Chapter 4

The transformation was just as disturbing and disorienting as before, but being ready for it meant I weathered it a bit better. I didn’t lose consciousness, but I was decidedly off balance by the time I was done. I looked down into my hand – Jerry’s hand – and found the Maserati keys sitting in my palm.

“So how does this work then?” I asked holding the keys up. My voice sounded strange. It took a moment with my discombobulated brain to realise that for almost a year, this voice, this body, had been Laura’s. Now she was back to being herself, and I was me again.

“I don’t know,” Laura said, looking down at her dress with something approaching disappointment. The smile she offered me contained more courage than genuine happiness.

“The makers of the bowl believed that possessions, being actual things, belong to the body rather than the mind, or soul if you prefer,” the old lady said. “The mind was thought to be a visitor and so couldn’t own anything more than its experiences in life. As such, the magic returns the thing you pick out of the bowl to the body that owns it along with your mind during the transfer.”

My befuddled brain had forgotten whose house we were in, and that she was here.

“Please keep the bowl safe until we come back to you,” I said to her, and she nodded.

We took our leave, shaking her hand and thanking her for her for hospitality. I guided Laura out of the house, feeling unusually off balance out of my heels. The trousers and shirt were comfortable enough, and smart, but they felt course and ungainly after my summer dress. I felt ugly, and I missed the weight of the hair on my head. I felt wrong.

I opened the car door for her and she smiled at me as she slipped into the passenger seat.

We drove home in silence for the most part, during which time I learned a new appreciation for why she had bought the Maserati. It was a fun car to drive, but the speed, excellent handling, throaty roar and general feel of going fast with the top down did little enough to lift my mood. I smiled bravely a couple of times for Laura’s sake, and she smiled back.

I hated that she’d done this. I already missed being Laura and, odd as it may sound, I felt like a stranger in my own body. Everything felt wrong, and all I could think of was how much more contented I’d been as a woman. Time of the month notwithstanding, I found more pleasure in everything feminine. It was like I fit better into a female lifestyle, which was strange as I’d never been that aware of it before the whole business with Tony and his bowl.

I wondered to what great a lengths Laura must have gone to find this latest artefact. It gave me a way to break through the silence that had hung over us since our most recent transformation.

“So how did you find her?” I asked, rubbing my throat reflexively; I wasn’t used to my voice sounding so coarse. At least she’d worn an open necked shirt. I wasn’t sure I could have gone back to suit and tie, not after a year of showing off my cleavage.

“That wasn’t so hard in the end,” she said. “Any decent antiques dealer knows most of the good stuff is out in the country, and most of us have a few people on payroll knocking on doors and asking if there’s anything the home owners might be interested in selling. In lean times like these, you’d be surprised how many people are keen to make a few quid.

“I simply told my guys to ask around after a bowl like the ones we have on display in the shop – gave them a photograph to work from and everything. It took most of this past year before they finally knocked on Mrs Maxwell’s door. She didn’t have anything she wanted to part with, but they showed her the photograph and left her one of our cards. She was on the phone to me a day later.”

“So you’ve been looking for another bowl all the time we’ve been like this?”

“I thought it was important that we do this; that you have an opportunity to choose with an open and right mind.”

“Why? Weren’t you happy the way we were? Or have you wanted your body back all along?”

I hadn’t meant my words to sound so angry. I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d lost my temper. My parents had disciplined me to control my moods from an early age – more for their benefit than mine I think – and it had stuck with me through all of my life. Even Portia, who had severely tested my patience at times, never succeeded in riling me to the extent that I couldn’t maintain control.

Things changed after I became Laura though. There’d been enough times over the last year when I’d had cause to be angry, but it had felt different. Frustration led to words, which led to tears and relief. No underlying turmoil, no bubbling caldera threatening to erupt given half a chance.

It seemed a year without testosterone had robbed me of my capacity to keep my emotions in check, and in speaking my mind at that moment, I hadn’t particularly tried to hold anything back. It was disturbing as I could feel the threat of more violent outbursts close to the surface.

I glanced across at Laura, and caught sight of a tear running down the side of her nose. I wondered if she was having as much difficulty coping with her reintroduction to oestrogen.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not adjusting too well this time.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“I wonder why that should be. We didn’t have this much trouble last time.”

“Adrenaline? We were both pretty amped up last time.”

“Or maybe it was because we were better off the other way round. I mean you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself much.”

She ducked her head, hiding behind her hair as I had so often done this last year. It was an answer of sorts.

“So why don’t we turn around right now?”

“One week remember. We can’t change back yet. If we try we’ll be stuck like this for longer.”

“Whose stupid rule is that?”

“I don’t know. It’s built into the magic though. I think it’s because it takes time to adjust whenever you go through a change, and one week is considered enough to allow you to adapt to your new status.”

“I don’t need a week to tell me this is wrong.”

She turned away, refusing to answer me, and probably trying to hide more tears. I didn’t try saying anything else for the rest of the journey.

-oOo-

The remainder of our anniversary was a bust. I’d originally planned to cook us a meal in the evening, but I didn’t feel like it by the time we arrive back home. Instead I poured myself a generous malt and downed half of it in one heroic gulp. Actually it was an act of bloody stupidity, designed more to annoy Laura than to help me cope. On rediscovering how little I liked the taste, I left the rest of the tumbler on the coffee table, without using a coaster. Again it was something that would have upset me as Laura, but now I found I didn’t care.

Laura put together a couple of light salads, and we sat in silence for a while stirring them about with our forks, before giving up on the day and heading for bed. She spent a while in the bathroom and when she came out it was evident that she’d put some effort into getting ready for bed. She was wearing her slinky, short, red nightdress and had brushed her hair into a lustrous shine. She looked amazing, but all I could think of was how much more I wanted to be her than with her. I didn’t trust myself to open my mouth so didn’t comment.

She slid into bed beside me and snuggled up under my arm, her head resting lightly on my chest. I owed her an apology for the way I’d behaved this afternoon, I knew I did. I knew she was doing this all for the right reasons, and more out of concern for me than because she wanted to change back, but having the insight didn’t seem to make it any easier for me to comment.

I turned out the light and held her close. It was all I could manage.

After a while I felt a dampness on my chest which seemed to go some way to dissolving my anger. She didn’t deserve to suffer for this. She hadn’t done anything wrong; just something hard, and probably as hard for her as for me.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, stroking her hair.

“Why? It’s me that screwed up.”

“You didn’t screw up. You did something necessary, even though you didn’t want to, even though you knew I didn’t want to. It took more guts than I had, or have, to do it, and you don’t deserve for me to treat you like this.”

She snuggled in closer. “Do you mean that?”

“I still love you,” I was unsure if I could respond to her question with anything approaching conviction, but this much I did know for certain. Regardless of which of us was who, I couldn’t imagine loving anyone else.

Her fingers traced patterns on my chest for a while, then started to explore further south.

“Do you mind if we don’t tonight?” I asked when it became obvious where she was heading.

She stopped and rested her hand flat on my chest. We lay like that for a long while until her breathing slowed and steadied, then I focused on the rhythm of my own breathing until eventually I joined her in sleep.

-oOo-

I woke the following morning to find the bed beside me empty. It was an odd feeling as I had grown used to waking first and sneaking off for some early morning alone time. Now I was back to struggling for consciousness. It wasn’t exactly a girl-boy thing, but it was still a difference between our bodies that made me wish for my old one back.

Shit, that was weird. I had my old body back. This was the one I’d worn for over thirty years before I’d met Laura, and yet it didn’t feel like mine anymore. So weird.

The door eased open and Laura padded in dressed as she had been the previous night in the same short slinky nightdress and carrying two mugs. I felt an involuntary response from under the bedclothes – familiar and yet oddly alien.

“Morning sleepy head,” she said settling back onto the bed and offering me one of the mugs.

“Morning,” I murbled. “How long have you been up?”

“Up, ten minutes. Awake, a couple of hours. I forgot how little I used to sleep.”

“Yeah, I kind of like my early mornings. I usually sit in the conservatory and watch the sun come up.”

“I spent mine watching you sleep. It was a bit strange.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sort of right and wrong at the same time. Right to be lying beside you. Wrong not to be you.”

I sipped at the coffee and felt dormant neurons fire reluctantly into life.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“Business as usual I guess.”

“Only we switch around.” I couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice. It didn’t matter as she ignored me anyway.

“Which means you get to make breakfast while I spend a ridiculous amount of time in the bathroom.” She flashed me a cheerful smile.

“I don’t remember you complaining about the results.”

“I was joking, love.” Suddenly conciliatory. Wary of my mood.

“I know.” I just about managed a smile. “What do you fancy?”

“A bagel would be nice.”

“You’ll only eat half of it.”

“Then make sure you put my full ration of butter on that half.” She disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door.

There wasn’t much to get ready. Couple of plates, couple of knives, couple of glasses of orange juice. Bagel sliced and waiting in the toaster, butter on standby. Responding more to habit than to hunger, I’d decided to limit myself to the other half of Laura’s breakfast.

She didn’t keep me waiting long. I’m not sure if she was trying to make a point, but ten minutes after I headed down to the kitchen, I heard her footsteps on the stairs. I pushed the toaster down and turned to greet her, raising an eyebrow at her choice of faded jeans and sweatshirt.

We’d moved Laura’s grunge stuff, as I called it, across some months back when she – or I – had come to live in the house full time and we’d sold her place. I only really wore it for cleaning, or gardening, or other dirty jobs.

“What?” she asked. “You know I don’t like dresses.”

The toaster popped and I turned my attention to the job of adding sufficient juicy, fatty goodness while the bagel was still hot enough to melt it.

“Nice to have the choice,” I mumbled, trying to keep it quiet enough to be unintelligible.

“I wouldn’t mind if you wore a dress,” she said.

I should have figured she’d hear me. I mean they’d been my ears for most of the past year.

“I think our customers might have a thing or two to say about it.” I handed over her half of bagel and bit into my own.

“Yeah, maybe not in the shop, but you could still do it around here if you wanted.”

She was quite a bit smaller than me, but she did have one or two dresses that might be stretchy enough. I tried to imagine myself wearing one of them, and the image was not great.

“We’ll see. I need to get ready.” I took my half bagel and OJ upstairs, leaving her to finish eating on her own. I wasn’t trying to be unkind, but we did need to get going. Besides the sight of her wolfing down her food wasn’t doing much for my appetite.

Ten minutes later I was showered and dressed and sitting in front of a mirror feeling I ought to be doing something. My hair was neatly combed – all of thirty seconds’ work – which left nothing much. I’d forgotten to shave, but it didn’t look too bad and if Laura couldn’t be bothered, I certainly wasn’t going to make an effort.

Besides it was Sunday. We had an auction to attend that morning, but we wouldn’t bother opening the shop till the afternoon, and if things went as usual, we probably wouldn’t see many customers.

-oOo-

The auction ended up being a waste of time. I mean don’t get me wrong, there were some nice pieces there, but for a year we’d been relying – successfully I might add – on my good taste combined with the girlish instincts I’d acquired from the swap to identify things that would sell, and Laura’s knowledge of antiques, combined with her masculine pragmatism allowing us to set sensible prices on the pieces we bid for. Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted, but what was most important was that we didn’t pay too much for anything, or bid on anything we couldn’t then sell.

Switched around, our instincts were all messed up. I felt nothing of the usual passion and excitement that accompanied a good find, and Laura ended up misjudging quite a few prices. After a couple of narrow escapes early on, we contented ourselves with watching for a while, then gave up all together.

After lunch, I drove us back to the shop. It had clouded over a little since the previous day, and was turning cold with a threat of rain, so I put the roof up. That was one down side to convertibles. They were great with the top down, but as soon as you put the lid on they started feeling more than a little claustrophobic, so we couldn’t even enjoy the drive.

With the shop open, there wasn’t much to do but wait. Sunday trade was always slow. Not many people came into the city on the Sabbath. Not many people seemed to go to church either, so they might as well have come shopping, but then some habits die hard. Mike, Pete and Randy had held the fort the previous day, besides, they usually took Sundays off anyway, so we couldn’t even tell them the good news about the bowl.

I wasn’t in my most conversational mood, and things were getting awkward between us, so Laura headed into the back to unpack and price some new stock that had come in. For my part, I busied myself checking over the labels on everything we had on display.

I’d decided to try out a new technique for pricing. Being an antiques shop, there was always a tendency for customers to want to negotiate a bit. Laura was pretty good at valuing things, and we usually priced them with enough of a mark up to allow for the haggle factor, and to give us a reasonable profit. In order to let the hired help know how much of a reduction in price we were prepared to accept, I’d started marking the labels in the corners. We’d allow a fiver discount for each tick in the top right and an extra quid for each one in the bottom right. It wasn’t fool proof, but it seemed to work, as we hadn’t undersold anything in the couple of weeks since I’d started the idea.

I was an hour and a half into a systematic survey of everything we had on display, making sure the labels were correctly marked, when the doorbell jangled and I turned to greet the first – and probably only– customer of the day.

“Hello Laura. How are you enjoying being a man?”

“Hello Tony. When did they let you out?”

“I had a parole review a couple of days ago. I wasn’t expecting much, but they evidently thought I wasn’t a risk to myself or society as a whole, so here I am.”

