CHAPTER 1 The Living Image
Sabrina’s eyelids fluttered in the midst of a dream in which a tiny maniacal form was torturing her, fiendishly stabbing her about the head with needles. It was so vivid and frightening she tried to awaken, like you can sometimes do in a very shocking nightmare, but her body was paralyzed. She could not move and she was blind.
“Rest, dear. You’re fine. Just relax. That’s good, Sabrina.” The calm, gentle voice went on and on, soothing her, and she slept on.
Hours later, Sabrina’s eyes opened. Dizzy and confused, almost stupefied with sleep, her hand touched her head, checking for the sharp protuberances from her intense nightmare. Dazzling lights from above stabbed her eyes like the tormenting needles in the dream. Was it an operating room? The beach? The light was blinding and she was so frightened.
She turned her head, squinting away from the brilliant lights, and caught herself reflected in a mirror. Then the image startled her, moving an arm slowly, independently, throwing it sideways. Sabrina realized that the body she had recognized as her own was someone else entirely. Now that she finally remembered where she was, Ferd’s Tanning Salon, she smiled at her silly panic.
The woman on the tanning bed next to hers was in the exact same position, which contributed to the perception that Sabrina was looking at her reflection. But the body was totally nude.
Sabrina wondered why the same woman who would go to a tanning salon, a rather frivolous and unhealthy compliance to a glamorous image, did not bother to comb her hair.
A bell went off to remind Sabrina to turn over and she picked up the double spoon-like device to protect her eyes and sat up, pushing down the top of her bathing suit, peering at her chest. There was a tan line already. Maybe the woman next to her had the right idea, getting a tan without wearing anything, but Sabrina thought it looked more sexy to have a contrast between the parts that were usually covered and those that were usually uncovered.
There were only two couches in the tiny room and Sabrina felt uncomfortable about lying so close to another person. Especially since that person was nude and a female. There had been some experience lying next to nude men.
She sneaked another swift glance at the body next to hers. The proportions were really remarkably like her own. The woman had long ectomorphic limbs and a very small waist. Not many people were as tall or as thin as she and this other woman. The woman’s hair was a shocking white, like Sabrina’s own natural color. It was snarled as though it had not been combed in at least a week. But this was L.A. Probably a new look.
The woman’s hair brought back unpleasant memories of her own nick-name as an adolescent. She had been dubbed ‘Mop-Head’ because of her long, string-bean body and stark-white hair. When she had shorn her hair to escape the nickname, the only thing that changed was the moniker, which became ‘Q-Tip Head.’ Things had changed in the intervening years, but she never forgot the pain.
Sabrina had come to the tanning salon because she had a modeling interview. It was a California Beach Toothpaste Commercial. She wanted the look that said, ‘I know how unhealthy a tan is, but really, Darling, can I help it if my West Coast Lifestyle of surfing, tennis, swimming and skating in my tiny bikini on the Santa Monica Pier gives me a Glow?’ An impossible image for a person so pale she almost appeared albino, saved only by dark brows and lashes, and the fact that her eyes were blue, not bunny pink.
Exposure as a model gave her fashion design business authenticity as a real influence in woman’s fashions in Los Angeles. If her face was tan, her teeth would look whiter, which was why she had gone to Ferd’s Tanning Salon that morning and was assured by Ferd himself, a little gnome of a man whom she towered over by a least a foot, that there were absolutely no UV rays in his new filtered tanning devices. She had studied the top of his pink bald head, listened to his patter of safe tanning with UV filtering, looked into simple honest blue eyes, and believed him. Sabrina had been surprised when Ferd led her to the actual salon. It was a small, claustrophobic room, rescued only by several posters on each wall of beautiful ocean vistas with white sand and palms. Mostly she had been surprised that there were only two tanning beds in the entire place.
Sabrina sighed and closed her eyes, trying to forget that another person was in the room. Even lying on her stomach the rays were bright and she closed her eyes. As she drifted near sleep again she thought of Mark. He said she looked anemic. Maybe a tan would take away that pale bloodless look. Sabrina wondered just what he really wanted, or what any man wanted. After three years it was still a mystery. She wanted to marry Mark and have a baby. Soon. She would never tell him, of course.
