Plastica glanced up from her technological flotsam long enough to discover which phone was ringing, then grabbed it with her free hand. It was Paula Jean Estes' line, which, by the miracles of modern technology, had been diverted here to the Bondmadchen factory instead of the VP's condo. "Hello?" Plastica said, barely remembering to soften her voice into a sexy southern drawl.
"Paula, it's me," Vicki her chief visuam merchaniser, said. "I got your message when I came in this morning and yes, I did look. That mannequin is gone. I looked all over the store, and it isn't there."
Fools, Plastica thought. She couldn't help grinning,though the implications--that Team Paragon was aware of the connection betweem her, Sexateria, and their missing teammate--were serious ones. They'd broken in somehow last night, though they'd left no trace of it, to rescue their teamate; what a surprise they were going to get. "Well, keep lookin' honey," she said, using her other hand to solder two wires together. "I may be in later in the day. I still got a little of that ole flu bug, cough, cough." She faked a few, with lots of phlegm. "Watch the store for me."
The call finished, she finished her soldering, then snapped the panel shut. She hefted the heavy plasticizing gun onto her shoulder, feeling like a female version of The Terminator. It was good within a range of three yards, shooting a compressed stream of gas that plasticized the victim within seconds. If Team Paragon came snooping around here, she was more than ready for them.
"Hey, watch it with that," Phanxine squealed.
"Relax. You're not model material." Phanxine was very pretty, but too short to make a good mannequin, though Plastica entertained notions of it sometimes. Unlike Iza, Phanxine didn't rate too highly in the brains department. Plastica targetted her through the viewfinder, wondering how well her coffee-and-cream skin would keep its tone once she was plasticized. "Find me some stray dogs, Phanxine. I want to test this baby out."
"What about Plastic Fantastic? We're supposed to set up the new office on Fairfax today."
Shit, Plastica thought. In the hours following Kaylashat's call she'd had to move Xenon to the Bondmadchen warehouse, review the files on Team Paragon, and work on the Plazti (as she decided to call the gun); she'd forgotten completely about the potential mannequins they'd taken such pains to schedule. She eyed Vi Nyll's suit and wig, which she had slung over a chair. She still hadn't finished processing the first batch of Plastic Fantastic mannequins. They were stacked head to crotch in piles ten high at the rear of the factory, waiting for wigs, paint jobs, and buffing. "Thanks for reminding me." She put the Plazti down; she'd have to test it later. "Where's Iza and Tiger?"
"They're already there. Tiger's installing the showers."
Plastica coiled her long electric-blue hair into a bun on the back of her head, keeping it there with pins. She pulled Vi Nyll's wig over her scalp, smoothing it at her hairline with her fingers. "I want you to go ahead too, to keep an eye out for the cops. My source at LAPD told me they might be on to us. Some of those girls were reported missing."
Phanxine left, muttering rebellion. Plastica ground her teeth. That's all I need is insubordination from my staff, she thought. She was already stressed to the limit by simultaneously maintaining the Polly Jean Estes and Vi Nyll masquerades. Now she had to contend with the other members of Team Paragon snooping after her...and she had promised Kaylashat the Damned a plastic trophy of their leader.
First things first, she thought. She finished dressing in the Vi Nyll suit then stood before a mirror to mold her facial features. She made her cheekbones a little higher, her chin more pointed; her tits were not the only things that were made out of of plastic. When she had finished, Vi Nyll stood before the mirror in all her ultra-chic glory; only the sharpest observer could detect any resemblance between Vi and Polly, or vi and Paula Jean.
The Xenon mannequin watched her, mute as always. Stripped of the bondage gear and wig, she now looked no different from the dozens of other mannequins in the factory.
"Your friends will never find you, you know," Plastica said. "I expect they're discovering their mistake right now." She studied the wide, expressionless eyes, searching for a reaction in the flat blue depths. Of course, there wasn't any. She began to feel a bit foolish for talking this way to hunk of plastic, even if had been a human being once.
In truth, the Xenon mannequin was beginning to bore her. At first she'd felt triumphant with her prize, seeing long months of reseach finally bear their fruit. But compared to the newer crop of mannequins she wasn't that great. Her skin was pasty, and she couldn't bend. Paula Jean Estes would have been embarassed to put her on the floor. With that thought, Plastica finally stopped thinking of her as human.
She gave the stand a sharp kick her boot, pushing it away from her into the darkness. The Xenon mannequin rolled backwards down a slight slope, coming to rest between some old crates, several empty oil drums, and a stack of burnt-out flourescent light fixtures. It could stay there for decades, cobwebbed, forgotten.
Plastica smirked. Of course, she *could* call the recyclers...
It wasn't Xenon.
It had Xenon's legs, Xenon's skin, Xenon's breasts, but when they removed the hood...it was someone else.