“You should have let us know. We’d have been glad to come down and tell them what you’re like. What do you want anyway?”

“Is that any way to speak to an old friend?”

“Friends don’t steal from friends, Tony, nor do they mess up friends’ lives.”

“Yeah, sorry about how that worked out.” He sounded anything but. “I could say something similar to you too. You know Mary left me?”

“And how is that our fault?”

“You put me out of business.”

“Which, if you’d been competitive instead of greedy, wouldn’t have happened.”

“You got me arrested.”

“We had nothing to do with that. You started fencing stolen goods and got yourself arrested.”

“I wouldn’t have had to resort to that if you hadn’t put me out of business.” His mood had been darkening with each exchange. He was fairly glowering at me now.

“See my previous answer.” I wouldn’t be drawn on the matter, and responded to him with an emotionless calm, which was probably more infuriating than if I had raised my voice to him. “I have to ask, did she leave you because you lost all your money, or because you turned back into a criminal?”

He refused to answer, but stared daggers at me. When he next spoke, it was with a poorly imposed calm.

“How is Jerry these days? Weird how he ended up being such a girly girl.”

Laura chose that moment to walk through from the back, carrying a couple of vases. She stopped dead on seeing Tony.

“What the fuck do you want?”

His eyebrows rose briefly, but her appearance seemed to return to him some measure of self-control.

“Hello Jerry. I don’t remember you having such a foul mouth.”

“Knowing you’s enough to make a nun swear. Now like I said, what the fuck do you want?”

“Anyone would think you weren’t pleased to see me.” A flicker of a smile played around the corners of his mouth. This was the kind of reaction he’d been looking for, and he was beginning to enjoy himself once more.

“We’re not.” Laura put the vases down on the counter and crossed her arms. “Now state your business or fuck off. Actually, why don’t you just fuck off? We don’t care what you want, and we don’t want anything to do with you.”

“What if I could tell you where you could find another bowl?”

I couldn’t help glancing across at Laura. She kept her eyes locked on his, a tiny snarl playing on her pretty face.

“Not funny, Tony. If there was another bowl out there, we’d have found it by now. Now fuck the hell off before I call the police. I’m sure your parole won’t last long if I complain about your harassing us.”

“What would you tell them?” Tony’s smile was all shark. “That I turned you into each other? You’d end up in the loony bin before they put me back in prison.”

“It doesn’t have to be the truth, dickhead.” Laura’s snarl grew. If sharks had natural predators…

“Fine, I’ll go. It was worth it just to see the expressions on your faces though. Would you let Mike, Pete and Randal know that I asked after them?”

“What makes you think they’d be any happier to see you than us?”

“Just tell them, okay?” He backed out of the shop, self-satisfied little smile still firmly in place.

We waited till he was completely out of sight before reacting.

“How could he know?” I asked.

“He can’t; he was just fishing.”

“Yes, but why?”

“To get a rise out of us? I don’t know. I hate that I reacted to him like that. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.”

There wasn’t much else to say on the matter, so we let it drop. Laura asked me to bring through a few of the heavier new items from the back and the day returned to something approaching normal for a Sunday. Tony’s visit had left an added sourness to my mood though, and I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of unease over the whole thing. With the weather turning nasty, there weren’t any shoppers about, so we gave up early and headed back for a quiet evening in, and an early night.

-oOo-

We opened early the next day again, Pete Mike and Randy still being owed some time off for covering the shop on Saturday. They turned up just after lunch, and we passed on Tony’s message, eliciting the predicted unhappy responses. Then we told them about the bowl. We’d wanted to see it and check it out for ourselves before we got their hopes up, but we’d found a way to give them their original lives back.

We’d expected them to be happy, but there followed an uneasy exchange of glances between them.

“We should leave you to discuss this,” I said standing and taking Laura’s hand.

“No, it’s okay.” Randy was the usual spokesman for the three. “It’s just that… well I guess we’ve all moved on with our lives. We’re grateful and everything, but I think we all have more to lose switching back now.”

This was unexpected, but then again when I thought of Laura and myself.

“I think we’re a bit surprised that you’ve changed back,” Mike chipped in. “I mean I know it must have been a bit weird with changing sex and all, but you guys were so great together.”

“What makes you think we’re not still great together?” Laura asked.

“No reason. It’s just that you seemed so right the other way round.”

“And we don’t this way?”

“I don’t know. But you don’t mess with a good thing. In a lot of ways our changing round was a good thing. We’ve all gained more than we’ve lost, but you guys…”

Laura looked up at me over her shoulder, but I was busy trying to figure out why that nagging feeling had grown suddenly worse.

-oOo-

Laura and I took the afternoon off, as much at the other three’s insistence than anything else. We wandered through the shopping precinct where I pointed out a few dresses I thought would look good on her. She didn’t seem that enthusiastic.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “The first night I met you, you looked amazing in that red dress.”

“Yeah, I was trying to blend in. I mean jeans and a sweatshirt at that party? I wouldn’t have made it through the door. And it wasn’t even mine.”

“But you had a few skirts and dresses in your wardrobe.”

“Again so I could look the part. Some of the auction houses are a bit stuffy about dress code.”

“And that red nightdress?”

“That was a present from a former boyfriend. More for his pleasure than mine, I think.”

I dropped the subject and we spent the afternoon drifting though pawn brokers and charity shops. There wasn’t a lot worth having, but we did pick one or two little things. Towards the end of the afternoon we found a coffee shop where Laura gave me her order and left me in the short queue while she headed down the road a short distance. She returned ten minutes later with a secretive smile and a pink striped bag.

As the day had worn on, I’d found myself adapting back into male life. I couldn’t say that I was overjoyed about the change any more than I had been the previous day, but I was considerably less unhappy. I was still with Laura, and on the inside she was still the person I’d fallen in love with. Her mannerisms were subtly different in her own body, but I could still see her in there. I focused on that and my feelings for her, and somehow life wasn’t so bad.

We picked up a takeaway from a Thai restaurant on the way home. I’d been happy to cook as Laura, but for some reason was less so now, and Laura was no queen of the kitchen, whichever body she was wearing. We’d sort it out before long. Actually, I hoped we wouldn’t have to, that the week would end and we could go back to being ourselves.

Again here I was thinking backwards. This was the body I’d been born in, but somehow I knew I belonged in Laura’s. At least I felt I knew that. How could I belong in someone else’s body?

The meal was welcome. Laura pouted a bit that she didn’t have enough appetite to eat much of it, but I made good use of Jerry’s metabolism and my small breakfast and lunch to indulge myself. I didn’t overeat, and there was still quite a bit left for the freezer when we’d finished. I was comfortably replete by the time I put my knife and fork to rest.

It was early, but Laura smiled muzzily at me over her half-finished glass of wine. I’d put three away myself and was enjoying the mild buzz they’d brought me. She took my hand, retrieved the pink bag from the hall where we’d dumped our few spoils from the afternoon, and led me upstairs.

She bit her lip nervously and reached into the bag.

“Give this a chance, okay? It was thinking about that guy who bought me the red nightie that gave me the idea. This is for you.”

She pulled a small package out of the bag and handed it to me.

Her sense of anticipation was infectious, sending shivers down my spine as I opened the box and pulled out a…

Well there wasn’t that much of it. All gauzy, flimsy material. It was a plus size, which meant it was for me rather than her, but it wasn’t going to cover a lot of me. I looked up into her hopeful expression.

“I have one too.” She retrieved a similar, but slightly smaller package from her bag of tricks. “You change in the bathroom. I don’t want to see you until you’re ready.”

It was the strangest feeling. On one level it felt wrong, but then I’d spent most of a year wearing dresses, so what was the big deal? I was kind of used to following Laura’s lead as well, so despite feeling a little uncomfortable about it all, I did as she suggested.

I looked ridiculous. Our bathroom didn’t have the largest of mirrors, but I could see enough to know that Jerry’s light musculature looked uncharacteristically, overwhelmingly male against the frills and the pink lace. The outfit included a pair of sheer knickers, which seriously could not even begin to contain my bulge, and a baby doll nightie in the same translucent material, which fell to just low enough to cover most of my embarrassment. Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I re-joined Laura in the bedroom.

To give her credit, she didn’t laugh. Her smile when it came was welcoming rather than ridiculing. She pulled the sheets back to reveal herself, similarly attired, and my bulge grew subtly, almost painfully larger.

She pulled me down onto the bed and rolled me onto my back, then proceeded to do things to me that I never would have suspected were possible. One thing about wearing someone else’s body for a year, you learn where all the right places are, and Laura had intimate knowledge of mine. By the time we’d removed our knickers and she’d climbed on top of me, I was so bursting with need that I was barely inside her before I reached my climax.

She lay beside me for a while, no words needed, no words wanted. She stroked my chest through the delicate fabric of my night dress and waited till there were signs of life once more between my legs. The second time was better than the first, and lasted long enough for her to enjoy. The third time, I took over and showed her what I had learnt of her body, which meant that by the time we were done, we were both utterly spent.

We lay there in the aftermath, listening to each other’s heavy breathing. A thought occurred to me.

“You did take your pill this morning, didn’t you?”

“Oh fuck.”

-oOo-

Sleep didn’t come easily that night. We hadn’t talked about children since the last scare. I get the impression Laura thought I’d been freaked out by the idea of giving birth and so was giving me time to come to terms with it all. For my part, I’d wanted her to show some signs of being ready to talk about it.

As we lay there, I found I rather liked the idea of being a parent, just that I really wanted to be the mum, despite all that entailed. Being pregnant wasn’t an issue, which one of us ended up being was. I told her as much.

“You’re welcome to it,” she said to me. “I mean don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a kid, but I never fancied the idea of squeezing one out.”

“Do you think there’ll be any issue about using the bowl if you are pregnant?”

“Shit, I never thought of that. I’ll call her tomorrow and ask.”

“What if she says yes?”

“We face that if we come to it. Fuck I’m beginning to wish I’d never started this.”

It was a great opportunity for I told you so, but I’d just about reached the point of understanding and agreeing with her reasoning for doing it in the first place. As Laura I was easily led by emotions, and the inertia of my feelings had carried me through the first day after being transformed back into Jerry. Now I found I was thinking about things with a clearer head.

“It’ll be alright love.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t, but it’s not time to worry yet.”

I pulled her into a closer embrace and we lay together in silence, lost in our own thoughts until sleep finally took over.

The following morning we weren’t given much freedom to worry about what my little squigglies were doing inside her. The phone rang while Laura was showering with the news that the shop had been broken into during the night, and that we were needed as soon as possible. Needless to say, we cut short our normal morning routine and climbed into the car with slices of toast half eaten.

There wasn’t much to show for the burglary. A window had been forced at the back and a few things disturbed in the office, but otherwise nothing seemed to be missing. The shop floor was pretty much as we’d left it the previous day, with only two items gone from where I’d left them. A quick check of the receipt book showed them both as having been sold. The store room, cluttered as it was, was more of a challenge, but eventually we came to the conclusion that nothing was missing there either. That left us with the office which, while it showed clear signs of having been disturbed, also seemed more or less intact. The police guys checked the computer keyboard for prints, but drew a blank; the same with the rest of the room.

An inspector asked if we had any idea who might have done this thing, and what they might have been after, and without a moment’s hesitation, both Laura and I gave Tony’s name, describing our relationship with the man and what he’d done to us in the past. It didn’t explain what he was after, but since nothing had been taken, we could only speculate on that in any case.

The nagging unease I’d had since Tony’s visit the previous day finally coalesced into coherent thought. It took a few minutes before I could talk to Laura without a policeman earwigging in, but eventually we were left alone together in the office.

“Did you keep the old woman’s contact details in here?” I asked her.

“What? Yes, er yeah, on the computer.”

“Would Tony have been able to get into it?”

“I don’t know. The others know the password as well as us, but I don’t think any of them would have told Tony.”

“Is there any way we can check what files have been accessed?”

“I don’t know. If there is I don’t know it.”

“You need to call the old woman right now.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I think the reason Tony broke into this place was to get that information, and he’s a crafty enough bugger that he’ll have managed it.”

“We don’t even know it was Tony.”

“He turns up yesterday, and today we have a break in? Nothing was taken, and just what criminal would do that? We have some nice stuff here.”

“Okay, alright, but how would Tony know there was another bowl. We told him there wasn’t one.”

“But Mike, Pete and Randy knew there was something different about us, that we’d changed. Tony could have spotted the same thing.”

“Shit.” She logged onto the computer and opened a text document with a name and number in it, then punched the number in on the phone, twitching impatiently, waiting for an answer.

“Nothing.” She slammed the phone down after about the twentieth ring. “We have to go to her.”

“It’ll take us hours. What about the police?”

“She won’t thank us for involving them.”

“She’ll thank us less if Tony’s caught up with her and we don’t do something quickly.”

I yanked the door open and called the inspector over.

It took two minutes and he was on his phone, arranging for cars to be sent to the old woman’s house.

He turned back to me, slipping his phone back into his pocket, exchanging it for a notebook and pencil.

“Old habit,” he said indicating the offending articles, “from my beat days. So to recap, you think that this Tony West might be heading for the home of one Doris Maxwell because…”

“She phoned us last week. She has a rare antique piece that has been of particular interest to both Mr West and ourselves for some considerable time.”