Mark said he liked her thin. He admired her for starting her own business and for being so bright and independent, but Sabrina knew he had been attracted to pretty and vapid air-heads in the past. Mark grandly proclaimed that Sabrina was all any man could wish for, but he dated other women. He didn’t say so, but she knew. So Sabrina dated other men and did not keep it a secret.
She heard the bell but didn’t feel like moving. Just thinking about Mark made her heart pound. She loved Mark’s thickness and substantiality. Even his hands were thick. He was her physical opposite, dark and massive.
She heard the bell again, louder this time. How could the couch know she hadn’t turned over? Springs or something? Ferd had assured her of complete privacy, saying he would be in his apartment upstairs. No one was watching to see if she flipped. There were no windows. Anyway, Sabrina thought irritably, how could she feel complete privacy with another person, nude at that, in same the room. Privacy was not being stuck with another person on a couch less than five feet away. She thought she would wait and see if the ping came again, but decided she was being silly and turned over.
Sabrina felt herself falling asleep and tried to fight it but the bodily compulsion to sleep was overpowering.
That bell is annoying, Sabrina thought groggily, a while later. Now she knew what narcolepsy felt like. She was too lethargic to move and so thirsty her tongue felt attached to the roof of her mouth.
The tanning light was out. She was actually a little chilled and she had the uncomfortable prickly sensation that someone was watching her. She turned over and felt a thrill of electricity zip through her as she glanced at the other couch. The woman was there, sitting on the edge of her tanning bed, staring at Sabrina.
She had Sabrina’s face.
Sabrina assured herself that she was still asleep, having an odd dream triggered by the fact that the other woman’s body appeared so similar to her own. She closed her eyes, shook her head and opened them again. She watched the woman shake her head.
The woman’s eyes grew large and round. The brows went up and the mouth opened slightly, stretching back, revealing her teeth, transforming her countenance into one of extreme terror. Seeing her own fear reflected by the other woman petrified Sabrina for an instant. Then she threw her legs over the edge of the couch, preparing to run out of the room, when her body collapsed.
Sabrina folded up on the floor between the two couches, landing painfully on her tailbone. She felt enmeshed in a horrible nightmare, like a paralyzed somnambulist, as she struggled to rise. Her muscles were like jelly and the pain in her tailbone excruciating.
Sabrina laboriously pulled herself up on the edge of the tanning couch, wondering what had happened. Something was horribly wrong with the whole situation; her abnormal sleepiness, the strange duplicate woman, and worst of all, her body not functioning normally. She was trembling with the effort to make her muscles respond to simple commands such as, Get up and get the hell out of here. That was impossible, so she concentrated on taking some deep shaky breaths. She kept her eyes lowered. Finally she looked up.
The woman was there, staring at her. Same breasts too, Sabrina thought, looking at the woman critically. She appeared younger, though. The eyebrows were tangled. Of course, she doesn’t take care of them, like not shaving her legs. The woman did not have any lines on her forehead, but the eyes were the exact same shade of light blue. The nose and mouth perfect replicas. There were no little lines in the woman’s neck, as though the head had never made an independent movement.
“The bathroom is across the hall.”
Oh great, Sabrina thought, she has my face and body and is able to read my mind.
“They say everyone in the world has a double, somewhere,” Sabrina remarked thoughtfully as the woman continued staring. “Is this some strange coincidence?”
“No,” the woman said.
“I don’t mean to be rude. What’s your name?” Sabrina asked.
“No name. Your name?”
“Sabrina. Everyone has a name.”
“No one named me.”
“Where do you come from?”
The woman must be insane. A deranged woman with Sabrina’s own face and body. Or else she herself was insane. Something to do with this incredible new modern tanning device that renders insanity along with a beautiful tan. Cooks you inside and out.
“I would like to look like you,” the woman said.
