Anne Summers watched Mr. Saunders fidget with her resume, which was even slighter than she was. The uneasy silence was not doing the little redhead's nerves any good; this was her first interview for a real job in broadcasting and she'd gone into it with a mixture of hope and worry. Anne was dressed simply, in a white blouse, black skirt and hose, with low heels, having decided that the outfit would make a good impression and be comfortable for late July. The stocky manager of radio station WONO had seemed pleased with both her resume and her answers to his questions, but had then fallen silent.
Maybe it was just the weather. The air conditioning was out, which left only a single open window to cool the cluttered office. Anne's green eyes turned towards the window, but the city beyond seemed to be waiting for something, just as she was. A hint of a breeze caressed her cheek, but brought little relief. It felt like the heat was sapping her energy; perhaps Mr. Saunders was affected the same way.
Or was he concerned she wouldn't be able to handle the job? The Weird Hour with Warren Locke wasn't the most well-known radio show on the planet, but it was syndicated across the country. The subject matter - magic, the supernatural and the strange - wasn't something she was familiar with, but it was a job with possibilities.
Saunders abruptly put the papers down and ran his hand through thinning hair. "You're just what the show needs," he said. "You're young, have a great voice - no real experience except the internship, but your college has an excellent program. There's just one thing ...."
"I realize I can't expect to start with much of a salary," said Anne. "But I know I can do a good job on The Weird Hour - I can read up on the topics for each week."
"No, no - that's not it. It's .... well, you see, Warren Locke isn't completely on board with this. I've suggested to him that his show could use a younger co-host ...."
Saunders wants me to be Elvira , thought Anne. And the show's host doesn't want me at all.
"He ah, wasn't that taken with the idea. Warren can be a bit intimidating when he wants to be, really a good guy though." Saunders pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "The thing is, the ratings could be higher. He's got creative control written into his contract, so I can't force him, but I have put some pressure on him and he's finally agreed to talk to my choice - that's you."
A loud hum echoed through the halls as the air conditioner kicked in.
"Thank you, sir!" said Anne.
"Don't thank me until after you've talked with Warren," said Saunders. He walked over the window and closed it. "He really is a great guy though."
A cold wave washed over Anne. The air conditioning system must have been a good one.
"Why, thank you, Saunders," came a resonant voice from the door.
Anne turned to see a tall, dark-haired man, apparently in his late thirties, enter the office. His hair was swept back and worn long - almost down to his shoulders - and he had a mustache and beard around his smiling mouth. His clothing was all in black - shirt, slacks and shoes.
Saunders's grin almost seemed genuine. "Ah, Warren - glad to see you. Let me introduce Anne Summers; she's ... ah, the one I want you to talk to."
Anne rose as the newcomer looked her over. For a moment her eyes were level and she found herself staring straight at his chest. "Mr. Locke." She extended her hand, which he accepted but did not shake.
"Call me Warren." He smiled and their gazes locked. There was something about his eyes - dark, piercing, uncanny. "Yes," he said at length. "I believe we will talk, Anne."
There was a strange sense of ... of meaning in his words, his voice, his eyes that held her motionless. She was only vaguely aware that Warren Locke was still in possession of her hand.
The momentary spell was broken as he turned to face Saunders. "Don't worry - I'm not angry."
The station manager resumed his chair and glanced at the computer on his desk. "Good, good. Well, I really should be getting back to this paperwork. No rest for the wicked. I mean ...."
"Uh, Warren?" said Anne, blushing. "Can I have my hand back?"
He laughed. "Of course - but I'll want all of you in Studio Two. It's not in use right now and should work well for the interview."
Anne flashed him a weak smile. Warren Locke was not what she'd expected; he seemed calm enough, even if Saunders was acting strange. Did Locke have a temper? Perhaps the two men just didn't get along; maybe there was some kind of story. If so, it was probably the sort of thing a newcomer shouldn't ask about, but would hear from the office gossip anyway.
Studio Two was just down the hall. Locke walked past the door to the engineer's booth and into the larger section. A table with four chairs took up the center of studio. Each chair had a set of headphones plugged into a jack in the raised center of the table; in front of one was a set of controls. The only other object in the room was a black and brass steamer trunk in the corner. A glass wall separated this area from the booth.
"Sit down and we'll talk," said Locke. He took the seat with the controls.
Anne slid into the seat across from him. Her hopes rose; maybe this would work out after all.
