In any case, thinking about it on the way back to her house, if Goeter couldn’t tell her anything about the doll, then surely that ignorant woman wouldn’t have been able to either.
Still, though, Amanda wished she could have spoken to her again.
Once again, the first thing she did when she got home was sit down in her living room with Gisele. They stared at one another for what seemed like hours.
Later, Amanda went into the bathroom to examine both herself and Gisele in the mirror at the same time. She had made a point that morning not to dress like her, and she had let her hair spread down naturally. Even so, Amanda could still see a resemblance between the two of them. Her own hair, undone, was slowly taking on the same unusual platinum look Gisele’s had. Her wrinkles and crow’s feet, too, had almost completely faded away, and even without makeup her face shone brightly. Her lips were tinged a lovely red, and her eyes seemed large and attractively displayed. Doll-like, one could even say.
She definitely looked younger. Five, maybe even six or seven years younger.
Amanda stepped up on her bathroom scale. She had lost nearly thirty pounds.
The doll was definitely having an influence.
Amanda put Gisele back on her dresser and called Mark Jefferies. She canceled their date. She claimed to be sick; he sounded honestly disappointed, which somehow pleased Amanda slightly in an obscure way. She promised to get back in touch with him soon.
She frankly felt too weird to go out on a date.
She asked herself: Was it magic?
What exactly was happening to her? She felt good, really. Spectacular even, at least physically. She felt better than she had in years. Was she really getting younger?
When would it stop? Did she want it to stop? Amanda didn’t know.
Amanda looked at the little doll on her dresser. Abruptly, she decided she was going to do nothing. She wasn’t sure what Gisele was doing to her, or how it was even possible, but so far she liked what was happening. At least, she thought she did.
I mean, she thought, who wouldn’t? It’s a dream come true. I’m getting younger, I think. I really am. I’m becoming the live woman Gisele would have been had she been born a real person.
It was wonderful.
“But,” she said to the doll, “I’m not going into this totally blind. I’m going to find out where you came from, little girl.” She got up and walked over to the dresser. She looked down at the small figure. “And if I don’t get the answers I want, I’m going to rethink this little experiment. You understand?”
There was no reply.
Gisele had nothing to say apparently.
The next day was the start of the weekend, and first thing Saturday morning Amanda went over to the public library to do some research. She left Gisele at home. She went through the Internet terminal first, looking up anything even remotely connected to dolls, toys, circuses, and other related subjects. She accumulated a long list, and armed with this list she waded into the book stacks, checking every conceivable reference.
She found her first mention of the Cirque de Artificiel in a history on the French theatre. It was the name of a group of performers who had traveled around Europe in the early 1800’s. The book, unfortunately, said nothing else about them. Who they were and what they performed, it simply did not say. Amanda enlisted one of the librarians to help her, and after a few minutes fruitlessly searching the stacks, he suggested she go over to the university library. It was more suited to hard research, the librarian said, and he would call ahead so that the people there might get started for her.
He was surprisingly helpful, Amanda thought later. She took his advice.
By that early afternoon, with the extra help, Amanda had found all that she was ever likely to find concerning a very narrow subject. Not many books talked about the Cirque; three of the four that did mentioned the performing group only in passing. However, from what little there was, the Cirque apparently lived up to its name.
Its “act” concerned itself with the artificial mimicry of the human form. Nothing was discussed in much detail, but dolls, statuary, and waxworks made up the core of their performances. They were controversial, too. The one book the library had that talked about the Cirque de Artificiel at length compared the troupe to England’s infamous Hellfire Club: decadent, deliberately provocative, and titillatingly corrupt, with more than a slight hint of erotic sensuality. There were also certain occult undertones, too, the Cirque being linked to reports of disappearances wherever they performed, usually of young, attractive men and women.
Whatever happened to the Cirque de Artificiel? None of the books said, just as none of them could say anything about the group’s exact origins. The records were either all lost, misfiled, or deliberately left blank.
Amanda left the library feeling despondent. She didn’t know what to do next. She had come away from her research with more questions than she had answers . . . and the few answers she did have were not all that good.
She decided then, on the spur of the moment, that what she most needed was a distraction, and that’s when she saw the boutique coming up on her right.
Amanda pulled her car into the parking lot and went inside. It was a fancy dress shop, the kind of place where young people went to. There were many summer dresses, gowns, and formal wear. There was also a lot of spandex, leather, and fur, too. The clothes suddenly appealed to Amanda in a way they never had before . . . and now she finally had the body for them, she believed.
