Lori and Cinnabar walked grimly through the Sexteria doors as soon as they opened, waited for their carding, and pushed ahead through the the crowds. Cinnabar glanced casually round her, not as an eager shopper but as a seasoned crimefighter: checking faces, postures, and routes of escape, even though it was likely nothing would happen to them in a crowded department store. "Always assume you're observed by hidden enemies," was how she put it to Lori.
They did attract a lot of attention, but only because they were two beautiful women. Lori saw nothing but customers and salespeople, but she knew that any of them might recognize her. The women of Team Paragon were very careful to keep their mundane identitites a secret, but it was possible for the dogged to discover them, just as they had discovered Plastica's. She often wondered why it didn't cause more problems than it did. Often there seemed to be an unspoken code about superpowers meeting outside of costume.
"Where did you see Shana?" Cinnabar whispered.
"Upstairs," Lori said. They took the escalator to the second floor. "There, at the dungeon entrance" she whispered.
Cinnabar gave a surprised grunt. Unflappable as she was, even she was capable of surprise sometimes. The mannequin was a startling sight in its bondage gear, arms and legs outstretched. A leather hood still hid its face. Perhaps it was the nature of the clothes, but it didn't look as real as it had the day before. It looked more like a carnival chamber of horrors prop, tawdry and cheap. Lori walked closer. Could she have been mistaken?
"We're being watched," Cinnabar said casually, as if mentioning the time of day. "Bend down with me, pretend you're interested in the boots."
"Who--" Lori said in a shocked whisper.
"I don't know. It could be plainclothes detectives, criminals, anyone." She crouched, examining the pole and the smooth, flawless skin of the mannequin's legs. "Hmm. This looks like an ordinary mannequin to me, nothing special. Think we can get that hood off without anyone noticing, Arctica?"
"I have a distraction in mind," Lori said, grinning at Cinnabar's use of her superhero name. "Do you mind getting a little wet?"
"Not at all. Think you can take out those watchers, too?"
"Just tell me where they are."
Cinnabar gave a slight glance behind her. "Twelve and three o'clock."
Lori stood, pretending to glance idly across the store. She saw them. They were trying very hard to blend in the with the shoppers, but the way they stood gave themselves away. A chill iced down her spine. Had they been sent to watch over the Shana mannequin to see if her friends turned up? Or were they just store security watching for shoplifters?
She narrowed her eyes. She hadn't been with Team Paragon that long, but knew the look of a seasoned criminal when she saw it. The plainly-dressed man and woman flipping through the racks were store detectives, nothing more. She directed her glance to the air conditioning vent above their heads, and concentrated using her special power. The cool, barely detectable draft suddenly became a sub-zero windstorm.
She hid a grin as the pair jumped as if goosed, as they only wore lightweight shorts and t-shirts. A few nearby customers jumped too. The pair looked up at the vent, pointing, then went off to fetch maintenance.
"They're gone," Lori whispered. "Now brace yourself..." She turned her attention back to the ceiling, this time concentrating on a water pipe above the dungeon entrance. She froze it at the elbow, creating a blockage, and increased the pressure until it burst over Cinnabar's--and Shana's--heads.
Cinnbar squealed dramatically at the sudden downpour and tumbled on top of the mannequin, making it seem as if she had slipped. As she fell she ripped its mask off. "...Shana!" she gasped.
"It can't be..." Lori said, still wanting to deny it.
The store detectives ran quickly up to them. "Are you hurt miss? Can you get up?"
Cinnabar gave a phony groan and pushed to her knees. "No. Yes. I don't know. Oh, I'm all wet!" Shana had fallen to the carpet, a prisoner of her stand. The shower of water batted her back and forth as she stared up at the ceiling with wide, unblinking eyes. "I'm sorry..." Cinnabar whispered. It could have been meant for Shana. She wrapped herself in her arms to hide the outlines of her breasts, putting on a good show of being dazed and confused as she glanced up at the detectives. "I fell, I didn't mean to..."
"It's all right miss," the male detective said, helping her up. "It's just a pipe that burst."
Cinnabar reached up to flick her hair back, coincidently sending a line of heat to melt the ice plug Lori had created. The woman detective called for maintenance on her cell phone, shoving the mannequinized Shana away from the water with her foot. Lori winced. The water had drenched her as well and she started to shiver. Not from the temperature change--after all, she *was* Arctica--but from the confirmation of her teammate's fate.
