"Seventeen bottles of beer on the wall! Seventeen bottles of beer! Take one down and - " The truck came to a stop and both dolls abruptly fell silent. Doors slammed and in a moment light flooded into the back of the truck. It took only a couple of seconds for Stevie's eyes to adjust to the light. When they did, he was ecstatic to find that he could see clearly again. "Steve!" he cried turning to look at the other doll.
"I know," he replied, looking mightily relieved despite his calm tone.
"Hey, I can move too!" Stevie exclaimed, wiggling his arms and legs. Steve grinned and shook his head at the other doll's enthusiasm. Stevie grinned back. As if we aren't still in deep trouble, he thought, turning his attention to the two men standing outside the truck.
No longer wearing their visors down, they eyed the two dolls for a few moments. Then the shorter man pointed to Stevie with his control rod. It was all the young doll could do not to go into full panic mode again. "That one first," the man said.
The taller one nodded. He pulled out the ramp and climbed into the truck. Then he unhooked Stevie's wrists from the heavy loop that was welded to the wall. "Out," he said.
Stevie glanced nervously at Steve. The last thing he wanted was to be separated from him. The older doll nodded slightly and gave him the ghost of a smile. Stevie read the words behind the expression. "Go ahead. It'll be all right." Stevie tried to believe him. He stood up awkwardly, still bound by the thick, heavy cuffs. He walked slowly down the ramp, trying to give his legs time to get used to moving again. Once outside, he took a look around. They were somewhere in the woods. The truck was parked on a dirt road, about forty yards from what looked like a mansion out of a history book.
"Move," the taller man ordered. Stevie walked between them, toward the mansion. As he drew closer, he got a better look. It was something like a plantation house from the 1800's. White pillars connected the large front porch to the balcony on the second story. Huge windows gleamed in the late afternoon light that filtered through the trees. Although the design of the house conjured disturbing images of slavery, Stevie might have thought it beautiful if he weren't being taken there by force. When they reached the porch, Stevie noticed something else about the mansion. Even though it was designed to be just like a house from the distant past, the facilities were modern. The front door was opened with a card key and number pad, just like the one at home. Inside, the splendor continued, but Stevie could also make out security cameras, computer key pads and other signs that the place was not as it seemed.
Stevie followed the kidnapper to a large room that he recognized as a ballroom. The floor was hard wood, the roof was high and the windows larger than any he had seen yet. At one end of the room there was a dais on which sat a large, ornate chair made of oak and dark red cushioning. Behind the dais on the wall were hung two large, double bladed axes with black handles. Stevie puzzled over their incongruous presence for a second before deciding it wasn't important. There was no other furniture in the room at all. They kept walking until they were about ten feet away from the dais. Then the two men took up positions on either side of him and waited.
After a short time, a woman came out of a door to the right. Stevie watched her walk gracefully to the dais and sit down in the chair, struck by her surpassing beauty. She was tall - maybe 5'10" or a little taller. Her long blonde hair was incredibly straight and grew well past her waist. Her blue eyes were as deep and as dark as the sea; her other features absolutely perfect. She wore a flowing white gown, out of character with the time period of the house itself, but beautiful nonetheless. Stevie found himself smiling at her, even though he thought she must have to be the person responsible for his kidnapping. The woman smiled back, but something about the smile made Stevie falter. It was a beautiful smile, just like everything else about her. But it was wrong somehow. It wasn't kind.
Still smiling, the woman raised her white, slender arms and clapped twice. Almost immediately, the door on the right side of the room opened again. Two more men dressed like the ones who'd kidnapped Stevie walked in. Between them, held firmly by each arm, was a smaller figure. He walked with his head bowed, disheveled black hair obscuring his face. When he came closer, he looked up and caught sight of Stevie. Stevie gasped. Another '79, just like him! For a moment, their faces mirrored each other in expressions of shock. Then the other doll's face transformed into a study of pure, utter terror. He whirled to face the woman and shook his head. "You can't!" he cried. "You can't do this!"
"It is too late," the woman said in a melodic voice. "Your fate has been sealed."
"No," he shouted. "Please, Mistress! You can't!!"
"Turn him around," the woman said, ignoring him. The two men forced the other doll to face Stevie. His face was completely white and tears were forming in his eyes, but he stood ramrod straight. "Begin," the woman said.