Locke leaned back in his chair. "Now, as you may know, the The Weird Hour is a weekly one hour program devoted to the supernatural and the unusual - magic, ghosts, cryptozoology and the like. A show usually has one or two guests and there's a call-in segment for each. I'm only interested in the genuine article - no frauds, only the experts I can verify. If I take you on, I won't expect you to do the required research - all your material will be provided."
Anne blushed. "I don't really know much about all this, but I'm more than willing to learn."
"Commendable, but not necessary." He gestured. "Tell me about yourself."
Anne always hated that; what was worth mentioning? "There's really not much to say. Have you seen my resume?"
"Paper." Locke waved his hand. "I want to hear your words."
"Well, I grew up in Danton - that's a town in the mountains. My degree is in broadcast journalism from Arbor University. I worked in the radio station there and interned at WPVC. Some of that was on the air." Anne held up her hands. "But not as much as I'd have liked."
"Hmmm. I should say you're five-two. Good." He leaned forward and made eye contact again.
Anne blinked. "My height? Yes, I ... why, I mean, is that important?"
Locke chuckled. "Just testing - my abilities and your reaction."
"Oh." Weird .... and the way he stares.
"Saunders seems to be impressed with you."
Would Locke hold that against her? "I ...."
"Saunders is an idiot."
"An idiot?" The words popped out of her mouth in shock.
"The only intelligent thing he ever did was sign me." Locke smiled. "What matters now is what I decide. You want the position?"
"Yes, I want the position."
He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out two sheets of paper, unfolded them and passed one to Anne. "This is a sample script; the show doesn't use these much, but I want to hear you read from it."
Anne tore her eyes away from his to glance at the sheet. Except for "One" and "Two," which alternated as line headers, the sheet was filled with complete gibberish. The letters made no sense whatsoever. At least the punctuation was normal. She looked up. "This is ...."
"Utter nonsense? Perhaps - but sometimes what you say is important, other times it's how you say it. Whether it makes sense or not .... in short, I just want to listen to your delivery. Nothing fancy, just read the parts marked 'two' and I'll do the others. It's all written phonetically; if you can do this properly then I'll take you."
Locke didn't bother to look at his sheet. "Alzivar nikros vortim."
Anne cleared her throat quietly. "Alzivar nikros vortimia." The air conditioner was working overtime; she almost wanted a sweater.
"Lodak bothrane ilbas lesp?" Locke raised one eyebrow.
"Bothrane amia lesp!" Her gaze was drawn up to meet Locke's. "Ilbas ne amia lesp!"
Her strength vanished. Anne gasped and let the paper slip from her fingers. A eerie chill drained her energy. Locke's eyes were dark holes in the universe, a trap she couldn't escape.
"I'll have you," said Locke with a quiet smile. With a slow, deliberate motion he crossed his hands behind his head and leaned back, freeing Anne from his gaze.
She stumbled to her feet, staggered towards the door. What was happening to her? It was so hard to move. Should she ask for an ambulance?
"Cold ... feel ... so strange," managed Anne. The door was just past Locke. "Wha ... what's happening?"
"You really should sit down." Locke reached out, took Anne's arm and spun her to him. His arm encircled her waist; her right leg and foot ended up resting on the tabletop as she fell into his lap. "I'll explain."
Explain? Saunders's reaction to Locke suddenly seemed to make more sense.
She was too weak to resist. "You ... did .... this?" Warmth was flowing into her stiffening form - the seductive heat of Locke's body. Anne needed it so much, but she had to get away.
"My contract gives me complete creative control." Locke ran his hand along her leg and she shuddered from some undefined emotion. "Saunders, fool that he is, believes he knows what's best for my show. That's why he wants you here - for sex appeal, no doubt." He patted her knee. "Which you have, no doubt about that."
"B..but ...." Her mouth refused to move any longer.
"Hush for now, little Anne. I know it's not your fault." His finger brushed her lips. The warmth was so delicious. "That fool merely wishes to exert his nonexistent authority - to assure himself that he is in charge."
Anne's green eyes opened fully and fixed themselves in a forward stare as her red-lipped mouth widened into a smile. A prickling sensation started at her toes and began to rise. Her leg and foot were still visible, allowing her to watch as the change began. Her shoes somehow became part of her; the heels lengthened and her foot arched. It was impossible, but Anne's now stiletto-heeled feet looked like they were made of wood! A line appeared around her ankles and deepened into joints that had a place on a doll, not a person - not her! How was this happening?
