Plastica spread the papers over the carpeted floor of her condo. They controlled the formation of a new company for which she would be the chief owner, stockholder, and CEO. She had already sent calls out to prominant members of LA's criminal underground for henchmen and women.
Plastic Fantastic, she decided. That would be its name.
Now all she had to do was acquire some raw material...
Lori took her seat at the gleaming black table around which the members of Team Paragon gave their weekly reports. They worked independently at times, as they did now, requiring Cinnabar to keep track of their progress. She had found Microsoft Scheduler most helpful.
Lori sipped hot cocoa as the other members filed in. They met in the "empty" loft next door to Cinnabar's and Lori's own, which served as the team's headquarters. Thick, steel-reinforced walls made it nearly impenetrable. It had to be, as it housed scientific equipment, vehicles, records, and the teams' increasingly sophisticated surveillance and computer equipment. It hadn't been breached yet, thank God. But then, most criminals wouldn't be so bold. They, along with superheroes, operated in the gray area between the mundane world of law and order and the fantastic realm of science fiction and fantasy. A code of mutual silence between the two ensured only the tamer ocurrences ever made the press, and only the National Enquirer, if at that.
Blue Cymbidium--real name Noelani Walker--took her seat first. She was the most beautiful woman Lori had ever seen: half-black, half Hawaiian, with honey-tan skin and long black hair. Her petite build belied her martial arts skills, and she was also an accomplished markswoman. She still wore her superhero costume, which told Lori she'd come in off the job. She greeted everyone with a cheerful hello and took her seat at the gleaming oval table.
Next in was White Rose, who'd come from the gym. Physically, she was the weakest member of Team Paragon and had been trying to build her strength and muscle mass all summer. Allison didn't really need to, as her telepathic and telekinetic powers--as well as the aid of her magical winged lion, Nemiah--more than made up for it. But she considered it a challenge to prove herself as strong as the others. She took a swig from her squeeze bottle, taking a seat to Lori's left.
Last in was Chrystar. Gina was a former dancer before becoming a makeup artist and had come directly from the set. She wore comfortable clothes for working, jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and plunked her kit down on the table in front of her. "I've got to run after this meeting, kids," she announced. "Mr. Schwartzenegger is still half an android!" This brought howls of laughter from everyone around the table.
Lori caught Cinnabar's eye. The meeting was due to begin fifteen minutes ago, yet Shana was still missing. Only she and Lori knew the superheroine hadn't called in.
"Let's begin shall we?" Cinnabar said briskly.
The senior crimefighter gave her overview for the week, using an overhead projector to go over schedules and show maps and other graphics. Since the team had stopped the French terrorists two months ago (working in conjunction with a French superhero known as Mirage) things had been quiet, both in LA and around the world. The team used breathers like this to "help clean up our own backyards," according to Cinnabar, which meant foiling petty robberies, negotiating disputes, and preventing natural disasters. After the overview each member gave reports of her own individual activities.
White Rose had saved some campers from a mudslide in the mountains and gone back to shore up the cliff so it wouldn't endanger others. Blue Cymbidium continued her work with LA gangs, foiling several drive-bys and helping some members to redirect their lives. Chrystar had been too busy with her latest movie to do anything, though she lent her muscle power to Blue Cee (as they called her) once or twice. Lori--as Arctica--had foiled several robberies on the docks down by Long Beach, where a criminal gang was obviously operating. She'd wanted to investigate further, but was hampered because of her class schedule.
Can you help her, Ali?" Cinnabar said.
"Sure," White Rose said. "Let's get together after the meeting, OK?"
Cinnabar ended the meeting with news of some trouble ahead. A trio of female asassins known as the Bird of Paradise--Phoenix, Nightbird, and Swan Song--had been reported on the West Coast. ALOSH--the American League of Superheroes-- suspected they might seek employment in the California movie industry to gain them contacts to infiltrate mundane society and take out their targets. She flashed their pictures on the screen. "All of you, keep your eyes peeled," she said.
Then they tore into the pizzas Lori ordered delivered earlier.
Lori pulled Cinnabar aside as she gathered up her papers. "Sorry, Cinn, but I have to talk to you in private," she whispered.
"What is it?" the older crimefighter said. Blue Cymbidium was exotic, but Cinnabar was no less stunning. She had long, curly Pre-Raphaelite hair, red-brown as a fox's hide, and steel-blue eyes. Her gaze were commanding and direct. She was the most experienced of the team, with over twelve years in the business, and the stress showed itself in small lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
Lori glanced back at the others, who were cracking jokes about their work. "I went to Sexateria today."