“And the piece in question?”

“An ancient bowl,” Laura chipped in, unhappy to be a part of this, but it was her area of expertise. “Prehistoric as far as we know, made from petrified oak and lacquered with a substance as yet unidentified. We have a couple that are damaged.” She pointed at the items in their display cabinet. We’d moved them to the office after we tired of telling people they weren’t for sale. “Miss Maxwell showed us one in pristine condition when we visited her a few days ago.”

“And Mr West is interested in this item?”

“Highly.”

“So why didn’t he take those?”

“They’re not worth much in this condition.” She opened the cabinet and showed how one was broken in two, and indicating the large chip missing from the other.

“Just how valuable is this bowl of Miss Maxwell’s? I’m trying to ascertain how great a length you think Mr West might go to obtain it.”

“It’s more or less unique,” Laura said. “From what we know, only a half dozen were made, and hers may be the last that hasn’t been damaged.”

“So quite valuable then?”

“You have no idea.”

“Your interest in the item?”

“We were hoping to buy it, but Miss Maxwell was unwilling to sell. We kept her contact details in case she changed her mind or…”

“Or?”

“It’s a little shameful to own up to, inspector. Antiques is a waiting game at some levels. A large number of valuable antiques are owned by elderly people, and a great many can be bought through estate sales. Sometimes if you come across an item of particular interest which the person is unwilling to sell then and there, you sit back and keep an eye on the obituaries.”

The inspector’s face turned a little frosty, for which I can’t blame him. I’d taken some adjusting to that part of the business, but you become hardened to such things. It felt a little like we were vultures hanging around waiting for some poor animal to die of whatever ailed it, even if you could argue that we were potentially providing a service by offering a source of additional income to the bereaved at a time when they were facing funeral expenses and the like.

A nerve-grating default ringtone sounded from the inspector’s pocket and he fished out his mobile and stuck it to the side of his head.

“Peters.” He announced.

There followed one of those equally annoying one-sided conversations, with grunts and one word responses from the inspector’s side. After a couple of minutes he hung up and returned the phone to his pocket.

“It seems you may have been correct. They found the old lady unconscious and bleeding in her living room, front door smashed in. Another half hour and she might well have bled out, so your information is appreciated.”

“Is she going to be alright?” Laura voicing both our concerns.

“They don’t know as yet. The paramedics are with her and she’s stable for the moment. Weak though. They’re taking her in for observation for a few days.”

“Which hospital? We’d like to visit.”

“I’m not sure they’ll let you. It’ll be family only while she’s in.”

“We’d like to try; at least to send flowers.”

Inspector Peters gave us a long-suffering look and pulled his phone out again. A short call later and he was able to tell us it was the main city hospital here in the city. It was over the other side of the metropolis, about an hour’s drive away, but that was only a minor inconvenience.

“What about Tony West?” I asked.

“We’re looking for him. We have his address and other details from his record. If he left any fingerprints, we can check them against his last arrest sheet, but he or whoever, wore gloves to break in here. Chances are he’d have done the same there as well. When we do catch up with him, evidence will likely be no more than circumstantial, unless the old lady can identify him.”

Which left him free and clear, and probably with the last working bowl in his possession. We couldn’t risk that. A year ago he’d planned on raiding my bank, robbing thousands of innocent people of their life savings and leaving me to take the blame for him. He was a nastier piece of work now, so there was no knowing what he’d get up to. Not to mention we needed that bowl ourselves.

We couldn’t hurry the police though. They took their sweet time – doing their due diligence I suppose – examining the crime scene which was our place of business, and questioning everyone who might be able to shed even the faintest glimmer on what else might have happened.

They left around lunchtime. As soon as they were gone, we called an impromptu staff meeting, and asked if any of the other three had met Tony the previous day. Mike shamefacedly owned up to having done so. He lifted his shirt to show us some unpleasant bruising about his kidneys.

“He asked for my help, for old time’s sake. He wanted a key to the place and the computer password. He wasn’t too happy when I said no. He always was bigger and tougher, and nastier, than any of us, which was why we ended up doing what he said back then.

“He knows how to hurt someone without letting it show. I’m sorry, but he’d have just kept at it until I caved. I told him I didn’t have the key, but I did tell him the password. He said he’d really fuck me over if I said anything to anyone about it, so I kept schtum.

“I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay Mike,” I said. “You should probably get those seen to. Pete can you take him to A&E?”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Mike protested.

“I don’t want to take any chances Mike. You could have internal bleeding, and I’d hate this to get any more serious than it already is.” I looked at Pete who nodded and led his friend away.

“Randy, can you look after the shop this afternoon? We need to follow up on a few things.”

He nodded and Laura and I headed for the car.

-oOo-

“Are you family?” The nurse behind the counter had barely even looked up at me.

“I’m the nearest thing she has.”

“I’m sorry. If you’re not family, you can’t see her.”

“What if she has no family?”

“Then she doesn’t have any visitors.”

Ah, the bureaucratic mind; inflexible, irrational, infuriating.

“Can you at least see that she receives these flowers?”

“I can’t make any promises.” She didn’t even look up to acknowledge the gift.

“Thank you, you’ve been most helpful.” I needn’t have bothered; bureaucrats are immune to irony.

It had taken over an hour to drive here and to find somewhere to park. At Laura’s suggestion, I’d approached main reception on my own, so that if I didn’t succeed in getting past with honesty, then at least they wouldn’t be so likely to question my partner trying to get by on guile.

Our second attempt relied in part on the flowers getting to their recipient, so it was with some relief when the guardian of the gate called over to a passing porter a few moments later and pointed at the card and flowers. The minion shrugged and picked up the offending articles, heading for the lift.

Laura took her cue and followed him, reaching the lift just as the doors opened. As with most hospitals, there were a number of visitors roaming around, so all she needed was a confident look and the appearance that she knew where she was going, and she blended in with the rest of the scenery.

A couple of minutes later, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Laura gave me a floor number and a ward name and I put the phone away before anyone complained about my using it inside the hospital. I waited till Nurse Battleaxe’s attention was diverted, and marched up and into the lifts myself.

I found Laura standing by the lift doors. She pointed to a nurse’s station and we headed over to it.

“Er, hi,” she began, doing the nervous and slightly upset relative act quite convincingly. “I’m, er I’m Laura Townsend, here to visit my aunt? Well great aunt really. Mrs Doris Maxwell? Yes, this is my partner.”

The nurse was busy, so checked a list and pointed us towards a room, assuming that we wouldn’t have been able to get this far if we hadn’t been able to prove our credentials.

Inside the room we found our flowers on display in a plastic water jug – at least someone had made an effort to arrange them – and a rather shrunken Mrs Maxwell in a hospital gown with a bandage around her head. Her eyes were closed, so Laura sat quietly beside her while I gazed out the window. We desperately wanted to talk to the old woman, but she looked so frail, and it would have been wrong to disturb her rest.

I must have cast a shadow over her face, because I heard a gentle murmur and turned in time to see her eyes flicker open. She stared uncomprehending at me for a moment, then turned to Laura and recognition dawned.

“Hello dear,” she said to Laura with a weak smile. “Now you see why I wanted to keep the thing hidden.”

“Yes we do,” Laura said, taking the old woman’s hand. “We’re so sorry for what happened to you.”

“No more sorry than am I. I tried to keep him from finding it, but he had some rather unpleasant means of persuasion, and no qualms about using them. Well hidden as the bowl was, I believe he would have found it eventually in any case, so I decided it would be better to tell him and survive. As it was he very nearly didn’t give me even that option.”

“Did you see who it was?”

“Yes, and I’ve already given a description to the police. They showed me a picture of a man; you know the sort they take when they arrest someone?”

“Tony West?”

“That’s what they said his name was, yes. But they won’t catch him.”

“What do you mean?”

“They don’t know about the bowl, do they? They’ll almost certainly catch up with someone who looks like him, but he’ll be someone else by then.”

“Shit.” Laura was running through her day’s quota of expletives.

“Hardly very lady-like, dear, but then as I recall, you’re not the lady here are you?”

“Is there anything you can tell us that might help us find him?”

“I wish I could say there was, but no. This is just the thing I was afraid would happen, and now that it has I don’t think there’s anything you or I can do to stop it. What’s more is I won’t be able to help you or your friends change back.”

Laura and I glanced at each other. It was a blow, but it was something we’d been preparing ourselves for since hearing of Tony’s attack on Mrs Maxwell. In the end we still had each other, even if we couldn’t be each other. We’d get by.

“That’s not really important now.” Laura spoke for both of us. “Our friends seem happy as they are, and… well, I suppose we’ll survive. We’re worried about how many lives Tony will ruin unless someone can stop him though. I mean it’s our fault he found you…”

“Are you prepared to be involved in resolving this matter then? How far are you prepared to go?”

“As far as we need to,” I said placing a hand on Laura’s shoulder and sensing her nod of agreement more than seeing it. “What did you have in mind?”

“Nothing I’d care to mention. Magic is rare in this age, and weak, except for where it has been locked into artefacts like the bowls. There may be enough to influence matters though. You’d best leave me be for now, but would you tell one of the nurses on your way out that I’d like to have use of a phone?”

We did as she asked, and soon enough found ourselves outside the hospital again.

-oOo-

It was nearly six o’clock by the time we made it back home. Randy would have closed the shop and everyone would be home and relaxing. We’d discussed options, and felt that the best possible next step would be to ask Tony’s former friends if they knew of any people or places where he was likely to hide, or any possible targets that he might have considered besides me a year or so ago. Time was of the essence as he was a wanted man and would be looking to change his appearance as quickly as possible. With the bowl he had a perfect disguise, but knowing Tony, he’d want to trade up, even if all he needed was to escape the police.

Back at the house, we phoned each of the three and asked if they could put their minds to the problem, and to phone us as soon as they had any ideas. For want of keeping my hands busy, I headed for the kitchen and started peeling potatoes and slicing vegetables. It took about fifteen minutes to sear a couple of steaks and boil up the spuds and veg. It wasn’t the most imaginative of meals, but we were a little preoccupied.

We headed for bed early, our minds swimming in the turmoil of our individual thoughts. We didn’t say much, nor did we do more than climb into bed and into one another’s embrace. Sleep came eventually. Sooner for me than for Laura, but then that came with the body and, I suppose, the brain I was inhabiting.

I woke to an empty bed, the space beside me cold enough to suggest Laura had been up for some hours. I climbed out of my side, scratching sleepily at my behind as I headed for the bathroom. It was early still, as the pre-dawn glow through the frosted glass of the bathroom window attested. Having done my business, I washed my hands and splashed cold water in my face, before heading downstairs to find Laura.

“What the fuck!”

Chapter 5

Tony West sat staring into space in the conservatory. At my voice he turned to me, tears streaming down his face, his eyes suddenly wide with panic.

“No, Jerry it’s not… He made me. I couldn’t stop him. Jerry it’s me, Laura.”

An icicle melted down my spine. Had we been that preoccupied last night that I hadn’t remembered to set the burglar alarm? That would mean when Laura’s insomnia took her downstairs… Fuck, had he been here when we got home? Had he been hiding somewhere, waiting for his opportunity? Or had he snuck in while we were sleeping? It didn’t really matter; the damage was done now.

Laura ran into my arms. It was the strangest mix of emotions. Tony was taller and stronger by far than anyone I knew, and certainly including me in my present incarnation. Having Laura wrap his arms around me in many ways reminded me of how it had felt when she as Jerry had held me as Laura over the past year. Unfortunately the tiny bit of wonderful that brought into the mix was vastly overshadowed by this being another man’s body, and, more to the point, Tony’s.

I don’t consider myself to be homophobic, but I am and always have been utterly heterosexual, so the biggest part of my mind was screaming its denial at this intimate embrace with another man – another man’s body in any case. Add to this that Tony was pretty much at the top of my list of personae non gratae, and it took all my will power to remain and give Laura the comfort she so desperately needed.

“How?” I managed after several minutes of holding on and trying to compel my brain into accepting this newest development.

“I couldn’t sleep. About midnight, I came downstairs to heat up some milk. I remember you saying it helped. He was waiting just inside the kitchen. He grabbed me and forced my fingers closed about something sharp and metal on the table. When he let go I guess I opened my hands reflexively and whatever it was dropped onto something wooden or stone.

“He turned the lights on so I could see my car keys in the bowl. He added his own and smiled at me. You know that humourless, self-satisfied grin of his? And he said, ‘You choose.’”

“What could I do? If you wait too long, you get this growing need to pick something out of the bowl. I could have smashed the bowl, but I remember what Doris said about how the magic becomes unpredictable if the bowl is broken, and I couldn’t bear the thought of ending up sharing a body with Tony. In the end I had no choice but to take his keys.”

“Then?” The best my shocked and horrified mind could manage were monosyllables.

“He paused long enough to say, ‘enjoy prison,’ and took my keys out of the bowl. He was quicker off the mark once the transfer was complete, probably because I still couldn’t quite believe he was there. He grabbed the bowl and ran for it, took the Bug and left his car outside.”

That clicked me into action mode. “We’d better get it out of sight then. The last thing we want is the police asking why Tony’s car is in our driveway. They’ll either expect to find you on the premises, in which case they’ll arrest you, or they’ll accuse me of being associated, in which case they’ll arrest me as well.”