"Come this way," the male detective said, beginning to lead them. "We'll get some towels for you, some dry clothes..."
"Great," Lori groaned, looking at the racks of lingerie and bondage wear. "Will we have to go home wearing that?"
They were only doing their job, but Cinnabar was adamant about leaving immediately. They left after a hail of apologies from the store manager and several hundred dollars in gift certificates. Bribes, Lori guessed, to keep them from sueing. Not that they would, of course...
"You were right," Cinnabar said grimly as they got in the car. "It's either Shana, or a lifelike plastic cast of Shana. In which case, where is the real Shana?"
"We have to get her out of there," Lori insisted.
"Right," Cinnabar said. She reached for her cell phone.
"What do you mean, the building's gone haywire?" Plastica tapped her fingernails against the gleaming white surface in her desk. The motion looked like a two sets of curved cherries dancing in the snow.
"First the air conditioning malfunctioned, then a water pipe burst," the maintenance man said. "It happened over by the dungeon. There's a stain on the carpet and some of the clothes got soaked. One of the mannequins got knocked over."
"Shit," Plastica muttered, cupping her hand over the receiver. Every little disaster that happened in the store meant precious time taken away from her more clandestine work as Vi Nyll. "All right, I'll send some people over. Don't worry about it, honey. I know you're working on it." She disonnected the call with her finger, eyes searching among the many buttons for the VM on duty for that floor.
Before she could make the call the phone rang again. "Hello, Plastica," the soft voice purred.
For a second Plastica felt the bottom drop out of her world. How could someone have found out her real identity? How? Her all-white office turned into a snowstorm as her vision blurred. Then instinct took her over. "Who is this?" she snapped.
"Don't you know me, Plastica?" the voice said in its mellifluous tones. It was an exotic voice, cultured, with traces of an unidentifiable accent. A woman's voice. "This is Kaylashat."
Plastica's hands gripped the edges of her desk. She had only met Kaylashat the Damned once, but it was enough for her. The villainess was as far above her as Paula Jean Estes, VP, was above Sexateria's lowest stock clerk. And she was reputed to be a sorceress, besides. She cleared her throat with a soft cough. "Uh, hiya, Kaylashat. So how are things in Greece?"
"Pleasant, as always." Kaylashat had an alternate identity as a Countess and owned her own island, though her real ethnicity was in fact far more exotic. Plastica had heard rumors she was actually immortal, coming from a time and place far removed from the scale of recorded history...a civilization so ancient it was not even a memory to Babylon and Ur. "I've called to warn you, Plastica, and to ask you a favor."
Plastica felt the blood return to her face. Kaylashat wasn't from the law; she didn't mean to blackmail or destroy her. "I'm listening," she said, trying to keep the shakes out of her voice.
"I know what you did to Xenon."
"How--" Plastica sputtered.
"Come on, my dear, it's *all* over the place," Kaylashat said lightly, as if at a gossip-filled dinner party. "News travels fast. Did you know she had friends? Was a member of Team Paragon?"
"Well she does. I'll forward you my files. There are five of them, and they'll be looking for her. Their leader is Scirocco, real name Cinnabar Steele." Plastica's hand tightened on the receiver as Kaylashat's voice became colder. "I want her."
"What?" Plastica said.
"Call it a vendetta, if you will," Kaylashat said smoothly. "I want her, Plastica, to display in my trophy room, to show the world that Queen Kaylashat the Damned accepts no defeat from any mortal woman, anywhere, anytime. I've heard about your transformation talent. That is what I want from you. Do that, and I may have...other...jobs for you in the future."
Plastica's head was still reeling from all the news. Her priorities for the day had changed rapidly. She could finally joing the league of the power grrrls! "Yes," she said with conviction. "You'll have her, Countess. A plastic prize to grace your villa." She smiled wickedly as the ideas began to come.
Kaylashat gave a low, lazy laugh. "I should hope so. I'm counting on you, Plastica. Don't mess up this time. The files will be on your computer at home, even as we speak. Chow, darling." The line clicked dead.
Plastica stared at the walls of her office, breathing hard. But she knew what she had to do. She punched in her VM's number. "Charlie? This is Paula. Oh, nothing to worry about, honey. You know that mannequin by the dungeon? The one in the leather gear? Well, take it off the floor and bring it to the loading dock. It's going back to the warehouse. Yeah, I know it's not damaged, only a little wet, but that's what's been decided. I'll send in another one to take its place. No, do it *now.* Don't worry about the rest of the dungeon, it's not important. Got it? Bye."
