"BROWSING THE WARES"

Ted was very happy.

He had finished up his business at the college early, though he
wasn't sure he had sold the head of the maintenance department on
the idea of switching to the cleaning supplies he was repping that
month. Ted had mistakenly parked some distance from the correct
building, and had started back the way he came when the sky rumbled
with thunder and the heavens suddenly opened--beginning to soaking
him. He had cursed and quickened his pace.

Fate stepped in, as a slender hand had been placed upon his
shoulder, and he looked up to see an enormous, brightly colored
umbrella--almost twice as large as one of those big golf umbrellas--
sheltering him from the deluge. He had looked to his right and met
the smiling gaze of a very pretty red-headed coed in gym shorts and
a university t-shirt.

And so Ted was very happy.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," he grinned, wiping
water from his brow and walking along with his lovely young escort.
He gallantly held the umbrella for the both of them. Ted cast
admiring sidelong glances. She really was a cutie, and she smelled
of scented soap and a hint of some sort of understated perfume.

"You looked in need of saving," she giggled, keeping up with his
pace handily. "Where are you parked? The south lot?"

He looked about a bit uncertainly. "I...ahhh..."

"The one by the student center?" she asked helpfully.

"Yes, that's the one."

"That's not too far," she said with a smile. "Oh! Here, we can
take a shortcut."

She steered him with a hand on his lower back. They headed between
two large academic buildings into a passageway that wasn't much more
than a wide alley. The unforgiving rain still found them, coming
straight down between the brick walls to loudly patter upon the top
of the umbrella.

About halfway through the passageway, the girl stopped. Ted almost
didn't notice, she was so suddenly gone from his side. As he
glanced to his right once more and saw that she wasn't there, he
stopped and turned. The girl was about seven or eight paces behind
him, just standing there looking at him with a curious expression.
The rain was molding her t-shirt to her body in a sinfully
delightful way.

He grinned, bemused. "What are you doing?"

"I think I've gone far enough," she answered in a lilting voice.

Ted's grin broadened, though his confusion remained. "Far enough?
But..." He beckoned her forward. "C'mon, you'll catch your death.
This umbrella's built for two."

"Actually," she said, smiling and fingering a ring on her left
hand. "It was built for one."

Before he could even mull over her answer, Ted saw the girl press
the stone on her ring with great deliberation. Without warning, the
oversized umbrella suddenly closed tightly on Ted, pinning his arms
against his body. He struggled within the colorful fabric folds,
unable to see anything of the girl or his surroundings.

"Hey! Hey, what's...!?"

Further protests seemed to die in his throat, as he became aware of
a loud hissing noise from the metal shaft of the umbrella. Cloying
pink gas was quickly filling the inside of Ted's colorful prison.
The gas was devastatingly swift and continued unabated. He gasped
and moaned as the world seemed to lurch beneath him, and he felt
darkness taking him. He hardly felt the ground that had rushed up
to meet him.

"Sleepy time, sucker," he distantly heard the girl giggle over the
hissing gas. Then unconsciousness claimed him.

**********

The pretty red-headed coed waited patiently in the antique store,
while the muscular salesman in the gray suit went to fetch the
proprietress of the high-priced establishment.

The salesman reappeared, holding the office door open for the shop
owner as she entered.

Dressed in a fashionable sea-foam ensemble of a short skirt and
imported silk blouse, the woman was possessed of classically
beautiful features. Her shoulder-length blonde hair framed her
gorgeous face in a style that was as casual as money could buy. A
pair of small granny glasses was perched upon her nose, but they
only seemed to enhance the attractiveness of this beguiling thirty-
something woman.

"Monica," the proprietress said with a smile. "How nice to see you,
dear. Have you brought me something interesting today?"

The young coed returned the smile and nodded. "I think you'll be
pleased."

The woman's smile brightened a bit. "As always." She extended her
well-manicured hand to the assistant at her side. The man produced
a bulging envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to his
employer, who in turn offered it to Monica. "I'll look for you
again in two months, dear."

Monica took the envelope and placed it inside her handbag. "Good.
April showers and all of that."

"Indeed," the woman said with a small chuckle, moving to an umbrella
stand next to the counter. She withdrew a large, brightly colored
umbrella identical to the one the girl had brought in with her, and
they wordlessly exchanged them. "Carl, would you please go to
Monica's car in the back and take our acquisition to sublevel two,
holding cell four."