She – or was I going to have to start thinking of her as he now – let go and fished in her trouser pocket for a set of keys. I grabbed the spare garage remote and dashed outside in nothing more than my dressing gown.

Tony’s car was a rather beaten up Toyota pickup – probably only a couple of hundred quid with no road tax, and probably no insurance or MOT. I put it in the empty bay Laura’s VW had occupied and dug out an old ground sheet to cover it. It wouldn’t survive more than a cursory inspection by the dullest of cops, but it was better than nothing.

Back in the house, I found Laura/Tony squatting forlornly on the sofa, staring into space. She looked up at me as I entered.

“What are we going to do?”

My brain had kicked into gear, and I’d been wondering why he’d taken the risk of coming here. Laura no longer had sole control of all our assets. I’d switched everything to joint ownership with sufficient restrictions to stop either one of us trying to raid the piggy bank. If Tony’s idea was still to get hold of my, or rather our, wealth, he wasn’t going to get very far.

He could still get at anything and everything in the shop though, and there were enough small and valuable pieces there he could take, as well as raiding the company account. If this was him getting revenge on us, reclaiming what he thought we’d taken from him, then that’s where he’d go.

I couldn’t see him wanting to stay as a woman for long, but if he’d figured out that I actually enjoyed being Laura, he wouldn’t give me the benefit of the change just to spite me. Would he see his former colleagues as contributing to his misery? Would he seek further payback there? Mike was safe. The doctor had put him on bed rest for a few days and told him to go see him again if he spotted any blood in his urine. Tony wouldn’t want to inherit those injuries, so he definitely wouldn’t be a target. Which left Randall and Peter. Randy had locked up the previous night and would be opening this morning. I grabbed for the phone.

“Wassamerble?”

“Randy. Hi it’s Jerry. Sorry for the early morning call, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t go into the shop. Tony’s switched with Laura and I don’t know what else he might try.”

“Fuck me.”

“I’d rather not. I’m having a hard enough time dealing with a significant other who is now a large, strong and not particularly attractive man.”

“With the police looking for him.” Evidently my news had fired Randy’s neurons.

“Yeah, that too. Can you phone Peter and arrange for you and yours to stay away from the shop today? If you don’t mind, go round Mike’s and make sure he’s okay. Safety in numbers, and remember, it’s not Laura. The only way he’s likely to get the better of you is if he takes you by surprise.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Working on it. Be safe, I’ll let you know later how it turns out.”

“How will we know it’s you?”

“Good point. How about a couple of code words? Metamorph means all clear, Transmogrify means things are still fubar.”

“Metamorph good, Transmogrify bad. Got it. Good luck.”

“Thanks. I think we’re going to need more than a bit of luck today.”

-oOo-

The downside of an open top sports car is there is nowhere to hide anyone. The boot is ridiculously small, space being needed to put the roof when it’s down, and the back seat is open for anyone to look in who wants to. We didn’t have the option of Laura’s Beetle, since Tony had taken it, and I would have had a hard time explaining away the beaten up, and quite possibly illegal, Toyota. The safest bet would have been for Laura to wait at home, but leaving her alone right then was not an option, not in her state. Being as it was early, I figured there would be no-one around paying much attention, so I found a spare blanket and wedged her oversized frame into the cramped space behind the front seats, then covered her over.

I needn’t have worried. The drive to the shop was completely uneventful, the only other road user we passed being a milk float. I parked up in the yard behind the shop and helped Laura out of her confinement.

The back door was locked and the place in darkness. I let us in and turned on the light, not trying to be quiet. Laura wasn’t capable of silence at that moment – still adapting to her new size and shape – and besides, if Tony sensed we were sneaking about, he’d know he’d lost the element of surprise.

The back door opened into our store room, which gave me the opportunity to look around for something to use as a weapon. That was before I realised this was Laura’s body we were talking about, and I didn’t want to injure it too much. I grabbed a handful of the plastic cable ties we used to keep parts of items together, and indicated for Laura to precede me into the main shop, which she did happily enough, stepping through and hitting the light switch.

A large, and thankfully inexpensive, vase came crashing down on her head, and she collapsed like an empty sack. I followed as rapidly as I could and swung at the head of Laura’s assailant.

I caught her on the side of the jaw – or him, or whatever. It was Laura’s body, but Tony’s mind. Either way, I connected hard enough to really hurt my knuckles. She swung away and over the counter. Did I feel bad about hitting a woman? Maybe a bit, but with it being Tony on the inside, not a lot. If all went well, this would be my body again soon enough, but not before Tony got to live with the aching jaw for a few days.

I dashed around the counter and grabbed her before she began to rouse, strapping her wrists and ankles with the cable ties.

Rough hands grabbed me from behind and pulled me off my target. Whoever it was must have been at least eight inches taller than myself and immensely stronger, I felt like a small child in his hands. My spare cable ties were used to secure both me and Laura in Tony’s body. A face I didn’t know spun me round and grinned at me with a self-satisfied smirk that I did recognise, despite the stranger’s body.

“You didn’t think I’d try to do this on my own did you?” The voice was deep, approaching subsonic.

He had a pocket knife, which he used to cut free his accomplice, who was groggily shaking his – at the moment her – head.

“I’m surprised anyone will work with you.”

“Yes, Mike, Pete and Randy did queer that particular pitch for me, but you’ll be amazed at how a little of the right incentive will get someone on your side quite quickly.”

“What incentive?”

“I imagine Mr Morton here would like his body back sooner rather than later.”

Laura’s rapidly bruising face glowered up at my captor with no great amount of love.

“What incentive do you have to keep him on your side after you have given it back?”

“That’s kind of up to him to decide. Now I have a working bowl again, I have plans, and I’m going to get disgustingly rich and powerful. He can join the winning team and enjoy some of the wealth and influence that’s left over when I’ve had enough, or I can dispose of him the same way I’m going to dispose of you lot. Before I turn him back into himself, he has to convince me completely of his loyalty. If he can’t manage that, I don’t know, I have quite a few options. I could put him in my body over there and let the police take care of him, or I could hire one of those East European prostitutes you find all over the place these days. Transfer him into her body and send her back to her pimp. The options are endless.”

The ugly look on Laura’s face turned to one of wide-eyed fear, dispelling all chances of an alliance there.

“So what are your plans for us then?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Laura was the one who screwed this up for me in the first place. If it hadn’t have been for her, I’d be filthy rich with all your money by now instead of having spent time in prison. I’m thinking of leaving her in my original body, so she can find out how great it is behind bars, especially with a rap like GBH on an old lady. I imagine there’ll be quite a few fuckwits on the inside who’ll want to let her know how much they don’t approve of that sort of behaviour.

“As for you. I was going to fuck you over before, so maybe I’ll do it for real this time. I know you enjoy being Laura, so maybe I’ll let you be her again. Only this time I’ll be you, as originally planned, and I’ll get to enjoy all your cash after all. You’ll still have your sick, narcissistic dream of fucking yourself, only this time it’ll be me riding you every night. Would you like that?”

The thought of it was repellent. I’d have rather been sodomised by Laura in Tony’s body than let Tony anywhere near me under any circumstances. The thought of him taking on the role of Jerry and me being Laura was too much. Pretending to live a normal life with a power crazed lunatic, while the person I loved was stuck in jail, doing time for crimes she didn’t commit. It didn’t bear imagining.

He caught sight of my expression and sneered. Again, Tony showing through the brutish body he wore.

“How did you trick this guy into switching?” I needed to change the subject before I threw up.

“I bet him he couldn’t pick his car keys out of the bowl once he’d dropped them in. You know how impossible that is don’t you Jerry? Anyway, not only did I win the bet, but I get to borrow his body for a while, and I get his cooperation, given that he isn’t as keen as you to embrace his feminine side on a permanent basis.

“Anyway, enough talk. I have more payback coming my way. Where are those three fuckwits who work for you?”

“I told them not to come into the shop until I said so. Mike’s on bed rest in any case, after the bruising you gave him.”

“Okay, I guess you’ll just have to call them and tell them everything’s sorted, and that you want them to come in.”

“Why should I do that?”

“You don’t have to. We can switch around a bit and Danny here can do it for you. You’d probably like to be a man again, wouldn’t you Danny?”

Laura’s head nodded, swallowing nervously.

“I thought you couldn’t change more than once in a week.”

“You can’t change back inside a week. That means I can’t go back into my body or Laura’s now, and Danny can’t go back into this one. You on the other hand…”

“I was Laura up until three or four days ago, so I can’t go into her body either. You’ve been in it this week, and so has Laura, so Danny’s stuck for now.”

His face twitched. “I could switch with you.”

“Yeah, put me in that hulking slab of meat and see what I’d do.”

“Okay, we’ll stay as we are, and if you don’t do as I say, I’ll do something unpleasant to your girlfriend.”

He picked his former body up with one enormous hand and used the other to twist Laura’s arm behind her back in a painful lock. Laura, who had been slowly returning to consciousness, couldn’t help screaming.

“Okay, Stop! I’ll do it.” I couldn’t sit by and watch her being hurt. Danny cut me free and I fished out my phone, dialled Randy’s mobile.

“On speaker phone,” Tony said.

I pressed the appropriate button, showing what I hoped was the correct amount of reluctance.

“Hullo?”

“Hi Randy, it’s Jerry.”

“Oh, hi Jerry. How’d it work out?”

“Pretty much as expected. Tony was waiting to ambush whoever came in first this morning, but he wasn’t expecting Laura and me. We took him by surprise and managed to subdue him.”

“Code word?”

I glanced across at Tony, whose smugness was showing through his new face. He flexed his muscles just enough to make Laura wince.

I tried to look defeated, but kept my voice as neutral as I could. “Code word is transmogrify.”

After the briefest of pauses, Randy responded. “Good to know it’s you, boss. What do you want to do now?”

If my acting looked half as good as his sounded, we were home and dry.

“Well, we can’t afford to get the police involved until we put everyone back in their right bodies, and we won’t be able to do that for a week. Until then, we’re going to have to keep Laura in Tony’s body, hidden, and Tony in Laura’s, subdued. It’s going to be something of a full time job which means I’m going to need all of you, Michael too if he’s up to it.”

“Well his piss looks good and clear, so I don’t think he’s that badly off, and he’s been itching to get out of bed since last night. We’ll be with you in half an hour boss.”

It took ten minutes to get here from Randy’s. That gave them twenty minutes to come up with a plan and put it into action.

“Thanks Randy, we’ll see you in a bit.” I hated relying on other people. I’d never had to for much of my life, and even this past year, between Laura and me, we’d made everything work with a minimum of input from anyone else. I stabbed the button to end the call and slipped the phone back into my pocket.

In actual fact, I just made it look like I’d hung up the phone. I hoped the mike would pick up more than the sound of the phone rubbing against the inside of my clothing, but this was the best I could do to give our cavalry a few extra useful hints.

“So what does happen now?” I asked Tony.

“We wait.” His voice rumbled like distant thunder, as deep and intimidating as his body was large and well-muscled. I half expected him to say, ‘Hulk smash,’ or something similar, but he just carried on sounding reasonably intelligent, despite the überthug bass rumble he had going on.

So we waited. It was a nerve wracking, nail biting thirty minutes, wondering what, if anything, our friends would be able to come up with. I hated that the warning I’d given Randy was the sum total of all the help I had to offer him, but Tony had guessed my weakness, and I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to hurt Laura if I stepped even a little out of line.

“Which way will they come in?”

“Sorry?”

“Mike, Pete and Randy. Will they come in through the front entrance or the back?”

Tony’s question dragged me back to the here and now.

“Er, the back usually. Yeah, the back I think. Randy usually parks out back, so, er, yeah.”

“Not thinking of trying something, are you Jerry?”

I looked into the panicked eyes of Tony’s body from where Laura stared back at me.

“Because it wouldn’t take much to show you how bad an idea that would be.”

He twisted Laura’s arm and she cried out. Tony had been a big guy in his original body, but in this new incarnation, he was plain scary. Neither had I realised how much of a sadist he was until now.

“I’m not planning anything Tony!” I all but yelled at him.

“Don’t,” Laura said. “He has to be stopped Jerry. Don’t worry about me.”

I couldn’t help myself though. I didn’t want her hurt, whatever that meant. I only hoped that Randy had something up his sleeve, because my hands were tied – if not literally, then in every way that mattered.

“I think we’ll wait for them in the back room. Out of sight of curious passers-by, and in the best position to spring a trap.”

So we retreated to the store room. Danny took up position behind the door with a piece of two by four he could barely lift with Laura’s slender arms. Despite what he was doing, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sympathy at his struggles. Tony, still holding Laura, settled into the shadows and placed one of his gargantuan hands over Laura’s mouth. I stayed near the door and waited.

Enough time passed for empires to rise and fall, for ice ages to come and go. The glaciers were in full retreat when I heard a key in the lock. I glanced at Tony, who nodded towards the door, so I stepped up and unlocked it from the inside.

As expected, Randy, Pete and Mike were standing outside, but no-one else, which concerned me. Randy raised his eyebrows in question.

I didn’t have much time to answer, but I swivelled my eyes to the left, towards where Danny was hiding, then rolled them back, indicating Tony’s position behind me.