One of the men aimed his control rod at the doll and struck. Stevie gasped, but the other doll made no sound. His face contorted with pain for a moment, but he kept his feet. After a wait of about two minutes, the guard struck him again. He fell to his knees and stayed there for a while, breathing hard. Then slowly, he struggled to his feet. Again they struck him. This time, he cried out. He tried, but couldn't get up again. With visible effort, he lifted his head and looked directly into Stevie's eyes. "Escape," he said hoarsely. They struck him once more. The doll fell flat on the floor and didn't move again. The men turned him over. His still, lifeless eyes gazed at the ceiling, his face frozen in an expression of hopelessness.
The room was silent, except for Stevie's rapid breathing. In perfect step with each other, the two men who'd killed the doll walked past the dais and took the axes from the wall. They walked slowly back to the doll. Then one of them raised his axe and brought it down on the doll's right leg, severing it completely. Stevie cried out in shock and backed away. His guards forced him to stand still, training their control rods on him. Then, the other murderer brought his axe down on the doll's left leg. An axe was raised again.
Stevie squeezed his eyes shut, unable to watch anymore. The hacking sound he expected to hear didn't come. "Open your eyes," came the voice of the woman - still melodic, but hard as steel. Stevie felt sick. They were waiting for him. They wouldn't finish it until he opened his eyes. He wanted to run. Wanted to scream - to beg her to make them stop. But what good would pleading do? What good had it done the other doll? Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and watched while they cut off the doll's arms and finally, his head. It rolled toward him and stopped at his feet, staring up at him with those glassy eyes and that utterly hopeless expression. He only saw it for a second before tears blinded him, but he knew the image would haunt him forever.
The woman stood and walked slowly toward Stevie, stepping lightly over the severed limbs and body fluids without even giving them a second thought. As she drew closer, Stevie caught the faint smell of fresh flowers. She reached out to touch him, but he recoiled in horror. The guards struggled to make him stay still. She stroked his face and smiled - a gesture Rosie had made so many times. But coming from this woman who was so much more physically beautiful than Rose, it made him sick to his stomach. She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. Then, in her liltingly cruel voice, she said, "Let that be a lesson to you."
Steve was shaking when they left the ball room. He could still see his mirror image - dismembered and awash in the android equivalent of blood. He raised his head and looked around him, hoping to expel the image by paying attention to his surroundings. A long hall. Plush carpeting on the floor. Chairs and small display tables along the walls. Pictures. All from the past, but not the same past. Medieval-style tapestries hung alongside portraits of soldiers dressed in Civil War uniforms. And in between, security cameras watched everything. The incongruity of it all unsettled him.
They walked through a few other rooms and halls, all similarly decorated. Finally, he was led into a small room, with hardly any furniture inside. There was a single dresser from which the guard pulled out a small pile of clothes. "Strip," one of the guards said. "Put these on. And tuck the shirt in." Steve didn't argue. In a few minutes he was newly dressed in black underwear, black jeans and a black t-shirt - all of which fit perfectly. Steve tried not to think too hard about their previous owner, lest he start to feel sick again.
Finally, he was led to a door controlled by two separate key pads. The men inserted their keys in unison, and the door opened. He was led into a large room, so plain as to be a shock to his senses after the grandeur of the rest of the house. Stone floor, grey walls and no windows. The room was lit by fluorescent lights. Inside were four cells - people in all of them. There were two cells against the right wall, two on the left. Bars all around, except against the back wall. Each pair of cells shared a wall of bars between them. Like an old fashioned jail cell, but with card-key locks. Wrong. Fake. Just like everything else in this God forsaken place.
One of the men opened the cell closest on the left. The other took off his handcuffs and pushed him inside. He heard the clang of the door closing behind him. There were people inside the cell with him - all dressed exactly like he was. He recognized them immediately. Together with him, they were Journey. They stared at him guardedly and it was suddenly too much for him to handle. He sank to his knees and closed his eyes, resting his head against the bars they shared with the cell next door.
Only then did he hear it. Someone was crying. Steve opened his eyes and looked over into the next cell. There, only about two feet away from him, a young man was curled into the fetal position, crying his heart out. Four other men sat at a distance looking at him, their eyes full of pity. Another Journey - but as they would have appeared in 1979. They all seemed to be in uniform as well - black jeans and white t-shirts. Steve looked back down at the crying figure. "Stevie?" he asked. Not surprisingly, the other doll didn't hear. Steve reached between the bars and put a hand on his shoulder. The younger man shuddered and curled in further. "Stevie," Steve called again. The man looked up, his tear-stained face registering first surprise, then a moment of pure joy.