“Can I help you?” a young clerk asked coming up to her.
“Yeah, I think you can.”
What followed proved to be a missing spending spree. Black, thigh-high skirts. Chokers. Stockings and hose. Frilly corsets. Amanda went absolutely wild. At first she tried to maintain her “respectability,” trying on only those fashions the “old” her might have felt comfortable wearing. As the afternoon wore on, though, she became more and more daring, until with a sudden and shocking realization she found herself in a dressing room wearing something that simply would have killed Janie had she been there to see it.
The “dress,” for lack of any better term, consisted of two narrow straps of red cloth that started at the waist and barely went over her perky breasts to meet behind her neck. Below the waist the spandex material tightly stretched over her bottom and left her legs bare almost to the crotch. The outfit made her look like a whore.
Naturally, she bought it.
Amanda also bought a black satin blouse that cut off just below the breasts; a micro-skirt so micro she would have been arrested for wearing it in public; a leather and rubber catsuit that outlined her now ample figure in liquid black glossiness; and a finally a blue teddy with white lacey trims that Amanda felt both complimented her and made her look even more like her doll. That seemed very important at the moment. She became totally absorbed in the shopping experience. She hosted her own private lingerie party: bikini panties, half-slips, nighties, the works.
Amanda looked at herself in the dressing room mirror.
She looked young, fit, and beautiful. Younger even than she had looked that morning.
But still essentially her, she was relieved to see.
At least for the time being.
The music throbbed and pulsed to a fast beat. The lights shimmered off of the strobes and created a kaleidoscope of color on the churning danceroom floor. A hundred or more sweating bodies gyrated to the recorded music of the DJ. Nameless singers sang meaningless verses. The dancers didn’t care. All they wanted was a quick rhythm.
It was the trendiest night club in town.
Mark Jefferies was on the prowl. He had struck out the night before with Amanda Placer, but, hey, there was always tomorrow. Right now, there was the club, and, hey, the women there. He cruised contentedly, totally in his element, admiring and being admired. Mark stepped over to the bar and ordered a drink. While he was waiting, he scanned all the available ladies, available because they were either alone or with another girl and were without him. He made eye contact with one of them, and she turned away.
Ah, well. His thoughts returned to the office.
He didn’t know exactly what it was, but the woman at the office, Amanda, had changed somehow. She had been an old frump before, he remembered, but now . . . now she was looking pretty fine. Mark had misjudged her or something, and he definitely meant to talk to her again Monday. Right now, though, it was Saturday. Club night.
He liked that redhead off in the corner, and that blonde over there, yeah, she could be fun, too. On the other hand, there was the girl in the black dress over in the corner . . . .
“Hello,” a low, girlish voice purred beside him, interrupting his thoughts.
Mark jumped and turned around . . . and standing there was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
“Uh, hi,” he said suavely. “I’m, uh, Mark. Mark Jefferies.”
He offered his hand, suddenly feeling absurd.
The girl took it in a grip that felt velvet smooth. She was a perfect platinum blonde, her hair cut short and daintily ringleted. It was amazing to look at, that almost purely metallic shade. She had liquid blue eyes, soft ruby lips, and a flawless complexion. Mark couldn’t tell if she was wearing any makeup, so fantastic her appearance was.
And, strangely, so damn familiar.
She spoke. “You can call me,” she said, her voice incredibly seductive, “. . . Gisele.”
Gisele, Mark thought. Gisele. “That’s, ah, French, isn’t it?”
“Mmhmm,” she nodded. Everything about her was flawless.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
The girl nodded again and slipped even further into the make-believe world she was playing at. She couldn’t believe she was doing this. It was so unlike her.
Mark was captivated. He talked, but he couldn’t remember what he talked about. She was wearing a tight blue hose dress, showing just enough cleavage to be interesting without being gaudy. The dress flowed smoothly down her body as if it had been painted on, ending just below her thighs. Her arms, pale and long, were left bare. A ribboned cameo choker encircled her throat. She introduced herself as Amanda’s younger sister (“Amanda? Oh, you mean at work? That Amanda?”) and said she was in town visiting.
They went back to her sister’s house.
Gisele slowly led Mark into the bedroom, her silken hands tugging at his shirt and at the front of his pants. He found the short zipper at the top of her dress. He let his fingers and lips caress the beautiful young girl’s body as he slowly, deliberately peeled her out of the clinging material she wore. She was bare underneath. She pulled him down on top of her. With lips and tongue she followed the outline of his face, his neck, and chest. She heard the sharp intake of breath as she moved her attentions further south.