She made a few more calls to cover her absence for the rest of the day, then hurried to the dock.
"Oh yesss..." A warm exhalation of breath, a sigh.
Gina shifted position, opening her eyes. Below her, on the bed, was her second most favorite thing in the world: the broad, tanned chest of Jayce, her cop boyfriend, with its well-defined chest and eminently kissable nipples. His head was turned to the side, his mouth stretched in a growl of passion. Currently inside her was her number one most favorite thing in the world, and she rode it up and down like a cowgirl on a palomino pony. His thick fingers thumbed her nipples, sending surges of passion through her lower body.
"Oh, god..." she groaned.
"Fuck...baby...oh yeah..." His bedroom vocabulary wasn't the wittiest in the world. But neither was hers.
She pumped herself harder, enjoying the slippery feel of his cock as it pistoned in and out. Her skin began to tingle. "I'm...I'm..." she gasped. "Oh oh oh..."
Her beeper went off, distracting her. Please, let it be a mistake, she thought. Let it be the dryer switching off or something. Please, not now, when she was so close...
Jayce groaned loudly as he came inside her, with the same sweaty, triumphant expression she'd seen on soccer players kicking home a goal. The big lug. She wanted to kiss the sweat off his forehead like she always did, but that would have to wait. She quickly rolled off him to grab her beeper, checking the number. Cinnabar's.
"Can I use your phone?"
"The phone? Oh, yeah," he said, still panting. "What is it?"
"It's the studio," she lied. She quickly punched in the number for HQ as Jayce nuzzled her hip, kissing it. "Gina here," she said.
"Chrystar, where were you all day?" Cinnabar said sharply, using her Team name. "Report back to HQ immediately for an all-hands meeting. It's about Xenon. She's in danger."
"All right." She hung up the phone, guiltily noting it was 11 pm. She gently pushed Jayce's head away. "Sorry, Jayce, but I've got to go."
"Can't you put them off?"
"I told you I was on call tonight." She began to dress, sliding on a pair of pink satin panties. Her body still smoldered with sexual tension. Without release, she was going to have a *very* hard time of it tonight, and she couldn't help feeling the tiniest bit resentful even though her teamate was in danger. She couldn't get together with Jayce as often as she wanted because of their schedules, and when they did, emergencies on his part or hers often cut their dates short. Like tonight.
"I've got Friday night free," Jayce said hopefully. He was still hard, The pale rectangle of skin over his hips contrasted nicely with the bronzy tone of the rest of his body, which in turn contrasted nicely with the hair on his head, which was surfer-boy gold. Her palomino cop.
"We'll see." She couldn't make promises; both her careers had a habit of interfering. It was every superheroine's dillemna. The only solution was to date another superhero, who understood the risks the lifestyle involved...like Cinnabar's relationship with Shuriken. But even that carried problems of its own: competition, jealousies over one's work partners, and the constant fear for your lover's safety. Gina knew it wouldn't work for her. Jayce didn't know she was Chrystar, and never would. But being he was a cop, they had more in common than he realized. "I'll give you a call, okay?" She kissed him softly on the mouth.
"Come back soon. I get lonely!"
She grinned at that; it was what he always said. But she couldn't let it slow her down. She grabbed her jacket and quickly ran down the drive of his condo to her car.
As she drove past palm trees and limousines she reflected on what Cinnabar had told her. She wasn't surprised. Xenon's absence at the last meeting had been too unusual; she was the punctual type. She had a penchant for strange men, as well...
She slammed on the Civic's brakes, nearly hitting a Porsche in front of her. What was it Jayce had told her? LAPD had received reports of over a dozen young women, models and actresses, who'd gone missing the day before. "It was like they'd disappeared off the face of the earth," Jayce had said. "We didn't even find their cars." He went on to tell her several of the women had appointments at a new modeling agency on La Cienega. But when detectives had gone there the office was empty, though the owners of the deli across the street said people had been going in and out the day before. The name of the agency had been Plastic Fantastic. It had no business license, no phone numbers, no listings in the usual guides...though phony checks had been printed up, one of which was given to the deli's owner.
She frowned. Could they be connected somehow? Had Xenon been on to something?
She parked her car and went up to Cinnabar's loft, then through the secret door that took her into HQ. The others were already there. "Sorry I'm late," she said. "I was...occupied."