“Thanks for coming guys.” Sell it Jerry, sell it. I pulled the door open, beckoning them in. “Come in quick. Laura’s hiding in here, and I don’t want to risk her being seen.”

I closed the door behind them, and shut my eyes as I leant back on it. It was too late to do anything now.

Tony made his move. Slamming Laura hard against a wall with a casual and effortless movement, he strode forward, reaching for Pete and Randy’s heads, looking to smash them together I suppose. It must have been his signal, because, Danny stepped out from his hiding place and swung his impromptu weapon at Mike’s back.

What happened next came so fast I almost missed it. Randy and Pete sidestepped Tony’s lumbering approach and reached out with taloned fingers to scratch at his bare arms. Mike ducked and spun with more agility than I would have expected, given his injuries, and grabbed the piece of wood, which he twisted out of Danny’s grasp. Danny dropped to the floor, a quivering mess of tears, but Tony wasn’t so easily cowed. He let out a full belly laugh.

“Hi guys. What’s with the girl fighting? You think that’s going to stop me? I think you’ve been hanging around Jerry too long.” He turned his attention towards Randy. “I am so going to fuck you guys up. You think you’re fucked up now. By the time I’m done with you, you’re going to wish you hadn’t turned on me.”

He lunged forward, overreaching badly, and stumbling into the opposite wall. Randy sidestepped easily enough but made no move to press his advantage.

“What the fuck is happening?” Tony was swaying crazily now, like he was having a hard time keeping his balance; which was in fact the case, as he took one unsteady step and collapsed face-first in the dust. Somehow he managed to miss all the shelves, for which I was passingly grateful as he could have caused some expensive damage.

“Mike, cable ties. Pete, EpiPen.” Randy barked the orders like a drill sergeant, his small troop responding with a will. I had just enough presence of mind to leave them to it and go to Laura’s still body. Well Tony’s body, but in Laura’s possession at the moment.

“Laura?” She groaned, and I rolled her gently onto her back. Her eyelids were flickering, which I took for a sign that she was regaining consciousness. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued to squeeze her hand and pat her cheek until she shook her head and grabbed my hand.

“I’m okay,” she said. “Just stop hitting me.”

I turned back to Randy, who had both his prisoners trussed up like Christmas turkeys.

“Care to explain? When I saw just the three of you, I thought you’d missed my signal and that we were all well and truly up shit creek.”

Randy smiled and shook his head. “What do you take me for? Look, twenty minutes at this time in the morning isn’t enough to round up any significant amount of help, and certainly not enough to put down Danny Morton, but it was enough to come up with a plan of action.

“Your leaving your phone on helped. I was going to phone around and see who might have been spotted with Tony – or Laura rather – last night, but there’s no mistaking Danny’s deep rumble. I only needed to make one call to the Pink Elephant to confirm he’d been seen leaving with a young woman answering Laura’s description. At that point we knew what we were dealing with.

“Even from the few snippets we heard over the phone, we figured Tony had swapped places with Danny, which was good for us because Danny’s seriously useful in a fight. He doesn’t just have the muscle, but he has the brains and the experience to use it well. Tony though, he’s just a bully. Throws his weight around and relies on intimidation.

“Tony never really takes the time or makes the effort to get to know the guys he works with either – take it from one who knows first-hand – so we figured he wouldn’t have any idea about Danny’s allergy to peanuts; something we’ve all been aware of since the day in middle school when he ate one by mistake and almost turned into a blimp.

“All we needed to do was put some peanut butter under our fingernails and look for a chance to scratch through his skin. He’s way too big and powerful for even all three of us to have subdued him otherwise.”

“So you put him in anaphylactic shock? People have died from that you know?”

“Yeah, that’s why we brought the EpiPen. Pete has one in case he gets stung by a bee, but an Epi is an Epi. It injects adrenaline either way, so we knew it would be all we needed. Danny’s reaction back in school happened epically fast; so we figured he’d go down quick enough, and as you saw, we were ready with the epinephrine as soon as it was needed.

“Danny was the unknown quantity. I mean like I say, he’s good in a fight, but we weren’t sure how good he’d be as Laura. Mike’s the better fighter of the three of us, even with the beating Tony gave him the other day, so we put him on Danny duty, and as you can see, he did well enough.”

“I’m at a loss. Great work guys.”

“Welcome boss. So what now?”

“I don’t really know. I haven’t been able to think this far ahead. I suppose we need to get this Frankenstein’s freak show and my good lady hidden somewhere, then we open for business as usual.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“We don’t have a lot of choice. Like I said on the phone, we have pretty much a whole week to wait before we can use the bowl to put things right, during which time we need to keep Tony on ice, and we need to keep his body out of sight of the police. We also need to find the bowl. I haven’t seen it, but I doubt he’d let it too far out of his reach.”

We hunted through the entire shop, looking for it or anything Tony might have brought it in. There was nothing.

“We could ask Danny,” Mike suggested.

I looked over at the miserable wretch sitting uncomfortably with his hands tied behind his back. I tried to imagine what he must be feeling right now, having been dumped without warning out of his hulking great frame and into the body of a young woman less than half his size and probably less than a tenth his strength. My imagination came up with somewhere between the bewildered confusion of my first transition and the weighty depression of my second one, which left me feeling more sympathetic and less angry with the man.

“I don’t think you wanted to be part of this in the first place, did you?”

Danny shook his – or her – head without raising it.

“He told you the only way you’d get your body back was if you helped him?”

A gentle nod.

“How much of what we’ve been saying have you been able to follow?”

A shrug.

“You’ve worked out that it’s the bowl that swaps people’s bodies.”

It was more of a statement than a question, but Danny nodded even so.

“It has some rules to its use. Once your mind or spirit or whatever leaves a body, it won’t allow you to go back into it for at least a week. If you try, it extends the time before you can switch back. I – we that is – want to see everyone back in their right bodies, including you. I’m not setting any conditions here; we’ll get you back into yours as soon as we can, regardless of whether or not you help.

“I’m afraid we’re all stuck like this at least until the middle of next week whatever happens, but even then we’re not going to be able to do anything about changing back unless we get our hands on the bowl.”

“’E left it in me room, on me bed.” It was the first time I’d heard him speak. He naturally pushed the tone of his voice low, though it came out as a husky contralto rather than the booming, sub-sonic rumble Tony had been speaking with. Match that with his diction and it obviously wasn’t Laura in there.

“How the hell did it get there?” Laura asked, climbing unsteadily to her feet.

“It’s ‘ow it happened, innit? I was just finishing me shift at the club when this decent looking bird come up to me wiv ‘er tits ‘alf ‘anging out. I couldn’t keep me eyes off ‘em, and she asks, all seductive like, if I fancy playing a little game wiv ‘er.

“Usually when I gets ‘ome, me mum’s in bed an’ snoring, so I figures I can sneak ‘er in, an’ so that’s wha’ we done. Then she gets this bowl out and drops ‘er keys in it. She says, ‘I bet you can’t drop your keys in an’ get ‘m back out again.’ So I asks ‘er what I get if I win, an’ she undoes anover button on ‘er top. She says, ‘you get to play wiv these, pointin’ at ‘er tits.

“Well, I mean, I ‘ad me keys out and dropped ‘em in the bowl as quick as I could, but then it was like, every time I tried to grab ‘em again, me fingers went numb.

“In the end, she reaches in and picks ‘em up for me, and says, ‘Never mind big boy, maybe I’ll let you play wiv ‘em anyway. Next fing I know, I grab ‘is keys an’ I’m lookin’ up at meself from over the top of this rack, an’ I’m trying ‘ard not to scream ‘cos everfing’s so fucked up.”

“I think we can guess the rest,” I said. “Do you think you could help us get the bowl back?”

“I dunno.”

“Without it we won’t be able to change you back.”

“Yeah I know. It’s just that me mum don’t like me havin’ people in me room. She’s gonna be freakin’ out as it is, wiv me not bein’ there. I don’t fink she’s gonna be tha’ frilled at me turnin’ up looking like this, and there ain’t no way she’ll let us into me room.”

“Shit!”

“Looks like I have a card or two up my sleeve after all.” Tony’s smirk was back. I told myself to wait until he had his own body back before I wiped it off for him.

“Get one of your mates from the club to cover for you,” Mike said. Everyone looked at him expectantly. He continued, “Someone must have seen the two of you leave last night. Phone in as Danny’s bit on the side and ask if they wouldn’t mind calling Tony’s mum to let her know he’s alright – had to work a double shift or something. Tell her you’re sending someone round for some fresh clothes.”

“She’ll expect it to be me calling.”

“Isn’t there anyone who sounds a bit like you?”

“Come on, this is me mum we’re talking about. She’d know it weren’t me.”

“We don’t have to get someone from the club to do it,” Pete chipped in. “Any one of us could call.”

“But she’ll expect it to be me.”

“Not if you were bottled.”

“Wha’?”

“You’re a bouncer, right? Say someone attacked you, cut you with a broken bottle?”

“Me mum’ll go spare!”

“So what do you want to tell her instead? You got changed into a woman by a magic bowl that’s sitting on your bed? Look, it’s crap, I know, but it’s the best we can do, unless anyone has a better idea?”

“No, it’s a good idea,” Peter said, his eyes furrowed in concentration. “I have a couple of mates in the hospital who could help – get us some bandages and stuff, maybe let us use a room for a bit.”

“What about him,” Laura pointed at Tony. “He’s hardly going to cooperate, is he?”

“We don’t need his cooperation,” I said, emerging from the depths of my thoughts. “And it is a good idea, though I think we can come up with something a bit better than the bottling.”

“Yeah, no-one would believe you anyways. Five years I’ve been doing that job, and I ain’t never known anyone pissed enough to ‘ave a go at me, and believe me, I’ve seen a few.”

“It’s not just that. You were seen leaving the club in the company of a young lady. There are going to be quite a few people who will have that story rather than the one where you’re attacked. It’s always easier to tell a lie if it’s close to the truth.”

“What d’you have in mind boss?”

“How serious is your nut allergy?” I wasn’t ignoring Randy, just answering it while gathering more information. I grabbed a utility knife off one of the shelves and cut through Danny’s bindings.

“Well, it’s pretty bad,” Danny rubbed at his/her wrists. “If I don’t have me Epi, there’s a chance I can go into a coma and shit like that.”

“If you have an attack and you use your EpiPen, do you have to go to the hospital?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to. If I was to go under, they’d keep me in for a few days.”

“So we go with a story that’s close to what happened. Danny heads off with this girl, which a few people already know. They go somewhere and get thoroughly pissed, then somewhere in the middle of it all, Danny gets nuts in his system and collapses. You give him his Epi, but not before he loses consciousness.

“We get him to the hospital, get him admitted for observation, and you phone his mum – your mum – sounding a bit hysterical, and tell her that her son’s collapsed, that you found her number on Danny’s phone, that you don’t know what to do.

“Hopefully she’ll come down to the hospital to see what’s happened to her little boy, and we’ll be able to sneak in with your keys and get the bowl.”

“You’re forgetting something,” Tony rumbled. “Like your former girlfriend said, I have no intention of cooperating.”

“I’m not forgetting anything, and we don’t need your cooperation. You as Danny were seen leaving in the company of a young lady. From there you went out and got well and truly bladdered. Whether you cooperate or not, we should be able to pour enough alcohol down your throat to make that convincing, especially if we cut it with something to help you lose consciousness.

“As soon as you’re out for the count, one of us drives you and Danny here to the hospital to get you admitted, after which you’re in for the best part of a week.”

“Unless I sign myself out.”

“Dragging you into hospital under the influence of drugs and alcohol, having nearly died from anaphylaxis. The right words in the right ear and we should be able to get you sectioned. Of course we’d prefer to avoid that so as to minimise Mrs Morton’s anxiety, and to make things easier on Danny when he gets his body back, but we’ll do whatever we need to, and clear up the mess afterwards. The important thing right now is to keep you contained until we can change things back.”

I looked at Danny who returned my gaze with no little concern. I could just about see the cogs turning as he reviewed everything I’d said, then abruptly his expression hardened and he nodded once.

“Do it,” he said. “I won’t lie, I’m a bit bovvered by it all, but you’re right. We need to keep this tosser on ice until we can get everyfing sorted, and it’ll be easier to ‘ave ‘im ‘eld in a ‘ospital than try to ‘ide ‘im someplace.”

It took a while to wade through all the glottal stops and decipher what he was saying, but it was all the permission I needed. “Okay Danny, where are your keys?”

“In me right ‘and trouser pocket. ‘Is pocket for now, I suppose.” He pointed at Tony.

I went diving and came up with treasure, despite Tony’s squirming. Not just Danny’s keys, but the keys to Laura’s Beetle as well.

“Okay, first things first.” I fished in my jacket for my wallet, produced a couple of twenties and offered them to Peter. “Could you get us a couple of bottles of vodka and some cold or allergy medicine. Benadryl, Tylenol, Sudafed, Zyrtec, anything like that. Something that warns of drowsiness, and that it’s not to be taking with alcohol.”

“What’re you gonna do wiv that lot?” Danny wanted to know.

“I’m going to try the booze on its own to start with, but there’s a lot of body mass there and we need him out of it pretty quick. If necessary, and only with your agreement, we might have to resort to a cocktail of sorts.”