Mark moved himself up, flailing his legs about to cast aside the last of his clothes. He positioned himself on the bed completely on top of the nocturnal stranger, pinning her delicate and oh so tight body beneath his. Her legs parted, and he penetrated the deep, deep warmth of her.
Gisele’s cry of pleasure was low and gurgling, totally joyous. She arched her small, lithe body beneath Mark’s. Her legs, silken fine, wrapped around his thighs and drew him even deeper inside her. Mark’s hands gripped the bedposts. Light flared inside them.
And the doll sat there on the dresser watching them.
Amanda curled around the bed the next morning, stretching her arms and legs out like a cat, feeling limber and silken smooth. Her hand strayed beside her, coaxing, but it found no one there.
She opened her eyes, smiling. Only then did she notice her lover was missing, and she gave a short, girlish pout.
“Pooh,” she muttered, suddenly very lonely.
And confused. What had happened last night?
Amanda remembered going to the boutique. She had gone to a hairstylist afterwards, she thought. After that . . . a club? Mark Jefferies? She wasn’t sure.
She noticed a letter sitting on the dresser next to Gisele. She padded out of bed, nude, and tried to read it, but it proved too confusing for her. The words were mysterious and unclear. It said something about not talking to her sister, bad at work, his position at the bank, and so on. Amanda wasn’t sure she understood it.
She had left the hairstylist and . . . gone looking for someone?
After a few moments of hard thinking, the girl just shook her head, laughed coquettishly, and decided it wasn’t important. She was getting ready to climb into the shower when the telephone rang. Amanda looked at the odd device for a moment, again confused, then muttered a quick, “Oh,” and picked it up.
It was the librarian from the university library.
“Ms. Placer? Hello? Are you there?”
Pause. Then, “Oh, yes. Yes, I am. How can I help you, sir?”
“Ms. Placer? It doesn’t sound like you.”
Amanda giggled softly like a little girl. “It’s me. How can I help you?”
“You wanted me to help you, remember? You wanted me to find any more references to this group, the Cirque de Artificiel, right?”
That sounded . . . vaguely familiar. “Go on.”
“Ms. Placer?” Amanda seemed to sense the other man’s confusion over the phone.
“Go on, please.”
Pause. “Uh, OK. Anyway, I called a friend of mine at the state university, he’s interested in the occult kind of, you see. He had heard about this group of yours.”
Amanda started to focus a little better. She remembered asking this man to go to extra efforts for her. He hadn’t been going to, she had thought at the time, but then she had moved a little closer to him, put a hand on his shoulder delicately, and suddenly he became very cooperative. She had charmed him.
“Thank you,” she said, meaning it this time. “Thank you very much. What did your friend have to say?”
“Ah, well, let me see. I have my notes here. OK . . . it appears this Cirque de Artificiel goes back to the late 18th Century. They were into all sorts of weird stuff. Alchemy. Mesmerism, that sort of thing. My friend says they were more a traveling magic show than a theatrical group.” The man paused for a moment, then emitted a brief chuckle. “They had this schtik, see, where they could somehow convince their audiences that they were dolls or statues or something. The audiences, I mean, them. Like they were hypnotized and couldn’t move.” Another pause. “Must have been a real blast.”
Amanda thought the man’s voice sounded very distant. “Anything else?” she asked.
“Well, it was the freezing the audience bit that really must’ve upset people. They did other things, too, like bringing waxworks to life, painting people different colors, turning ‘em into animals. All illusions, of course, but it was enough to keep the Cirque constantly on the move. People must’ve wanted to burn ‘em for being witches, don’t you think?”
Yes, they had many difficulties with the townsfolk, Amanda remembered. She shook her head. “And the reports of missing people?”
“Yeah, there was that, too. But you have to remember the time period. Young men or women, they tended to leave home, they might never get an opportunity to get back, even if they really wanted to. With the Cirque, it was probably just a lot of gossip.”
Amanda was nodding slowly. She didn’t believe that for a moment.
“Does that help, miss? If you want, the two of us, like, could get together and talk about it more. And we could maybe go out and . . . .”
“Yes, thank you for your help,” Amanda said, not listening anymore, and hung up. She walked into the bathroom and examined herself in the mirror.