"Sit down, Gina," Cinnabar said crisply. "I have some bad news. Xenon is in trouble. She was investigating a connection between Plastica--yes, Dr. Polly Mehr is alive and well, and back in LA--and the Sexateria chain of adult novelty stores when she disappeared. When Lori and I went to Sexateria this morning--" Gina noted Lori's blush--"we saw a mannequin that looked remarkably like her. Knowing Plastica's talents, it could have even *been* her. Xenon had a copy of the Sexateria stockholder's report in her apartment, with the picture of Paula Jean Estes--the vice president of Merchandising--circled in red ink. I feel the two are connected, or are working together somehow. It's imperative that we get into that store tonight after it closes."
Gina cleared her throat. "I was, um, with Jayce today, and he had an unusual story to tell me." She told them about the disappearences.
"I see," Cinnabar said. Gina thought she had paled a little. "That's very interesting. Xenon had also discovered Plastica bought the old Bondmachen mannequin factory out in Long Beach."
Silence wrapped the room as they all came to the same conclusion. Finally Allison spoke up. "Do you think Xenon found Plastica out? And...got turned into plastic for it?" She swallowed hard. Gina still couldn't believe it herself. Plastica should have been dead after the explosion two years ago.
"I'm not sure," Cinnabar said carefully. "It could have been a replica, in which case the real Xenon may be still alive somewhere. Team, that is why we have to move out tonight, while the store is closed. I think this case is far, far bigger than what it seems."
"I agree," Lori said, and the motion traveled round the table, each superheroine giving her assent.
Gina felt an electric thrill roll through her body, a sensation more intense than the most passionate orgasm. Jayce had told her he felt the same way when he stalked the coke dealer or felon through a darkened building, only the gun in hand to equal the odds. After six months of inactivity Team Paragon was on the move again, and this time they were up against something that would test their skills to the limit. She would rather it wasn't at Xenon's expense, but that was what made her a good crimefighter: the challenge of the hunt, the scent of fresh game.
She had no doubt Plastica felt the same way.
Standing, they raised their right arms, joining them in circle above their heads. "Team Paragon--Unite!"
The transformation was instantaneous, wrapping them in cocoons of sparkling light, making them over into their crimefighting identities: Allison to White Rose in her skin-tight unitard with the rose cutout over her chest, Nemiah the snow lion growling softly by her side; Noelani to Blue Cymbidium, darkly exotic in a short clinging dress formed of glittering flower petals; Lori to Arctica, her blue and silver bodysuit gleaming with a thousand tiny crystals. Gina knew she looked no less spectacular. The transformation altered her molecular structure so she was now as hard and strong as crystal, and as transparant.
And finally Cinnabar, her long red hair a curly mane, her blue-gray bodysuit gleaming: Scirocco. "Desert storm! Wind of Vengeance!" she cried, and Sabreglass appeared in her hand, all four feet of it, snapping with lightning and looking very, very sharp.
The team members lowered their hands, now bare, gloved, frosted, clear and gauntleted--and stood. "Team Paragon, away!"
Acrtica flew out the window within her own miniature icestorm, followed by White Rose on her winged lion. Scirocco lifted her sword so it could carry her after them. That left Chrystar and Blue Cymbidium, the only non-aerial members of the the group, to follow on their sky-cycles, which were more than adequate enough to keep up with the rest. Chrystar gunned the engine as she zipped through the night, taking her place in formation with the others. Traffic crawled beneath them in ribbons of white and red, winding like snakes around the LA hills. The houses of the rich dotted their flanks. Chrystar wondered just how many people in the valley knew about the criminal activities that went on above.
They landed on the roof of the Wilshire store with a soft thump, assembling themselves behind a ventilation shed for cover. It was one a.m. Five pairs of eyes--and various other senses--probed the roof, but they were alone. If the store was a criminal hideout, it wasn't guarded by human beings.
"You all know what to do," Scirocco said in a low voice. "White Rose, get the door open. Then Chrystar will go in and find the security room to disable the cameras. If you see any security guards, let us know so White Rose can erase their memories. I don't want anyone hurt. In the meantime, the rest of us will rennoiter the roof. Ready?"
Everyone nodded. White Rose went over to the rooftop door and listened at it carefully. She placed her hands upon it, palms flat, and closed her eyes. Chrystar couldn't see it, but she was projecting a force field to open the lock. Her facial muscles turned taut with strain as she concentrated. Simple as it was, the delicate operation took a lot out of her because she couldn't see inside the lock she was forcing. But they couldn't just smash open the door, for that would give cause for suspicion come the morning.