"Steve!" He got to his knees and reached for the older doll with both hands. Steve grasped his arms and held tight, trying to reassure him by the strength of his grasp. Stevie's face changed as he remembered why he'd been crying. "Steve," he choked. "Oh, God, Steve... we... we have to get out of here! They... they killed..."
"I know," Steve said. "I know." They looked at each other in silence for a moment, each expressing sympathy for what he knew the other had experienced.
Then Stevie started to shake. "We have to get out," he said suddenly. "We have to get out of here now!"
Steve shook his head. "We can't."
"We have to!" Stevie shouted, his high-pitched voice full of desperation. "They'll kill us!"
Steve took hold of Stevie's head with both hands and looked him squarely in the eye. "They won't," he said, speaking slowly and calmly. It was strange, but Steve found it much easier to forget his own fears when Stevie was there to be brave for. "Listen to me. If they were going to kill us, they wouldn't have bothered with that elaborate warning. We're alive. And we're going to stay that way. Understand?" Stevie nodded and Steve stroked his hair soothingly. "I won't let anything happen to you," he said. "Not ever."
Stevie nodded again, believing him. He sat down and leaned against the bars. Steve shifted into a more comfortable position as well, then went back to stroking the younger doll's hair. He knew Stevie liked to be stroked and he needed the contact himself. After a moment, the bassist in Stevie's cell stood, walked over to them and extended his hand. "Hi," he said. "Welcome to Hell."
Rose sat in the living room, listening to her birthday CD and wishing she knew her boys were all right. She felt so helpless. There had to be something she could do other than sit and fret. She stood up and started pacing. Great, she thought. Stand up and fret. Maybe she should search the house again. She sighed. She'd already been through the whole house at least five times searching for any clue as to the identity of the kidnappers. She was sure that if anything was there, the police department's forensics expert would have found it, but she'd looked anyway. Nothing. Sighing, she began to look one more time.
Rose found something strange immediately. An envelope, sitting just inside her front door. That had definitely not been there when she'd searched before. Someone must have left it within the last hour. Rose picked it up, wondering if she should show it to the police before she opened it. Yeah, right, she thought. There was no way she'd be able to last until the cops came with that kind of suspense hanging over her. She opened the envelope and unfolded the half sheet of paper inside. On it was a typed message. "The police can't help you. Maybe we can help each other. Come to The Rocket. I'll find you."
Rose frowned. Was it from the kidnappers? Maybe they planned to tell her what they wanted in exchange for Steve and Stevie. But if so, why would they choose a place like The Rocket? It was one of the busiest restaurants in town. But if it wasn't the kidnappers, who was it? One of the neighbors? They were the only people who could have know about the robbery this quickly. And if it was a neighbor, why didn't they just come and talk to her at her house?
Rose sighed. She wasn't going to get any answers standing around thinking. She drove to the crowded restaurant and found a seat. This wasn't the type of place she would normally have chosen to have dinner. It was a retro diner with an 1980's theme. The decor was straight out of some scary '80's video, complete with gaudy colors, uneven checkered designs, faceless mannequins and oddly shaped windows. The music matched the appearance, and generally consisted of strange songs she never listened to, interspersed with the occasional hit by Duran Duran, R.E.M. or some other ulra-80's pop icon. If she was extremely lucky, they might play something by Journey in here. But she doubted it.
An overly made up waitress with orange-red hair that was teased and hair sprayed into a design reminiscent of a bird of paradise came over with a menu. "Hi, welcome to the Rocket! Can I get you something to drink?"
"Just water, please," Rose said.
"Sure thing! Today's specials are the Culture Club and the Crowded House Salad."
The waitress left, and Rose shook her head. Crowded House Salad? Does it get any cornier? Rose regretted the thought immediately when several members of the wait staff gathered at a table and started to sing Stevie Wonder's rendition of the "Happy Birthday" song.
Rose turned away from the off-key singing and jumped. There was a woman sitting at her table! "Jesus, you scared me!" she cried.
"Sorry," the woman said. "I tried to get your attention, but it's pretty loud in here."
"Who the hell are you, and what are you doing at my table?" Rose demanded.
"My name is Xenith. I'm here because of the kidnapping." Rose's eyes widened. She'd nearly forgotten she was supposed to be meeting someone here. She eyed the woman with renewed interest. She looked to be about the same age as Rose - in her mid twenties. She was a shade darker than Rose, with dark brown, shoulder length hair and a cute, heart-shaped face. She was not at all what Rose would have expected in a kidnapper, but appearances could be deceiving.