The librarian had said it was only illusion, but she knew better. It was something else, something . . . different.
After all, she was living proof.
Amanda looked in the mirror and thought she looked twenty years old now, if that. It was an almost totally different person staring back at from the glass. A beautiful person. High upthrust breasts. A waif-like build. Creamy skin. Shiny, metallic hair. Rose-bud mouth. It was a different person standing there.
It was Gisele brought to life.
The transformation was happening much more rapidly now, she saw. And it could no longer be hidden. There was no way she could return to the bank tomorrow morning looking like this. A diet they could believe in, but this was unbelievable. Tears welled up in her lovely sky-blue eyes as she realized her old life was gone forever. Janie, Mark, she could no longer afford to be seen by any of them. They wouldn’t understand.
She would have to leave her home. Leave everything.
Amanda sobbed and began shivering, frightened beyond words to express.
If only . . . only . . if only she could think more clearly. But it was getting harder and harder. She still wanted the transformation, the youth and the beauty it offered, but the price she was starting to pay, she just hadn’t anticipated . . . .
Amanda felt as though she were losing herself.
Her eyes strayed to her open closet door and to all the clothes she had bought . . . when? Just yesterday? They seemed so . . . comforting. Mindlessly soothing.
The girl suddenly ran to her closet door, fleeing her unwelcome thoughts
the same way a small child might try to escape a horrible monster.
The night club again.
More music. More crowds.
An opportunity to flaunt one’s beauty, to showoff.
Then, elsewhere. Wherever she went, men gazed appreciatively. The women were always jealous or envious.
The girl liked that.
She liked shopping, too. And changing clothes. And being beautiful.
And being wanted. Yes, she liked that most of all.
There was a concert. There were flickering lights all around. Heavy music drowned all conversation. The fans became rowdy. Remaining in the assigned seats became impossible. Everybody was dancing, shouting. The audience chanted louder and louder. The bass and drums on stage crashed with devastating noise.
The band squealed through its numbers, its members all the while checking out the girls in the front rows. There was no conservative dress here, no banker’s clothes at all, no one over the age of twenty-five. Bare midriffs, shocking hairstyles, exaggerated and purposefully enticing motions . . . these were girls who wanted to be noticed.
Perks of the trade, they were. The lead singer screamed his last tune out at the top of his lungs. He had spotted the one he wanted right away. Platinum hair, pale skin, short shorts, and a string bikini top. He finished the set, made a practiced motion to one of the roadies, and soon enough the groupie was taken backstage. He ended the show quick, his leather pants tightening with every movement.
She clung to him till dawn.
The band’s security was handled by a motorcycle gang.
The cyclists worked cheap. They were in it for the booze, the drugs, and the sex. Everything was secondhand, of course, but it was still a lot. The mornings after the shows, men in leather jackets and chaps got their pick of the available groupies left. Most went willingly enough. Those that didn’t learned a high price for devotion.
They played, and they were played with.
It was easy to become lost.
The girl woke up slowly. She smiled and purred contentedly. The burly man beside her opened his eyes too. His hand reached down to cup her firm bare bottom, squeezing. The girl giggled and climbed on top of him again, anticipating the pleasures she would be giving and receiving. He grabbed her hips, his thumbs stretching towards her warm center.
God, she was so very tight!
Her skin was marble white, free of blemishes, free of the sun’s rays. Her breasts were as firm as her ass, with small tender nipples. She kissed the biker’s chest, stroking ever downward. His hands flowed over the liquid bumps and curves of her form, so tight, so smooth. She took him in her mouth, her unadorned but lovely red lips ever so slightly parting, pushing till she felt them press up against the hardness of his body.
Slow rhythms. Gentle bobs up and down. The biker’s nerve endings shivered in response to the girl’s obviously trained ministrations. She licked and caressed like an expert. She performed those functions for which she had been made.
The girl was lost in his pleasure, his moment, and when he came, she came, the heat in her releasing simultaneously in an explosive orgasmic charge.
Later, after she had dutifully cleaned him off, kissing him so long, relishing his taste and return, the girl wondered how she had happened upon this wonderful place.
Everything was wonderful. The ratty drapes. The cheap bed. The stained walls. The piles of discarded clothes (I’ll have to clean those for him, she thought). All perfectly wonderful. She saw the world through a rose-colored light.
Eventually, the girl decided it didn’t really matter. It was hard to think about it anyway. All she really needed to know was . . . was . . . . She struggled for an answer.