Cinnabar threw the hood down, stricken. Why hadn't they checked in the store to be sure! Xenon could still be there, hidden in a closet somewhere...that is, if Plastica hadn't decide to get rid of her first. She could have substituted this mannequin to mock them. Or maybe Plastica wasn't involved at all; the store itself could have made the switch. Outside of searching Plastica's hideout, they had no way of knowing for sure.
Obviously, they all knew the plan had gone wrong, and Cinnabar, being the one in charge, had to take the blame for it. "They've made a substitution, obviously," she said quietly.
"Are you sure?" Gina said.
Lori nodded. "The mannequin we saw had a EXP SUBJECT written on the top of its head. This isn't the same number." She looked up, flint in her eyes. "Guys, we have to go back. To find out what they did with the real Xenon, at least."
They were all tired; they needed to rest. It would be impossible to do another search of the store during operating hours. Besides, they'd searched the place from top to bottom and hadn't seen any more Xenons. She rubbed her eyes, steeling herself, and made her decision. "No. Gang, we need to regroup. We can't go back to the store today, so we're going to have concentrate our search elsewhere."
"But--" Lori interrupted.
"No." Cinnabar kept her tone firm. Her eyes flicked to the rest of the Team. "What did you find out last night?"
"I got Paula Jean's phone number, license plate, and address," Noelani said. "Here are the digital images I took of her desk."
Cinnabar flipped them through. They were mostly office memos, take-out menus, and the like. But one scrawled list of numbers looked familiar. "Gina, what's the number on the mannequin's scalp?"
"W-BL03-F1-006." Gina read.
"That's this one right here," Cinnabar said, pointing with her finger. "This must be a list of serial numbers." She looked back at the mannequin. "Both numbers written on the scalp, in black felt-tip marker...in the same hand too, I'd guess, going by the writing on this list."
"It's very lifelike," Lori said, swallowing. "As lifelike as Xenon mannequin was."
"I'd like to do a probe," Allison said quietly.
"Be my guest," Cinnabar said, though they all had some idea of the awful truth that was slowly blooming around them. White Rose pressed her fingertips to the mannequin's shiny plastic scalp and closed her eyes. Her lips parted as she began her telepathic probe; it was one of White Rose's most useful powers. For ten long minutes she concentrated, her expression changing only slightly. Finally she withdrew her hands and staggered, nearly slumping to the floor.
"I'm all right," she said, weakly, as Lori and Gina helped her up.
"Get her some water," Cinnabar said.
Noelani handed her a cup. Allsion took several sips, before flicking her hair out of her eyes and speaking. "She's still alive," she said bluntly.
"Fuckin' sh--" Gina began, then remembered herself.
"The process Plastica used changed the chemical structure of her body the same way Gina can change hers, except she can't change herself back. She's aware of things, but her mind is trapped in a sort of stasis, a dream state." She took another sip. "I was able to read her memories."
She went on. Her name had been Aubrey Cantrell, and she had been a hopeful model. She'd sent some headshots to the La Cienaga address within hours after she saw the ad in Variety. The agency turned out to be Plastic Fantastic...the same one Gina's policeman boyfriend had investigated.
Cinnabar listened with a deepening shock as Allison described Vi Nyll and her assistants, the photoshoot, the showers. After being mannequinized Aubrey had been taken to a warehouse where she'd been stacked like cordwood on the floor with the others. Paula Jean Estes had picked her out of the pile yesterday afternoon and taken her to Sexateria, where she'd been dressed in Xenon's clothes. Then a merchandising assistant had wheeled her to the Dungeon while Paula Jean took Xenon away.
"Where did she take her?" Cinnabar asked.
Allison shook her head. "I don't know."
"I bet they're the same person," Gina muttered. "Paula Jean and Plastica. And Vi Nyll, too, going by the name. Those women aren't missing at all--they got turned into mannequins! They're probably all warehoused in Plastica's mannequin factory, waiting to be auctioned, or sold, or...or...Cinnabar, we have to do something! There has to be some kind of antidote!"
Cinnabar rubbed her throbbing temples, the scope of this investigation had widened, and the stakes were higher than they all knew. She wanted to sleep, to forget about the horrible mistake she'd made in Sexateria. But if they hadn't grabbed the wrong mannequin, they wouldn't have found out as much as they did. Checks and balances, she told herself. Don't worry, Shana. We'll find you!
"Here's what I want you to do today," she said. "Lori, Noelani, I want you to stake out Paula Jean's condo. Take breaks to rest if you have to. Don't break and enter, only watch. I want to know for sure if Paula Jean is Plastica in disguise. Allison, after you've had some rest I want you to go back to Sexateria and see if you can pick up on the staff's thoughts. They may know where Xenon was taken. But be careful. If Paula Jean and Plastica are the same person, she may be on to us. Don't take any more risks than you have to. Gina, our job is the most fun. We're going through the help wanted sections and all the latest talent guides, looking for that ad. With any luck, we may be able to find out where Vi Nyll will strike next."