Pete headed off to get the stuff and I took Danny to one side to talk him through what I had in mind in greater detail. I’m no expert on drugs, but I remembered once coming home from the bank to find Portia fried on a mix of alcohol and some of the meds I’d sent Pete after. I’d been worried enough to phone the doctor, who in turn had been worried enough that he’d come round. By the time he arrived, Portia was unconscious and snoring away in a most undignified manner on the couch.

Doctor Bennett had examined her as well as he could under the circumstances, looked over the debris from her binging and suggested I let her sleep it off. She was well and truly out for fifteen hours straight, then woke with the great grandmother of hangovers. I think it was the hangover more than anything that persuaded her not to try the same thing again.

Pete came back with the goods, and we set about trying to make Tony drunk. Inevitably he fought and struggled so that, even with all of us doing our best to hold him down, we still only managed to get half the bottle inside of him, with another quarter of it outside and no discernable effect.

Danny gave his permission and I mixed in a hefty dose of some cold medicine that advertised itself as guaranteeing a good night’s sleep to the remaining vodka. I used double what it said on the bottle, but then the body Tony currently occupied had about twice the mass of most people.

It worked well though. With quarter of the cocktail still in the bottle, Tony started weaving back and forth like the snake he was. When he finally collapsed, his head hit the floor with such a resounding crack, if he hadn’t been unconscious before he landed, he certainly was after.

Peter and Randy took an end each and tried to lift him.

“Couldn’t we have got him to walk to the van before you knocked him out?”

“Yeah, I didn’t think that through, did I? Here, all of us together at the top end, try and get him upright, more or less.”

With a considerable amount of heaving, we managed to get him on his feet and carried him with his feet dragging out the back to where Randy had parked the company van behind the Maserati. I let Randy use it as a means of getting to and from work, and found it balanced out quite nicely as he brought his two friends with him, which meant they were always on time.

Three of us took the strain while Randy opened the rear door, then between the four of us, we heaved Tony inside. The van was empty, as it always was when left overnight, and it was big enough to carry pretty much any piece of antique furniture we might come across. For once I was truly glad I’d invested in about the biggest thing we could drive legally on a normal license.

Laura and Danny had followed us into the car park, and five expectant pairs of eyes turned my way. Right, organisation time.

“Okay, Randy, take Danny and this lump of shit – sorry Danny, I meant the contents not the package – down to the hospital. Danny, you have to sell it to the doctors that he was out of his head, threatening self-harm or whatever it takes to have him detained under the mental health act. If he still has the right to discharge himself when he wakes up, he could disappear and leave us up shit creek without a paddle. Once you’ve done what you can do there, as soon as you’re able, call your mother. Tap into what that body can do for you and try to sound tearful and panicked. Whatever you do, get her out of the house and down to the hospital as soon as you can.

“Pete, I want you to hold the fort here while we’re gone. Keep Laura hidden, don’t let the Bill prowl around the place, try and keep it business as usual if you can. Anyone asks where everyone else is, make excuses. Randy and Laura are helping some drunken sot who collapsed in the alley; I’m visiting Mike who got himself beaten up, something like that.

“Mike, I need you to come with me. We’re going to camp outside Mrs Morton’s house till she heads off for the hospital, then I’ll want you to keep a look out while I sneak in to see if I can recover the bowl.

“Laura, stay hidden. Do not let yourself be seen. Not in that body.

“Everyone clear?” Nods all round. People like to be told what to do in a crisis; lessens the feelings of insecurity.

Randy and Danny took the van while the rest of us headed back to the rear door of the shop. I gave Laura a hug, which still felt plain weird, but then she headed back into the shop with Pete while Michael and I climbed into the Maserati and set off on our errand.

Chapter 6

It must have been an hour later when things started happening. Danny’s mum’s neighbourhood was not the sort where you’d usually expect to find flashy, new sports cars, so I’d had to park it out of sight a short distance away. Mike and I had taken turns walking within sight of the Morton residence until the door opened, and a heavy-set woman – you could see where Danny had inherited his stature – stepped out, locked the door behind her and hurried down the road towards the bus stop.

I felt a twinge of guilt over what we were putting her through, but on reflection it was less stressful than the truth would have been. Besides none of this was our fault. I reminded myself who was responsible for our current predicament, and turned my mind to the matter in hand.

Danny had shown me which of his keys fit the front door, so I was inside in seconds. Even so it felt like a hundred curtains were twitching behind me as I let myself in. Mike stayed outside and at a distance. He had my mobile on speed dial and was ready to call if anything problematic were to arise.

It took less than a minute to find Danny’s room and the bowl, inside a bag I thought I recognised as Tony’s and sitting on the bed. A quick check reassured me it was intact and just as beautiful as I remembered it. I grabbed a few clothes out of various drawers and dropped them in the bag on top of the bowl. I figured if a neighbour did stop me and ask what I was doing, I could show them Danny’s keys and say he’d asked me to pick up some things for him.

As it was I didn’t need them. Nobody challenged me, and Mike and I were back in the Maserati and speeding away, less than five minutes after Mrs Morton had left the house. I think we may have passed her, still waiting at the bus stop, but I was a bit too pumped up on adrenaline to be sure of the details.

I found somewhere to park on the main street and Mike joined Pete in the display part of the shop while I took the bowl back to the storeroom where Laura was trying to keep busy working through our emails and correspondence. She gave me a relieved smile when I showed her the prize. We had a safe where we kept our more valuable pieces, and a couple of spun dials later, our hopes for the future were locked away and secure.

“I’m heading down to the hospital to see what’s happening,” I told the others, and disappeared out the front door.

Tony was awake and screaming blue murder when I arrived. Danny’s mother was there and in a state, with Danny sitting beside her, doing a great job of looking like a concerned friend. I headed over to them and Danny touched his mum on the arm and pointed at me.

“That’s me boss, Mrs Morton.”

I suppose it made sense since we were trying to put across the idea that he was Tony’s girlfriend – or Laura was Danny’s. The mixed identities were giving me a headache. The sooner the week was over, the better as far as I was concerned.

“What’s happening, Laura?” I asked with what I hoped was appropriate concern.

“It’s Danny, sir. ‘E ‘ad a turn last night. Go’ a bi’ pissed an’ weren’t too careful what ‘e was eatin’. I fink there must ‘ave been some nuts in it or somefing, ‘cos ‘e collapsed, kinda. I give ‘im ‘is epi-wotsit, but I’m no’ sure if that was a good idea wiv all ‘e’d ‘ad to drink. ‘E was acting kind of funny before, like somefing was bovvering ‘im, and ‘e’s been screaming like that since ‘e come round. The doctors are talkin’ about keeping ‘im in for observation for a couple of weeks.”

Talking like that, he sounded more like the sort of person Danny would have dated than me. I don’t mean to be snobbish, but I suppose some of my parents’ so-called standards had rubbed off on me. Anyway, he certainly didn’t sound like the Laura I knew, and we were going to have to be careful about that.

I glanced into Tony’s room where he was struggling against the restraints holding him to his bed. I could only assume that the mixture of booze and cough medicine, and maybe the epinephrine as well, was affecting his state of mind. Whatever it was, he was not doing a great job of convincing the doctors he was sane.

“Shouldn’t he be sedated or something?” I asked.

“The doctors don’t know what ‘e’s got in ‘is system. They don’t want to give ‘im anyfing else till they know, or till ‘e’s go’ over it.”

“I imagine you’ll want to stay here for now.” Danny gave me a grateful look. “I just wanted to check on you, and to let you know everything’s under control at the shop. I’ll call through later to see how you and er, Danny are getting on, okay?”

Being as I was already at the hospital, I took a side trip to find Mrs Maxwell. She had visitors though – about half a dozen women of similar age to herself – and the nurse wouldn’t let me add myself to their number. I left a note to say I’d call back later, and made my way back to my car and from there to the shop.

-oOo-

The waiting was the worst. I’m not sure if Laura would disagree, being stuck in Tony’s body, but she had to wait as well. We tried to keep busy, and the few customers who walked into the shop during the course of the day were a welcome distraction, at least for me. Laura’s need to remain hidden limited what she could do, and she jumped every time the bell jangled.

We did have a visit from a police officer at one stage during the day, but it was only to keep us updated on their lack of news and to ask if we had anything worth reporting. He asked where Laura was, and I relatively truthfully told him that she was visiting a friend in hospital.

Morning ran into afternoon. The tedium became oppressive, and for something to do I went out looking for Laura’s car, finding it after a ten minute search parked illegally down a narrow alley. There was a parking ticket on the windscreen with a notice to the effect that the car would be towed if still there by three. I’d beaten the deadline by thirty minutes and, grateful for small mercies, I drove it round the back of the shop.

Afternoon eventually reached its end. I flipped the sign in the door and turned the lock. Normally we kept the shutters up while we took stock and balanced the receipts, and since we were trying to look normal, that’s what I did.

When I was done, I phoned through to the hospital and asked for the ward where Danny Morton was being held. When they put me through, I asked to speak to Danny’s girlfriend and in short order I heard Laura’s voice with Danny’s inflections coming across the wires.

“How are things?” I asked.

“Yeah, okay I fink. Doctors ‘ave decided ‘e needs to be kept in, against ‘is will if necessary, at least until the end of next week. Me mum went ‘ome about an hour ago, so I’ve ‘ad a chance to talk to ‘im now that ‘e’s come down off the mix of booze and wha’ever it was you gave ‘im. ‘E don’t like the restraints they’ve go’ on ‘im, but that’s ‘is tough shi’ ‘cos ‘e was really wild earlier. Chances are they’ll let ‘im loose a bit later, bu’ they’re keepin’ a close eye on ’im so I don’t fink ‘e’ll be sneakin’ out.

“Mum said she’d try and square it wiv the club, so there’s a chance I’ll ‘ave me job when we get this all sorted.”

“If not, I’ll see you’re taken care of.”

“Fanks. I weren’t askin’ for ‘andouts, but it’s appreciated.”

“I’m coming down the hospital in a few minutes. There’s someone else I want to see, but I’ll come up and find you in about three quarters of an hour if that’s okay?”

“Yeah, fanks. I don’t ‘ave any cash on me, and I was wondering ‘ow I was going to get ‘ome. I don’t fancy walking far in these shoes.”

They were flats and not at all uncomfortable, but I suppose they did have thin soles, so they would have started hurting after a short while on uneven ground.

“We’re going to have to look after you this week anyway. I don’t think your mum would be that happy about having you stay with her in your present condition.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Okay, I’ll see you in about forty-five minutes.”

I hung up the phone, closed the shutters and grabbed my wallet and keys. Laura looked like she needed it, so I gave her a hug and quick kiss on the top of her head – so weird to kiss a bald head. She blinked back tears and gave me a brave, if slightly wobbly smile.

“I’ll pop in on Doris and let her know what’s changed. I’ll be back for you in about an hour and half to two hours. I’ll come to the back and tap out an incomplete shave and a haircut.”

“A what?”

I tapped out the rhythm, but omitting the last knock. She nodded her understanding and I left her cataloguing the inventory.

Traffic was always slow this time of day, so it wasn’t surprising that it took me ten minutes more than usual to get to the hospital. Doris was eating her dinner when I found her. She waved me in with a spoon full of jelly.

“Hospital meals don’t get better do they?” she asked. “Still you can’t go far wrong with jelly. Probably why they serve it so much. Where’s your good lady?”

So I told her what had happened.

She stared at me in shock and mortification until the mouthful of jelly falling off her spoon snapped her out of it.

“I’m so sorry Jerry,” she said, as she retrieved the jelly from her bedspread, “this is all my fault.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Well, you know how I said that magic is weaker these days – more subtle?”

I nodded.

“My friends and I did what we could to focus Tony’s mind on getting even with you. It’s easiest to persuade people to do what they want, and we thought it best to have him stay local and try to even the score with you than to disappear to who knows where with the bowl in his possession.

“You did say you were prepared to do anything to get it back, but I never dreamed…”

“It’s alright. You’re right, we did say that, and we’ll stand by it, even though this is more than we were expecting. Besides, this is all over but for the waiting. Tony is being kept in hospital for more than a week, so we’ll know where he is until we’re ready to transfer back.”

“Well my friends and I will continue to help as much as we can, but it will only be in small ways, and might not be that effective. If possible, I suggest you try and keep as much of an eye on him as you can yourselves.

“The doctors are going to let me go home tomorrow, so at least the food will be better. My friends have told me they intend to come and look after me for a few days, and while they’re with me, I’ll make sure we all keep you very much in mind. When it’s all over, you can come and tell me all about it, and you can bring me my bowl back.”

“Of course, but after what happened, I’m a little surprised you want it back.”

“It was given to me; it’s my responsibility. Now that it’s the last, I’ll see it destroyed. I hope you won’t take offence, but I have to see it and break it myself to know that its power is gone from the world.”

“I understand. You have my word.”

“Then I’ll look forward to your visit in a little over a week, young lady.”

The twinkle in her eye forestalled any response I might have made. Maybe she could see the future and knew something I didn’t. Maybe it was nothing more than faith and wishful thinking. Time would tell.