Was . . . was being taken care of, that was it.
Her face brightened, and she smiled radiantly again.
She was being taken care of.
The Cirque took care of all its properties, she knew.
Now, if she could only remember her name, everything would be perfect.
“Amanda? Amanda? Are you home?”
Janie closed the front door behind her and called out again.
No one was home.
Janie was worried. Amanda hadn’t shown up for work all week. She had given no word, asked for no sick days. Nothing. The police had been alerted, but they said there was very little they could do without more evidence. And there was none. Amanda was just gone. Fortunately, Janie had her own key, so she had decided to look around on her own, hoping to find some clue the cops might have missed.
But there was nothing.
Amanda’s clothes were gone, but her dolls remained. Her cosmetics were missing, but she had taken little else.
Janie just didn’t understand what was going on.
“Excuse me. May I come in, please?”
Janie jumped and turned around. A man was standing at Amanda’s door, now once again open. He was well-dressed. Janie couldn’t place his age, but he seemed young . . . maybe. His eyes were a penetratingly sharp green.
“Who . . who are you?” Why was she suddenly so nervous?
“Just a gentleman caller, ma’am,” the man replied. He had a strange accent. It was foreign but nothing quite like anything Jamie had ever heard before. “I’m looking for the owner . . . a Ms. Placer, I believe.” He walked into the house. “I have only recently become aware of a certain purchase she made. It concerns an item I had thought long since lost or destroyed . . . an item I would now like returned.”
“I don’t . . . don’t know what you’re talking about,” Janie said. Her eyes crept toward the telephone. She had to call the police. This man might know where Amanda was.
The stranger approached closer. Closer. His eyes . . . his eyes were so deep.
“Yes,” he said. “I see that you don’t.” He stopped and spread his hands wide in front of him. “Please, do not be alarmed. You are in no danger from me. I am among the kindest and gentlest of men.”
Yes, he is among the kindest of gentlest of men, Janie saw. She stood there, unmoving.
The well-dressed gentleman passed her, giving Amanda’s doll collection a brief glance. He walked into Amanda’s bedroom and saw Gisele immediately. He picked the doll up with easily apparent reverence.
“Ah, my dear,” he said to her. “It has been such a very long time. I had despaired of never finding you again.” He fingered one of the doll’s hands. It was the one where her brass tag had been affixed.
“And now that I have found you, finding your owner will be much, much easier.”
He left. Janie woke up about fifteen minutes later wondering why she was in Amanda’s empty house. She wasn’t sure how she had arrived there.
She closed her mind around the answers and didn’t think about her friend
again until the next swap meet almost three months later.
The motorcycle gang put their young platinum blonde to work as a stripper.
She was fantastic at it. She danced around the stage and strutted her stuff like she had been born for the job. She was eager to please. The girl was desperate to please, actually, and the cyclists enjoyed that attitude almost as much as she enjoyed them.
Things were going fine until the man in the expensive suit showed up one day asking about her. He came in and very politely requested that she be allowed to accompany him. No one in the whole sleazy bar tried to bother him, which some of the regulars thought long and hard about later on. Maybe it was the guy’s chauffeur, they said, a man who looked as big and strong as he was pale. Others said it was just the stranger’s eyes, which no one in the bar could bear to meet with their own.
Whatever it was, the man was left alone.
He examined the girl in the backroom. She stood before him wearing only a tight g-string. Her hair was metallic and shiny, curled delicately around a small graceful head. Her skin was porcelain fine, and her figure was perfect in every way.
Down to the last specification, too, the gentleman saw.
“Do you remember who you are?” he asked her. “Who I am? You should by now.”
The living doll nodded.
“Yes, Doctor,” she said in lightly accented French. “My name is Gisele, and you are the Spokesman.” She curtsied, and he bowed his head slightly in return. He took off his long coat and wrapped it around her.
“Ars est celare artem,” he said. “True art conceals the means by which it is achieved. And to whom do you belong, dear?”
“Le Cirque de Artificiel.” She was so happy, so very, very happy. She had been recovered, found after so many years of loneliness.
The man led the lifesize doll through the bar and out to his waiting car. As they were driven off by his pale chauffeur, the Spokesman took Gisele’s hand and gently latched around her wrist the brass tag he had found in Amanda’s house. Now she was complete.
“What you purchase is who you are,” he said meditatively. “Don’t you agree, my dear?”
Gisele nodded attentively.
And she smiled.