"That?" Cinnabar said with a surprised laugh. "There's nothing wrong with a little healthy exploration. After all you're twenty two."
"No," Lori said fiercely. "I went into the clothing department and there was a mannequin there...I swear it looked like Shana. *Was* Shana, it was that real."
Cinnabar stiffened. She knew firsthand the strange predicaments that befell costumed crimefighters. "Are you sure?"
"I didn't get to look at the face for long. But...it was so real, Cinn. And the expression so...so trapped. I don't know." She ran her hand through her ash-blonde hair. "Maybe it was only a mannequin. They're doing such advanced things today with casting and modeling, new types of plastics. It could have been my imagination working overtime."
"Your concerns are legitimate," Cinnabar whispered. "We'll check it out tomorrow, okay? When the others have left we'll check up on her apartment too. She may have left some computer files; she may have been on to something. But let's hope she wasn't, that she's there in bed with some man or watching TV."
Lori nodded. Cinnabar's hand squeezed her shoulder.
They arrived at Shana's Van Nuys apartment around midnight. The lights were off. Cinnabar used her extra key to gain access; she kept duplicates for all the members of Team Paragon. Inside, it was clear the superheroine had not been been there for a few days. Plants were wilting and her cat starving, meowing and wrapping himself around their ankles. Lori fed him some crunchies in a bowl while Cinnabar did a once-over of the apartment, looking for signs of fowl play. She encouraged her teamates to keep records of phone calls and hunches so they could be traced if things went wrong, but Lori knew the advice was often impossible to follow in the heat of the chase. Shana hadn't liked it. "What if someone breaks in, and uses it to trace *us?*" she'd said. Cinnabar couldn't argue with that.
Lori looked over the papers on Shana's desk: a catalog for Sexateria and a stockholder's report, plus computer printouts of press releases. She leafed through the report. One name and face had been circled: Paula Jean Estes: Vice President of Merchandising. She was stylish but not too flashy, in her mid-thirties maybe, with a perky smile and light brown hair she wore in a Hillary Clinton sweep. Modest pearl earrings flashed from her earlobes.
"Nothing," Cinnabar said, coming back to her. "Whatever happened to Shana, it didn't happen here."
"Look at this." Lori showed her the circled picture. "There has to be a connection."
"Hmm." Cinnabar said. "I'd better check her last session." She turned on Shana's computer, using the passwords she had memorized. All team members were computerised, with network links back to the loft and the West Coast ALOSH headquarters. In addition, they all had a program that traced computer activity--a snapshot of every session in effect--so the lines of their research and reasoning could be traced.
Lori watched as Cinnabar keyed into the program, tracing the session that Shana must have had. "Uh-oh," she said. "Looks like Plastica's back."
"Oh no," Lori said.
"Yeah, we thought we joined the great hereafter when that oil rig went kablooie last year. But apparantly not. These records say she slipped back into the country six months ago under her old name, Dr. Polly Mehr." She pointed at the screen. "And that name, through several phony trusts, bought the Bondmadchen mannequin factory three weeks ago." She narrowed her eyes at Paula Jean Estes' sweetly dimpled face. "Hmmm...I wonder if those two are connected somehow?"
"She may even *be* Paula Jean Estes. She's a master of disguise, remember?" Lori said darkly.
"I put that beyond Plastica's talents," Cinnabar said. "She's simply too tacky to imitate an executive. Still, it wouldn't hurt to investigate...if you're up to it."
"Hell, I'm up to it!" Lori said. "Anything to find out what happened to Shana."
"The day after tomorrow, then. After all, you have your classes."
Aubrey Cantrell squinted at the address in her hand. 67900 La Cienega. Not the most auspicious location for a modeling agency. Yet there it was: Plastic Fantastic. What an odd name.
She hoisted her portfolio onto her shoulder and crossed the busy street. The agency said to take a cab or the bus, which was ridiculous, as there looked to be plenty of parking space around. But any hoops they wanted her to jump, hey, she'd jump them. It was hard enough to get a break in this business.
She'd arrived in town only three months, supporting herself with waitressing and piecemeal modeling jobs while waiting for her big break. The big agencies didn't want her, so she'd had to settle for smaller gigs like this one. She'd immediately glommed on to the ad in Variety: BEGINNERS WELCOME. The agency asked for a head shot, a full-body lingerie or bathing suit shot, and a brief personal history. That was odd, but this LA. Maybe they had an astrologer on staff or something.
They also wanted the material Fed-Expressed. A big bite out of her budget, but, as the ad said, they needed models immediately. It must have been true, because within hours she'd gotten the call.