Sabrina was thinking, Maybe she’s some kind of a clone. She looked up at the tanning machine. It was weird looking in a high tech kind of way. The hood was a grey funnel which went all the way up to the ceiling. Maybe it went through the ceiling. Sabrina had a strong compulsion to run again. She stood up, but still felt faint; her vision darkened and flashing lights sparkled in front of her eyes. She sat down abruptly, wondering if she had been drugged or had contracted some terrible neurological disease.
Sabrina shrank back as the woman got up, took hold of her arm firmly and started walking slowly to the door, pulling Sabrina with her. The woman stumbled a few times, but moved relentlessly. Her grip was a painful vice.
“Where are you taking me?” Sabrina asked.
“You want to go to the bathroom,” the woman said.
“Mind reading?” Sabrina asked.
“Your body says.”
This is too weird, Sabrina thought as she went into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror above the sink. She was spectacularly tan but her face looked puffy, like she had been asleep for an extended period. She used the toilet, splashed her face with water and drank out of the faucet.
The woman was outside the door when she left the bathroom.
“We better get dressed,” Sabrina said, walking toward the locker room. Seeing the woman again was a shock. She was standing there without clothes like it was a perfectly normal state.
“I don’t have garments.”
Sabrina stopped and turned around.
The woman had gone past her into the bathroom and was peering at her face. “I like looking like you.”
Suddenly there was a terrifically loud crashing noise from above the tanning salon. Sabrina jumped with shock, clapped her hands to her ears, and ran into the locker room. There were more crashes. It sounded like gun shots. And very close.
Sabrina peeked out of the locker room, squinting and waiting for the next one. The woman was standing right at the door so Sabrina pulled her inside and slammed the door.
“We have to get out of here,” Sabrina said, dressing rapidly. “There’s something very odd about this place.”
“Okay.” The woman was standing motionless.
“The back door is down the hall. We can make a run for it. Sounded like someone was shooting a gun.”
The woman was still standing there, absolutely peaceful.
“No clothes,” Sabrina said. “Shit, you have no clothes?”
“No.” The woman was maddeningly calm.
Sabrina threw her coat at the woman. “Put that on. Hurry.” The woman put it on. Perfect fit of course.
“No shoes,” Sabrina muttered, and peeked carefully out of the doorway toward the reception area.
She could hear a murmur of masculine voices: “She’s still drugged. Couldn’t have heard a thing. Now you want to take the computer, and get rid of the original?…Are you both crazy! After all my work making her…What’s wrong with you two? Carrying guns like gangsters!”
Sabrina recognized the shrill voice of Ferd, the tiny old guy who owned the tanning salon.
On no, Sabrina thought, shaking and starting to pant. They drugged me, made this woman, or computer or whatever, and now they’re going to kill me.
Sabrina strained her ears but could only hear a mumble of voices, and then: “I’ve destroyed the copy machinery.” It was the old man’s voice, sounding panicky.
That must have been the crashes. Messing up the machine.
Sabrina pulled the woman out of the locker room, putting a finger firmly over her mouth to keep her quiet. They tiptoed down the long hall toward the back door.
“They’re coming after us,” the woman said.
Should she let them have the woman? Sabrina wondered, as they crept toward the door. They would search for her. For both of them. And the woman obviously could not take care of herself. Poor thing hadn’t even known how to button the coat Sabrina gave her. Maybe the woman was not human. They had called her a computer. But maybe she was, and maybe they would experiment on her, hurt her.
Sabrina started running, hearing footsteps thundering down the stairs from above.
Sabrina was afraid the killers might find her anyway. It’s hard to be anonymous when you’re on the cover of magazines. But, maybe not. Sabrina didn’t believe her modeling photographs looked anything like herself. She was so glitzed up she appeared like a plastic mannequin. Somehow nonexistent cleavage, cheekbones and sullen lips appeared. The pictures never revealed how very tall and skinny she was.
Almost to the door.
Sabrina glanced behind her. There were two gigantic dark men at the end of the hallway. They stopped suddenly, now stalking slowly toward the women down the dim hallway. The back door had a bolt and Sabrina yanked at it ineffectively until the woman reached around her and turned the knob. Sabrina jerked the door open, grabbed the woman’s arm, and pulled her outside.