-oOo-

I was tempted to grab Danny a sandwich from one of the vending machines, but modern hospitals have a reputation, firstly for harbouring dangerous germs, and secondly for being the source of some of the worst food outside of the British railway network. Laura’s body didn’t need that much to eat in any case. The hunger I’d felt when I’d been her had possessed a comfortable familiarity about it, as though it were a natural and positive thing. I had eaten about half as much as I’d been used to as Jerry, and still not felt as though I were missing out. It might seem strange to Danny, who’s original body looked like it could burn its way through a small cow every day, but he’d get by. It had been a long day for all of us; some sort of takeaway – whatever Danny fancied – seemed like the easiest option. He’d eat soon enough – we all would.

He smiled at me with genuine relief when he first caught sight of me, and looked so much like Laura for a moment, I almost reached out to give him a hug. It struck home how very lost and alone he must be feeling – to have been such a massive, self-confident, self- reliant individual, and suddenly to find himself in a stranger’s body, robbed of his strength and all the physical superiority he’d relied on through all his life.

I glanced across at Tony’s room. He was sleeping – sedated Danny told me – so I didn’t bother going in. Instead I took Danny by the elbow and led her – him – out of the ward and down to the car.

It was odd how easily I was fitting back into my male role. All through the day I’d been taking the lead, with the others looking to me to come up with solutions and plans, and here I was behaving like a gentleman towards someone who’d spent most of his life looming over people. And here was this giant of a man, now in a petite woman’s body, allowing himself to be led about meekly as though he’d never made a decision for himself in his life.

He had no desire to be Laura; you could see it in the subtle shades of sadness and vague distress behind his eyes. I wondered for a moment whether my own eyes held the same shadows of regret. Despite our desire to be someone else though, we had each fallen into the natural roles dictated by our bodies, and I found myself wondering why.

For a year I had revelled in possessing the body of a beautiful woman, had whole-heartedly embraced the entirety of life as a woman. I loved the clothes, I loved the way I was able to express myself as such. It was a me I had somehow supressed and buried in me for all of my life, and which only happenstance and magic had unearthed. I had felt the rightness of it in the deep exultation with which I had adapted to life as Laura; with the heaviness in my soul as I reacquainted myself with being Jerry. Inside I was a woman, so why was I so ready to behave like a man just because I was stuck in a man’s body? Why did Danny – enormous, intimidating Danny – allow himself to be led like a little girl, just because he happened to be stuck in the body of one? How much of our day-to-day behaviour, our self-image, our response to the world was dictated by our physical appearance? Why was it that when I knew myself to be a woman inside, did I deliberately and naturally behave like a man, just because I wore a man’s skin?

Would I be happier in a dress? In vibrant floral print with swirling skirts, showing off my amazing legs? Something in me wanted to, but there was a convention to life, an imposed order which came from the outside, not the inside. On the inside I was that girl. I wanted to be pretty, but on the outside I knew I wasn’t. Did it bother me that I’d look stupid in a dress? Yes it did, but why should it? If it was just down to me I’d do it and to hell with the rest of them, but it mattered how others saw me. Even though I knew almost none of the people I passed as we walked down the hospital corridors, I knew it would affect me if each of them looked at me with dismay, disgust, derision. Even though I didn’t know them, they influenced my life, persuaded me to choose to behave in a way that conflicted with the inside me, because their collective influence on me was stronger than my own internal desires.

That was why Danny was behaving like a woman right now. That’s what people saw when they looked at him, and he instinctively knew that. Were he to act with his normal arrogance and swagger, he would have to face confused and maybe even disapproving looks from almost everyone he encountered.

It was easier to fit in than to stand out; easier to belong than to be true to the person inside. Most people didn’t feel the conflict, or if they did, they only felt it very slightly. I myself had been blissfully unaware, and would have stoically continued in my lesser role had fate not thrown me the opportunity to be something that felt more natural; more right.

A small, inner part of me rebelled. I may have been stuck in a man’s body, but I hated that I had to act in a way that was at odds with the person I had discovered myself to be. What was that Oscar Wilde quote? ‘Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.’ What reason did other people have to expect me to behave in a particular manner, just because that’s how they wanted me to behave? I mean what did it matter to any of them anyway, really? They didn’t know me any more than I knew them, and five seconds after we walked past each other, we’d each have totally forgotten the other existed.

Unless I was wearing a dress of course. Then I’d stand out from the crowd. Then I’d be something to focus their attention on; their disapproval.

We find comfort in the mundane. When things are the way we expect them to be, we relax, we feel at peace. When something is out of the ordinary, different from what we expect, it draws us out of our cud-chewing, bovine complacency and causes us to think – to react. And most of us don’t like to think.

It didn’t feel like enough of a reason. Nobody deserved to be pressured into living at odds with themselves. This was one of those times when the needs of the one should outweigh the needs of the many.

Okay, so I’m a closet Trekkie. There’s no reason people should disapprove of me for that either.

The image of a poster came to mind. Something I’d seen on the television recently. A school of golden yellow fish, all swimming to the left, and a solitary red one facing right. The caption had read, ‘What if you’re right and they’re wrong?’

Well what if I was right, and they were all wrong? It was as though the experiences of the previous year had woken me up, focused my mind, caused me to think for myself for a change, while all the rest of the world seemed to be wandering around in a dazed stupor, living life as directed by the majority opinion.

It was easier to go with the flow, to give in to the influence of the mass mind around me, to forgo thinking for myself and simply accept the general feel of the crowd. It would take courage to stand against it. Possibly too much courage. Possibly so much that it would be foolishness to try.

King Canute commanding the tide not to come in.

Pick your battles. Bravery makes for great stories, but discretion enjoys old age.

But maybe old age was overrated. A coward’s just desserts. A longer life, but one filled with aches, and pains, sorrows and loneliness, narrowing horizons and a front seat view of the approaching, inevitable end.

Our long, meandering walk through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital reached its end just as my train of thought ran out of steam. We stepped out into the sunshine and made our way to the car. I held the door for Danny, all gentlemanlike, and in as much of a ladylike manner, he offered me a demure smile and seated himself in the passenger seat.

As I pulled out into the evening traffic, the need to concentrate on driving distracted me from my disturbing thoughts I’d been having. With more relief than regret I left my strange new ideas behind – for a while.

-oOo-

Tap tappy tap tap… tap……

The unsounded final tap hung in the air with an almost physical presence. Bolts slid back and keys turned in locks. Tony’s less than welcoming face peered out through the crack and collapsed into an expression of overwhelming relief.

It was still light in the alley, the late summer evening promising another hour yet of clear blue skies with a few bands of high altitude cirrus to pick out the rich sunset hues.

I held the door and driver’s seat to allow Laura to climb in the back, wincing a little as she lay across the seat with her shoes on the pale leather. I covered her with a blanket, producing a very convincing effect of a large man hiding under a blanket – not the most subtle of disguises – and climbed into the front of the car.

The engine burbled quietly as the roof went through its majestic ballet, emerging from the boot and reaching high into the air before stretching forward and into place. It would deploy while we were moving, but the Maserati was enough of an attention grabber without doing anything more to draw the eyes of pedestrians as we passed.

The streets were quiet as we made our way home, via an Indian takeaway – Danny’s choice – and since there weren’t any close to where we lived, that meant a detour of several miles, and a long wait while the chef apparently selected individual animals, had them flown in especially from India, slaughtered and butchered them before spicing them and cooking them for our delight. I don’t remember ever waiting so long for a meal, and couldn’t help thinking of Laura, laying cramped on the back seat, scuffing the expensive leather.

Eventually, intimidated by the threatening growl of my angry stomach, the guy behind the counter presented us with a bag full of goodies and an apology for the wait – they were very busy apparently, though not one other customer had come through the door in all the time we’d been waiting.

I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they had a phone-in delivery service with a well camouflaged delivery driver. Well okay, maybe part of me wasn’t being quite so generous.

“About time,” came the muffled complaint from the back seat as we climbed back into the car.

The sky was a brilliant dusky orange, casting the rest of the world in silhouette by the time we arrived home. A car I didn’t recognise sat in the driveway outside the front entrance, and I was grateful for the deeper shadows as two very policeman-like pairs of eyes followed our progress into the garage. The looming darkness not only helped hide Laura’s huddled form, but also Tony’s shrouded pickup.

With a hissed warning for Laura to stay where she was and Danny not to say anything unless he had to, Danny and I walked across towards Inspector Peters and the deputy bloodhound snuffling at his heels.

Sorry that wasn’t very charitable, but then I was starving and more than a little irritated at the long wait for our food, now promising to be longer still while it went cold.

“What can we do for you Inspector?” I asked, trying to sound welcoming and just a little niggled at the same time.

“We believe there’s a chance Mr West might be targeting you here. Might you, by any chance, have had your locks and alarm system changed recently?”

“About a year ago. Inspector, can’t this wait? We’ve had a long day and…”

“We’ve had a long day as well Mr Goodman. We’ve been interviewing a number of Mr West’s acquaintances. One of them admitted yesterday that he’d been asking if anyone knew which security company you used.

“When we contacted them to see if any of their staff had encountered Mr West, we were told that one of their technicians had been attacked yesterday. On further enquiry, it turned out to be the same gentleman who updated your security system last. It seems Mr West engaged in a somewhat robust conversation with him, and he may have divulged your alarm codes. Would you mind if we stepped in with you while you check that your alarm has not been tampered with?”

I noticed the tell-tale bulges of concealed weapons, unusual for police officers in this country. Maybe they were only Tasers, but I did not want Laura facing down the wrong end of even one of those.

I nodded and led the way into the house. The alarm greeted me as I entered, keeping up its pestering tone until I tapped out the series of numbers required to silence it.

“Would you mind checking to see that the settings haven’t been altered?” Inspector Peters asked.

I flipped through the various screens – it really was quite a sophisticated machine – until I came across a map of the house, with a dark spot. Maybe I hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm. Maybe Laura’s current predicament wasn’t my fault.

The inspector raised an eyebrow at me and drew his weapon. It was a Taser. His companion did likewise.

I led them to the door of the room Tony had evidently hidden in last night. The inspector waved me back and his colleague entered, weapon ready.

It was empty of course. Piled high with boxes and junk, but not an intruder in sight – obviously.

Inspector Peters turned his questioning eyes my way once more.

“Er, we had mice in here a few months back,” I managed without much conviction. “They kept setting the thing off, so I disabled the sensors in this room while we dealt with them. We put poison down, and haven’t had trouble for a while now. I suppose I must have forgotten to reset the alarm.”

The inspector didn’t look too convinced, but it seems to be part of a policeman’s role to accept whatever the public tells him, even if it’s obvious bullshit.

“Might I suggest you do that now, Mr Goodman?”

He followed me back to the main control console where a few taps on the touch-sensitive screen had the room sensors active again.

“We’ll be keeping an eye on your house for a few days Mr Goodman, but if you should notice anything out of the ordinary, please let us know.”

I thanked the inspector, and Danny and I watched him and his colleague drive away. It was full dark by then, so I asked Danny to fetch Laura while I went and sorted dinner.

After we’d eaten, I showed Danny to the spare room I’d slept in when Laura had first brought me back here. Laura didn’t want to be left alone, so I agreed to let her share our bed. We had a short, sort of metaphysical debate as to whether or not letting Tony’s body into our bed might defile it in some way, and easily agreed that the body had no choice in what the mind inside it decided to do, so agreed there was no problem.

Well, I mean there was a problem. The person I loved was lying next to me in the rather bulky and not particularly attractive body of the man who’d tried to ruin my life – twice now. That and other problems, but that was the major one.

We talked for a short while, but we were both exhausted emotionally, so turned the lights out before long.

-oOo-

There are many things more unpleasant than being woken in the middle of the night by an alarm screaming at you, but that doesn’t make the experience in any way enjoyable.

I leapt out of bed with adrenaline fuelled energy, and ran to the panel, punching in the code for silence.

Out in the hall, the light was on and Danny was half-way down the stairs, eyes like dinner plates.

“Fuck,” he said. “Tha’ scared the shi’ out of me.”

“Sorry Danny. I forgot you’d inherit that body’s insomnia.”

Someone started pounding on the front door. I went to investigate, and found two people I didn’t recognise standing outside. I opened the door a crack.

“Yes?”

A warrant card was held up for my inspection, and I opened the door all the way.

“I’m sorry, it was a false alarm. My er, girlfriend forgot about the alarm.”

“How do you forget about an alarm?” the somewhat pissed-off policeman asked.

“I’m sorry officer, we’ve not had a great few days. Our shop’s been broken into, several of our friends and colleagues have been beaten – quite savagely, some of them, and we have this worry over Tony West being out there after us. We’re all a little frazzled, and would appreciate you cutting us a bit of a break.

“I’m sorry you were disturbed, and I’m grateful you responded so rapidly, but this really was a false alarm.”

“Even so, you wouldn’t mind if I came in and took a look around?”

I thought of Laura upstairs, but I couldn’t afford to raise suspicion with these guys. I let them in, turning to Danny as I did so.

“It’s alright love,” I willed him to be awake enough to take the hint. “You go back to bed. I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve convinced these guys we’re in no danger.”

A little uncertainly, Danny headed back upstairs. Light did seem to dawn in his eyes half-way up though. I hoped so.

I gave the policemen a quick tour of the downstairs, which was enough to satisfy them, and saw them out.