The man nodded and headed to the door. Monica winked and grinned at
the woman before walking after the large salesman.

The proprietress stood alone in her shop, smiling happily to
herself. Time to make a phone call.

*********

Lila DeWinter crossed her long legs and allowed herself to relax in
the supremely comfortable chair that had been provided for her by
her hostess. In her severe, exquisitely tailored suit, Lila looked
every inch like her preferred moniker in the criminal underworld:
The Businesswoman. Cool, collected, and radiating an aura of self-
assurance and control, not a raven hair was out of place. Her
beauty was indisputable, and had a delicious edge of wickedness.

She steepled her fingers and let her gaze play over the "showroom",
as it had been called. Part sumptuous receiving area for clients
and part workshop, the large room was dominated by a bank of
monitors that displayed different areas of the underground complex.
Nobody could possible have guessed that all this was far beneath the
quaint and pricey antique shop at street level.

To her left, she heard a quiet, breathy, feminine sound of
pleasure. "Mmmmmm..."

Arching a brow slightly, Lila turned, not for the first time, toward
an elegantly set table in the near corner. Seated at the table,
which was arranged as if for a romantic dinner, was one of
the "house specialties". It was a preternaturally attractive female
automaton known in the catalog as an "AnestheBot". The technology
of the construct had always amazed her. All biological processes
could be simulated to a very high degree. The skin of the construct
was soft, flawless, and warm. The voice could be adjusted to taste,
and the behavioral programming routines were almost frightening they
were so advanced. The automaton's primary purpose was for sedating
and securing targets, which earned it the quaint nickname of "Sleepy
Sally". It was top of the line, customizable merchandise.

Set for display, the AnestheBot was nude, displaying its dangerous
curves and ample bosom. Its skin and bobbed hair slowly and
automatically ran through a range of subtle colors, demonstrating
the versatility of the unit in altering physical appearance. Even
the areolas of the breasts went through slow shifts from light to
dark. Every few minutes or so, the automaton would shift
slightly...somewhat sensuously...in its chair, and produce that soft
sound of carnal pleasure. Lila pursed her lips pensively and turned
back to the monitors.

At that moment, the proprietress from the shop far above entered the
room carrying a silver tray bearing libations. The woman's
clothing was now dramatically different than what she had worn in
her shop. An emerald, second-skin catsuit accentuated the woman's
magnificent figure. Loosely around her waist was a compartmented
belt holding small, high-tech tools, and black knee boots hugged her
shapely legs. Her blonde hair was now pulled back into a silky
ponytail. Lila smiled at her hostess.

"I was grateful for your call, Toybox," Lila remarked, using the
only name she ever used for her friend and merchandise supplier. "I
was beginning to wonder if you had decided to retire."

The woman chuckled as she set the tray down and offered a glass to
her guest. "Retire? And leave show business?"

Lila smiled at the private joke as she took the glass. "What a loss
it would be. Besides needing the occasional resupply, I dearly love
seeing what new marvels you've put your genius to." She took a
lingering sip of her drink. "Now, then. What have you got for me?"

Toybox set her own drink aside and moved to don a wireless headset
and retrieve a small remote. She was used to Lila getting right to
the quick of things. Was she not, after all, known as The
Businesswoman?

The cat-suited woman brought over a slender, gold-bound catalog for
Lila to refer to. The Businesswoman had extracted a cigarette from
her silver cigarette case, and, ever the gracious hostess, Toybox
produced a small lighter for her client.

"It must be about time for more of the special smokes, yes?" asked
the woman as she extended the flame for Lila.

Lila puffed the cigarette to life and nodded slowly as she languidly
blew a plume of fragrant smoke toward the ceiling. "Mmmm-hmmm. We
may as well start there. I've a number of contracts coming up."

Toybox smiled as she made a quick note, murmuring, "I daresay you're
my best customer on that little item."

"Well," she answered with a small wave of her hand. "Let's just say
that chivalry with a lighter is often rewarded with an unexpected
nap." Lila took another sip of her drink. "Oh, by the way I was
wondering if you might look into the potency of the smoke. There
are occasions when I've a need for something faster-acting. It's
fine to have an unsuspecting mark on his knees after two direct
puffs, but if I'm using it to put someone to sleep to facilitate an
escape..."

The blonde smiled and raised her hand. "I anticipated that, and
I've addressed it. Here."