Sabrina could see her car a half block away. She ran toward it, dragging the woman, who stumbled after her.
Sabrina glanced back. The two men were outside now. One of them shouted, “Put the goddamned gun away! Go get the car.”
Sabrina felt like she was in a nightmare. The sun was in the wrong position and made the normal residential street appear surrealistic and alien.
Perhaps she was still drugged and a little sluggish, but Sabrina had always had a funny metabolism. Valium, percodeine, grass, sleeping pills and alcohol never gave her a comforting relaxed feeling. Now she had barely escaped because the drugs had worn off before they anticipated.
Sabrina glanced back. One man was hurrying around the corner, probably to get a car. The other was rushing after them. Sabrina fumbled the key in the lock and pushed the woman inside.
“Yes,” Sabrina said, hustling the woman toward the passenger side. “Move over. Fast.” She locked the door.
The car coughed, almost died, then coughed again. “Don’t die on me,” Sabrina muttered.
“I won’t die on you,” the woman said.
Sabrina glanced at her. The woman’s expression was perfectly serious.
“Thank you,” Sabrina said as the car revved and they burnt rubber in a fast U-turn, shooting past the man who had been rushing toward them. “Lets haul ass out of here.”
Sabrina didn’t think anyone had caught up, with all the wild turns she was making, but she went to a nearby residential area and cruised. She thought a blue car was following, but couldn’t be sure. Then she watched in her rear view mirror as the car stopped in front of an apartment building. False alarm, she thought.
When she got home she would have to call the police. They would think she was crazy, but she had the evidence sitting right beside her. Undoubtedly, they would believe the woman was crazy, too. She talked very peculiarly and there were no real clones, or computers, or whatever the hell she was.
Sabrina drove to her condominium and parked underground in her assigned space. The woman was staring at her again in that strange way, without blinking. The woman did not look too terrific. The garage elevator went directly to the lobby of the condominium, not to the floors above, so the doorman could screen everyone.
Now I get to walk past the doorman with a woman who looks exactly like me with bushy tangled hair, hairy legs and no shoes, Sabrina thought. Wonderful.
“If the doorman says anything, you’re my double. You’re the ‘Before’ and I’m the ‘After’ for a commercial. Okay?”
“I am your double, the Before. I don’t know what a Before is.”
“That’s all right,” Sabrina said, sighing. What a horrible complication the woman was. And how disconcerting her staring. Maybe she would regain her memory and figure out where she really belonged.
“How do you feel?” Sabrina asked.
“Running was new.”
“Everything will be all right,” Sabrina said. “We just have to get past the doorman.”
“We rush again?”
“No. We’ll walk. You stay close behind me.”
“I’m your double. Not dumb…just new.”
“Of course you are. New, I mean,” Sabrina said. She felt sorry for the woman and drawn to her in a strange way. Sabrina wondered if she ever smiled.
They walked through the blessedly empty garage over to the elevators.
“You were stumbling when you took me to the bathroom. And you said running was new?” Sabrina said as they waited for the elevator.
“When I started walking, I fell down a lot.”
Ah ha, Sabrina thought. Childhood memories of toddling to the arms of loving parents.
“But I was much larger, then,” the woman said.
“I’m not a small person, just skinny. And we seem to be exactly the same size.”
“Ferd couldn’t decide whether to make me a man or a woman, so when he started me, I was big.”
The woman still did not blink. Sabrina pushed the elevator button again. This was definitely lunacy tunes times. La La Land for this lady. If she was a lady.
The woman continued, “Ferd said I would be too strong to handle as a man, so he made me a women, in case the experiment went out of control. Meaning me.”
Sabrina closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. Now she would have to wonder if the woman was dangerous. “Did you ever see yourself before–uh–you looked like me?”
“What did you look like?”
“The Michelin Man.”
The elevator arrived and Sabrina positioned the woman behind her as the doors closed. The elevator was swift and she wanted to be prepared before they got out. The Michelin Man?