Once it was open Chrystar slipped inside, adjusting her moleular structure to full transparency so she was nearly invisible. She still cast a slight shadow, but in the dim afterhours lighting of the store it wouldn't be noticeable; nor would it be seen on a small, fuzzy video screen.
She pattered down the steps, keeping her tread light, and pushed open the door that led to the store. Well, well, well. She had come in through the bondage department, and the mannequins posed in torture devices--some with bare rumps in the air for other mannequins to smack with leather paddles--would have brought a blush to her face if she hadn't been made of crystal. She tiptoed around the domination fantasies. They creeped her out knowing what she did about Plastica's mannequin factory. The perfect bodies seemed to struggle in their chains at the corners of her vision, and more than once she jumped, heart thumping, at a moan or whimper that wasn't really there.
A blue-white glow from from the other side of the store told her where the camera room was. The door has one of those magnetic slipkey things--damn! But there was a window, and there was someone inside. A single security guard, fat and old, eating a Subway sandwich and reading a magazine.
Chrystar was stymied. She couldn't get inside; therefore he would have to come out. She tapped lightly on the window, hiding beneath the ledge. As she hoped he went to the door, gun drawn, and heaved it open, and she struck him on the occipetal ridge with the flat of her diamond-hard palm.
Once inside, she quickly disabled the cameras. "Chrystar here," she said into her communicator. "White Rose, there's a man here you'll have to brainwash. Otherwise, everything's clear. It doesn't look like he has a partner."
"Roger," the telepath said. "We're coming down."
In a few minutes they had gathered in the camera room. Scirocco quickly ripped open a panel and loosened some of the wiring, making it seem that the surveillance outage had been an accident. Xenon would have done a better job, but she wasn't here...as Xenon, that is. Chrystar shuddered when she remembered she could be any one of the hundreds of mannequins in the store.
White Rose knelt by the guard's side and touched her fingers to her head. "There. He'll remember nothing out of the ordinary happened." She looked sharply at Chrystar. "Did you have to do that?"
It was the only way to get in," Chrystar said, spreading her hands.
Scirocco gave a look to the two that said *don't fight.* She'd seen that argument before. "Blue Cee, you search downstairs with Arctica, because you know what to look for. Search the store, loading dock, offices, storage areas; everywhere. Take note of anything you think is unusual. Remember we're also looking for connections to Plastica, modeling agencies, mannequin manufacturers, or anything that indicates someone may have been held here against their will. Chrystar, you and I will search upstairs. We'll regroup on the roof in an hour."
They split up, White Rose going back to roof to keep watch with her lion. Chrystar and Scirocco started casing the floor. "She's in an unusual position," Scirocco said. "Arms and legs outstretched in an X, and attached to a pole on a stand. They dressed her in leather bondage gear." Chrystar swallowed. It was bad enough being a mannequin, but to make Xenon a bondage one...she'd throttle Plastica's skinny windpipe herself, if she ever got a hold of her!
They didn't have to look long. "She's still there by the dungeon," Scirocco said with relief. "Find something to wrap her up with so we can take her back to HQ."
Chrystar gave her a look, which Scircocco couldn't see because of her semi-transparant state. It was just too unbelievable the mannequin in the leather hood and corset had been her teamate; but she knew Plastica was capable of anything. She found a roll of brown paper and wrapped the mannequin carefully, then took it upstairs.
After several hours of more searching they regrouped on the roof. "We found her," Scirrocco said, indicating the large, lumpy package strapped on the back of Chrystar's sky cycle. It was an awkward and fairly demeaning way to go home, but it couldn't be helped; time was of the essence and they had to fly back rather than drive. "Did any of the rest of you find anything interesting?"
"We searched the offices," Blue Cee said. "We found a few things on Paula Jean's desk and took some snaps. The real dirt is probably on the computer, though. We'll have to find a way to hack in."
"Anything in the other offices?"
"Nothing out of the usual. Though what is usual in a place like this, I can't really say..." She gave a nervous laugh, a relief from tension.
They prepared to go after locking the rooftop door again. It was very unlikely anyone would notice the break-in; they'd think the mannequin's disaapearance was the result of store error. "Well, we got what we came for," Scirocco said grimly. Chrystar climbed on her sky-cycle. "Let's head for home...and see about getting Xenon back to normal."
On to Chapter 5: Old Enmities Awaken
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