She pressed a button on the remote, and one of the monitors switched
its view to a hallway. On the right side of the hall was a cell
door with bars, though the camera couldn't see inside the cell. At
the end of the hallway was a slender woman in a black catsuit. As
was the custom for Toybox's cadre of female guards, the woman was
made up like a mime.

Toybox spoke quietly into her headset. "Nicole..." On the monitor,
the woman placed a finger against her earpiece. "Would you give
your charge in number sixteen a bit of lullaby smoke, please?"

The woman on the screen could be seen nodding. She began to walk
down the hallway while producing a cigarette from one of her belt
compartments. As she came near the cell, a man's arm could be seen
coming through the bars. It looked, from the gestures, that the
prisoner was trying to reason with his captor, though there was no
audio. Nicole simply ignored his entreaties while she drew out a
lighter and carefully lit her cigarette. The hand on the end of the
arm was now a shaking fist, indicating that the occupant of the cell
was now angry. The lovely mime just stood out of reach of the arm,
her heavily made-up face betraying little emotion as she let the
prisoner rant for a moment longer. With an almost bored air, she
drew deeply on her cigarette, rounded her red lips, and blew a long
stream of thick smoke at the unseen prisoner. The fist stopped
shaking almost immediately...then opened up...then the arm
disappeared quickly back into the cell. Nicole walked slowly to the
bars, looking down. She turned to face the camera with a smile.
She placed her hands together, closed her eyes, and rested her cheek
on the back of one hand. The message was clear.

"The potency should be what you're looking for," Toybox said,
turning back to Lila. "As usual, the victim will be asleep for
three to four hours."

Lila took a pensive drag on her own cigarette. "Very good," she
murmured approvingly, letting the smoke waft from her lips. "Please
add them to my order."

"Of course."

"But now what else can you show me tod..."

From the corner table came the now familiar "Mmmmmm..." of the
AnestheBot. Lila glanced over again.

"Honestly, my dear, is it necessary to have it doing that every few
minutes?" she asked.

Toybox gave a small chuckle. "I'm sorry. It's a function of the
program that's running." Her eyes seemed to sparkle a bit
now. "You've read about the disappearance of the software
designer's son, haven't you?"

Lila nodded. "He was on vacation from college. Rio, I think it
was. Vanished without a trace. The authorities suspect foul play."

"And daddy is a multi-gazillionaire." She batted her eyes
coyly. "One would almost assume it was a kidnapping for ransom."

A small smile spread on Lila's face. "Toybox, dear, have you been
doing a little moonlighting?"

The blonde grinned, clearly enjoying the moment. "Mmmmm...could be."

"The news said nothing about a ransom, but I'd almost be willing to
wager that young Gazillionaire, Jr. is squirreled safely away in one
of those cells of yours."

Toybox nodded happily. "The press doesn't know about the financial
arrangement that's being put together. As for being squirreled
away, well, it wouldn't do to have such a valuable prize out of my
direct control. He's easily worth a hundred million."

Before Lila could even ask the obvious question, Toybox walked over
to the corner table where the automaton was seated. With a broad
smile and a bit of a flourish, she grasped the long linen tablecloth
and flipped it up onto the table.

Beneath the table was a young man who had been stripped down to a
pair of boxer shorts. He didn't appear to be bound in any way, but
the reason for that was quickly puzzled out. His legs were tucked
beneath him, and his mouth and nose were resting snug against the
crotch of the "Sleepy Sally". The automaton's long legs were draped
one over each of his shoulders, and crossed at the ankles behind him-
-effectively holding him right in place.

Almost as if on cue, there was an almost silent "ssss", and a bit of
light yellow gas drifted up alongside the young man's face. As the
dose of sleeping gas was faithfully discharged from the AnestheBot's
sex, it squirmed just a bit in its seat and moaned a
breathy "Mmmmmm..."

Lila simply watched for a long moment, then gave a genuinely amused
chuckle. "Oh, my wonderful twisted Toybox. You ARE a delight."

The blonde beamed and took an exaggerated bow. "Sleeping like a
baby and no doubt having dreams to fuel fantasies for the rest of
his life. Daddy is making payment tomorrow." She pulled the
tablecloth back down and returned to the monitors. "Good thing,
too. My research and production costs are astronomical."

Lila gave a small toast with her glass. "Bravo, dear."

"Now, where were we?" she remarked, still smiling. "Perhaps you
might be interested in a compact, spring-loaded bola that releases a
lovely knockout gas after entangling the victim."