Upstairs in Laura’s and my room, I found Danny in our bed with the blanket pulled up and Laura hiding in the wardrobe.

I gave the all clear, and Laura and I joined Danny downstairs for a glass of something to calm our nerves before we all returned to our various beds.

-oOo-

The next few days fell into a sort of routine. Laura stayed at home, upstairs and out of sight with all too little to occupy her mind and keep her nerves from fraying any further. Danny accompanied me into the shop each day, then in the afternoon we’d head over to the hospital before heading home, where the three of us would share a meal.

It was during one of our visits to the hospital that we learned of Tony’s efforts to escape.

After he calmed down on the first day, the doctor had agreed to remove his restraints in exchange for his promise of good behaviour.

Half an hour later, one of the nurses had spotted him heading down a corridor towards the stairs.

He’d claimed he was looking for the toilet, but since he’d just passed it the nurse was sceptical.

The second time had been late at night on the Wednesday. With the reduced night staff, he’d succeeded in sneaking off the ward, but one of the night guards had heard an almighty crash near the main entrance and run in to find Tony sprawled on the floor having tripped over a chair in the dark. That time he’d pretended to be confused, but yet again didn’t convince anyone.

They probably should have put him back in restraints then, but he allowed himself to be led back to the ward and his bed without complaining or struggling. The nursing staff kept a closer eye on him after that, so it wasn’t until early on Thursday morning, around the time when the night shift handed over to the day, that he had made his third attempt.

That time, the nurses noticed him missing within minutes and sent out a general alert. After a nervous half hour, he’d been spotted walking across the car-park with his arse hanging out the back of his hospital gown.

It had taken five orderlies and a syringe full of sedative to subdue him. Then all five of the orderlies had just about managed to lift his impressive bulk off the tarmac and into a wheelchair.

After that he lost the benefit of the doubt and they strapped him into his bed. So restrained he became abusive, yelling at anyone who came within earshot that they had no right to keep him, that he wanted a lawyer, that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

This led to more sedation and a quieter end to the week.

Laura wasn’t coping well. Cooped up in the house, afraid to go near any windows in case someone might be looking, nothing to do but fret, she was falling apart in a big way by the time the weekend came.

I’d tried to engage her mind by asking for suggestions how we should deal with the body swap when the day finally came round when we could make it happen. The major sticking point was how we could get Tony into the hospital without anyone noticing. I had one or two ideas, but I’d hoped Laura could come up with something as well. She was too distracted to think though, so in the end even that bit of planning came down to me.

I did a bit of research online, and placed an order or three. Some of the stuff was expensive, but money wasn’t that much of an issue, and in any case, it was important to get this as right as possible.

Friday finally came to an end. Business as usual was slow but regular, so we couldn’t afford to shut the shop for a few days. Danny wasn’t much of a salesman – or woman for that matter – so I found him stuff to do in the store room. He did an okay job, but he wasn’t particularly interested, and I figured Laura or I would have to check through his work once this was over. I hoped the Pink Elephant would have him back after this, because I didn’t see him as having much of a future in antiques. Maybe lifting some of the heavier pieces, but even there I had the impression he preferred standing around intimidating people to doing any actual physical work.

Mike had recovered nicely from the beating Tony had given him, and even my aches and pains had subsided to nothing more than an occasional slight twinge. Danny had bruised quite well from the blow I’d given him, but I’d managed to show him how to cover it effectively enough with makeup, much to his disgust.

Mike, Pete and Randy agreed to cover the shop on Saturday, so once we’d completed the end of week inventory and accounting, I asked Danny to load a few boxes that had arrived that morning into the car while I grabbed one or two last things in the office.

The state Laura had been in that morning, I persuaded Danny to forgo the usual visit to the hospital so we could get home to her quickly. Besides, soft top cars are notoriously easy to break into, and I didn’t want to risk losing any of the stuff we’d put in the back.

It was just as well, because Laura was climbing the walls when we arrived home.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take, Jerry,” she said as we came in through the door, laden with packages.

“Hopefully you won’t have to for much longer.”

“What do you mean?”

I dropped my burdens on the sofa and reached behind me for Tony’s bag. I carefully pulled the bowl out and showed it to her.

“I don’t understand.”

“We switched bodies last Saturday, about lunchtime, you and me. Tomorrow afternoon, we’re doing it again.”

“But…”

“No buts. You’ve carried this burden long enough. It’s my turn for a bit.”

“But that’ll mean another week before we can shift back.”

“No it won’t. Something Tony told me on Wednesday. You can’t go back into a body in less than a week, but you can change into someone else you haven’t been. Tomorrow afternoon it’ll have been a week since you were in this body, so we can swap.”

I turned to Danny.

“I could also swap with you – go back to being Laura – if you like. It’d mean you wouldn’t have to be female anymore, but it would also mean you’d end up being Tony with all the risk of being arrested. We can do it if you want, but I’ll understand if you don’t want to. Besides, I doubt you’ll be that keen on the plan I have to get Tony’s body into the hospital next Wednesday.”

“Why can’t I swap wiv you?” he asked, looking directly at me.

“We could, but that would leave Laura stuck as she is. She’s the one who’s going nuts the way things are, so the least we should do is put her into a body she can cope with. Besides, Tony swapped with Laura last Wednesday before he came and swapped with you, so she can’t go back into her own body till then, so that leaves mine.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not risk gettin’ caught in that body. Being a woman’s a bit weird, what wiv sitting to pee and all tha’, but it’s no’ as bad as havin’ to look at that face in the mirror every morning.”

“Fair enough, just you and me then love.”

“No, I won’t let you do it.”

“Yes you bloody well will,” I growled. “It’s about time you had a chance to find out what it’s like sleeping next to that.” I pointed at her face.

She stared at me in stunned silence for a few seconds, then started to laugh. It was infectious, and before long we were all laughing.

“So what’s your plan for sneaking this into the hospital?” she asked, pointing at her current body.

I opened the boxes and showed her, prompting new gales of laughter.

It broke the tension, and Laura was a lot closer to her old self that night. When we went to bed, I took Tony’s bag with the bowl in it up to our room with us. I wasn’t letting it out of my sight till this was over.

“I could sleep in one of the other spare rooms,” Laura said, standing self-consciously beside our bed.

“You’re just trying to get out of sharing a bed with me after we make the switch tomorrow”

“No I…”

“I’m joking. And right now it doesn’t bother me what you look like. You’re still the person I love on the inside. I mean if we were going to be stuck like this for the rest of our lives I’m not sure how happy I’d be, but right now I know it’s you in there, and that’s all that matters. In a few days we’re all going to be who we ought to be, and that’ll be an end to it.”

“We could force Danny into taking this shape.”

“Yes we could, but we’re not going to. Because it would be wrong and you know it as well as I do. He’s as much a victim as either of us, and if we start using the bowl like that, we’d be as bad as Tony.”

“You’re right. I had to say it though, just to get it out there.”

We slept peacefully that night and woke to find breakfast made. Danny it seemed had finally accepted that we were his friends and had decided to do a little more to show his appreciation.

The morning passed quickly enough, although the tension built as the day wore on. I wasn’t sure how precise the switch back thing would be, but about ten past twelve Laura suddenly looked up at me with a curious expression.

“It’s time,” she said. “I don’t know how I know, but I know. I can shift back.”

“How sure are you? I mean wouldn’t you rather wait another half hour to be certain?”

“It’ll make no difference. I know it now. Look I’ve switched bodies before. I’ve also tried to switch back early. I remember feeling that things were wrong, and when the switch back didn’t work, it felt more wrong, right up until a month later when I suddenly felt I could go back. I’d forgotten that till a few moments ago, but I remember the feeling, and it’s just like the one I have now.”

I went in search of a couple of sets of keys. Those to the ratty Toyota in the garage and those to my Maserati – soon to be Laura’s Maserati again.

I handed her the Toyota keys and dropped mine in the bowl.

“I was going to ask if you were sure about this, but I guess that answers the question.” Laura dropped her own keys in.

Being the younger, and decidedly less experienced, I chose first. One last shared look and she dived in after the other set.

The transition was just as weird and disconcerting. I’d never taken drugs, and this was as close to a bad trip as I ever intended to get. If anyone needed a reason not to try dropping acid…

It did get easier each time you did it though. I didn’t feel half as nauseated coming out of it as I had the first couple of times. At least I didn’t until I caught sight of my reflection in the table top.

I didn’t have quite as much reason to dislike Tony as Laura did, but not by much. I looked across at Laura – now Jerry again – and managed a brave smile.

“Would you mind putting that thing somewhere safe?” The voice, as I’d discovered before, sounded oddly distorted from inside my own head. “I decidedly don’t want to be stuck like this for any longer than I have to.”

That of course meant the house safe, where it fit snugly but securely.

“Now, let’s see how much of a silk purse we can make out of this sow’s ear.”

-oOo-

I felt really weird.

It had taken me most of Saturday afternoon to get to this stage and it still didn’t look great. Mind you, I don’t suppose I had ever thought it would.

I made my way downstairs for a second opinion, and a third. By the time I reached the bottom, my feet hurt like I’ve never known, and I felt like I was trying to keep my balance on ice.

“What do you think?” I asked.

Laura – or perhaps I should start calling him Jerry again now – couldn’t keep a straight face. Neither could Danny.

“That bad? Really?”

“Well no, surprisingly good actually. it’s just seeing Tony in that getup”

“Yeah, ‘e’s the last bloke I’d expect to ponce about in a frock.”

There was a lot of truth in that. Tony was six foot plus with something of a prop forward’s build. Not as massive as Danny by any means, but still big and burly. It had been a challenge just finding a dress to fit his frame.

“I’ll say this for you,” Laura – I mean Jerry – said. “You don’t look much like Tony Ward, so if the purpose of this is to disguise yourself, I think you’ve succeeded.”

“What could I improve?” I asked. “I mean I can’t do anything about his size, but what else?”

“The walk more than anything I think,” Jerry said. “You look like a bloke in a dress.”

“I am a bloke in a dress.”

“Yeah, but when a bloke puts on a dress, doesn’t he at least make an effort to act feminine? You don’t exactly have a lot of grace to your movements, and I’m afraid it does look more than a little ridiculous.

“And that’s it? I mean I put a lot of effort into trying to make this work you know.”

“Yes I know. Even when you were Laura you never spent this much time getting ready. And it does look good. I don’t know if you chose the wig deliberately for Tony’s face, but it’s the right colour and the right style. The makeup does a lot to disguise your facial features, and the glasses are a touch of genius. You still look like a bloke in a dress, but at least you look like a bloke who’s trying to look like a woman.”

“The dress isn’t too much, is it?”

“I think if I was a woman with your build I’d probably be looking for something a bit more subtle. You have enough material there to rig a tea clipper. Nice legs by the way.”

The dress had a bold and vibrant floral pattern to it, which through the sheer quantity of fabric made it look more like a pair of curtains than an article of clothing. My experience as a woman agreed with Laura, but here was a new insight; as a man trying to look like a woman, this was just the kind of overcompensation I would be likely to make.

“Yes, no thanks to you.” I chose to address Laura’s last remark. “I mean after I told you what I had planned, you could at least have had a go at shaving your arms and legs yourself.”

“I never much cared for that, and it would have been a mammoth job with all that hair.”

“I know! It took me hours to get it all done. The long hairs kept clogging up the razor.”

“Well it’s a halfway decent job. You didn’t nick yourself too many times. Your legs would look better in tights, but it is a little warm out there. How did you get the, er, the full figure shall we say?”

“Some fairly expensive prosthetics. They glue on, and then it’s like they’re a part of you, except you can’t feel them. Both breasts and thighs.”

“I like the shoes. I’m a little surprised they had them in your size.”

“There are a few places that specialise in women’s footwear for men, which is as well because you’re right, there is no such thing as a size eleven pump intended for women, at least as far as I can tell. I wish I’d gone for a lower heel though.”

“I don’t know, two inches isn’t that much, and they do make your legs look spectacular.”

“They bloody hurt though.” I sat down and kicked off the shoes. All the better for rubbing some life back into my feet.

“Beauty is pain my dear, but I’d have thought last year would have taught you that.”

“It didn’t teach me how much more painful it is to walk around on these stilts when you’re three or four times heavier than the average woman. It didn’t teach me how much harder blokes seem to have to work at poise and balance. It didn’t teach me how uncomfortable it is to walk around with your meat and two veg tucked away in underwear that wasn’t designed to hold them, or how much a bra that’s several sizes too small digs into your shoulders.”

“Listen buddy, this was your idea. You could always try some other disguise if you like.”

“Can you think of anything else that will work this well?”

“No I can’t, but you are going to have to work on the walk and on the voice, because no self-respecting trans-person would go out in public wearing a dress if it made her look like Les Dawson.”

“When did you get to be an expert on trannys?”

“In case you haven’t noticed sunshine, I am one, and so are you. We just got a bit more help than most.”

“I suppose. Anyway, practice needed.”

With that I started walking up and down, trying to ignore the pain in my toes and focusing on moving my body in a way that had seemed so natural when I was Laura, but was anything but in this getup. It didn’t help that my audience kept collapsing into fits of giggles, and eventually I shooed them out of the house to get something for tea.

-oOo-