"Gotcha," Gina said. She wheeled the Aubrey mannequin to a corner and draped a blanket over it.
Far across the Atlantic Kaylashat the Damned kept court on her flyspeck of an island, a tortured nipple in the smooth blue-green breast of the Aegean Sea. Tall, severe and ageless, inhumanly beautiful, a mixture of all human races and none: that was Kaylashat.
She wasn't known by that name of course. In the modern age, she was Countess Kayla Medea Pantaglios, and her villa was equipped with computers and DVD players, microwaves and satellite dishes; she had a helicopter and a Mercedes Benz she used for tooling about her island. She loved modern conveniences, though she herself was by no means modern. She was over ten thousand years old, though she had spent most of them in suspended animation deep within the earth. Until Cinnabar Steele had freed her...and then, as Scirocco, had tried to kill her.
Kaylashat frowned at the memory. Though she was a Countess (and she had labored long and hard to falsify the records for it) that was nothing compared to the power she had once held as a sorceror-queen in her native land of Bubasus. A title she intended to reclaim, one day...as soon as all the pieces of the Sword of Screams were brought together. She had found three, but Scirocco had taken them from her eight years ago, when her hideout in Stuttgart had gone up in flames. Though she'd taken a wicked revenge on Scirocco before that happened.
Nonetheless, she'd been bested by a mortal. And Kaylashat the Damned did not take that easily.
She hadn't the resources to even it out right now, which was why she had tapped Plastica for the job. Though shrill and neurasthenic, she had boundless energy and a true enthusiasm for her work. Kaylashat didn't really expect her to succeed--Scirocco was far more dangerous than she looked--but she wished Plastica well. If she did live up to her promise, however, Kaylashat would take her under her wing. There was more than one dirty job she could do for the Countess and her organization.
Kaylashat ran her beringed hand over a polished marble plinth the height of her waist. Scirocco would go there, she decided. On a slowly revolving stand, with spotlights. Nude, of course. Kaylashat always appreciated beautiful things, no matter how deadly and vexing they were. If the pose was erotic, so much the better.
She took a seat in the silk-upholstered armchair, loosened her robe, and signaled to the two naked slaves waiting by the door. She kept a pair in every room to serve her needs. The young man had once been an American college student hitchhiking around Ireland, the young woman a nanny from Austria, but now they were only extensions of her will and lived only to please her. She nodded at the Siberian tiger skin in front of her. The two slaves knelt on the fur and embraced, then began to do what sex slaves do best, for their Mistress's entertainment.
She lifted the phone, stroking herself between the thighs. Time to check on Plastica.
"This is more boring than watching paint dry," Lori complained. They'd been here all day and seen nothing, and it was growing cramped in Noelani's tiny Hyundai. Now it was evening and the condo's windows were still dark.
"Remember we're doing this for Xenon," Noelani reminded her.
Lori sighed. She could think of better uses for their time if they wanted to find Xenon and help those girls. They could go back to Sexateria and ask some questions, or try to track where Vi Nyll and her operation had dissapeared to. Even a raid on the mannequin factory would have been more productive.
She took another sip of her Diet Snapple, suddenly noticing a little red sports car tearing down the drive. "Get down!" They ducked their heads as the car screeched past them, making a right-angle turn into Paula Jean's garage. Lori raised her head a fraction of an inch, but the figure that slammed the door was neither Plastica or Paula Jean; it was Vi Nyll, going by Allison's description of the modeling agent's outlandish clothes and short red hair. Vi Nyll clipped purposefully up the walk and unlocked the door. She vanished inside.
"We've got to check this out," Lori said, poking her teamate's shoulder.
"Cinnabar said no break-ins," Noelani warned.
"Who said anything about breaking in? I only want to get a better view." Before her teamate could stop her she slipped out of the car, running in back of a hedge to transform herself--"Team Paragon--Arctica!"--and blasted off into the night like an icy arrow shot from a bow.
She didn't go far. She circled the complex, then landed on the roof above Paula Jean's condo. Lights were snapping on below her as Vi Nyll made herself at home. There was a skylight in the ceiling and she floated over to peer cautiously over the edge. Below her Vin Nyll paced restlessly across her bedroom as she undressed, leaving her clothes where they fell. Lori gasped as she ripped off her wig, revealing a long shock of bright blue hair: Plastica. There were three other wigs waiting on her dresser, one of them a mirror copy of Polly Jean's Hillary Clinton 'do.