She walked in and announced herself to the receptionist. "Hi, I'm Aubrey Cantrell. I'm here for my test shoot."
"Oh yes," the receptionist said, leafing through an appointment book. She was a very pretty young black woman with full lips and long, soft woolly hair that looked like a llama pelt. "Why don't you have a seat. We've been shooting girls all day and we're running a little late. There's coffee and tea on the table if you're interested."
"Thank you," Aubrey said. She always tried to be polite, though it was likely a mere receptionist couldn't influence the agency director's decision. The other would-be models regarded her with frosty glances. Lori was used to it. She called it the LA glower, for if she was picked, there would be one less slot for the rest of them. The more experienced ones, who were used to waiting in places like this, simply looked indifferent.
Aubrey poured herself a cup of coffee and took her seat. There were a lot of beautiful women here. Blondes, brunettes, blacks and Hispanics, even a breathtaking Chinese girl. She saw the Kate Moss look repeated ad infinitum, a few vampish Louise Brooks types, and a Tyra Banks imitator. She herself was a little of a throwback, a Cindy Crawford girl--city sophisitication with down-home charm, as an agent once tried to describe her.
She crossed her long legs and swept back her long honey-blonde hair--emboldened lately with lighter eighty-dollar streaks--and waited. The Chinese girl went in and came out, then a suave-looking girl with short black hair, then it was her turn.
"Hi, I'm Iza, Ms. Nyll's assistant," said a short, bouncy girl with frizzy dark hair, dressed as bizarrely as a modeling agency's assistant could in Los Angeles. "Come with me."
Portfolio nervously clutched in one hand, Aubrey followed the girl through a short hall into a large studio complete with lights and camera equipment. She noticed another studio through an ajar door, but this an assistant closed before her eyes could linger. Iza quickly directed her into the empty one. "This is Aubrey Cantrell," she said, introducing Aubrey to a tall woman who sat in a folding metal chair.
"How do you do," the woman said, rising to shake Aubrey's hand. "I'm Vi--Vivian--Nyll."
Aubrey tried to smile warmly, but the woman's grip disoriented her. It was too strong for her build and seemed...plastic, somehow, the skin too smooth and evenly textured. Vi Nyll was a looker though. She could be a supermodel herself, tall and slim with slender hips, long shapely legs, and a perfectly proportioned oval shaped face with high sheekbones and soft, full lips. She wore an expensive silk suit with very high heels and had short chin length hair so red it was almost magenta. "As you know, Aubrey, we're putting a catalog at the very last minute for a new sportswear company and time is of the essence, so I apologize for this rather rushed interview and photoshoot. You've brought your portfolio?" Aubrey nodded. "Great. Let's go through the pictures."
They sat down at a folding table and more metal chairs so Vi and her assistant could look while the photographer fooled around with his lights and cameras. The book contained all the evidence of Aubrey's career up to that point in time. She watched nervously as Vi quickly flipped it through. They didn't seem to be looking at it, but every once in a while Vi would make some comment or point her finger saying, "Yes, that," and her assistant would agree. There seemed to be no pattern to what they found pleasing.
As they flipped Vi spoke with her in a warm, convivial tone that had a trace of a southern accent. "You say you live alone in LA, right?"
"No boyfriend? Close friends?"
Aubrey swallowed. "Well, I'm new in town..."
"Do you have another job?"
"No, just temp ones. I ended the last one two days ago."
Vi closed the portfolio and looked up at her. "You've got a wonderful portfolio, Aubrey, and experience besides. I'd like to get some shots of you now, prelims, to get an idea of how you pose. Your street clothes will be fine."
Aubrey suspected they'd ask her to pose, so she had fussed for hours over her hair and makeup, finally deciding on a hip downtown look: short skirt, zip-up jacket, tall black boots. She stood awkwardly in front of a roll of white paper. "Hi, I'm Tiger," the young, obviously gay, photographer told her. "Just relax now. I'm going to shoot a few rolls." He adjusted the lights, and began to shoot, telling her what poses to take in the model-ese she was used to.
Posing was still a novelty as she was so new to the field, but she was not so new that she didn't know what to do: not routine, only practiced. So she sat on the little stool he provided, stalked, strutted, swept her hair up in her arms, bent, arched, jumped. Vi and Iza watched her like wolves. There was something weird about their intensity. Aubrey almost felt she wasn't a human being to them; more like a consumer commodity, like a new car. But she'd grown used to that look.
After five minutes Vi called a halt. "You pose well, Aubrey. Now we'd like to see you in a swimsuit shot. What size do you wear?"
Aubrey smiled, ecstatic at the hurdles she'd passed so far. "Seven bottom and top."