"But you see - Saunders is useful to me and so I compromise. You join, but in a way that allows me to dictate exactly what you say and when you say it."
Like a wave, the sensation rose up her legs and altered them, too. Her hose melted into her flesh, which acquired the same look of polished wood, stained black to mimic its former appearance. Her knees became jointed like her ankles. Anne could feel her skirt getting shorter, until it was no more than a mini-skirt.
Why hadn't she called for help while she could still talk?
The shock as the prickling hit the top of her legs would have jolted her upright had she been capable of movement. Anne could tell that joints were appearing at her hips as well. Her waist shrank as the sensation continued upwards; she could feel her blouse growing tighter and more low-cut, her breasts rising, becoming hard like the rest of her body. For a moment there was an enormous pressure against her back, which faded and left her feeling hollow.
"Ah, almost done - and quite lovely."
The effect spread to her arms, which became articulated in the same manner as her legs. Her fingers shifted together until they were touching, then joined into a solid piece of exquisitely carved wood. She felt dizzy as the sensation passed her neck. Indentations formed, running from the corner of her mouth to below her chin. As these deepened her mouth dropped open with a quiet click.
Alien needs flashed through mind as her face grew stiff and hard. There was a sense that something was missing, that she was incomplete, empty. She was gripped by a terrible, unknown craving for ... what?
Everything spun left, then right - and then Anne just sat there in Locke's lap, unable to move, unable to speak. She was helpless; an articulated wooden doll with an exaggerated hourglass figure and impossibly jutting breasts.
Locke's hand moved up her back and slipped inside the newly-formed slit in her blouse. When it slid into her, into the hole in her back, it was as if she'd been struck by lightning. Anne was complete, and that both thrilled and frightened her. His hand twitched and her head turned to face him.
"I'm made of wood!" Her mouth moved as the words came unbidden from her mouth.
I didn't say that! He ... he's controlling me like a ventriloquist's dummy!
"As I was saying, I must keep control of my show. It allows me to meet too many individuals with ... unique knowledge to risk being ruined by some meddler, " said Locke. "A co-host is unthinkable - but a character, a mere prop - will be satisfactory. I expect you'll be a lot of fun at parties, too."
You can't do this! I'm a person, not a prop, not some kind of ...
Anne's head swiveled several times in response to the hidden hand that controlled her. "But how did you do this?" asked her voice in a stupid sing-song.
... of doll.
"An excellent question, my dear. I have been studying magic and the supernatural for many years. In that time I have learned a number of things, such as how to transform a grown woman - as you were - into a wooden toy - as you are now." He chuckled. "I think you'll work out quite nicely."
"I have a future as a dummy!"
No! Turn me back - I'll quit, leave ... anything!
Locke's free hand rose, his index finger drew a circle about the hard wooden nub of her right nipple. The result was electric.
Oh! That feels ... I .... no! I shouldn't!
"And not just for your voice." He grinned. "But you see, this way I meet Saunders halfway, as a gentleman should, and also send him a message. I will not tolerate any interference with The Weird Hour." A cold edge crept into his voice. "Have you got that, Saunders?"
Anne's head slowly turned to face the booth. Saunders, his face pale, stood there watching. He nodded slowly.
"He's no dummy!" floated from Anne's open mouth. Somehow being seen like ... like this by the manager was a fresh shock.
It isn't me! she wanted to cry. But speech was impossible - except when Locke chose to play with her. Help me! I don't want to be his dummy!
Saunders fled for the possible safety of his office. Locke's laughter filled the room for some time thereafter.
"I don't get it," said Anne's voice.
"That's because your head is made of wood, my dear," said Locke.
The rosy-cheeked doll slumped as Locke withdrew his hand, stood and tucked her under one arm. A sense of abandonment swept over Anne - she wanted to be freed from this uncanny state and yet also to be taken back. But the only protest she made was the rattling of her wooden limbs as she was carried to the corner.
No! Don't put me away - turn me back! Or .... at least keep me warm ....
Locke held her before him with a hand under each shoulder. "You know, I believe I'll have a glass case built to display you, something portable that will fit in both the station lobby and my home. But now it's time to go into your traveling accommodations." He placed her in the trunk and carefully folded her arms and legs. "Welcome to your career in radio."
It was very dark when he closed the lid.