Lori had already been certain the three were the same, but she continued to watch. Plastica stripped to her panties, then stood naked before the mirror and started squeezing her breasts. Lori realized with a shock she was molded them into a new shape. She repeated the same thing with her facial features, bringing to mind a sculpter with a handful of clay, then gave her ass a slight shake, and it, too, rearranged, like the side of a plastic garbage can popping back after a denting. Then the phone rang and she flung herself across the bed to answer it.
Blue Cymbidium--Noelani--appeared at her side with the imperceptible rustle of a fresh breeze through spring leaves. Her blue and purple costume made her almost invisible against the night sky. "I couldn't let you do this alone," she said. She handed Lori a phone tap.
"Thanks." Lori fitted the stethoscope like device into her ears, pressing it against the plexiglass of the skylight.
"...of course I haven't forgotten about you, Countess," Plastica was saying. "My people are working on it, they're waiting there right now. They know her routine. Uh-huh. Of course. I can accomodate you in that. As kinky as you like, no problem. My process is *very* flexible." She flipped herself onto her back, displaying the inhumanly lithe body seen only in the sketches of European fashion designers. Not even models had breasts that large and protuberant, or legs so decadently long. She must have had some bone grafts on her shins, Lori decided. But Plastica was no catwalk darling. Taut muscles moved like whips under her flawless ivory skin, and her legs snapped the air like a pair of scissors. Then came the words it chilled Lori to hear: "Cinnabar will be delivered to you by the end of the week, I guarantee it."
"She's going to kill Cinnabar!" Lori said in a shocked whisper. "She's got something set up right now!"
But Plastica wasn't finished. She must have had call waiting because she immediately took another: "Oh? It is? I'm on my way." She slammed down the receiver, then began to dress again with jaw-dropping speed.
"I've got to warn her!" Lori said.
Blue Cee looked unsure, her eyes flickering under her petalike blue mask. She never was one to make snap decisions, Lori knew, and that would let her have her way now. "There's no point in us being here anymore, Blue. We know who she really is--and she must have found out about us, too."
"Right," Blue Cee said. Her eyes said she knew the implications. "You go warn Cinn, and I'll keep watch here, in case she comes back."
The front door slammed as Plastica left the house, this time clad in a skintight neoprene minidress with half-moon cutouts over her hips. The sports car pulled out of the garage with a screech, but Lori was already flying in the other direction, toward the library where Gina and Cinnabar were working.
"Look at this. This had to be the one," Gina said. She unfolded the paper so Cinnabar could see.
"Models wanted," Cinnabar read, brushing her long red hair behind her ear. "For start-up agency. No experience necessary. Lingerie, sportswear, swimsuits. Send resumes, head and body shots to 4111 Fairfax by overnight mail for immediate consideration." She put the paper down, recalling the wording of Plastica's last ad. "Sure sounds like it. Plastica isn't much of a copywriter, is she?"
"We've got time to check it out tonight," Gina said hopefully. "It's only ten o'clock."
"If you want to drive by, that's fine, but this is really a job for the Team," Cinnabar said. "Can you think of any way to delay the opening for a day or two, though?"
"Shut off the electricity?" Gina said.
"Now you're talking." Cinnabar grinned. Since was going to be taking pictures, Plastica would be helpless if the lights didn't work. "I was thinking of a water main rupture, myself. Or a sewer line break. That would be appropriate." She yawned. "God, I've got to get some sleep. I think I'm going to head back to HQ. Since you're up to it, check out the address, and if it is Plastic Fantastic, create what inconveniences you can. But be extra careful. Plastica may be on to us by now. She could be watching."
Gina gave a mock salute. "Aye, Chief."
Cinnabar left the library for the balmy heat of an LA night. She would have enjoyed it more, but she was tired. She wasn't as young as she used to be. Gina and Lori had the youthful energy to stay up all night, for two or three days if needed; she didn't. Not that she still didn't turn heads...she gave a smile to the parking lot attendant as she drove out in her purple Mazda. He reminded her a little of her college boyfriend, Michael. They would have even gotten married, if she hadn't opened Kaylashat's tomb that summer, if she'd decided to leave it to the experts and not to the naivete of an archaeological student who thought she knew everything...
She shook her head; she'd driven right past the bank, the cash machine she always used to deposit her checks from the Near East Institute. She parked her car and went up to the walk-up window, extracting her ATM card from her wallet. She fed it into the slot. It went in halfway, then stopped.
"What is this," she muttered. The card seemed to be stuck. She gripped it with her fingers, but it wouldn't budge, either in or out. Her fingertips touched a metal plate on the inside of the mechanism.
Her mouth stretched in a silent scream as thousands of volts of electricity suddenly surged through her body. The world went dark around her, and she fell like a stone under the neon-lit palms.
On to Chapter 6: Cinnabar Cubed
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