"Here you go," Iza said, handing her a new white bikini still wrapped in a plastic envelope. "Follow me to the shower."
"I have to shower?" Aubrey said. Neither the ad or the call had mentioned this.
"Er, yes. There's a lot of swimwear in this catalog, and the company wants wet shots for them. We'd like you to shower nude, using the soap and shampoo we've provided--it'll give a gloss to your skin and hair that'll make you look your best for the camera."
"Oh, okay." Iza led her though a dark back hall into a small, rather cramped bathroom with a large shower. It had floor-to-ceiling doors of thick glass and a sophisticated nozzle arrangement. Funny, she thought. It looked too high-tech for this low-rent place, which obviously hadn't been at this address for long. On a shelf inside the shower were a plain bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap.
"Use as much of that as you need," Iza said. "The more, the better! You want to look good, don't you?"
"Yes, " Aubrey said.
"Good. Take your time." She closed the door.
Aubrey looked around at the sterile white tiles, her heart beating in strange tattoo. Silly, she thought. It's only a bathroom. She undressed and hung her purse and clothing on the hangers provided, then squirmed out of her bra and panties. She felt herself smile as she looked in the mirror. She looked good. Daily trips to the gym, not an ounce of fat anywhere, judicious sessions in a tanning booth to bring out a healthy glow. She cupped her breasts, enjoying their firmness, then stepped into the shower. The doors latched shut behind her. She turned on the spray, adjusting its temperature and angle.
She wet herself all over, slicking back her hair; her carefully crafted face and hairstyle going down the drain. Well no matter. They had served her well. She took up the bar of soap. It had a fresh, pleasant smell with an undertone she couldn't identify. Musk? Roses? She ran the bar over her body, working up a dense, delicious lather. It felt good being coated like this. Her flesh felt smooth and slick under her palms and probing fingers, and her skin began to tingle delightfully. The fresh scent filled her nostrils. Yes, she was going to get this job. She could feel it.
She took up the bottle of shampoo and began to soap her hair. Again, the smell was wonderful. She closed her eyes, letting the suds run down her face. An overwhelming sensual languor overtook her. Her limbs felt heavy, her muscles luxuriously slack. It should have alarmed her, but it didn't; she wanted only to enjoy it. Leaving the suds in her hair, her hands moved to her nipples, pinching and pulling through the thick layer of soap. She ran her hands over her torso, delighting in the feel of it, and pressed her fingers into her pussy. She clenched her hand between her thighs, moaning softly in her throat. Her clit nudged her fingers and she began to pet it, rubbing in smooth circular motions. She forgot about the swimsuit and photoshoot, forgot about soaping herself. There was only her pleasure.
The warm spray continued to pelt down on her, washing away the foam on her body and scalp. The smell grew less overpowering. With it came another strange sensation. Instead of a layer of slick, heavy hair, the spray was needling on her bare scalp! Her eyes snapped open in surprise. There, swimming in the water at her feet, were the long strands of blonde hair that formerly graced her scalp. They now performing a graceful spiral down the drain, along with the curly blonde frizz that once framed her pussy.
Her hands flew to her scalp. She was bald! What the hell had that soap done to her? She glanced down at her body. Denuded. Hairless. Smooth as a peeled hard-boiled egg. Everywhere...even her eyebrows and eyelashes.
"Fuck!" she swore. It must have been a freak chemical reaction. She grabbed the shower door handle. Nothing happened.
She rattled the handle, then shoved her whole weight against the doors. They were locked. She banged with her fists, her feet. "Hey! Let me out of here! I'm stuck!" She tried turning the tap off to see if that did the trick, but the controls wouldn't budge. The warm water continued to wash over her in ever-increasing intensity, now sounding like a monsoon inside the glass-walled square.
"Help! I'm trapped in here! Somebody come, please hurry--" Her words trailed off as more of that mysterious scent drifted in. Trapped, she couldn't help breathing it in. Oh, it was delicious. She forgot about her panic. On the second whiff, she ran her heads over her breasts, moaning in pleasure.
The water began to form lighter and lighter droplets, finally becoming a fine mist with a warm pinkish tinge. It filled the stall, enveloping Aubrey in a realm of delight. She kneaded her breasts, gasping in sexual enjoyment, then spread her legs and began to rub herself with both hands...forgetting about the loss of her hair, even her name and why she was there. Her orgasm built in an upward glide as slow and perfect as a Santa Barbara sunset, the pink mist swirling into her lungs, into her bloodstream. She even felt it drift up through her sex. It transfixed her, holding her in a frozen state that was almost but not quite orgasmic, a moment so serene and diamond-perfect she stopped her self-pleasure and merely stood with her arms at her sides, legs slightly apart, her head raised to drink it into her nostrils.