"How much do you want?" Rose asked.
"For the Dolls. How much do I have to pay you to get them back?"
The woman looked genuinely confused. Then she seemed to understand. She shook her head. "I'm not with the kidnappers."
"Then who are you with?" Rose asked.
"I'm not with anybody. I think we can help each other, that's all."
Rose looked at her suspiciously, not believing a word of it. "How did you find out about me?"
"I have a friend who works with A.I.D. She told me about you."
"Oh, right! The police are giving out my personal information now? I don't think so."
"She's not a cop," Xenith said. "She's an independent forensics expert. They just call on her sometimes to help with cases."
"You mean Dr. Madison?" Rose asked.
"Yes, Regina Madison. You met earlier today."
Rose leaned back, eyeing Xenith thoughtfully. The other woman had just risen a few notches in her opinion. Dr. Madison had been the only one of the three officials to at least pretend she cared about what had happened. Still, she had a lot of questions she wanted answered. "Why do you want to help me?"
"Because we're in the same boat. I've lost a doll to these people, too. And from what Regina said about you, I think we may be cut from the same cloth."
"How do you mean?" Rose asked.
"She said that you were serious about getting your dolls back," Xenith replied. "Are you?"
"Very," Rose said immediately, surprised by her own vehemence. But then she suddenly realized it was true. She was serious about getting them back. Even though there was hardly a lead at all and the police seemed to think she should be considering replacements, she knew she wouldn't rest until she found them. They weren't "units," to be replaced at the drop of a hat. They were her family.
"Good," Xenith said. "I'm dead set on getting my doll back too. But the A.I.D. doesn't really care about missing dolls unless they think they're rogues. Sure, it's grand larceny, so they'll look really hard at first. But when they don't find anything after a few weeks or so, they'll give up." Xenith scowled. "It's a toy," she said bitterly. "Get over it. Cash in on your insurance and buy another one."
Rose frowned, not liking the fact that Xenith obviously knew this from experience. Then a thought occurred to her. "You said Regina told you I was serious. Did she tell you why she thought that?"
Xenith nodded, grinning a little. "She said you were about two seconds away from smacking one of the cops when she suggested the Replacement Policy."
"Oh yeah," Rose said, smiling sheepishly at the memory. "I guess I did get pretty mad."
"And I don't blame you." Before any more could be said, the waitress returned with Rose's water. The women looked hastily over the menu and chose some cheesily named dish before continuing their conversation.
"How do you know our dolls were taken by the same people?" Rose asked.
"Because I was there when they took Steve," Xenith replied.
Rose gasped. "You had a Perry doll too?'
Xenith nodded. "Model 1983. Whoever is responsible has to be a collector or something. Anyway, the guys Regina described match the ones I saw."
"What happened?" Rose asked.
"A little over a year ago, two big guys in dark clothes and helmets broke into my house. One of them held me while the other one found Steve. They zapped him once with one of those mega-control rods and he could hardly function. The first guy shoved me onto the couch and told me to keep still if I didn't want to get hurt. Then they dragged Steve out of the house. As soon as they both got outside, I went out there after them and started screaming my head off, trying to attract some attention. Then one of the guys zapped me and I woke up in the hospital. I haven't seen Steve since."
"I'm sorry," Rose said, knowing it wasn't enough.
"Thanks," Xenith said. "But I'll get him back. I made that decision in physical therapy."
"Physical therapy?" Rose cried. Then she remembered what the boring training instructor had said about the effect those control rods had on humans.
"I was lucky," Xenith said. "The paralysis was mild, if you can call any paralysis mild. I was only in therapy for three months before I was walking again. But I learned a lot in those three months. I learned tenacity and determination. I learned that I hate those kidnappers with a passion and that I will be getting Steve back." She paused for a moment, then said, "Oh, yeah. I also learned that I detest Jell-O in all of its evil incarnations."
Rose laughed. She could get used to this girl. The meal came and they ate, making small talk. Xenith paid the bill, and they stood. "Where should we talk?" Rose asked.
"I think your place is closer," Xenith replied. "I'll follow you in my car."
"But the police said that people were watching my house. Are you sure it's safe to make plans there?"
"They won't be watching you any more. They have what they want."
"All right," Rose said, seeing the sense in it. "Let's go."