"Let's take a look," agreed Lila, regarding the monitor.

Toybox spoke into the headset. "Ashlyn, I'm opening the door to
number six. Give him two minutes, then go bring him down with the
Night-Night Bola, please."

The afternoon of demonstrations wore on.

************

With a sudden clatter, the cell door rolled open.

Startled, Ted's head jerked up. He had been lost in thought for the
thousandth time about what had led to him being held in this
strange, nameless place. He had already abandoned any notion that
he was here legally, or that he would be able to free himself. All
that was left was to wonder why it had happened and what was going
to happen next.

Now, completely out of left field...the door was open. What WAS
this?

He was on his feet now, his eyes fixed on the open doorway. He was
wondering if maybe...maybe he should...

And then there was a woman standing outside in the corridor. An
unusual woman. Dressed in a black, skin-tight outfit, the woman's
face was made-up like a street mime. White face, outlined eyes,
painted brows, and red, red lips. Her dark hair was held up by a
pair of what almost looked like chopsticks. She looked into the
cell at him, then looked down the corridor and up at...something.
Her fingers went to an earpiece, then she nodded and faced him once
more. She beckoned him forward with a crooked finger.

Ted blinked and took a hesitant step forward. He was very confused,
but...but staying in the cell would do him no good. He took another
step. Then another. Soon he was in the corridor and before the
strange woman. Her eyes had never left him as he approached. He
had weighed his options as he moved to her. Could he overpower her
if he had to? She was smaller than he was, but...scenes of cheesy
ninja movies flashed through his mind. Hell, she was almost dressed
*like* a ninja.

"What...what do you...?" he began falteringly.

With a graceful, fluid movement, the woman reached back and removed
one of the smooth chopsticks from her hair. The movement caused Ted
to jump involuntarily, but he stayed where he was. A half-smile
crossed the woman's painted lips at his reaction. She held out the
chopstick, as if to demonstrate that it was harmless. He looked at
it and noticed that aside from being elegantly carved along its
length, on the thicker top of the chopstick was what appeared to be
a tiny pair of puckered lips.

A nervous chuckle escaped Ted. He was about to venture some
ineffectual comment when, to his surprise, the little lips opened
and a perfect miniature white smoke ring puffed out at him.
Followed by another. And another. The small rings of smoke washed
over his nose...broke and floated before his eyes...and...and...god,
but they smelled wonnnnderful.

Without realizing it, Ted started to smile. The smoke seemed to
enter his consciousness and wrap itself around his senses and his
mind, lulling him...making him so very, very pliable.

The woman before him also smiled, seeming to revel in her actions.
Satisfied that the smoke rings had done their work, the mime lowered
her hand. She glanced again at something up the corridor.
Ordinarily, Ted would have followed her gaze, curious to see what
she was looking at. But now? He was content to simply stand there,
lost in a delicious haze into which the exotically beautiful woman
had delivered him. She patted him on the cheek, then placed a hand
upon his chest and began backing him into the cell once more. He
happily allowed himself to be guided.

Once inside the cell, the woman's fingers again found her earpiece,
and she appeared to be listening to something...though Ted couldn't
have been less concerned about what. She nodded, took his arm, and
started to step back toward the corridor. Then she paused. With a
secret smile, the mime stepped close to Ted and pressed her lips to
his in a lingering kiss.

She parted from him and leaned in to whisper in his ear, "Time to
sleep for me, sweetie."

Taking his arm again, she led Ted back out into the hallway. The
woman reached back and pulled the second chopstick from her hair,
which tumbled down about her shoulders in a soft cascade. She took
a step away from him, leaving him standing obediently where he was,
and raised her arm straight out at him, pointing the chopstick at
his face.

His eyes had just managed to focus on the hand and what it held.
Again he saw the tiny pair of lips. This time, however, as the
little lips parted they made an adorable smooching sound, and a
steady stream of candy-sweet purple gas hissed from the lips and
into his face. This gas, too, smelled so...soooo wonderful. But it
also made him instantly so very sleepy. He blinked slowly once,
still able to make out the mime face of the woman smiling at
him...her expression almost saying she was sorry to have to do it,
but that's the way life is. As his eyes slowly closed, the smile
remained upon his face, and the image of his lovely captor stayed
with him all the way down to the floor as he floated off into an
induced sleep.

And though he would never admit it to anyone...

Ted was very happy.