Waves of warmth rippled across her skin, creating a pleasant numbing sensation both inside and out. Her limbs went from a dreamy languor to total immobility. She no longer breathed. She no longer blinked. Her skin tightened all over her body with an erotic, electric sensation, then she felt nothing at all. The warm feeling remained, holding her in blissful stasis. Something strange had happened to her, but she wasn't alarmed. She didn't feel much of anything beyond a passive acceptance.
The gas dissipated through a fan in the ceiling of the stall. It reversed direction to blow hot air down on her, drying her, then stopped. She stood in the shower, nude, hairless, and powerless to move, regarding the tiles as if she could stare at them forever.
She heard the bathroom door open, but she couldn't turn her head to see. Then the shower door opened.
It was Vi and her assistant. "Oh, lovely!" Iza said. She grabbed Aubrey by the waist and lifted her out as if she weighed no more than a child. "You were right about her. I wasn't so sure."
Aubrey caught a glimpse of herself as she passed before the mirror. Her facial features remained frozen in a sensual half-smile, and her skin was hard and smooth, the warm flesh color completely even in tone. No pores or pimples marred its glossy surface. Her breasts didn't jiggle as Iza set her down. They remained firm and rigid, the nipples hard and erect. Almost as if she was...
As if she was...
As if she was a mannequin.
Vi grasped her arm and bent it from the elbow, bringing her hand up to her shoulder, then bent it back down. "She's flexible. Good."
"Screamed a lot, though."
"That's why we got soundproof glass. It might be a better idea to administer the gas through the showerhead in the future, not through the soap."
"Did you see how she was getting off?" Iza said with a nasty laugh. "What a slut. Did you get it on tape?"
"Uh-huh," Vi said. She took out a magic magic market and wrote something on the top of Aubrey's shiny plastic skull. "W-BL03-F1-006. Remember it Iza. That's her serial number."
"Gotcha," Iza said, recording the information in her notebook. "Aubrey Cantrell, now W-BL03-F1-006."
"Neat!" The black receptionist said, poking her head in the door. "I knew she'd make a good one." She held out her smooth pink palm; Iza high-fived it. "Sarah Jackson is waiting in Studio Two for her shoot, and there's about ten more girls after her."
"The one from Chicago?"
"Uh-huh. Dolly time!" She laughed.
"I've got to run," Vi said. "Order me some take-out, will you? It looks like we'll be here all day." She gave Aubrey a last glance, making sure everything was perfect. "Take her to the truck, load her. Then clean this place up. Get rid of those clothes, and especially that purse, in the incinerator. Oh--and that stupid portfolio too." She scooped up the unused bikini, still in the plastic wrapper, as she and Iza left.
She has another appointment, Aubrey thought in amazement. Another victim, she amended. A girl like herself, a model or actress, who would leave as a mannequin.
As she was.
She wanted to scream, but her jaws remained caught in the same stupid, sensual smile. She didn't have the energy anyway. She felt so warm, so solid and rigid and suspended. She felt her mind drift. My name is Aubrey Cantrell...I live in a...house? An apartment? I drive a...a...she could no longer remember. It was so much easier not to think, to absorb things in little bits and pieces.
The black girl grinned at her. "Come this way honey. Oh, are you going to like your new life." She placed Aubrey on a two-wheeled cart, tipping her back so she stared at the light fixtures. Her arms remained stiffly at her sides. "You're going to Sexateria, where you'll be modelling all the latest lingerie and fetishwear. Rubber dresses, leather harnesses, nighties...you name it." Aubrey couldn't move her eyes; she could only watch the ceiling as she was wheeled away, the black girl's voice a soothing purr. She was a mannequin. No longer Aubrey Can...whatever it was. Only a mannequin.
The girl took her into a large van where eight other mannequins had been secured in metal racks. They stood in the same position she did: bald, shiny heads staring ahead, arms down, legs slightly parted. Every crevice and curve, even their sexual organs, had been rendered in perfect detail. Plastic...and perfect. As she would be, for eternity. She'd always wanted to be a model. Now she was.
The black girl slid her into position at the end of the rack, securing her with webbed plastic straps she wouldn't jostle while in transit. Then she patted Aubrey's cheek and left her there.
Aubrey waited with wide blank eyes. Twenty minutes later another mannequin came to join her, the caramel-colored Tyra Banks clone, shutting off her view of the rest.
On to Chapter 4: Team Paragon Moves Out
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