“Stay behind me and act casual,” Sabrina said as the doors opened into the lobby.
Jack, the doorman, saw her and waved as Sabrina stepped out of the elevator. Luckily, someone came into the lobby and Jack turned away. Sabrina saw an elevator opening across the lobby, walked briskly to it. The woman was right behind her. At least she follows directions well, Sabrina thought as they rose silently.
Sabrina closed the door of her apartment with a sigh of relief, but it only seemed like a haven for a moment. The stranger, who had once looked like a Michelin Man according to her own testimony, was in Sabrina’s own apartment now, and maybe she was dangerous. Outside was dangerous too. Thugs with guns were searching for her and the experiment who looked just like her.
The woman was staring in her intent way, again. She did not look expectant or anything. She was just standing there, but she had started to blink. You never realized how abnormal it was when someone did not blink until you saw it.
“I have to go make a call,” Sabrina said, intensely needing privacy. “You make yourself at home.”
She knew she could not call the police and face their questions. Not yet. She needed to talk to Mark. She felt, but did not really believe, his voice could reduce her back to sanity, or something approximating it.
She went directly into her bedroom. The hell with manners. The woman didn’t have any, with all that staring. Enough to make her crazy, even if she hadn’t been drugged and cloned and there weren’t people who wanted to kill her to protect their scientific creation.
Sabrina sat on the edge of the bed and dialed, glancing at the bedside clock. She suddenly realized that she had been at the tanning salon all day. No wonder the sun had appeared to be in the wrong position when she ran to the car.
She sagged with relief when Mark answered.
“Sabrina.” She heard his smile.
“Mark, I need help. Right now. Something very serious happened.”
“Why are you whispering?” Mark whispered back.
“Please, Mark. Can you come here?”
“Tell me what it is. Are you okay?”
“No. Listen, I know you have plans for tonight, but I’m so scared.”
“I have to show you.”
“Why can’t you tell me? Maybe you’ll feel better.”
“You wouldn’t believe me,” Sabrina said.
There was a pause, “I’ll come over. Right now.”
“Take care, sweetie. I’ll be over in a minute.”
Sabrina found the woman standing in front of the open refrigerator door in the kitchen drinking maple syrup, Aunt Jemima’s Buttery, from the pour spout.
“I needed brain food. Glucose.”
“Drink all you want,” Sabrina said.
Sabrina mechanically filled the tea pot with water and put it on a burner.
The woman was staring at her again, holding the maple syrup container. After a few gulps more she replaced the bottle.
Sabrina got two cups and put them on the kitchen table, wondering if the woman reacted badly to stimulants. Even tea. Maybe she got homicidal on caffeine, but Sabrina noticed she herself was feeling better and decided not to worry so much.
“Let’s sit down,” Sabrina said. “I want to know all about you. We have to decide what to do.”
Sabrina sipped the tea.
The woman was copying her, Sabrina realized, when the woman
frowned a little as Sabrina had done when it scalded her tongue.
“Too hot?” Sabrina asked.
“I don’t feel hot,” the woman answered.
“I don’t have the nerve receptors.”
Sabrina looked at the woman curiously. There was almost no inflection at all in her voice. Exactly like she had no opinions or emotions. Or, Sabrina thought eerily, like she really was a machine. The lack of voice intonation made the woman hard to understand and she had to think a moment before replying.
“That could be dangerous.”
“I don’t feel pain, either. I could inadvertently burn myself, be on fire, and not know it until I actually saw it.”
No emotion whatsoever about being on fire?
The woman got up and went to the drawers that held cooking utensils. She opened a few and took out a knife. It was a big one.
Sabrina felt a sudden thrill of fear. The woman would kill her! Then she watched in horror as the woman calmly sliced her own palm, very quickly and deeply. Blood drops pattered to the floor. The woman put the bloody knife back into the drawer and sat down again, holding out her hand in Sabrina’s direction.
Sabrina watched as the cut stopped bleeding almost immediately and closed up, erasing the wound magically.
“Accelerated healing,” the woman said, and sipped her tea.