Twenty minutes later, they were sitting in Rose's living room. Xenith placed a briefcase on Rose's coffee table. Inside was a laptop, and a bulging manila folder labeled "Project Steve." Rose's eyes widened. "Looks like you've done a lot of research," she said.
"I've been working on it ever since the police gave up on him." She took out the laptop, opened it and typed for a few seconds. "All right. Here's what I've got so far. The kidnappers are mercenaries, working for someone else. Most likely, it's a Journey fan gone mad, since the only dolls that are ever stolen are patterned after members of Journey."
"You mean it's not just Perry dolls?"
Xenith shook her head. "Perry's, Schon's, Rollie's, you name it. But there is a pattern. Our kidnappers only take 1979, 1983, 1986 and 1996 models."
"Great," Rose said. "I had a '79 and a '96 in the same house! How convenient for them."
"Yeah, real convenient. They tend to steal from private persons, although there have been a few stores hit as well. All the robberies have occurred in and around Los Angeles County, so I'm assuming they're based here, or somewhere nearby. I've also noticed that they only take dolls of extremely high quality," Xenith added. "That's one of the reasons I think they must be working for someone else, instead of selling them on the black market or something."
"Regular thieves wouldn't be so picky," Rose said. "And they'd probably stop to steal a few other things as well. Especially if they'd gone to the trouble of getting past a store's security system."
"Exactly. From what I can tell, the robberies started about three years ago. I've tried checking old news bulletins to see if anything happened that year that might have triggered this, but I haven't come up with anything. From all accounts, the whole year was pretty dull. I got nowhere trying to trace the truck. No one ever seems to get the license plate number, and white trucks are just too common. I also tried to follow the control rod lead. You can't just go to a store and buy one, so I tried to find out if any large number of them had been stolen just before the robberies."
She shook her head. "None of the licensed sellers had any problems, so I tried to get some answers elsewhere."
"But the police and the army are the only people who have access to large numbers of those kinds of control rod," Rose said.
"So you're telling me you just called up the Army and asked if any of their control rods had gone missing?"
"Pretty much," Xenith said. "Naturally, the Army is ultra secretive, so I got nowhere with them. The police were just as helpful, but Regina said she hadn't heard of any control rods going missing from A.I.D. They're pretty fanatical where that's concerned. So I compiled a list of registered private users and cross referenced it with a list of control rods reported stolen in the past three years. Then I widened it to five years, figuring they might have started collecting them before the actual robberies began."
"What did you find out?"
Xenith sighed. "Nothing much. There were a few reported robberies during that time in California. About half of those were later found, leaving only five unaccounted for. I'm thinking there have to be more than five people involved in this."
"That means the brains of the operation already has his own," Rose said. "Maybe he's in the military or on the police force himself?"
"That's exactly what I thought," Xenith said. "I tried getting information on people still in the force, but it's next to impossible. What information I could get didn't point to anyone. I figured that someone still on the police force or in the army would be under too much scrutiny to safely organize a crime ring on the side. So I started working on a list of retired military and law enforcement personnel, but it's not finished yet."
Rose whistled. "Jeez! You don't go by halves do you?"
Xenith looked flattered. "You'd be surprised how much you can get done when you have no social life," she said deprecatingly. "Besides. I have to get Steve back."
"I understand that," Rose said. "What I don't understand is why you think you need me. You've already done all this research. What makes you think I could help you do any more than you've already done?"
"Two heads are better than one," she answered simply. "I'm still nowhere near finding the brains behind this operation. I think if I had some help, it would go a lot faster. Also, it would help me to know that there was someone else who cared as much as I do."
"Have you tried talking to the other robbery victims?" Rose asked.
"Yes. As for the shops, they have no reason to care very much. They were mostly glad that only one or two dolls were stolen. Beef up the security, write it off on the taxes and it's back to business as usual. The private owners I managed to track down who didn't slam the door in my face outright all told me pretty much the same thing. They were sad to lose their dolls, but no one was going on any vigilante crusade to get them back either. I should do as they had done and move on. If the police couldn't find them, what chance did I have? You're the only person I've talked to who's actually seen any of my research. Well, Regina's seen it, too. She thinks I'm on the right track, but there isn't much she can do. She can't convince the A.I.D. to reopen a case based on some civilian's speculations, no matter how plausible they are."
"Wow," Rose said. "It's lonely in the peanut gallery, isn't it?" Xenith laughed. "I don't know about those other people," she said. "But the only fanatical Journey fan who gets to touch my dolls is me. Let's get to work."